The free agents class of 2014 isn’t filled with offensive talent, as most of the players ending their contracts in the NFL who’ll interest a lot of teams are pass rushers. Jimmy Graham does stand out, but there’s a bigger choosing of talent in defensive positions with guys like Greg Hardy, Brian Orakpo and Lamarr Houston becoming available.
There are also players for those looking for secondary enhancements like Aqib Talib and Jairus Byrd, while Alex Mack and Branden Albert cater to those with offensive line needs, which are always valuable.
11 – Aqib Talib, New England Patriots: Talib was voted to AP’s 2nd All-NFL team and there’s no doubt he was the outstanding player on the Pats’ defense, finishing with 4 interceptions. The Patriots aren’t filled with top secondary players which might make Talib more valuable to them than to other teams, but it’ll come down to how much money he wants, because the Pats won’t keep him at any price.
10 – Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills: Byrd didn’t play in the first five games of the season, finishing the year with 4 interceptions on four starts. How valuable was he to the Bills? They were 15th in Total QBR allowed without Byrd and third after he reported back. He’s looking for someone to pay him $10 million a season, but he won’t get more than $7.5-8 million.
9 – Michael Bennett, Seattle Seahawks: One of the best 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, Bennett finished the year with 8.5 sacks, making it 17.5 for him over the last two years, and was fifth behind Robert Quinn, Cameron Wake, Hardy and Johnson in the PFF rankings for 4-3 defensive ends. The Seahawks will be looking to re-sign him, but everyone is going to be slightly concerned about his shoulder problem, although he hasn’t missed a single game in the last two years.
8 – B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers: Raji has 0 sacks in his last 37 regular season games, but it has a lot to do with the Packers turning him into a two-down player. He has rejected an $8 million a season extension from Green Bay who can’t really afford to pay him more, but can’t really let him go considering how young and struggling their defense is.
7 – Lamarr Houston, Oakland Raiders: The 26-year old defensive tackle just might be the best defensive player for the Raiders, getting a career-high 6 sacks last season. He is one of the best in the league, despite his size, to hurry the quarterback, which means the Raiders can’t really afford to lose him.
6 – Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals: It wasn’t a good year for Johnson, finishing with only 3.5 sacks. However, he has been excellent against the run: fourth in Pro Football Focus’ rankings for 4-3 defensive ends, one spot behind Hardy. He’s still not worth the franchise tag he got from the Bengals, who have Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap to step up for him. He will get paid because players like him are always in demand, but not as much as he’d like.
5 – Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs: Albert was another player who got the franchise tag last season. However, despite playing quite well, the Chiefs do have players to replace him with, and the amount of how much they’ll fight him will be determined in how much they believe in Eric Fisher, because a quarterback like Alex Smith won’t produce without a great offensive line.
4 – Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns: Mack has been one of the best centers in the NFL over the last two years and still hasn’t missed an NFL game since joining the league in 2009. If the Browns are serious about improving, they’ll do anything to keep him.
3 – Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins: Despite the Redskins being a mess on defense, Orakpo was one of the best 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL, counting up 10 sacks. He’s the best pass-rusher the team has, and can’t really afford to give him considering who they have on the sidelines to replace him. He’ll be snapped up pretty quickly if he hits free agency.
2 – Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints: Graham finished the season with a bad taste after getting shut down by the Seattle Seahawks, but it was a huge season for the tight end who plays more like a wide receiver. He caught 86 passes for 1215 yards and a career high 16 touchdowns. His 36 touchdown receptions over the last three years are the most in the NFL. He probably will get a $10 million contract if he leaves, but there’s a good chance the Saints franchise him for $7 million and then negotiate a deal that pays him around $16 for the next two.
1 – Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers: Hardy ranks fifth in sacks over the past two seasons with 26, and he’ll be only 26 when next season begins. The Panthers have a great thing going for them with their defensive line, and Hardy is the best player in that front four. The market should be better for pass-rushers this season, and the Panthers will likely put the franchise tag on him while they extend Cam Newton’s deal.