2014 NFL Free Agency: How Deep Is Every Position?
NFL teams ran out of time to use their franchise tags on Monday night, which further clarifies who could be available when free agency kicks off on March 11.
Of course, teams are still furiously trying to reach an agreement with some of their players, but time is running out.
Overall, this is a solid crop of free agents. Teams with money are fortunate that no positional group is completely bereft of talent.
Still, some positions are better off than others.
Let's take a look.
Michael Vick, Matt Cassel
Jimmy Clausen, Brady Quinn
Once the Chicago Bears extended Jay Cutler's contract for seven years, the overall quality of the group took a nosedive, which should tell you all you need to know about it.
There are some intriguing players, but they are few and far between.
At the top you have players like Michael Vick and Matt Cassel, guys with starting experience who could provide a short-term fix while a team looks for a longer-term solution.
Ultimately, both are closer to the end of their careers and have already seen declines in the quality of their play.
Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn are at the bottom of the group—failed starters with very little upside. In fact, with these guys, you’re not even sure they’d hack it as backups.
Overall, there are far more guys like Quinn and Clausen than there are people like Vick or Cassel. We have some middle-of-the-road quarterbacks like Josh Freeman (who could still turn his career around) or Shaun Hill (who has been very solid in relief for the Detroit Lions, but has little upside). Overall though, there aren’t a lot of starters or “hidden gems” in this QB class.
To be blunt, this is a bottom-heavy, dull class of quarterbacks.
Maurice Jones-Drew, Ben Tate, Rashad Jennings
Willis McGahee, Ahmad Bradshaw, Felix Jones
This is a very interesting class, with some potentially fantastic free agents at the top and a lot of upside throughout.
We know Maurice Jones-Drew might be closing in on the end of his career, but he has at least a few years left in the tank. If there is a team who needs a reliable running back to lead the ground game, Jones-Drew is a great option.
He’s absolutely still a franchise back.
Rashad Jennings lingered behind Jones-Drew for years in Jacksonville, and when he got his chance to sub for a banged-up Darren McFadden (more on him in a moment), he surprised us all by having an incredible season. He has some risk—was last season a fluke?—but could be a cheaper alternative to Jones-Drew and looked so good last season that I’m a believer.
Same with Ben Tate. After hanging around playing second fiddle to Arian Foster for the Houston Texans, Tate took over full-time for Foster after an injury. Tate fought through injuries of his own, including broken ribs. In a season when there was little to play for, Tate played through the pain, according to Robert Klemko of MMQB.com, using acupuncture at one point to get the job done.
Willis McGahee and Ahmad Bradshaw are on the other end of the spectrum. McGahee and Bradshaw both seem to be at about the end of their careers, though in Bradshaw’s case it appears to be more about an inability to stay healthy than just age.
A host of players with a lot of upside are in the middle, and they could at least provide service in a committee. Players like Rashard Mendenhall, LeGarrette Blount, Ronnie Brown and Andre Brown all have specific skills that could provide a lot of value for teams. Andre Brown might have even more to offer if he can stay healthy.
This is a deep class and provides further explanation for why running back value has been degraded in the NFL draft. There are plenty of other ways to put together a good backfield other than spending a high draft pick.
Devin Hester, Joe Webb, Brandon Tate
It says a lot about the quality here that I left off Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate for the list of top-end examples.
Both of those players provide as much quality as Hakeem Nicks, James Jones and Eric Decker do.
It’s really a smorgasbord of receivers for any team which needs one.
Even the middle-tier players, such as Robert Meachem, Julian Edelman and Nate Burleson, could serve well as role players on many teams in the NFL.
Guys with limited skills or players whose roles would not primarily be as receivers are on the lower end. For example, Devin Hester was a failed experiment as a receiver, but that’s not what he was paid to do. It's more than likely he will be signed as a kick returner or not at all.
Joe Webb is a converted quarterback who might round into a decent depth receiver but has never shown the potential to be more.
Ditto Brandon Tate, primarily a returner who hasn’t shown much more receiving skill than Hester.
Jermichael Finley, Brandon Pettigrew
Kellen Winslow, Fred Davis
The tight end class is a thin, top-heavy collection, but even the players at that top tier aren’t exactly sure-fire hits.
Jermichael Finley is all promise unfulfilled. Even before he became plagued with injuries, Finley always teased with his ability but rarely put up the numbers the Green Bay Packers expected from him.
A team will gamble on the upside, but there’s no guarantee that this year will be any different than the last few. Of course, he’s still rehabbing from his spinal injury, though as MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas reports, it appears to be going well.
Still, his back and spine are as much question marks as his yet-to-be-reached promise.
Like Finley, Brandon Pettigrew is a guy who has flashed ability but never done so consistently. The Detroit Lions might try to lure him back, but so far we haven’t seen enough from him to know if he can ever be a force.
On the low end, Kellen Winslow Jr. didn’t do enough to stick around with the New York Jets and Fred Davis is suspended indefinitely, per Mark Maske of The Washington Post. Neither looks like he will be hot property this offseason, which is the case for far too many free-agent tight ends.
Branden Albert, Zach Strief, Eugene Monroe
Richie Incognito, Vladimir Ducasse
There are many solid offensive linemen around for teams to choose. Aside from Branden Albert (who we thought might get cut last year) and Zach Strief (a really underrated tackle), you have guys like Geoff Schwartz and Evan Dietrich-Smith, lesser-known names who aren’t the cream of the crop but have proven they are reliable starters.
There are a lot of solid players—including, as a surprise, Jacksonville’s Eugene Monroe. He was not tagged, which means we have another potential franchise tackle lurking.
There are several middle-of-the-road players who can contribute right away.
The low end is filled out by players who either routinely underperform or have some issue that is not easily resolved.
We don’t need to go far into Richie Incognito’s recent past to see that it will be a while before anyone dares add him to a roster. While he was an OK guard, his baggage is too much to deal with and will be for the foreseeable future.
On the other hand, a guy like Vladimir Ducasse has just been bad. He had one very good game against the New England Patriots while playing for the New York Jets, but almost every other snap of his time there was underwhelming.
Ducasse wasn’t the only reason the Jets offensive line fell from grace, but relying on him is indicative of the “fine for now” mentality which killed it.
Still, this is a very strong class overall with a lot of depth and some very good top-tier players.
Michael Johnson, Michael Bennett, Henry Melton
Israel Idonije, Jason Hunter, Aubrayo Franklin
By and large, this is another relatively solid class, though as with some of the offensive “skill position” categories, it is a bit top heavy.
And that’s despite Greg Hardy getting franchised tagged recently, as reported on NFL.com by Albert Breer (relayed by Gregg Rosenthal).
Even with Hardy removed from play, this is an impressive class.
Michael Johnson and Michael Bennett are both coveted by their current teams (the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, respectively), but they may end up being too expensive for a return to be a reality.
Even after those two, Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen and Oakland Raiders defensive end Lamarr Houston should be hot commodities on the open market.
Keep a special eye on Houston, who I see Oakland regretting allowing to get away.
On the low end, you still have some solid prospects. Israel Idonije was hurt at the end of the season, but the Detriot Lions only really used him as an occasional run-stopper, and he should fill that role elsewhere.
Ditto for Indianapolis Colts nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin, another guy mostly there to plug running lanes.
Jason Hunter, Oakland’s other fleeing defensive end, is a decent pass-rusher and could do well on a team that needs someone in a rotational role.
While the bottom tier is clearly filled with part-time or one-note players, there is still a ton of value, even if it’s not top-shelf.
D’Qwell Jackson, Karlos Dansby
Wesley Woodyard, Pat Angerer
There are a few very good players here, but now that Brian Orakpo has been tagged, there aren’t a lot of sure-fire exciting guys.
D’Qwell Jackson is probably the best of the bunch, though his 2013 was disappointing (something you can say about the Cleveland Browns as a whole). Plus, he’s an inside linebacker—not the sexiest of positions.
Speaking of inside linebackers—if it wasn’t for age, Karlos Dansby would last about five minutes on the open market. He ranked as Pro Football Focus’ No. 5 overall inside linebacker (subscription link).
While clearly closer to the end of a career than the beginning, Dansby could be a nice addition to a team that needs to shore the middle up just a little to make a run.
Still, the pickings are a little slim this year, with a lot more middle-of-the-road talent.
Looking in the basement, we find Pat Angerer, a guy who could never replicate his impressive numbers from 2011. While he put together some decent stats in 2013, he was pretty abysmal against the run and mediocre against the pass.
Meanwhile, Wesley Woodyard has done an admirable job in forging a career after going undrafted in 2008. However, in 2013 Woodyard saw his snap-count decrease and his role reduced to mostly nickel packages.
Despite that, Mike Klis of The Denver Post reported that Woodyard continued on as a captain—something which will be valuable for a young team in need of guidance.
That’s only worth so much and is in many ways a luxury for a team.
Overall, this is a decent free-agency group, but it lacks any stars to compete with other positions.
Alterraun Verner, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib
Chris Cook, Brandon Browner, Josh Wilson
There are some very interesting guys at the top and then a huge drop to the next tier. Of course, that makes sense as teams are loathe to let go of the top cornerbacks.
Alterraun Verner has been quietly very good since he was drafted in 2010 by the Tennessee Titans. While he’s been a great investment for the team, who selected him in the fourth round, he was not franchise tagged.
He’s going to be a solid investment for some team, as will Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie if the Denver Broncos let him leave. After looking like an underwhelming version of his cousin, Antonio Cromartie, Rodgers-Cromartie had a great season. Dealing with injuries, he played exceptionally well, and if he can find a team that will utilize him the way the Broncos did, that should continue.
Aqib Talib isn’t quite as well-rounded as the previous two corners, but few defensive backs will abuse you the way Talib does. He absolutely brutalizes receivers and tight ends alike, and while he has had off-the-field problems, he's been a model citizen in New England.
On the downside, we have an underwhelming Chris Cook and a currently suspended Brandon Browner. ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams reports that Browner is appealing his suspension, but he’s one mistake away from getting suspended even if he wins and that will (and should) scare teams off.
Overall, there are some very good prospects at the top of the list and solid depth throughout. It’s a little thin at the bottom of the barrel, but if you’re reaching for those guys, you aren’t expecting high quality.
Jairus Byrd, T.J. Ward, Louis Delmas
Taylor Mays, Brandon Meriweather, Husain Abdullah
This is a very top-heavy class with Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward leading the way. They’ll likely hit the market since neither was tagged, though the Cleveland Browns are trying to sign Ward to a long-term deal, as reported by ESPN Cleveland’s Tony Grossi.
If both hit the market, the over/under on time between the opening bell of free agency and ink drying on their new contracts elsewhere is 45 seconds.
An alternative for teams who miss out on Ward and Byrd is Louis Delmas.
Delmas is a solid strong safety, but he’s averaged just 13 games played a season over his first five years, though he did start all 16 games in 2013 for the Detroit Lions.
On the bottom end are guys like Taylor Mays, who missed eight games due to injury and has been decidedly mediocre since entering the league in 2010.
Like much of the secondary fielded by the Washington Redskins, Brandon Meriweather underperformed in 2013, which was compounded by injuries. In his two seasons with the Redskins, he only played 14 out of 32 possible regular-season games, so one can assume he won’t be back with Washington.
He’d be an intriguing addition for an NFL team willing to risk yet another injury-plagued year.
Husain Abdullah’s value is mostly as a special teamer, as he was ranked No. 23 in special teams by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Looking at the group as a whole, it’s not a bad safety group and has a lot of depth, though there are certainly some question marks as you get closer to the bottom of it.
Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at FootballGuys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him @andrew_garda on Twitter.