Free agency is where many NFL players get the largest contracts of their careers. With a rookie wage scale making up part of the NFL's current CBA, players will either sign their most lucrative contract as a free agent, or their teams will lock them up before they hit the open market. Teams could also use the franchise tag to keep their player for one year at a high price. Franchise tags include a one-year guaranteed salary and must match the amount of the top-five highest-paid players at that position.
Not all of these players may make it to free agency, but assuming their teams don't re-sign them, here are the top-10 impending free agents for 2014 expected to land the biggest contracts.
10 Eric Decker, WR, Denver Broncos: $1.3 million in 2013
Eric Decker is not a no.1 receiver, but free agency is all about overpaying. If he's on the open market, one team will do it. Decker has 31 touchdown passes over the past three seasons, which included years with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow as his quarterbacks. He also plays with Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker which opens up the field for him.
Decker's contract will probably be in the area of Brian Hartline's five-year, $30.7 million deal which he signed in Miami last offseason. A strong playoff and a Super Bowl for Denver would raise the price tage on Decker as it usually does for a player whose team becomes Super Bowl champions.
9 Greg Hardy, DE, Carolina Panthers: $1.3 million in 2013
Greg Hardy has flown under the radar the last few years. He amassed 11 sacks in 2012 and grew that number to 15 this year. In a pass-happy league, there's always a need for pass-rushers. Hardy finally got the attention he deserved this year thanks to Carolina's overall success with a 12-4 record.
The 25-year-old is in a prime position of leverage. His best years are likely still ahead of him. Carolina would be wise to lock him up for the long-term. He may give the Panthers a hometown discount, but in all likelihood he'll be looking for something in the area of Paul Kruger's five-year, $40 million deal which he signed with Cleveland last year.
8 Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints: $1.32 million in 2013
Who could forget the best receiving tight end in the NFL? Jimmy Graham is a mismatch for any defense and has been Drew Brees' go-to guy. If the Saints want to keep their franchise quarterback happy, they'll make sure Graham's a Saint for a long time. Jimmy Graham set career highs in 2013 with an average of 14.1 yards per catch and 16 touchdowns. He has 41 in his four-year career.
The Saints would need to clear up a lot of salary cap space, as they are projected to be $8 million over the salary cap next season. New Orleans would have to cut several players, and possibly renegotiate with certain players under contract. Even so, it's unlikely they'll be able to work out a long-term deal that's fair to Graham. If they have enough space, they could tag Graham, although he may have a case for being tagged as a wide receiver at over $10 million rather than a tight end's $6 million price tag. Otherwise, he'd be a huge prize in the free agent market.
7 Dennis Pitta, TE, Baltimore Ravens: $2 million in 2013
If Jimmy Graham doesn't hit the open market, Dennis Pitta would be a nice consolation prize. Pitta suffered a hip injury this preseason and didn't return until late in Baltimore's season.
Pitta had a breakout year in 2012, with 61 catches for 669 yards and seven touchdowns. He added 14 catches for 163 yards and four touchdowns in the postseason en route to the Ravens' Super Bowl win.
He's a valuable asset to Baltimore who already traded Anquan Boldin last season. Their offense suffered in 2013 and they'd be wise to keep Pitta who is a favourite target of Joe Flacco's. However, Pitta may be out of Baltimore's price range, with the Ravens needing to lock up Daryl Smith as well.
These price tags will inevitably change as several of these players still have the playoffs ahead of them. Ultimately, that's what will determine a player's market value.
6 Brian Orakpo, LB, Washington Redskins: $2.81 million in 2013
Brian Orakpo is a bright spot in a porous Washington defense. His 2012 season was lost due to injury, but he has come back stronger than ever, posting 60 tackles, 10 sacks and returning an interception for a touchdown. It was a down year for the Redskins and the franchise is about to make yet another coaching change.
Perhaps Orakpo would want to go to a more stable organization. If so, he'll have many suitors. The market is high on defensive talent and Orakpo can find himself a nice new home and a raise.
5 Alex Mack, C, Cleveland Browns: $3.73 million in 2013
Alex Mack has proven himself to be one of the top centres in the NFL. While the Cleveland Browns were 4-12 last year, they showed some very positive signs for their future. Their roster is more talented than their record would indicate.
Mack may be the most sought after lineman if he hits the open market. He has said publicly that he will allow Cleveland to match any offer he receives from another team. However, that was before the Browns fired coach Rob Chudzinski after just one season. With the Browns looking to hire their third head coach since 2010, maybe Mack will want to go to a more stable organization. If that's the case, his contract could go up to the level of Panthers centre Ryan Kalil's contract of six years, $49 million.
Centres are the anchors of the offensive line and of the utmost importance to how smoothly an offence runs. Mack would be a huge addition for many teams in the NFL.
4 Brent Grimes, CB, Miami Dolphins: $5.5 million in 2013
Of all the Miami Dolphins' signings in last year's offseason splurge, they may have gotten their best bargain in Brent Grimes. Coming off an Achilles injury in 2012, Grimes signed a modest one-year deal with Miami.
He proved to be the Dolphins' best corner and will want to be rewarded as such in the offseason. The franchise tag is an option for Miami if they don't want to give the 30-year-old a long-term deal. Grimes had 52 total tackles this season and four interceptions. A franchise tag would help him earn over $10 million. He already was tagged once in Atlanta, right before his Achilles injury. That might be his fate again if he were to stay in Miami, but if he's not, look for him to be snagged up pretty quickly in the $10 million per year range, likely on a deal worth two or three years.
3 Jairus Byrd, FS, Buffalo Bills: $6.9 million in 2013
Jairus Byrd is arguably the best player at his position when healthy. He missed five games of the 2013 season while playing under the franchise tag, but still accumulated four interceptions, 37 tackles and a forced fumble.
Byrd was missing for the first five weeks and the Bills defense suffered. Once he returned, Buffalo got back on track and finished the season ranked 10th in the league. They're an improving unit and keeping Byrd would keep them moving in the right direction. If he were to hit the open market, he could make up to $8 million, which would put him right atop the highest-paid safeties in the league; and he'd have earned it.
2 Henry Melton, DT, Chicago Bears: $8.45 million in 2013
Unfortunately for Henry Melton, he suffered a torn ACL during a contract year. By the same token, the Bears defense flew off the rails without him clogging up running lanes, which brings his value right back up. He was playing under the franchise tag for the Bears and the team's struggles following his injury show what he's worth.
Melton is just 27 years old and was named to the Pro Bowl last season. If the team has faith that modern medicine can get him back to his 2012 form, he should receive a big contract in March, probably somewhere in the range of four years, $40 million. He won't quite make what Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh or Haloti Ngata make - all with contracts of over $50 million. He's not far behind that group, though, and someone will realize that, whether it's the Bears or another team.
1 Branden Albert, LT, Kansas City Chiefs: $9.2 million in 2013
When the Kansas City Chiefs drafted Eric Fisher no.1 overall, they thought they were taking Branden Albert's eventual replacement. However, that no longer appears to be the case. Fisher struggled heavily at right tackle for the Chiefs this year, while Albert flourished, protecting Alex Smith and opening running lanes for Jamaal Charles.
Albert was playing under the franchise tag in 2013. He earned $9.2 million this season, and due to his stellar play he may even get more in free agency. Non-quarterbacks cannot be tagged more than twice, so the Chiefs could elect to tag Albert for a second straight year, or could lose him.
Albert won't have any trouble finding work if he hits the open market. Teams in need of his services could include the Miami Dolphins, whom he was linked to in trade rumours in April. The Dolphins are projected to have $19 million in cap space. They need a left tackle as badly as anyone, as Bryant McKinnie was more of a stop-gap solution. The Dolphins can do what they should've done before this season and acquire Albert. All-Pro tackle Ryan Clady was given a five-year, $52 million deal with Denver this past summer. While Albert is not quite up to Clady's level, the open market may pay him even more.