Some of the biggest dominoes in the 2014 edition of NFL free agency have already taken a nosedive.
Tight end Jimmy Graham was hit with the franchise tag by the New Orleans Saints. Receiver Jeremy Maclin agreed to a new deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Defensive end Greg Hardy suffered the same fate as Graham with the Carolina Panthers.
Things are just getting started.
While it is never easy to narrow down the list of top players, the following guys are the absolute best left at their position. Their destinations are even harder to determine, but realistic predictions can be achieved through analysis of a variety of factors.
The wide receiver market is deep this year thanks to guys like Hakeem Nicks, Anquan Boldin, James Jones and a wealth of others, but Eric Decker is another major name to watch.
After a year with Peyton Manning in which he caught 87 passes for 1,288 yards and 11 scores, Decker's value is difficult to pin down in a deep market and with an even deeper draft class inbound.
Translation—it makes sense for the Broncos to let Decker walk and spend that money to address other problem areas such as cornerback.
As for Decker, he and his representatives would be wise to target a team with upside, an obvious need and plenty of cap space.
Translation—the Indianapolis Colts.
Indianapolis has plenty of money to work with and has a clear need for more weapons. The want part? Vic Lombardi of CBS 4 has it covered:
Among the teams that have interest in Eric Decker ... Indy. If he can't play with PFM, he'd love to roll with Andrew Luck.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) February 27, 2014
The fit makes a ton of sense. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star concurs:
If I'm the Colts, I'm taking a hard look at Eric Decker as a FA wide receiver. Just my thought.— Bob Kravitz (@bkravitz) February 27, 2014
Decker is a reliable outside target that would open things up for T.Y. Hilton deep. Andrew Luck has to love the idea, as should Colts fans.
Prediction: Decker signs with Indianapolis.
Arguably the best center in football, Alex Mack has a resume that will incite a bidding war on the open market.
That is, if he makes it that far.
New general manager Ray Farmer may not be so willing to let Mack walk, as NFL Network's Ian Rapoport points out:
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
The previous regime did not make Mack a priority, but a change at the top has clearly had a ripple effect on the team's offseason proceedings. That said, there is an outside chance Mack may want to follow Rob Chudzinski to Indianapolis, as NFL Network's Chris Wesseling proposes:
Alex Mack is the best center to hit the market in years. Rob Chudzinski ended up in Indy. Colts have $ and need an upgrade on Satele.— Chris Wesseling (@ChrisWesseling) March 2, 2014
But according to Mack's agent Marv Demoff, his client is willing to have an open mind about the new happenings in the organization, via ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi:
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.
A change of scenery seems unlikely for Mack at this point. The new organizational structure seems to want Mack back at whatever cost, which is quite the bargaining chip for Mack and his agent to have.
Prediction: Mack re-ups with Cleveland.
There is no real dispute to be had—even with names like Brent Grimes and Aqib Talib on the market, Alterraun Verner is the best corner available.
"Available" is the key word there, as Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean reports that Verner and the Tennessee Titans have made "no real progress" on a new deal:
Still no real progress between #Titans and CB Alterraun Verner. Scheduled to hit FA on March 11— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) February 27, 2014
Given that Tennessee does not seem inclined to use a costly tag on Verner, the star corner is on his way to the open market.
Almost every team in the league would have an interest in Verner's services upon his arrival on the market, but fans who want a connection that makes sense should look no further than the St. Louis Rams.
Outside of the fact the Rams love to pick up Tennessee's recent big-name free agency leaks (Cortland Finnegan and Jared Cook), Rams coach Jeff Fisher is the man who drafted Verner into the pros and Gregg Williams was on staff last year during Verner's breakout year.
Expect Verner to reunite with his old coach and stick with the assistant who helped to guide him to a career year.
Prediction: Verner signs with St. Louis.