With the start of NFL free agency looming on March 11, it’s now or never for teams to try and lock up their stars before the competition can get a crack at them.
Whether it’s with the franchise tag or by signing a long-term deal, there’s little doubt that many teams will be scrambling to secure their players who are eager to test the free market in the coming days.
However, some will ultimately fail, as they do every year—giving the league’s free-agency period some drama.
Read on to find out the prospects for some of the NFL’s biggest remaining free-agent targets.
At just about this time last year, the Buffalo Bills were forced to use the franchise tag on star safety Jairus Byrd.
Things were contentious between Byrd’s agent and the team last time around, and there’s no doubt the two sides probably still retain some hard feelings.
Compounding the matter is that the Cleveland Browns have shown serious interest in the safety to help replace T.J. Ward, as Rapoport notes:
Hear the possibility of reunion between #Browns coach Mike Pettine and S Jairus Byrd is real. Bills could complicate with a tag & trade tho— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 21, 2014
Pettine just spent the 2013 season as Byrd’s defensive coordinator in Buffalo, so it’s hard to deny that some familiarity exists there.
However, Tim Graham of The Buffalo News asserts that the prospects of a long-term deal aren’t completely out the door quite yet:
A Jairus Byrd contract extension is far from finalized and still very much an uncertainty.
Even so, Buffalo Bills fans will be glad to hear what two league sources have told me: Preliminary talks have been pleasant so far.
Compared to last year's cold war between Bills senior vice president of football administration Jim Overdorf and Eugene Parker, Byrd's agent, this should be viewed as an encouraging start.
However, with the deadline to apply the tag looming on March 3, it doesn’t seem like the two sides will come to an agreement before then.
Instead, the Bills will likely use the tag to protect Byrd from the overtures of teams like the Browns and try to push for an extension before the July 15 deadline to sign tagged players to long-term deals.
Before the Browns start considering outside free agents like Byrd, they might want to look internally to star center Alex Mack.
He has anchored a very good Cleveland line for several years now, but the former California Bear could be ready to test the market.
With all the upheaval in Cleveland over the last few weeks, Mack might be hesitant to commit to the new regime.
“I think the most important thing is Alex really would want to meet the (new) coaches,” agent Marv Demoff told ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi. “He was pretty close to (former offensive line coach George) Warhop, and liked (former head coach Rob) Chudzinski. Everything he had in Cleveland is changed. Warhop was a constant for five years. He’s gone. There’s a different head coach, different offensive coordinator, different offensive line coach.”
But while Mack might be reticent, the Browns seem committed to re-signing the center, as Rapoport notes:
One of the smartest things I heard this week: #Browns now view re-signing C Alex Mack as “priority No. 1.” Will be huge for an incoming QB.— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 23, 2014
Complicating the matter is that Mack took an extended mission trip to Brazil and declined to talk to the team until he arrived back stateside on Feb. 28. However, now that he’s back, his agent emphasizes that he’s willing to hear out the new coaching staff:
I think that the most appropriate thing is to give the people there the opportunity to explain what happened, but also, most importantly, where they’re going and what they see ahead and whether that meshes with what Alex thinks. I’ve told him, and I think he’s totally willing to do it, to have a total open mind, start with a clean slate and see where it goes.
Should he be willing to give the chance, the two sides have a model to work off. Philadelphia center Jason Kelce just signed a six-year extension for $37.5 million, a number that could compare favorably to Mack’s deal.
However, he has two more years of experience than Kelce, so he could command more cash.
Considering that the franchise-tag amount for the position is a whopping $11 million, it seems the Browns are betting it all on a long-term deal.
But given the front office’s newfound enthusiasm for Mack, and the stark contrast that new general manager Ray Farmer represents from Joe Banner, it seems like Cleveland will be able to get something done before March 11.
After a rocky start to the season in Tennessee, cornerback Alterraun Verner quickly turned his 2013 into a year that could help him command a big contract in free agency.
However, the two sides have made little progress at all toward any sort of deal, according to The Tennessean’s Jim Wyatt:
Still no real progress between #Titans and CB Alterraun Verner. Scheduled to hit FA on March 11— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) February 27, 2014
The team likely won’t be willing to tag him, considering the tag is valued at $11.3 million for cornerbacks and Verner’s deal would likely only pay somewhere between $8-$10 million per year.
Further driving the sides apart are the Titans’ other options for replacing him and new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s scheme, as Fansided’s Joshua Huffman explains:
There’s no disputing that Verner is one of the top three players on this defense. Losing him wouldn’t doom defensive coordinator Ray Horton‘s first attempt at installing his 3-4 hybrid schemes. The Titans could find a cheaper replacement and have enough leftover money to reinvest toward more important extensions (e.g. Bernard Pollard) and/or free-agent help at offensive tackle or linebacker.
Some foresight has already been taken toward this situation. The Titans have drafted cornerback projects in each of the last three drafts who could give this team the flexibility to promote and move on.
But with the Titans seemingly out of the running for Verner’s services, a couple of other teams seem interested.
The team does have the young duo of Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson at corner, but neither has developed into a true star. The Rams could want to make a big money splash by getting Verner.
But a more likely scenario probably involves the Minnesota Vikings.
Their secondary was a bit of a disaster last season, as they were forced to play some journeymen and rookie Xavier Rhodes a lot more than expected.
While Rhodes flashed some potential, Minnesota could try and make some noise by landing Verner. He has history with defensive backs coach Jerry Gray, so he could be an excellent fit.
Regardless of who signs him, it seems like there’s no way he stays in Tennessee. Expect him to provide one of the earlier splashes of the free-agency period when it opens.