Free Agency vs. NFL Draft: How Should NFL Teams Attack Each Position in 2014?
Free agency is a funny thing in the NFL.
Every year, teams race to spend millions of dollars. Every year, fanbases are left disappointed with some of the results.
That is not to say teams cannot improve via free agency. There are certainly holes to fill and teams with the money to fill them.
If any team exemplifies the opposite approach to winning—draft and develop—it's the Seattle Seahawks. The newly minted champions feature a host of home-grown talent, though they will have to start paying them the big bucks as they take turns hitting free agency in the coming years.
How should teams attack each position this offseason? Click through to find out.
Top Options in Free Agency: Michael Vick, Chad Henne, Matt Flynn
Top Prospects in the Draft: Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr
One look at that free-agent list and it's easy to see that teams that need a quarterback should certainly try to address the position in the draft.
Though there is no Andrew Luck in this year's draft, there is certainly talent at the position. Who will boom or bust remains to be seen, but there is plenty of potential in Manziel, Bortles, Bridgewater and Carr—the consensus top four quarterbacks in the draft.
Unfortunately, there are too many teams with a need, so a few will have to dig deeper to try to address the position. Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland are particularly well situated with three of the top four picks in the draft, which could leave the rest on the outside looking in at the cream of the crop.
Perhaps Jimmy Garoppolo, Zach Mettenberger or AJ McCarron will save the day out of the second round or beyond.
Teams in Need: Jacksonville, Houston, Minnesota, Cleveland, Oakland, St. Louis
Top Options in Free Agency: Maurice Jones-Drew, Rashad Jennings, Darren McFadden, Ben Tate, Knowshon Moreno
Top Prospects in the Draft: Carlos Hyde, Ka'Deem Carey, Tre Mason, Bishop Sankey, Charles Sims
The devaluation of the running back position continues.
Last year we didn't see a single running back drafted in the first round, a result that could become a trend given the shelf life of running backs and the rise of the timeshare backfield. There is also little clarity at the top of the draft class, which could see any one of these names drafted first.
The free-agent market isn't exactly loaded with tempting talent. Maurice Jones-Drew is a bit long in the tooth, and Darren McFadden is made of a glass-like substance.
Despite intriguing free agents like Knowshon Moreno and Ben Tate, "young and cheap" is the name of the game at running back these days, so the draft seems like the best bet to shore up the position for most teams.
Teams in Need: Cleveland, Atlanta, Miami, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Oakland
Top Prospects in the Draft: Sammy Watkins, Kelvin Benjamin, Mike Evans, Marqise Lee, Odell Beckham Jr., Allen Robinson, Jordan Matthews
The receiver position is about to be flooded with players from free agency and the draft.
Teams that have the money to lock up the top free agents will certainly spend it, even if it's a bit unexpected. How else can we explain Washington signing Pierre Garcon to a $42.5 million contract a couple of offseasons ago, a criticized deal that has worked out thus far?
But the draft class is so deep that teams might want to save their money and look to address the position come May. Sammy Watkins is the consensus top prospect at the position, and he can go in the top five of the draft.
After that, it's anybody's guess, but teams have a deep pool of talent from which to choose.
Teams in Need: New York Jets, Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City, Carolina, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, San Francisco
Top Options in Free Agency: Jimmy Graham, Dennis Pitta, Jermichael Finley, Brandon Pettigrew
Top Prospects in the Draft: Eric Ebron, Jace Amaro
There is Jimmy Graham—and Rob Gronkowski, when healthy—and then there is everybody else. Graham is probably the best player available in free agency, though it will be interesting to see if he ever gets there. He is likely getting the franchise tag from the Saints.
Failing that, there isn't much in free agency for needy teams. Dennis Pitta had one good season before getting knocked out for most of 2013, and he might be the beneficiary of a bidding war if the Ravens don't work out a deal or hit him with the franchise tag.
As for the draft, there are really two names before we start throwing darts.
Eric Ebron out of North Carolina and Texas Tech's Jace Amaro are jockeying for position in the draft community's collective opinion, and both are excellent draft prospects. There isn't much certainty beyond those two, however, so free agency might be a better course for teams that want a known quantity.
Teams in Need: Tampa Bay, Buffalo, Green Bay, Seattle, Arizona, New York Jets, Baltimore
Top Options in Free Agency: Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Alex Mack, Zach Strief, Jordan Gross, Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah, Brian de la Puente
Top Prospects in the Draft: Jake Matthews, Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Travis Swanson, David Yankey, Xavier Su'a-Filo
There are many teams that could use offensive line help. Luckily for those teams, there is plenty of talent heading into the free-agent market and the draft.
Branden Albert and Eugene Monroe headline the left tackle position. Both are quality blindside protectors, and at least one of them should be hitting the open market.
Alex Mack, the talented center for the Cleveland Browns, headlines the interior offensive line.
There is, of course, plenty of upside in the draft, starting with the top offensive lineman out of Texas A&M, Jake Matthews, and extending through Auburn's Greg Robinson, Michigan's Taylor Lewan and beyond.
It seems that teams will be able to adequately address their needs at offensive line in free agency or the draft. It's just a matter of money and the risk involved in trusting a rookie to protect your quarterback.
Teams in Need: Miami, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Houston, Seattle, Jacksonville, Oakland, Atlanta, New York Giants, Pittsburgh, Arizona, New England, New Orleans
Top Options in Free Agency: Michael Johnson, Greg Hardy, Henry Melton, Jared Allen, Jason Hatcher, Randy Starks, Paul Soliai, Lamarr Houston, Michael Bennett
Top Prospects in the Draft: Jadeveon Clowney, Kony Ealy, Louis Nix III, Timmy Jernigan, Aaron Donald
The NFL is a copycat league, so we might see some teams try to load up on defensive line talent. After all, the Seattle Seahawks just won with a dominant defense which was stacked along that defensive front.
There are some big names set to hit free agency in a few weeks. Defensive end Michael Johnson—likely the best defensive lineman in the free-agent class—is probably not going back to Cincinnati, as tweeted by Ian Rapoport (h/t NFL.com's Chris Wesseling).
The question is, who can afford these titans?
Teams like Minnesota and Oakland certainly have the cap space to make runs at some of the talent set to hit the market.
Of course, the draft can hide a wealth of talent.
One man who isn't hiding is South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, who has been the biggest blip on everyone's radar for the past year. Assuming less-needy teams don't take him early based on a "best player available" philosophy, a lucky Atlanta might get the pass-rushing help it needs with the sixth overall pick.
There are plenty of question marks behind Clowney, though. With so many free agents set to hit the market—assuming they aren't re-signed—it seems free agency is the better way to go for teams that have some money to spend.
Teams in Need: Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Tennessee, New England, Oakland, Miami
Top Options in Free Agency: Karlos Dansby, Daryl Smith, Brandon Spikes, Brian Orakpo, Donald Butler
Top Prospects in the Draft: C.J. Mosley, Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr, Yawin Smallwood, Kyle Van Noy, Ryan Shazier
The top of the free-agent class at linebacker is showing a little grey in its beard.
Karlos Dansby and Daryl Smith had resurgent seasons for the Cardinals and Ravens at 32 and 31 years of age, respectively. Dansby barely got a shot last season after being cut by the Miami Dolphins, so a good season is no guarantee of a big contract.
Perhaps the best option for teams that need a run-stuffing option is Brandon Spikes, who has been a thumper for the New England Patriots since head coach Bill Belichick drafted him in 2010.
Then there are the pass-rushers, and there aren't many options in free agency. Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr and Kyle Van Noy are all excellent options for 3-4 defenses and can help teams like Green Bay and Arizona.
Even 4-3 teams like Atlanta and Tampa Bay might snap some of these pass-rushers up in the draft and convert them to defensive ends.
Teams in Need: New England, Cincinnati, Buffalo, New York Giants, Green Bay, Arizona, Minnesota
Top Options in Free Agency: Brent Grimes, Vontae Davis, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Alterraun Verner, Aqib Talib
Top Prospects in the Draft: Darqueze Dennard, Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Marcus Roberson, Bradley Roby
A porous secondary can sink a team fast, especially in today's NFL.
Brent Grimes was a pleasant surprise in Miami, a gamble that paid off for then-general manager Jeff Ireland. Vontae Davis—a failed Ireland draft pick in Miami—has resurrected his career with Indianapolis. The same could be said of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Denver.
Perhaps the most underrated option in free agency is Alterraun Verner, who had a career year with Tennessee.
Of course, the market could dry up rather quickly if most of these players re-sign with their current teams.
This year's draft class has some serious potential, though. There doesn't seem to be an elite option in the draft, but guys like Darqueze Dennard and Jason Verrett can contribute immediately on the right teams.
Teams in Need: Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New England, Detroit, New York Giants, Dallas, Washington, San Diego, Cincinnati, Carolina, Denver
Top Options in Free Agency: T.J. Ward, Jairus Byrd, Donte Whitner, James Ihedigbo, Bernard Pollard
Top Prospects in the Draft: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Jimmie Ward, Calvin Pryor, Craig Loston, Dion Bailey
There are some big names set to hit the market in a few weeks.
T.J. Ward and Jairus Byrd have been two of the best safeties in the NFL, and they should strike it rich in free agency. Donte Whitner won't be far behind if the 49ers don't hit him with the franchise tag.
The draft class isn't as deep as some other positions, but teams in need will still be able to find some starters if they choose to address the position in the draft. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a bit polarizing in the draft community, but he should be able to come in and start for a team that drafts him the first round.
Given the quality in free agency and the uncertainty of the draft, it seems the few teams that might have a shot at the top guys would be better served trying to upgrade the safety position on the open market.
Teams in Need: Philadelphia, Chicago, Tennessee, Green Bay, Dallas, Houston, Jacksonville, New York Jets, Miami
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