Free Agency Is About To Shake Up The 2014 NFL Draft
That ticking sound you're hearing is actually two countdowns rolled into one. First, it's the countdown to 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 11th -- the start of the new NFL year, which translates to the start of free agency. It's also the countdown to the implosion of every mock draft done to date.
All the things we thought we knew about team needs is about to change. By the end of Tuesday, the Ravens could be down two starting tackles (unlikely) and the 49ers could be looking for two new cornerbacks (not unrealistic).
Free agency doesn't change the way teams rank the prospects available in the 2014 NFL Draft. But it will change their draft board, as too often need trumps value in formulating draft decisions.
Here are five big ways free agency will begin to reshuffle the way we all look at the draft -- once the clock strikes 4 on Tuesday:
1. The first pick in the draft might be in play, as an 11th-hour move to avoid free agency will have unintended consquences. On Monday, Michael Bennett agreed to a new four-year deal to stay in Seattle. Had he elected to become a free agent, the Falcons were widely considered to be a likely landing place. Now, Atlanta is still lacking the top item on its offseason shopping list -- a premier pass-rushing defensive end. Bennett would have been an ideal fit, and none of the remaining free agents on the market have his upside. Jared Allen may be the next-best option, though Atlanta is unlikely to go the route of an aging edge rusher again; Osi Umenyiora didn't turn out to be the fix they had hoped for.
There really is only one premier pass rusher among the 4-3 defensive ends available in the draft. That happens to be the best player in the draft, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. With Bennett off the market, it just might force Atlanta to consider acquiring the No. 1 overall pick from Houston. There had already been talk that the Falcons would try to move up from No. 6 to No. 2, swapping spots with the Rams should it seem like the Texans would take a quarterback with that first pick. That seems decreasingly likely, and Houston surely would be willing to move out of the top spot. The Texans might just be able to exact a high price, considering the Falcons' rising desperation.
2. Add Buffalo to the list of the dozen or so teams who will be looking to the draft for help at safety. If, as expected, Jarius Byrd shuffles off from Buffalo -- he might be one of the first big names to sign elsewhere (Miami, perhaps?) -- the Bills would become one of the more needy teams at that position. Still, they're in bit of a tough spot -- no safety on the board is worth the ninth pick in the draft. Might the Bills be willing to move down, maybe finding someone who has fallen in love with either Louisville's Calvin Pryor or Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix? Either best strong safety prospect (Pryor) or the best free safety (Clinton-Dix) could go to Tennessee at No. 11. Maybe a team like the Steelers, Bears, Cowboys, Eagles or Redskins would become motivated to jump ahead of the Titans to get their guy. Make no mistake -- safeties are becoming increasingly important pieces of the puzzle, and teams looking to follow the Seattle model will be looking to load up on versatile play-making safeties.
3. Teams looking for tackles are faced with an interesting choice. Do you spend the kind of money expected to lure the likes of free agents Branden Alberts, Jared Veldheer, Eugene Monroe or even Michael Oher? Or do you position yourself in the draft to take one of the three top tackles available: Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Auburn's Greg Robinson or Michigan's Taylor Lewan? Baltimore is sitting at No. 17; what would Ozzie Newsome do in the unlikely event that he loses both Monroe and Oher? Surely he'd have to consider moving up -- maybe into the top 10, if he wants to be assured of getting one of the big three.
4. One potential signing that I expect would have no impact on the draft would involve the Jets. No team in the league is in more dire need of playmakers than the Jets, and it's almost certain they will spend their first pick (No. 18) on a receiver or a premier tight end like North Carolina's Eric Ebron. But a rookie receiver (or a bunch of rookie receivers -- the Jets might spend three or four picks on offensive skill positions to upgrade their passing game) is not going to provide immediate help for Geno Smith in his second year. It takes receivers longer to acclimate to the NFL than you might think. It's imperative that the Jets grab one of the veteran receivers available. Eric Decker, Hakeem Nicks and Golden Tate are not true No. 1 receivers. But any one would immediately become the Jets' best pass-catching threat, and either any would have a greater impact on the development of young receivers than Santonio Holmes did. I look for the Jets to sign a free agent receiver and spend their first pick on one, too.
5. There are five cornerback prospects who could wind up with first-round grades: Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State's Bradley Roby, Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert, TCU's Jason Verrett and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller. The list of the five teams who might be looking for a corner in the first round could change dramatically in the first flurry of free agent signings.
Right now, it's reasonable to project that Detroit, San Diego, Cincinnati, Denver and New Orleans could be thinking cornerback. Both New York teams could be on that list, too, as could Dallas and Pittsburgh. But you easily could envision some of those names being replaced by Tennessee, New England, San Francisco and Carolina.
The Titans and Patriots are likely to lose the top two free agent cornerbacks: Alterraun Verner and Aqib Talib, respectively. Carolina could lose Captain Munnerlyn, and San Francisco might be shopping for replacements for both Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers.
It's likely that five cornerbacks -- at least -- will be drafted in the first round. But free agency will play a huge part in determining which teams are doing the drafting.