Five NFL free agents to watch


(Julio Cortez / AP)

The NFL free-agent frenzy technically begins at 4 p.m. EDT on Tuesday, but the action has been ramping up, with some of the biggest names never even making it to market.

The Seattle Seahawks re-signed defensive lineman Michael Bennett on Monday, depriving the Chicago Bears of his services and his brother Martellus of the opportunity to start a Duck Dynasty kind of thing in Chicago. The Carolina Panthers used the franchise tag on defensive end Greg Hardy, the Washington Redskins franchised Brian Orakpo and the Cleveland Browns franchised Alex Mack on Monday. Bennett got a little over $8 million and, with him and the others off the market, it’s entirely possible that no free agent gets a deal topping $10 million.

But this wouldn’t be free agency if agents didn’t pit teams against one another and if teams didn’t overspend. (See Haynesworth, Albert, as the worst free-agent signing of all eternity.) It could get interesting this year with teams itching to spend and getting some room with the salary cap at $133 million per team. Here’s a look at the top five:

1 . Jairus Byrd. The Buffalo Bills safety shouldn’t have made it to free agency, but there he is. Among the teams that are interested are the Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams. The Rams’ interested bubbled up unexpectedly Monday and he’d be a nice fit in St. Louis, which is lacking a playmaker in the secondary under new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Redskins fans also think he’d be a nice addition. ESPN’s John Keim polled fans on Twitter and found that he was their top choice in free agency.

2. Michael Johnson. The Cincinnati Bengals defensive end may not have had as many sacks in 2013 as he did in 2012, but he’s still an extremely disruptive force and he’ll stand to benefit with Bennett unavailable. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Bears, who lost out on Bennett, are likely to pursue him.

3. Aqib Talib. How important was the cornerback in a New England defense that was hit hard by injuries? Rewind the AFC championship game and watch what Peyton Manning did after Talib went out with an injury. The Patriots need him back and it can be argued that Talib, whose off-the-field issues doomed him in Tampa Bay, needs the structure that a Bill Belichick-run operation provides. But he’ll be a hot commodity on a hot cornerback market, with the Redskins, who desperately need to rebuild their secondary, in the mix.

4. Eugene Monroe. Considered the top left tackle on the market, he spent four seasons in Jacksonville before joining the Baltimore Ravens last season. As free agency approaches, the Ravens continue to hope that he’ll re-sign with them, with the Baltimore Sun’s Aaron Wilson reporting that “there’s now optimism that an agreement can be reached.”

5. The Raiders guys. Defensive end Lamarr Houston and offensive tackle Jared Veldheer are two of the team’s better players and, with Oakland a staggering $65 million under the cap (and, yes, there’s a minimum that teams are required to spend), at least one of these guys should be retained. Houston will draw interest from the Bears, who lost out on Bennett. Veldheer is going to draw interest from Arizona, where he’d be reunited with former Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.
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