The legal tampering period will begin in just two days, and teams can start signing free agents on the 11th. It’s one of the most exciting times of the year on the NFL calendar, and it’s also time for me to finally rank the top 50 free agents in this year’s class. It’s a pretty daunting task, especially since there are so many great rankings out there. I’m sure there will be many disagreements, and I’m looking forward to some insightful, enlightening conversations in the comments section.
1. Michael Bennett- It was a pretty tough call at the top between Michael Bennett and Jairus Byrd, but I decided to go with the Seattle Seahawks defensive end. Even though I think the ‘Hawks will ultimately sign him to a long-term deal, Bennett would be the jewel of the free agent class. An incredibly underrated player with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he finally received major attention last season as one of the stars on an elite defense. There aren’t many 4-3 defensive ends who dominate like he does as both a pass rusher and run defender, and the 28-year-old has played at a very high level in each of the past three seasons. A disruptive presence who can excel in just about any facet, Bennett deserves to be at the top of the list.
2. Jairus Byrd- He wants to be played like the game’s best safety, and he’ll most likely get that kind of money even if Earl Thomas is better and both Devin McCourty and Eric Weddle are just as good. Byrd’s solid tackling, instincts, ball skills, and ability to read plays make him an elite player, and there’s no question that he’s a building block in a team’s secondary. I wish Byrd actually wanted to play for the Bills, because they had great things going with Byrd, Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams, and Da’Norris Searcy in the secondary.
3. Eugene Monroe- The Baltimore Ravens have been aggressively trying to keep Monroe, but it looks like he wants to test the open market. In line for a huge payday this offseason, Monroe is the best offensive tackle in a talented pool, and he is great as a pass blocker and run blocker. That’s not easy to find these days, and it’s a big reason why the OL-starved Ravens really want to keep their 2013 trade acquisition.
4. T.J. Ward- There isn’t a better safety in the NFL against the run than Ward, who uses his instincts and range to bring down ball-carriers for massive losses. Acting like a linebacker at times, Ward excels at either going downhill or defending the running game sideline-to-sideline. But even though he makes his paycheck off of his run defense, don’t underestimate the hard-hitters ability to cover intermediate routes. He reminds me of Adrian Wilson in his prime at times.
5. Jared Veldheer- The next elite left tackle, Jared Veldheer bounced back from an injury to turn in yet another strong season. He isn’t far off from Monroe in terms of quality, and he might be an even better pass blocker. Veldheer has elite tools, and that’s why I have him ranked above the more established Branden Albert.
6. Vontae Davis- Some might say I am committing heresy by ranking Vontae Davis as the top corner in this year’s free agent class, but I really do think he’s better than the other talented CBs like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Aqib Talib, and Alterraun Verner. Davis plays shutdown football, and his monster performance against the Denver Broncos was of vintage Darrelle Revis quality. He can do it all at the position, and I don’t like it when people use “inconsistency” as a reason to rank him below the other CBs. With Brent Grimes off the board, there isn’t a guy who has been a shutdown corner in every healthy season of his career, but Davis is the best of the rest. The Indianapolis Colts should kick themselves if they don’t keep him.
7. Alterraun Verner- No cornerback in this free agent group possesses Verner’s elite ball skills and playmaking ability, though Sam Shields isn’t too far off. Verner can be a shutdown corner, but he isn’t quite there yet. That said, he’s not far off from Davis in terms of quality, though the same could be said when comparing Talib to Verner. A team like the Minnesota Vikings should go all-in for a player of Verner’s caliber, especially when you look at his raw talent, age, and ability to make big plays.
8. Michael Johnson- Another DE who does a great job of rushing the passer and playing the run, Johnson isn’t that much better than Lamarr Houston. However, he is better, and he had a monster 2012 season before his sacks fell to levels more common in Houston’s yearly sack totals.
9. Aqib Talib- I don’t view Talib as a true shutdown corner, because he’s too burn-prone for that designation. There aren’t many CBs who do a better job in press coverage than Talib, and he certainly has the ability to be an elite CB. But despite playing at an elite level for the first half of the 2013 season, he was awful following his drubbing and injury at the hands of Steve Smith. Injury and consistency concerns make him the third-best CB in the free agent class, but he surely deserves top dollar due to his talent.
10. Branden Albert- Although some people overrate him and he isn’t the best run blocker of the tackles in free agency, Albert could very well be the best pass blocking tackle in this class pound-for-pound. The most established offensive lineman on the market, Albert will most likely get a lucrative contract from the Arizona Cardinals and become their long-awaited answer at the position.
11. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie- The Denver Broncos look like geniuses for getting DRC to finally play up to his potential, and he’s always had lockdown corner talent. And for the first time since his early years with the Cardinals, Rodgers-Cromartie finally played up to that potential. The only reason why Talib is ranked higher is due to his upside, as DRC was the better player last season. However, it’s fair to be more worried about his past than Talib’s past and injury history, and it will be interesting to see how his market looks. At this point, I would be very surprised if the Broncos didn’t keep him.
12. Donte Whitner- Whitner quietly made a huge jump in 2013, as he looked like a much more polished player in coverage. I’ve always viewed Dashon Goldson as an incredibly overrated player who isn’t a fit at free safety, so I wonder if rookie Eric Reid‘s great year helped contribute to Whitner’s monster season. It’s annoying to see Whitner pick up ticky-tack fines, because he is one of the game’s cleanest hitters. One way you can tell that Whitner is a sure-form tackler is by looking at how little open-field tackles he commits when compared to other strong safeties. His greatly improved coverage can’t go ignored, and I would love to see the New England Patriots find a way to keep Talib and add Whitner to their secondary.
13. Randy Starks- Starks honestly seems to transcend age at times, and there aren’t many 3-4 DE or 4-3 DT fits who are as disruptive as him. He’s as safe as it gets, and his experience is also a plus.
14. Lamarr Houston- Out of all the 4-3 defensive ends in the NFL, Lamarr Houston and Rob Ninkovich are probably the best two at defending the run. Houston’s sack totals are always low, but they don’t do his pass rushing ability justice either. He deserves to earn top dollar this offseason, whether it’s from the Oakland Raiders or not. At this point, I think the Raiders will still be able to keep him around, and they should do everything reasonable in order to keep both him and Veldheer off the open market.
15. Eric Decker- Decker has put together two incredibly productive seasons with Peyton Manning at the helm, and he should have a great deal of success as a high-end WR2 somewhere. He isn’t a good enough route-runner and doesn’t have good enough hands to stick as the clear leader of a wide receiver corps, but I think he’ll be excellent if he is a WR2 or is a WR1 with a strong WR2 on the roster. Honestly, it would be pretty cool to see him playing for the Washington Redskins with Pierre Garcon and Jordan Reed.
16. Henry Melton- The franchise tag kept Henry Melton off the market last offseason, and the only thing hurting his value this offseason is an ACL tear that robbed him of his 2013 season. There aren’t many defensive tackles who rush the passer with as much consistency and tenacity as Melton, who may have been a top ten free agent this year had he not tore his ACL.
17. Geoff Schwartz- The best guard on the market, Geoff Schwartz has the ability to play tackle and is heralded as an excellent locker room guy. Schwartz is a very solid pass blocker, but where he really impresses is as a nasty run blocker. Underrated for just about his entire career, it’s time Schwartz received some major recognition in the form of a big payday and accolades in 2014.
18. Sam Shields- Any team that pays big money for Sam Shields is paying for “potential”, but Shields undoubtedly has the potential to be a star cornerback in this league. Blessed with elite athleticism and ball skills, Shields’s only glaring weaknesses are inconsistency, getting burned a bit too frequently, and run defense. But other than that, he has all the traits you look for in a high-level CB, and his inconsistent play is worth the risk. I would be careful not to overpay him, but there’s no denying that Shields has shown shutdown play at times over the past two seasons.
19. Linval Joseph- It’s not easy to find defensive tackles with Linval Joseph’s all-around game, and he’s almost as solid and consistent as Starks is. There aren’t many young players with his production, and he should immediately be a safe, solid starter for the team that signs him
20. Jason Hatcher- Hatcher gets ranked below Joseph due to the New York Giants DT’s superior run defense, but there’s no doubt that Hatcher is the second-best pass-rushing DT on the market behind Henry Melton. He broke out in a big way last season, racking up sacks and being a nuisance to interior offensive linemen in the passing game. He’s scheme versatile, and he can bring in pressure quickly. His consistency can be put into question, but his talent can’t be.
21. Karlos Dansby- He may be old, but no team is going to make the mistake of underrating him like the Miami Dolphins underrated him last year. Dansby clearly wants to avoid that sort of situation, and he isn’t underrating himself this offseason. He wants huge money this year and while he won’t get it, he’ll be a high-impact player for a team in need of a 4-3 MLB or 3-4 ILB. There aren’t many linebackers with Dansby’s all-around ability, and he’s a much, much better player than D’Qwell Jackson, who received the kind of money that Dansby should make. Not only is he a menace in run defense, but Dansby also excels in coverage and can blitz pretty well, too.
22. Hakeem Nicks- There’s no doubt in my mind that Nicks is the most talented free agent wide receiver, but he is too injury-prone to trust. And honestly, it’s difficult not to have an incredibly bitter taste in your mouth following his putrid 2013 season, and the Giants were sick of his antics. That said, he has elite talent and might be a top ten wide receiver as far as physical tools go. He’s tall, has good hands, is physical, can make circus catches, runs smooth routes, has great long speed, and is a matchup nightmare in the red zone. If his value falls enough due to his 2013 campaign, then he could be a downright steal for a team like the Carolina Panthers (though I doubt they have the money to go after him).
23. Daryl Smith- Smith is like Dansby in that he is a veteran linebacker who has been a great, underrated player in this league for a while. Well, Smith is no longer underrated, as he received massive media attention after being a much better player than Ray Lewis would have been last season. He has great leadership, top-notch run defense, excellent blitzing, and elite coverage skills at the inside linebacker position. Smith is also incredibly scheme versatile, and he will receive a massive raise compared to last season’s paycheck.
24. Paul Soliai- A big run-stuffer, Soliai has the strength and interior quickness to push the pocket as needed. Of course, his biggest plus is his ability to swallow up blockers and stuff the run, but he is a scheme versatile player who is almost as safe of a defensive line signing as Dolphins teammate Starks.
25. Captain Munnerlyn- I would be surprised if the Carolina Panthers don’t re-sign the speedy and versatile Munnerlyn, who can excel on the outside or in the slot. He and Mike Mitchell were the glue holding the Panthers secondary together last season, and the Panthers simply cannot afford to lose Munnerlyn this offseason. I mean, they already lost Chris Gamble to retirement last year and have a need for a CB2 opposite of Munnerlyn.
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