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It's time to play matchmaker for the soon to be unrestricted free agents. Now that the deadline to apply the franchise tag has passed, we know who will be hitting the open market, barring a late change of heart from the players set to shop themselves around. This year's top crop seems to be in the secondary, but there are also some top tier linemen available. It all begins March 11, which still gives these players time to choose to stay with their current teams. However, when you're in demand, hitting the open market usually proves to be too tempting to pass up. These players are set to cash in, now the only question is which teams will land these big fish? Let's take a look and do some educated guessing.
10 T.J. Ward - S: Cleveland Browns to Philadelphia Eagles
The Cleveland Browns placed a transition tag on Alex Mack, meaning T.J. Ward will be given an opportunity to test the open market. If the Browns feel Ward is a key player on their team, there's no reason to let Ward walk. The Browns have over $50 million in cap space with the NFL announcing the salary cap will jump to $133 million.
If the Browns let Ward walk, you'd have to believe it's because they think they can find an upgrade, but that's doubtful. The only upgrade they could make would be signing Jairus Byrd.
One team in serious need of safety help is the Philadelphia Eagles. They always seem to make a splash in free agency and this would certainly qualify as an opportunity to do so. You could make the argument that they'd go after Byrd first, but there will be many teams going for Byrd. Landing a second-team All-Pro player in Ward isn't a bad consolation prize. The Eagles created some cap space in letting Michael Vick walk in free agency and releasing Jason Avant. I believe that was to fill a need.
9 Aqib Talib - CB: New England Patriots to Oakland Raiders
Many will criticize the Patriots if they let Aqib Talib walk, but New England always seems to be just fine no matter who they lose. They played with tons of injuries to their top players in 2013, yet somehow made it to the AFC Championship game for a third straight season. New England's way also seems to be buying low on free agents.
Talib was a force in New England's secondary the past couple of seasons, as Bill Belichick took a chance on the corner with off the field issues. He was injured early on in each of New England's past two AFC Championship games and without him, they were picked apart by Joe Flacco, then watched Peyton Manning march down the field with ease this year.
Talib may not get what he wants with his injury problems, but I'm confident someone will give a better offer than the Patriots. With Talib's demands, you have to look at teams with cap space and a big need in the secondary. That fit seems to be the Oakland Raiders who have the most cap space in the league and need talent upgrades at every level. It's also a do-or-die year for Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen. They'll want all the help they can get to improve on two straight 4-12 seasons. They'll take the risk with Talib.
8 Michael Bennett - DE: Seattle Seahawks to Chicago Bears
It's inevitable that a defending Super Bowl champion will lose at least a couple of pieces in free agency and the Seattle Seahawks are no exception. They've already cut Sidney Rice to create cap space, but their priorities this year are signing Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term contract extensions. They also have a lot of depth in pass rushers, so it leaves Michael Bennett the odd man out.
It would take a massive change of heart for Bennett to stay, as the Seahawks would likely only sign him if he were willing to take a hometown discount, but Bennett has rejected that notion. “There is no such thing as discount. This is not Costco, this is not Walmart — this is real life,” Bennett said in February. “There is no discount really because you go out there and you don’t give a discount on effort.”
Bennett's brother Martellus is in Chicago, on a team in need of defensive players at every level. Bennett's 31 tackles and 8.5 sacks he posted in 2013 will be welcomed in the Windy City. The Bears don't have a ton of cap space, but could make the room for another Bennett.
7 Alterraun Verner - CB: Tennessee Titans to St. Louis Rams
Alterraun Verner couldn't have picked a better year to have the season he did. He's 25 years old, had a breakout year and is hitting the open market. The Tennessee Titans elected not to use the franchise tag on Verner and they don't have the cap space to pay what Verner will demand.
Verner has never missed a game in his five-year career. This season he collected five interceptions, two fumble recoveries and and 57 tackles. He also had 23 passes defended. He enjoyed this breakout season with Gregg Williams on the defensive coaching staff. Williams is now the defensive coordinator of the St.Louis Rams with Verner's old head coach Jeff Fisher.
The Rams just released Cortland Finnegan which saved them $10 million on the salary cap. The Rams will want to make a jump this year in the NFC West and they should use that money saved to grab a younger corner in Verner who will undoubtedly be an upgrade if he plays anywhere near his 2013 form.
6 Branden Albert - OT: Kansas City Chiefs to Arizona Cardinals
The writing was on the wall for Branden Albert when the Chiefs took Eric Fisher with their no.1 overall pick in last year's draft. They placed the franchise tag on Albert last year and never made a real effort to sign him to a long-term deal.
Albert responded by having a very good season, allowing Jamaal Charles to lead a potent Chiefs running game and Alex Smith to have a very solid campaign. His value is up and will cash in on the open market.
The easy answer would be Albert going to Miami, as the Dolphins seemed to be in trade talks with the Chiefs last year. However I think Miami goes somewhere else to fix their depleted offensive line. The Arizona Cardinals have been linked to Albert this offseason and it makes perfect sense. They still need help on their offensive line if they want Carson Palmer and company to build on the team's surprise 10-6 season in 2013. The Cards have cap space and will use it to fill a huge hole at tackle.
5 Jared Veldheer - OT: Stays with Oakland Raiders
With the amount of cap space they have, it's mind boggling that the Raiders haven't already locked up Jared Veldheer, be it on a long-term contract or via the franchise tag. He's one of the only bright spots on a Raiders roster short on talent. He had stated he didn't want to be tagged, so maybe the Raiders are confident they'll keep him.
Free agents will soon be able to speak with other teams, but can't sign anywhere until March 11. Maybe the Raiders will just let Veldheer test the the market and simply match any offer he receives. Veldheer has said he'd like to stay in Oakland and with the Raiders' cap space, they can easily match any offer Veldheer gets. I think he stays put.
4 Lamarr Houston - DE: Oakland Raiders to Indianapolis Colts
Lamarr Houston is another top commodity in free agency and again, it's bizarre that the Raiders haven't seemed to be making Houston a priority.
However like Veldheer, it appears Houston will be able to test the waters and the Raiders could match what is offered to him. Houston is a great fit in either a 4-3 or 3-4 defence and is only 26 years old. He's never missed a start in his career. He recorded 69 tackles, forced two fumbles and added six sacks.
There's never a shortage of teams looking for young talented pass rushers. The Jaguars certainly could sign Houston as they have cap space and a need, but since when do the Jaguars make any big signings? I do see Houston going to the AFC South. The Indianapolis Colts need upgrades on defence and can pair Houston with Robert Mathis. Sounds like a great fit.
3 Michael Johnson - DE: Cincinnati Bengals to Minnesota Vikings
The Cincinnati Bengals always have cap space, yet always seem to let one of their top players walk in free agency. They simply don't like giving out big contracts, so it looks like Michael Johnson will walk to a team in need of pass rushers.
A team that will need pass rushers is the Minnesota Vikings, who are letting longtime leader Jared Allen walk. Johnson is a great young replacement option. Johnson's former defensive coordinator also happens to be the head coach in Minnesota, Mike Zimmer.
Zimmer has a knack for getting the best out of his players, routinely taking rejects around the league and turning them into quality starters. Johnson probably realizes this as well and may be looking to stay with Zimmer. Johnson had just 3.5 sacks in 2013 but he constantly puts pressure on quarterbacks, disrupts the run, and bats passes at the line. He'll remain with Zimmer after all.
2 Eugene Monroe - OT: Baltimore Ravens to Miami Dolphins
The Baltimore Ravens acquired Eugene Monroe in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars during the season, as the Ravens were desperate to fix their offensive line. They'll likely keep trying to keep Monroe, but being the top tackle available, the open market is something Monroe will not be able to resist.
Finding the fit for him is easy. The Miami Dolphins have plenty of cap space and their undisputed no.1 need is at tackle. Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo were clearly not the answers. The Fins will need to upgrade across the board on the o-line, but tackle is first and foremost. They simply can't let Ryan Tannehill get manhandled the way he did in 2013, taking 58 sacks.
Dennis Hickey made his first great move as GM, keeping cornerback Brent Grimes and he has a chance to make another great move, finding the right guy to protect his franchise quarterback. Monroe's still young and is great in both the running and passing game. It's a no brainer.
1 Jairus Byrd - S: Buffalo Bills to Indianapolis Colts
Arguably the best free safety in the league, Jairus Byrd seems intent on hitting the open market. He has reportedly rejected several substantial offers by the Bills as he finally has a chance to test his value. He was franchise tagged last year and the Bills dragged their feet a little too long.
Byrd has consistently been a playmaker throughout his entire career and it has been on a mediocre Buffalo team.
There are an abundance of possibilities for Byrd, making it difficult to project where he'll go. His former defensive coordinator now is the head coach in Cleveland in Mike Pettine. However, with Byrd never having played in a playoff game, I think he'll want to go to a team that can pay him and where he'll finally get a chance to play in meaningful games.
The Eagles are definitely a possibility to make another splash at safety.
The Colts have already signed D'Qwell Jackson and could make a run at the best free agent. They are in a weak AFC South division and will look to take the next step after winning the division in 2013. They also have an owner in Jim Irsay who's rather nosey in their football operations and they'll likely want to make another big move in free agency. They have the means to do it here, so...