The NFL calendar has officially been swapped out for the 2014 version as all the teams and executives (even the Seattle Seahawks) are focused on next season and how to reach the pinnacle of the game. Some of those upgrades are made through the NFL draft, but the biggest splashes are made in free agency.
These are proven NFL players who have earned the big paydays they are about to receive, but who’s at the head of the class?
Here are the top 20 players on the free-agent market, plus a breakdown of the top three free-agent options who are sure to have their new (or old) organizations grinning from ear to ear.
Greg Hardy, DE, 25 years old
|Total Tackles||Sacks (NFL Rank)|
|Overall||Pass Rush||Run Defense||Stops||Total QB Pressures|
Greg Hardy may not play a sexy position like Jimmy Graham or Eric Decker, but general managers know the value of a young, healthy, productive defensive end who can terrorize opposing quarterbacks and single-handedly close running lanes.
The Carolina Panthers emerged as one of the league’s up-and-coming teams behind a ferocious defense that ranked second in the league in yards and points allowed per game. There are plenty of reasons for that excellence (like Defensive Player of the Year Luke Kuechly), but Greg Hardy is at the top of the list.
According to David Newton of ESPN, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera lauded the performance of Hardy and his value to the team. Rivera admitted that Carolina “most certainly would love to have Greg back. He’s a big part of what we did this year. It’d be hard to imagine doing things without him.”
Hardy’s dominant pass-rushing skills leap off the game film, as he tied a franchise record with 15 sacks and was third in the entire NFL in that category.
But Hardy’s play is far from one-dimensional.
He’s also tremendous against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, he ranked fourth at his position (4-3 DEs) by stopping running plays on 8.7 percent of his defensive snaps (subscription required).
An exceptional all-around defender, one thing is clear for Greg Hardy’s free agency. In his own words, somebody is going to give him “a crapload of money.”
Jimmy Graham, TE, 27 years old
|Receptions (NFL Rank)||Yards (NFL Rank)||TDs (NFL Rank)|
|86 (13th)||1,215 (15th)||16 (1st)|
Greg Hardy wins the award as the “Best Free Agent” in this list, but if Hardy is 1A, Jimmy Graham is certainly 1B. The former basketball player has revolutionized the tight end position (along with Rob Gronkowski) and has started a new trend of teams searching for athletic tight ends who can create mismatches and be primary receivers in an offense—or be the next Jimmy Graham.
This play and subsequent Sports Science analysis breaks down just how freakish Graham is as a specimen:
His combination of size, speed, leaping ability and great hands make it impossible to defend him with one player.
He is not a good blocker, but blocking tight ends are old news, and his elite receiving ability more than makes up for that particular deficiency.
Graham is a weapon when he lines up as a traditional in-line tight end or in the slot, but he’s also versatile enough to be split out wide—a characteristic that might cost the New Orleans Saints a lot of money if they choose to franchise tag him since that could enable him to receive the tagged salary of a wide receiver as opposed to a tight end.
Wherever he ends up, Graham is going to make his quarterback very happy.
Brian Orakpo, OLB, 27 years old
|Overall||Pass Rush||Run Defense||Coverage||Total QB Pressures||Stops|
Brian Orakpo is going to be the most sought after 3-4 outside linebacker on the market since he’s one of the best at his position:
Highest graded 3-4 OLBs: 1. Justin Houston 2. Robert Mathis 3. Elvis Dumervil 4. Brian Orakpo 5. Aldon Smith 6. Tamba Hali per @PFF— Ben Volk (@NFLBen) January 29, 2014
His money maker is going to be his pass-rushing ability, and he’s a proven sack artist, accumulating 39.5 sacks in his five NFL seasons (one which was cut short to just two games due to injury).
In 2013, Orakpo ranked as the fifth-best at his position in pass-rushing ability—a signature stat of Pro Football Focus that measures pressure created on a per-snap basis (subscription required).
But, like Greg Hardy, Orakpo is far from a one-trick pony. As evidenced by his PFF grades (shown above), Orakpo is an exceptional run defender.
It remains to be seen what kind of contract Orakpo is going to receive, but he’ll be one of the best free-agent signings of the offseason.