By Steve Silverman
» More Columns
The mantra throughout the NFL is that the key to building a successful team is to draft talented players, coach them well and hope that they can stay healthy enough to influence a team’s ability for years.
During the season, the idea of raising a team’s talent level through free agency is often looked at as a Band-Aid approach, and not a legitimate way to build.
That’s just hogwash. While no team can stockpile expensive free agents — the salary cap won’t allow it — the smartest teams can raise their ability level by picking up talented players at key positions.
Free-agent signings do more than just raise the talent level. It sends a message to the rest of the team that management is playing for keeps and is making a run at a playoff spot or a championship.
Free agents can sign with new teams in less than week, as the 2015 league year starts March 10.
While some of the best players have already been franchise-tagged by their current teams — Dez Bryant of Dallas and Justin Houston of Kansas City are two of them — here’s a look at the 10 best players who will be available in free agency.
1. DT Ndamukong Suh, Detroit Lions – The numbers are quite impressive when it comes to Suh’s productivity, as he is coming off a season with 8.5 sacks, 53 tackles and three passes batted down. But it’s more the headache that he causes for opposing offensive coordinators. Suh combines power and quickness from the interior line, and nobody can handle blocking him on a one-on-one basis with any consistency. If he goes to a team with another solid pass-rushing threat, Suh has the ability to turn an average defensive team into a good one, and a good one into a great one.
2. WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers – Cobb is one of the most un-diva-like receivers in the business. When the Packers decided to reward wideout Jordy Nelson with a new contract, Cobb was thrilled for his teammate. He said that he needed to prove himself in 2014 if he wanted to get paid, and then he went out and exceeded all expectations by catching 91 passes for 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. Not only did the 25-year-old Cobb demonstrate speed, skill and toughness, but he appears to have his best years in front of him.
3. OG Mike Iupati, San Francisco 49ers – Interior offensive linemen tend to get overlooked compared to skill-position players and big-time pass rushers, but that will not be the case with Iupati. He is bull strong and nasty, and his experience level means that he can figure out opposing defensive linemen quickly and devise the best way to combat them. A consistent performer who has been at or near the top of his game for the last three seasons, Iupati is money in the bank for any offensive line coach.
4. FS Devin McCourty, New England Patriots – The Patriots have to figure out what they are going to do with Darrelle Revis, who is on the books for $20 million in 2015. There is no way they will pay him that amount, and the All-Pro cornerback wants a multi-year deal that will pay him in the $17-18 million a year range. They could lose McCourty if they are too distracted by Revis. McCourty is smart and instinctive, which are the two most important characteristics for a safety. Some say he fits best for the Pats, but he could be a star no matter where he lands.
5. RB DeMarco Murray, Dallas Cowboys – The current game played in the NFL undervalues productive running backs who can handle the ball 25-30 times a game. That’s why the Cowboys are willing to let Murray go to the marketplace after his spectacular 2014 season that included 1,845 rushing yards and 13 TDs, as well as 57 catches for 416 yards. The Cowboys are dreaming of Adrian Peterson, but the loss of Murray may prove to be a major regret for Jerry Jones.
6. TE Julius Thomas, Denver Broncos – Injuries slowed Thomas down in the second half of the season, but he is a game-changer when he is healthy. Thomas is a powerful man who can shuck off defenders and get deep with relative ease. Thomas has caught 12 TD passes each of the last two seasons, and he is just a notch below Rob Gronkowski.
7. WR Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia Eagles – Maclin earned himself a big payday after catching 85 passes for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. But it’s not a surprise that head coach Chip Kelly is willing to let him test the market, because he believes he can find and coach other receivers to be just as productive. That may be a case of a coach’s ego getting him in trouble down the line. Maclin came back from a torn ACL in 2013 to become one of the best receivers in the league.
8. CB Byron Maxwell, Seattle Seahawks – He is overshadowed by Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas in the Seahawks’ secondary, but Maxwell is a tough competitor who can make any receiver pay the price because he is a punishing tackler who is smart enough to be in the right place at the right time. He has the size and strength at 6-foot-0 and 202 pounds to intimidate receivers, but he only had two picks last year. Still, he’d be a major upgrade for most teams.
9. DT Nick Fairley, Detroit Lions – A knee injury suffered midway through the season came at the most inopportune moment for this free agent. Consistency has not been his strong suit, but when he is healthy and motivated, he is an impactful athlete who can make game-changing plays. Like Suh, Fairley has played on the edge throughout his career, but he appears to be more focused than he was in his early years.
10. OLB Jason Worilds, Pittsburgh Steelers – The Steelers will have a big problem if they let this versatile player get away after recording 59 tackles, 7.5 sacks, three passes defensed and two fumble recoveries last year. Worilds has excellent speed coming around the corner and he can be a punishing tackler. He has just tapped his potential and is capable of much more in 2015.