NFL Free Agency 2014: An Early Look at This Year's Strongest, Weakest Positions

Ryan Riddle@@Ryan_RiddleCorrespondent IJanuary 7, 2014

NFL Free Agency 2014: An Early Look at This Year's Strongest, Weakest Positions

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    NFL free agency is now just a few months away as the playoffs shift gears into the divisional round.

    For teams who are already eliminated, they can get a head start on preparing for the rush of available talent via free agency. Unfortunately for teams looking to add a quarterback, the "pickins" are slim at that position.

    However, some positions are loaded with elite young talent. Found out which positions are strongest and which ones you should probably address in the draft.

Weakest: Quarterbacks

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    1. Josh McCown

    What Josh was able to do under new head coach Marc Trestman was superb. He nearly forced the Bears to keep a healthy Jay Cutler on the bench. Had he been a younger guy and not the 34-year old journeyman that he is, the Bears would likely be starting the 2014 season with a brand new starting quarterback. 

    According to ESPN, McCown lead every single NFL quarterback, including Peyton Manning, in Total QBR with an 85.1 grade. In fact, only he and Peyton finished the season with with a QBR over 80. 

    2. Michael Vick

    Mike Vick still can't seem to do two things critical for all starting quarterbacks. 1. He's still turning the ball over much more than any coach would like and 2. He doesn't seem to understand how to play the game in a way that will allow him to finish a 16-game season still standing. 

    With that said, Vick still has the talent and skill to be a great asset on a team looking to bring in a capable veteran at the quarterback position. You can sure there will be several teams looking to add him at least as a quality backup. 

    Vick will likely settle on a team that offers him one last chance to be a starter. 

    3. Josh Freeman 

    If 2013 was any indication of the future for Josh Freeman then he's in for an incredibly short and disappointing career. Freeman failed to complete half of his passes before being sent on his way by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    There's no doubt teams will be looking to extract another 4,000-yard passing season from his rocket arm but they may need to get this guy to reassess his priorities in life. 

    4. Shaun Hill

    Shaun Hill didn't do much beyond holding a clipboard in 2013 but make no mistake, he is one of the most reliable backup quarterbacks in the NFL. 

    Hill has completed over 60 percent of his passes on his career while throwing 41 touchdown passes to only 24 interceptions. 

    Next year will be Hill's 10th season in the NFL, which is exactly what you want out of a reliable backup QB. 

Weak: Running Backs

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    1. Maurice Jones-Drew

    Maurice Jones-Drew has averaged 1,009 yards rushing and five yards per carry during his eight-year career. He also averages nine rushing touchdowns per season.

    Drew still should have a lot of mileage left in his legs for any team looking to pay for his services. The going rate, however, has dropped significantly over the last two years after he failed to hit 1,000 yards rushing in either of those seasons.

    Last year, Jones-Drew averaged just 3.4 yards per carry and had five rushing touchdowns. Teams will certainly be interested in him but will be smart not to overpay for him.  

    2. Ben Tate

    For those in Houston enamored with Arian Foster’s value to the team, I got news for you—Ben Tate may be just as valuable, if not more so in the coming years. Tate is a powerful runner with great vision and underrated elusiveness.

    Unfortunately for the Texans, it seems unlikely they’ll be able to retain his services after they overpaid for Arian Foster not that long ago. Whatever team claims him will be getting a very talented runner who has yet to show the world the full extent of his abilities.

    3. Knowshon Moreno

    It may have taken a few years for Knowshon Moreno to get going in his NFL career. This season was the first year Moreno amassed over 1,000 yards rushing since entering the league in 2009.

    Young running backs entering their prime are ideal targets in free agency and it should be interesting to see how hard the Broncos work to hold onto their top runner. Denver does have a lot of youth at the position and may be willing to roll the dice and let Moreno play the free-agent market.

    4. LeGarrette Blount

    The big man with a bad attitude has exceeded expectations yet again with his second NFL team. The Patriots were thankful to have Blount’s services all year as the passing game struggled with injuries and youth. Blount is one of the most athletic guys over 250 pounds in the NFL. He can literally run you over or jump over you.

    Blount has averaged five yards per carry in five years as a pro and needs to be featured more in the coming years. This is a talented individual who just needs to stay out of trouble and keep his head in the game. Let’s not forget that despite the unusual talent, LeGarrette went undrafted in 2010 after being kicked off the team at Oregon.

    5. Andre Brown

    2012 was a bit of a breakout year for Andre Brown. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in spot duty but looked like a guy who could eventually become a feature back. 2013 was less kind as he struggled to repeat the same type of results.

    Brown should be a nice addition to any team’s backfield at 6’0” and 227 pounds. He’s still worth bringing in at the right price.

    6. Joique Bell

    The big value of Joique Bell is not just from his legs, but his hands as well. This kid had 650 yards rushing and 547 yards receiving in 2013. The Lions relied on Bell often as Reggie Bush battled through injuries and fatigue during the season.  At 229 pounds, Bell has the frame to carry a load. Detroit may not have the cap space to keep Bell in their backfield but he will certainly find a home somewhere.

    Keep an eye on this emerging talent in 2014.

    7. Donald Brown

    The Colts were desperately seeking a running game earlier in the season. So much so that they traded their first-round pick in 2014 to acquire Trent Richardson as their feature back. Unfortunately things did not pan out like they hoped with Richardson but the acquisition may have given Donald Brown some incentive to play some of his best football since entering the NFL.

    Donald Brown has never had a 1,000-yard season but he did average 5.2 yards per carry this year. He also had a career-high six rushing touchdowns.

    8. Darren McFadden

    Is there any player in the NFL more snake bitten than Darren McFadden? This guy just can’t seem to stay healthy. It’s hard to say whether or not he’ll have the type of success he was drafted for, not even for a single season.

    After two seasons averaging less than 3.4 yards per carry, he shouldn’t command much by way of salary, but we have to imagine that Oakland will be more than happy to let their injury-riddled running back try to make a fresh start in another uniform.

Weak: Linebackers

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    1. Brian Orakpo

    After returning from a season-ending injury in 2012, Brian Orakpo seems to have found his stride once again, recording double-digit sacks for the second time in his five-year career. In 64 games, Orakpo has racked up 39.5 sacks.

    Brian is one of the best defensive players in the NFC East, and the Redskins need to do everything possible to keep him in the nation’s capital.

    2. Anthony Spencer

    2013 was an unlucky year for Anthony Spencer after going down for the season in the opener. However, Spencer is a talented pass-rusher who racked up 11 sacks in 2012.

    It’s hard to say whether or not the Cowboys will be able to afford to hold onto Spencer, but he should be seeing a decent chunk of cash regardless. Pass-rushers are hard to come by and highly coveted in today’s NFL.

    3. Lance Briggs

    Lance Briggs may be on the back-nine of his career but he can still contribute on defense. At 33 years old, Briggs has certainly slowed down, but his instincts make him a valuable member of nearly any 4-3 defense.

    Expect the Bears to do the same thing to Briggs that they did to Urlacher a year earlier. Any team looking for a veteran guy in the middle should take a close look at No. 55 for Chicago.

    4. Karlos Dansby

    Arizona’s pending free agent tallied 122 tackles, six sacks, four interceptions and a forced fumble in what was the best season of his decade-long career.

    The Cardinals would undoubtedly like to keep Karlos Dansby but they also have some very talented youngsters ready to step up such as Kevin Minter. Dansby may end up becoming a cap casualty because of his age and the depth at the position for the Cardinals.

    5. Brandon Spikes

    The guy everyone thought was too slow coming out of the University of Florida has managed to put together a rather nice NFL career. Brandon Spikes is one of the best run-stoppers inside but he may have to find a new home this offseason. New England rarely overpays for guys they believe are replaceable.

    6. Jason Worilds

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have waited a long time for Jason Worilds to develop. In 2013, he finally seemed to emerge with a career-high in tackles (56) and sacks (eight).

    Will the Steelers let the guy they spent four years grooming go to another team just as he enters his prime? I suppose that depends on how much money his agent thinks he’s worth.

    7. Shaun Phillips

    Few people expected that type of production out of Shaun Phillips this late in his career as a first-year member of the Broncos. The plan for Phillips heading into the season was simply to play in the defense as a backup. Von Miller missed time with suspensions and injury while Phillips stepped up to have a remarkable season.

    The 32-year-old Phillips may have earned himself a pretty big payday heading into 2014.

Decent: Tight Ends

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    1. Jimmy Graham

    Tight end Jimmy Graham is one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the NFL. The mismatches he creates for defenses are nearly impossible to overcome for the entire 60 minutes. At some point, this giant amongst giants will find his way to a big play.

    Graham has had two seasons exceeding the 1,000-yard receiving mark and two seasons with double-digit touchdowns. No tight end has ever accomplished such a feat.  

    2. Dustin Keller

    For those of you who forgot about Dustin Keller because he was injured most of last season, let me remind you that this guy is one of the better tight ends in football when healthy.

    Keller has played most of his career catching passes from the lowly Mark Sanchez. That alone should earn him at least some respect, especially when I mention that Keller has never had less than 500 yards receiving in a complete season.

    3. Dennis Pitta

    Not having Dennis Pitta around was a huge loss for the Ravens offense. This tight end was on his way to stardom before dislocating his hip in training camp. He returned for the last four games of the season with the Ravens struggling to make the playoffs, compiling an impressive 20 receptions for 169 yards.

    Pitta could be a name to watch if teams can be convinced that he is fully recovered.

    4. Greg Olsen

    Greg Olsen is a solid tight end who has been Cam Newton’s security blanket for some time now. There’s no question Carolina’s quarterback would be none too happy if the Panthers were to let him go. Olsen is just coming into his prime and provides the team with a much-needed receiving option.

    5. Ben Hartsock

    Ben Hartsock may not be the most talented pass-catcher available, but there is no tight end in the NFL who’s a better blocker.

    Hartsock is a guy who locks onto his blocks and drives them back better than anyone in the league right now. Perhaps people will never know his name, but great blockers who do the dirty work in the trenches are highly valued by coaches and those who truly know football. There will always be a demand for guys like Hartsock.

    6. Fred Davis

    Fred Davis is an extremely gifted athlete with a great deal of potential he has yet to tap into.

    2011 was his best season where he tallied 796 passing yards but has spent the last two seasons battling injuries and spreading himself too thin.

    7. Jermichael Finley

    It’s hard to say whether or not Jermichael Finley will ever return to an NFL football field again after suffering back-to-back concussions and a potential neck injury.

    Finley wrote in SI.com's Monday Morning Quarterback he'd like to return to playing football when cleared, but he may never be the lanky talent we’ve come to see over the years. Don’t be surprised if Green Bay lets Finley test the open market.

Solid: Wide Receivers

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    1. Hakeem Nicks

    There’s little question that Hakeem Nicks is one of the most talented young receivers in the NFL, his problem seems to be with staying healthy. Rare are the days when Nicks actually isn’t hindered by one injury or another.

    If the Giants let Nicks walk they would be making the biggest mistake of the offseason.  There should be several candidates interested in bringing Nicks in if New York decides to part ways with their talented young wideout.

    2. Eric Decker

    There was a time when ESPN’s Skip Bayless knocked the Broncos for not having any solid receivers for Tim Tebow to throw too. As it turns out, Decker is a dangerous weapon that helped Peyton Manning to his record-breaking year.

    Decker has now had back-to-back seasons with 1,000 yards through the air and double-digit touchdowns. The Broncos are loaded with weapons and may not have room to give him the money he deserves.

    3. Danario Alexander

    Danario Alexander could have been a dynamic weapon for the Chargers during their magical 2013 season. Last year he averaged 17.7 yards per catch with seven touchdowns and is loaded with potential.

    If the Chargers can keep Alexander, quarterback Philip Rivers should be loaded with weapons on the outside.  

    4. Jeremy Maclin

    When Jeremy Maclin went down before the regular season began, many thought the Eagles wouldn’t stand a chance. Nevertheless, they still managed to have success without him, but it would certainly be nice to see such an elusive playmaker running around in a Chip Kelly offense.

    5. Emmanuel Sanders

    In his fourth year in the league, Emmanuel Sanders racked up a career-high 740 yards receiving and six touchdowns.

    There should be several teams interested in stealing him away, but I doubt Pittsburgh will let one of their best offensive weapons go.

    6. Anquan Boldin 

    At 33 years of age, Anquan Boldin is a still showing he can contribute on a football field. He may not be able to separate from defenders, but he rarely loses a battle in a jump ball.

    7. Kenny Britt

    Kenny Britt has struggled to maintain focus during his roller coaster career with the Titans. If anyone needs to have a fresh start, Britt certainly could be that person.

    His frame and athletic ability are prototypical for an NFL receiver but he’s been cursed with off-field issues that should haunt him come payday.

    8. Julian Edelman

    The Patriots needed some significant help from their veterans at the wideout position after they lost key members of the team due to injuries and other drama.

    Julian Edelman did a nice job stepping up to fill the vacated spot left by Wes Welker and went on to record his first 1,000-yard receiving season. Do the Patriots make a bid for Edelman, or do they allow their young group of receivers to step into the featured roles?

Strong: Defensive Linemen

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    1. Greg Hardy

    Over the last two seasons Greg Hardy has developed into one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL. He’s certainly in line for a huge payday given his youth and high level of productivity. In the last two years he has had 26 quarterback sacks.

    Carolina will no doubt do everything in their power to keep him on their side.

    2. Randy Starks

    Randy Starks may not be a household name or a big stat monster, but what he does bring to the table is a stout presence up the middle. Defensive clogs such as Starks are not overlooked by NFL personnel guys, and he should be expected to see a series of big contract offers this offseason.  

    3. Henry Melton

    Henry Melton may have missed most of this season with a knee injury, but he’s still one of the best interior pass-rushers in the NFL when healthy. We can only assume he returns to full strength by the start of the 2014 season.

    Blowing out a knee in a contract year is never a good situation. He should lose some significant money but a big contract should be on its way.

    4. Jared Allen

    After six productive years with the Vikings organization, Jared Allen is likely to be set free to test the open market. At 31 years old he still has some talent worth considering, and it’s possible that Minnesota retains his services.

    Consider the fact that Allen has never had less than 11 sacks since joining the Vikings over six years ago.

    5. Michael Johnson

    The Bengals are loaded with talented pass-rushers and would like to keep it that way. Unfortunately, the price of holding onto your entire stable of rushers can get a bit steep.

    Michael Johnson has been a nice addition for Cincy, but they’re now coming to a crossroads where they must consider the possibility of losing him.

    6. Paul Soliai

    Paired with his running mate Starks, Paul Soliai and company make up one of the most physically dominating interior lines in the league.

    Soliai is all but gone in Miami according to an interview I had with his agent, David Canter, earlier in the year, and will be playing elsewhere unless the GM Jeff Ireland suddenly has a dramatic change of heart regarding his value to the team.

    7. Justin Tuck

    Some may think Justin Tuck is over the hill or way past his prime, but few realize that while the Giants were stinking up the league in some categories, Tuck managed to snag an impressive 11 sacks in 2013. That happens to be the second-best year in terms of sacks for his career.

    8. Lamarr Houston

    Nearly every Oakland Raiders fan knows the value of this defensive lineman. Since 2010 Houston has racked up a pretty solid career. After four years he has outplayed his stats and has been a stalwart on that defensive line.

    Losing Houston would mean the team would be forced to replace him rather than building around him.

Stronger: Defensive Backs

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    1. Brent Grimes

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Brent Grimes was ranked second behind only Darrelle Revis in overall grades for cornerbacks. He had four interceptions and didn’t allow a touchdown catch all season long. That’s pretty incredible.

    2. Alterraun Verner

    For much of the season, Alterraun Verner was playing better than any corner in the league. He finished the year with five interceptions while allowing opposing quarterbacks an impressive passer rating of 55.8, per PFF.

    3. T.J. Ward

    Cleveland needs to do whatever they can, within reason, to keep this highly touted safety on the rise. T.J. Ward has emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL after his stellar play in the box and stuffing runs. Ward is also consistent in coverage and should be one of the most highly sought-after prizes if the Browns allow him to test the open market.

    4. Jairus Byrd

    Jairus Byrd is looking for a big payday this offseason, and it seems as though the Bills are going to let him have it. Though possible, they aren’t likely to franchise their talented safety a second straight year and keep a disgruntled employee when they’re probably much better off letting the kid find a new home. However, Byrd told the Larry Murphy Show he is open-minded about a return (via BuffaloBills.com's Chris Brown).

    It should be interesting to see where this kid lands in 2014.

    5. Aqib Talib

    Aqib Talib has been big for the Patriots. One of his more memorable games this year was when he shut out Jimmy Graham on primetime television.

    Talib can be a handful at times, but is his talent is currently worth the minor headaches?

      

    6. Donte Whitner

    Donte Whitner is the tone-setter for the 49ers defense now that Dashon Gordon is gone. His reckless hitting style has intimidated opponents all season long. Furthermore, his coverage skills have improved dramatically.

    7. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

    What a great turnaround season for Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who ended up finishing ranked fifth among all cornerbacks per PFF.

Strongest: Offensive Line

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    1. Alex Mack

    Alex Mack is a rare combination for a free agent. He is widely considered one of the best at his position and is just entering the prime of his career. Cleveland needs to do what it can to lock this guy down with a nice long contract extension.

    2. Eugene Monroe

    Eugene Monroe could be difficult for the Ravens to re-sign. Baltimore has $16 million in cap space for next season according to OverTheCap.com, but with a number of high-priced upcoming free agents, the Ravens will have to make some tough decisions this offseason.

    3. Jared Veldheer

    The Raiders have miraculously stumbled upon two very dominating offensive tackles that they should try to keep for the next five to 10 years. Jared Veldheer did struggle upon his return in 2013, but when healthy and in top form this guy is one of the better blockers in the NFL.

    4. Branden Albert

    When Branden Albert put up a fuss about moving to right tackle and being franchised last year, it seemed as though his days in KC were over. But now there seems to be a sense of excitement for the direction of this organization, which could turn Albert into a much more willing participant as the team continues to develop their first overall pick, Eric Fisher.

    5. Jordan Gross

    Jordan Gross may be getting up there in age but he still just keeps on trucking. Gross is ranked third among all NFL tackles according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    5. Dominic Raiola

    Despite his relatively old age, Dominic Raiola has had one of the better seasons of his career. He must be afraid for his job or perhaps he has found a new form of motivation.

    Surprisingly, the Lions have managed to put together one of the better offensive lines in the NFL but they still seem to struggle in trying to convert their philosophy to a power running game when necessary.

    I would be surprised if Raiola doesn’t return to Detroit in 2014.

    6. Marshall Newhouse

    Despite appearances regarding the Packers and their blocking, Marshall Newhouse is one of the better tackles in the league. Losing him would set the Packers back a long way in terms of finding a replacement.

    Besides, now is the time to build upon talent for the Packers, not replace it every year.

    7. Jon Asamoah

    Another talented, impending free-agent offensive lineman from Kansas City is set to hit the open market unless the Chiefs can find a way to pay everyone they want to keep. One offensive lineman is likely on the way out.

    8. Rodger Saffold

    It’s taken some time for Rodger Saffold to play up to expectations but he is finally on his way to elite status as a lineman. This is actually the path most offensive linemen take in their development despite what people think about them just being able to plug and go for the next 10 years.

    Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report. 

    Follow him on Twitter

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