The NFL offseason is in full swing, and each of the league's 32 teams will look to improve its roster heading into the 2014 season. Every roster will be bolstered through the draft; however, some teams will look to free agency to fill some voids.
This year, there are several big-name players available in free agency. Although these players will come with a high price tag, they will undoubtedly provide a new team with an immediate upgrade.
Not only will these prospects need to fit a team's scheme, but the price must be right as well—a franchise must have significant cap space available to acquire a coveted free agent.
Taking all of that into consideration, let's take a look at a few top free agents, their expected salaries and teams that have not only the need but also the ability to gain their services.
Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers
According to a report by Marc Sessler of NFL.com, it appears as though the Panthers have not decided on whether or not they will apply the franchise tag to defensive end Greg Hardy. If they chose to do so, the team would give Hardy $12.5 million on a one-year deal.
Hardy is just coming off his rookie contract and is still just 25 years old. He is coming off a monster 2013 season in which he recorded 59 total tackles, 15 sacks and one forced fumble. The epitome of a dominant edge-rusher, Hardy will be a coveted free-agent target for many teams in need.
Pass-rushers are getting rather expensive in today's NFL, as they are the best way to combat a pass-happy league. Expect Hardy to see similar numbers to teammate Charles Johnson—who is signed in Carolina for $76 million over six years, according to Spotrac.com.
Due to Hardy's young age and brilliant 2013 season, he may even get slightly more.
Contract Prediction: Six years, $80 million
Any team that is in dire need of Hardy's services will have a big contract to take on. Plenty of cap space will be needed to take on such a large deal. The Oakland Raiders have a huge need along the defensive line and are up against the likes of Peyton Manning, Alex Smith and Philip Rivers in the AFC West.
Oakland also has plenty of cap room, currently sitting with over $66.4 million in available space heading into 2014, according to Spotrac.com.
Expect the Raiders to pursue his services when free agency begins on March 11.
Destination Prediction: Oakland Raiders
Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos
During an interview with Jeff Legwold of ESPN.com, Broncos general manager John Elway indicated that Eric Decker would test the free-agent market:
I think they have to hit the market, the market sets those, especially where you look where we are and what we have coming up. Both Thomas' are up next year. And Wes is, too. So all that plays into it. We'd love to have Eric back, but he's made the comment he'd like to be back. He's got to do what's best for Eric, too, and vice versa. That's why we go through this process.
Decker figures to be the most coveted wide receiver in free agency. He put up some gaudy numbers in 2013 despite being in a crowded Broncos wide receiver corps. Decker finished the regular season with 87 receptions for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns.
That was Decker's second consecutive season with over 1,000 receiving yards and double-digit touchdowns. Those numbers would be welcome on any NFL offense.
Due to his production, Decker is in for a nice payday. He won't get Mike Wallace-type money, but he could see similar numbers to Pierre Garcon's contract with the Washington Redskins.
Garcon signed with Washington on a five-year, $42.5 million deal after his rookie contract expired with the Indianapolis Colts, according to Spotrac.com.
Decker is just as coveted this year as Garcon was back in 2012, and he will come out with a similar deal.
Contract Prediction: Five years, $38.5 million
This contract would give Decker a top-20 contract of all the NFL's wide receivers. Even though it is not quite as lucrative as the contract prediction for Hardy, spending this kind of money on a wide receiver is not for every franchise.
After the loss of Reggie Wayne in 2013, the Colts offense sputtered. Indianapolis will need a long-term answer across from T.Y. Hilton and additional weapons for Andrew Luck. With over $39.9 million in cap space heading into 2014, this could be a perfect match.
Destination Prediction: Indianapolis Colts
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints
This is the tricky one. As NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt recently told Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
Listen, the way I see this whole thing is the tag number is a temporary dispute. The real issue here is the long-term deal. And when you negotiate a long-term deal, like any negotiation, you come up with comparables. To me the bigger issue here is not the tag, but when they are negotiating, are they using (the contracts of tight ends) Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates? Or are they using (receivers) like Larry Fitzgerald and Percy Harvin? That's the question I have. I think the tag issue is kind of a red herring issue.
Given Graham's skill set, the argument could be made to pay him either way. He does spend more time off the line than on it; however, the current role for an NFL tight end dictates many to move to the slot or spread out wide more often.
Currently, Rob Gronkowski is the highest paid NFL tight end after a six-year, $53 million extension with the New England Patriots, according to Spotrac.com. When healthy, Gronkowski is the best comparison to Graham in terms of skill set and offensive role.
Graham does not possess the same kind of injury issues that Gronkowski deals with. That fact should give Graham similar money to the highest-paid tight end in league history.
Contract Prediction: Five years, $48 million
So, with that kind of money in mind, where does Graham land? The Saints would love to hang on to him—and they'd be able to by giving him a tight end's franchise tag. With just over $7.1 million in cap space, however, there is plenty of work to do if New Orleans is going to dish out a long-term deal.
Granted, a franchise tag with New Orleans is probably the end game here. Although, if the Saints can't get it done, it could be speculated that the tight end-needy Green Bay Packers could be major players here.
The Packers have over $34.1 million in cap space and already have Aaron Rodgers locked up for a long time. If things go south with the Saints, Graham could be seen in green and gold next season.
Destination Prediction: New Orleans Saints (franchise tag), Green Bay Packers (long-term deal)
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