NFL Free Agency 2015: Grading the Strength of Each Positional Class

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2015

NFL Free Agency 2015: Grading the Strength of Each Positional Class

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    The 2015 free-agent class is so stacked, even Jeff Ireland could build a contender. That is, of course, if all the players actually hit free agency.

    Many of the best options will be taken away between now and when free agency hits in March, but there is no harm in taking a look at what could be.  

    There are a host of studs and big names across most positions, with some stronger than others. Let's take a look at the strength of each positional class based on a combination of quality, quantity and positional scarcity.

Quarterback

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld Team
    Matt MooreDolphins
    Michael VickJets
    Brian Hoyer Browns
    Jake LockerTitans
    Ryan MallettTexans
    Mark SanchezEagles

     

    It's almost unfair to grade the quarterback position in free agency on any given year. Outside of Peyton Manning's famous free-agent tour after he was ceremoniously dumped by the Indianapolis Colts, there hasn't been much quality available at the position for a while.

    That makes sense considering how valuable quarterbacks are—rarely do teams let a quality signal-caller hit the market. So we are here, evaluating career backups or guys who should be.

    Perhaps the most intriguing option is Ryan Mallett, who flashed some potential and grit with the Houston Texans this season before going down with a torn pectoral.

    In reality, Brian Hoyer might be the only quarterback worthy of a starting gig, but that's even a stretch. His success would likely come with a team that has nice weapons and a great defense. If the Bengals swapped him for Andy Dalton, would Cincinnati be any worse?

    Class Strength: D-

Running Back

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    Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld TeamPlayerOld Team
    DeMarco MurrayCowboysFrank Gore49ers
    C.J. SpillerBillsRyan MathewsChargers
    Lance DunbarCowboysStevan RidleyPatriots
    Matt Asiata VikingsJustin Forsett Ravens
    Knowshon MorenoDolphinsMark IngramSaints
    Shane Vereen PatriotsAntone SmithFalcons
    Darren McFaddenRaidersDaniel ThomasDolphins
    Cedric Peerman BengalsJerome FeltonVikings
    Ahmad BradshawColtsJohn KuhnPackers
    Roy Helu RedskinsChris PolkEagles
    Henry Hynoski GiantsMichael RobinsonSeahawks

     

    How crazy would it be if we see the reigning rushing champion in his prime hit free agency?

    That's what might happen with DeMarco Murray, whose Dallas Cowboys have some tough choices to make within their budget. Murray would have earned a massive contract had this been 1999, but things have changed dramatically over the past 15 years.

    He shouldn't have too much trouble finding a nice contract somewhere, but the rest of the running back class is in for a rude awakening.

    You may recall last season's free-agent class—albeit without a big name like Murray—saw some ugly contracts. Never has the running back position seemed so devalued, and that may continue this year.

    There are question marks surrounding just about every running back heading into free agency.

    How much longer is 31-year-old Frank Gore going to hold out? Can Ryan Mathews or C.J. Spiller stay healthy? Was that the best we'll ever see from Mark Ingram? 

    Supply and demand are going to depress contracts yet again, but that's good news for teams that need to upgrade at the position. Quality backs are coming available who can help many clubs, which makes this one of the strongest positions in free agency.

    Class Strength: B+

Wide Receiver

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld TeamPlayerOld Team
    Dez BryantCowboysTorrey SmithRavens
    Demaryius ThomasBroncosRandall CobbPackers
    Jeremy MaclinEaglesMiles AustinBrowns
    Reggie WayneColtsKenny BrittRams
    Wes WelkerBroncosNate WashingtonTitans
    Michael Crabtree49ersDwayne HarrisCowboys
    Cecil ShortsJaguarsAndre HolmesRaiders
    Hakeem NicksColtsCole BeasleyCowboys
    Eddie RoyalChargers  

     

    There is no other way to describe the wide receiver class than to say it is absolutely stacked. But good luck trying to sign some of these prized free agents.

    It's likely that most of the top names here will be unavailable come March, re-signing with their current teams before then. Can you really see Dez Bryant or Demaryius Thomas playing for a different team next fall?

    A fan can dream, right?

    Even disregarding the top names, the class is well-stocked. Guys like Michael Crabtree and Cecil Shorts will have something to prove, while others like Nate Washington and Andre Holmes might thrive if they get out of quarterback purgatory.

    Class Strength: A

Tight End

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld Team
    Julius ThomasBroncos
    Jermaine GreshamBengals
    Jordan CameronBrowns
    Charles ClayDolphins
    Owen DanielsRavens
    Tony Moeaki Seahawks
    Lance KendricksRams
    Larry DonnellGiants

     

    The tight end position isn't too dissimilar to quarterback when it comes to free agency. We rarely see top options hit the market, and that will likely be the case this season.

    Julius Thomas is the clear-cut No. 1 in free agency at his position—though how he would fare if Peyton Manning isn't tossing him the football would be interesting to see—but it's likely the Denver Broncos will re-sign him. 

    Some other interesting names could be looking for new homes, howevermore so than at the quarterback position anyway.

    Charles Clay has had his ups and downs with the Miami Dolphins, but the former sixth-round pick could be a huge addition for any team that needs an upgrade at the position if he can stay healthy. 

    The same can be said for Jordan Cameron, whose 2013 emergence seems like a lifetime ago. Injuries marred his 2014 season, and he is a risky proposition with plenty of upside for any team.

    Class Strength: C+

Offensive Line

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerPos.Old TeamPlayerPos.Old Team
    Michael Roos LTTitansOrlando FranklinLGBroncos
    Nick Hardwick CChargersJames CarpenterLGSeahawks
    Doug FreeRTCowboysWillie ColonRGJets
    Dan ConnollyLGPatriotsStefan Wisniewski CRaiders
    Brian de la Puente CBearsDominic Raiola CLions
    Mike Iupati LG49ersKing DunlapRTChargers
    Bryan Bulaga RTPackersWill MontgomeryCBroncos
    Samson Satele CDolphinsFernando Velasco RGPanthers
    Joseph Barksdale RTRamsJeff Linkenbach LTChiefs

     

    A lot of names are heading for free agency along the offensive line, but there aren't too many great options this year.

    Doug Free is the best of the bunch, one of those players the Cowboys will need to make a decision about because the salary cap exists. He will probably be back in Dallas, but he would be the best offensive tackle available should he somehow hit the market.

    Tennessee's Michael Roos might be the second-best if he doesn't retire.

    At guard, Orlando Franklin and Mike Iupati headline an otherwise lackluster guard class. Most of the players ranked below the Mendoza line at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) or weren't particularly relevant.

    The center position might be the best represented in the offensive line class, and that's not saying much.  

    Class Strength: D+

Defensive Tackle

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld Team
    Ndamukong Suh Lions
    Nick Fairley Lions
    Terrance Knighton Broncos
    Damon HarrisonJets
    Devon StillBengals
    Alex Carrington Rams
    Terrence CodyRavens
    Jerrell Powe Texans
    Ahtyba RubinBrowns

     

    The Detroit Lions will have two massive holes in the middle of their defensive line if they can't retain at least one of their talented defensive tackles.

    Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are slated to hit the market—the latter because Detroit puzzlingly eschewed exercising his fifth-year option—and neither will be cheap. Suh will be particularly expensive, at least if he gets his way.

    Here is what NFL.com's Chris Wesseling had to say about Suh's impending free agency:

    A frustrated Suh told reporters in early October that "football is football and business is business."

    Suh is just 27 years old and cruising toward his third first-team All-Pro selection. It's not every year that a player of his caliber and pedigree reaches the open market.

    For that reason, Suh is almost certain to top Watt's six-year, $100 million extension with the Texans.

    If Watt had waited for a bidding war, his contract would be considerably higher. Look no further than Mike Wallace, who remains the NFL's fifth-highest paid wide receiver because the Dolphins overpaid to keep him out of Minnesota, St. Louis and Seattle.

    For teams on a bit of a budget, there are a few other nice options. But not many.

    Damon Harrison has been an underrated and key part of a great defensive line for the New York Jets for the past couple of seasons, as has Terrance Knighton for the Denver Broncos.

    Class Strength: A

Defensive End

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    Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld TeamPlayerOld Team
    Jared Odrick Dolphins Kroy Biermann Falcons
    Jason Pierre-PaulGiantsAdrian ClaybornBuccaneers
    Greg HardyPanthersAnthony SpencerCowboys
    Tyson Alualu Jaguars Da'Quan BowersBuccaneers
    Osi Umenyiora FalconsGeorge Selvie Cowboys
    Brandon GrahamEaglesDerrick ShelbyDolphins
    B.J. RajiPackersPernell McPhee Ravens
    Derrick MorganTitansCory Redding Colts

     

    We may have seen the last of Greg Hardy in the NFL—for a while, at any rate—if his guilty verdict on assault charges is upheld. If not, however, he will have plenty of suitors.

    After all, the Carolina Panthers hit him with the franchise tag last offseason for a reason. Hardy had become one of the best defensive ends in football before his personal life spiraled into its current mess.

    Aside from Hardy, Jason Pierre-Paul is the most tantalizing and dangerous option at the position.

    On one hand, JPP was one of the most dominant players in the league a few seasons ago, and he is still just 26 years old. On the other hand, he has been hampered by injuries ever since, unable to regain that elite form.

    He did, however, have plenty of moments in 2014 despite more injuries, winding up with 12.5 sacks on the season. If he can ever get healthy and stay there, Pierre-Paul will be a huge asset to whichever team signs him.

    Some other intriguing names might come available.

    Jared Odrick is a versatile lineman who can play inside and outside; he's an underrated defender for the Miami Dolphins who rated well at defensive tackle over at PFF. Da'Quan Bowers has been plagued by injuries, but if he gets healthy, he could help a team in a big way. 

    Brandon Graham might be one of the most interesting options. He seems to be perennially underrated, even by his own team at times. He is a quality pass-rusher despite his low sack totals, as evidenced by his fantastic rating by PFF.

    Class Strength: B-

Inside Linebacker

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld Team
    Rolando McClainCowboys
    David HarrisJets
    Brandon SpikesBills
    DJ WilliamsBears
    Bruce CarterCowboys
    Larry Foote Cardinals
    Mason FosterBuccaneers
    Brandon MarshallBroncos
    Jerrell FreemanColts
    Chase BlackburnPanthers

     

    It may not have a ton of notable players, but there are some quality options available at inside linebacker this season.

    One of those is Rolando McClain, whom the Dallas Cowboys gave one last shot when they traded for him after the position was decimated in the offseason. He converted the Hail Mary pass, improbably turning into a solid starter after two retirements.

    Now he stands to make some real money, assuming teams can forget the whole quitting-football-twice thing. Best of all for McClain is the fact he is just 25—it seems like he should be a lot older.

    Brandon Spikes signed a one-year deal with the Buffalo Bills and delivered another solid season as a run-stuffing specialist in the middle. 

    Class Strength: C+

Outside Linebacker

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    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerPos.Old TeamPlayerPos.Old Team
    Justin Houston3-4 OLB ChiefsJason Worilds 3-4 OLB Steelers
    Brian Orakpo 3-4 OLB WashingtonLance Briggs4-3 OLB Bears
    Rey Maualuga 4-3 OLB BengalsDwight Freeney3-4 OLB Chargers
    Justin Durant4-3 OLB CowboysBrooks Reed3-4 OLB Texans
    Arthur Moats3-4 OLB SteelersJames Harrison3-4 OLB Steelers
    Sean Weatherspoon 4-3 OLB FalconsGeno Hayes4-3 OLB Jaguars
    Jerry Hughes3-4 OLB BillsJohn Abraham3-4 OLB Cardinals
    Jason Trusnik 4-3 OLB Dolphins Akeem Ayers4-3 OLB Patriots

     

    What are the odds the Defensive Player of the Year (not named J.J. Watt) will hit the open market?

    Justin Houston had a career year, nearly breaking Michael Strahan's sack record with a marvelous flourish to finish the season. He was PFF's top outside linebacker by a wide margin, and rightfully so.

    Outside of Houston, there is a lot of uncertainty at outside linebacker, however.

    Jason Worilds had another nice season for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but he didn't do much to prove he merited that franchise tag a year ago. It wasn't a bad season—he had 7.5 sacks and was rated 11th-best at 3-4 OLB by PFF—but he may demand more than he is worth on the market.

    Brian Orakpo has been great when healthy, but that has been the problem—his pectoral muscle tears have really put his career in jeopardy, but the team that takes a chance on him could reap great rewards if he rebounds.

    Class Strength: B

Cornerback

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld TeamPlayerOld Team
    Byron MaxwellSeahawksAntonio Cromartie Cardinals
    Tramon WilliamsPackersBrice McCainSteelers
    Brandon FlowersChargersCharles TillmanBears
    Perrish Cox49ersTerence NewmanBengals
    Walter ThurmondGiantsTarell BrownRaiders
    Kareem JacksonTexansBradley FletcherEagles
    Ike TaylorSteelersCarlos RogersRaiders
    Rashean MathisLionsDarius ButlerColts
    Patrick RobinsonSaintsKyle WilsonJets
    Mike JenkinsBuccaneersJosh WilsonFalcons
    Robert McClainFalconsBrandon HarrisTitans
    Jimmy WilsonDolphinsBuster Skrine Browns
    Chris Culliver 49ers Shareece WrightChargers

     

    We didn't get to anticipate Darrelle Revis in free agency last year—he was cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the new league year began—but could we see him hit the open market yet again?

    The New England Patriots have a team option to exercise, but it's hard to believe they will do it at a $20 million cap hit. Of course, the Patriots will surely work on an extension to avoid that whole mess, but you never know what might happen.

    Outside the fanciful, the cornerback class might be the deepest in free agency. It doesn't have star power, but a ton of quality guys are set to hit the market.  

    Byron Maxwell has quietly been good across from Richard Sherman in Seattle, and his absence was sorely missed by that Seahawks defense earlier this season. Then again, Brandon Browner looked pretty good in that role not too long ago before falling off a cliff.

    Antonio Cromartie has surged back to relevance in the desert, playing better than his highly paid counterpart Patrick Peterson this season. Perhaps he will reunite with coach Rex Ryan wherever he lands.

    Among the underrated options at cornerback, Perrish Cox and Rashean Mathis might be great value for the more budget-conscious general managers in the league.

    Class Strength: A-

Safety

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Notable Free Agents
    PlayerOld TeamPlayerOld Team
    Devin McCourty PatriotsCharles WoodsonRaiders
    Will HillRavens Da'Norris Searcy Bills
    Antrel RolleGiantsWill AllenSteelers
    Tashaun Gipson BrownsMike AdamsColts
    Louis Delmas DolphinsRyan ClarkWashington
    Jim LeonhardBrownsSergio BrownColts
    George WilsonTitansQuintin Demps Giants
    Nate AllenEaglesBrandon MeriweatherWashington
    Dawan LandryJetsMarcus GilchristChargers
    Rahim MooreBroncosStevie BrownGiants
    Darian StewartRavens Danieal ManningTexans
    Chris Conte Bears  

     

    One of the game's greats might call it quits. Or he could hit the free-agent market, looking to score one more championship before going out to pasture.

    Charles Woodson is the 38-year-old wonder, still going strong enough to consider one more season. He had a chance to sign with a contender when the Denver Broncos came calling. He somehow thought the Oakland Raiders were a viable option.

    Despite a Hall of Fame career, Woodson would be far from the best option if every safety hits the market. 

    Devin McCourty has been one of the best safeties in the league over the past two seasons. It's hard to imagine the New England Patriots letting him go, even with potential cap issues.

    If he can keep his head on straight, Will Hill might be the best value in free agency. He is one misstep away from a lengthy suspension, but he has been a huge boost to the Baltimore Ravens defense after missing the first six games of the season.

    Whereas Hill will need to stay out of trouble to be valuable, Louis Delmas will need to stay healthy. Before getting injured, he was a key part of a pretty solid Miami Dolphins defense that wound up falling apart without him.

    Coincidence? Probably, but Delmas is still a nice player.

    Class Strength: B+

     

    All free-agent information courtesy of OverTheCap.com.

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