Best NFL Free Agents Likely to Find New Homes This Offseason
For all but two teams, the 2013-14 NFL season is already at an end.
You can rest assured, however, that all 32 franchises have had at least portions of their staff focused firmly on the coming offseason for quite some time.
This is because the start of the 2014 league year—and the start of free agency—is right around the corner on March 11.
While teams have been fervently preparing for the March 11 deadline, the casual fan has not (and we don't blame you at all). Fortunately, we have been keeping track for you.
At least some of the players you have come to know are sure to swap in their uniforms for new colors once the free-agent market kicks off. Over the next few pages, we will examine some of the top players who fall into this category.
The players on this list are some of the top performers based on recent production. They are also among the most likely to not be retained by their current teams (no Jimmy Graham here).
WR, Green Bay Packers
Over the past few seasons, Green Bay Packers wideout James Jones has emerged as a very integral—and very dangerous—part of the team's passing attack.
Despite appearing in only seven games with star quarterback Aaron Rodgers (14 games in total), Jones managed to produce 59 receptions for 817 yards. Over the past three seasons, he has hauled in 24 touchdown receptions.
This type of production is likely to cause a team with adequate cap space to make a significant contract offer to the former San Jose State standout. Last offseason, the Minnesota Vikings signed former Packers receiver Greg Jennings to a five-year, $47.5 million deal.
While the Packers would certainly love to have Jones back for another couple of seasons, they will probably only do so if they can re-sign him before the start of free agency to avoid a bidding war with potential new employers.
The Packers also have to deal with pending free-agent defensive tackle B.J. Raji and cornerback Sam Shields, both of whom could take priority over Jones.
OT, Baltimore Ravens
Though he has not exactly worked out on the blind side for the Baltimore Ravens, Micheal Oher may be the top right tackle available come March.
Selected 23rd overall in the 2009 draft, Oher has not missed a start during his five-year Ravens career. At 6'4" and 315 pounds, Oher has the size and skill set to perform at either tackle position. Unfortunately for Baltimore, the team also has to work out a deal with or replace left tackle Eugene Monroe during the offseason.
Baltimore may not be able (or willing) to re-sign both of its starting tackles this offseason, so do not be surprised if Oher is the odd man out.
He should draw interest on the open market, as he will bring Super Bowl experience, a fair amount of versatility and will be just 28 years old in May.
SS, Cleveland Browns
Though he is in as an injury replacement, Cleveland Browns safety T.J. Ward has to be excited about playing in his first career Pro Bowl on Sunday.
Unfortunately for Browns fans, Sunday might be the last time Ward performs under the familiar orange, logo-less helmet.
According to ESPN's Pat McManamon, Browns CEO Joe Banner has never seemed inclined to invest a large amount of money in the safety position. McManamon points to the fact that Banner allowed safety Brian Dawkins to leave the Philadelphia Eagles as evidence, though Dawkins was 34 years old at the time. Ward recently turned 27.
The problem for Cleveland is that the team also faces losing two-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack. Both players are expected to command a sizable free-agent salary. If forced to choose, the Browns will likely work to re-sign Mack, who has never missed a start during his time with the team (Ward has missed 17 games in four seasons).
Ward finished the season with 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions and two defensive touchdowns.
CB, Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner had a breakthrough season in 2013, amassing 49 tackles, an impressive 23 passes defended, five interceptions and a defensive touchdown.
His stellar on-field performance earned Verner a Pro Bowl invite and might just earn him a hefty contract on the open market this March.
Verner shined in man coverage this past season. This should interest new defensive coordinator Ray Horton, who used cornerback Joe Haden almost exclusively in man during his lone season with the Browns.
Unfortunately, the Titans are in transition with new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and are not entering the most desirable free-agency situation.
According to Spotrac.com (subscription required), the Titans are expected to have $16 million in cap room but will face losing more than a dozen unrestricted free agents. If a deal with Verner cannot be reached prior to free agency, Tennessee will likely find itself unable to outdo competing offers.
DE/OLB, Denver Broncos
Last offseason, the Denver Broncos took a chance on San Diego Chargers veteran Shaun Phillips, inking him to a one-year deal.
Phillips rewarded Denver with 12 sacks (including the playoffs) and an aggressive pass-rushing presence throughout its march to the Super Bowl.
With Denver facing the potential departure of wideout Eric Decker, cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and running back Knowshon Moreno, Phillips may not be very high on its free-agent priority list.
However, that does not mean that Phillips doesn't have a future with a contending team next season. Though he will be 33 at the start of the regular season, there is a reasonable chance that the attention of the Broncos' Super Bowl run will be enough to earn Phillips at least one more deal.
RB, Houston Texans
For the better part of three seasons, Houston Texans running back Ben Tate has been forced to play second fiddle to Arian Foster.
Though he has regularly seen a sizable workload, Tate was never given a chance to show his ability as a starting back until Foster was sidelined with a season-ending back injury this past year. He responded with 771 yards, four touchdowns and a steady 4.3 yards-per carry average in 14 appearances with seven starts.
Tate is in a perfect position to parlay his production into a respectable payday with a new team come free agency.
He will only be 26 years old at the start of the 2014 season and has logged just 421 total carries in his pro career. This means that he should have plenty of tread left and projects as a superior long-term starter than the likes of fellow free agents Maurice Jones-Drew, Darren McFadden and Rashard Mendenhall.
New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount is also likely to draw a lot of interest due to his stellar end-of-year production (361 yards and six touchdowns between Week 17 and the postseason) and relatively light NFL career workload. However, there is a chance the Patriots extend an offer to Blount, while the Texans are extremely unlikely to invest heavily into another running back after inking Foster to a $43.5 million deal two seasons ago.
DE, Minnesota Vikings
The Minnesota Vikings are set to undertake another rebuilding process, and there is a strong chance that 31-year-old free agent is not part of the plan.
Though he had produced an impressive 128.5 sacks during his 10 years in the league, the Vikings may want to part with the high-priced veteran in the back half of his career.
Coincidentally, there will be a team in need of pass-rush help that will be willing to offer Allen a sizable contract. One of those teams could be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
According to Tampa Bay Times writer Joe Smith, Allen's existing relationship with former head coach and new Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier could make that happen.
“We have a great relationship, have a lot of respect for Jared as a player and as a man,” Frazier said of Allen, per Smith.
WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
It was nearly a year ago that the New England Patriots tried to pry away restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Pittsburgh matched New England's $2.5 million offer, which kept Sanders around for one more season. Retaining him a second time may prove to be something the Steelers do not wish to attempt.
According to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, the Steelers are expected to enter free agency more than $10 million over the salary cap. This means that there is virtually no way the Steelers will be able to compete with less cap-challenged teams on the open market, barring some serious contract restructuring beforehand.
Sanders will be just 27 years old at the start of the 2014 season and is coming off a 740-yard, six-touchdown season. This should make him quite attractive to teams in need of help at the position, and will likely mean a departure from Pittsburgh.