Though the 2013 NFL season has yet to reach its conclusion, offseason preparations are in full swing for 30 teams already. A vital component of that preparation involves free agency, which is slated to begin on March 11.
Free agency gets less hype than the draft because there's less conjecture involved, and (usually) consists of fewer players who are capable of turning a franchise's fortunes around. Nevertheless, the 2014 NFL free-agent class presents a few stars who could be vital cogs in championship machines.
With that in mind, here's an early projection of where some of this year's most notable free agents may suit up come fall.
Jimmy Graham: New Orleans Saints
Look, it's just too hard to imagine the Saints willingly allowing the game's best tight end to walk away. Graham has expressed his displeasure at a potential franchise tag, but even if he gets tagged as a receiver, New Orleans has little choice but to swallow the huge cap hit:
Of course, keeping Graham at that hefty price tag could have deleterious consequences on the rest of the Saints roster. New Orleans is already projected to be $12.5 million over the cap, according to ESPN.com's Mike Triplett, and that's before anything gets done with Graham.
As a result, starters like Malcolm Jenkins, Zach Strief and Brian De la Puente could walk, and veterans such as Pierre Thomas and Lance Moore may end up as cap casualties. The Saints must hit on rookies to reset their roster depth with some cost-controlled contributors, but 2014 could get ugly if too many injuries strike (see 2013 Atlanta Falcons).
Drew Brees is a marvelous quarterback who is capable of elevating any receiving corps, but even he could not compensate for losing the league's biggest mismatch. New Orleans' best bet might be retaining Graham and then hoping to replace the lost depth through smart acquisitions.
Greg Hardy: Atlanta Falcons
Hardy burst onto the scene as one of the league's best 4-3 defensive ends in 2013. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hardy rated as the fourth-best pass-rushing 4-3 DE over the regular season. Compiling 15 sacks, 27 hits and 45 hurries, the 25-year-old was one of the driving forces on an elite Panthers defense.
Unfortunately, Carolina's thorny cap situation will likely preclude them from retaining Hardy. Ex-Panthers general manager Marty Hurney locked in old starters like Charles Johnson, DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart to huge contracts, and the come-uppance has arrived.
The cap situation has improved, but with Cam Newton and Luke Kuechly due to receive big extensions soon, players like Hardy will likely need to go. Indeed, current GM Dave Gettleman already appeared to brace Panthers fans for Hardy's departure, per Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer:
Gettleman twice was asked about Hardy, and didn’t talk about him in the same terms he used in discussing Newton.
“Everybody lets players go. There isn’t a team in this league that hasn’t let a big dog walk out the door. And don’t print that I’m saying that he’s going to go,” Gettleman said. “I’m just making a statement. There isn’t anybody that hasn’t done that. It’s a whole big puzzle we’re putting together and he’s one of the pieces.”
Eric Decker: New York Jets
Eric Decker is part of arguably the NFL's best receiving corps in Denver. Perhaps the most impressive part of the quartet of Decker, Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker and Julius Thomas is the cost—according to Spotrac.com, the four players combined for a paltry $8.7 million cap hit in 2013.
Decker alone will probably earn more than that per year when he hits free agency. The Broncos could certainly keep him, but doing so might cost them one of the Thomas's down the road. Decker may or may not be capable of being a No. 1 receiver who attracts the opposing defense's focus, but the Broncos need not find out considering what they already have on their roster.
One team desperate for such a potential talent is the New York Jets. The Jets' hideous cap situation is finally about to clear up—Rich Cimini of ESPN New York notes that cuts like Mark Sanchez, Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes could leave the Jets with over $40 million in cap space. The fit seems quite obvious to national analysts like Jason McIntyre of the Big Lead:
Geno Smith had a wildly erratic rookie season, but his dearth of receiving weapons had to play a contributing factor. Smith may not be the answer for the Jets at quarterback, but Gang Green must pair him with a top receiver to truly find out.
Aqib Talib: New England Patriots
Talib emerged as a shutdown corner for the Patriots early in the season as part of a sneakily good New England defense. However, while Talib did not suffer a season-ending injury like other Pats defensive cornerstones, a hip injury that he suffered in Week 6 clearly hampered him throughout the latter part of the season. His exit from the AFC Championship Game was effectively the nail in the coffin for the Patriots:
On paper, however, it seems unlikely that the ignominious exit was Talib's final act in Foxboro. ESPN Boston's Field Yates reported that there was "mutual interest" between Talib and the Pats, and the fit is a solid one on paper. Talib cleaned up his off-field discretions after he was traded to New England, and the Patriots received the big man-to-man top corner they have not had since the halcyon days of Ty Law.
Indeed, the Patriots entire defensive philosophy shifts based on Talib's availability. Before his arrival and through his injuries, New England has often had to turn to a softer zone to hide undersized secondary members like Alfonzo Dennard and Kyle Arrington.
With Talib, the Patriots are a much more successful single-high safety man-coverage defense, allowing them to play more aggressive concepts that dictate the action to opposing offenses. Talib has suffered some untimely injuries, but the Pats cannot afford to lose a player who represents the foundation of their secondary.