2014 NFL Free Agency: Projecting Price Tags for Each Team's Top Free Agent

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJanuary 27, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Projecting Price Tags for Each Team's Top Free Agent

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    Every team would love to get its hands on potential free agent tight end Jimmy Graham, including the New Orleans Saints.
    Every team would love to get its hands on potential free agent tight end Jimmy Graham, including the New Orleans Saints.Associated Press

    You know that person who used to roam the aisles in the supermarket with the price gun making sure everything was labeled correctly before you got to the checkout line?

    It’s our turn.

    So for your speculation pleasure, we’re taking a look at each NFL team’s top unrestricted free agent and the kind of contract he may get from either his current team or on the open market.

    There will be no price check here, but feel free to agree or disagree. You have plenty of time to make up your mind because clubs can’t actually sign players from other teams until March 11. But there’s plenty to do between now and then when it comes to free agency.

    Here’s a big thank you for the assist from both Spotrac.com (subscription required) and OverTheCap.com for their financial information. There is also some statistical help courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.com and Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Meanwhile, there’s a clean-up in aisle No. 5.

Arizona Cardinals: ILB Karlos Dansby

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $14 million

    What a return to the desert for inside linebacker Karlos Dansby.

    The veteran defender began his NFL career with the Arizona Cardinals in 2004, and after six seasons with the team, he left for the Miami Dolphins via free agency.

    Dansby was back in style a year ago with the Cards, leading the NFL’s sixth-ranked defense with 112 tackles. The former second-round pick also totaled 6.5 sacks, four interceptions and an astonishing 19 passes defensed. Bruce Arians’ team was arguably the biggest surprise in the league in 2013, finishing 10-6 just one year after losing 11 of its final 12 games in a 5-11 showing.

    A year ago, Dansby signed a one-year, $2.25 million deal to return to the organization. The team would be wise to secure the savvy performer’s services for a little longer this time around. It may make a big difference if the Cards are to gain any ground on the NFC champion Seattle Seahawks (13-3 in 2013) and powerhouse San Francisco 49ers (12-4 in 2013) in the NFC West.

Atlanta Falcons: DT Jonathan Babineaux

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 2 years, $6.4 million

    If the Atlanta Falcons were to become the first-ever NFC South team to win back-to-back division titles in 2013, they needed to upgrade their ground game and their run defense.

    They did neither this past season. In fact, both areas got worse.

    Regardless, the team’s offensive philosophy is a discussion for another time.

    This past season, only the Chicago Bears gave up more rushing yards than Mike Nolan’s defensive unit.

    According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux’s performance was up and down, to say the least. Still, the nine-year veteran’s ability to line up both inside and outside and his familiarity with Nolan’s system are big pluses for a team looking for some defensive answers in 2014.

Baltimore Ravens: TE Dennis Pitta

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    Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $18 million

    It was a disappointing year for head coach John Harbaugh and the Baltimore Ravens.

    The defending Super Bowl champions, who were hard to recognize in 2013 thanks to a slew of changes, finished 8-8 this past season and missed the playoff for the first time under Harbaugh and with quarterback Joe Flacco.

    The Super Bowl XLVII MVP threw a career-high 22 interceptions in 2013. It didn’t help that he no longer had veteran wideout Anquan Boldin, traded to the San Francisco 49ers, at his disposal. However, Flacco was also missing tight end Dennis Pitta for the first 12 games of the season.

    The team’s second-leading pass-catcher in 2012 returned to total 20 receptions in the team’s final four games this past season.

    Keeping Pitta around and healthy this year is one way for not only Flacco but the Ravens to bounce back from a disappointing showing.

    That and the return of a once-reliable running attack.

Buffalo Bills: FS Jairus Byrd

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    Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $34 million

    We saw free safety Jairus Byrd in the Pro Bowl Sunday night.

    Will the Buffalo Bills see him in 2014?

    The talented ball hawk eventually signed his one-year franchise tender last summer and then proceeded to miss the season’s first five games (plantar fasciitis). Despite his limited appearances, he still managed to tie for the team lead in interceptions. In five NFL seasons, he has totaled 27 takeaways, including 22 interceptions, forced 11 fumbles and picked up three sacks.

    If the talented Byrd chooses not to fly the coop, he’ll be playing for new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The former Detroit Lions head coach takes over for Mike Pettine, now the sideline leader for the Cleveland Browns.

    One can only imagine the possibilities if the rangy safety signs with the Cardinals, Ravens, Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles or Seattle Seahawks.

Carolina Panthers: DE Greg Hardy

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $58.5 million

    Only the Seattle Seahawks gave up fewer total yards and points in the league than the Carolina Panthers this past season.

    No team in the NFL totaled more sacks than Ron Rivera’s team, which dropped opposing quarterbacks 60 times in 2013.

    And speaking of quarters, defensive end Greg Hardy had one-fourth (15) of those sacks, which ranked him third in the league behind Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (19.5) and St. Louis Rams defensive end Robert Quinn (19).

    Now, it’s time to re-up Hardy, as well as some other prominent Panthers, such as fellow Pro Bowler and left tackle Jordan Gross and starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, just to name a few.

    You would think that Hardy would be the likely choice to get the franchise tag, but you know what happens when you assume. Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer lays it out in a recent interview with Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman.

    In 2011, teammate and line-mate Charles Johnson signed a six-year, $72 million contract. Let’s see if that has any bearing on what the Panthers opt to do with Hardy.

Chicago Bears: DT Henry Melton

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    Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $33 million

    There’s no denying the impact defensive tackle Henry Melton has had on the Chicago Bears defense.

    Perhaps more important is the impact the Bears defense failed to have with Melton out of the lineup.

    Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit finished 30th in the league in total defense and dead last in the NFL against the run. Only the Minnesota Vikings gave up more points than Marc Trestman’s team in 2013. There were plenty of reasons, including injuries to outside linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman, which played a very big role in Chicago’s defensive demise.

    So, will Melton return to the Windy City in 2014? It’s hard to tell because recent events, such as his December arrest for assault and public intoxication, as noted by Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune, may have an effect on his future with the club. In any case, it’s hard to ignore what his presence meant to the Bears defense when he was available.

Cincinnati Bengals: DE Michael Johnson

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $41 million

    Will he stay or will he go?

    It’s hard to believe that the Cincinnati Bengals, who have now reached the playoffs a franchise-record three straight years, would let one of their standout defensive players get away.

    A year ago, Michael Johnson was coming off a 2012 season in which he totaled 11.5 sacks. He was designated the team’s franchise player and signed a hefty one-year tender worth $11.175 million.

    Although his sack numbers were down considerably in 2013, there was an increase in forced fumbles and passes defensed. Even with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins missing most of the second half of the season, Johnson and the Bengals finished third in the NFL in total defense.

    Here is the real curve ball: Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is the new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. They have a pair of potential free agents in veterans Jared Allen and Kevin Williams.

    Food for thought, but in any instance, Johnson figures to get a very respectable deal.

Cleveland Browns: C Alex Mack

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    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $36 million

    Between left tackle Joe Thomas (seven) and center Alex Mack (two), the Cleveland Browns have a pair of blockers who have combined for nine Pro Bowl appearances.

    The organization just hired Mike Pettine, the franchise’s eighth head coach since returning to the league as an expansion team in 1999.

    Now, here’s a little more number crunching. The Browns have lost 11 or more games in six straight seasons. If Pettine and Co. have any intentions of moving up in the AFC North, they need to ensure the return of the Mack.

    That would be music to every Browns’ fans ears.

Dallas Cowboys: DT Jason Hatcher

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 3 years, $19.5 million

    How much negotiating power do you have as an NFL player when you’re part of a unit that finished dead last in the league in something?

    Plenty, if you’re Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Jason Hatcher.

    In a season where the team was ranked 32nd in total defense, 27th versus the run and 30th versus the pass, the eight-year veteran remained relatively healthy. Hatcher totaled a career-high 11 sacks and was named to his first Pro Bowl.

    Teammate and defensive end Anthony Spencer is also a potential unrestricted free agent and comes off a season in which there was no season for him.

    If the Cowboys are to show any kind of improvement from this past season, it needs to start with Hatcher, as well a healthier dose of middle linebacker Sean Lee and defensive end DeMarcus Ware.

Denver Broncos: CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 6 years, $37.3 million

    Denver Broncos cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has more important things on this mind this week than getting a new NFL contract.

    But one week from Monday, that figures to change a bit. And that is regardless if he and his team win or lose Super Bowl XLVIII versus the Seattle Seahawks.

    With veteran cornerback Champ Bailey in and out of the lineup for the majority of the season, Rodgers-Cromartie has upped his performance. He totaled 31 tackles, three interceptions and rang up a team-high 15 passes defensed in 2013. In two playoff wins, the former Pro Bowler has rolled up seven tackles and knocked down four passes.

    The Broncos are Rodgers-Cromartie’s third stop in the league, as he began his career with the Cardinals (and going to the Super Bowl as a rookie) before being traded to the Eagles.

    Let’s see if the talented defender gets locked up to a long-term deal after signing a one-year contract with Denver this offseason.

Detroit Lions: TE Brandon Pettigrew

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $27.5 million

    This past season, Detroit Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew finished fourth on his team with 41 catches for 416 yards but just two touchdowns.

    The former first-rounder has seen his production decline the last two seasons after he rang up career numbers in 2011.

    The 20th overall selection in the 2009 NFL draft, Pettigrew’s original contract was for five years and $12.8 million. Given the role of the tight end in today’s offenses, he has the potential to do much better with either the Lions or another team in the next few months.

    Is Pettigrew the player we saw his first three seasons in the league or the player we saw last two years? New Lions head coach Jim Caldwell could be part of that decision in the next month or so.

Green Bay Packers: WR James Jones

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    Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $22 million

    Given the Green Bay Packers’ recent history of injuries, the team can’t afford to let good football players get away.

    Then again, this franchise has gone from 15 to 11 to eight regular-season wins the last three seasons and still managed to capture the NFC North each of those years.

    Last offseason, wide receiver Greg Jennings left the Green and Gold for purpler (yes, I made that word up) pastures, signing a five-year, $45 million contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Will former teammate James Jones also opt to leave head coach Mike McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers for another team?

    In seven seasons with Green Bay, Jones has totaled 310 receptions, 37 of those for scores. But 14 of those touchdowns came in 2012. Last season, in 14 games, Jones totaled a career-high 817 yards on 59 grabs but reached the end zone just three times. Playing with four different starting quarterbacks will do that to a fella.

    Now, let’s see what the Packer do with the talented Jones.

Houston Texans: FB Greg Jones

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    Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 2 years, $2.2 million

    There’s a photo the Houston Texans hope to see more of in 2014.

    Former Pro Bowl running back Arian Foster missed the second half of the past season but still managed to rush for 542 yards. It remains to be seen if Ben Tate, who becomes an unrestricted free agent in March, will be back with the club.

    But the Texans and new head coach Bill O’Brien may want to bring back 10-year veteran Greg Jones for at least one season. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded out as a top-10 fullback in terms of both run-blocking and pass protection.

    Off a shocking 2-14 season, the Texans could use all the help they can get.

    A year ago, Jones left Jacksonville and signed a one-year, $1 million contract with Houston. Let’s make that a double in 2014, with a bit of a chaser.

Indianapolis Colts: SS Antoine Bethea

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $28 million

    The Andrew Luck Era with the Indianapolis Colts has resulted in a pair of 11-win seasons and two playoff appearances.

    It has not, however, resulted in a lot of standout defensive play along the way.

    This past season, Chuck Pagano’s team ranked 20th in the NFL in yards allowed and 26th in rushing defense. That was an improvement from 2012, when the Colts were 26th in total defense and only three teams in the league gave up more yards on the ground.

    Still, don’t blame star strong safety Antoine Bethea, who has totaled 100-plus tackles in each of those aforementioned seasons.

    A year ago, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson revamped the defense via free agency, but Bethea was one of the mainstays. The eight-year veteran has not missed a game the last six seasons and has totaled 100 or more tackles five times over that span.

    It’s hard to believe Bethea is headed anywhere other than right back to his locker in Indianapolis.

Jacksonville Jaguars: RB Maurice Jones-Drew

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 3 years, $7.2 million

    You can’t compare Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew to Jaguars running back Jordan Todman.

    It’s simply not fair.

    What you can do is speculate if the former, with 8,071 rushing yards and a franchise-record 81 total touchdowns on his resume, will be back with the club or if he'll opt to test the free-agent market.

    In 2009, Jones-Drew signed a five-year, $31.1 million contract. You won’t be seeing those kind of numbers again.

    After leading the league in rushing in 2011, MJD was lost after six games in 2012 and still managed to lead the Jaguars with 414 yards on the ground. This past season, he led the team with five total touchdowns and amassed 1,117 yards from scrimmage on 277 touches.

    The Jaguars do have Todman, a restricted free agent, waiting in the wings. And potentially, Jacksonville will have just eight unrestricted free agents and one of those, center Brad Meester, will be retiring.

    Bringing back Jones-Drew is a no-brainer, but we shall indeed see if he’s interested in returning to the team as well.

Kansas City Chiefs: T Branden Albert

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    Associated Press

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $35.5 million

    Could one of Andy Reid’s Pro Bowlers be headed elsewhere in 2014.

    It will be interesting to see what the Kansas City Chiefs opt to do about left tackle Branden Albert.

    This past season, the former first-round pick missed four games but still managed to grade out as the 11th-best pass-blocker among NFL tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. As you will notice, he didn't fare nearly as well when it came to the run.

    Let’s not also forget that the Chiefs took tackle Eric Fisher with the first overall pick in the draft last April.

    A year ago, speculation was that Albert would wind up with the Miami Dolphins. Could he now sign with Joe Philbin’s team, which allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks in 2013?

    Stay tuned.

Miami Dolphins: CB Brent Grimes

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $26.5 million

    In Sunday’s Pro Bowl, Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes totaled two tackles, knocked down two passes and recorded an interception.

    It was a fitting performance for the NFL Comeback Player of the Year candidate, who missed basically all of 2012 while he was still with the Atlanta Falcons.

    We will eventually see if he’s still with the Dolphins. In 2013, Grimes totaled 60 tackles and led the team in interceptions (four) and passes defensed (16). This was the second Pro Bowl invitation for Grimes in the last four years, as he also made the trip with the Atlanta Falcons in 2010.

    The question here is whether he’s making plans for Hawaii next season with a different jersey.

Minnesota Vikings: DE Jared Allen

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Projected Price Tag: 3 years, $20.1 million

    The new head coach of the Minnesota Vikings is Mike Zimmer.

    The new offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings is Norv Turner.

    The latter has no effect on our discussion of the top of free agents, but it is certainly worth noting.

    Zimmer’s arrival is quite different. He inherits a team that allowed the most points in the league in 2013. In fact, the Vikings allowed 175 more points than the Bengals (Zimmer’s former employer) allowed last season.

    It is safe to say that defensive end Jared Allen can still get it done. In his six years in the Twin Cities, he’s never missed a game and has also totaled at least 11 sacks in each of those seasons. His career sack total now stands at 128.5 in 10 campaigns with the Chiefs and Vikings.

    Allen and veteran defensive tackle Kevin Williams are both slated to become unrestricted free agents in March. One or both could be back in 2014. Besides, which defensive player wouldn’t jump at the chance to play a little football for the defensive-minded Zimmer?

New England Patriots: CB Aqib Talib

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    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $22 million

    Not surprisingly, the New England Patriots have reached the AFC title game three straight seasons.

    Unfortunately for the Pats, they have come up short in the last two.

    One reason for those setbacks was the absence of Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib, who was injured in each of those contests. His absence made it difficult for Belichick’s team to slow down the likes of Anquan Boldin and Demaryius Thomas, respectively, the last two years.

    Now, the question is whether the Patriots are ready to do without Talib in 2014. Adam Kaufman of Boston.com has his own take on the situation. He projects Talib could stay in Foxborough on a two- or three-year deal.

New Orleans Saints: TE Jimmy Graham

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    Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

    Projected Price Tag: 6 years, $48 million

    New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham recently used the word “unfortunate” to describe the possibility of him getting the franchise tag this offseason, per Kevin Patra of NFL.com.

    That’s an interesting choice of vernacular considering, one way or another, the four-year veteran and two-time Pro Bowler figures to cash in, either in the short term or with a long-term deal.

    Graham is coming off a 2013 season in which he led the entire league with 16 touchdown receptions. The former third-round draft choice totaled 1,215 yards on 86 catches, the third consecutive year he amassed at least 85 receptions.

    In four NFL seasons, the sure-handed target has totaled 301 catches for 3,863 and 41 scores.

    And you wonder why teammate Drew Brees made him his first pick in the recent Pro Bowl draft?

New York Giants: WR Hakeem Nicks

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    Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sport

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $33 million

    Will wide receiver Hakeem Nicks demand a giant raise?

    More importantly, will the New York Giants ante up for the former first-round pick?

    Last July, the franchise found out the going rate for salsa dancing was a little over eight million dollars a season for the next five years. Former Pro Bowl wide receiver Victor Cruz re-upped with the Giants in the summer.

    It has been an odd few years for Nicks, who totaled 24 touchdown receptions in his first three NFL seasons. Injuries limited him to 13 games, 53 catches and three scores in 2012. This past season, he caught 56 passes but never found the end zone.

    This is a tough call in terms of whether Nicks will be returning to the Giants. Rest assured, he’s too talented not to get his share of offers.

New York Jets: TE Jeff Cumberland

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    Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $15.6 million

    When it was all said and done in 2013, the New York Jets were much better than many said they would be.

    And head coach Rex Ryan is far from done.

    We all know of the season-long issues for the Jets offense and rookie quarterback Geno Smith in 2013. But thanks to an improved ground game and a reemerging defensive unit, Ryan’s club finished a surprising 8-8.

    Tight end Jeff Cumberland was a very bright spot for an offense that was next-to-last in the league in passing yards in 2013. He averaged 15.3 yards per reception on 26 catches and led the Jets with four touchdown grabs.

    Wide receiver Jeremy Kerley led New York with just 43 receptions, and Ryan’s club managed only 13 scores through the air this past season. The passing attack needs to improve dramatically in 2014, and bringing back Cumberland would be a step in a positive direction.

Oakland Raiders: DE Lamarr Houston

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 3 years, $10.2 million

    A year ago, Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie basically rebuilt his defense via free agency. The Silver and Black added eight new starters from other teams and got a little help from the draft. The lone starters remaining from the previous season were strong safety Tyvon Branch and defensive end Lamarr Houston.

    Now, we’ll see if the Raiders have a problem when it comes to retaining Houston.

    In four seasons with the team, the former second-round pick has not missed a game and made 59 starts. He's totaled 16.5 sacks, one interception, forced four fumbles and racked up six fumble recoveries.

    Head coach Dennis Allen and his team are coming off consecutive 4-12 seasons. Still, the defense had its moments in 2013, and retaining Houston would be a good move considering this unit may once again have its share of new faces in the starting lineup.

Philadelphia Eagles: WR Riley Cooper

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    Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $11.6 million

    Will this become a matter of one or the other in the City of Brotherly Love?

    The Philadelphia Eagles didn’t have the luxury of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin’s presence in 2013. The talented pass-catcher tore his ACL during the summer and was placed on injured reserve in late July.

    Meanwhile, fourth-year wide receiver Riley Cooper got off to a less-than-scintillating start this past season. In his first five games, he totaled eight catches for 93 yards and a score in the team’s first five contests.

    But Cooper would finish the season with a total of 47 grabs for 835 yards and eight touchdowns.

    We will soon find out if either, neither or both of these Birds will be soaring elsewhere. It makes for some intriguing decision-making, as noted by Jeff McLane of The Philadelphia Inquirer, for this organization.

Pittsburgh Steelers: WR Emmanuel Sanders

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sport

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $12.4 million

    Last offseason, the New England Patriots sang the praises of one of the Pittsburgh Steelers' wide receivers. When it was all said and done, the Black and Gold matched the Patriots’ one-year offer sheet to restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders.

    But will both the Steelers and Sanders be singing a different tune this offseason?

    As we know, the team watched free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace opt for the Miami Dolphins last offseason via a five-year, $60 million contract.

    It should be noted that the speedster finished second on his team in receptions (73), receiving yards (930) and touchdown grabs (five). Meanwhile, Sanders finished second on the Steelers with 67 catches for 740 yards and six scores.

    Of course, Pro Bowl wide receiver and punt returner Antonio Brown led Mike Tomlin’s team with 110 receptions for 1,499 yards and eight touchdowns.

    Could Sanders get a bigger offer from the Patriots or another team this time around? It makes for some scintillating conversation.

St. Louis Rams: T Rodger Saffold

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 3 years, $15.6 million

    The St. Louis Rams find themselves in a very interesting situation.

    The organization dented the bank last offseason with the addition of free-agent left tackle Jake Long. But the former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowler was injured late in 2013. We’ll see how that affects the team going forward, something Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussed in a recent article.

    The Rams also have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft thanks to their trade with the Washington Redskins in 2012.

    That’s quite a few numbers and a lot of dates. Now, we’ll see if potential free-agent offensive lineman Rodger Saffold will be around. The former second-rounder played in a dozen games last season and started nine contests at three different positions.

    That versatility alone might ensure him a roster spot in St. Louis this upcoming season.

San Diego Chargers: ILB Donald Butler

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    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $36 million

    There are plenty of reasons to like San Diego Chargers inside linebacker Donald Butler. We’ll soon find out just how much the Bolts like their up-and-coming defender.

    After missing his rookie campaign in 2010 with an Achilles injury, Butler has done it and done it well. He’s started 40 games over the past three seasons, and in 2013, he finished second on the team with 84 tackles.

    Butler followed that up with a team-high dozen tackles and a forced fumble in the Wild Card Round win over the Cincinnati Bengals. A week later, he added five stops, knocked down a pass and made a spectacular interception in the team’s divisional playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.

    Franchising Butler would not be a bad idea should the sides not get a deal done before March.

San Francisco 49ers: SS Donte Whitner

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 2 years, $8.2 million

    Eight-year NFL veteran strong safety Donte Whitner has had a nice three-year run with the San Francisco 49ers.

    Is it about to come to an end?

    In 2011, the one-time Buffalo Bills standout inked a three-year, $11.65 million deal with the Niners and first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh. He’s started 47 out of 48 games, totaled 10 takeaways and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2012.

    Whitner is also a realist.

    "Everybody expresses they want me back, but you know this is a business," he told Taylor Price of the 49ers' team website. “Sometimes players don’t fit into what you want to do salary-cap wise. I’m not saying that’s the case here. Hopefully we can get something done and work something out. We’ll see.”

    Veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin may have had a terrific year in 2013 and could return as well. But that 49ers defense continues to get the job done, and keeping that unit together as much as possible should be a big priority.

Seattle Seahawks: WR Golden Tate

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    Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 4 years, $22 million

    The Seattle Seahawks are looking toward the future.

    As in the immediate future, in the form of Super Bowl XLVIII, the franchise’s first appearance in the ultimate NFL game since the 2005 season.

    Yes, free agency is just around the corner. But so are the Denver Broncos.

    Let’s look ahead. Why is wide receiver Golden Tate a priority for Pete Carroll’s club? First, the uncertainty that seems to follow talented Percy Harvin. More importantly, keeping Tate and quarterback Russell Wilson together would be a good idea.

    Over the last few seasons, the Seahawks have had plenty of good ideas. Another could be locking down defensive end Michael Bennett for a few years. But Tate gets the nod here out of pure necessity.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: DT Gary Gibson

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    Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 1 year, $1.2 million

    There are plenty of new faces when it comes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    For the third time in six seasons, there will be a new head coach. This time, it’s one-time Chicago Bears sideline leader Lovie Smith.

    There is also a new face in the front office in general manager Jason Licht, who earned high praise from a football legend in Tom Osborne, according to Greg Auman of The Tampa Bay Times.

    The Buccaneers have a possible 17 unrestricted free agents come March 11. Given Smith’s defensive pedigree, we’ll play a hunch and say the team retains veteran Gary Gibson. Two years ago, he signed a two-year contract with Tampa and did not record a sack in either season. In fact, Gibson has three career sacks, equaling the amount of teams he has played for.

    Like we said, it’s just a hunch.

Tennessee Titans: CB Alterraun Verner

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    Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 6 years, $36 million

    After three seasons at the helm, Mike Munchak has left the building in Nashville.

    Now, Ken Whisenhunt takes over as head coach of the Tennessee Titans, who have not reached the playoffs since 2008. If you remember those Titans, they were 13-3 and owned the best record in the NFL.

    While Whisenhunt will focus on the offense, Ray Horton will be the new defensive coordinator with the club. He’s making his third different stop is as many years with a team but is now reunited with his former boss with the Arizona Cardinals.

    Speaking of defensive, Horton will look to improve a unit that was 14th in the league in fewest yards allowed but a disappointing 20th in the NFL versus the run.

    If that defense is to go forward, letting Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner go would be a bad idea. The heady performer totaled 57 tackles, knocked down an astonishing 23 passes and totaled seven of the Titans' 25 takeaways in 2013.

    Franchising Verner is certainly not out of the question. In any case, the 25-year-old defender is about to cash in.

Washington Redskins: OLB Brian Orakpo

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    Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Price Tag: 5 years, $36.4 million

    In 2012, the Washington Redskins dropped six of their first nine games before going on a seven-game winning streak and winning the NFC East.

    This past season, the team opened with a 3-5 mark. Only there was no comeback this time around, as the ‘Skins lost their final eight games.

    Speaking of comebacks, outside linebacker Brian Orakpo made a pretty decent one in 2013. A year earlier, he was injured in Week 2 and missed the final 14 games. This past season, he returned to total 60 tackles and a team-high 10 sacks for a very disappointing Redskins defense.

    The 13th overall pick in the 2009 draft signed a five-year deal as a rookie. With 39.5 sacks in 64 career regular-season games, Orakpo will be getting a pretty decent raise...somewhere.


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