The 2014 NFL free-agency period promises to be more active than in recent years. With the salary cap unexpectedly rising to $130 million after plateauing for a couple years, teams are freer to lock in players on long-term deals without worrying as much about cap ramifications.
That should have a particularly significant impact on top-tier free agents. As the players most likely to command hefty deals for lots of years, the star free agents are reveling in the increased courtship that teams are now willing to undertake.
Thus, with more offers on the table, it seems more likely that some elite free agents will leave their 2013 abodes. The franchise and transition tags have already locked up names like Jimmy Graham and Greg Hardy, but plenty of game-changing stars still exist for teams to swipe away.
While it's debatable whether or not a team should consistently invest big money in free agency, the reality is that spending will be higher this offseason. With that in mind, here's a look at the star free agents most likely to leave their old organizations.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee Titans
According to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, at least six teams are interested in Verner. With the cap-strapped Titans having just a shade over $9 million to spend, Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean notes that he is unlikely to stay in Tennessee:
#Titans staying in conversation w CB Alterraun Verner, but with so many teams in mix, ? is whether they'll compete with $. I'm doubting it— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) March 9, 2014
The most obvious fit for Verner is St. Louis, where Jeff Fisher could sign a player he originally drafted. Pairing Verner with Janoris Jenkins would give the Rams one of the league's best young ball-hawking cornerback tandems—and the need is there after St. Louis released Cortland Finnegan.
Verner is not for everyone, however. As Grantland.com's Robert Mays illustrates, Verner's skill set is uniquely suited to teams that play zone coverage, where he can play off receivers and allow his superior instincts to take over. Teams seeking a classic man-to-man corner could find themselves disappointed by the incongruous schematic fit.
In fairness, the Titans rarely asked Verner to play man coverage, so a traditionally man team like the Jets might seek to use Verner in both his preferred bail technique as well as press coverage. Still, even with an ostensibly limiting requirement, Verner has enjoyed more attention than nearly any free agent.
Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
While there are strong hints Verner is leaving the Music City, defensive end Michael Johnson has been explicitly told about his fate in Cincinnati, per ESPN.com's Ben Goessling:
#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
Mike Wilkening of ProFootballTalk.com reported that seven teams are currently in on Johnson, and as Goessling mentioned, one of them is the Vikings. The Johnson-to-Minnesota rumors make sense, given that his old defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer, is now Minnesota's head coach.
But while Minnesota may stand out as the early favorite, Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune notes that the Buccaneers are also making a "hard push" to sign the defensive end. With $24.2 million in cap space, Tampa Bay would not have trouble fitting Johnson under the cap if they so desired.
Indeed, an edge-rusher may be the last missing ingredient for an excellent young defense. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David accounted for 15 of the team's 35 sacks last season, and Adrian Clayborn was the only other player to accrue more than two sacks.
Tampa sports foundational players at all levels of the defense, and adding a capable edge-rusher like Johnson to play next to McCoy on the defensive line would instantly make Tampa Bay a dark-horse playoff contender under new coach Lovie Smith.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills
Byrd has had contentious negotiations with the Bills for a couple years now. After playing out the 2013 season on the franchise tag, Byrd is now free to hit the open market for the first time in his career.
The Bills signed safety Aaron Williams to a four-year, $26 million extension, according to Chris Wesseling, leading to speculation that Byrd is a goner. At least for now, however, Ian Rapoport reports the Bills are denying that Williams' extension means they are abandoning Byrd:
Spoke to a #Bills source, on if they could sign Jairus Byrd after Aaron Williams’s huge extension: “They’re completely independent” So, yes— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 5, 2014
Still, it is going to be hard for Buffalo to commit so much money to one position, given the market driving Byrd's price up. Rapoport also noted the Browns are interested in Ward, with the division rival Jets lurking as a possibility as well.
Cleveland might need to replace its own Pro Bowl-caliber safety in T.J. Ward, and the Browns have a whopping $55.8 million in cap space to do so. The Jets, meanwhile, just saved $9.5 million by cutting Antonio Cromartie, per ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio, and could be in the market to shore up their secondary.