2014’s NFL free agents can’t officially sign with any team except their own until Tuesday at 3:00pm central time, but plenty of deals could be agreed upon in principle this weekend, now that the league’s so-called legal tampering window is open. So before this year’s top available players start getting locked up, let’s take a look at the top players of the 2014 free agent class.
This list would have looked a lot more impressive right after the Super Bowl, but various transactions in recent weeks have taken many of the top-tier options off the market. For instance, standout cornerback Brent Grimes, one of the best cornerbacks headed for unrestricted free agency, re-signed with the Dolphins on a four-year, $32MM deal. Star Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was franchised by Carolina, and has accepted the one-year offer, meaning that while the two sides can continue negotiating a long-term contract, Hardy can’t sign an offer sheet with another team. Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds did the same with his transition tender, taking him off the market.
As for Saints tight end Jimmy Graham and Redskins edge defender Brian Orakpo, neither player has accepted his franchise tag yet, but we’re not including them on this list since the cost for another team to sign them (a long-term deal, plus two first-round picks) likely ensures that Graham and Orakpo aren’t going anywhere.
So with those caveats out of the way, let’s dive right in! Here are Pro Football Rumors’ top 25 NFL free agents for 2014, along with some predictions on how much they might earn and what teams should be in the mix:
Top 25 NFL free agents:
1. Michael Bennett (DE): With Hardy off the market, Bennett represents the top pass rusher available, having racked up 8.5 sacks and 65 quarterback pressures for the Seahawks last season. Veteran free agents like Justin Tuck and Jared Allen may have topped Bennett’s sack total in 2013, but Bennett is the only one on the right side of age 30, and he compiled his excellent numbers in just over 600 snaps. After settling for a one-year, prove-it deal with Seattle a year ago, Bennett proved it, and now he’s set to cash in with a much larger payday. The Seahawks, Bears, and 49ers have been mentioned as potential suitors for the 28-year-old, but if he’s looking to cash in with the biggest offer available after winning a Super Bowl, Bennett could be a fit for teams like the Raiders and Jaguars, who have a ton of cap space and a glaring need at defensive end. In that event, Bennett could be looking at a long-term deal worth about $9-10MM per year.
Signed: Seattle Seahawks. Four years, $28.5MM, $10MM fully guaranteed.
2. Eugene Monroe (OT): There are several intriguing left tackles available this offseason, and Monroe looks like the best of the bunch. The Ravens tackle turns 27 next month, and has ranked sixth, 15th, and 12th in the last three years among all tackles, according to Pro Football Focus’ advanced metrics. In other words, he’s still in his prime, and has already proven himself to be extremely effective and consistent. The Ravens have been trying to bring Monroe back and won’t give up that fight even if he reaches the open market, but they’ll face stiff competition from clubs like the Dolphins and Cardinals. Monroe is said to be seeking $10MM per year, and considering the horror show that was Miami’s offensive line in 2013 (both on and off the field), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dolphins pay that kind of money to ensure they have stability at left tackle for 2014 and beyond.
Signed: Baltimore Ravens. Five years, $37.5MM, $19MM fully guaranteed.
3. Jairus Byrd (S): As Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor showed the world in last month’s Super Bowl, safeties have become increasingly important in today’s NFL as a way to disrupt an offense’s passing game. And there are few safeties in the league more dynamic than Byrd, who has grabbed 12 interceptions and forced eight fumbles in his last three seasons in Buffalo. The Bills continue to say they’re making an effort to re-sign their playmaking safety, but I get the sense that Byrd is eager to test the market, particularly with no franchise tag to restrict him this season. The Falcons, Colts, and Eagles should be among the suitors to watch, but I suspect Byrd may reunite with former Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine in Cleveland. I also think we could see Byrd become the league’s highest-paid safety by annual average value, surpassing Eric Berry‘s $8.34MM per year.
Signed: New Orleans Saints. Six years, $54MM, $18.3MM fully guaranteed.
4. Jared Veldheer (OT): Veldheer, who is a couple months younger than Monroe, has a strong case for the top left tackle in 2014’s free agent class, but a torn triceps limited the Raiders standout to just five games last year, so we haven’t seen him excel for a full season since 2012. Still, Veldheer returned near the end of 2013, and while his last few games weren’t exceptional, they at least showed that he was healthy, meaning he should do well in free agency. And while the same teams I mentioned as Monroe suitors will kick the tires on Veldheer, it’d be a major upset to see him sign anywhere but Oakland. After all, no team currently has more 2014 cap space than the Raiders, who can afford to lock up Veldheer to a lucrative five- or six-year contract.
Signed: Arizona Cardinals. Five years, $35MM, $10.5MM fully guaranteed.
5. Michael Johnson (DE): While Bennett tops the wish lists of teams in desperate need of pass-rushing, clubs looking for a more all-around end might target Johnson instead. The longtime Bengal is an excellent run-stopping end, having ranked behind only New England’s Rob Ninkovich last season in Pro Football Focus’ run grades for 4-3 defensive ends. Johnson isn’t likely to match the 11.5 sacks he posted in 2012 again, but that performance at least showed that he’s very capable of rushing the quarterback as well. The Eagles are said to be eyeing Johnson, who could draw interest as both a 4-3 end and a 3-4 outside linebacker. My guess though is that Johnson lands in Minnesota, with new head coach Mike Zimmer. A deal in the neighborhood of four years, $36MM for Johnson wouldn’t be out of the question.
Signed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Six years, $43.75MM, $16MM fully guaranteed.
6. Alex Mack (C): The only player on our list of free agents to receive the franchise or transition tag, Mack belongs here because his situation means teams will still pursue him. Having received the transition tag, Mack can sign an offer sheet elsewhere, but the Browns will have the right to match it. That means there’s a very good chance the standout center returns to Cleveland, either on a long-term deal or simply at his one-year, $10MM+ tender. But before that happens, expect the Colts, Rams, Falcons, and Giants to at least kick the tires on Mack. The Raiders and Buccaneers have been cited as possible suitors as well.
Signed: Cleveland Browns. Five years, $42MM, $18MM fully guaranteed.
7. Aqib Talib (CB): Arguably the best pure cover corner available this year, Talib earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2013 and snagged four interceptions for the Patriots, setting himself up nicely for free agency. His departure would leave New England with a hole at corner, so I expect the Pats to continue discussing a new deal for him. But if and when he hits the open market, Talib could receive interest from other teams in need of secondary help, such as the Vikings, Chargers, Redskins, Bills, and Panthers. Talib won’t get Darrelle Revis money, but it’s fair to assume his new deal will approach the ballpark of $9-10MM per year corners like Johnathan Joseph, Brandon Flowers, and Leon Hall.
Signed: Denver Broncos. Six years, $57MM, $11.5MM fully guaranteed.
8. Alterraun Verner (CB): While many teams will prefer Talib’s upside, there’s a lot to be said for Verner’s consistency and durability. Since entering the league in 2010, Verner has never placed outside the top 25 in Pro Football Focus’ cornerback rankings. On the other hand, he’s never ranked inside the top 10. Verner isn’t elite, but he’s an effective No. 1 corner, and he’ll get paid like one this offseason. A four-year deal that surpasses Brent Grimes‘ $32MM seems reasonable, and I could see the Rams being a major player in the Verner sweepstakes if the Titans don’t lock him up.
Signed: Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Four years, $25.5MM, $8MM fully guaranteed.
9. T.J. Ward (S): The third-best safety in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus’ grades, Ward lacks the range and the playmaking ability of Byrd, but is perhaps the league’s best strong safety against the run. Ward is just 27 years old and can be an anchor for a secondary, even if he’s not going to pile up interceptions or highlight-reel plays. If he and the Browns have mutual interest in a new deal, the two sides should work something out, since Cleveland has more than enough cap flexibility to keep him. Otherwise, the Colts and Eagles will be teams to watch, and I could see the Ravens, Panthers, Saints, and Packers mulling an offer for Ward if he’s within their respective budgets. Contracts for safeties typically don’t break the bank, so if there aren’t a ton of teams in the mix, Ward could potentially be had for an annual salary between $6-7MM.
Signed: Denver Broncos. Four years, $22.5MM, $7MM fully guaranteed.
10. Lamarr Houston (DE): As is the case with Veldheer, it’s a little surprising not to see Houston already locked up by the Raiders, who have an abundance of cap room this offseason. Still, perhaps the club wants the official free agent period to set the market for its free agents, to avoid overpaying to keep them around. Houston, like Michael Johnson, is a run-stopping defensive end, with a limited pass rush impact — his six sacks in 2013 were a career high. That ability to stuff the run is a valuable commodity though, particularly on teams that can get their pass rush from other spots. Houston may not receive quite as big a deal as Johnson, but I could see him landing $15MM+ in guaranteed money. And the Raiders look like the best fit.
Signed: Chicago Bears. Five years, $35MM, $8.95MM fully guaranteed.
11. Branden Albert (OT): Although Kansas City seemingly doesn’t have much interest in re-signing him, Albert has recorded positive grades, according to Pro Football Focus, for four consecutive seasons and ranks just behind Monroe and Veldheer as this year’s top free agent left tackles. Albert is likely near the top of the Dolphins’ wish list, but it sounds like the Cardinals will be the club making the strongest push for the longtime Chief. I’ll speculate that Albert ends up signing a four-year deal in Arizona for about $8-9MM per season.
Signed: Miami Dolphins. Five years, $47MM, $20MM fully guaranteed.
12. Hakeem Nicks (WR): Nicks certainly wasn’t the highest-producing wide receiver among this year’s free agent class, but it’s hard to argue that any other receiver has a better combination of size, speed, and upside. The team that signs Nicks will be hoping that he recaptures his 2010-11 form, while angling to pay for his 2012-13 production. That could result in Nicks signing at a slight discount — perhaps a one-year, make-good deal, or even a longer-term deal in the $7-8MM per year range, rather than the $10MM+ he would have earned with a solid 2013. If Nicks wants to rebuild his value with a contender, the Patriots, Panthers, Colts, or Broncos might be a fit. Otherwise, teams like the Jets, Lions, Raiders, and Browns should all be very much in the mix.
Signed: Indianapolis Colts. One year, $3.5MM, $2.25MM fully guaranteed.
13. Eric Decker (WR): Based on his numbers in recent years, Decker figures to land a larger free agent contract than Nicks, but there will be question marks about how much of his production can be directly linked to the Broncos’ explosive offense. After all, Decker has just spent two years with Peyton Manning throwing him the ball and Demaryius Thomas drawing the secondary’s attention. Still, an annual salary in the $8-10MM range seems likely, and Decker should be able to secure $15-20MM in guaranteed money. The Browns look like the best fit to me, but the Broncos, Jets, Raiders, Chiefs, and Colts could be involved as well.
Signed: New York Jets. Five years, $36.25MM, $15MM fully guaranteed.
14. Jason Hatcher (DT): While Hatcher had one of the best 2013 campaigns of any of this year’s free agents, his age (he turns 32 in July) may limit his market somewhat. Still, it’s hard to argue with those ’13 numbers — having moved to nose tackle for the Cowboys, Hatcher posted a career-best 11 sacks, and ranks as the NFL’s eighth-best defensive tackle, according to Pro Football Focus’ metrics. Since Hatcher became a starter in 2011, in fact, he’s ranked among the top 10 at his position each season, according to PFF. A four- or five-year deal may not be realistic for Hatcher. Or if he signs one, it’ll be heavily frontloaded with guaranteed money, making it easier to get out of later on. Given Dallas’ lack of cap flexibility, it looks like Hatcher will head elsewhere. The Buccaneers, Vikings, Falcons, Packers, Steelers, and Dolphins are all potential fits, to varying degrees.
Signed: Washington Redskins. Four years, $27.5MM, $10.5MM fully guaranteed.
15. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (CB): The Broncos cornerback hinted leading up to the Super Bowl that he might consider retirement after the season, but he has rightly come to his sense since then. Rodgers-Cromartie will turn 28 next month, so he’s still in his prime, and he’s coming off one of the better seasons of his career. His inconsistent track record may scare off some teams, but 2013 did a lot to rebuild DRC’s value, and he should receive long-term offers in the ballpark of at least $7-8MM per year. The same teams I mentioned when discussing Talib and Verner should kick the tires on Rodgers-Cromartie.
Signed: New York Giants. Five years, $35MM, $11.98MM fully guaranteed.
16. Randy Starks (DT): It may seem like Starks has been around forever, and that perception isn’t totally unwarranted — he entered the league in 2004, after all. Still, his early start means he’ll still only be 30 years old for most of the 2014 season, so his age shouldn’t be a major red flag for interested teams this offseason. Starks has traditionally been better at rushing the passer than stopping the run, but he was excellent in both facets of the game in 2013. The Dolphins have reportedly not made an offer to Starks or fellow free agent lineman Paul Soliai, and I’d be shocked if the team kept both players. If Starks wants to leave an organization that has been plagued by dysfunction in recent months, possible destinations include Minnesota, Chicago, Tennessee, Houston, and Atlanta.
Signed: Miami Dolphins. Two years, $10MM, $5MM fully guaranteed.
17. Donte Whitner (S): Whitner didn’t like his ranking in NFL.com’s list of 2014 free agents, but we don’t have him 31 spots higher because we want to get in his good books. Coming off back-to-back Pro Bowl seasons, Whitner was one of the league’s best safeties in pass coverage last season, limiting yards after the catch and grabbing a pair of interceptions. At age 28, Whitner should have plenty of productive years left in him, and ranks behind only T.J. Ward among 2014’s free agent strong safeties. A contract that includes $10MM+ in guaranteed money seems within reach.
Signed: Cleveland Browns. Four years, $28MM, $11MM fully guaranteed.
18. Vontae Davis (CB): Only two cornerbacks in the NFL graded better than Davis in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus: Darrelle Revis, who is making $16MM per year, and Brent Grimes, who just signed for $8MM per year at age 30. Davis, who is only 25, doesn’t have the track record of either of those players, but given the elite company, it’s not hard to see why he and the Colts have yet to reach an agreement despite mutual interest. Indianapolis has a good deal of cap flexibility and I expect the two sides to work something out eventually, but the price for Davis may be a little higher than the Colts were expecting. I’d anticipate a four- or five-year contract that slightly exceeds Grimes’ annual average salary.
Signed: Indianapolis Colts. Four years, $36MM, $15MM fully guaranteed.
19. Karlos Dansby (ILB): The only linebacker on our list, Dansby would rank even higher if he wasn’t set to turn 33 in November. However, he certainly didn’t show any signs of falling off in 2013, racking up 121 tackles, 6.5 sacks, and a career-high four interceptions, including two for touchdowns. Dansby also ranked fifth among inside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus, grading exceptionally well in pass coverage. The all-around standout has expressed a strong desire to return to the Cardinals, but expect the Titans, Vikings, Browns, and Dolphins to be among the teams making inquiries.
Signed: Cleveland Browns. Four years, $24MM, $12MM fully guaranteed.
20. Sam Shields (CB): Coming off a 2013 season in which he ranked as a perfectly average cornerback, according to Pro Football Focus, Shields has a few more question marks than a few other corners on this list. But there are few teams that question his potential to be a strong No. 1 cornerback in the NFL. At age 26, Shields has plenty of upside, and his reps will likely point to his excellent peripheral stats in 2012 during negotiations. Although Shields may not receive quite as large a contract as some of the players ahead of him on this list, a team that misses out on those top options and locks up the Packers CB at $6-7MM per year should be pretty happy.
Signed: Green Bay Packers. Four years, $39MM, $12.5MM fully guaranteed.
21. Linval Joseph (DT): Joseph’s first few years in the NFL have been solid, albeit not exceptional. As a run-stopper, he may never fill up the stat sheet, but he’s been effective in a part-time role with the Giants and is young enough (25) that there’s plenty of room for further improvement. While teams in need of short-term help at defensive tackle will likely target Hatcher or Starks, Joseph could be a more worthwhile investment for a club looking to add a long-term piece to its defensive line. If he doesn’t return to the Giants, Joseph could be a fit for the division-rival Redskins, or many of the teams mentioned as suitors for Hatcher and Starks.
Signed: Minnesota Vikings. Five years, $31.25MM, $12.5MM fully guaranteed.
22. Rodger Saffold (OL): Saffold is one of this year’s more interesting free agent cases. Since starting all 16 games at left tackle for the Rams in his rookie season, the 25-year-old hasn’t appeared in more than 12 games for the club due to various injuries. Health will be a concern for any interested suitors, but Saffold’s flexibility to play either guard or tackle has a lot of appeal, as does his youth. The Rams appear to be making an effort to re-sign the offensive lineman, but St. Louis is looking at him as a guard, while other clubs may be willing to pay him like a tackle. Saffold and Anthony Collins could ultimately make very appealing Plan Bs for teams who miss out on the top tier of left tackles.
Signed: St. Louis Rams. Five years, $31.347MM, $11MM fully guaranteed.
23. Arthur Jones (DT): Jones and the Ravens seemed resigned to the fact that the free-agent-to-be will draw enough interest on the open market that Baltimore won’t be able to bring him back. And that interest will be warranted. Playing primarily as a part-timer on his rookie contract, Jones hasn’t accumulated a whole lot of mileage, but has exhibited plenty of potential when he’s played. In 529 snaps for the Ravens in 2013, Jones recorded a +15.7 PFF grade, performing very well against the run while also compiling 25 quarterback pressures. A multiyear deal worth in the neighborhood of $6MM per year seems about right for the 27-year-old.
Signed: Indianapolis Colts. Five years, $33MM, $10MM fully guaranteed.
24. Everson Griffen (DE): Griffen didn’t get a real chance to shine in Minnesota during his rookie contract, starting just one game in four seasons with Jared Allen and Brian Robison firmly entrenched as the team’s ends. Still, even as a part-timer often not playing his natural position, Griffen flashed solid potential, recording 13.5 sacks over the last two seasons. If Allen leaves Minnesota, the Vikings could re-sign Griffen and plug him in as a starter on the end. Griffen also figures to draw interest from other suitors though, including perhaps the Raiders, Buccaneers, Bengals, Jaguars, Seahawks, and Falcons.
Signed: Minnesota Vikings. Five years, $42.5MM, $19.8MM fully guaranteed.
25. Golden Tate (WR): Tate’s numbers in Seattle weren’t exceptional, but considering how little the Seahawks relied on their passing offense, a line of 64 receptions, 898 yards, and five touchdowns in 2013 doesn’t look bad at all. Tate, whose explosiveness can also be deployed on punt returns, could thrive in a more pass-heavy system, making teams like the Colts and Patriots ideal fits for him. Clubs like the Jets, Browns, Ravens, and Raiders may be willing to pay more though, depending on how the wide receiver market plays out. A $6MM annual salary sounds about right for Tate, and given his upside and age (25), that may turn into a bargain.
Signed: Detroit Lions. Five years, $31MM, $10.5MM fully guaranteed.
Just missed the cut:
- Jared Allen (DE)
- Chris Clemons (S)
- Anthony Collins (OT)
- Henry Melton (DT)
- Geoff Schwartz (OG)
- Paul Soliai (DT)
- Charles Tillman (CB)
- Justin Tuck (DE)
OverTheCap.com was used in the creation of this post.