NFL

2014 NFL Free Agency: Exploring the Market at Every Position

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJanuary 29, 2014

2014 NFL Free Agency: Exploring the Market at Every Position

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    Where is Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno headed after Super Bowl XLVIII?
    Where is Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno headed after Super Bowl XLVIII?Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    While many people are preparing for Sunday’s Super Bowl showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, there are plenty of other NFL fans only interested in what the future holds for their favorite teams.

    You know who you are.

    Yes, free agency doesn’t begin for roughly another six weeks, but we insist on taking some time to look at what the potential market may be like for each position. We’ve taken the time to list five (or six) standout players for 12 different positions (in no particular order) who could become unrestricted free agents on March 11.

    Remember, "could" is the operative word here. Teams will still have time to re-sign their own players or give one of their stars the franchise tag.

    As usual, free agency and financial information is from Spotrac (subscription required) and statistical support is from Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Quarterbacks

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    Josh McCown, Chicago Bears

    It’s safe to say that the veteran signal-caller has made the rounds, and in 2013, the Bears were very happy he was around. In eight games with Marc Trestman’s team, McCown completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception.

    As everyone knows, the Bears signed quarterback Jay Cutler to a new long-term contract earlier this month. While McCown could return in a backup role, there are certainly opportunities to compete for a starting job available.

     

    Matt Flynn, Green Bay Packers

    The well-traveled quarterback made the rounds in 2013 and actually wound up starting games for both the Oakland Raiders (0-1) and the Green Bay Packers (2-2). While the six-year veteran threw more touchdown passes (eight) than interceptions (five), he was sacked 24 times and lost six of his seven fumbles.

    And what do we actually make of Flynn, who has started just six games in his career? He’s thrown for 17 scores (10 interceptions), and six of those came in his 2011 breakout game versus the Detroit Lions.

     

    Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles

    It doesn’t seem that long ago that the former first overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft was staging the comeback of comebacks with the Eagles, leading the team to the NFC East title in 2010. But the past three seasons have been troubling for Vick, as he's completed less than 60 percent of his passes, throwing 35 touchdown passes and 27 interceptions in 30 games.

    Throw in 25 fumbles (11 lost) and 66 sacks over that span, and it makes one wonder how much does the veteran signal-caller have left in the tank?

     

    Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings

    Following a season in Kansas City in which he couldn’t hang on to the football, Cassel played pretty respectable football for the Purple Gang this past season. The veteran signal-caller completed 60.2 percent of his throws for 1,807 yards and 11 scores compared to 10 turnovers in nine games. A year earlier with the Chiefs, he had a half-dozen touchdown passes and 19 turnovers in nine outings.

    It will be interesting to see if he returns to the Twin Cities, especially with Norv Turner in town.

     

    Josh Freeman, Minnesota Vikings

    What to make of the 17th overall pick in the 2009 NFL draft? It once looked like Freeman had a bright future, putting up very solid numbers with the Buccaneers. But in the final three weeks of 2012, the young signal-caller threw two touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

    This past season, there continued to be issues, and before you knew it, Freeman was released and picked up by the Vikings, where he struggled in his lone start with the team. Can a once-promising career be salvaged?

Running Backs

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    Darren McFadden, Oakland Raiders

    Could a change of scenery be a healthy solution for McFadden, who has missed nearly one-third (29) of the Silver and Black’s 96 games since he was drafted fourth overall in 2008?

    On the field, the runner has flashed brilliance at times, racking up 5,270 yards from scrimmage while finding the end zone 28 times. But McFadden has yet to play all 16 games in any season, and time could be running out for the Raiders performer. Would it be a total shock if general manager Reggie McKenzie gives him one more chance?

     

    Knowshon Moreno, Denver Broncos

    Five players scored 10 or more touchdowns for the Broncos this past season, and the former first-round pick was one of them. Moreno played in all 16 games in 2013 and rolled up 1,586 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.

    In Denver’s two-game playoff sweep of the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots, he helped John Fox’s team control the clock, running for 141 yards and a score on 37 carries. But what’s his future role with the Broncos with Montee Ball waiting in the wings?

     

    Ben Tate, Houston Texans

    Although he had some injuries late in the season, Tate played super-sub for the Texans in 2013, as teammate and three-time Pro Bowler Arian Foster missed eight games last season. In three seasons on the field, the talented Tate has totaled at least 700 yards rushing in two of those campaigns, And in 2013, he totaled a team-high 771 yards on the ground.

    Tate has already stated that he doesn’t figure to be back in Houston. Could Cleveland be a landing place? And speaking of the Browns in more ways than one...

     

    Donald Brown, Indianapolis Colts

    As we were saying, the Cleveland Browns could be in the market for a big-time running back in 2014. That’s because the franchise dealt former third overall pick Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts last September for a first-round pick. And that deal was the best thing that could have happened to Donald Brown, who seemed to take the trade personally. The former first-round pick began to look the part, setting team highs in rushing yards (537) and total touchdowns (eight) in 2013.

     

    LeGarrette Blount, New England Patriots

    Although he was stifled in the team’s AFC Championship Game loss to the Broncos, you can’t ignore what Blount did leading up to that contest. Against the Buffalo Bills in Week 17 and versus the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional Round, the power runner rushed for a combined 355 yards and six touchdowns and averaged 45.5 yards per kickoff return on four tries.

    It will be interesting to see if any team feels the former workhorse runner can fill that same kind of expanded role once again.

Wide Receivers

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    Eric Decker, Denver Broncos

    In his last two NFL seasons, both with quarterback Peyton Manning at the helm, Decker has totaled 172 receptions for 2,352 yards and 24 scores. That’s quite a turnaround for the former third-round selection. The talented wideout caught only 50 passes in his first two years in the league.

    Decker has been relatively quiet in the playoffs, catching just seven passes, but the Denver passing game has been a ball-control beast as of late. It would be stunning if Decker opted to go elsewhere.

     

    Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers

    The physical Boldin came up one game short in 2013 of going to the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons—and with a third different team. The 11-year pro led the Niners with 85 receptions for 1,179 yards and seven touchdowns this past season, and you can’t overlook the overall success he’s had in the NFL playoffs. In 14 career postseason games, Boldin has totaled 68 catches for 1,033 yards and eight scores.

    It would be very interesting to see him and Michael Crabtree together for an entire season.

     

    James Jones, Green Bay Packers

    In all fairness, trying to compare Jones’ 2013 numbers to the previous year is almost a moot point. The most relevant number there was four, as in four different starting quarterbacks for the Packers this past season. Jones had 59 catches for 817 yards and four touchdowns, one season removed from leading the NFL with 14 scoring grabs. Despite a third straight NFC North title, there was a lot that went wrong for the Pack this past season. Jones could be a starter wherever he lands.

     

    Julian Edelman, New England Patriots

    The versatile wideout did his best Wes Welker imitation for the Patriots in 2013 and wound up totaling 105 catches, six for scores. But those catches add up to 1,056 yards, a not-so-scintillating 10.1 yards-per-grab average.

    Still, he helped quarterback Tom Brady move the chains when necessary and also did his usual excellent job on special teams, where he averaged 10.7 yards on 35 punt returns. It’s hard to see him going elsewhere because he could be even better with the Pats over the next few seasons.

     

    Emmanuel Sanders, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Last offseason, all the free-agent talk in the Steel City regarded the departure of Mike Wallace, who signed for some major coin with the Miami Dolphins. The Steelers handled his absence just fine by matching an offer sheet for Sanders last spring (when he was a restricted free agent) and then watching both him and teammate Antonio Brown score more touchdowns with Pittsburgh than Wallace did in Miami.

    What would it take for the Steelers to keep Brown and Sanders together in 2014?

Tight Ends

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    Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints

    A few years ago, quarterback Drew Brees got the franchise tag from the Saints. Could the organization be getting ready to tag Graham, who led the NFL with 16 touchdown receptions in 2013?

    The two-time Pro Bowler totaled 86 catches for 1,215 yards this past season, and in his brief four-year NFL career, he’s totaled 41 touchdown grabs in only 62 regular-season games. Barring something unforeseen, he will continue to be Brees’ favorite target for at least a few more seasons to come.

     

    Brandon Pettigrew, Detroit Lions

    I’ll stick with something I wrote earlier this month and say the imposing Pettigrew (6’5”, 257 pounds) may wind up back in the NFC North in 2014 and not necessarily with the Lions.

    This past season, he totaled only 41 catches for 416 yards and a pair of scores. And in five years with the club, he’s averaged only 10.0 yards per reception and caught 16 touchdown passes (equaling Saints tight end Jimmy Graham’s total in 2013). It would be interesting to see what new head coach Jim Caldwell thinks...

     

    Dennis Pitta, Baltimore Ravens

    During the team’s four-game Super Bowl run in 2012, Pitta totaled 14 catches for 163 yards and three touchdowns for the eventual NFL champions. Unfortunately, a hip injury wound up limiting the former fourth-round pick to only four regular-season contests this past season.

    Pitta did total 20 grabs for 169 yards and one score in his short stint. He figures to return to Baltimore and possibly team again with Ed Dickson, also a potential unrestricted free agent. Ozzie Newsome has some intriguing decisions to make.

     

    Fred Davis, Washington Redskins

    Injuries and other issues have a derailed a once-promising career for Davis, who has played in only 17 games the last two seasons combined. After totaling 59 catches for 796 yards and three scores in a dozen outings in 2011, the former second-round pick has combined for 31 receptions, 395 yards and one touchdown the last two seasons.

    There is no denying Davis’ talent and ability to make plays downfield. It will be extremely interesting to see which team takes a chance on the six-year veteran.

     

    Jeff Cumberland, New York Jets

    Hats off to head coach Rex Ryan, who guided the Jets to an 8-8 finish despite some disastrous and lopsided losses and the up-and-down play of rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

    One of the latter’s more reliable targets was Cumberland, who finished fifth on the Jets with just 26 catches but led the club with four touchdown receptions. He also averaged an impressive 15.3 yards per grab and took the sting out of Dustin Keller’s offseason departure. Should we bet the farm that Cumberland remains with his team?

Tackles

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    Jordan Gross, Carolina Panthers

    The 11-year veteran wound up being named to his third Pro Bowl this past season and with good reason considering he remains one of the most consistent players at his position. Gross has started all 167 games he has played in (missing only nine games in his career) and has registered 16 starts in eight of his 11 seasons. Carolina ranked 11th in the league in rushing in 2013 and, as we all know, rebounded from a 1-3 start to win the NFC South. Keeping Gross and the offensive line intact figures to be a priority.

     

    Branden Albert, Kansas City Chiefs

    What an up-and-down season for Albert, who was thought to be on his way out of Kansas City in April. When it was all said and done, the Chiefs bounced back from a 2-14 season to win 11 games and reach the playoffs and Albert was headed to his first Pro Bowl.

    A year ago, the steady blocker was given the franchise tag, but he and the team couldn’t agree on a long-term contract. So it’s likely the former first-round pick will hit the open market in March. Will he cash in big time with the Chiefs or another team?

     

    Zach Strief, New Orleans Saints

    Head coach Sean Payton and the team have seen their share of solid offensive linemen thrive in the Crescent City and then head elsewhere via free agency (see: guard Carl Nicks and tackle Jermon Bushrod).

    Would the versatile Strief, the team’s main starter at right tackle the last three seasons after he dabbled at guard for the first five years of his career, be inclined to leave Drew Brees and the imposing Saints offense for greener pastures? The former seventh-round pick could get his share of offers.

     

    Michael Oher, Baltimore Ravens

    Off of a disappointing 8-8 finish and first non-playoff appearance by the club since 2007, the Ravens have some big decisions to make. "Big," as in not only the re-signing of Oher, but left tackle Eugene Monroe (acquired from the Jacksonville Jaguars last fall) as well.

    Oher has not missed a start since coming to the NFL in 2009 and has seen action at both tackle spots. As we know, general manager Ozzie Newsome always finds a way to get it done, and getting both players re-signed would be huge.

     

    Jared Veldheer, Oakland Raiders

    The Silver and Black certainly missed this four-year veteran for the majority of 2013. Veldheer was an 11-game starter as a rookie in 2010 and started every game for the Raiders the next two seasons. But a triceps injury and surgery shelved him for the first 11 games of ’13.

    Now, the former third-round draft choice and underrated tackle can become an unrestricted free agent in early March. But general manager Reggie McKenzie has money to spend, and he should lock up Veldheer sooner rather than later.

Guards

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    Zane Beadles, Denver Broncos

    Beadles has started all but two games with the Broncos since arriving from Southern Utah in the second round of the 2010 draft.

    A Pro Bowler in 2012, the heady left guard was part of an offensive line that had to deal with its share of adversity during the season, especially with the prolonged absence of former Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady. Still, Denver allowed a league-low 20 sacks during the regular season, and appreciative quarterback Peyton Manning has not been sacked in a pair of playoff outings.

     

    Jon Asamoah, Kansas City Chiefs

    The Chiefs have some work to do if they plan on getting their offensive line back together. Left tackle Branden Albert could be an unrestricted free agent, as could Asamoah, who played in only 13 games this past season and was limited to nine starts.

    Still, Andy Reid’s team finished 10th in the league in rushing in 2013, and Asamoah and the remainder of his line mates did a tremendous job blocking for Pro Bowl running back Jamaal Charles.

     

    Travelle Wharton, Carolina Panthers

    Talk about coming back. After eight seasons with the Panthers, Wharton took the free-agency route to Cincinnati in 2012. But the former third-round pick from South Carolina never got a chance to show what he could do with the Bengals, as a knee injury knocked him out for the year before the season even began. 

    However, the prodigal Panther returned to Carolina this year and played in all 16 games, starting the team’s final 12 contests at right guard.

     

    Willie Colon, New York Jets

    At the very least, the veteran blocker brought a little swagger back to a Jets offensive line that had fallen off in recent seasons. While much of the focus on the team in 2013 was on the ups and downs of rookie quarterback Geno Smith, Colon helped Rex Ryan’s club rank sixth in the league in rushing. It will be interesting to see if general manager John Idzik brings back the sturdy blocker.

     

    Richie Incognito, Miami Dolphins

    Could the controversial veteran return to the Dolphins or go to some other team in 2014? This is a league where you never say never when it comes to the comeback. Incognito’s issues with one-time teammate Jonathan Martin have been extremely well-documented, but the bottom line is that when he was on the field in 2013, he graded out pretty well.

    Incognito has his share of baggage going back more than a few seasons, but there is little doubt he can help a team on the field. The question is, does his talent outweigh that baggage?

Centers

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    Alex Mack, Cleveland Browns

    New Browns head coach Mike Pettine will be happy to know that he's not only inherited the ninth-ranked defense in the NFL, but a seven-time Pro Bowler in left tackle Joe Thomas.

    He'll also be ecstatic if to know he has a two-time Pro Bowl center in the fold. Mack has emerged as one of the most consistent pivots in the league, and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the organization used the franchise tag on him. Mack started all 16 games in each of his five seasons in the league.

     

    Jonathan Goodwin, San Francisco 49ers

    This isn't the first place you'll read that the Niners offensive line may be the best in the game. It boasts the Pro Bowl left-side tandem of tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati, as well as the reliable Goodwin, who has started every game since joining the Niners in 2011.

    It’s amazing to consider that in his first seven seasons in the NFL, Goodwin started only 28 games with the New York Jets and New Orleans Saints. The 35-year-old veteran has started 80 games since with the Saints and 49ers.

     

    Roberto Garza, Chicago Bears

    Perhaps best known for wearing quarterback Jay Cutler’s jersey, Garza was part of a much-improved Chicago offensive line this past season. He was the lone incumbent on that unit from the previous season.

    Adam L. Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times explains that Bears’ general manager Phil Emery was more than happy with the 13-year veteran’s play in 2013. But does that mean that Garza, who has spent the last nine seasons with the Bears, will be back sharing a locker room with Cutler?

     

    Dominic Raiola, Detroit Lions

    A dozen seasons in the NFL and only one playoff appearance and winning season to show for it. Yet Lions center Dominic Raiola continues to do his job and do it extremely well.

    While the Detroit offensive front got quite the facelift this offseason, its 35-year old veteran center remains one of the team’s most reliable players. The Lions offense ranked sixth overall in total yards, and it may surprise some to know that Raiola and his mates allowed just 23 sacks in 2013, the second-fewest in the league.

     

    Evan Dietrich-Smith, Green Bay Packers

    Mike McCarthy and co. had problems keeping a starting quarterback on the field in 2013. However, Green Bay’s ground attack proved to be very healthy this past season, as the Packers ranked seventh in the league in rushing thank to rookie running back Eddie Lacy.

    Dietrich-Smith started all 16 games this past season and the playoff matchup against the 49ers. While his run-blocking could use some improvement, he allowed just two sacks in his final 14 overall outings of the season. But will he return to Titletown?

Defensive Ends

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    Greg Hardy, Carolina Panthers

    If Saints tight end Jimmy Graham has been the most-discussed potential free agent when it comes to the offensive side of the ball, Hardy is certainly his defensive counterpart. A first-time Pro Bowler in 2013, he finished with 15 sacks this past season, and over the last two years, the 2010 sixth-round selection has dropped opposing quarterbacks a combined 26 times.

    Hardy totaled seven sacks in the team’s final two weeks of the regular season, equaling his total from his first two NFL seasons. 

     

    Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals

    The fact that the Bengals finished third in the NFL in 2013 in fewest yards allowed and also ranked fifth in the league in both rushing and passing defense speaks volumes for defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, now the head coach of the Vikings.

    The fact that Cincinnati managed the feat minus stars like Geno Atkins and Leon Hall for a long period of time is also a tribute to players such as Johnson, who totaled only 3.5 sacks but racked up 56 tackles, two forced fumbles and nine passes defensed.  

     

    Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings

    It’s hard to spell relentless without a picture of Allen popping into your head. After a successful four-year run with the Chiefs, the 10-year veteran has been even better since being traded to the Purple Gang. In six seasons with Minnesota, Allen has not missed a game and has racked up 85.5 sacks in 96 contests and totaled at least 11 sacks in seven straight seasons.

    Is it time for another change of scenery for the always-entertaining Allen, a five-time Pro Bowler with an impressive 128.5 career sacks?

     

    Justin Tuck, New York Giants

    Unfortunately for us NFL historians, sacks didn’t become an official statistic in the league until the 1982 season. But it is still worth noting that Tuck had a combined four sacks in the Giants’ Super Bowl XLII and XLVI wins over the New England Patriots.

    The three-time Pro Bowler is coming off a season in which he finished with 11 sacks, 9.5 of those coming in the team’s final six games. Now, we’ll soon find out if Tuck will be staying or taking his 60.5 career sacks elsewhere.

     

    B.J. Raji, Green Bay Packers

    We’ve seen plenty of Raji in his five seasons. The massive defender was part of a Super Bowl championship in 2010 and was named to the Pro Bowl in 2011. He has seen playing time at defensive tackle, nose tackle and defensive end in Dom Capers’ aggressive units.

    General manager Ted Thompson has some decisions to make in regards to other prominent players. If Raji gets a break-the-bank offer from another club, he’s likely headed elsewhere.

Defensive Tackles

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    Henry Melton, Chicago Bears

    How does a team finish the season 30th in the league in total yards allowed and dead last in the NFL in rushing defense? One reason would be it losing its best defensive tackle three games into the season (along with injuries to cornerback Charles Tillman and outside linebacker Lance Briggs, to name a few).

    That would be the case for Melton, a Pro Bowler in 2012 who got the franchise tag from the Bears last offseason. But it remains to be seen if he comes back to the Windy City.

     

    Kevin Williams, Minnesota Vikings

    It doesn’t seem like a defensive player who played on a team that allowed the most points in the league in 2013 would have a lot of bargaining power in free agency.

    Is time catching up with Williams, a six-time Pro Bowler who has missed only five games during his impressive 11-year NFL career? He and teammate Jared Allen could both leave Minnesota this offseason, but it will be interesting to see if new head coach Mike Zimmer’s arrival changes things.

     

    Jason Hatcher, Dallas Cowboys

    In a season in which no team in the NFL surrendered more yards per game than the Cowboys, Hatcher was basically the last man standing up front. Injuries to defensive end DeMarcus Ware and his other line mates were a major problem and left Monte Kiffin’s problem-plagued unit shorthanded.

    Hatcher wound up with 11 sacks, nearly one-third of the team’s total (34), and was last seen frolicking in the backfield on Team Sanders in the Pro Bowl.

     

    Randy Starks, Miami Dolphins

    The days with the Dolphins have been good to Starks, who signed with the team in 2008 after four seasons with the Tennessee Titans. In six years with Miami, he has yet to miss a game, totaled 26.5 sacks and was named to two Pro Bowls along the way.

    Last offseason, Starks was the team’s designated franchise player, but he only signed his one-year tender. Now, he and fellow defensive tackle Paul Soliai could both be getting ready to hit the open market. Stay tuned.

     

    Jonathan Babineaux, Atlanta Falcons

    It was very down year for the Falcons, who went from 13-3 and the No. 1 playoff seed in the NFC in 2012 to just four victories this past season. Considering that only four teams in the league gave up more total yards per game in 2013 and that only the Chicago Bears allowed more rushing yards, there could be big changes in Atlanta.

    However, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan isn’t going anywhere and perhaps neither is Babineaux, who can play several positions on the defensive line.

Linebackers

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    ILB Donald Butler, San Diego Chargers  

    In 2010, the Chargers selected Butler in the third round of the draft. The University of Washington product missed his rookie campaign with an Achilles injury, but he's started at least a dozen games in each of his last three seasons. In 2013, the four-year veteran finished second on the team with 84 tackles and came up very big in the team’s playoff split with the Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos.

     

    OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins             

    Can the Redskins actually afford to lose half of their starting linebacking corps this offseason? Veteran London Fletcher is seriously (but not yet officially) thinking retirement, according to John Keim of ESPN.com, and Orakpo could be an unrestricted free agent come March.

    After missing 14 games in 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, the former first-round pick totaled 60 tackles and a team-high 10.0 sacks this past season. Pass-rushers always command a lot of attention in free agency, and 39.5 sacks in five seasons bodes well for Orakpo.

     

    MLB Jon Beason, New York Giants         

    Something you learned about the Giants and Carolina Panthers last season: The latter felt pretty good about their linebacking depth, while Tom Coughlin’s team really needed some help at the position.

    After missing 27 games due to injuries with Carolina from 2011-12, the Panthers dealt Beason to the Giants this fall. He wound up finishing second on that club with 93 tackles. New York may have gotten a steal by obtaining the veteran linebacker, and it would be a surprise if he was one season and out with Big Blue.

     

    ILB Karlos Dansby, Arizona Cardinals     

    Bruce Arians’ squad stunned most football experts by finishing 10-6 and just missing the playoffs. A lot of that credit must go to a defensive unit that finished sixth in the league in fewest yards allowed and was also ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing defense.

    Dansby returned to the Cardinals after a stint with the Miami Dolphins and led Arizona with 122 tackles, along with four interceptions, 6.5 sacks and 19 passes defensed in 2013.

     

    ILB Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens          

    Perhaps a bit underappreciated during his nine seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he played at nearly every linebacking spot, Smith was a force for the Ravens in 2013. The 10-year veteran led the team with 123 tackles, added five sacks, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and knocked down 19 passes.

    Baltimore’s defense figures to be even better if Ozzie Newsome can keep the pieces together.

Cornerbacks

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    Alterraun Verner, Tennessee Titans

    If Verner opts to return to the Titans in 2014, he will have the chance to not only play for new head coach Ken Whisenhunt but new defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The four-year veteran was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2013 after totaling 57 tackles, five interceptions (returning one for a score) and knocking down 23 passes.

    The opportunistic Verner totaled seven takeaways this past season. Would the organization possibly franchise the talented defender?

     

    Brent Grimes, Miami Dolphins 

    Grimes’ 2012 season with the Atlanta Falcons ended after one game due to an Achilles injury. In his first year with the Dolphins, his season ended with an appearance in the Pro Bowl.

    The heads-up defender led Miami with four interceptions and also knocked down 16 passes. Joe Philbin’s team lost its last two games this past season to finish 8-8, but it was the first time the Dolphins didn’t finish with a losing record since 2008. Now, the key is not losing Grimes.

     

    Sam Shields, Green Bay Packers

    It has not been a bad four-year run for Shields, an undrafted free agent from the University of Miami who signed with the Packers in 2010. He's coming off a season in which he started a career-high 14 games and in four NFL seasons has totaled 13 career interceptions.

    General manager Ted Thompson has his share of quality players (defensive end B.J. Raji, wide receiver James Jones) that he is hoping to keep from hitting the open market, and Green Bay’s 25th-ranked defense could use all the help it can get.

     

    Charles Tillman, Chicago Bears 

    Marc Trestman’s team finished 8-8 in 2013 and didn’t have Tillman for half of the season. Is it possible that the 11-year pro has played his last game with the Bears?

    “I'm not really worried about it," Tillman said, via Fred Mitchell of the Chicago Tribune. “I have some decisions I have to make in the next couple of weeks, couple of months."

    Can the Bears easily replace 47 takeaways (36 interceptions) and 40 forced fumbles?

     

    Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Denver Broncos             

    Over the last few days, there’s been talk that the six-year veteran is contemplating retirement if his Broncos defeat the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. However, it’s amazing what one media-day session at the Super Bowl will do, according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com.

    So, what does the future hold for Rodgers-Cromartie, who started for the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII, was traded to the Eagles in 2011 and now may close out his career in style? 

     

    Aqib Talib, New England Patriots            

    Here’s a bonus selection. For the second straight year, the standout cornerback helped get the Patriots to the conference championship game. But for the second straight January, Talib got injured in the contest and could not finish out the game.

    The one-time Buccaneers standout led the Pats with 13 passes defensed this past season and also totaled four interceptions. But how does his injury in the AFC title clash affect Talib’s status in 2014?

Safeties

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    SS Antoine Bethea, Indianapolis Colts

    The Colts have this amazing streak that is hard to explain. Dating back to 1997, the team has either won or lost at least 10 games in 17 straight seasons. Fortunately for Bethea and his team, the last two years have been the latter, and it has resulted in back-to-back playoff appearances.

    However, the Indianapolis defense remains an area of concern, despite the efforts of Bethea (110 tackles in 2013) and NFL sack leader Robert Mathis. Could general manager Ryan Grigson be thinking franchise tag for this veteran?

     

    FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills        

    Despite another season of finishing near the bottom of the NFL in run defense, the Bills were ranked fourth in the league against the pass. Some of that can be attributed to the play of Byrd, who tied for the team interception lead (four) despite missing the first five games of 2013. Buffalo’s designated franchise player a year ago, the three-time Pro Bowler has totaled three sacks, 22 interceptions and 11 fumbles in five seasons.

     

    SS T.J. Ward, Cleveland Browns               

    Could the hiring of former Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine as the team’s head coach (the club’s eighth sideline leader since returning to the league in 1999) help sway the talented Ward to stay in Cleveland?

    The four-year veteran wound up in Sunday’s Pro Bowl (just ask teammate Josh Gordon) and had the numbers in 2013 to back that up. Ward ranked second on the Browns with 112 stops, 1.5 sacks and returned both an interception and a fumble for a touchdown this past season.

     

    SS Donte Whitner, San Francisco 49ers 

    How do you figure this? Whitner spent the first five seasons of his NFL career with the Buffalo Bills and never went to the playoffs. The former first-rounder signed with the 49ers in 2011 and he and his team have reached the NFC title game and/or Super Bowl all three seasons.

    Never known as a big numbers guy (10 career interceptions), Whitner is a tone setter on one of the league’s best defensive units and one the San Francisco brass would hope to keep intact.

     

    SS Bernard Pollard, Tennessee Titans

    It is sometimes mystifying that the productive Pollard can’t seem to find a long-term home in this league. However, that’s probably a story for a much different time.

    A year after leading the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens with 98 tackles, Pollard led the Titans with 99 stops this past season. The former second-round pick from Purdue University has now played for four teams in eight NFL campaigns. No matter where he goes, it is safe to say that Pollard is always a hit.

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