2014 NFL Free Agents: Predicting Future Homes for Top Stars

Richard LangfordCorrespondent IFebruary 5, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 08:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints has a pass broken up by  Mike Mitchell #21 of the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 8, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There is an exciting group of free agents this offseason. By almost all accounts, if not all of them, New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is the top talent available. 

What is going to make Graham especially valuable is that, after him, there is not a great pool of talent when it comes to pass-catchers. 

When the free-agent signing period kicks off on March 11 at 4 p.m. ET, I expect a flurry of activity. As always, it will be fun to track, and it will all have a profound impact on the upcoming season. 

Of course, many of these players may never hit the open market. Their current teams have a chance to sign them before that happens. 

As Around the League, via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, sees it, here are the top 25 free agents for this class.  

Around the League's Top-25 Free Agents
PlayerPos.2013 Team
Jimmy GrahamTESaints
Greg HardyDEPanthers
Brian OrakpoLBRedskins
Jairus ByrdSBills
T.J. WardSBrowns
Alterraun VernerCBTitans
Branden AlbertLTChiefs
Michael JohnsonDEBengals
Lamarr HoustonDERaiders
Brent GrimesCBDolphins
Eugene MonroeLTRavens
Vontae DavisCBColts
Linval JosephDEGiants
Jason HatcherDTCowboys
Jared VeldheerLTRaiders
Aqib TalibCBPatriots
Dominique Rodgers-CromartieCBBroncos
Alex MackCBrowns
Eric DeckerWRBroncos
Michael BennettDESeahawks
B.J. RajiDTPackers
Sam ShieldsCBPackers
Walter ThurmondCBSeahawks
Donald ButlerLBChargers
Randy StarksDTDolphins
Source: Chris Wesseling/NFL.com

As I mentioned, plenty of those free agents won't be going anywhere. Teams have the luxury of utilizing their franchise tag, which will keep players in town for the upcoming season. 

For the most part, players don't like the franchise tag. They want the big signing bonus and the security of a long-term deal.

It does, however, guarantee a big one-year salary. Playing under the franchise tag, as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio points out, a franchise-tag player will receive "a five-year average cap percentage for the tag at each position."

The franchise-tag salaries haven't been accounted yet, but here are last year's, as reported by Marc Sessler of NFL.com: 

2013 Franchise Tag Value
Running back:8,219,000
Wide receiver:10,537,000
Tight end:6,066,000
Offensive lineman:9,828,000
Defensive tackle:8,450,000
Defensive end:11,175,000
Source: NFL.com

It is safe to assume that the salaries for each position will see a slight increase. Former sports agent Joel Corry posted projected franchise-tag numbers on CBSSports.com. He projects every position to see a rise with the smallest being 3.7 percent at corner and the largest at 13.6 percent for punters and kickers. 

Teams can apply a franchise tag (there are several types) to a player and continue to try and negotiate a long-term deal. I expect this to help tie up most of the very top free agents.

Projected Franchise-Tag Players
Jimmy GrahamTESaints
Greg HardyDEPanthers
T.J. WardSBrowns
Jairus ByrdSBuffalo
Alterraun VernerCBTitans
Michael JohnsonDEBengals
Aqib TalibCBPatriots

At the top of that list sits a unique case. Let me explain: 


Jimmy Graham, TE, Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LA - DECEMBER 08:  Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after catching a pass against the Carolina Panthers at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 8, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Last year, the franchise tag for tight ends was set at just over $6 million. The franchise tag for wide receivers was set at just over $10.5 million.

Last season, Jimmy Graham was 13th in the NFL with 86 receptions, 15th in the NFL with 1,215 receiving yards and first in the league with 16 touchdown receptions. 

Now, does it seem more fair to pay him as a receiver or a tight end? 

As Corryand many othersspeculate, Graham could file a grievance. It will be interesting to see how the Saints handle it all.

On the one hand, they stand to get an amazing value if they can lock Graham into the franchise tag at tight end. On the other hand, they can't afford to alienate their best offensive weapon. 

I definitely expect the Saints to work diligently to sign Graham long term, but if he is slotted at the wide receiver position for a franchise tag, he is going to have a lot of bargaining power. Graham may ask for the moon on a new deal. That could leave the Saints facing some tough questions:

This all has the potential to get ugly. Whatever happens, I don't expect Graham to go anywhere. 


Star on the Move

Eric Decker, WR

Predicted 2014 Home: Kansas City Chiefs

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

The Denver Broncos remain firmly in win-now mode, so letting wide receiver Eric Decker get away would not seem like an ideal route for Denver. The Broncos may not have much of a choice, though.

Denver has 15 unrestricted free agents. This is gong to be a problem. According to spotrac (subscription required), Denver has roughly $12.4 million in projected salary cap space for next season. 

Sure, there are always contract adjustments teams can make to free up more space, but Denver has a lot of free agents to take care, many of whom played a vital role in 2013.

Decker is going to command too big of a salary for Denver to bring him back: 

Still, that fact isn't enough to keep Cecil Lammey of ESPN Denver from saying the Broncos will bring Decker back: 

I couldn't disagree more. Decker was fantastic for the Broncos last season, but Denver has to focus on its defense. As long as Peyton Manning is healthy, he will produce on offense. 

So, which team will step up to grab a 26-year-old receiver who is coming off a season where he grabbed almost 1,300 yards in passes? 

How about the Kansas City Chiefs?

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Chiefs need more weapons on offense. Jamaal Charles led them in rushing and receiving yards last season, and other than Dwayne Bowe, the Chiefs don't have an impact player at wide receiver. 

The Chiefs are estimated to have less than $1 million in cap space this coming offseason, but they have lots of ways to free up cash. I think they will do this because this team's impressive run to the playoffs last season creates a sense of urgency. 

Decker is the best player available at their biggest need.