We’re still far from the start of NFL free agency, but it’s never too early to predict who will see a big payday—and who won’t.
There are tons of names coming into free agency, some of which won’t make it out the door of their current team’s facilities before that team rolls a truck full of cash in front of them and dumps it on the ground.
Meanwhile, other players will walk out of the facility and into the cold, hard truth that they aren’t half as important and desirable as they thought.
Jimmy Graham, Tight End: Buy
If tight end Jimmy Graham even makes it as far as the door, I’ll be shocked. He’ll get tagged, and the New Orleans Saints will work out a long-term contract.
Yes, there is some debate as to whether he should get tagged as a tight end or wide receiver, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com, but however that plays out, he’s probably not leaving.
Even if the worst happens—it gets ugly, and they part ways somehow—Graham is getting paid. As arguably the best tight end in the game (and certainly the healthiest with all of Rob Gronkowski’s injuries), he is a freakish athlete who will make a ton of money this offseason.
Greg Hardy, Defensive End: Buy
As is the case with Jimmy Graham, if defensive end Greg Hardy is allowed out of Carolina, the Panthers are crazy. Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer reported recently that general manager Dave Gettleman feels like Hardy is "part of the puzzle," but that doesn’t tell us how likely it is he’ll stay with the Panthers—only that they realize what they risk losing if he leaves.
Pro Football Focus’ third-most highly rated defensive end for 2013 (subscription link), Hardy will turn 26 this offseason and is in the prime of his career.
Any number of teams will fork over giant piles of cash and a long-term contract for a young, impact defensive lineman. He’s going to make bank.
Michael Bennett, Defensive End: Buy
Speaking of impact defensive linemen, it’s unlikely that the Seattle Seahawks are going to get defensive end Michael Bennett for the discount price they did in 2013. When he needed to prove himself, he was happy to take a one-year, $4.8 million contract.
That won’t happen again.
A little older than Hardy at 28 years old, Bennett’s value isn’t always apparent in the box score. Not only can he bring pressure from the edge, which often results in freeing someone else up, but he can also slide over to tackle during third-down plays to bring some extra pressure.
One thing is for sure—Bennett will be in high demand, which means a lot of money is coming his way.
James Jones, Wide Receiver: Sell
We already saw that while he got paid, Greg Jennings didn’t have the impact away from Green Bay that he had when he was with the Packers. As a result, some teams may shy away from James Jones when he hits free agency.
It’s not that he isn’t a talented wide receiver—he has shown over the past few years that he can make great catches when it counts—but the concern will be whether he can succeed when Aaron Rodgers isn’t throwing the ball.
Rodgers was out from Week 9 to Week 17. During that time, Jones was hit or miss, scoring just one touchdown and never topping 85 yards total.
Some may look at his more spectacular catches or his 14 touchdowns in 2012 and think that with more consistent quarterback play (in other words, not Scott Tolzien or Matt Flynn) he could be so much more.
Ultimately, though, there will be no big payday for Jones. The NFL will not see him as anything but the role player he was with the Green Bay Packers.
Jairus Byrd, Safety: Buy
If the Buffalo Bills are smart—and even Bills fans aren’t always sure—they’ll find a way to lock up one of the best free-agent safeties available this year. And quickly, before he hits the market.
Once he does, his asking price is going to go through the roof.
While Jairus Byrd ranked as “only” Pro Football Focus' No. 8 safety (subscription link), he did it while missing five games due to plantar fasciitis. He also injured himself at the Pro Bowl, via Brian Galliford at BuffaloRumblings.com, though he later said he was fine.
That's good for him since another significant injury would hurt his value on the market.
If he’s healthy, he’s worth more than the one-year, $6.9 million contract he signed last time out.
Byrd will make some team desperate for safety help (someone wake up Green Bay Packers GM Ted Thompson) overjoyed if Buffalo lets him hit the street.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Running Back: Sell
One of the bigger names in free agency and the biggest name among the free-agent running backs, Maurice Jones-Drew is the type of back people expect to pull a huge payday.
That won’t happen, though.
Not for a 28-year-old running back who has a lot of tread worn off his tires and has seen a tremendous drop-off in his touchdown production. This past year, he also saw a dip in his yards per carry, from a 4.6 career average to 3.4.
That came with his fewest carries in a full season since 2008. Yards per carry should go up with fewer carries, not down.
It’s hard to judge how much of the decline in that average was him or the offense. That said, how many teams will give an older running back big money and a long contract when so many can find success with mid-round draft picks and lower-tier free agents?
The decline in the value of running backs will hurt Jones-Drew’s prospects a lot more than you might expect.
Michael Johnson, Defensive End: Buy
The 26-year-old defensive end from the Cincinnati Bengals is due for a big check in free agency.
Ranked as the fourth-best 4-3 defensive end by Pro Football Focus (subscription link), Johnson is in the prime of his career and coming off one of his best statistical years.
His sacks plummeted from 11.5 to 3.5, but his tackles stayed almost the same. He also forced two fumbles and deflected a career-high 10 passes (with one interception).
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription link), he forced 41 quarterback hurries and stacked 17 quarterback hits.
Johnson should see a big payday, as he can bring pressure for any number of teams. One interested franchise is the Atlanta Falcons, according to Matt Miller of Bleacher Report. Given that Johnson's former defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, now coaches the Minnesota Vikings, who are in need of some help on defense, they might be in play as well.
Regardless, you can expect a lot of money to end up in Johnson’s hands not long after free agency starts.
Brian Orakpo, Linebacker: Buy
Washington linebacker Brian Orakpo rated as Pro Football Focus' No. 4 overall 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL last season (subscription link).
After missing most of the 2012 season with a torn pectoral muscle, he came back strong with a career high in tackles, his second-highest sack total, his first interception and two fumble recoveries.
You can assume Washington will do everything in its power to keep Orakpo in D.C., but the Redskins have a lot of needs elsewhere. The secondary, the wide receivers and tight end are all areas of need and might be higher priorities.
On the other hand, London Fletcher may retire, per SI.com's Chris Burke, and Washington could ill-afford to lose another key defensive piece.
Either way, whether he stays or goes, Orakpo will walk away with quite a bit of cash—as well he should.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and fresh off another trip to the Senior Bowl. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.