Down, set… shop!
NFL free agency opens this week, and with the salary cap set at $133 million per team, each club has $10 million more in buying power than it did last season.
Although the signing period doesn't begin until Tuesday at 1 p.m. PDT, the league this off-season has made time for some window-shopping. In an attempt to cut down on tampering, the league has instituted a three-day negotiating period, which began Saturday morning, allowing teams to discuss contract numbers with agents. The teams aren't allowed direct contact with players, and nothing can be signed until Tuesday.
A handful of high-profile players got an early jump on free agency when they were released recently by their teams, among them Denver cornerback Champ Bailey, New Orleans running back Darren Sproles, and Baltimore fullback Vonta Leach.
More purges are on the way. A look at 20 of the best players expected to be available in free agency:
Eugene Monroe, T, Baltimore — Capable left tackles are hard to come by, and Monroe figures he can command $10 million per year, about $1 million more than the Ravens want to pay him. At 26, he's got a lot of years left.
Alex Mack, C, Cleveland — The Browns have put the transition tag on Mack and are ready to pay him $10 million for a season, which would make him the league's highest-paid center by almost $2 million. But he's determined to test the free-agency waters.
Aqib Talib, CB, New England — The combustible Talib has his share of baggage, but when healthy he's a shutdown corner, and in a passing league those players are at a premium.
Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo — The playmaking Byrd has forced 19 turnovers during the last three seasons and seems to show up weekly on highlight tapes. He could wind up in Tampa, where his dad, Gil, coaches Buccaneers cornerbacks.
Eric Decker, WR, Denver — Decker put up No. 1 receiver numbers last season with a career-best 87 catches, but how much of that was having Peyton Manning at quarterback and a wealth of Broncos targets that discouraged double teams?
Jared Allen, DE, Minnesota — Allen, who has racked up 1281/2 sacks in the last 10 seasons, wants to test the market and get what he calls a "fair contract" with a winning organization. Few pass rushers are as disruptive.
Hakeem Nicks, WR, New York Giants — Nicks is coming off consecutive bad seasons — injury-plagued in 2012, abysmal in 2013 — but he's still regarded as a field-stretching playmaker who could flourish in the right system.
LaMarr Houston, DE, Oakland — There aren't many 300-pounders with Houston's quick first step. He had six sacks last season. The Raiders, who are $65 million under the cap, have the money to keep him, but will they?
Michael Vick, QB, Philadelphia — Vick is the most enticing quarterback in an underwhelming collection of them. He will turn 34 in June, and his best days are behind him. Still, there are some quarterback-desperate teams out there.
Alterraun Verner, CB, Tennessee — He's not flashy or super-fast, but the reliable Verner made his first Pro Bowl last season with five interceptions and 22 pass breakups. He's around the ball more than most.
Jared Veldheer, T, Oakland — As with teammate Houston, the Raiders have the money to re-sign their left tackle, Veldheer, but have yet to do so. He won't be without a team for long if he hits the open market.
Ben Tate, RB, Houston — Tate says he's an elite running back, although he still needs to prove that. After sitting out his rookie year with a broken ankle, he combined for 1,992 yards and 10 touchdowns in the last three years.
Branden Albert, T, Kansas City — Arizona's Darnell Dockett raised eyebrows and tampering concerns this week when he tweeted a welcome to "my homie/new teammate" Albert. Hmmm… a new blindside blocker for Carson Palmer?
Darren McFadden, RB, Oakland — When he's healthy, McFadden can roll up the yards. Problem is, he's seldom healthy (or doesn't stay that way for long). In six years, he has never played more than 13 games in a season.
Henry Melton, DT, Chicago — Melton made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and can be an outstanding defensive tackle. He's coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery on his left knee, though, and was limited to just three games last season.
Shaun Phillips, OLB, Denver — The Broncos will work hard to re-sign Phillips, who made the most of his one-year, $1-million deal after departing San Diego. He had 10 sacks and helped Denver through a stretch without the suspended/injured Von Miller.