NFL Free Agents 2014: The Biggest Name at Every Position
With the deadline for the franchise and transition tag having passed earlier this week, the beginning of free agency serves as the next phase of the NFL's business season, and it begins on March 11.
While one could certainly construct a viable argument that the best way to build a championship roster is through the draft, there's no doubting that a successful free-agent haul can also do wonders and help a team win games. That's what makes this period so critical for all 32 NFL clubs.
For some positions (wide receiver, offensive tackle, cornerback) this is a deep class, while the pickings are slim for others (quarterback, running back, tight end). But that doesn't mean there isn't a top player capable of making a difference at each position.
In this column, I'll tell you which player is the jewel at his position in this year's free-agent class and why he deserves that esteemed ranking. I chose each player based on his previous body of work, age and ability to contribute moving forward, both in 2014 and beyond.
Here are the biggest names at every position for 2014's NFL free agency.
Quarterback: Michael Vick
There isn't much value to be had when it comes to free-agent signal-callers, but Michael Vick is definitely the top quarterback set to hit the market, coming out ahead of Josh McCown and Matt Cassel.
Why? Because while none of the three are guys you'd want starting 16 games for you, Vick is the most capable to serve as either a bridge to a young player or a backup who can come in and win a few games. And yes, that includes McCown, who likely benefited last season from the golden touch of Bears coach Marc Trestman.
In six starts last season, Vick completed 54.6 percent of his passes and threw five touchdowns against three interceptions. He also ran for 8.5 yards per carry, showing that he still has impressive speed.
At 33 years old, his days as an effective full-time starter are over, but Vick will definitely find a place on a roster and will likely start games in 2014.
For a differing opinion on Vick, check out this column from Bleacher Report's Cian Fahey.
Running Back: Ben Tate
Much like at quarterback, there are slim pickings to be had at running back in this year's free-agent crop, and there's only one player who absolutely stands above the rest: Houston's Ben Tate.
Although he's served mostly in a reserve role in Houston behind Arian Foster, Tate has sparkled in his limited action, averaging 4.7 yards per carry in his career.
Last season, Tate averaged 4.3 yards per carry and exhibited excellent toughness, playing through broken ribs. He also caught 34 passes out of the backfield.
Given his lack of wear and tear (only 421 NFL carries) and age (he'll turn 26 this offseason), Tate is easily the best option at running back.
For more on why Tate is the best running back on the market, check out this piece from B/R's Ty Schalter.
Wide Receiver: Eric Decker
Possessing an excellent combination of strength, speed and a proven pedigree of production, Denver's Eric Decker is easily the top wide receiver set to hit the market.
Decker's 32 touchdown receptions over the past three years rank only behind Calvin Johnson and Dez Bryant, and he's coming off a season where he recorded 87 catches for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns. He was Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 11th-ranked receiver in 2013.
While some might argue that Decker was but a cog in what was an offensive juggernaut last season in Denver, it's worth noting that he caught eight touchdown passes in 2011 from the not-so-legendary quarterbacking duo of Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow.
Age is on Decker's side (he turns 27 later this month), and despite his disappearing act in Super Bowl XLVIII (one catch for six yards), there's no doubt he's the jewel of this year's free-agent wide receiver class.
Tight End: Jermichael Finley
Tight end was the toughest position to pick a clear-cut top free-agent choice, but in the end, despite question marks regarding his health, the pass-catching ability and upside of Jermichael Finley won out over the steady play of Brandon Pettigrew.
Finley suffered a scary neck injury in Green Bay's Week 7 win over Cleveland and had to undergo spinal fusion surgery. But his agent, Blake Baratz, recently told Paul Schwartz of the New York Post that his client's rehab is going well:
Jermichael is doing great, is working out, running routes, catching balls, and feels no different than he did pre-injury. His fusion has to fully heal before he is 100 percent ready for contact, but we are all anticipating that occurring in the coming weeks.
For more on Finley's rehab, check out this piece from MMQB.com's Jenny Vrentas.
Finley is clearly the most talented receiving tight end set to hit the market, and he flourished at times in the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers offense. He turns 27 later this month and could definitely be a difference-maker for a team in the passing attack.
Given his injury status, a short-term, incentive-laden contract is likely in Finley's future.
Offensive Tackle: Eugene Monroe
Despite being involved in a free-agent tackle class that includes excellent players like Branden Albert and Jared Veldheer, Baltimore's Eugene Monroe is the pick of the litter.
After being acquired in a midseason trade from Jacksonville, Monroe flourished for the Ravens, ending the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 12th-ranked tackle.
The Ravens chose not to franchise tag the soon-to-be 27-year-old Monroe, and he's set to hit the market.
Baltimore would be wise to bring him back, given its problems along the offensive line and the fact that it only averaged 3.1 yards per rushing attempt last season. But if it can't work out a deal with Monroe before March 11, look for a number of suitors to line up to bring the talented tackle into the fold.
Offensive Guard: Geoff Schwartz
Last offseason, guard Geoff Schwartz signed a one-year, $700,000 deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
This year, he's set to earn a much prettier penny as the top free-agent guard set to hit the market.
Schwartz turned in an excellent season in Kansas City, finishing the year as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) eighth-ranked guard despite starting only eight games. He can run and pass block with aplomb and is also effective in the screen game.
While Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star recently reported that Schwartz's representation met with the Chiefs at the scouting combine, that doesn't mean that Schwartz will definitely be returning to the Chiefs.
If Schwartz does hit the market, he'll surely sign a contract that will be significantly better than the one he inked prior to last season.
Center: Alex Mack
Not only is Cleveland's Alex Mack the top free-agent center, but according to B/R NFL draft lead writer Matt Miller's NFL 1000 series, the two-time Pro Bowler is the best center in all of football.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) agrees that Mack is a stud, as he finished 2013 as their fourth-ranked center.
Earlier this week, the Browns placed the transition tag on Mack, meaning they have the right to match any offer sheet that he inks with another team.
Because it used the transition tag and not the franchise tag, Cleveland would not receive any draft-pick compensation if Mack signs elsewhere. The transition tag for centers is a little over $10 million, about $1 million less than if he had received the franchise tag.
Regardless of where he ends up, one thing is for sure: Whichever team signs Mack will be getting one of the very best offensive linemen in football.
Defensive End: Michael Johnson
With Greg Hardy having signed his franchise tender to remain in Carolina, per Ed Werder of ESPN.com, Cincinnati's Michael Johnson becomes the best free-agent defensive end.
Even though he only managed 3.5 sacks last season (as opposed to 11.5 in 2012), Johnson finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fourth-ranked defensive end. He's also excellent against the run.
Because the Bengals have paid two defensive linemen (Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap) in the last few years, it's extremely unlikely that they'll retain Johnson, with NFL Network's Ian Rapoport tweeting that he'll "definitely" hit the market.
Tom Pelissero of USA Today recently tweeted that Johnson could be a potential fit in Minnesota.
Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton
Despite missing the final 13 games of last season with a torn ACL and being arrested in December for assault and public intoxication, Chicago's Henry Melton is the cream of the free-agent defensive tackle crop.
Melton was a beast in 2012, coming in as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) seventh-ranked defensive tackle, contributing six sacks. He was so good that the Bears placed the franchise tag on him heading into the 2013 season.
It's likely no coincidence that the Bears rush defense went downhill once Melton got hurt in Week 3, as the team ended up allowing a preposterous 5.3 yards per carry.
Speaking at the scouting combine, per ESPN Chicago's Jeff Dickerson, Bears general manager Phil Emery expressed a desire to bring Melton back, noting that "he's made progress." Dickerson mentioned price would be the determining factor.
For a take on Melton's potential level of play if he signed elsewhere, check out this piece from B/R's Zach Kruse.
Linebacker: Karlos Dansby
With Brian Orakpo receiving the franchise tag from the Redskins and Jason Worilds signing his transition tender with the Steelers, per CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, Arizona's Karlos Dansby is now the best free-agent linebacker available. He slightly edged out Denver's Shaun Phillips for the honor.
Dansby had a ridiculous 2013 campaign in the desert, totaling 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and two defensive touchdowns. He finished the year ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) fifth-best inside linebacker.
Despite the fact that he'll turn 33 next season, it appears Dansby is like a fine wine and only gets better with age.
Cornerback: Alterraun Verner
Miami's Brent Grimes was slated to be the top free-agent cornerback, but with him inking a new four-year, $32 million deal this week to remain in South Beach, Tennessee's Alterraun Verner takes over the top spot.
Verner edges out New England's Aqib Talib, primarily due to the fact that he's two years younger (he'll be 26 during next season) and had a better 2013 campaign.
Verner finished 2013 as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 12th-ranked cornerback, contributing five interceptions and 23 pass deflections. He's an ascending talent that could be a potential building block of an outstanding defense.
With the Titans choosing not to place the franchise tag on him, Verner will hit the open market and surely command a large contract for his services.
Safety: Jairus Byrd
This one is a no-brainer. Because the Buffalo Bills chose not to either franchise or transition tag Jairus Byrd, he becomes the best safety set to hit the market.
Byrd is one of the best players on this list, regardless of position. He's been remarkably consistent, finishing third, second and eighth in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) safety rankings over the last three seasons.
He has 22 interceptions since coming into the league in 2009, bringing a tremendous playmaking ability to the safety position. His skills will be highly coveted come March 11.