- Mike Reiss, ESPN Staff Writer
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With free agency to begin March 11 and the draft from May 8-10, one thing NFL teams generally do at this time is marry the two to better assess the best approach to filling potential needs.
For example, if a team knows it's a deep draft for top-quality offensive tackles (2014 is such), it might be less inclined to be as aggressive at that position in free agency. With this in mind, our plan is to look at each position in the coming days through a similar lens.
Next on the list: Cornerback
Draft: This is viewed as a strong class with value into the third and fourth rounds, according to analysts Mel Kiper Jr. (ESPN) and Mike Mayock (NFL Network). Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, a cousin of Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, and Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert are viewed as the first-round locks. One storyline to monitor at the combine is how well the top cornerbacks run; if it's 4.4s, it will further solidify their standing. Mayock is also high on Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller as a first-round possibility while the depth is plentiful and includes slot corners led by Texas Christian's Jason Verrett and a few bigger corners in the Seahawks-type mold such as Utah's Keith McGill (6-3, 214) and Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-2, 215). This is a good year for teams looking to add cornerbacks in the draft.
Free agency: Similar to the draft, this position has no shortage of high-end players set to hit the market, led by New England's Aqib Talib. Other top corners for their teams heading to free agency include Tennessee's Alterraun Verner, Miami's Brent Grimes, Indianapolis' Vontae Davis and Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The high volume of top-end free agents could be a factor in how the market develops for top cornerbacks, as it was a bit soft in 2013. Talib earned $5 million on a one-year deal last season and the franchise tag at the position is projected to be around $11 million. One would think the market for a top cornerback on a long-term deal falls somewhere between that range. Our projection on a fair Talib long-term deal for both sides would be three years, $21 million, with $12 million in bonuses and guarantees ($6 million signing bonus, $6 million 2014 option bonus/potentially paid on a per-game basis). If I'm Talib, I'd resist the structure of a per-game roster bonus payout structure, and if I'm the Patriots, I'd hope to protect the team by keeping it as part of the deal based on Talib's injury history. I could envision that being a potential sticking point that is ultimately worked out/not worked out based on if another team is willing to up the ante on the open market in that area.
Patriots perspective: The Patriots want Talib back, and Talib has spoken highly of his time in New England. So the mutual interest is there to strike a deal and if that happens, the Patriots would return their top five cornerbacks and appear to be in good shape. Thus, the position wouldn't be as much of a priority in free agency and the draft. But if Talib isn't back, the picture changes considerably and we'd project the deep draft as the most likely avenue in which the Patriots attempt to fill that vacancy.