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Free-agent class deepest at three positions

Posted Mar 4, 2014

Lots of names to persuade buyers to take a risk

Bills S Jairus Byrd

GREEN BAY—Barring a rash of re-signings over the next week, teams looking for help in the secondary, with pass protection or on the defensive line should find this year’s free-agent class to their liking.

The linebacker crop is none too exciting, though, and neither are the skill positions on offense, except for some useful depth at wide receiver.

Defensive backs, pass protectors and pass rushers are where it appears to be a buyer’s market, if there is such a thing in free agency, when the bell rings on Tuesday, March 11. Players can begin negotiating with other teams on Saturday, so original teams’ exclusive negotiating windows are closing fast.

Cornerback may be the deepest position on the market if nothing changes in the next few days, even with Miami’s Brent Grimes signing a long-term contract this week. His contract could help set the market for Tennessee’s Alterraun Verner, New England’s Aqib Talib, Indy’s Vontae Davis and Denver’s Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Others sure to attract early attention are Green Bay’s Sam Shields, Chicago’s Charles Tillman, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn and Seattle’s Walter Thurmond.

With San Francisco’s Tarell Brown and Baltimore’s Corey Graham on the next tier, there’s no shortage of experienced help available in a year when not many corners are being talked about at the top of the draft.

Safety has just a trio of big names, now that Tennessee’s Bernard Pollard has re-signed, but Buffalo’s Jairus Byrd, Cleveland’s T.J. Ward and San Francisco’s Donte Whitner will command top dollar. The market is sure to cool after those three, though, with a definite drop-off to the next group. Maybe there’s a bargain out there among New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins, Carolina’s Mike Mitchell, Detroit’s Louis Delmas, Indy’s Antoine Bethea and a potential risk-reward player who missed last season with a torn ACL, the New York Giants’ Stevie Brown.

At left tackle, Philadelphia re-signed Jason Peters, but there’s big money to be had for Kansas City’s Branden Albert, Baltimore’s Eugene Monroe, Oakland’s Jared Veldheer and Cincinnati’s Anthony Collins as blind-side protectors. If right tackle is the need, Seattle’s Breno Giacomini, New Orleans’ Zack Strief and the New York Jets’ Austin Howard will likely make the most noise.

On the defensive line, scheme (3-4 vs. 4-3) will often determine interest and value. With Carolina’s Greg Hardy getting the franchise tag, 4-3 units looking for more pass rush off the edge will consider first and foremost Cincinnati’s Michael Johnson, Oakland’s Lamarr Houston and Seattle’s Michael Bennett. Minnesota’s Jared Allen leads a group of elder statesmen (age 30-plus) that also includes Houston’s Antonio Smith, Denver’s Shaun Phillips and the Giants’ Justin Tuck.

For the interior up front – defensive tackles in a 4-3, or ends and noses in a 3-4 – the names aren’t as dazzling but the depth is notable. The Giants’ Linval Joseph, Baltimore’s Arthur Jones, Kansas City’s Tyson Jackson and Green Bay’s B.J. Raji are all sub-30 in age, with Chicago’s Henry Melton an intriguing possibility but a health risk coming off a season-ending knee injury.

Meanwhile, Dallas’ Jason Hatcher, Miami’s Randy Starks and Paul Soliai, and Green Bay’s Ryan Pickett are the grunt workers that top the 30-plus crowd. The 340-pound, run-plugging Soliai is generating a lot of discussion for a 30-year-old veteran.

Beyond those positions, free-agent impact and depth get questionable.

At linebacker, Washington slapped the franchise tag on Brian Orakpo, while Pittsburgh used the transition tag on Jason Worilds, which leaves primarily a 30-plus group headed by Arizona’s Karlos Dansby, Cleveland’s D’Qwell Jackson and Baltimore’s Daryl Smith. The Giants’ Jon Beason made a quick impact on his new team last year, though, and New England’s Brandon Spikes is the same age as Worilds (26).

New Orleans gave tight end Jimmy Graham the franchise tag, leaving Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley (coming off neck surgery) and Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew as the only tight ends likely to generate much interest.

Running backs and their short shelf lives are always dicey free-agent propositions, but Houston’s Ben Tate is the youngest of a bunch that also includes Denver’s Knowshon Moreno, Jacksonville’s Maurice Jones-Drew, Indy’s Donald Brown, Oakland’s Darren McFadden, New England’s LeGarrette Blount and Green Bay’s James Starks.

At quarterback, Philly’s Michael Vick is available, but beyond him it’s either the continuing Josh Freeman saga or the well-traveled Josh McCown and Matt Cassel.

At center, Philadelphia took Jason Kelce off the market and Cleveland put the transition tag on Alex Mack, leaving New Orleans’ Brian De La Puente and Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith as mid-level possibilities, and they could both get more consideration than any of the guards out there.

Last, but by no means least, is wide receiver, which has seen Philly’s Jeremy Maclin and Riley Cooper taken off the market recently, along with San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin. But it’s still a solid if unspectacular group, headlined by Denver’s Eric Decker and New England’s Julian Edelman, along with Seattle’s Golden Tate, the Giants’ Hakeem Nicks, Pittsburgh’s Emmanuel Sanders, Green Bay’s James Jones and Baltimore’s Jacoby Jones, who also brings a possible return-game upgrade with him.

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