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2014 Free Agency Preview

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Updated, 4/17/14

Note: We're removing players from this free agency preview as they sign so readers can see who the best remaining free agents are. 
 

While we don’t expect any superstars at the skill positions to change teams in the 2014 off-season, there are still many potential fantasy impact players who are impending free agents this spring. After a three-day negotiating period for teams, the new league year officially begins March 11 at 4 p.m. Eastern, giving the NFL a juicy primetime free agency special, and it’s possible many of the top names in this article are locked up in the days – or even hours – after the new league year starts.
 
Under the 2011 NFL CBA, players who have accrued four years of service time are designated as unrestricted free agents – you might remember that only players with six years of service time could be UFAs once the last CBA expired and the league played without a salary cap.
 
In this article series, we will have an extensive list and analysis of all of the key free agents in the NFL this off-season (and some guys who aren’t so key). Some of these guys will make an impact next year, and many will not. We have you covered either way.
 
To start, a primer on the 2014 free agency process:
 
Free Agency Glossary
 
These are terms you’ll hear a lot in this article and over the next few weeks. These brief descriptions should have you adequately prepared for the whole process.
 
Unrestricted free agent: Any NFL player who has accrued four or more years of service time and has an expired contract. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team in whatever situation for whatever contract he deems most beneficial, with no penalty to the acquiring team.
 
Restricted free agent: Any NFL player who has accrued three years of service time and has an expired contract. Restricted free agents are free to negotiate on the open market. Once a player is given an offer sheet, his previous team has a seven-day “right of first refusal” period to match the offer.
 
If the controlling team declines, the acquiring team could be forced to pay a draft-pick penalty for signing that player to a contract, the cost of which is depending on the RFA tender offered to the player by his previous club. On the flip side, if a player is not offered an RFA tender by his club, he becomes an unrestricted free agent.
 
Teams can also work out trades with interested parties, adjusting the terms any draft-pick compensation the player’s RFA tender would require (the Dolphins and Patriots did this in 2007 with Wes Welker).
 
Exclusive rights free agent: Any NFL player who has accrued two or fewer years of service time and has an expired contract. The term “free agent” is a misnomer, in that the player has no contract, but his rights are controlled by his team unless that team willingly decides to release him. If an exclusive rights free agent is tendered a contract (at the veteran minimum), he must sign it if he wishes to play because he has no negotiating power. For the purposes of this article, we’ll list ERFAs under the “RFA” section.
 
Franchise tag: Any player who will become an unrestricted or restricted free agent can be designated as his club’s franchise player. If a player is designated as a franchise player, he is tendered a one-year, guaranteed contract. To make a complicated scenario simple (and trust us, it’s complicated), the franchise tag under the new CBA signed in 2011 is calculated as a percentage of the salary cap, using the salaries of highly paid players at the tagged player’s position, which reduces the overall value of the tag (this was a “win” for the owners in the CBA negotiations). Every dollar of the franchise tag is guaranteed.
 
If a player is designated a franchise player, he can sign the one-year deal immediately, and he can continue to negotiate a long-term deal with his club. However, once a deadline in mid-July passes, the franchise player is no longer free to negotiate a long-term deal and must either sign the franchise tag or hold out (teams can also work out trades). Moreover, if a franchise player holds out past a certain date late in the NFL season, he is no longer free to sign the tag and will go without pay for the entire 2014 season (Vincent Jackson came dangerously close to this date during the 2010 season).
 
A player can be either an “exclusive” or “non-exclusive” franchise player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player is free to negotiate with other teams, like a restricted free agent, and like in an RFA scenario, his previous club is given right of first refusal. If the club declines to match an offer sheet, the player’s previous club is awarded two 1st-round picks as compensation. Because of this, we won’t often see a “non-exclusive” franchise player sign with another club.

In 2014, teams must designate a player a franchise player by March 3 at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.
 
Transition tag: Like the franchise tag, the transition tag is a way for teams to retain their unrestricted or restricted free agents under a one-year guaranteed deal. However, there are some differences, explaining why it is not as prevalent as the franchise tag. First, and most notably, the transition tag is “cheaper” to the offering team, as it takes into account the salaries of 10 players instead of five, like in the franchise tag.
 
However, transitioned players are always free to negotiate with other clubs, like restricted free agents, and their controlling clubs are given right of first refusal. But there is no draft-pick compensation for being unable to match an offer sheet, unlike the two 1st-round pick compensation on a franchised player.
 
This has led to very interesting scenarios in the past, in which teams included “poison pill” clauses in their offer sheets to transitioned players, making it essentially impossible for a player’s old club to match the offer (Steve Hutchinson and Nate Burleson were signed with “poison pill” deals in the past). The risk was minimal for offering teams – they didn’t have to pay any compensation, like they would have to under an RFA tender or a franchise tender.
 
That’s why the tag is little-used. While there is less financial commitment, there is a greater risk to the club offering the tag.
 
In previous years, teams could use both the franchise tag and a transition tag. Under the new CBA signed in 2011, teams can choose only one of the two tags.
 
Quarterbacks
 
Note: Players are listed in a rough order, based on potential fantasy impact/roles. Age listed is as of opening weekend 2014.
 
Unrestricted Free Agents
  
Rex Grossman (Was, 34) – Grossman started a combined 16 games in 2010 and 2011, but he spent the last two seasons as the Redskins’ third-team QB behind Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins. Grossman could follow his former OC Kyle Shanahan to Cleveland to serve as a backup, but the Browns do have a bunch of mediocre QBs already on the roster. However, it looks like Brian Hoyer is the only Brown quarterback to be guaranteed a roster spot next season. If Grossman does stay with the Redskins, he’d be no more than the #3 QB once again behind RGIII and Cousins. The Redskins could look to trade Cousins, but there’s been no indication that there is a market for him given their asking price (reportedly a second-round pick, according to the Washington Post). Grossman does have some playing experience, but he’ll have a limited market as a veteran backup quarterback.
 
Seneca Wallace (GB, 34) – Wallace actually spent time on three different rosters last year, but he saw action only with the Packers. Wallace was initially signed by the Saints last April, but ended up getting released in mid-August. The 49ers scooped him up soon after, but he would ask for his release because he didn’t feel he was getting a fair chance to make the team, although they said he was retiring. Wallace ended up signing with the Packers right before the start of the regular season and served as the primary backup to Aaron Rodgers. Wallace ended up filling in for Rodgers in Week Nine and started Week Ten, but ended up on the IR after suffering a groin injury. Wallace turns 34 in August and would be entering his 11thseason in 2014 if he lands somewhere. Green Bay may not be an option, as they could bring back Matt Flynn, who did a fine job keeping the Packers in the playoff hunt with Rodgers hurt.
 
Other available options who were recently released: None of note.
 
Running Backs
 
Note: Players are listed in a rough order, based on potential fantasy impact/roles.
 
Unrestricted Free Agents
 
LaRod Stephens-Howling (Pit, 27) – The Steelers had some big plans for Stephens-Howling as a return man and a change-of-pace RB in 2013, but he got cut down in the first game of the year to a torn right ACL. The Steelers brought Stephens-Howling in to give them some speed out of the backfield, but it obviously never materialized. The Steelers could take a look at Stephens-Howling again as a potential scat-back behind starter Le’Veon Bell, as long as LSH hasn’t lost any elusiveness because of his knee injury. The Steelers don’t have any other RBs under contract for 2014, as Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones are also free agents. OC Todd Haley loves to work with backs like Stephens-Howling, so as long as LSH is healthy, he could get another chance with his hometown team.
 
Phillip Tanner (Dal, 25) – With DeMarco MurrayLance Dunbar, and Joseph Randle already in place, Tanner shouldn’t be much of a priority for the Cowboys, given he has only 56/149/2 rushing in his three-year NFL career (2.7 YPC), and indeed, they aren’t tendering the RFA a contract, making him a UFA. That said, he knows the offensive system… we think (what’s the deal with Scott Linehan anyway?), and could come back on a super-cheap salary. More than likely, he ends up somewhere else as depth.
 
Tashard Choice (Ind, 29) – Choice has spent most of the last three seasons in Buffalo, but was cut loose last December and ended up signing with the Colts, where he remained through the playoffs before his release in February. Choice hasn’t started a game since his last year with the Cowboys back in 2011, but did appear in 15 games last season (12 with Buffalo, 3 with Indianapolis). He ran just 46 times for 170 yards and added 5/15 through the air. Choice is nothing more than a depth option and shouldn’t be considered anything more than a third-stringer for any potential suitor. He’ll turn 30 in November and would be entering his 7th season after playing on four different teams already, so it may be tough for him to stick somewhere.
 
Ronnie Brown (SD, 32) – Brown has spent the last three seasons as a backup with the last two coming in San Diego. He hasn’t topped 50 carries in any of those three seasons, including last year, when he ran for 157 yards and a TD on 45 carries and added 8/60 through the air. Brown was buried on the depth chart behind Ryan Mathews and Danny Woodhead, which is exactly where he belonged. The 32-year-old hasn’t been relevant since his final season in Miami back in 2010 and would be entering his 10th season in 2014. If he does sign with a team, it’ll be as a depth option.
 
Brian Leonard (TB, 30) – Leonard is coming off a forgettable season with the Buccaneers, his first with the team, as he wasn’t given a chance to do much even with major injuries to Doug Martin and Mike James. Leonard’s primary role has been as a pass protector and third-down back, which continued in 2013. He played every game, but he had just 1 start, rushing 47 times for 182 yards (3.9 YPC) and added 29/179 on 37 targets. Leonard’s already been in the league for seven seasons and turned 30 in early February. He may draw some interest for a team looking for a reliable pass protector, but nothing more than that.
 
Willis McGahee (Cle, 32) – McGahee didn’t start the 2013 season on a roster, but was signed by the Colts toward the end of September following the trade of Trent Richardson. He found himself in a RBBC, but did get 6 starts in 12 games, although he didn’t touch the ball in the final three games of the year. He ran 138 times for 377 yards (2.7 YPC) and 2 TDs with just 8/20 through the air. McGahee didn’t have more than 72 yards in any game and was clearly much slower than what we saw from his time in Denver. While McGahee’s had an impressive career, rushing for at least 1000 yards in Buffalo, Baltimore, and Denver, he’s probably come to the end of the line. McGahee turns 33 in October and would be entering his 12th season.
 
Darius Reynaud (NYJ, 29) – Reynaud had a big year as the Titans’ return man in 2012, but he had a disastrous campaign in 2013. It started conspicuously, when he downed the opening kickoff of the season in the endzone… after already taking the ball out, resulting in a safety. The Titans cut him in October and he surfaced with the Jets later. He’s got a shot to compete for a return job somewhere, but he’s never had a tangible fantasy impact.
 
Note:
 
Rashard Mendenhall (Ari, 27) – Mendenhall has announced his intent to retire.
 
Wide Receivers
 
Note: Players are listed in a rough order, based on potential fantasy impact/roles.
  
Unrestricted Free Agents

Santonio Holmes (NYJ, 30) – Even though he now has eight seasons in the league, Holmes just turned 30 on March 3rd, so he’s not exactly a fossil. And with a 5/154/1 performance in Week Three, he at least proved that he could still be a difference-maker. But while he certainly wasn’t helped by the inconsistent play of Jet rookie QB Geno Smith, Holmes continued to have injury problems. Dealing with chronic hamstring and foot problems, Holmes played in only 11 games and had 23/456/1 receiving on 59 targets (a putrid 39.0% catch rate). He averaged 6.8 FPG, which ranked him #85 among all WRs in a PPR league. He was owed a seven-figure roster bonus this off-season, and as expected he was released by the Jets. Holmes’ tenure in New York was pretty ugly and not only marred by injury but also immaturity and perceived selfishness. He’s not without risk, but if the high-end skill set is still present, he could be a solid contributor for a team looking for a smaller, speedier wideout.
 
Davone Bess (Cle, 28) – Bess played in 14 games and posted 42/362/2 (8.6 YPC) on 86 targets (48.8% catch rate) and just 6.4 FPG. He had some well-documented off-field issues as well as a nasty case of the drops, and he was released by the Browns on Wednesday, March 5. He will not collect his $3 million salary from the team because language was built into his contract that protected the team in case issues popped up like the law troubles he has experienced. He’s turning 29 just after the 2014 opener, so he’s not ancient just yet, but his 2013 season was so ugly that he might be hard-pressed to find another gig until later in the summer.  
  
Danario Alexander (SD, 27) – Danario just can’t seem to catch a break after yet another knee injury so early in his career. The fourth-year receiver had previously had five left-knee operations before tearing his right ACL in training camp, which ended his 2013 season before it even started. Alexander had a second operation on his right ACL this past January because of an infection, so he’s having major complications from his latest knee injury. Needless to say, Alexander’s 2014 season and career are in major question at this point. The Union-Tribune believes that the Chargers won’t look re-sign Alexander and most teams are going to shy away him. Alexander will likely have to prove his health later in the off-season to get a training camp invite. Alexander, just 25, showed he has a ton of talent when he’s healthy in 2012 when he posted 37/658/7 in 10 games with Philip Rivers, but it’s pretty clear he can’t stay healthy.
    
Tight Ends
 
Note: Players are listed in a rough order, based on potential fantasy impact/roles.
  
Franchise Players
 
Jimmy Graham (NO, 27) – While we don’t see Graham leaving the Saints this off-season, the two sides are headed toward an interesting battle. Graham dominates from any spot on the field as a receiver – in tight, in the slot, or out wide – and his versatility is providing a major hurdle in contract talks. As such, the two sides aren’t close on an extension, and he received the Saints’ franchise tag. Graham’s representatives are insistent that he should be tagged at the more expensive WR slot instead of the TE slot. Given how often Graham splits out in the slot and wide (67% of the time, according to The Times-Picayune), it’s a very fair argument to be made. Of course, the Saints will make the counterargument that modern tight ends have more versatile roles than ever before. Graham appears ready to file a grievance, so the battle between the two sides could just be getting started. The exclusive rights franchise tag for a tight end would be around $6.8 million and around $11.6 million for a wide receiver, which is obviously a huge difference in pay. Graham, 27, played in 16 games, despite some nagging foot problems, and he posted 86/1215/16 on 142 targets (14.1 YPC, 58.9%). He easily led all TEs, with 19.0 FPG, a number that would have ranked him 6th amongst WRs. Graham had TDs in 11 different games, multiple TDs in five different games, 100 yards receiving in six different games, and 5 or more catches in 10 different games. He turned 11 of his 26 red-zone targets into TDs, including 3 of his 7 targets inside the five. As a franchise player, Graham would cost any team signing him to a contract other than the Saints two first-round picks. He’s one of the rare players with whom you can argue it’s worth it. Graham is that special at what he does. Again, we don’t expect Graham to be playing anywhere else next season, but his potential fight over his position classification could have ramifications for free agent tight ends in the future.
 
Unrestricted Free Agents
 
Jermichael Finley (GB, 27) – Finley was on pace for a potential career year in 2013 before a severe neck injury ended his season in Week Seven. He had 25 catches for 300 yards (12.0 YPC) and 3 TDs on 34 targets (73.5% catch rate) for 12.2 FPG, but he still had 2 drops on only 34 attempts. The Packers have to have major concerns about Finley after his cervical fusion, but he does seem intent on returning to the NFL next season and all the news on his recovery has been positive. We’ll see if Finley can pass physicals to allow him to play again, and the injury could keep him from getting much guaranteed money, which could open the door for his return. However, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Finley is hardly a lock to return to the Packers. They also reported that Finley should be healed in 4-8 weeks, and his surgeon said there’s a “99.9% chance” Finley will make a full recovery. HC Mike McCarthy left the door open, noting that Finley’s injury is different than the one suffered by S Nick Collins, which was severe enough for the team to not bring him back. McCarthy told ESPN, “I’m very open and optimistic about Jermichael coming back.” Finley hasn’t fully lived up to expectations in his six seasons, but he’ll turn just 27 in March and would draw interest if he’s cleared to play. Keep in mind the Packers don’t have a developmental TE they really like behind Finley. If Green Bay decides to go another direction – like if they think North Carolina’s Eric Ebron will be there for them at 21 – there’s reportedly a market forming for Finley and he will get offers from other teams (just not long-term, big money offers).
 
Dustin Keller (Mia, 29) – In a bit of a surprise move, Keller signed just a one-year deal with the Dolphins for the 2013 season and didn’t even get to play a snap in the regular season. Keller suffered a torn ACL, MCL, MCL, and dislocated knee in the team’s third preseason game, but he was able to avoid nerve damage, so there’s still a chance his career could resume. However, he’s not even a lock to be ready for Week One, so finding a team willing to take a chance on a 30-year-old coming off a severe knee injury might be tough for Keller. The five-year veteran hadn’t missed a game in his time with the Jets until 2012, when various injuries kept him out for half the season. The Dolphins aren’t expected to bring Keller back and at this point, so it’s fair to wonder if his career is over. There have been no concrete updates on Keller’s recovery, but with an injury of that magnitude, it could be a while before he finds a new home, if any team shows interest at all. On the bright side, veteran Heath Miller suffered a comparable injury in 2012, and he was able to play all year in 2013.
 
Dallas Clark (Bal, 35) – Clark was without a team heading into training camp last year, but when the Ravens lost TE Dennis Pitta to a hip injury, the team scrambled and ended up adding Clark to go along with an underwhelming TE Ed Dickson, but neither could make up for the loss of Pitta, who eventually returned for the final four games. With Pitta missing significant time, Clark had 31/343/3 on 52 targets and 6.9 FPG, which was good for just 31st at the position. When Pitta returned, Clark was a healthy scratch for the final four games of the season. According to ESPN, there’s no chance Clark returns and with 11 seasons under his belt and a 35th birthday coming in June, Clark may call it quits. In January, Fox Sports reported Clark was undecided on continuing his career. We don’t see much of a market for him, so it could be the end of the line.
 
Fred Davis (Was, 28) – Although he’s one of the more naturally gifted TEs in the league, it’s entirely possible the troubled Davis’ career is over. His lack of work ethic landed him in the Redskins’ doghouse this past year, catching only 7 passes. And since the 2013 season ended, Davis has been banned from the NFL indefinitely for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy, then only days later, he was arrested for DUI in Virginia. It goes without saying that Davis’ personal issues are far more important than his football career at this point.
 
Kellen Winslow (NYJ, 31) – Even though he’s still only 31, it’s hard to imagine Winslow getting another significant shot in the NFL. He caught 31 passes for the Jets this season, contributing to a team that had little else of note at the skill positions. But it was abundantly clear watching him that he just can’t move anymore, as years of knee injuries have completely robbed him of his once elite athletic ability. Moreover, he’s facing charges on possession of synthetic marijuana, to which he pleaded not guilty in early February. We’d be surprised if Winslow even lands in a camp.
 
Bear Pascoe (NYG, 28) – Pascoe is a versatile option for the Giants, as he’s been used as a blocker and as a special teams player for five seasons. He’s even filled in at fullback at different times when the Giants have needed a body because of injuries to FB Henry Hynoski. Pascoe played in all 16 games and recorded 12 catches for 81 yards, so he’s not much of a receiving threat. Still, the Giants love Pascoe’s versatility and will look to keep him around for depth at tight end, especially with the team looking to bring in a new tight end.
 
E. Alex Smith (Cin, 31) – Smith recorded 129 catches in his first four NFL seasons with the Bucs from 2005-08, but he’s registered just 33 catches the last five seasons with the Eagles (2009), Browns (2010-12), and Bengals (2013). Smith played in four games last season for the Bengals, catching 3 passes for 12 yards and 1 TD on 4 targets. The Bengals could elect to let Smith walk in free agency, and he won’t exactly have a huge market as a 31-year-old blocking specialist.
 
Jeff King (Ari, 31) – King, who has spent most of his career as a backup TE and blocking specialist, missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury. The injury didn’t require invasive surgery, and would have taken only a few weeks to recover from, but the Cardinals placed him on IR anyway, deciding to roll with Jim DrayKory Sperry, and later Jake Ballard behind Rob Housler. That should tell you all you need to know about King’s future in the NFL. For fantasy, he’s never been more than a TD-vulturing nuisance.
 
Other available options who were recently released: None of note. 

 
Bad draft picks are down 3,931%. Must be the Guru!

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