Jimmy Graham, Jairus Byrd, and Eric Decker Head the 2014 Free Agent Class
|Date & Time||Thursday February 13, 2014, 12:00 PM (EST)|
|TV Channel||Stream live sports and ESPN originals on ESPN+ for only $4.99 a month. Start your 7-day free trial today!|
With 26 days (that’s 624 hours for those of you who are counting) until free agency officially begins, NFL fans and front offices are starting to look seriously at the best players who might be ripe for the picking next month. Here, we rank ten prospects, including a few moves you might not have considered yet:
1. Jimmy Graham (TE-Saints) - Graham is, fairly indisputably, the best tight end in the NFL. This year, he had a league high 16 TDs and 86 receptions. As the end of Graham’s $2.45 million, 4 year rookie contract draws nigh, the Saints are scrambling to do everything in their power to keep Graham on the receiving end of Drew Brees’s passes. At the end of the day, this means either using the franchise tag or signing Graham to the long term deal that he and his agents are inevitably looking for. Even with their salary cap issues, I don’t see the Saints letting Graham even get close to testing the free agency market, but definitely keep your eye on this situation as it develops.
2. Jairus Byrd (FS-Bills) - Byrd, unquestionably talented, had three interceptions and held opposing QBs to passer ratings under 14.1 in 2013. This is exactly the kind of player that the Philadelphia Eagles need to bolster a somewhat floundering secondary. Since Brian Dawkins left town half a decade ago, the Eagles have tried to insert a litany of players at this position with woefully disappointing results. It’s time for the front office and the coaching staff to bring in an impact player at safety again. If Byrd and the Bills aren’t able to get the deal he wants inked soon, fans would likely welcome him to the City of Brotherly Love with open arms.
3. Eric Decker (WR-Broncos) - Decker had a whale of a season, totaling 1,288 yards and 11 TDs. Decker’s agents are sure to be gunning to get him paid like a No. 1 receiver and, if we judge by this year alone, he deserves it. My concern with Decker is whether or not he will still play like the Eric Decker we saw in 2013 if Peyton Manning isn’t the man putting the ball in his hands. Regardless, plenty of teams are sure to be jumping at the bit to add Decker to their rosters. The Jets could be an interesting fit; they have plenty of cap space to work with and even if Decker doesn’t put up the same numbers that he did this year, Geno Smith had exactly nobody to throw to his rookie season. Giving him a go-to target like Decker certainly couldn’t hurt.
4. Greg Hardy (DE-Panthers) - As time hurtles toward March 11, the Panthers have been relatively tight-lipped when asked about their plans for Greg Hardy. GM Dave Gettleman hasn’t let much of anything slip, other than calling Hardy “a piece of the puzzle” at Carolina. Hardy is both a fan favorite and a definite presence on the field, tying a franchise record with 15 sacks in 2013. Even though they have something of a cap disaster to contend with, I don’t really see Carolina letting Hardy walk; I’m looking for at least a franchise tag, if not a long term deal. If, though, the front office panics about numbers at the eleventh hour and doesn’t get a contract signed, there are plenty of other teams that would love to woo the 25-year-old DE.
5. Alterraun Verner (CB-Titans) - Coming off of his 5th season, with a career high 5 interceptions, Verner has already made it clear that he wants to test free agency. The Vikings look to be in prime position to nab Verner, provided that they’re willing to cut the necessary check. Jerry Gray, who previously served as Tennessee’s defensive coordinator, recently signed as Minnesota’s defensive backs coach. It seems likely that Gray will try to bring Verner on-board to assist the Vikings’ limited secondary.
6. Antoine Bethea (SS-Colts) - Bethea once again proved his prowess on the field with 110 tackles in 2013. In addition, Bethea’s Super Bowl ring and durability (he’s started all 16 games for 6 years running) will make him a welcome addition to any defense if Indy lets him go. This seems likely at this point; Vontae Davis, Adam Vinatieri, and Pat McAfee all appear to be priorities over Bethea for the Colts. Given the opportunity, I like Bethea on the struggling Chicago Bears defensive unit. The Bears are coming off of their worst defensive season in history, at the end of which they ranked last in run defense and 30th in overall defense. They could benefit greatly from Bethea’s on-field skills on off-field veteran leadership.
7. Jeremy Maclin (WR-Eagles) - Maclin may have missed the entirety of the 2013 season with a torn ACL, but front offices around the league haven’t forgotten his impressive numbers in earlier years. In particular, Maclin boasted 964 yards and 10 TDs in 2010 and 857 yards and 7 TDs in 2012. While the Jets are reportedly keen to sign Maclin should he become available, I would love to see him wind-up at Kansas City. Maclin already has a relationship with Andy Reid from his Philly days and adding a solid receiver other than Dwayne Bowe could be just what the doctor ordered for the Chiefs.
8. Branden Albert (T-Chiefs) - If Kansas City lets Albert go, I’m thinking the odds are decent that he’ll ultimately end-up at the Dolphins. Albert’s a talented player who could provide much needed size and skill on a Miami line that gave up a league leading 58 sacks in 2013. We should feel for Tannehill here, people. Furthermore, remember those trade rumors from before last year’s draft? Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin supposedly wanted Albert then. If the Chiefs send Albert to the chopping block, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Miami pounce right away and pay him what he’s looking for.
9. Anquan Boldin (WR-49ers) - Boldin, though likely nearing the end of his stellar career, was still a major presence for San Francisco this year. Boldin’s 1,179 receiving yards and 7 TDs are nothing to sneeze at. Boldin’s spending his off-season dealing with a dreadful injury sustained during the NFC Championship game (though he did look nothing if not positive on Instagram recently.) The speed of Boldin’s recovery will undoubtedly play into whether or not the Niners let him go. If they do, here’s a crazy thought, why not New England? We all remember Brady’s grimaces each time his young receivers missed catches early in the season. If the Patriots’ front office could crunch the numbers correctly, Boldin could add a strong, mature presence on an otherwise youthful receiving corps.
10. Brian de la Puente (C-Saints) - The Redskins had a time of it this year. Their 3-13 record, combined with more infighting than Congress, left much to be desired for fans. The number of people in their stadium on December 8 should more than serve as proof. While there are a plethora of needs that Gruden and Co. need to address this off-season, I like them starting with the offensive line. Although Will Montgomery has been serviceable for the ‘Skins, I’d like to see them bring in Brian de la Puente if New Orleans lets him walk. De la Puente is one of the best centers in the league, and with Alex Mack almost assuredly staying put in Cleveland, de la Puente is the best option to upgrade Washington’s line at this position.