Ranking the 2015 NFL Free-Agent Class by Position

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IFebruary 17, 2015

Ranking the 2015 NFL Free-Agent Class by Position

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The NFL is creeping closer to free agency, which kicks off at 4 p.m. ET on March 10.

    Teams have already begun to trim their rosters, as former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown can attest. Many are engaged in discussions about re-signing or franchising players.

    What will the NFL unrestricted free-agent class of 2015 actually look like? Until March 10, no one knows for certain. As it stands now, though, certain positional free-agent groups tower over others, taking into account the number of quality players as well as the depth at each position. 

    Which position holds the most promise in this free-agent class? Here's a hint: It is better to receive.

12. Quarterbacks

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Notables

    • Brian Hoyer, Cleveland Browns
    • Christian Ponder, Minnesota Vikings
    • Michael Vick, New York Jets
    • Mark Sanchez, Philadelphia Eagles
    • Shaun Hill, St. Louis Rams
    • Jake Locker, Tennessee Titans
    • Josh McCown (released by Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

    Analysis

    The unrestricted free-agent route is rarely the way a team looks for its starting quarterback these days.

    The vast majority of team’s signal-callers are homegrown, be it better or worse. Other clubs like the Chicago Bears (Jay Cutler) and Arizona Cardinals (Carson Palmer) picked up a quarterback via trade. In the case of the Denver Broncos, they acquired a longtime legend (Peyton Manning) after his original team released him after a long career.

    The ensuing list reflects the free-agent times at the position. Among the notables here are Ponder and Locker, who were both drafted in the first round in 2011 but have failed to live up to the expectations of the Vikings and Titans, respectively.

    Hoyer could wind up back in Cleveland given Johnny Manziel’s current issues. Meanwhile, McCown turned out not to be the answer in Tampa after one season and can sign with a team immediately. He visited with the Buffalo Bills on Monday, per Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News, but left Orchard Park without a deal.

11. Offensive Linemen

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Notables

    • T Doug Free, Dallas Cowboys
    • T Bryan Bulaga, Green Bay Packers
    • C Stefen Wisniewski, Oakland Raiders
    • G Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers
    • T Michael Roos, Tennessee Titans

    Analysis

    A strong offensive front can turn an ordinary team into a contender. Teams are aware of that, and that’s why many of the premier tackles, guards and centers don’t get a chance to hit the open market.

    Bulaga is an interesting name on this list. A starter on the team’s Super Bowl XLV club as a rookie, he’s had problems staying healthy. However, he rebounded in 2014 to have a solid season for a Green Bay line that played well.

    Iupati is a former first-round pick who made the last three Pro Bowls but played on a San Francisco offensive front that had its issues this past season. Free was part of the Cowboys’ much-improved line in 2014, but he missed five games due to a sprained foot and an ankle injury. Jermey Parnell, who also happens to be a potential free agent, replaced him in those contests.

10. Punters and Kickers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Notables

    • PK Matt Bryant, Atlanta Falcons
    • PK Mike Nugent, Cincinnati Bengals
    • PK Stephen Gostkowski, New England Patriots
    • P Mat McBriar, San Diego Chargers
    • P Brett Kern, Tennessee Titans
    • PK Ryan Succop, Tennessee Titans

    Analysis

    The kicking game has always played a pivotal role in the NFL, although we continue to hear more about when place-kickers and punters fail than we do when they succeed.

    However, a pair of notable kickers will hit the market in March, in particular Gostkowski of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. He took over for Adam Vinatieri in 2006, and Bill Belichick’s team hasn’t missed a beat since in that department.

    Bryant is another steady performer who has hit his share of clutch field goals and is one of the better long-distance specialists.

9. Defensive Ends

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    Notables

    • Jerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills         
    • Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers 
    • Cory Redding, Indianapolis Colts             
    • Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants       
    • Adrian Clayborn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Analysis

    It’s not a great year in terms of free agency and the defensive end position. But three players are worth discussing.

    The Colts shipped Hughes, who they drafted in the first round in 2010, to the Bills three years later. The TCU product found new life in Buffalo, racking up 10 sacks in each of his two seasons there.

    The Giants could put the franchise tag on Pierre-Paul, who rebounded from injuries the last few seasons to post a team-high 12.5 sacks in 2014, according to Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media. Raanan believes that route "may be the best option for the Giants, if they still need to see more to convince them he's worth a lucrative long-term investment."

    Finally, there’s Hardy. He was Carolina’s designated franchise player a year ago and signed his tender, but his off-the-field issues resulted in him playing in only one game this past season. According to Bleacher Report's Jason Cole, the NFL is unlikely to levy any additional punishment against Hardy, but his legal issues could cut down on his list of interested suitors. 

8. Inside Linebackers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Notables

    • Brandon Spikes, Buffalo Bills
    • Rey Maualuga, Cincinnati Bengals
    • Rolando McClain, Dallas Cowboys
    • David Harris, New York Jets
    • Mason Foster, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Analysis

    It’s not a deep group, but the inside linebacker spot holds some intrigue in this year’s market.

    Harris is one of the NFL's most consistent players at his position and yet has never been named to the Pro Bowl. Is it possible his head coach for the past six seasons, Rex Ryan, courts him for the Bills? 

    Last offseason, Buffalo inked Spikes to a one-year deal, but Kiko Alonso, who missed all of 2014 due to a torn ACL, is slated to return this year. Alonso's impending return and the hiring of Ryan figures to influence how the Bills approach this position in free agency.

    McClain enjoyed a terrific year after the Baltimore Ravens dealt him to Dallas in early July, while Maualuga and Foster figure to draw some interest around the league as established veterans.

7. Safeties

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    Notables

    • FS Da’Norris Searcy, Buffalo Bills
    • FS Louis Delmas, Miami Dolphins
    • FS Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
    • SS Antrel Rolle, New York Giants
    • SS/FS Will Allen, Pittsburgh Steelers
    • SS LaRon Landry (released by Indianapolis Colts)

    Analysis

    A number of intriguing names reside on the list of free-agent safeties, quite a few of which are from the AFC East. The Colts recently cut Landry, freeing him up to sign with another team at any time. So while safety may not rank first, there's plenty to talk about here.

    McCourty had another solid year for the Patriots, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see the team use its franchise tag on him as it attempts to re-sign cornerback Darrelle Revis. Searcy is an underrated player who obviously benefited from that Bills’ pass rush, but that’s hardly an indictment on his play.

    And Rolle always seems to make things happen, even though the Giants defense had a tough year in 2014.

6. Tight Ends

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Notables

    • Owen Daniels, Baltimore Ravens            
    • Jermaine Gresham, Cincinnati Bengals
    • Jordan Cameron, Cleveland Browns      
    • Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos
    • Charles Clay, Miami Dolphins   

    Analysis

    The tight end position continues to flourish in today’s NFL. Four players—Chicago’s Martellus Bennett (90), New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham (85), Carolina’s Greg Olsen (84) and New England’s Rob Gronkowski (82)—all totaled at least 80 catches in 2014. Of course, none of them are available.

    The headliner here is Thomas, who got off to a brilliant start this past season, but injuries became an issue. Can the Broncos keep both him and wideout Demaryius Thomas, who is also a potential free agent?

    With Tyler Eifert available, it doesn’t seem likely that the Bengals will bring back Gresham, a former Pro Bowler. Cameron battled concussion issues throughout this past year, while Clay may be one of the most underrated players on the market should the Dolphins not re-sign him soon.

5. Outside Linebackers

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    Ed Zurga/Associated Press

    Notables

    • Lance Briggs, Chicago Bears
    • Brooks Reed, Houston Texans
    • Justin Houston, Kansas City Chiefs
    • Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers
    • Brandon Graham, Philadelphia Eagles
    • Malcolm Smith, Seattle Seahawks
    • Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins
    • Shaun Phillips (released by Indianapolis Colts)

    Analysis

    The list of potential free agents at outside linebacker includes some versatile veterans, the NFL sack leader in 2014 and a recent Super Bowl MVP.

    Briggs and Phillips offer the aforementioned versatility, just in different ways. The former—with 12 seasons under his belt—plays the complete position out of the 3-4. Meanwhile, Phillips lined up at outside linebacker in the 3-4 and at defensive end during his stint with the Denver Broncos in 2013.

    As we all know, Smith captured Super Bowl XLVIII honors with his play in the Seahawks’ win over the Broncos.

    But let’s not bury the lead. Justin Houston had no problem getting to opposing quarterbacks this past season, racking up 22 sacks in 16 games. In four seasons and 59 games with Kansas City, the three-time Pro Bowler has amassed 48.5 sacks.

4. Running Backs

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    Notables

    • Justin Forsett, Baltimore Ravens
    • C.J. Spiller, Buffalo Bills
    • DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys          
    • Knowshon Moreno, Miami Dolphins
    • Shane Vereen, New England Patriots
    • Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
    • Chris Johnson, New York Jets
    • Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders
    • Ryan Mathews, San Diego Chargers
    • Frank Gore, San Francisco 49ers

    Analysis

    While it’s been said that this is a quarterback-driven league, a number of running backs put up solid numbers this past season. In fact, three of the league’s top nine players (Murray, Forsett and Gore) in terms of rushing yards are potential free agents.

    Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards on the ground, and the story in Dallas is whether the Cowboys can keep both him and wide receiver Dez Bryant. Forsett was a journeyman who enjoyed a career year with the Ravens in 2014. And will the 49ers retain the franchise’s all-time rushing leader?

    In case you’re wondering why Chris Johnson is now on this list, the Jets declined the option on his contract. And the former Tennessee Titan had some thoughts on the matter in speaking on “The Rich Eisen Show” on Monday (as Rich Cimini of ESPN.com relayed).

3. Cornerbacks

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    Notables

    • Antonio Cromartie, Arizona Cardinals
    • Tramon Williams, Green Bay Packers
    • Darrelle Revis, New England Patriots
    • Brandon Flowers, San Diego Chargers   
    • Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks

    Analysis

    A pair of performers who finished the season in Super Bowl XLIX highlights the 2015 potential free-agent class at cornerback.

    Revis may have been the best cornerback in the NFL in 2014 and looked more like the player during his early days with the Jets before his knee injury. Maxwell took over for Brandon Browner in Seattle’s secondary late in 2013, and now the team hopes to re-sign him to keep the Legion of Boom intact.

    Cromartie has now made his share of stops around the league, having played for the San Diego Chargers, New York Jets and Cardinals. Flowers had a solid year with the Chargers in 2014 after the Kansas City Chiefs cut him loose a year ago.

2. Defensive Tackles

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    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Notables

    • Dan Williams, Arizona Cardinals
    • Henry Melton, Dallas Cowboys
    • Terrance Knighton, Denver Broncos
    • Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions
    • Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions
    • B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers       
    • Jared Odrick, Miami Dolphins

    Analysis

    Stopping the run remains a priority in the NFL even though the passing game reigns supreme. And there is quite the crop of talent at the defensive tackle position, with Suh leading the way.

    According to Michael Rothstein of ESPN.com, the Lions haven’t decided on whether they will use the franchise tag on Suh. While they ponder that, there’s also the fact that two of his fellow defensive tackles, Fairley and C.J. Mosley, could be on the market this offseason as well.

    Recently, the Cowboys failed to pick up the option on Melton, which makes him an unrestricted free agent come March 10.

    Elsewhere, Knighton has done great work for the Broncos, while Raji missed all of 2014 due to injury and is looking for a bounce-back year. And will the Cardinals be able to retain Williams, who comes off a solid year for Bruce Arians’ playoff-bound team?

1. Wide Receivers

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    Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

    Notables

    Analysis

    It’s quite the list. Of course, it remains to be seen how many of these quality wide receivers will be available on March 10.

    Would any of these performers wind up getting the franchise tag? According to Spotrac, the estimated tender for a wide receiver is $12.71 million, which is a pretty hefty price tag. Then again, it potentially could be money well-spent based on the play of this group.

    Bryant led the Cowboys with 88 catches and paced the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions this past season. Thomas finished second in the league in both catches (111) and receiving yards (1,619). Cobb (91 receptions) and Maclin (85 receptions) each totaled 1,200-plus receiving yards and 10-plus scores.

    All told, 16 players totaled at least 85 catches in 2014, and four of those performers are on this list.

    All free-agent lists and estimated franchise tag tender information courtesy of Spotrac.

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