NFL free agency 2014: Predicting the contracts of the top players on the markets

Jamie Squire

We use the recent contracts of similar players to predict the value of the upcoming contracts for some of the top free agents at each position.

NFL free agency is just around the corner, and some of the league's best players are readying themselves to cash in on major paydays.

By examining recent contracts of players that were similar in age and production at the time of their signing, and with a hand from Spotrac.com's contract forecast series, we've pieced together predictions for the deals of some of the top free agents at their respective position.

2014 free agent rankingsQB WR RB TE OL DE DT LB CB S

QB Matt Cassel

(Note: given Michael Vick's advancing age and proclivity to injury, we believe Cassel to be the more valuable free agent commodity.)

Overview: It looked like Cassel had a good chance at the short-term starting job in Minnesota, but decided to opt out of the back half of his two-year contract. His season with the Vikings didn't go that well, as he never really managed to nail down the starting position despite the struggles of Christian Ponder. After his failed experiment as a starter in Minnesota, it looks like Cassel is a high-end backup at best, but could be a bridge starter for a team that plans on drafting a top prospect in May.

Comparable contracts: Let's start with Cassel himself: he signed a two-year, $7.4 million deal with the Vikings last offseason that guaranteed him $3.7 million in the first year. At the time, the Vikings insisted he was being signed as a backup, though they knew there was a chance he'd have to take over for Ponder at some point. Then there's Chad Henne, who signed as Blaine Gabbert's backup in Jacksonville in 2012 after a failed starting bid with the Dolphins. That deal was two years, $6.75 million and took into account he could very likely wrest the starting job away from a struggling Gabbert.

What to expect: Cassel isn't going to pull in as much as he did last offseason, but a team that needs a band-aid under center could fork up a decent amount. Worst case, he's a high-end backup. That should land him two years and somewhere in the $6 million range.

RB Knowshon Moreno

Overview: Through his first four NFL seasons with the Broncos, Moreno had trouble living up to the expectations that come along with a first-round draft selection. He finally broke out in 2013, rushing for over 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns for the first time in his career. He'll be 27 next season and, along with Ben Tate, is one of the few truly appealing backs on the market.

Comparable contracts: Steven Jackson, the top runner on the market last offseason, signed with the Falcons for three years, $12 million, though at the time he was two years older than Moreno is now. Reggie Bush was within a few months of Moreno's current age when he inked a four-year, $16 million dollar deal with Detroit.

What to expect: Moreno doesn't have the proven track record that Jackson had going into last offseason, but makes up for it in age. A four-year deal at a similar annual average should put him right in line with Bush's $16 million contract.

WR Eric Decker

Overview: Peyton Manning's decision to sign with Denver in 2012 is going to end up making Decker very rich. After an uneventful two-year start to his career, Decker has flourished with Manning throwing the ball over the last two seasons, racking up a combined 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns. He was the No. 2 option in Denver behind Demaryius Thomas and now wants the right to be a No. 1 -- and the money that comes with it.

Comparable contracts: The most useful comparison is Pierre Garcon, who agreed to a five-year, $42.5 million deal two years ago at the age of 25 (Decker is currently 26). Garcon had spent the previous four years grabbing passes from Manning in Indianapolis, where he was the No. 2 behind Reggie Wayne his final season. He's transitioned well to the top spot in Washington, where he broke the Redskins' single-season receiving yards record last season.

What to expect: Teams will have to gauge whether Decker is a true No. 1 and how much of his production over the last two years is attributable to Manning. In the end, a team desperate for receiver help will likely make the gamble. Spotrac forecasts a five-year, $42.4 million deal.

TE Jimmy Graham

Overview: The big question with Graham, who led the NFL with 16 touchdowns last season and is widely considered the top free agent on the market, is what position does he get paid at? He's listed as a tight end, but has the production of (and often lines up as) a wideout. The 27-year-old would have a larger pay day as a wide receiver, which remains the primary holdup in re-signing with the Saints.

Comparable contracts: The only tight end that's mirrored Graham's production over the last few seasons is the Patriots' Rob Gronkowski, who signed a six-year, $53 million extension as a 22-year-old in 2012. Vernon Davis was closer to Graham's current age when he signed a five-year, $38.6 million deal with the 49ers. As far as wideouts, Larry Fitzgerald inked an eight-year, $13 million deal at 27 and Brandon Marshall agreed to a five-year, $44.8 million contract at 26.

What to expect: It will be interesting to see how Graham and the Saints settle this debate, but either way, he's going to become the highest-paid tight end in league history. Spotrac forecasts a five-year, $66.5 million agreement.

LT Branden Albert

Overview: Albert had another productive year anchoring the left side of the Chiefs line, and the 29-year-old enters the offseason as one of the top offensive linemen on the market. He struggled a bit in run-blocking last season, but he'll get paid as a pass protector -- he rated as the 11th-best pass blocker in the league at Pro Football Focus.

Comparable contracts: Jake Long was 27 when he joined the St. Louis Rams last offseason for five years and $34 million. On the high end, Joe Thomas is under an eight-year, $84 million contract in Cleveland.

What to expect: Albert is no Thomas, and won't be getting a double-digit annual average or a seven-year contract. He'll likely land something comparable to Long in the five-year, mid-$30 million range.

DE Greg Hardy

Overview: Hardy chose a good time to have a breakout campaign with the Panthers, piling up 15 sacks during his contract year to post his second consecutive double-digit sack season. He's more than just a specialist though -- he finished 2013 sixth-best among defensive ends against the run, according to Pro Football Focus. At just 25 years old, Hardy is the most desirable defender on the open market, and he's going to get paid like it.

Comparable players: Coming off just a five-sack season, Mario Williams signed a six-year, $96 million contract with the Buffalo Bills in 2012. A year before, Charles Johnson inked a six-year, $72 million deal to stay with Hardy in Carolina. Hardy is the same age as Johnson and two years younger than Williams at the time of their deals, and had more sacks than both of them in the contract year.

What to expect: Hardy can probably expect to land somewhere between the two, though probably closer to Williams. Spotrac projected a six-year, $82.1 million deal, though that was back in September, before Hardy's career season.

LB Brian Orakpo

Overview: After missing most of 2012 with a torn pectoral, Orakpo bounced back with his third Pro Bowl season, racking up 60 tackles and 10 sacks. The veteran, who will turn 28 in July, showed incredible balance at his 3-4 outside linebacker spot, rating second in pass coverage, third against the run and ninth in pass rushing for the position at Pro Football Focus.

Comparable players: The upper limits of a deal would be the six-year, $61.5 million agreement Lamarr Woodley and the Steelers reached in 2011. But Woodley was a year younger, coming off three consecutive double-digit sack seasons and didn't have the injury history. A more reasonable comparison is Paul Kruger, who, at the age of 27, signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Browns last offseason.

What to expect: Splitting the difference between Woodley and Kruger's average annual salary would put Orakpo at roughly $9 a year. Over five years, that would comes out in the mid-40 millions range.

CB Alterraun Verner

Overview: The 25-year-old Verner had the best season of his four-year NFL career, hauling in a personal best five interceptions and his first Pro Bowl invite. Opposing quarterbacks throwing into his coverage completed just 49.4 percent of their attempts and held a passer rating 55.8.

Comparable players: In 2011, a 26-year-old Brandon Flowers signed a five-year, $50 million extension with the Chiefs. In 2012, 25-year-old Brandon Carr joined the Cowboys for six-years and $49.4 million. Then there's the goliath six-year, $96 million Darrelle Revis contract from last season, but its use as a reference point is marginalized by a unique caveat -- none of the that money is guaranteed.

What to expect: Given his age and production, Verner will likely land a larger contract than Carr. Flowers' five-year $50 million deal is likely a closer estimate.

S Jairus Byrd

Overview: Pro Football Focus rated Byrd the eighth-best safety in the league for 2013 and at 27, he's in the prime of his career. Despite missing the first four games of the season with a foot injury, he managed to tie for the team lead in interceptions and get invited to his third Pro Bowl.

Comparable contracts: Antrel Rolle and Michael Griffin hauled in five-year, $35 and $37 million contracts, respectively, at the age of 27. In 2011, a 26-year-old Eric Weddle signed with the Chargers for five years, $40 million.

What to expect: Troy Polamalu currently holds the highest average salary among NFL safeties: $9.125 million. Spotrac predicts Byrd will best that with a $9.13 million average, which, over five years, comes out to $45.5 million.

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