10 'A List' NFL free agents for 2014

NFL Saints stadium

Players from the New Orleans Saints, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots, Washington Redskins, Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Carolina Panthers, and Miami Dolphins feature.

It’s October, and with the free agency market looking as flush as ever with A - list players off the table through extensions and the franchise tag, I thought I’d take a look at 10 players that could expect a significant payday come next March.

Tight end Jimmy Graham - New Orleans Saints

Within four years Graham has undergone one of the most impressive sporting metamorphoses, going from third-round pick to one of the most potent offensive weapons in the National Football League.

Graham, 26, would be aiming for a contract in the region of $8 million a year, $20 million guaranteed, putting him well on par with other established tight ends.

Whether it will match the six-year, $53 million extension the Patriots offered Rob Gronkowski in June of 2012, the richest contract ever awarded to a tight end, remains to be seen.

However, with constant concerns over ‘Gronk’s’ longevity, and Graham’s two score’s on three receptions for 37-yards against the bills last week - fresh off the back tearing the plantar fascia in his left foot in New Orleans 27-30 loss to New England in week 6, the Saints may have to bite the bullet.

After all, franchise tagging to keep Graham off the market would cost New Orleans upwards of $11 million, as Graham’s heavily detached role would qualify him as receiver. 630-yards from 40 receptions, and eight scores only serving to reinforce the point…

Quarterback Jay Cutler - Chicago Bears

The torn groin suffered in Chicago’s 41-45 loss in the capital, only serves to heighten concerns over durability. Regardless, Cutler is an above average quarterback entering the prime of his career, with a career passer rating of 84.6 (91.7 though 2013), and was arguably playing his best football before injury struck. Though he is due to get paid, it’s unclear as to whether he’s worthy of top-10 money in the region of $15 million per-year.

Defensive end Michael Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals

From a statistical standpoint, 2013 represents something of a disappointment as through eight games played, Johnson has registered a lowly 2.5 sacks, representing quite a sharp drop off from his best season as a Bengal last year, where he piled up 11.5 sacks.

Despite the tail off in production, Johnson, 26, remains one of the more rounded components to operate out of a 4-3 system. Regardless, with Cincinnati already investing long-term in Geno Atkins (six years, $54.75 million) and Carlos Dunlop (six years, $40 million), while keeping Johnson under the franchise tag, can they afford to pay all three?

Cornerback Aqib Talib - New England Patriots

Though talent has never been a question, off- field travails have often threatened to undermine Talib’s capacity to consistently produce on it.

But, in his 6th season in the league, the 2008 first-round pick, seems to be on an even keel under the stewardship of Bill Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, already notching 15 total tackles, 1 forced fumble and 4 interceptions through 6 games. If Talib can remain focused the queue for his services might prove pretty healthy, especially as true lock down corners are a precious commodity in today’s NFL.

Outside linebacker Brian Orakpo - Washington Redskins

The production may not be at the level it was so far through 2013 - 3.0 sacks in seven games - especially in contract to his efforts from 2009 to 2011 where the linebacker racked up a combined 28.5 sacks. However, following his return from a torn pectoral muscle sustained in week 2 of last year, Orakpo does appear to be returning to the form that made him one of the most feared pass rushers in the game; thus only adding value when his contract is void in February.

Wide receiver Eric Decker - Denver Broncos

Questions will remain as to whether Decker is the beneficiary of the Payton Manning show, or an emerging talent entering his prime at aged 26, but this could be immaterial if Decker continues in the vein of form that sees him well on course (46 catches for 669-yards, and 3 touchdowns) produce his second consecutive season of 80 catches and 1,000-yards or more. His 6-ft-3 214-pound frame and red-zone threat will only add intrigue in potential suitors.

Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes - New England Patriots

Despite New England boasting a run defense that’s conceded 130.8 yards-per-game, ranking it 31st in the league through 2013, Spikes, With 50 combined tackles to his name (28 solo, 22 assists), is regarded as one the leading defenders against the run. Question is - will New England stump up the cash to keep him? Up to twelve inside linebackers in the league command up to at least $7 million per-year and Spikes should expect to earn at least that if allowed to test the open market.

Center Alex Mack - Cleveland Browns

Despite being a Pro Bowl pick in 2010, Mack is regarded as one of the stalwarts at a truly underrated position. (Franchise) Tagging him for close to $10 million seems highly unlikely, so in all probability Mack will look to test the open market, and in doing so could land himself top center money in the region of $6 million per-year.

Defensive end Greg Hardy - Carolina Panthers

A sixth-round pick in 2010, has really emerged as a genuine pass rushing threat of repute, chalking up 16 sacks in his last 19 games as a Panther, and at 25 is yet to enter his prime.

As of late there have only been tentative discussions regarding contract extensions, but if Carolina have serious aspirations of achieving sustained success, retaining a defensive stalwart would be a good place to start.

Defensive tackle Randy Starks - Miami Dolphins

2013 began in inauspicious fashion for Starks, who declined to attend offseason workouts after getting franchise tagged, and to compound matters, wasn’t even considered a starter when the season began. Regardless, he’s a powerful presence in the middle and such entities are pretty hard to find, and with Paul Soliai’s deal up, big questions remain inside…

Who will stay and who will move on?

image: © David Reber Hammer Photography