Lost among the endless stream of combine results and mock projections of May's NFL draft is the fact that the free-agent signing period starts on March 11 at 4 p.m. ET.
The way that plays out will have a vast impact on the draft and the coming season.
There are impact players set to hit free agency at every position. Have a look at how Around the League, via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, have the top 25 in this class shaking out:
|Around the League's Top-25 Free Agents|
|Around the League|
Now, before fans get giddy over the idea of adding someone like Jimmy Graham or Greg Hardy to the roster, hold up. Those guys aren't likely to hit the free-agent market. Players on this list can be re-signed by their current team before free agency begins. Teams may also choose to apply the franchise tag, which also means the players won't be going anywhere.
That is a costly option, but worth it for elite players.
Former sports agent Joel Corry posted projected franchise-tag numbers on CBSSports.com, but the official value of the tags has yet to be released.
According to Marc Sessler of NFL.com, here are the values from last season:
|2013 Franchise Tag Value|
Corry projects a rise in the value for each position that ranges from 3.7 percent to 13.6 percent.
In all, I see six players headed towards a franchise tag, unless they are signed to a long-term deal prior to that. The bottom line is that the following players won't be going anywhere.
|Projected Franchise-Tag Players|
New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham is an obvious inclusion in this list. At tight end, the franchise tag value on him is highway robbery for the Saints.
Of course, Graham very well could end up getting the value for a receiver when it is all said and done. Ultimately, I expect the whole mess to lead to the two parties finding a common ground on a long-term deal.
Another player worth singling out is Lamarr Houston of the Oakland Raiders. He was the best player on a defense in dire need of more talent. That said, he is not a pass-rushing defensive end and players like that don't command the type of contract which drives the franchise value at the position.
I expect the Raiders to work on signing Houston long term but in the end, look for him to be hit with the franchise tag.
The Raiders have more cap space this season than any team. An overpriced deal for one season is not going to be that detrimental to the team given their current cap situation, and it will keep them from overpaying on a long-term contract.
Now, let's take a look at a couple of guys I project to find new homes.
Eric Decker, WR
The Denver Broncos have a lot of free agents, little cap space and a rapidly closing championship window.
Among their free agents is prolific wide receiver Eric Decker. The 26-year-old receiver is coming off a season where he grabbed almost 1,300 yards in passes, he is widely perceived as the best wide receiver on the market.
Decker is intent on using this opportunity to find the best fit for him and his family. Eye on Football passes this along:
The Broncos can't afford to slap the franchise tag on him, however, and they will be outbid in an attempt to bring him back.
This leads me to a team with an owner who isn't afraid to shell out for free agents and manages to have some cap space: the Washington Redskins.
Two offseasons ago, the Redskins dipped into the free-agent market to grab Pierre Garcon. Garcon struggled in his first season with the Redskins, but he had a monster season last year, and this was despite the fact the Redskins didn't have one other player break the 500-yard mark in receiving yards.
Washington has many holes but giving franchise quarterback Robert Griffin the weapons he needs will be a big priority.
To that end, the Redskins will give him the reliable Decker.
Predicted 2014 Team: Washington Redskins
Michael Johnson, DE
The Cincinnati Bengals signed both defensive end Carlos Dunlap and All-Pro defensive tackle Geno Atkins to lucrative contract extensions prior to last season.
Adding another massive long-term contract to that group isn't ideal. Neither is having Johnson return on the franchise tag. It would take up too much of the Bengals' cap room.
I expect the Bengals to try and bring Johnson back, but that ultimately they will be priced out of that competition.
There is one possible match for Johnson that is generating lots of buzz. USA Today's Tom Pelissero shares:
During his time in the NFL, Johnson has played for just one defensive coordinator: Mike Zimmer. That would be the same Mike Zimmer who is now the coach of the Minnesota Vikings.
Johnson could essentially step into Jared Allen's role. Allen is a free agent and at 31, the Vikings could get younger at the position while not suffering a drop off in talent.
Predicted 2014 Team: Minnesota Vikings