NFL Free Agents 2014: Stay or Go for Top Free Agent Names
The NFL's free agent period opens on March 11 and speculation regarding the top options on the market is starting to reach fever pitch.
Remember, folks: There is no NFL offseason. There's just a break in between games.
There are a number of phenomenal players set to hit free agency and while their teams would love to keep them, that isn't always how things work. Matters such as the salary cap, past negotiations and current roster structure all come into play, making landing spots difficult to forecast.
The best course of action is to take all the facts into consideration and make an educated guess as to what will happen, and that's what I've done here with 10 of the top free agents on the market.
In this column, I determine whether or not top free agent names in the 2014 class will stay with their current teams or go to another.
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is undoubtedly the top free agent on the market and with good reason. Over the last four years, he's established himself as one of the premier offensive weapons in the NFL, lining up in multiple positions in the Saints' sophisticated passing attack.
In fact, he was so dominant in 2013, hauling in 86 receptions and 16 touchdown catches, that it stands to reason that his toughest one-on-one battle might not take place on the field but rather in negotiations this offseason with the Saints.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis knows that he can't let Graham get away, and he told reporters that he is prepared to do everything in his power to keep him, including the franchise tag.
If that situation arises, it will trigger a very interesting situation where Graham's representatives would likely argue that he deserves to be compensated as a receiver rather than a tight end because of his proclivity to line up wide on passing downs.
The monetary divide between the franchise tag for tight ends ($6 million) and receivers ($10.6 million) is steep, and the situation has Graham feeling queasy, as he told Kevin Patra of NFL.com regarding the possibility of being tagged, "I'm not keen on the franchise tag, that would be really unfortunate, but that is really all I have to say about that one."
Graham surely wants a multi-year, megabucks contract to stay on Bourbon Street but if he and the Saints can't work something out, the franchise tag looms large, and quarterback Drew Brees backed the team when he told NBC Sports Radio (via ProFootballTalk):
He’s a tight end. We’re able to do a lot of creative things with him, just like we’re able to do with a lot of our offensive personnel. I feel like with Sean Payton, with our offensive system and we gear towards putting those guys in the best position to succeed according to their strengths. Jimmy Graham is six-seven, 270, he runs like a deer, he can jump and catch, he’s so strong and physical, he plays with great fire and passion, he can play the line, he can split out.
Graham played more snaps at receiver than tight end, per ESPN Stats & Info, but it's unclear if his representation would win that particular battle.
In the end, despite whatever brouhaha the two sides might engage in, one thing is abundantly clear:
Jimmy Graham will remain a Saint, by hook or by crook.
In 1830, the great English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote a sonnet entitled The Kraken:
Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
While Tennyson was writing about a mythological sea monster, teams around the NFL wouldn't have been shocked if he showed prescience about the breakthrough of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who dubbed himself "The Kraken" this season when on his way to a 15-sack campaign.
By the way, Hardy is only 25 years old. His potential is through the roof, making him an extremely valuable commodity. Young pass-rushing demons don't hit the market often, and when they do, they get paid.
Unlike Jimmy Graham, Hardy would be willing to play a season on the franchise tag, telling David Newton of ESPN.com:
I would love a franchise (tag), man. Add another year on my career. Get to play football a little bit longer without a contract. Another year to be in Carolina just to get them a chance to get their fiscal responsibilities in order so we can be here forever, like Steve (Smith) and a lot of other guys.
The franchise tag for defensive ends would be around $12 million.
While the Panthers find themselves in a precarious salary cap situation, expect general manager Dave Gettleman to do everything in his power to retain the man known as "The Kraken", whether via long-term deal or the franchise tag.
The Washington Redskins suffered through a miserable 2013 campaign, going 3-13. Adding insult to injury is the fact that they don't even get to keep the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, which went to St. Louis as part of the trade that brought quarterback Robert Griffin III to our nation's capital.
Those factors mean the Redskins cannot afford to lose pass-rushing demon Brian Orakpo, who led them with 10 sacks and qualified for his third Pro Bowl.
General manager Bruce Allen is keenly aware of this fact, telling Zac Boyer of the Washington Times that the team has already begun negotiations with Orakpo's representatives.
With the Redskins nearly $40 million under the cap, expect a deal to get done. Orakpo will be paid handsomely and remain in Washington.
Last offseason, the Miami Dolphins signed cornerback Brent Grimes, who was coming off a torn Achilles tendon, to a one-year "prove it" deal worth $5.5 million.
And he proved it, all right. Grimes had a wonderful season, emerging as one of the best cover corners in the league and earning his second Pro Bowl berth.
Now, he's once again set to hit the free-agent market, and he is poised to receive a big-money deal. The Dolphins are $24.5 million under the cap but with Grimes likely to receive a contract north of $8 million annually, it's uncertain if he'll return to South Beach.
The franchise tag remains an option, but that would handcuff the Dolphins in their other pursuits, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun-Sentinel.
Grimes turns 31 this summer, and the team might not be apt to hand him a huge chunk of money at that age. While the team surely wants to keep Grimes in the fold, the more likely scenario is another team paying him somewhere in the range of Darrelle Revis-money ($13 million per year).
Shutdown corners don't often hit the market, and Grimes will cash in. Expect that to happen elsewhere.
Cornerback Vontae Davis has provided the Indianapolis Colts with two excellent seasons since being acquired in a 2012 trade with the Miami Dolphins and now he's set to hit the free-agent market.
Davis, who will turn 26 this offseason, is poised to receive a big-money deal. And with Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star reporting the mutual affinity shared by player and team, it appears as if both sides want to make a deal happen to keep Davis in Indianapolis for the foreseeable future.
The Colts have cap room ($40.1 million under) and keeping Davis is a no-brainer move for general manager Ryan Grigson.
The consensus No. 1 receiver on the free-agent market is Eric Decker of the Denver Broncos and despite an abysmal performance in the Super Bowl, it stands to reason that he will be paid handsomely this offseason.
The question remains whether or not he will remain in Denver. He hauled in 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns as part of the best offense in NFL regular season history, but he disappeared in the Super Bowl, where he only caught one pass for six yards.
The Broncos are $21.6 million under the cap, but they have a number of contracts to work out in an effort to get back to the Super Bowl. NFL Media insider Ian Rapoport reported that Decker will indeed test the free-agent market.
The bottom line is that with quarterback Peyton Manning under center in 2014, the Broncos offense will once again be explosive. Can the team really afford the luxury of paying Decker when there are already a number of other viable options in the passing game?
The answer is most likely not. Expect Decker to play elsewhere in 2014 and beyond.
Last offseason, the Buffalo Bills and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd reached an impasse in contract talks, and after holding out through training camp, Byrd played the 2013 season under the franchise tag.
After a season that earned him his third Pro Bowl selection, Byrd is once again a free agent and given the fact that his representatives and the Bills have already failed once to consummate a long-term deal, his situation is nebulous.
Bills president Russ Brandon doesn't believe there will be a carryover effect, telling the Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
It's a process and there's no carryover. You start over again and you try to get something done. We just weren't able to come up with a solution that worked for both parties, so you reset it and start again.
The Bills are only $15.9 million under the cap and while that leaves them with enough room to sign Byrd, it would limit their options. And the two sides have already shown an inability to reach concordance.
Byrd will take the best deal available and end up leaving the Bills.
T.J. Ward & Alex Mack
The Cleveland Browns have a new, defensive-minded coach in Mike Pettine, and there's little doubt he'd like to keep hard-hitting safety T.J. Ward in the fold.
The problem for the Browns is that center Alex Mack is also a free agent, and it's highly unlikely that the team will be able to keep both.
Both players are highly regarded, but it's much more likely that Ward will be a Brown in 2014 than Mack. The reason for that is that the franchise tag number for safeties is lower than that of centers, and with the Browns flush with cap space ($35.3 million under), they'll be looking to make a splash in the market.
Owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi are definitely aware of the negativity surrounding the team's firing of coach Rob Chudzinski after only one year. Logic dictates that the brain trust will try to make a big splash this offseason in order to get into the good graces of the jaded fanbase.
It'd be stunning if the Browns didn't pursue players like Broncos receiver Eric Decker and Texans running back Ben Tate. That means retaining both Ward and Mack is a nearly impossible proposition.
Look for Ward to stay and Mack to ink a deal elsewhere.
Verdict (Ward): STAYS
Verdict (Mack): GOES
The strange saga of the Kansas City Chiefs and tackle Branden Albert appears to be reaching its conclusion.
Last offseason, the Chiefs and Albert engaged in a game of chicken. The team and player couldn't reach accord on a long-term deal, and Albert played under the franchise tag as the team drafted his presumed long-term replacement, Eric Fisher, with the No. 1 overall pick. The team tried to trade Albert to the Dolphins, but the deal fell through.
And now, Albert looks likely to leave for nothing. Donald Stephenson played well last season at tackle, and the team has already made an investment in Fisher. Can the Chiefs, only $17 million under the cap and desperately needing help at receiver, afford to keep Albert when they already have Stephenson and Fisher in the fold?
That's a doubtful proposition. Look for Albert to play elsewhere, perhaps in Miami, where he nearly landed in 2013.
Despite only accumulating 3.5 sacks in 2013 after garnering 11.5 in 2012, Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson is one of the most attractive players on the market.
Johnson made over $11 million on the franchise tag last year, and according to ESPN Insider Adam Caplan (h/t to Evan Silva of Rotoworld), he could command a deal worth $10 million annually.
While the Bengals have cap room ($24.1 million under), the restructuring of receiver A.J. Green's contract looms, as well as the status of free agent offensive tackle Anthony Collins. It's unlikely the Bengals will be able to keep both Johnson and Collins, as detailed by Coley Harvey of ESPN.com.
Look for Johnson to accept a big-money deal outside of the Queen City and for the Bengals to retain Collins.
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