It’s gotten to the point where the NFL has virtually no offseason. Maybe just those 31 dead days known as July, where everyone is just sitting around waiting for training camp to start.
Once the Super Bowl ends, that begins the season I like to call Endless Speculation. Speculation rules. It allows media types to play general manager and put free agents on new teams. It gives anyone with a computer and a website license to conduct a mock draft that will end up being 15 percent correct. It puts us in a lather while we wait for the next 22 meaningful weeks of the greatest sport in history to roll around.
It all starts with the scouting combine in February, where potential draftees are poked and prodded like cattle at the county fair. Then we burst into the meat market that is free agency, where guys get paid way more than they’re worth because, hey, the market dictated that team A was more desperate than team B. Then in May, the hopes and dreams of the next generation of stars are realized or crushed at the dog and pony show known as the NFL Draft.
We’re here to talk about the meat market. Free agency commences on March 11 and, as usual, it’s sure to be a spectacle with general managers throwing around money like your drunk uncle Ernie at a strip club.
As such, some guys are about to become very rich. These are the guys most likely to break the bank.
15 T.J. Ward - Strong Safety - Cleveland Browns
Safeties don’t always fare that well in free agency, but Ward should do just fine. At 27, he’s entering the prime of his career and he’s coming off arguably his best season. In 2013, Ward had 112 tackles, 1.5 sacks and 2 interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He also made his first Pro Bowl while anchoring the league’s ninth-ranked defense. Last offseason, the Green Bay Packers gave safety Morgan Burnett a contract extension that averaged $5.2 million per season. Burnett has zero Pro Bowls under his belt and is probably two-thirds the player that Ward is. You can bet Ward will want to better that deal.
14 Henry Melton - Defensive Tackle - Chicago Bears
Melton would be A LOT higher on this list if he hadn’t torn his ACL last September. That injury cost him the bulk of the 2013 season and will likely cost him the start of 2014. For guys not named Adrian Peterson, ACLs take 12 months to fully heal. Injury or not, someone is going to pay Melton. Defensive tackles this talented don’t grow on trees. Most guys that play the interior of the defensive line are just wide bodies who take up blockers, but Melton is the rare wide body who can make plays. He can play the run AND rush the passer, which is a rare combination for any defensive lineman. In 2012, Melton had 44 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles. In 2011, he had seven sacks. The top five defensive tackles (by average salary) make more than $8 million per season. The top four make over $10.5 million. He might lose a little money because of the injury, but Melton is definitely one of the top five defensive tackles in the NFL. We’ll just have to wait and see if he gets paid like it.
13 Aqib Talib - Cornerback - New England Patriots/Alterraun Verner - Cornerback - Tennessee Titans
There will be a number of quality cornerbacks on the free agent market. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, though. The No. 1 cornerback appears to be Brent Grimes, who played last season in Miami. After that there are two or three guys who are about the same. In addition to Talib and Verner, you could throw the Colts’ Vontae Davis into the mix. All three are 28 or younger. Davis and Verner are just 25. So while there’s no Deion Sanders-types in this year’s free agent class, there are still some very solid corners. And the free agent market loves corners. Just look at the idiotic contract the Atlanta Falcons gave Dunta Robinson back in 2010 – six years, $54 million. Teams probably look at that as a cautionary tale now, but there’s no doubt these guys are going to being living comfortably come March.
12 Jason Worilds - Outside Linebacker - Pittsburgh Steelers
Worilds had a pretty uneventful first three seasons in the NFL, starting a total of 10 games. Now, he’s about to be one of the hottest free agent commodities on the market. In 2013, Worilds had the good fortune of watching LaMarr Woodley get injured. That opened the door for him to start 11 games and go from an unknown to a bona fide playmaker. A fortuitous turn of events in a contract year. Worilds chalked up eight sacks, which led the Steelers, and added 63 tackles and two forced fumbles. Everybody loves the quarterback sack and that makes outside linebacker a sexy position. Sexy gets paid. The top 15 average salaries at the position are north of $5 million annually. The top 10 are north of $6.7 million. With a bidding war expected, Worilds is going to do just fine for himself.
11 Jeremy Maclin - Receiver - Philadelphia Eagles
Much like Melton, Maclin is coming off a lost season. The Eagles’ No. 1 receiver tore his ACL before the 2013 season began and probably lost some money in the process. Maclin missed the chance to put up monster numbers in Chip Kelly’s high-octane offense in his contract year. He’s still going to be an attractive target on the open market though. Maclin is 25 and his best years are still in front of him. In the four seasons in which he played, Maclin has never had fewer than 773 yards receiving and 56 catches. Two receivers with similar stat lines – Mike Wallace and Greg Jennings – cashed in on free agency just last year. Wallace’s deal with Miami averages $12 million per season. Jennings’ deal with Minnesota averages $9 million. Those two teams were desperate for a receiver and there will be some desperate teams again this year. The New York Jets come immediately to mind.
10 Michael Johnson - Defensive End - Cincinnati Bengals
On the surface, Michael Johnson isn’t a very big name. He hasn’t been to a Pro Bowl. He had a measly 3.5 sacks in 2013. He plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. Hell, his name is Michael Johnson. Could there be a more boring name than that? Maybe Bob Smith. All that being said, there’s going to be demand for Johnson. Why? Johnson had 11.5 sacks in 2012 and despite a down year in 2013, 6'7", 270 lb pass rushing defensive linemen are hard to find. Really hard to find. In addition to the prototype size, Johnson is athletic. He’s had an interception each of the past three seasons and he defended nine passes in 2013. He can also get off blockers. Johnson has registered more than 50 tackles the last two seasons. Are we talking Mario Williams money for Johnson? No, we’re not. He could very well get Chris Clemons or Kamerion Wimbley money though. That would put him at in the range of $7 million annually.
9 Brent Grimes - Cornerback - Miami Dolphins
After missing all but one game of the 2012 season, Brent Grimes was facing uncertainty. The Atlanta Falcons didn’t want him back, so he signed a one-year “prove yourself” deal with Miami. He did just that while essentially playing for his football future. Grimes put up 60 tackles, four interceptions, 16 passes defended and returned a pick 94 yards for a touchdown. That campaign gave Grimes his football life back and made him the No. 1 free agent corner on the market. It should also allow him to pocket at least $7 million per season on his next contract.
8 Eric Decker - Receiver - Denver Broncos
7 Branden Albert - Left Tackle - Kansas City Chiefs
Left tackle is arguably the most important position in football after quarterback. So if you can play it adequately in the NFL, you’re going to get rich at some point. This is that time for Branden Albert. Albert has been a starter at left tackle for the Chiefs since his rookie season. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2013, which, it turns out was tremendous timing. There are some left tackle-needy teams out there too. Miami and Arizona head the list. Based on average salary, the top 10 left tackles in the league make $7.5 million and above. The top five highest-paid guys make an average of $10 million and above.
6 Michael Bennett - Defensive End - Seattle Seahawks
Like Grimes, Bennett bet on himself last season. There was little interest in him when he became a free agent after the 2012 season because of questions about his knee. Seattle took a flier and signed Bennett to a one-year deal for $5 million. The gamble paid off for the Seahawks. Bennett played in all 16 games and turned in 8.5 sacks. It’s about to pay off for Bennett too. He will be one of the most in-demand free agents on the market and he’s already said he isn’t giving Seattle the old hometown discount. Bennett will be looking to get paid and he’s going to.
5 Brian Orakpo - Outside Linebacker - Washington Redskins
Remember this guy? He burst on the scene in 2009 and registered 11 sacks while earning defensive rookie of the year honors. He had 8.5 and 9 sacks in 2010 and 2011, respectively. Then he missed all but two games in 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle. Orakpo returned to form in 2013 with 10 sacks, but was largely unnoticed because the Redskins’ season was a tire fire. If he has any sense, Orakpo will get out while the gettin’s good. He should have no shortage of suitors and a DeMarcus Ware-like contract of $11 million a year isn’t out of the question.
4 Eugene Monroe - Left Tackle - Baltimore Ravens
Monroe is slightly ahead of Albert in the free agent left tackle conversation. Although he has zero Pro Bowls to Albert’s one, Monroe has been much more consistent over the course of his career. Consistency is a good thing when you’re talking about protecting your quarterback’s blind side. Monroe has been a starter since 2009, his rookie year. Baltimore acquired him from Jacksonville via trade and they want to re-sign him, but that’s going to be awfully tough if he hits the open market.
3 Jairus Byrd - Free Safety - Buffalo Bills
Now we’re getting into the cream of the crop. Byrd is a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All Pro. He led the NFL in interceptions twice. He did all of this while playing for Buffalo, which makes it even more amazing. Why? Quick, name me three guys who play for the Bills. Thought so. After getting hit with the franchise tag last year, Byrd wants out and he wants big-time money. It looks pretty certain that he’s going to get both. Byrd has a strong argument to be the top-paid safety in the NFL. That distinction is currently Troy Polamalu’s. The Steelers’ safety averages about $9.9 million per year. Byrd should be able to top that fairly easily.
2 Greg Hardy - Defensive End - Carolina Panthers
Greg Hardy did exactly what an NFL player is supposed to do in a contract year. He went on the field and tore it up, earning his first Pro Bowl selection. A year after tallying 11 sacks, Hardy set a Panthers’ record with 15 in 2013. There’s plenty of upside here too. Hardy is only 25 and he’s improved his numbers each year he’s been in the league. Carolina desperately wants him back and they have been making salary cap moves accordingly. Carolina may or may not get their wish, but Hardy is getting at least $10 million a year from someone.
1 Jimmy Graham - Tight End - New Orleans Saints
Graham is hands-down the best tight end in the league. He has the speed of a receiver and the strength and body of a linebacker. You can’t cover him with a linebacker because he’ll run right by him. You can’t cover him with a safety or a corner because he’ll outmuscle them. In other words, Graham is the definition of an offensive matchup problem. He’s had two seasons with more than 1,200 yards receiving. In 2013, Graham put up 86 catches for 1,215 yards and an astonishing 16 touchdowns. That last number led the NFL. Graham will easily become the top-paid tight end in the NFL this offseason. However, he’s going to argue that he should be paid like a top-tier wide receiver and the numbers say he’s right. Graham could, and probably should be, the first tight end to make more than $10 million annually. You can bet Drew Brees is telling management to pay the guy whatever he wants.