An all-world tight end and a three-time Pro Bowl safety who happens to play here in Buffalo highlight the list of NFL players set to become unrestricted free agents in March.
New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and the Bills’ Jairus Byrd will be among the most in-demand players when the free-agent shopping season starts. Of course, that’s provided they make it that far.
The franchise tag looms as a possibility for both Graham and Byrd as a way for their current teams to ensure their services (or at least be handsomely compensated for them) moving forward.
If the Bills were to tag Byrd — an option General Manager Doug Whaley has said the team will not rule out — it would come with a guaranteed one-year contract for $8.29 million if the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a long-term deal. That would not be a bad haul for Byrd. He just finished a one-year deal that paid $6.916 million – meaning he could potentially earn $15.215 million in two years, and get another crack at unrestricted free agency in 2015 at 28 years old.
Graham’s situation has the potential to be a precedent setter in the NFL. The All-Pro tight end will likely contest the Saints’ use of the franchise tag on him as a tight end, instead considering himself a receiver.
The difference, of course, comes down to money. In 2013, the franchise tag for receivers was worth almost $4.5 million more than for tight ends.
The period for applying the franchise tag to a player begins Feb. 17 and ends March 3. A three-day negotiating window with the agents of unrestricted players can begin March 8, although no contracts can be signed until after 4 p.m. March 11, the official start of the 2014 league year.
Here is an early position-by-position look at which players are slated to be unrestricted free agents, and what the best course of action for the Bills would be.
Top names: Michael Vick, Philadelphia; Chad Henne, Jacksonville; Kellen Clemens, St. Louis; Josh McCown, Chicago; Josh Freeman, Minnesota.
As you might guess, there are no franchise quarterbacks available in free agency. Vick will be 34 at the start of 2014, and lost his job to Nick Foles with the Eagles last year. He’s also injury prone, missing playing time because of hamstring, head and rib injuries over the past three seasons. He could serve as a short-term bridge starter for a team like Oakland or Minnesota that selects a quarterback in the first round of May’s NFL Draft. ... Henne is still only 28, even though he seems 38. He’s posted backup numbers (24 touchdowns, 25 interceptions) in 19 starts the past two seasons with the Jaguars. Remaining in Jacksonville is the most logical move for Henne, who knows the system and could teach it to a rookie QB. ... McCown, 34, put up solid numbers for the Bears, throwing 13 touchdowns and just one interception in coach Marc Trestman’s offense. The team went 3-2 in games McCown started. The Bears re-signed Jay Cutler to an all-in, seven-year contract, but should want to bring McCown back – provided he wants to come back. He’s reportedly considering retirement. ... Freeman earned $10.4 million for four starts in 2013 with Tampa Bay and Minnesota. He bombed in his only appearance with the Vikings, going 20 of 53 for 190 yards and an interception in a 23-7 loss, then didn’t play again. He’s only 26, but his options may be limited. Freeman reportedly was late to team meetings with the Vikings, another character concern for a player with a long history of such transgressions.
Best fit for the Bills: None. While a veteran quarterback to compete with Thad Lewis for the backup role could be an offseason priority, none of the above options fit that role particularly well. Instead, the Bills should keep an eye on the contract status of Houston’s Matt Schaub. He’s got a $14.5 million cap hit for 2014, making it likely the Texans will move on from him in favor of a rookie with the No. 1 overall pick. With 10 years of experience, Schaub would be an ideal veteran backup for the Bills.
Top names: Knowshon Moreno, Denver; Ben Tate, Houston; Darren McFadden, Oakland; Donald Brown, Indianapolis; Maurice Jones-Drew, Jacksonville; LeGarrette Blount, New England; Rashard Mendenhall, Arizona.
There are plenty of known commodities available, which does little to shake the idea that running back is a dime-a-dozen position. Moreno picked a great time to have a career year, with 1,038 rushing yards and 13 total touchdowns in a Peyton Manning offense. His history suggests he’s not putting up anywhere near those numbers without No. 18 under center. ... Tate had an opportunity to make himself some good money when Arian Foster was lost for the season because of injury, but got hurt himself and only managed 181 carries. He’ll be 26 at the start of next season and has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry, however, so he could receive some attention on the market as a feature back. ... McFadden might get hurt signing his next contract. He’s started only 26 games the past three years and averaged just 3.8 yards per rush over that time. ... Brown’s biggest accomplishment with the Colts is being less of a first-round bust than the running back they gave up a first-round pick for, Trent Richardson. ... Jones-Drew is exactly like Henne in Jacksonville, a 28-year-old who looks 38. ... Blount has run wild the past couple weeks. In the season finale against the Bills and the divisional playoff round against the Colts, he’s rushed for 355 and six touchdowns. He had 772 yards and seven touchdowns in the regular season for the Patriots despite sharing carries most of the time. ... Mendenhall started 15 games for the Cardinals, but averaged an uninspiring 3.2 yards per rush.
Best fit for the Bills: None. Buffalo is set at running back in 2014 with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, although both will be free agents after the upcoming year. That makes running back a draft need in the middle rounds.
Top names: Eric Decker, Denver; Anquan Boldin, San Francisco; James Jones, Green Bay; Kenny Britt, Tennessee; Julian Edelman, New England; Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants; Dexter McCluster, Kansas City; Golden Tate, Seattle; Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia; Riley Cooper, Philadelphia.
Decker has caught at least 85 passes, had at least 1,060 receiving yards and caught 24 touchdowns in the past two seasons with Manning at quarterback. He’s a terrific red-zone target at 6-foot-3. He’s going to command No. 1 receiver money from some team. ... Boldin is the ultimate gamer, but age is working against him (he’ll be 34 in the middle of next season). ... Jones caught 14 touchdowns in 2012, but that number dipped to just three last year when Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was hurt. ... Britt was almost completely phased out of the Titans’ offense in 2013, with just 11 catches for 96 yards. He’s also got a career touchdowns-to-incidents-with-police ratio of 19 to nine (!). ... Edelman caught 105 passes as Tom Brady’s slot receiver with the Patriots. ... Nicks has dealt with injuries the past two seasons. He thinks of himself as a No. 1 receiver, telling New York reporters after the season, “I still consider myself one of the top receivers in this league and I’m going to go out and prove it.” ... Maclin is a wild card. He’s rehabbing a torn knee ligament. He turns 26 in May. If he shows teams he’s fully recovered, he’s worth taking a shot on. But it would likely take more than a one-year contract to lure him away from Philadelphia.
Best fit for the Bills: Again, none. Decker’s great, but how much money would Buffalo have to pay to lure him away from Manning? With the ninth overall pick, the Bills should be in a position to add a potential No. 1 receiver in the draft for far cheaper than they would be through free agency.
Top names: Graham; Dennis Pitta, Baltimore; Brandon Myers, New York Giants; Scott Chandler, Bills; Jermichael Finley, Green Bay.
Graham has 36 receiving touchdowns over the past three seasons, the most in the NFL. He’s also one of 10 tight ends in NFL history to have at least 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns in a single season, and the only one to do it twice. With quarterback Drew Brees in his prime, there’s no way the Saints let him go. ... Pitta had 20 catches for 169 yards and a touchdown in the final four games of the season after missing 12 because of a hip injury. Like Graham, he could argue he should be classified as a receiver if the Ravens tried to franchise tag him. ... Myers was a flop in his first season in New York, catching only 47 passes a year after grabbing 79. ... Chandler set single-season career highs with 53 catches and 655 yards, both of which led the Bills. ... Finley has maintained he wants to play again, but his future is uncertain after undergoing spinal fusion surgery.
Best fit for the Bills: Chandler. He’d like to come back, and shouldn’t break the bank. He’s come up small in some big moments (overtime versus Atlanta) but for the most part, you know what you’re getting. He can compete for playing time with Tony Moeaki and Chris Gragg next season.
Top names: Branden Albert, Kansas City; Eugene Monroe, Baltimore; Jared Veldheer, Oakland; Anthony Collins, Cincinnati; Jordan Gross, Carolina.
In Albert, Monroe and Veldheer, there are an unusually high number of strong left tackles available. Albert is the most likely to move, since the Chiefs have his replacement on the roster in No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher. ... The Ravens gave up a pair of draft picks to acquire Monroe from Jacksonville during the season, and thus will want to re-sign him. .... Veldheer was limited to five games because of a torn tricep injury. .... Collins is a valuable swingman. ... Gross will be 34 next year. He will either re-sign in Carolina or retire.
Best fit for the Bills: None of the top names. Buffalo has a quality left tackle in Cordy Glenn.
Interior offensive line
Interior offensive line
Top names: Alex Mack (center), Cleveland; Geoff Schwartz (guard), Kansas City; Kevin Boothe (guard), New York Giants; Brian De La Puente (center), New Orleans; Rodger Saffold (guard), St. Louis.
Mack, who was named to his second Pro Bowl, hasn’t missed a snap in five seasons. ... Schwartz is looking for a long-term deal after he took over as a starter for the Chiefs in place of Jon Asamoah. ... Boothe is reliable, having started the Giants’ past 42 games, playing both guard and center. ... De La Puente has started the Saints’ past 44 regular-season games, but his team is facing major salary-cap issues. ... Saffold has played tackle for the Rams, and may want to test the market at the position.
Best fit for the Bills: An upgrade at left guard is certainly something the Bills will consider. Schwartz is 6-foot-6 and 340 pounds, and will be 28 next season. He would fit the criteria of an upgrade.
Top names: Henry Melton, Chicago; Randy Starks, Miami; Paul Soliai, Miami; B.J. Raji, Green Bay; Linval Joseph, New York Giants; Jason Hatcher, Dallas.
Melton suffered a torn knee ligament last season while playing on the franchise tag. ... Starks wasn’t happy about receiving the franchise tag with the Dolphins last season, but it could happen again. ... Raji does not have a sack in the past 37 regular-season games. He might be better in a different scheme. ... Joseph will be 26 next season. He will command big money if the Giants let him get to the market. ... Hatcher will be 32, but coming off a great season in which he made the Pro Bowl. The Cowboys are up against the salary cap, so it might be tough to re-sign him.
Best fit for the Bills: None. Buffalo is set with Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the middle, and has a promising developmental player behind them in Stefan Charles.
Top names: Greg Hardy, Carolina; Michael Bennett, Seattle; Lamarr Houston, Oakland; Michael Johnson, Cincinnati; Justin Tuck, New York Giants; Jared Allen, Minnesota.
Hardy is represented by mega-agent Drew Rosenhaus. He’ll be looking for a monster deal after finishing third in the NFL with 15 sacks. Carolina may not be able to retain him because of salary-cap issues. ... Bennett played on a one-year deal with the Seahawks. At 28, he’s earned a long-term deal somewhere. ... Houston had 41 quarterback hurries in 2013. He said at the end of the season it might be best for both player and team if he signed elsewhere. ... Johnson’s sack number dipped from 11.5 in 2012 to just 3.5 last season. ... Tuck and Allen are both veterans looking for their last big-money deals.
Best fit for the Bills: None. Buffalo has a premier pass rusher in Mario Williams, and their money would be better spent working on an extension for Jerry Hughes, who is entering the final year of his deal.
Top names: Brian Orakpo, Washington; Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh; Brandon Spikes, New England; Daryl Smith, Baltimore; Donald Butler, San Diego.
Orakpo will likely command $10 million a season as one of the best pass rushers on the market. ... Worilds, 25, picked a good year to have a breakout season, with 11 starts and eight sacks. His young age gives him a ton of potential. ... Smith more than adequately replaced Ray Lewis with the Ravens. ... Butler is a priority for Chargers GM and St. Francis graduate Tom Telesco.
Best fit for the Bills: Spikes. He’s on injured reserve, but is not expected to need surgery on a knee injury. It’s a concern that he reportedly was late to a meeting, and that’s the reason Patriots coach Bill Belichick put him on IR, but Spikes is exactly the run stuffer the Bills need.
Top names: Alterraun Verner, Tennessee; Brent Grimes, Miami; Aqib Talib, New England; Sam Shields, Green Bay; Vontae Davis, Indianapolis; Captain Munnerlyn, Carolina; Corey Graham, Baltimore.
Verner had a career-high five interceptions and was named to the Pro Bowl. He’s looking to test the open market, aka get paid. ... Grimes proved he was healthy after tearing his Achilles tendon in 2012, making the Pro Bowl on a one-year deal with the Dolphins. He’ll be 31 next season, so the length of his next contract will be an issue. ... Talib also played on a one-year deal, and stayed healthy and out of trouble with the Patriots. ... Munnerlyn developed into a starter with the Panthers, who have eight starters with expiring contracts and may not have the money to bring him back. ... Graham is a Buffalo native who played nickel cornerback and special teams for the Ravens.
Best fit for the Bills: Graham. Everyone loves a homecoming, plus he’d be an upgrade over Ron Brooks as the fourth cornerback and key special teams contributor.
Top names: Byrd; T.J. Ward, Cleveland; Donte Whitner, San Francisco; Bernard Pollard, Tennessee; James Ihedigbo, Baltimore.
The thinking here is Byrd will command at least $8.5 million in average yearly salary on the open market. Ward won’t be too far behind that. ... It seems like Whitner has been around forever, but he’s still only 29. ... Pollard had a good year in his first season with the Titans. ... Ihedigbo replaced Pollard with the Ravens. He’s a good leader.
Best fit for the Bills: Byrd. He knows the system and has great chemistry with Aaron Williams, giving the Bills one of the best safety tandems in the NFL. If the Bills do re-sign him, that will be their big splash in free agency.
Top names: Punters – Pat McAfee, Indianapolis; Donnie Jones, Philadelphia; Dave Zastudil, Arizona. Kickers – Steven Hauschka, Seattle; Nick Folk, New York Jets; Dan Carpenter, Buffalo.
McAfee played under the franchise tag for the Colts, but finished just 25th in net punting. Jones and Zastudil are in their 30s, but both finished in the top 13 in net punting. ... Hauschka went 33 for 35 on field goals. ... Carpenter tied a Bills team record with 33 made field goals.
Best fit for the Bills: Carpenter. He’s earned a big raise from the $750,000 he made in 2013, will the Bills be willing to pay? ... At punter, the Bills have re-signed veteran Brian Moorman, but they are expected to add competition to the position, either late in the draft, or with a free agent.
As it stands today, the Bills are a little more than $11 million under their adjusted 2013 salary cap of $133.2 million. Their cap space was lessened in the past week because of adjustments to the contracts of Hughes and Spiller.
Hughes was due to make $1.095 million in the final year of his rookie contract, but his 10-sack season in 2013 trigged a $2.9 million escalator in his contract, bringing his cap number to $3.995 million in ’14.
Spiller also triggered an escalator in his contract, bumping his base pay up $1.75 million for this coming season, to $3.498 million. That amounts to $4.65 million in cap space.
Of course, the Bills’ true salary cap space will not be entirely clear until their 2014 salary cap – which will roll over unused cap space in 2013 – is released by the league, which should occur next month.
Hurting the Bills’ cap space is more than $12 million in “dead” money – the amortized bonus money already paid out to players who have since been released. Former quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick ($7 million) and defensive end Mark Anderson ($3 million) account for most of that total.
If the Bills want to free up some cap space, there are a few moves they could consider. The first would be to release veteran quarterback Kevin Kolb – whose playing future is uncertain because of a history of concussions.
Kolb has a salary cap figure of $3.6 million in 2014. If he were released the Bills would be on the hook for only $500,000 of that in dead money.
The second would be to move on from right tackle Erik Pears, who is entering the final year of his contract. Pears, who played 100 percent of the offensive snaps this past season, gave up four sacks and 39 quarterback hurries, according to statistics kept by Pro Football Focus, which grades every play of every NFL game. He is due to count $3.45 million against the cap in ’14. His release, along with Kolb’s, would create $4.95 million in cap space (after factoring in the $1.05 million in dead money their releases would cause).
The other option for the Bills would be to restructure the contract of defensive end Mario Williams. He has a whopping roster report bonus of $10.6 million in 2014, part of a cap hit of $18.4 million for the coming season. The Bills could convert a portion of that to a signing (or option) bonus. For example, if the team converted $4 million of Williams’ roster report bonus to a signing bonus, that would be spread out over the remaining four years of his contract, making his cap number $15.4 million in 2013 – saving the Bills $3 million in space.