The last game of the NFL season was played more than a month ago, but it’s arguable football never truly ends. That notion will be exemplified starting Tuesday when teams are eligible to begin signing players as part of 2014 free agency.
Negotiating with players’ agents began Saturday, but Tuesday is when teams can officially begin to make moves.
While it’s common knowledge throughout the NFL that a heavy reliance on free agency can be damaging rather than beneficial, this year’s class of unsigned talent runs deep at a number of positions.
Highlighting this year’s pool of free agents is Bills safety Jairus Byrd, widely regarded to be one of the league’s top playmakers at his position. A three-time Pro-Bowler and All-Pro selection, he’s made it clear he wants to be compensated more than he has been in Buffalo, so his production will assuredly come with a cost. There’s no telling which team might pony up the dough for him, but clubs with plenty of salary cap space like Indianapolis and Philadelphia could be in play.
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who has put up numbers more appropriate for a No. 1 wide receiver, wouldn’t have had a problem eclipsing Byrd as the top-ranked free agent, but New Orleans hit him with the franchise tag before the market opened.
Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Browns center Alex Mack and Redskins outside linebacker Brian Orakpo are a few other big-name tag victims.
The elite tier of free agents arguably doesn’t extend well beyond the likes of Byrd and pass rusher Michael Johnson. Johnson is a freak of a physical specimen, who can command a high price tag in free agency due to the value of elite pass rushers.
After the top tier, however, there is a hefty amount of depth, giving teams a diverse market to explore potential acquisitions.
In the trenches specifically, there are a handful of offensive linemen who could be immediate standout starters: The Ravens’ Eugene Monroe, Chiefs’ Branden Albert and Raiders’ Jared Veldheer are all available and viewed as surefire tackles.
Cornerback is another deep area of free agency.
The Broncos’ recent release of perennial all-star Champ Bailey doesn’t drastically change the market, so that should be an indication of how strong the position is. New England’s Aqib Talib is the biggest name at CB, but all signs point to a likely reunion with the Patriots, so Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner would seem to be the prized target.
Verner hasn’t yet established a reputation as one of the NFL’s “shutdown” cornerbacks, but he’s considered a rising star and at the age of 25 would make for a long-term addition. The Titans would be smart to retain him, but a team like the Rams, which jettisoned its own starter in Cortland Finnegan, might be in hot pursuit.
Beside Talib and Verner, there is a list of worthy options, each of which comes with inevitable question marks but also high reward potential.
Among them are the Colts’ Vontae Davis, the Broncos’ Dominique Rodgers- Cromartie, and the San Francisco 49ers’ Tarell Brown.
Free agents from other positions who could be high on teams’ wish lists include Browns safety T.J. Ward, the consensus second-best option at his position behind Byrd; Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker, who could find big money despite best fitting a No. 2 role; Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton, a young starter who is coming off ACL surgery; and Raiders pass rusher Lamarr Houston, whose production has arguably been overshadowed by his team’s lackluster performances.
Additionally, there is no lack of players whose names could be deceiving. Champ Bailey headlines the pool of free agents who could garner interest solely because of their past experience in the spotlight.
Entering his age-36 season, Bailey might still warrant a one-year deal from a cornerback-needy team.
Other big names who could milk out contracts include the Bears’ Charles Tillman, the Giants’ Jon Beason and former Falcons DB Asante Samuel.