2014 NFL Free Agents: Top Names to Watch After Franchise Tag Deadline

Chris RolingFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2014

Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward  during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013, in Cleveland. Jacksonville won 32-28. (AP Photo/David Richard)
David Richard/Associated Press

The franchise tag deadline has passed in the NFL, and as is the case most years, the big names who did not get hit with the tag outshine those who did.

For those star players who were candidates to get slapped with the tag but did not, they have until March 11 before they hit the open market and can incite a bidding war for their services.

Of the players who escaped unscathed from the tag frenzy, a few rise above the rest as names to watch.


Note: All updated tag info courtesy of NFL.com.


Jairus Byrd, S

Heather Ainsworth/Associated Press

The Jairus Byrd saga in Buffalo is finally over.

After five years as one of the most consistent performers at his position and a 2013 campaign where he recorded 48 total tackles and four picks in 11 games, Byrd seemingly gets his wish and will leave Buffalo via free agency.

WGR550's Joe Buscaglia was the first with the scoop:

Despite the lack of a tag, the Bills remain open to working something out before the market opens, as captured by Tim Graham of the Buffalo News:

Do not count on it. If the Bills and Byrd were intent on getting something done, the two sides would have likely settled on a number by now. Byrd is one of the better safeties in football and has a legit shot to become the highest paid player at his position.

Expect places such as Cleveland, Philadelphia and Green Bay to be heavy bidders when the market opens.


T.J. Ward, S

David Richard/Associated Press

Let's go ahead and stick with safety for a moment.

In a bit of a shocking turn of events, the Cleveland Browns did not elect to hit safety T.J. Ward with the franchise tag (although Alex Mack received the transitional tag, according to Pro Football Talk).

Ward has quietly been one of the league's better safeties for a few years now and last season recorded 112 tackles and two picks as an elite run defender. He told reporters back in December that he would like to find a way to remain in Cleveland, via Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com:

I definitely want to be back. I like my team. I love my teammates. I love being in this city. I love the organization. We haven’t had many wins, but I think we’re building something here, and I think it’s being built the right way. When you start something, I’m a person that wants to finish things and I want to finish things on a winning note. I want to play in the playoffs here, I want to bring this city a championship. I’ve been doing everything in my power to help this team win so I definitely want to see that through.

A re-up simply may not come to fruition because coach Mike Pettine wants his safeties to be interchangeable, and Ward specializes against the rush.

That said, there will still be a large market for Ward's services. Philadelphia, Buffalo and even Cincinnati may be in the running if the price is right.


Jared Veldheer, OT

Dec 30, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders tackle Jared Veldheer (68) during the second quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

This is perhaps the biggest storyline of all that fans should watch.

The Oakland Raiders have the worst roster in football. It is simply hard to argue that point. They also have the most cap space in football. It is impossible to argue that one.

Dec 30, 2012; San Diego, CA, USA; Oakland Raiders tackle Jared Veldheer (68) during the third quarter against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

For one reason or another, the Raiders still elected to not hit elite left tackle Jared Veldheer with a tag before the deadline.

Perhaps general manager Reggie McKenzie is confident a deal can be reached before the market opens. Maybe he wants to spend the cash elsewhere with the understanding that a respectable replacement can be found at a fraction of the cost (literally).

Regardless, Veldheer is about to provide one of the more interesting narratives of the 2014 offseason in a multitude of different ways. He is far from the only big-name lineman available (Eugene Monroe), but will command top dollar with plenty of teams lining up for a chance at his signature.


Michael Johnson, DE

Dec 29, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson (93) against the Baltimore Ravens at Paul Brown Stadium. Bengals defeated the Ravens 34-17. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

As expected, the Cincinnati Bengals did not use the franchise tag on defensive end Michael Johnson.

Cincinnati was well prepared for Johnson's eventual departure after his maturation process from a skinny project player out of Georgia Tech saw him transform into a quality pass-rusher and one of the league's best 4-3 run defenders.

The Bengals insulated themselves from dropping top coin on Johnson by drafting a replacement by the name of Margus Hunt in the second round a year ago.

Meanwhile, Johnson will cash in after another superb season in all facets except the ever-important sack number (it dropped from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013). Still, Johnson has his choice of end-needy teams and may wind up chasing former Bengals defensive coordinator turned Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer to Minnesota.

Then again, the market could drive Johnson's price up and give fans one of the more entertaining bidding wars this offseason. Stay tuned.


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