2014 NFL Free Agency: Burning Questions That Still Must Be Answered

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterMarch 23, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Burning Questions That Still Must Be Answered

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    Eugene Tanner/Associated Press

    This sure has been a wild month of turnover in the NFL. The Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants have found a lot of answers, while the Carolina Panthers seemingly have created more questions.

    And the changes just seem to keep on coming.

    DeSean Jackson and Chris Johnson might become victims of their contracts and could be joining the free-agent market soon. Those two Pro Bowl talents are among the burning questions that still must be answered in free agency this offseason.

    We take a look at some of the top questions looming—and some pending like Jackson and Johnson's availability—in this slideshow.

Which Receivers Will Be Catching Passes from Cam Newton...If He's Even Healthy?

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    The Carolina Panthers went into free agency needing more help at wide receiver. Then, they lost Steve Smith (Baltimore Ravens), Brandon LaFell (New England Patriots) Ted Ginn (Arizona Cardinals) and Domenik Hixon (Chicago Bears). Only recently have they added low-budget options Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood.

    Adding to their woes, Cam Newton went under the knife for ankle surgery. It has been a tough set of circumstances for a team that might have had Super Bowl aspirations.

    It led to this funny but scary tweet from 30-year-old running back DeAngelo Williams: "Well looking at things as they stand Jonathan and I will be high fantasy draft picks."

    If the Panthers offense has to bank on the aged legs of Williams and banged-up ones of Jonathan Stewart, 27, they are going to be playing a lot of defense.

    Cotchery, Underwood, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt and Kealoha Pilares don't make up a viable wide receiver depth chart, as listed at OurLads.comA contender just cannot count on outfitting starters at that position via the draft.

    The Charlotte Observer's Joseph Person says more restructuring (or cutting) is needed for the Panthers to get immediate answers in the passing game. They have just $7.7 million in available cap space, according to Spotrac.com.

    1. Write a 2014 cap-friendly, long-term deal for franchised defensive end Greg Hardy.
    2. Restructure the contract of defensive end Charles Johnson.
    3. Restructure the contract of safety Charles Godfrey.

    Even with those cost-cutting moves, what is available to them in free agency? Kenny Britt is the best name available on the current market, according to Pro Football Focus' Michael Mountford, and he is closing in on a decision without making a visit to Carolina yet, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss.

    A trade for the Eagles' DeSean Jackson would be difficult because of his $12.75 million cap number, per Spotrac.com.

    Maybe the question isn't what will the Panthers find at wide receiver in free agency, but what the heck were they thinking letting the situation spiral out of control like this?

Does Anyone Test the Franchise-Tag Cost of Jimmy Graham?

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    Jimmy Graham isn't technically a signed player, but under the NFL's non-exclusive franchise tag, he might as well be. A team that signs an offer sheet would have to surrender a record-setting contract for the all-world tight end, not to mention risk giving up two first-round picks.

    Then, New Orleans can merely match the offer and retain him.

    So, yeah, it is a long shot Graham winds up anywhere but back in New Orleans, but we still have the question to ponder...at least in theory.

    Drew Brees had some advice for Graham on the NFL Network this week, as NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recapped: "I just told him be patient. Don't get frustrated. Don't take it personally. It's part of the deal and it's hard and...you just want it to be over. You want certainty. That's the hardest part."

    It will be interesting to see if Graham is able to convince the Saints, or someone else, to pay him like a wide receiver instead of a tight end.

What Deal Can Alex Mack Muster for Cleveland to Think Twice About Matching?

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    No. 55
    No. 55Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Unlike the franchise tags slapped on Jimmy Graham, Greg Hardy (signed) and kicker Nick Folk (signed), Alex Mack has a transition tag. 

    He is guaranteed a one-year tender of $10.039 million for 2014—which would make him the NFL's highest-paid center by nearly $2 million, according to USA Today's Brent Sobleski—but he can still seek a better deal elsewhere. Then, the Browns can match any offer sheet within five days.

    Mack doesn't control his own destiny, but he at least can shop himself to other teams as arguably the best center in football. A return to the Browns is likely, particularly since Cleveland has the second-most remaining cap space, according to OvertheCap.com.

    Mack told Sobleski in early March:

    I have to be comfortable with that. It's their right. I have to weigh that into any potential decision. But I walked away from our meeting with the feeling it was a good meeting. Without a doubt, it's not a bad thing to return to the Browns.

    We'll see what happens. It's tough to know. I don't know how teams feel about me. I still have an opportunity to meet with coaches and experience free agency. That's the goal. I like Cleveland; I know it. I like these new coaches. But there are other opportunities out there. You only get to play this game so long. Let's see what else is out there.

Does Chris Johnson Become a Cap Casualty and Go Free?

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    Chris Johnson is scheduled to make $8 million with the Tennessee Titans next year, and he is coming off surgery to repair a torn meniscus, according to The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt.

    It makes for a difficult set of circumstances to try and find a trade partner for him. He might be joining the free-agent market soon himself.

    Johnson told Wyatt earlier this month:

    I do feel like the decision should be made sooner rather than later, because it is not just affecting me, it is affecting my family. If I was to go somewhere else, I'd have to get situated in whatever city it is. It just affects a lot of people. So I would rather the decision be made sooner rather than later, but I am not worried about it. I am just working out and trying to get back healthy.

    I am not going to make excuses, but you can talk to anybody who's had a torn meniscus and they know how it affects you. I'm not going to sit here and tell you if I wouldn't have had a torn meniscus I would have had 1,600-1,700 rushing yards last year, but my teammates know what I was going through.

    I have a whole lot left. I have only played six years in this league. And that is what my focus is on. My focus is not on whether the Titans are going to let me go and if they're going to do this or that, my focus is on getting back healthy so I can start working out. And wherever I am this year, I'll be ready to play and ready to help a team win.

    You would have to think the Titans will make a call on this before the draft in May, particularly if they want to capitalize on some of the free-agent running backs still available.

What Is a Feature Running Back Worth Nowadays?

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Credit Adam Schefter for breaking just about every free-agent signing this winter. Also, kudos for arguably the best tweet of the offseason, quoting an NFL general manager: "That position needs its own union. We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs."

    Knowshon Moreno is coming off a huge year at the ripe age of 26, rushing for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns. Those stats makes you a fantasy football superstar. It doesn't make you a rich man in free agency, though.

    Donald Brown and Toby Gerhart each received three-year deals for $10.5 million this winter, topping the contracts handed out at the position, according to Spotrac.com. Moreno is still looking for even that much. As mentioned in a previous slide, Chris Johnson might be too if the Tennessee Titans cut him loose from a contract that will pay him $8 million.

    Running backs notoriously have short lifespans in the NFL. They are getting a short end of the stick on the dollars as well.

    Here are the top available running backs:

    1. Knowshon Moreno
    2. Maurice Jones-Drew
    3. LeGarrette Blount
    4. Andre Brown

    Forget the durability questions with these backs; they are going to be cheap regardless. Money is talking at this position around the NFL nowadays, particularly with respect to how late backs are getting picked on draft day.

How Do Jets Use Cap Space After Releasing Mark Sanchez, Signing Michael Vick?

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    Mark Sanchez officially became a free agent, and Michael Vick agreed to sign with the New York Jets on Friday. Still, the Jets have the most cap space in football right now, according to OvertheCap.com.

    There just might not be much free-agent meat to pick through.

    General manager John Idzik hasn't had a great winter, despite all of the firepower, but he could really dominate this next phase of the offseason if he goes out to acquire the likes of DeSean Jackson from the Philadelphia Eagles and/or Chris Johnson from the Tennessee Titans. The Jets are an aggressive franchise with the resources to actually pay those overvalued contracts next season and beyond.

    Both would be huge upgrades for an offense that added Eric Decker but still might have to count on a sketchy starting quarterback like Vick or young Geno Smith. Jackson would be a huge acquisition.

    A source told Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News on Saturday, "Philly is trading him or cutting him. That's a fact. They don't want him."

    Vick told Mehta on Friday:

    If there's an opportunity to get DeSean. I'm pretty sure the New York Jets fans would be in high favor of that. But who knows? It takes a lot to make a trade happen. ... It's not for us as players to try to decide. Hopefully everything works out for DeSean. If he is up in New York, we'll be happy—just as happy as he will be. But who knows? We can't say.

    Mehta reported that Jackson posted highlights playing with Vick on his Instagram on Friday night. Curious.

How Healthy Is Jermichael Finley, and Is He Worth the Risk?

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The Seattle Seahawks brought in Jermichael Finley for an official visit March 12, but Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Finley "is at least two months away and maybe several months more from being in position to sign with a team," according to a source close to the situation.

    Finley required season-ending cervical fusion this past fall and needs more time to heal. Further, he has a $10 million tax-free insurance policy in play, McGinn reports.

    "It probably wasn't coincidence that Zach Miller, the Seahawks' starter, signed off on a huge pay cut two days after the visit by Finley," McGinn noted.

    A healthy Finley would be a game-changer for a team. He just might be the biggest impact player left on the market.

Who Are the Best Free Agents Remaining on the Board?

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    Like Jimmy Graham, Brian Orakpo is a non-exclusive franchise-tagged player, making him a less realistic option for teams in the coming weeks. Clubs would need to be willing to pay the contract and the cost of two first-round picks.

    Yeah, Orakpo isn't likely to go anywhere but return to Washington.

    Here are the 30 best free agents left on the market for teams to shop through:

    1. DE Jared Allen
    2. RB Knowshon Moreno
    3. C Brian De La Puente
    4. DE Shaun Phillips
    5. G Travelle Wharton
    6. FS Chris Clemons
    7. CB Carlos Rogers
    8. WR Santonio Holmes
    9. S Thomas DeCoud
    10. S James Ihedigbo
    11. RB LeGarrette Blount
    12. DE Robert Ayers
    13. WR Kenny Britt
    14. WR Sidney Rice
    15. TE Jermichael Finley
    16. DE Anthony Spencer
    17. WR Miles Austin
    18. LB James Harrison
    19. TE Owen Daniels
    20. RB Maurice Jones-Drew
    21. RB Andre Brown
    22. RT Eric Winston
    23. CB Terrell Thomas
    24. CB Champ Bailey
    25. CB Jabari Greer
    26. TE Dustin Keller
    27. G Richie Incognito
    28. QB Mark Sanchez
    29. DT Pat Sims
    30. QB Josh Freeman

     

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.