Deep 2014 NFL Draft Class Will Mitigate Limited Free-Agent Pool

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterMarch 6, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 22: A group of offensive linemen listen to instruction during the 2014 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 22, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

If you've paid any attention to the coverage of the Senior Bowl, NFL Scouting Combine, college pro days or ever-building NFL draft hype, you've heard the same thing over and over: This is the deepest draft class in years.

Partly fueled by a record 98 underclassmen fleeing the unpaid labor of college football, per Dane Brugler of CBS Sports, the 2014 draft class has more blue-chip talent at the top of the draft, more value in the late first round and more viable starters in the second day of the draft than any in a long, long time.

"From my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I’ve seen in probably 10 years,” NFL Network's Mike Mayock told media members on a pre-combine conference call, according to Curtis Crabtree of Pro Football Talk.

"That’s been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts I’ve talked to throughout the league," he said; coming from a well-connected, well-respected evaluator like Mayock, that means something. "I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top-20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year."

Before the suits and lights and cameras and hugs descend on Radio City Music Hall, and the draft cards are carried to the podium, there's something that will wildly affect which names are on those cards, and in what order: free agency.

This year's class of free agents, though, is likely to disappoint teams looking to significantly upgrade their roster.


Slim Pickings

As deep as the draft class is, the free-agent class is that thin.

Beyond Michael Vick, whose crown as best-available starting quarterback was bestowed by default, there are no long- or medium-term solutions at quarterback. There are no true No. 1 receivers, and very few receivers with field-stretching speed.

There are no dynamic two-way tight ends; if Brandon Pettigrew re-signs with the Detroit Lions there may not be any athletic pass-catching tight ends at all. There are only a handful of starting-caliber interior linemen, and all of them could still be re-signed by their original team.

Michael Johnson and Michael Bennett are the only two every-down pass-rushers available, and even that's not true. Johnson is a 6'7" tweener coming off a three-sack season, and Bennett is at his best when flexed between inside and outside alignments.

Need an inside linebacker? Too bad! All the best options, like the San Diego Chargers' Donald Butler, have re-signed with their original teams—or, like the Baltimore Ravens' Daryl Smith, seem likely to.

There are quite a few starting-caliber pass-protecting left tackles, cornerbacks and safeties about to hit the market.

But in a copycat league where everyone wants to emulate the big, physical secondaries and deep pass-rush rotations of the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, everyone wants cornerbacks, two-way safeties and left tackles.


Free Money, Except Not

NFL fans everywhere rejoiced when news broke that the 2014 salary cap would be about $10 million higher than originally expected.

The few teams looking hard at making painful roster cuts suddenly had hope of hanging on to all of their key players. The teams looking at making a judicious acquisition or two could suddenly make a run at the big-ticket names. The teams sitting on big piles of cap space suddenly had to build Scrooge McDuck money bins to hold it all.

Unfortunately, with the sellers now holders, the holders now buyers and the buyers ready to make it rain, there are very few quality players to buy.

Worse, with the new salary-floor rules, those loaded teams actually have to spend quite a bit of it. The loaded teams are going to outbid the well-off teams for the top few players, the well-off teams will have to resort to Plan B guys—and their Plan B guys were the penny-pinchers' Plan As.

The sad fact is, a lot of teams that have a few coins to rub together won't have any impact players to sign—and the asking price of many second-, third- and fourth-tier free agents is going to skyrocket.


Rookies to the Rescue

Here's where that wonderful rookie draft class comes into play.

Ideally, teams fill immediate needs through free agency and draft for medium- and long-term needs.

For a great example, the Kansas City Chiefs drafted tackle Eric Fisher No. 1 overall in 2013 because they knew incumbent Branden Albert would likely move on in this free-agency period. Now, Fisher will have a season-and-a-half of experience under his belt when he takes over protection of his quarterback's blind side.

The other side of the coin? The Carolina Panthers, whose left tackle, Jordan Gross, suddenly retired on them. They could pursue a veteran free agent—like Albert—who can immediately fill in the gap.

But what happens if ten teams are in on Albert—and one of them is the Miami Dolphins, per Spotrac, with nearly $40 million in cap room?

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Suddenly, a rookie like Notre Dame's Zack Martin looks very tempting at the No. 28 overall pick. Not only might he develop into a player at least as good as Albert—and possibly be an immediate upgrade over lesser free agents—he'll be signed to a five-year, no-haggle contract a tiny fraction of what Albert will command.

This is the allure of 2014's super-deep draft class: Superior talent to the shallow free-agent pool, at a much lesser price.