Commentary

Five things to watch in free agency

Money won't be scarce, but few big-dollar players are hitting the open market

Originally Published: March 10, 2014
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The free-agent scramble is set to begin Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET.

Unlike in recent years, teams are loaded with money to spend thanks to the $10 million salary-cap increase to $133 million. Despite the big increase, teams still will be a bit defensive and conservative with their spending. Not many impact players are hitting the market, and teams know it can be wiser to invest in their own free agents.

Two of the best pass-rushers were kept off the market when the Carolina Panthers used the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy and the Washington Redskins did the same with linebacker Brian Orakpo. With those players out of the mix, it's possible that no free agent will get a contract worth more than $10 million a year -- but it takes only one team to pay big.

Defensive players should get bigger deals than their offensive counterparts. Defensive linemen, cornerbacks and safeties will get bigger deals than most of the receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterbacks in this market.

The deals should come quickly because of the amount of money available and the fact that there's been a three-day negotiation period to let agents and teams figure out the values of the players.

Here are five things to look for in free agency:

1. Don't get blindsided at tackle: The tackle market will be fun to watch because of how quickly the left tackles will sign and what the impact will be. Branden Albert of the Kansas City Chiefs is at the top of the left tackle list and will go to the highest bidder. Expect that to be the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins explored trading for him last year, but nothing got done. The Arizona Cardinals and Miami are the two most desperate teams in the tackle market. Unless the Cardinals can wrestle Albert away from Miami, expect them to move on Jared Veldheer of the Oakland Raiders or Eugene Monroe of the Baltimore Ravens. The Ravens are trying to protect Joe Flacco's blind side by keeping Monroe.

The surprise could be Veldheer getting out of Oakland. If Veldheer leaves, the Raiders could move on Rodger Saffold of the St. Louis Rams. Saffold could be an option at right tackle for the Dolphins, too, but the money is at left tackle. Saffold has played both tackle positions but started his career on the left side. The game of musical chairs doesn't stop there. Cincinnati Bengals tackle Anthony Collins drew a lot of interest over the weekend and could knock Donald Penn out of a job in Tampa Bay.

2. More heat in Miami: Last year, the Dolphins spent a league-high $146 million in contracts for unrestricted free agents and improved by only one game, going from seven wins to eight. As it turns out, the Dolphins will be at it again. They are expected to pay top dollar for a left tackle, and it's not out of the question that they'll dig deep and pay for a right tackle, too. If they can't get Saffold to play right tackle, they might move on Zach Strief of the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins may have to find four new starters along the offensive line. They figure to trade or release tackle Jonathan Martin. Guard Richie Incognito is a free agent and won't be back. Guard John Jerry isn't expected to be invited back. Same thing with tackle Tyson Clabo.

But the Dolphins also have been sniffing around at safety and linebacker. They reached an agreement with former Detroit Lions safety Louis Delmas Monday, and they got him at a modest cost. Don't be surprised if they sign a defensive tackle. And it's possible they'll get into the running back market. Head coach Joe Philbin knows he has to win now.

3. Cornering the secondary market: The cornerback market got hot last week. Sam Shields re-signed with the Green Bay Packers on a four-year, $39 million deal. Brent Grimes stayed with the Dolphins on a four-year, $32 million deal. That has a talented cornerback free-agent crew shooting for the big contracts. The Indianapolis Colts are trying their best to keep Vontae Davis, but there is a chance he'll leave. Aqib Talib is set to leave the New England Patriots for big dollars. The Redskins could be his destination. Tennessee Titans corner Alterraun Verner is expected to sign in the range of $7 million to $8 million a year.

Denver's Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is free, as is Brandon Browner of the Seahawks. Antonio Cromartie is also available after being cut by the New York Jets. The hot cornerback market is driving interest in Walter Thurmond of the Seahawks and Nolan Carroll of the Dolphins. The safety market will move quickly. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd is hoping for a $9 million-a-year deal. The Cleveland Browns could say goodbye to T.J. Ward to land Byrd. A team looking for a safety that doesn't land Byrd or Ward might move on Donte Whitner of the San Francisco 49ers.

4. A limited market on offense: General managers aren't too excited about the offensive options in free agency. Josh McCown and Michael Vick top the quarterback list now that Matt Cassel re-signed with the Minnesota Vikings and Chad Henne re-signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Ben Tate, Darren McFadden and LeGarrette Blount top the running back list. Jermichael Finley might be the top tight end, but he's coming off a bad neck injury.

There are plenty of options at wide receiver, but it's not a star-studded cast. The New York GiantsHakeem Nicks is coming off two down seasons and might have to do a one-year deal to restore his status as a No. 1 receiver. Eric Decker of the Broncos and Golden Tate of the Seahawks could land decent deals. New England's Julian Edelman heads a long list of available slot receivers.

5. The depressed draft class of 2009: It's becoming more and more apparent that the draft class of 2009 wasn't a very good one. Only 15 players from that draft have made a Pro Bowl, and the final group of 2009 first-rounders is hitting the market. The Packers had great success in that draft, getting linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive end B.J. Raji, but they are having a hard time getting Raji to agree to a long-term deal. Quarterback Mark Sanchez is expected to get cut by the New York Jets.

Other 2009 first-rounders hitting free agency with limited markets include Nicks, Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson, Colts wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey (who was drafted by the Raiders) and running back Donald Brown, Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno and defensive end Robert Ayers, Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher and Titans receiver Kenny Britt. The lack of sizzle from the 2009 draft is being felt in this year's free agency.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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