It's never too early to look to the future in the NFL and the next wave of free agency. There are several big-name players entering contract years in 2013. While many of those players will reach deals to stay with their current teams, there will undoubtedly be some players that wade into the free agency waters in 2014.
Here's a list of 10 players that are entering contract years in 2013 and could be free agents in 2014:
Clay Matthews, OLB, Green Bay Packers - In four seasons with the Packers, Matthews has accumulated 42.5 sacks and four trips to the Pro Bowl. A dominant pass rusher, Matthews has certainly earned a contract to rival the six-year, $96 million deal given to Mario Williams in 2012, the only question is whether or not the Packers have the cap room to make it happen. They've made moves to clear some space, but are also looking to re-sign Aaron Rodgers long-term.
Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta Falcons - Postseason jokes aside, Ryan has consistently improved since he was drafted with the third pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. In 2012, he finished with his best season in every facet and helped lead the Falcons to the NFC Conference Championship. All that means it would be very surprising for the Falcons to allow Ryan to leave in free agency, especially after the team released some veterans to clear cap space earlier in the offseason.
Geno Atkins, DT, Cincinnati Bengals - Atkins may not be the house-hold name that the first two on the list are, but he may be the best of the three. A fourth round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft, Atkins quickly developed from a backup into a dominant force on the Cincinnati defensive line. In 2012, he finished with 12.5 sacks, the sixth-most in the NFL, and he did so from the interior. The Bengals have a ton of cap space and are expected to make a long-term deal for Atkins one of their top priorities.
Brian Cushing, LB, Houston Texans - The 2009 AP Defensive Rookie of the Year has been a very good player in the middle of the Texans defense, but went down with an ACL tear mid-way through the 2012 season. Considering his injury, a suspension he had earlier in his career and limited cap space, Cushing may be a case of a player that is allowed to play out his final season in 2013 before the team decides what his long-term future is.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills - A Pro Bowler in his rookie season, Byrd hasn't earned another trip back, but it hasn't been due to a regression. While his interception numbers haven't reached the nine that he hauled in during the 2009 season, he's developed into one of the better safeties in the NFL and the Bills used the franchise tag to ensure he didn't go anywhere during the 2013 offseason. However, that puts pressure on the team to come to a long-term deal because the franchise tag likely isn't a feasible option in 2014.
Brian Orakpo, OLB, Washington Redskins - After three very promising seasons as a pass rusher for the Redskins, Orakpo played in just two games in 2012 before he tore a pectoral muscle in Week 2 and was forced to head to the injured reserve. While the Redskins are expected to try and sign Orakpo long-term, they don't have a ton of cap space and the injury could cause the two sides to value his play differently.
Ryan Clady, OT, Denver Broncos - Another player that drew the franchise tag in 2013, Clady has started all 80 regular season games for the Broncos since he was drafted in the first round of the 2008 NFL Draft. A two-time First-Team All Pro, Clady isn't a player that the Broncos will want to lose, but they don't have the greatest cap situation and an offseason shoulder surgery could be concerning for Denver.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints - Graham has 25 touchdown receptions and 2,648 receiving yards in just three seasons with the Saints and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2011. However, the Saints gave Drew Brees a huge deal in 2012 and have other players on roster like Jahri Evans and Will Smith with huge contracts. There's only so much money to go around and the talented pass-catching tight end could be on the outs.
Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars - The Jaguars and Jones-Drew had a public disagreement regarding his value in 2012 as he held out from training camp and was relegated to the bench in Week 1. The NFL's leading rusher in 2011, Jones-Drew has proven himself as a player that can carry a heavy load for a team, but he had a season-ending knee injury in 2010 and a season-ending foot injury in 2012. There's a very real chance that the rebuilding Jaguars could move on without the 2006 second round pick and allow the back to hit the open market.
Jay Cutler, QB, Chicago Bears - While he hasn't played poorly for the Bears, many still question whether or not Cutler is a player that the team should commit to long-term. A victim of poor offensive line play at times, Cutler has posted only average numbers for the team and might not be the top priority for the team to re-sign in 2013. Instead, his performance in a contract year, similar to the situation Joe Flacco had in in 2012, may decide his future with Chicago.
Other potential free agents to watch in 2014:
Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Eugene Monroe, OT, Jacksonville Jaguars
Justin Smith, DE, San Francisco 49ers
Tony Romo, QB, Dallas Cowboys
Lamarr Houston, DE, Oakland Raiders
Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants
Michael Oher, OT, Baltimore Ravens
Rodger Saffold, OT, St. Louis Rams
Donte Whitner, S, San Francisco 49ers
Charles Tillman, CB, Chicago Bears