The 2014 NFL free-agency period is set to start on Tuesday, March 11. With the cap rising to $130 million, higher than expected, Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com notes that this year's free agency is expected to see more action than 2013, when price tags were depressed due to the cap plateauing.
We've already seen the dollars flying around, with Sam Shields (four years, $39 million) and Brent Grimes (four years, $32 million) signing contracts that were well above the standards at the cornerback position last year. It's not a stretch to expect a similar trend to emerge at other positions.
The rising tide of the salary cap should not only mean good things for the middle-class free agents, but also the top-tier players. Teams no longer have to worry about hamstringing their budget around a small handful of stars, thus leaving themselves vulnerable to a couple of key injuries capsizing their season.
There's little doubt that the best free agents will cash in at even higher prices than usual. As to where they will sign, here's a pre-free-agency forecast on where a few of the top offensive and defensive stars will sign.
Eric Decker, WR: Indianapolis Colts
The Decker-to-Indy rumors have persisted for a while, as The Indianapolis Star reports. While it's reasonable to harbor reservations about Decker being a true No. 1 receiver without Peyton Manning, the Colts are a solid fit in terms of personnel and budget.
First, Decker's versatility as both an outside-the-numbers vertical threat and possession receiver over the middle is a nice complement to T.Y. Hilton's role as a burner. In many ways, Decker's skill set is similar to that of 35-year-old Reggie Wayne, who will be coming off ACL surgery.
It is imperative to provide Andrew Luck with a more diverse array of weapons. Luck will always prop up his supporting cast, but last year, the receiving corps was far too overlapping in its skill sets. Lavon Brazill, Da'Rick Rogers and Darrius Heyward-Bey (before being cut) simply did not complement Hilton, thus limiting Indy's play-calling options.
Decker makes the Colts passing game a significantly more diverse attack. With nearly $38.1 million in cap space, Indianapolis should not only work on upgrading its defense but also ensure that their young franchise quarterback has a full arsenal of weapons at his disposal.
Michael Johnson, DE: Minnesota Vikings
It's commonplace to link free agents to former coordinators, and such a storyline has emerged with Bengals defensive end Michael Johnson. As ESPN's Ben Goessling reports, Johnson's old defensive coordinator and new Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer has given Minnesota the inside track:
#Vikings have called to express interest on Bengals DE Michael Johnson, too. Told he's not going back to Cincy.— Ben Goessling (@GoesslingESPN) March 8, 2014
Johnson has been a relatively anonymous star on an excellent Cincinnati front seven in recent seasons. Many may look at the stat sheet and see that Johnson's sack production dipped from 11.5 in 2012 to 3.5 in 2013 and suggest that the 26-year-old was a one-hit wonder.
In reality, however, Johnson was a productive pass-rusher last season, with 61 total pressures that ranked 14th-most among 4-3 defensive ends. Moreover, he had an astounding 10 pass deflections, finding other ways to make an impact in the passing game.
With the Vikings re-signing defensive end Everson Griffen, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, Johnson could replace Jared Allen as a deadly bookend partner. Both players are in their prime, and could potentially provide Minnesota with a long-term pass-rushing foundation.
Branden Albert, OT: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins offensive line was among the most dysfunctional units in the league last season, both on and off the field. To combat that issue, it appears Miami has targeted Chiefs offensive tackle Branden Albert, per Bleacher Report's Chris Simms.
There is no shortage of starting-caliber offensive tackles available, as Baltimore's Eugene Monroe or Oakland's Jared Veldheer would also fit well in Miami. However, given Albert's strengths, it becomes clear why the Dolphins have pinpointed him as their top target.
The Dolphins hemorrhaged pressure last season, as Ryan Tannehill was sacked on 8.9 percent of his dropbacks, per TeamRankings.com. Only the Jets and Seahawks ranked lower, and the Dolphins must protect their young quarterback if he is to develop into a franchise player.
Albert alone does not fix all of Miami's offensive-line woes, but he represents an important step forward.
Alterraun Verner, CB: St. Louis Rams
Despite his reputation as arguably the best corner available, Verner might not be a great fit in the majority of schemes. As Grantland.com's Robert Mays illustrates, Verner has thrived in off-coverage zone defenses that allow him to utilize his superior speed and ball instincts. However, he has struggled in tight man coverages where opposing offenses can exploit his lack of physicality and smaller frame.
One of the few obvious fits for Verner is in St. Louis, where ex-Titans coach Jeff Fisher resides. Fisher was the one who drafted Verner, and predictably, the connections have already emerged:
Jim Thomas says the free agent to watch for the Rams could be Alterraun Verner. a Pro-Bowl corner from Tennessee. #stlrams— Frank Cusumano (@Frank_Cusumano) March 6, 2014
St. Louis reportedly contacted Verner, according to Rams beat writer Jim Thomas, thus validating early suspicions. The Rams may have one of the league's best young front sevens, headlined by the defensive end tandem of Robert Quinn and Chris Long, but they could use a replacement in the secondary after releasing free-agency bust Cortland Finnegan.
Coupled with Janoris Jenkins, Verner would give the Rams one of the league's best ball-hawking cornerback pairs. In the wrong scheme, Verner could become the next Nnamdi Asomugha, a huge free-agent signing who becomes the victim of poor schematic fit. In St. Louis, Verner should continue his Pro Bowl-caliber career.