Greg Hardy (left) and Captain Munnerlyn (right) are both set to hit free agency, which begins March 11, 2014.
Many of the NFL's upcoming free agents have worked several years or longer to finally get their shot at a big contract. Only a select few of those players will earn top dollar.
Now that the 2013 season is in the books, we can fully begin to look forward to what lies ahead.
Some of the biggest names in the NFL could be switching teams. With at least a few teams wielding a heavy checkbook this offseason, the possibilities are almost endless. More than 427 players are set to hit the free-agent market in 2014, but here are the 25 household names who would be great additions to just about any team.
Justin Tuck badly needed a bounce-back year after two disappointing campaigns, and the 6'5", 268-pound pass-rushing maven responded with a vintage season of applying pressure on quarterbacks. He padded his stats a bit at the end of the year and finished with 11 sacks, which was more than he had in 2011 and 2012 combined and the third-highest total of his nine-year career, but he was solid all year round.
At 30 years old, he is not as explosive as he once was, but he is still a savvy pass-rusher. He has a variety of moves and a keen ability to gain leverage on a blocker despite his height and then use his immense strength to bull-rush through the blocker. He still plays all over the line in the Giants defense, moving from defensive end to defensive tackle in different packages.
The only question mark is his sketchy injury history. He has dealt with neck issues for a long time, and shoulder, toe, groin and other injuries over the past few years have caused him to miss five games.
At his age, it's fair to wonder how much Tuck has left in the tank and whether that will prohibit teams from offering him a long-term deal. However, there is always a premium on talented pass-rushers, and Tuck's status as one of the best at his position on the market earns him a spot on this list.
The Baltimore Ravens defense was supposed to take a big step backward without Ray Lewis and Ed Reed. However, thanks to good young players like defensive end Arthur Jones (27) emerging into top-notch players at their positions, the Ravens did not regress as much as everyone thought.
As a 3-4 defensive end, Jones' primary job is to stuff the run. He finished the season ranked sixth among 3-4 DEs in run-stop percentage, which calculates the percentage of run snaps where a defender stopped a run for a loss or no gain. He logged four sacks on the season and applied pressure on 10.5 percent of his passing snaps.
He has the strength to soak up blockers as a two-gap defensive end and the quickness to shoot past them as a one-gap DE. His fortes are his strength and leverage, and he would likely remain either a 3-4 defensive end or a 4-3 defensive tackle.
Jones could command around $4 million a year, which would put him in the neighborhood of the top 15 defensive tackles in the league.
Branden Albert was set to become a free agent last March, but the Chiefs hit him with the franchise tag and paid him $9.828 million for the 2013 season. They can't put the tag on him again this year, unless they want to pay him 20 percent more than the actual value of the 2014 franchise tag. They are over the cap by more than $1 million, so they may not be able to bring him back at all.
It's been an arduous journey for Albert, who's been through the highs and lows of the Chiefs over the past six years. The team has gone back and forth from the bottom to the top of the division. In either case, he has always been stellar on the line.
There were questions as to whether he would be a guard or a tackle at the pro level, but the Chiefs put him at left tackle and never looked back. He was always regarded for his run blocking, but he has rounded out his game in pass protection and is one of the best free-agent tackles available on the market.
At 6'3" and 300 pounds, Lamarr Houston is far from a prototype 4-3 defensive end. As a result, some believe the Raiders might want to move on from their best pass-rusher. Houston is one of those people.
"I believe that [head coach] Dennis Allen and the Raiders might be looking to move on and have me go to another team and find something more what they want for their system and their scheme," he said, according to Jerry McDonald of the Contra Costa Times.
That would be a foolhardy move for a defense that is lacking talent at so many positions and has already been through a lot of turnover in the recent past. Oakland fielded nine new starters on defense in 2013.
Houston logged a team-high six sacks as one of the better players on a bad defense. He will be 27 at the beginning of the 2014 season, but he is steadily improving. If the Raiders can add a true right end and move him back to his natural spot on the left side, their defense could improve in a hurry. If they choose to move on, Houston is still young and will generate a lot of interest on the open market.
Dennis Pitta may have missed the first 12 weeks of the season with a hip injury, but even in just four weeks of action, he took an important step in proving some offseason value to other teams. Now, the rest of the league has gotten to see him healthy.
His breakout 2012 campaign (61 catches, 669 yards, seven touchdowns) was capped off by a stellar playoff run (14 catches, 163, three touchdowns in four games), but he did not get an opportunity to build off that success. Instead, we got to see just how valuable he was to the Ravens offense by his absence on the field.
Pitta played well in a limited role after returning, finishing the season with 20 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown. Fortunately for him, it's not every day that an athletic 6'4", 245-pound tight end becomes a free agent, and with the increasing value of receiving tight ends, some teams may be willing to overlook his limited 2013 campaign. Unfortunately, the damage to his free-agent stock may have already been done by that point.
Captain Munnerlyn is just one of a couple big-name free agents for the Panthers, but luckily for general manager Dave Gettleman, the cornerback is open to taking a one-year deal to stay in Carolina, according to Jonathan Jones of The Charlotte Observer. He played his college ball at South Carolina, and clearly he likes it there. However, he played the 2013 season on a one-year deal and proved to be well worth a nice contract, so he could be paid handsomely on the open market.
At 5'8" and 195 pounds, he is almost the antithesis of the physically imposing cornerback that is often synonymous with a No. 1 shutdown corner, but he proved more than capable of covering all over the field, whether it was in the slot or on the perimeter.
He allowed just one touchdown pass into his coverage all season long and made big plays all over the field, with three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two interceptions, which were both returned for touchdowns.
Munnerlyn's strength is in zone coverage, where he can put his speed to work and break on the ball. In playing 95.7 percent of the team's defensive snaps, he proved he can be an every-down cornerback, but with the Panthers' tight salary-cap situation and the number of other key free agents coming up, does he feel optimistic about that happening?
"Kind of, sorta," he said, according to David Newton of ESPN.
Something of a pick-your-poison is brewing at the bottom of the top of the free-agent market for wide receivers.
Will a team take a chance on Julian Edelman, who's had injury problems his entire career prior to 2013? Will a GM put his eggs in the Hakeem Nicks basket, amid questions of diminishing talent and effort? Are those questions more or less palatable than the ones around Jeremy Maclin's ACL rehab?
Before the ACL injury, he was considered one of the most physically talented receivers without question. Given the recent track record of players recovering quickly from a torn ACL, the odds seem to be in Maclin's favor to get back on the field and make a big impact. Working in his benefit is that the injury took place in training camp, which will allow him a full year to get healthy leading up to the 2014 season.
His speed has been his best weapon in the past, so it will be interesting to see if it's all back, or if he's lost a step. He measures in at 6'0" flat and 198 pounds, so while he is still bigger than most defensive backs, he is still smaller than the prototype X receiver.
Henry Melton is an example of the worst-case scenario that strikes fear in the heart of any football player who even hears the phrase "franchise tag."
He signed the one-year pact prior to the 2013 season and tore his left ACL in Week 3. Now, not only did he miss a chance to prove himself worthy of a big contract, but there will also be concerns over whether he'll even be the same player.
Players usually come back at 100 percent from a torn ACL, but Melton needs to be healthy to get the most out of his skill set, which is one of the most complete of any defensive tackle in the league. He's both stout against the run and explosive when rushing the passer, and he has finished in the top five in pass-rushing productivity.
The Bears had one of the league's worst run defenses in 2013, but keeping Melton could be more than they can afford. He could easily make upwards of $6 million per year, which would put him among the top five per-year averages in the league at his position.
Give Russell Wilson and the Seahawks credit, but if the Super Bowl was truly the last game of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie's NFL career, being torched by the Seahawks is an awful way to go out. It may be hard for him to go out on that note, especially when a nice payday probably waits for him on the other side of February.
The Broncos signed him to what ended up being a one-year deal for $2.9 million, but because of a clause in his contract, the potential second year of the two-year, $10 million deal voided out. If he were to go back on the open market after the season he had, he could command even more than the $5 million per-year average he agreed to last year.
At 6'2" and 193 pounds, he has the size to match up with prototype X receivers who are usually around the same height, give or take an inch or two. He has long arms that help him break up passes, and he still has speed to burn when asked to cover receivers downfield or to close on the pass in zone coverage. He's one of the more scheme-versatile corners available.
And if he plays for at least one more year, he'll be paid like it, too.
One of the best draft picks of the Raiders' recent history could become recent Raiders history this offseason, if he is not re-signed.
Drafted in the third round of the 2010 draft, Veldheer entered the league as a project, with all the physical attributes that a left tackle needs but lacking the polish. He was steadily improving through the 2012 season, but a partially torn triceps put him on injured reserve/designated for return, keeping him out for the first 12 games of the 2013 season.
Now set to become a free agent, he is less than thrilled with the progress of his contract negotiations with the Raiders, according to a recent interview on 95.7 The Game. It's mind-boggling that they haven't been able to get it done with more than $60 million in cap space for 2014.
The 6'8", 321-pound left tackle is the walking definition of the prototype, with the length to redirect pass-rushers around the quarterback and the strength to hold his own when run-blocking. He came into the league needing polish in pass protection, but that has arguably become his best attribute. A lot of teams would likely jump at the opportunity to improve at either tackle spot if Veldheer hit the market.
After he logged a career-high 11.5 sacks in 2012, the Cincinnati Bengals placed the franchise tag on Michael Johnson for the 2013 season. They would have to pay him 120 percent of the 2014 franchise tag value if they wanted to tag him for a second straight year. Thus, he is likely to hit the open market.
He didn't have nearly the same statistical impact in 2013, as he finished with just 3.5 sacks. Despite the step back, a team will be more than willing to take a chance on him and his inconsistent effort.
As a pass-rusher, Johnson is known for elite first-step quickness off the snap. At 6'7" and 267 pounds, he's incredibly long, which makes it even harder for offensive linemen to get inside his pads. With talented pass-rushers at a premium, some team could end up overlooking his past issues to give him a big contract. It only takes one team.
A big-bodied No. 1 cornerback doesn't become a free agent every year, so there will be a strong market for Talib's services. The 6'1", 205-pound cornerback was often matching up on an opponent's best receiver man-to-man. He was playing at a shutdown level all season and was pitching a shutout against Saints tight end Jimmy Graham in Week 7 before a hip injury lost him for the next three games.
The Patriots have lost Talib in the past two AFC Championship Games, and their defensive game plan completely unraveled as a result. That should tell you all you need to know about Talib's potential value to a defense.
That being said, it also serves as a warning sign: He has dealt with several injuries over the course of his career, although mainly minor hip and hamstring injuries. The recurring nature of those injuries, however, does not bode well for his chances at getting a long-term, top-dollar contract.
The Miami Dolphins paid Randy Starks $8.45 million on the franchise tag in 2013, but they'd have to pay him 120 percent of the value of the 2014 franchise tag if they wanted to do so for a second straight year. While they have the cap space to do it, it would be a waste of resources, and they would be better off just signing him to a long-term deal.
If they elect not to, however, plenty of teams would love to add an interior disruptor like Starks to their defensive front. In 2013, he finished with 40 total pressures (30 hurries, six hits, four sacks), the 11th most for any defensive tackle in the league.
He has been both a 3-4 defensive end and a 4-3 defensive tackle at different times in his career, and he's proved capable of either two-gapping or one-gapping, depending on the scheme. At 30 years old, he is running out of opportunities to cash in.
When the Miami Dolphins traded Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts prior to the 2012 season, former Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland told Davis on HBO's Hard Knocks, "You're kind of up and down, we've got to get it to where it's a little small wave, where the consistency level is more consistent."
Davis still has some consistency issues, having yielded over a 100 passer rating on throws into his coverage in six of the Colts' 18 games this year. He may not be an elite shutdown cornerback, but he has flashed that ability. In particular, Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning went 3-of-8 for 12 yards when targeting Davis on Sunday Night Football in Week 7.
At 5'11" and 203 pounds, Davis does not possess the immense frame of the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary, but his solid man-to-man coverage skills and physical style of play will resonate well with GMs who are looking to borrow from Seattle's blueprint by building an athletically gifted and physically imposing secondary.
Per Stephen Holder of IndyStar.com, Davis has said repeatedly that he'd like to stay in Indianapolis, which could mean "at a discount" or "at the right price," but while he may not be one of the best corners in the game, he could command a nice contract in 2014. It would be a surprise to see him sign for less than $5.5 million per year on average, which would put him among the top 20 cornerbacks in the league.
Top-notch centers don't become available every year, and Browns center Alex Mack has been one of the very few bright spots on some bad Cleveland Browns teams over the past few years. The Browns' running game has been one of the league's worst over the past several years, but Mack has consistently finished as one of Pro Football Focus' top 10 centers.
That could be tough to do; he could make a case to be one of the highest paid centers in the league, with a contract that could rival the six-year, $49.1 million pact signed between the Panthers and center Ryan Kalil last offseason.
Eric Decker was a non-factor in the Super Bowl, being held to just one catch for six yards on five targets, but that doesn't make him anything but another victim of Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman's dominant coverage. At 6'3" and 214 pounds, Decker has both the size and speed to be a solid boundary receiver, and his crisp route running makes him a threat no matter where he lines up on the field.
Predictably, his numbers improved dramatically when Peyton Manning showed up in Denver. Since then, Decker has caught 24 touchdown passes in the regular season, which tied him with teammate Demaryius Thomas for third most in the league in that time.
The Broncos will not prevent Decker from testing the free-agent waters, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, so it will be interesting to see what he commands on the open market and if it's a number that the Broncos can match.
The Baltimore Ravens didn't mortgage the future in the trade that brought Eugene Monroe over from the Jacksonville Jaguars, but in giving up a fourth- and a fifth-round pick for him on an expiring contract, the implication was that he would be in Baltimore as more than just a rental.
The former first-round pick proved he still has that level of talent. Monroe finished the season as the Ravens' highest-graded offensive player, according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed four sacks and just 24 total pressures.
Monroe isn't the only Ravens starting offensive tackle due for a new contract, as Michael Oher is also set to hit the open market. With around $10 million to work with, the Ravens will probably have to choose one, and Monroe would be the better (but more expensive) choice. He could easily make a case for between $7 and $7.5 million per year.
Michael Bennett had to take a one-year, $4.8 million deal in the 2013 offseason because he was dealing with a torn rotator cuff. Now that he has proved he's well beyond the injury and still playing at a high level, it's time for him to cash in on his solid performance.
He finished the 2013 season with 8.5 sacks in a rotational role, playing 59.6 percent of the Seahawks' defensive snaps. The "official" sack total, however, is misleading. According to Pro Football Focus, he tallied 11 sacks—meaning he had six solo sacks and five "half-sacks." He also created pressure on a consistent basis, finishing the season as the third-best pass-rushing 4-3 defensive end.
He didn't log a sack in the Super Bowl, but he contributed four pressures on a defensive line that was consistently making life miserable for Peyton Manning. With the Seahawks reminding the world that defense can still win championships, expect one of their impending free agents to get a nice payday this offseason.
Not many things went right for the Washington Redskins this season, but Brian Orakpo's return from a torn pectoral muscle was one of them. He made a full recovery and started 15 games in 2013, missing only the season finale after suffering a groin injury.
The three-time Pro Bowler went off for a team-leading 10 sacks and finished the year ranked ninth among 3-4 outside linebackers in Pro Football Focus' pass-rushing productivity, adding 29 hurries and 11 hits to his numbers. He created pressure three times or more in 10 of his 15 games this year.
He also made his presence felt in the running game; his 16 tackles for loss ranked second among linebackers, according to Advanced NFL Stats.
He's developed into one of the league's best pass-rushers, and now that he's unhindered by his injury, he's set up perfectly for a big payday.
The Miami Dolphins are probably wishing they had signed Brent Grimes to a long-term contract now, but at the time, a one-year deal seemed like a good idea.
He was coming off a season-ending torn Achilles in 2012, but he bounced back well from that injury and was one of the best cornerbacks in the league this past season. He allowed a passer rating of just 66.3 into his coverage, the eighth lowest in the league.
Now, he'll get to ride his hot performance straight into a free-agent market where he'll likely be one of the top cornerbacks available. His abilities range from both man to zone coverage, and what he may lack in size (5'10", 183 pounds) he more than makes up for in speed and tenacity.
There's only one problem: Grimes will be 31 years old at the beginning of the 2014 season, and although he played all 16 games in 2013, he dealt with some nagging injuries over the course of the season. There could be some trepidation to sign him to a long-term deal, even after the solid season he put together.
The Dolphins should either re-sign him to a long-term deal or put the franchise tag on him for one year at around $11 million. They have the cap space to make it work either way, with around $30 million to spend this coming offseason. If the two sides can't reach an agreement on his value, another team out there will be willing to pick him up.
Alterraun Verner has quietly but steadily improved in the Tennessee Titans defense, and he had the best season of his career in 2013—just in time to cash in with a big contract.
At 5'10" and 186 pounds, he doesn't possess the prototypical No. 1 shutdown corner height and weight. That led some to believe that he would be out of place with the team switching from a more zone-based scheme to a press-man scheme, but he actually excelled in that role. He allowed a passer rating of 55.8 on throws into his coverage, the fourth best in the league. His 14 passes defensed were tied for third most in the league.
As mentioned previously, the Seahawks' dominance of the Broncos in the Super Bowl will be a lasting memory for GMs looking to build their defense in that mold. That means there could be a rush for versatile cornerbacks like Verner who can carry out assignments in both man and zone coverage.
He could command a hefty price tag in the neighborhood of the five-year, $50 million contract that his former teammate Cortland Finnegan got with the Rams in 2012, or the Titans could make some cap-saving moves to get enough space to put the franchise tag on him, paying him roughly $11 million for the 2014 season.
There are very few top-notch strong safeties in the NFL, and top prospects at the position don't come along very often either. So now that the Browns were able to find T.J. Ward in the second round of the 2010 draft, they need to do what they can to hang onto him.
He's not just an in-the-box, run-stuffing, hard-hitting safety, either; he can run and cover, deep or short, and can even hold his own in man coverage. He allowed 58 percent completions and a 61.2 passer rating on throws into his coverage in 2013, with just one touchdown and two interceptions.
Head coach Mike Pettine would love nothing more than to get his Cleveland Browns defense started on the right foot by signing Ward to a big contract. He knows the value of having good safety play on the back end of the defense and what it can allow you to do up front.
Ward is better than good. He's great. He's one of the league's best, and as a result, he'll probably get a lot of money to play football next season, wherever it is.
Jairus Byrd was set to hit the open market in 2013 before the Buffalo Bills placed the franchise tag on him. After paying $6.916 million for his services last year, the Bills can't tag him again unless they want to pay him 120 percent of the 2014 franchise tag value. Unless they are able to work out a long-term deal, he's likely to leave the nest.
If that happens, he'll be the object of affection for many teams. His ball skills are well-known; he burst onto the scene with nine interceptions as a rookie, tying for the league lead that year. He had five interceptions in 2012 and collected four interceptions in 2013 despite playing just 11 games.
Just about anyone can value a rangy free safety who can cover sideline to sideline as the lone deep man in Cover 1. We've seen him close up some pretty big holes in the passing game.
The market is always rich for a top-notch pass-rusher. Greg Hardy's 26 sacks since 2012 are fifth-most in the league and second-most among 4-3 defensive ends. In a way, his out-of-nowhere emergence truly makes him The Kraken. He had seven sacks in his first two years combined but burst onto the scene with 11 sacks in 2012 and 15 sacks in 2013.
Per Steve Reed of The Associated Press, he has already said he's not opposed to the franchise tag, which would pay him roughly $12 million in 2014, but the Panthers only have around $7.9 million to work with, according to Spotrac. Unless they clear up some space, they may have a hard time keeping him without signing him to a long-term deal. Even if they choose to go that route, Hardy would be willing to take a hometown discount to stay in Carolina, according to Pro Football Talk.
If the Panthers want to remain a playoff contender, Hardy says it's very simple.
"Give me a phone call and offer me a crapload of money," he said with a grin, via Dan Hanzus of NFL.com. "That's all. Nothing too serious."
If the Panthers don't, someone else will.
Of all the free agents on the market, Graham is the crown jewel.
He was the best red-zone threat in the NFL last season, with a league-high 26 red-zone targets and 11 red-zone receiving touchdowns. None of that should come as a surprise; the 6'7", 265-pound tight end has a basketball reputation that precedes him. He is also one of just 10 different tight ends to go for more than 1,000 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns—and he's done so twice.
There could be some debate as to whether he should be paid like a tight end or a wide receiver, but he ran a pass route on 638 of his 879 total snaps this year (72.6 percent). Part of the debate, however, may be whether he lined up tight to the line or split out wide. Per Pro Football Talk, Saints quarterback Drew Brees seems to believe Graham is a tight end, even though he's lined up as a tight end on just 33 percent of his snaps.
The New Orleans Saints would probably love to keep him, but at present, they are slated to be around $15 million over the projected $126.3 million salary cap, according to Spotrac.com. Regardless of who pays him, expect Graham to be one of the highest-paid free agents this offseason.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.