2014 NFL Free Agency: A Primer for This Year's Free-Agent Crop

Eric Mack@@EricMackFantasyFantasy Football Lead WriterJanuary 2, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: A Primer for This Year's Free-Agent Crop

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    The Chicago Bears already took some talent off the market, signing Jay Cutler and two others Thursday, as the Bears announced on their website.
    The Chicago Bears already took some talent off the market, signing Jay Cutler and two others Thursday, as the Bears announced on their website.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    If your team isn't preparing for its Super Bowl run, there is always next year. For those sitting at home, 2014 has already begun, literally and figuratively.

    We're here to get you primed for the offseason with a look at this winter's pending free agents.

    For those still playing in the postseason, beware: From the victors go the spoils. Generally, good teams win because of their depth, and if that depth happens to be entering a walk year, they can be tough to retain in the salary-cap era.

    Ask the defending champion Baltimore Ravens.

    We break down the potential free agents by position, including a number of stars who might never hit the free market, like New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy.

    But hey, the days are short and the nights are long and cold. You might as well gaze into the winter wonderland and dream of your team's free-agent possibilities. What else do you have to look forward to until spring?

Quarterbacks: Michael Vick Is a Leader of This Class by Default

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    1. Michael Vick, Age 33

    He failed where Nick Foles thrived, so his chance of landing a starting quarterback job appears to be slim. He might merely be an option as a bridge starter for a team that drafts a quarterback early in Round 1 and wants a veteran to open the season as a quarterback. The recent history of rookie quarterbacks having success makes that less of a need for those teams, though.

    Vick hasn't ruled out a return to be Foles' backup in Philadelphia with the Eagles either, "if all else fails," according to Reuben Frank of Comcast SportsNet Philly.

    "I don't worry about it," Vick told Frank. "My skill set is still there, my arm is still there, my legs are still there, I'm still a playmaker, that's evident. I think at some point, I'll be playing somewhere."

    2. Josh Freeman, 25

    The fact that Freeman was ousted in Tampa Bay because of his professionalism is bad enough. The fact that Tom Pelissero of USA Today reports multiple sources saying Freeman was still late for meetings after signing with the Minnesota Vikings is a deal-breaker.

    No one can trust Freeman as a starter to open the season—at least they shouldn't.

    Teams are better off drafting a quarterback and letting him play right away over signing Freeman.

    3. Josh McCown, 34

    He had his moments with the Bears this season, but he is not even sure if he wants to play anymore, according to Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times. He might decide to be closer to his home in North Carolina.

    Free agency affords you an opportunity to do that, as long as McCown is resigned to being a backup, of course. At this point in his career, that is all he is, despite the 13 touchdowns to just one interception in eight games this season he threw while filling in for the oft-injured Jay Cutler.

    The Bears re-signed Cutler, but they will need a good backup because of his health history. Considering the motley crew available at the position, they might consider overpaying for McCown. They might have to.

    4. Chad Henne, 28

    Despite being in his physical prime, Henne has posted only backup-worthy numbers the past two seasons (24 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in 25 games). Granted, the poor supporting cast in Jacksonville can be partially blamed for that.

    Ryan O'Halloran of the Florida Times-Union expects Henne to sign on for a return to the Jacksonville Jaguars, if only to help groom the quarterback the franchise picks early in this upcoming draft. Henne is more valuable to the Jaguars for continuity than any other team.

    5. Kellen Clemens, 30

    He should return to the St. Louis Rams to be the backup for Sam Bradford, who is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. The Rams might also consider selecting a quarterback with one of their two first-round picks.

    Best of the Rest

    6. Seneca Wallace, 33

    His career is closer to over than beginning anew someplace outside of Green Bay. Expect him to become a veteran backup or retire.

    7. Rex Grossman, 33

    The drama between Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins made many forget Grossman was still in the NFL. He won't return to Washington, but he will probably be a backup for someone somewhere.

    8. Matt Flynn, 28

    The arm has had reported physical problems, so a return to backup in Green Bay might be his only option at this point.

    9. Tarvaris Jackson, 30

    He is fortunate the Seattle Seahawks wanted him this year. Move him up this list if Russell Wilson is injured this postseason and Jackson game-manages the Seahawks to any success in Wilson's place.

    10. Shaun Hill, 33

    Sticking around as Matthew Stafford's backup might be his only hope of sticking on a roster.

Running Backs: Knowshon Moreno Enjoys a Timely Career Year

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    1. Knowshon Moreno, 26

    A couple of years ago, this Georgia product was a candidate to be cut. Now, he's the owner of a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown season.

    Montee Ball is still the Denver Broncos' feature back of the future, but Moreno is the feature back of the present.

    He has earned a return to Denver, if he hasn't already priced himself out of town. Head coach John Fox has never been a big fan of Moreno's—mostly due to durability questions—so it is possible he will be allowed to seek money elsewhere this winter.

    2. Darren McFadden, 26

    His explosiveness and age keep him near the top of this list, but no team can bank on him being a starter amid his awful injury history. While he has never had a full season wiped out due to a major knee reconstruction, there is always something with McFadden.

    He likely punched his ticket out of Oakland, but that is the best thing for him. A new start someplace else offers the slim hope he finally reaches his once-limitless potential.

    Again, he is not old and still can break away, when healthy.

    3. Donald Brown, 26

    The fact he thoroughly outplayed Trent Richardson this season gives the Indianapolis Colts plenty of reason to want Brown back. The postseason might help decide the Colts' direction, but at this point, Brown appears to be stuck in a timeshare with Richardson in Indy again for 2014.

    4. Joique Bell (restricted), 27

    He is a restricted free agent coming off a career year as Reggie Bush's change-of-pace back. That almost seals Bell's return to Detroit. Bush is signed to make $3.5 million next season, so we should expect Bell to be no more than he was this season, a part-timer.

    5. Ben Tate, 25

    He had a huge opportunity once Arian Foster (back) went down for the season, but Tate wasn't healthy enough to take advantage. Give him toughness points for playing through broken ribs, though.

    Moreno is more accomplished and McFadden is more explosive, but Tate is tougher, even if he has been injury-prone. Heck, Tate might be second to Moreno in terms of running backs a team will be able to trust as a No. 1 option.

    Like McFadden, he is almost certain to be available—whereas the others above are candidates to re-sign.

    6. Rashard Mendenhall, 26

    You can scoff at Mendenhall's 3.2 yards-per-carry average from this year, but the Arizona Cardinals had offensive line issues they will continue to address this winter. Andre Ellington is an explosive young back the Cardinals like, but not enough to consider him an every-down feature back. They need someone like Mendenhall to do the dirty work.

    7. Andre Brown, 27

    Brown has proven to be a horse for the Giants, albeit one with a frequent hitch in his gait due to injury. The New York Giants expect David Wilson (neck) to play again, but that still is uncertain. They need Brown more than others will. Expect him to return.

    8. LeGarrette Blount, 27

    No one has done more for his career down the stretch than Blount did this season. He proved to be a trustworthy grinder for a Patriots team that sorely needed one to step forward.

    The sight of anyone hugging Bill Belichick is rare. That alone should be enough for you to believe the Pats bring Blount back after the postseason.

    9. Maurice Jones-Drew, 28

    MJD looks like the oldest 28-year-old running back in the NFL after his past two seasons. The Jaguars are going to allow him to test the free-agent market, but interest should be lukewarm because of his age and his medicals. That foot injury stands to linger.

    He is the most accomplished back on the market this winter, but he is also going to be 29 next season. Backs tend to be finished in this league by the age of 30.

    10. Rashad Jennings, 28

    From MJD to his former backup, Jennings. The likely departure of McFadden from Oakland will help Jennings garner a bigger payday to return to the Oakland Raiders, for better or for worse. They are happy with Jennings and Jennings is happy there, but that team still isn't close to being competitive, especially in the AFC West. Jennings is better slotted as a backup running back.

    Best of the Rest

    11. Ahmad Bradshaw, 27

    You might be able to scratch "knee" off the career-ending category for running backs, but you cannot do the same for foot and neck. There just isn't a reliable history of surgeries for those two injuries, which have become the worst kind for a running back to have.

    Bradshaw was left on the market a long time into last summer because of medical issues, so expect that to happen all over again, making him mere roster depth for someone.

    12. James Starks, 27

    Starks has been good at times, but there just haven't been enough healthy and productive times for him to be considered a regular starter in this league. The Green Bay Packers are happy with their 2013 rookies, Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, so Starks will be looking to back up someplace else this winter.

    13. Toby Gerhart, 26

    He has been nothing more than a caddy for Adrian Peterson. If the Minnesota Vikings don't sign him, it will be interesting to see where he winds up and how many backs he needs to jump on the depth chart. His career average of 4.7 yards per carry give him a better shot elsewhere, if he chooses to take it.

    14. Ronnie Brown, 32

    He is more likely to retire than garner any real interest this winter. Even the San Diego Chargers appear set with Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead going forward.

    15. Willis McGahee, 32

    His lack of use down the stretch all but puts an end to his career. He figures to remain 37th on the all-time rushing list.

    16. Felix Jones, 26

    Both he and McFadden should seriously consider teaming up somewhere, comprising a backfield of banged-up Arkansas Razorbacks has-beens.

    17. Jonathan Dwyer, 24

    Despite his age, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't want him out of training camp before bringing him back later in the year. He is nothing more than a roster-filler.

Wide Receivers: Eric Decker Has Made Himself Tough for Denver Broncos to Afford

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    1. Eric Decker, 26

    Here is the downside to the success of the Denver Broncos and the record-setting Peyton Manning: They have made a superstar out of a receiver who might have been a reserve elsewhere.

    Mike Klis of the Denver Post reports re-signing Decker will be the Broncos' No. 1 priority this winter. It will get tougher by the game this postseason. Decker is a No. 2 or 3 receiver with a No. 1's numbers. Klis suggests Decker can command $40 million, with $8 million in the first year.

    Still, we can't see Decker or the Broncos wanting anything other than a return.

    2. Jeremy Maclin, 25

    He might be the most interesting case of this offseason, coming off surgery to repair a torn ACL in his right knee. When healthy, Maclin has the potential to be a top-10 receiver in the league. The injury will keep him from earning that kind of paycheck.

    He might be best off signing a one-year deal to return to Philadelphia, where a potent Chip Kelly attack can help him prove he's healthy and put up some big statistics.

    Maclin is worth a lot more than he will get this winter.

    3. Julian Edelman, 27

    A breakthrough at age 27 is not uncommon in the world of sports. Seeing an undersized former college quarterback finish with the 44th-highest single-season reception total in NFL history (105) is pretty rare.

    Tom Brady loves his "Jules," as he calls him, but Edelman is unlikely to be wanted or needed anywhere but New England. Expect him to return at something less than Danny Amendola money, even if he deserves more after the season he had.

    4. Hakeem Nicks, 25

    He might have cost himself more money than any other player this season. The New York Giants have viewed Nicks as a No. 1 receiver, even over the consistently explosive Victor Cruz, but Nicks has been nothing more than a huge broken-down disappointment.

    "I still consider myself one of the top receivers in this league and I’m going to go out and prove it," Nicks told Paul Schwartz of the New York Post.

    Nicks is a physical target, but he had issues with drops this season to go along with his endless health issues with his legs. Hands and legs are two bad things to have questions about heading into free agency for a wide receiver, no matter how talented Nicks had looked.

    5. Anquan Boldin, 33

    He is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, and it is not over yet. Another strong postseason will give him plenty of bargaining power, despite his age. Boldin is durable and reliable, something that cannot be said for most pending NFL free agents. He has earned the right to decide where he finishes his career after being forced to go to San Francisco via trade last winter.

    6. James Jones, 29

    There have been other times Jones was close to leaving Green Bay, but they have stayed together each of his seven years in the league. You can argue Jones is better with the Packers than he would be with anyone else, and you likely would be right.

    The problem is Jones might seek starter money without the starter statistics. Despite playing with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, Jones hasn't had 65 catches or 1,000 yards in any one season.

    Ignoring his 14 touchdown receptions in 2012 when Jordy Nelson and Greg Jennings were banged up, Jones has done nothing to warrant starter money. He is a product of the system and almost certain to disappoint if he leaves the cozy situation he has with Aaron Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy.

    7. Kenny Britt, 25

    We agree Britt was unduly ostracized in Tennessee this year, getting shuffled all the way to the bottom of the depth chart when he was likely the most capable veteran receiver on the roster. As unfair as it was, it was the right thing for the Titans. They needed to develop their young receiver talent.

    Britt vowed to Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean to have a rebound year in 2014:

    I am going to be a No. 1 receiver somewhere else if I am not here next year, and that is guaranteed. I am definitely going to be a receiver that makes plays on Sundays and makes something happen for a team.

    Britt is talented enough to start for someone. In the right situation, he can be a 65-catch, 1,000-yard receiver. He is healthier and younger than many of the others on this list.

    8. Golden Tate, 25

    He saved his best week for last, reeling in season highs of eight passes for 129 yards in Week 17. He might have to share targets with Percy Harvin (hip) in the postseason, but you have to consider Tate closer to the Seahawks' best receiving option than the unhealthy Harvin or overachieving Doug Baldwin, who is also a restricted free agent.

    9. Riley Cooper, 26

    His preseason racial slur controversy almost punched his ticket out of town, but he earned his way back onto the roster and had a season that earned him a nice paycheck. This is the second Philadelphia Eagle on this list, and we suspect the Eagles will want both back for 2014. Cooper is a solid No. 3 receiver on a contender, but likely little more.

    10. Emmanuel Sanders, 26

    He enjoyed the best season of his career, but despite being No. 2 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, he posted No. 3 receiver numbers (67-740-6). He might be capable of bigger numbers in another situation, but the Steelers figure to retain him as the alternative to Antonio Brown, who became a legit No. 1.

    Best of the Rest

    11. Ted Ginn, 28

    No one will ever confuse Ginn with a true starting receiver, but his speed and return skills should help him earn a nice paycheck in the NFL.

    12. Danario Alexander, 25

    He was looking capable of becoming a No. 1 receiver for Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers late in 2012, but a preseason knee injury knocked him out all of 2013. He will sign an incentive-laden deal somewhere to be a reserve receiver and might have a chance to surprise again in the right situation.

    13. Dexter McCluster, 25

    This is an explosive player who can play as a slot receiver and a return man, which will make him an intriguing option to teams. He is not a starting-caliber receiver or running back, though, so it hurts his ability to make serious money on the market. Expect the Kansas City Chiefs to bring him back.

    14. Jacoby Jones, 29

    Jones is one of the game's better return men, but the fact he has proved incapable of being a productive regular at wide receiver should hurt his free-agent value. He will make more money than he deserves, regardless, because he is a dynamic return man—facts that likely punch his ticket out of Baltimore.

    15. Doug Baldwin, 25 (restricted free agent)

    His 2011 and 2013 numbers are similar and make him third-receiver-worthy. Barring a huge surprise performance this postseason, Baldwin will be back with the Seattle Seahawks in that role.

    16. Damian Williams, 25

    He once looked capable of becoming an NFL starter, but that won't happen with the young talent the Tennessee Titans have at the position. Williams would be better off signing on as roster depth with a team with a solid veteran quarterback. In the right situation, Williams have be a huge value relative to his price tag.

    17. Jerome Simpson, 27

    He is more talented than productive and he had some huge weeks this season. No one should consider him anything more than a reserve option, though.

    18. Jacoby Ford, 26

    He is too small to be considered anything more than a return man. That is his No. 1 asset to a team this winter.

    19. Mario Manningham, 27

    He is proof knee reconstruction isn't an exact science, winding back up on injured reserve this season. He has never been more than a reserve.

    20. Tiquan Underwood, 26

    He enjoyed some moments in the second half of the season, but he is nothing more than roster depth at this point.

    21. Darrius Heyward-Bey, 26

    He is fast and can block well, two features you want in a receiver. The fact he has been thoroughly outplayed by Da'Rick Rogers and LaVon Brazill this season makes him a non-factor on the market.

    22. Jerricho Cotchery, 31

    He posted a career-best 10 touchdown receptions, but his place on this list suggest those were merely a function of being overlooked by defenses in the red zone. He should be overlooked by teams in free agency, too, especially at his advanced age.

    23. Santana Moss, 34

    He is closer to retirement than being anything more than a reserve receiver for the Washington Redskins.

    24. Andrew Hawkins, 27 (restricted free agent)

    The undersized slot man will need to re-carve a niche in Cincinnati because of the young receivers the Bengals have, but Hawkins has had some productive moments in the NFL.

    25. Robert Meachem, 29

    He has already made a career full of money, without the production. He is lucky the New Orleans Saints even wanted him this season.

Tight Ends: Jimmy Graham Might Seem Available Now, but He Won't Be in the End

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    1. Jimmy Graham, 27

    Don't get your hopes up, fans of the 31 other teams in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints are not going to let Graham go anywhere. The clear No. 1 tight end in the league is going to be paid like it once the Saints' postseason run ends.

    We can spend a whole column outlining Graham's worth, but since this is about free agents and Graham is unlikely to wind up free, we will spare you. There is no use getting your mouth watered for food you're not going to eat.

    2. Dennis Pitta, 28

    He might not have accomplished much statistically in his late-season return from hip surgery, but it meant a lot for his offseason value. Teams got a chance to see him healthy, something Percy Harvin (hip), for example, has yet to demonstrate.

    Pitta is a top 10 tight end in this league, so expect the target-needy Baltimore Ravens to do plenty to retain him. The injury might have done enough to drag Pitta's price into the Ravens' range, too.

    3. Brandon Pettigrew, 28

    Few tight ends hit the free-agent market having caught 80-plus passes like Pettigrew did in 2011. The problem is he hasn't been the same since.

    Joseph Fauria's emergence as a rookie gives the Detroit Lions reason to allow Pettigrew to walk. The former Oklahoma State product has a chance to wind up a starter somewhere. It is doubtful he finds a situation that would have made him as productive as he could have been in Detroit, though.

    4. Fred Davis, 27

    There was a time when Davis was considered one of the best young tight ends in football. Now, he's a broken-down also-ran at the tight end position. A change of scenery might be just what he needs after the Washington Redskins found a burgeoning star in Jordan Reed.

    5. Garrett Graham, 27

    He was productive in Owen Daniels' place this season, but both of the Houston Texans might wind up walking free this winter. If not for Daniels potentially being a cap casualty, we might have been inclined to rank Graham higher on this list.

    Best of the Rest

    6. Jeff Cumberland, 26

    He might not be the first tight end that comes to mind when you think about receiving skills, but he is regarded as a running-game blocker. That gives him solid value, but it also makes it likely he returns to the New York Jets.

    7. Dustin Keller, 29

    He needed a complete reconstruction of his knee after tearing his ACL, MCL and PCL this preseason. It puts his career in doubt, even if there have been others to have come back from that complex of a surgery. If he is ever healthy again, Keller has a chance to be an NFL starter for someone again.

    8. Scott Chandler, 28

    He has posted starter-worthy numbers with the Buffalo Bills, which might be enough to price him out of town for a team unlikely to spend much at the position. Being able to play 16 games coming off major knee surgery is nothing short of remarkable.

    9. Andrew Quarless, 25

    We rank him this low because of the likelihood he returns to Green Bay on a cheap deal, barring something unforeseen happening this postseason.

    10. Jermichael Finley, 26

    Finley elected to undergo spinal fusion surgery, so his everyday health is as much in question as his NFL career at this point. Finley has hopes of playing again, but he should be focused right now on merely living a normal, healthy life at this point. It gives him almost no bargaining power this winter, despite his skill set at the thin tight end position.

    11. Ed Dickson, 26

    He never became a No. 1 tight end in terms of his receiving skills, but he still should find a suitor this winter if the Baltimore Ravens don't bring him back.

    12. Kellen Winslow, 30

    The fact he has been jobless before makes us less inclined to rank him at all. He did have some productive games this season, so perhaps he will find someone willing to pay him before training camp opens.

    13. Bear Pascoe, 27

    He is a blocking-only tight end/H-back/fullback. It makes him worthy of a roster spot somewhere if he doesn't return to the New York Giants.

    14. Clay Harbor, 26

    He enjoyed the best season of his career with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but it ended with an untimely broken leg in Week 17. It puts his free-agent status in doubt. He is worth a roster spot when healthy.

    15. Michael Hoomanawanui, 25

    He is a tight end the New England Patriots just couldn't get rid of, and now he is one they cannot do without. Expect him to return to the Pats if only because he was there for them in the end.

Offensive Tackles: Branden Albert Headed for Another Headline-Worthy Offseason?

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    1. LT Branden Albert, 29

    He already went through one offseason of endless contract questions. The fact that the Kansas City Chiefs became one of the elite contenders, thanks in part to outstanding line play, makes it likely Albert is back on a large contract.

    2. RT Zach Strief, 30

    He hasn't been able to play a 16-game season since 2009, which will hurt his market value, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rates him as the seventh-best tackle overall and No. 1 right tackle this season. Expect him to return to the New Orleans Saints.

    3. LT Eugene Monroe, 26

    His midseason trade to Baltimore was more of a function of the Jacksonville Jaguars clearing the left tackle position and saving money. The Ravens were happy with what Monroe did in the second half, so expect him to return.

    4. LT Jared Veldheer, 26

    It is highly unlikely the Oakland Raiders can afford to allow a left tackle in his prime to go without a serious long-term offer. Veldheer told the San Francisco Chronicle's Vic Tafur, "I definitely want to be a Raider for life."

    5. LT Rodger Saffold, 25

    He was forced to move to guard after Jake Long was signed, but an ACL injury to Long might be enough to get him to return as insurance. Re-signing him is a St. Louis Rams priority, according to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    6. RT Michael Oher, 27

    Given the Baltimore Ravens' offensive line struggles and putrid production in the running game, Oher is likely a bigger name than he is worth. Blame his Hollywood fame.

    7. OT Austin Howard, 26

    He did not rate well in run blocking this year, according to Pro Football Focus, but that was the opposite of their 2012 results. The Jets are likely satisfied enough to bring him back.

    8. RT Eric Winston, 30

    What Winston lacks in talent, he makes up for with reliability and durability. He was left on the market a long time last year, so it is doubtful he draws a ton of interest all over again.

    9. RT Tyson Clabo, 32

    The Miami Dolphins need a massive offensive line overhaul. Bringing back Clabo on a market-friendly deal might make sense.

    10. LT Bryant McKinnie, 34

    He is well past his prime and one of the most lowly rated tackles in football, according to PFF. It doesn't give him much of a chance on the market this winter.

Offensive Guards: Kansas City Chiefs Have Some Decisions Pending After Playoffs

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    Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

    1. RG Jon Asamoah, 25

    He rated as a top-20 guard, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), which makes it likely he commands interest this winter. It is equally likely the Kansas City Chiefs keep their line intact.

    2. OL Geoff Schwartz, 27

    This Kansas City Chief's versatility is intriguing, and his high grades at PFF, eighth among guards, might make him a sought-after piece this winter.

    3. LG Travelle Wharton, 32

    The Carolina Panther graded fifth-best guard at PFF this season, but his age should keep his number down on the market.

    4. LG Richie Incognito, 30

    He comes with all of the Jonathan Martin baggage, so whoever gets him will get a solid bargain.

    5. LG Kevin Boothe, 30

    The Giants need to revamp their patchwork offensive line, but the problems come more at left tackle and center.

    Best of the Rest

    • RG Willie Colon, 30
    • RG John Jerry, 27
    • LG Chad Rinehart, 28
    • RG Brian Waters, 36
    • LG Vladimir Ducasse, 26
    • G Will Svitek, 31
    • G Andre Gurode, 34
    • G Danny Watkins, 29
    • RG David Diehl, 33

Centers: Alex Mack Well-Positioned to Lock Up a Huge Long-Term Contract

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    1. Alex Mack, 28

    You can make a case Mack (no relation to this writer) will be the most-sought after player on the open market. He told Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he will give the Cleveland Browns a chance to counter any offer he receives from another team.

    Pro Bowl teammate Joe Thomas wants Mack back, telling the newspaper:

    He's one of the best centers in the NFL, and if we don’t bring him back, now we have a big hole to fill at center, which is one of the most important positions on the offensive line. And (on this) offense, the way we run it, (the centers) have a tremendous amount of responsibilities as far as directing the offense and the pass protection and the run blocking, even sometimes a greater role than the quarterback in the way that the offensive line and the tight ends are blocking everything.

    2. Evan Dietrich-Smith, 27

    Pro Football Focus rated him the eighth-best center in football this season, and it is always important to try to keep an elite quarterback like Aaron Rodgers in continuity with his center. The Green Bay Packers will try to avoid allowing Dietrich-Smith to hit the market in March.

    3. Brian de la Puente, 28

    Like No. 2 above, the New Orleans Saints will be motivated to keep their battery intact. It is unlikely we see PFF's 16th-rated center on the market.

    Best of the Rest

    • Roberto Garza, 34
    • Fernando Velasco, 28
    • Dan Koppen, 34

Defensive Ends: There's Little Chance Panthers' Greg Hardy Hits Market

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    1. Greg Hardy, 25

    There is very little chance the Carolina Panthers allow him to hit the open market after his 15 sacks and No. 3 billing among 4-3 defensive ends at Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Hardy might be headed for the franchise tag, according to a tweet from Steve Reed of the Associated Press.

    2. Jared Allen, 31

    Pass-rushers like Allen usually are not available. Despite getting up there in years, you cannot deny his consistent production. He's surpassed double digits in sacks each of the past seven years. His age and price tag make it unlikely he returns to the Minnesota Vikings.

    3. Michael Johnson, 26

    The Cincinnati Bengals have a strong and deep defensive front, and Johnson slumped from 11.5 sacks in 2012 to just 3.5 this year. His No. 4 ranking at PFF should net him a solid contract on the market, especially when you consider he is just now entering his prime years of production.

    4. Lamarr Houston, 26

    He told Jerry McDonald of the Oakland Tribune he expects the Oakland Raiders to allow him to move on this winter. His age and durability should help him line up plenty of suitors, even if he is better against the run than rushing the passer.

    5. Michael Bennett, 28

    He has posted back-to-back healthy and solid seasons, totaling 17.5 sacks between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks' depth might afford him an opportunity on the open market again this winter.

    6. Justin Tuck, 30

    He had a well-timed rebound season and has told the New York Post's Bart Hubbuch there will be no "hometown discount" in a potential return to the New York Giants, who have Jason Pierre-Paul and Damontre Moore under contract as bookends. His veteran leadership is intriguing, but his medicals are a bit sketchy. He has dealt with chronic neck issues.

    7. Arthur Jones, 27

    The cap crunch likely means Jones priced himself out of the Baltimore Ravens' range. Jones had four sacks and rated as the 12th-best 3-4 defensive end, according to PFF.

    8. Robert Ayers, 28

    He had a solid first season replacing Elvis Dumervil, registering 5.5 sacks and ranking 14th at PFF among 4-3 defensive ends.

    9. Anthony Spencer, 29

    Microfracture knee surgery has ended careers of athletes in recent years, but name and potential might drum up some interest in Spencer this winter.

    10. Antonio Smith, 32

    It helped having J.J. Watt drawing the extra attention on the other side, but Smith earned his own keep with five sacks.

    Best of the Rest

    • Frostee Rucker, 30
    • Brett Keisel, 35
    • Ziggy Hood, 26

Defensive Tackles: Chicago Bears Learned Henry Melton's Value the Hard Way

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    1. Henry Melton, 27

    The Chicago Bears missed Melton so much after he went down with a torn ACL that they wound up having the worst run defense in football. The injury makes him a bit of a risk, but he is young enough to rebound and earn something this winter.

    2. Jason Hatcher, 31

    The cap-strapped Dallas Cowboys likely cannot afford Hatcher after a career year when he totaled 11 sacks, which is almost triple his previous career high. He is going to earn a market-value deal based on his numbers, numbers which are unlikely to be repeated as he enters the twilight of his career.

    3. Randy Starks, 30

    He has always been a bit under-appreciated, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) might change that by grading him as the seventh-best defensive tackle in football. He rates just above fellow free-agent teammate Paul Soliai here.

    4. Linval Joseph, 25

    The New York Giants have depth along the defensive line, but they will want to keep it that way when it comes to Joseph. The East Carolina product might have priced himself out of town, though.

    5. B.J. Raji, 27

    Although he hasn't recorded a sack in either of the past two seasons, he's still a load to handle in the running game. Expect the Green Bay Packers to re-sign him.

    Honorable Mention: Paul Soliai, 30

    He is a run-stuffer who might be more affordable to bring back than Starks. The Dolphins need to try to re-sign both.

    Best of the Rest

    • Clinton McDonald, 26
    • Vance Walker, 26
    • Jonathan Babineaux, 32
    • Kevin Williams, 33
    • Fred Evans, 30
    • Aubrayo Franklin, 33
    • Shaun Rogers, 34

Linebackers: Brian Orakpo Offers Big Name, Big Numbers and Big Impact

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    1. Brian Orakpo, 27

    Orakpo is a game-changer, which makes it unlikely the Washington Redskins will be able to afford letting him leave. He rebounded from an injury-plagued 2012 with 10 sacks this season, and Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades him as the fourth-best 3-4 outside linebacker.

    2. Jason Worilds, 25

    He was the player likely to lose playing time to first-rounder Jarvis Jones, but Worilds posted the best season of his four-year career and has carved his own niche with the Pittsburgh Steelers. It would hard for a defensive-minded franchise to improve as a defense without bringing Worilds back.

    3. Brandon Spikes, 26

    He might have leveled off some, but that doesn't mean Spikes is any less important to the New England Patriots defense, which struggled mightily against the run. We rank him a tad bit higher than more productive players who are older and less consistent.

    4. Karlos Dansby, 32

    Despite getting sent out of Miami last winter, Dansby landed back in Arizona and wound up having one of the best seasons of his career. It sets him up for a nice payday, whether it comes from the Cardinals or not.

    5. Daryl Smith, 31

    Like Dansby, he is coming off the best season of his career after a change of scenery. The Baltimore Ravens might have no choice but bringing back the man who effectively replaced the heart and soul of the Ravens, Ray Lewis.

    6. Jon Beason, 28

    He was superfluous in Carolina, but he wound up playing well with the New York Giants. They likely have no choice but re-sign the middle linebacker who helped make a terrible year tolerable by season's end.

    7. Shaun Phillips, 32

    He is up there in years, but he had 10 sacks and spent time starting in place of the suspended and now-injured Von Miller (knee). He has at least has a well-earned return to Denver as Miller insurance next season, if not a solid deal to start elsewhere.

    8. Donald Butler (restricted), 25

    The restricted free agent is arguably too valuable for the San Diego Chargers to allow him to leave, despite the modest PFF ratings (45th among inside linebackers).

    9. Wesley Woodyard, 27

    He has totaled over 200 tackles the past two seasons, but PFF tagged him with negative grades overall against the run and in pass coverage.

    10. Vincent Rey, 26

    He played well enough at times in Rey Maualuga's absence this season that he might have earned himself a chance to start regularly elsewhere. A return to Cincinnati is still possible, though.

    Best of the Rest

    • O'Brien Schofield, 26
    • Perry Riley, 25
    • Jonathan Vilma, 31
    • Jo-Lonn Dunbar, 28

Cornerbacks: This Shapes Up to Be a Solid Market for Cover Men

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    1. Brent Grimes, 30

    The Miami Dolphins' shutdown corner had a rebound season that saw him become one of the game's best at the position. Despite his age, Grimes' career year should earn a sizable deal. He ranked No. 2 just behind Darrelle Revis in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) ratings. He also answered the durability question, playing 1,132 snaps, according to PFF.

    2. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 27

    The Denver Broncos secondary hasn't had a great season, but DRC has still rated among the league's best cover corners, according to PFF, which lists him fifth despite a negative rating against the run. You have to question any system that places him above the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman, though. DRC has a $5 million year that is going to become voidable five days after the Super Bowl.

    3. Vontae Davis, 25

    The corner, most known for asking to call his grandmother on Hard Knocks when he was dealt from the Miami Dolphins to the Indianapolis Colts, had a timely career year. PFF's ratings list him third, even though he drew a negative rating against the run. He conveniently played 16 games for the first time since his second year in the league, too.

    4. Aqib Talib, 27

    He took a chance on his one-year contact with the New England Patriots this season, and it has been a mixed bag, as his whole career has been. He can still finish strong with a solid postseason performance to cap his injury-plagued year. He needs one to earn a legit long-term deal.

    5. Charles Tillman, 32

    What a difference a year and a new head coach makes. In 2012 under Lovie Smith, you could make a case for Peanut Tillman being the best defender in football. After playing just eight games and winding up on IR, Tillman is likely headed out of Chicago. He vows to eschew retirement, but even the fact that question was raised should tell you something.

    6. Alterraun Verner, 25

    This wound up being a breakthrough season for the UCLA product. He earned a starting job out of training camp and helped make the Tennessee Titans secondary one of the surprises in all of football. Verner's career arrow is still pointing up, so it is doubtful the Titans allow him to leave.

    7. Captain Munnerlyn, 25

    He is undersized, but he is in his prime and coming off the most productive year of his career—just in time for free agency. He lacks the big name of others on this list, but you cannot argue with his production in one of the best defenses in football this season.

    8. Chris Harris, 24

    Harris' year gives him a chance to start somewhere if the Broncos don't choose to bring him back. PFF's ratings place him ninth among corners, so the odds are it will be tough for a cap-strapped team to afford him. Watch him closely in the postseason.

    9. Walter Thurmond, 26

    He is in a similar situation as Harris, perhaps a luxury a top contender cannot afford. He might have played well enough to earn a contract and starting job outside of Seattle, which has a starting defense that is tough to crack.

    10. Sam Shields, 26

    Shields might have not done enough to earn a long-term deal with the Green Bay Packers, but this has gone down as the best season of his four-year career.

    Best of the Rest

    • Tarell Brown, 28
    • DeAngelo Hall, 30
    • Trumaine McBride, 28
    • Drayton Florence, 33
    • Quentin Jammer, 34
    • Eric Wright, 28
    • Aaron Ross, 31
    • Brandon Browner, 29 (suspended indefinitely)

Safeties: Top Options at This Position Might Be Headed for Franchise Tag

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    1. Jairus Byrd, 27

    He played under the franchise tag in this injury-plagued season, but he made the Pro Bowl and likely put himself on track to be tagged for the season consecutive season. Not only does he carry a big name at the position, but Pro Football Focus (subscription required) also ranked him eighth-best in the league this season, despite playing a partial season. It is doubtful the Bills allow him to walk.

    2. T.J. Ward, 27

    PFF rates him third behind just Devin McCourty and Giants reserve Will Hill this season, his fourth in the league. Ward, who drew the highest PFF rating against the run, might be headed for the franchise tag instead of being allowed hit the free market.

    3. Donte Whitner, 28

    He is going to drop the "W" from his surname to become "Hitner." It is a gimmicky name, but it suits his style. It will be interesting to see if the San Francisco 49ers can afford to drop him from their roster after losing Dashon Goldson in free agency a year ago.

    4. Bernard Pollard, 29

    His move from the defending champion Baltimore Ravens to the Tennessee Titans impacted both teams heavily this season. The Ravens started slowly without him, and the Titans were one of the league's surprises. That helps his case for a long-term deal this go-round.

    5. James Ihedigbo, 30

    A run-stuffing safety on the level of Ward above, Ihedigbo is less likely to be back because of the Baltimore Ravens' lack of cap space. Also, the presence of 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam might make Ihedigbo more expendable than those above.

    Best of the Rest

    • Major Wright, 25
    • Chris Clemons, 28
    • Ryan Mundy, 28
    • Antoine Bethea, 29
    • Brandon Meriweather, 29
    • M.D. Jennings (restricted), 25
    • Quintin Mikell, 33
    • Ryan Clark, 34
    • Taylor Mays, 26
    • Yeremiah Bell, 35