Extra Points: Ranking the NFL free agents

The Sports NetworkMarch 4, 2014 

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The NFL is often referred to as a copycat league, but the better description may be "groupthink league," at least in a psychological sense.

Football is hardly the only professional sport exhibiting the groupthink mentality. Major League Baseball was inundated by analytics after author Michael Lewis published "Moneyball" in 2003, a book about the Oakland A's and their general manager Billy Beane, who used a sabermetric approach to assemble a very good team despite the organization's challenged revenue situation.

Professional basketball people followed suit with the advent of "PER" or player efficiency rating, a formula devised by then-ESPN stats maven John Hollinger and described as an all-in-one ranking, which attempts to boil down a player's contributions into one number. Hollinger's system was so revered by the in-crowd in the NBA that he jumped from Bristol, Conn., all the way to Memphis as vice president of basketball operations despite having no prior experience as a decision maker at the NBA level.

Holdouts in those leagues who still talk about things like feel or intangibles are often ostracized as knuckle-draggers who think the world is still flat or question the theory of evolution.

The "science -- or in this case, the analytics -- is settled" is a favorite saying of people so close-minded that they fail to recognize they ended up in the same intolerant spot as those they feel are stuck in the 19th century. After all, the very idea of settled science is an affront to any true researcher who hasn't been polluted by some kind of political agenda.

A real researcher consumed by nothing more than finding the answers to a particular problem wants to hold up his or her work for peer review and welcomes further advancements.

So what does all this have to do with the NFL?

Well, in 2014 the "groupthink" around the league is that you build through the draft and use free agency as a supplement only. Meanwhile, when a player reaches the age of 30, it's time to start looking for his replacement.

Actual accomplishments on the resume in the NFL pale in comparison to the perceived (and often overvalued) ceiling of young and unproven commodities.

And, on the surface at least, that sounds like the prudent way to go about building a franchise, but there are reasons doctors believe a groupthink mentality can create an incorrect or even deviant decision-making process.

The thought is that group members try to minimize conflict -- or in the case of NFL personnel people, minimize second-guessing -- by automatically reaching the consensus view without critical evaluation of alternative ideas, viewpoints or outside influences.

When the 2014 free agency class hits the market on March 11, there will be plenty of contributors available and more than enough money for anyone other than the Dallas Cowboys to bring them in. (The NFL's salary cap is expected to rise to $133 million, up $10 million from last year.)

Oakland is expected to have $67 million in available funds while at least eight other teams will have north of $30 million to shop with it.

That said, while you're dreaming of the 33-year-old Michael Vick piloting your team to the postseason next season or the 31-year-old Jared Allen crashing off the edge to cure a punchless pass rush, understand that's not what the organization itself wants.

If players like that do end up in town, it's only as a stop-gap while the search for the real answer continues in May (the NFL Draft).

Following is a look at the top 50 unrestricted free agents available. No franchise tags and no restricted guys here, these are players who can sign on the dotted line next week and never look back.

You won't see aging stars like Kevin Williams, Travelle Wharton or Charles Tillman on the list because age is a big factor -- perhaps the biggest -- in weighing how NFL teams value potential targets.

Other veterans like Vick, Allen and Justin Tuck made the cut because their games translate a little better toward situational football, upping their values in a one- or two-year window.

So here it is -- The Sports Network's Top 50 NFL band-aids (free agents) on the market for 2014:

1. Michael Johnson, DE, Cincinnati - Johnson was franchised a year ago, but a sharp decline in sacks has the Bengals thinking they can live without one of the best two-way ends in the business. It's rare in this era of specialization that you will see a player like Johnson who can hold the edge in the run game while also being disruptive in the pass rush.

2. Eugene Monroe, LT, Baltimore - There will be plenty of solid offensive lineman available next week, but Monroe provides the best cocktail of age, talent and position (left tackle).

3. Michael Bennett, DE, Seattle - A shoulder injury kept the talented Bennett from cashing in big last year, so here he is again after a brilliant Super Bowl run. He has the requisite motor, plays the run hard and can get after the quarterback.

4. Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo - Byrd is probably the best pure cover safety in football not named Earl Thomas, and snaring a player with his ball skills in today's pass happy game would be a coup for any team.

5. Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee - A Pro Bowl corner rarely hits the open market and Verner has already indicated Tennessee isn't getting any hometown discounts.

6. Branden Albert, LT, Kansas City - Albert is run-of-the-mill when it comes to run blocking, but he's an elite pass protector and plenty of teams need competent options on the blind side.

7. Jared Veldheer, LT, Oakland - A torn triceps stunted Veldheer's development a bit last season, but the 6-foot-8 left tackle is an athletic marvel who could be one of the best two or three in the game in a year or two.

8. Aqib Talib, CB, New England - Few question Talib's talent, it's the off- field stuff that concerns many. That said, Talib is one of the best and most physical man coverage cornerbacks in the NFL.

9. T.J. Ward, S, Cleveland - Ward is the opposite of Byrd, a strong in-the-box safety who can serve as an extra linebacker in certain situations.

10. Eric Decker, WR, Denver - More than a few believe Decker is a No. 2 receiver who will be getting the big check as a No. 1. Whatever you feel, Decker is a young, quality receiver in a passing league.

11. James Jones, WR, Green Bay - Jones is a true outside-the-numbers threat who can make things happen with the ball after the catch. His hands can be inconsistent, however.

12. Everson Griffen, DE, Minnesota - Griffen was stuck behind Jared Allen and Brian Robison in Minnesota but flashed top-tier pass-rushing ability at times. If he can convince potential suitors that the work ethic and consistency will be there, the sky is the limit for him.

13. Vontae Davis, CB, Indianapolis - Davis is a physical corner who just turned 25. He should be getting ready to break the bank, but there are serious questions about his maturity level.

14. Henry Melton, DT, Chicago - Yeah, Melton is coming off a torn ACL, but he is worth taking a chance on. Before the injury, Melton was considered one of the best at his position.

15. Sam Shields, CB, Green Bay - Cornerbacks who run like Shields and have had at least some success against top-tier receivers will always be big-ticket items.

16. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Denver - DRC is a pure cover guy who doesn't like sticking his nose into things while in run support.

17. Julian Edelman, WR, New England - Edelman was a godsend from the slot last year for Tom Brady, but it's really hard picturing him staying healthy over the long haul.

18. D'Qwell Jackson, LB, Cleveland - Jackson is a smart and instinctive team leader who will step in on Day 1 and start for someone.

19. Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota - Allen is one of the best pure pass rushers of all-time with world class endurance. He's also aging and one-dimensional but doesn't want a part-time role. He should be a tailor-made fit for a contender who needs a pass rusher to get over the top.

20. Golden Tate, WR, Seattle - Tate is a well-rounded guy who does everything well but nothing at an elite level.

21. Antoine Bethea, S, Indianapolis - Bethea is probably the second-best coverage safety on what should be a strong market. That could signal an over- priced alert.

22. Linval Joseph, DT, New York Giants - The interior of the defensive line is very deep in this year's class. Joseph might not be as accomplished as some but at 25, he might have the most upside.

23. Randy Starks, DT, Miami - Starks is a great run defender on the wrong side of 30.

24. Arthur Jones, DE, Baltimore - A solid if unspectacular two-way end, Jones excels at stopping the run and is active enough to force you to account for him on the pass rush.

25. B.J. Raji, NT, Green Bay - Raji is a two-down player but can still stand out as an early down run-stuffer. Just don't ask him to do anything else.

26. Jason Hatcher, DT, Dallas - Hatcher was as disruptive as any interior defender last year, but at 32 that kind of production has an extremely limited shelf life.

27. Brandon Spikes, LB, New England - Spikes is a tremendous two-down linebacker, but he is lost in pass coverage. Players like Spikes are becoming dinosaurs.

28. Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia - There is no question Vick is one of the best 32 quarterbacks in this league, but at 33 with a history of injuries and a persistent turnover problem, he's always a question mark.

29. Willie Young, DE, Detroit - Young has shown glimpses as a pass rusher, and that could have multiple teams biting early.

30. Louis Delmas, S, Detroit - An old-school intimidator, Delmas is hurt by the style of play in this era and the fact he can't stay on the field.

31. Paul Soliai, NT, Miami - Another two-down run stuffer who offers little else.

32. Brandon Pettigrew, TE, Detroit - An immense talent who made underachieving a cottage industry in Detroit. Imagine if the lights go on, though.

33. Zane Beadles, G, Denver - Guards just aren't valued, but Beadles has 62 starts and a Pro Bowl on his resume.

34. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay - Finley would be top 10 on talent but is obviously a major injury risk after undergoing cervical fusion surgery.

35. Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Pittsburgh - Sanders isn't going to pop the top of defenses, but he's crafty enough to be a difference maker in the slot.

36. Ben Tate, RB, Houston - Tate is your classic north-south, one-cut runner and a guy who can handle 20 touches a game, although he is not going to help a team much in the passing game.

37. Toby Gerhart, RB, Minnesota - Gerhart has plenty of tread left on the tire after spending the last four years as Adrian Peterson's caddy. He projects as a really good move-the-chains back and has more burst than most realize. He also has far better hands than Tate.

38. Justin Tuck, DE, New York Giants - Tuck had a bit of a bounce-back year in 2013, but that could be fool's gold. At 30, with nine tough years under his belt the former star is clearly a descending player.

39. Karlos Dansby, LB, Arizona - Dansby fit perfectly in Arizona next to Daryl Washington, and at 32 he's probably best off staying put in the desert.

40. Rodger Saffold, OL, St. Louis - Saffold has proven to be a solid blocker at both guard and tackle, but he has had plenty of trouble staying healthy.

41. Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland - McFadden has the most skill of any running back available, but it's hard to count on him.

42. Tyson Jackson, DE, Kansas City - Graded as the No. 3 overall pick, Jackson is a bust, but he has developed into a more-than-solid run-stopping 3-4 defensive end.

43. Sidney Rice, WR, Seattle - A big-time injury risk coming off a torn ACL and concussion issues, but Rice is still just 27 and has have proven to be a big-time playmaker when on the field.

44. Daryl Smith, LB, Baltimore - Smith is a veteran 'backer who really understands how to play the game.

45. Shaun Phillips, DE/OLB, Denver - Phillips is coming off a tremendous year as a pass rusher, but he will turn 33 in May.

46. Michael Oher, OT, Baltimore - Oher is probably destined to be a backup swing tackle.

47. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB, Jacksonville - The NFL's leading rusher in 2011 has fallen on hard times. There may not be much left in the gas tank.

48. Chris Cook, CB, Minnesota - Buyer beware here. Cook is sure to excite some with his ideal blend of size and athleticism, but he has no ball skills and plenty of character issues.

49. Knowshon Moreno, RB, Denver - Forget about Decker, Moreno was the product of Denver's system. He is just not an option as a lead back elsewhere.

50. Andre Roberts, WR, Arizona - Roberts is still only 26 and has excelled in the past. He could be a nice fit as a third receiver in a number of spots.

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