NFL Free Agency 2014: Top Available Players and Key Dates to Know

Patrick ClarkeCorrespondent IFebruary 12, 2014

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 27:   Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on October 27, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

The start of NFL free agency is less than one month away as teams begin preparations for February's scouting combine in Indianapolis.

But before clubs can bolster their rosters through May's 2014 NFL draft, they'll have to compete with the rest of the league in free agency this March. There are a handful of game-changing talents set to become available this spring, but where they'll wind up remains a mystery.

Below we'll get you set for the upcoming free agency period with a breakdown of the key names and dates to know. 

 

Top Stars Available in 2014

Notable 2014 NFL Free Agents
PlayerCurrent TeamPos.
Jimmy GrahamNew Orleans SaintsTE
Greg HardyCarolina PanthersDE
Brian OrakpoWashington RedskinsLB
Jairus ByrdBuffalo BillsS
T.J. WardCleveland BrownsS
Alterraun VernerTennessee TitansCB
Branden AlbertKansas City ChiefsLT
Michael JohnsonCincinnati BengalsDE
Lamarr HoustonOakland RaidersDE
Brent GrimesMiami DolphinsCB
Eugene MonroeBaltimore RavensLT
Vontae DavisIndianapolis ColtsCB
Linval JosephNew York GiantsDT
Jason HatcherDallas CowboysDT
Jared VeldheerOakland RaidersLT
NFL.com

Jimmy Graham, TE

New Orleans Saints pass-catching superstar Jimmy Graham has been described time and again as a matchup nightmare, and his numbers back it up.

The 6'7", 265-pound tight end led the NFL with 16 receiving touchdowns in 2013 and ranked first in receiving yards among all tight ends with 1,215. Since entering the league in 2010, Graham has racked up more than 3,800 receiving yards and 41 touchdowns.

But while the Saints will likely do everything in their power to keep Graham in the Big Easy, NFL.com fantasy editor Michael Fabiano reports that the situation in New Orleans could potentially get "ugly" this offseason:

The Saints are way over the salary cap right now, meaning Graham could be franchised this offseason. He isn't too keen on being tagged, though, so a battle of his contractual situation appears imminent -- and it could turn ugly. With the past history of players holding out of camp and going on to have disappointing seasons, this Graham situation is one fantasy owners should monitor.

If Graham doesn't return to New Orleans in 2014, the Saints' vaunted aerial attack is sure to experience a massive drop-off. Drew Brees has relied heavily on Graham in recent years and will likely be campaigning for the Saints to bring him back by any means necessary next month.

 

Greg Hardy, DE

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 15:  Greg Hardy #76 of the Carolina Panthers tells the fans to cheer against the New York Jets during play at Bank of America Stadium on December 15, 2013 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has developed into one of the league's most devastating pass-rushers over the past two seasons and is coming off a career year in Carolina.

The 25-year-old soon-to-be free agent ranked third in the NFL with a franchise record 15 sacks and helped anchor one of the league's most formidable defenses. 

As ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick points out, Hardy is sure to be a hot commodity when free agency rolls around in mid-March:

Hardy has spent his entire NFL career in Carolina and is set to make a massive amount of money regardless of whether the Panthers place the franchise tag on him or if he signs elsewhere. As a result, Hardy isn't stressing over the process, per NFL.com's Dan Hanzus:

It's a football game. It's a game, so you really can't put too much stock in stressing about something like that, I'm in the best position of my life regardless of what happens, so I definitely believe in letting my agent and my manager and my people handle that and I can focus on football and entertaining you guys.

Considering that the franchise tag would pay him an estimated $12 million in 2014, it appears Hardy will be a rich man wherever he ends up.

 

Brian Orakpo, LB

LANDOVER, MD - DECEMBER 01:  Brian Orakpo #98 of the Washington Redskins sacks Eli Manning #10 of the New York Giants in the first quarter during their game at FedExField on December 1, 2013 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Rob Carr/Getty Images

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo could be another key defensive upgrade for any one of the other 31 teams in the NFL.

The 27-year-old pass-rusher missed a majority of the 2012 season after tearing his pectoral muscle in Week 2, but he bounced back in a big way in 2013, recording 10 sacks and 60 combined tackles in 15 regular-season games. 

Orakpo also recovered two fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown against the Chicago Bears. 

Given his ability to rush the passer, Orakpo will make sense for a number of different teams this spring. The Atlanta Falcons could be one potential landing spot. The team began 2013 with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations and wound up going 4-12 and ranking 29th in the league in sacks. Orakpo could certainly give them a boost in that department while also adding some veteran leadership.

 

Key Dates to Know

*Dates according to ESPN.com

March 8-11

Starting on March 8, teams can contact unrestricted free-agent players' agents and begin contract negotiations. However, the discussed deals cannot be finalized until March 11 at 4 p.m. ET.

 

March 11

March 11 will be one of the biggest days of the NFL offseason. The date marks the start of free agency and the first day unrestricted free agents can sign with a new team. 

Prior to 4 p.m. ET on that day, teams must exercise all 2014 options for selected players on their roster. Teams must also submit qualifying offers to their restricted free agents before the 4 p.m. ET deadline.

In addition, all 32 teams must be under the salary cap prior to 4 p.m. ET on March 11. At that point, the free agency period will open and player movement will begin to heat up.

 

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