Greg Hardy – DE – Carolina Panthers
Next to a quarterback, the best thing a team can have is a legitimate pass rusher on defense. The more a team has, the better a defense they tend to field. Free agency rarely offers any notable men at that position simply because they’re so coveted. However, once in awhile due to injury, maturity or salary concerns one might pop loose every now and again. That could happen with Greg Hardy. The Carolina Panthers defensive end not only becomes a free agent in 2014 but will put his team is a tough position if he finishes strong. Carolina has serious salary cap concerns to work through and if Hardy goes his second-straight year with ten or more sacks it will be tough for them to keep him. By shifting to another team with pass rush needs it also could greatly tilt how the top end of the draft will go down as well.
Henry Melton – DT – Chicago Bears
Equally hard to find on defense is a player who can apply pressure from the interior. Chicago Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton was among the best in football at it last season. Unfortunately a torn ACL ended his year early, putting his future and hopes for a long-term deal in question. Still, based on age and the state of medicine he should make a full recovery and return to his Pro Bowl form. That means while he might not get the money he was hoping for, interesting should still be high next March. Based on early projections the defensive tackle crop isn’t nearly as strong in the 2014 NFL draft as it was in 2013. That means Melton could have a huge say in how things go down.
Wesley Woodyard – ILB – Denver Broncos
Perhaps no position is more in transition than linebacker. In the old days it was about finding leaders who manned the middle and always made the tackle or the big hit. With offenses going to the air more than ever, it’s now about finding athletes who can assist in coverage but still have enough strength to help against the run. There is no more overlooked player who can do all that than Wesley Woodyard of the Denver Broncos. Despite playing on a injury-riddled defense he has 35 tackles, 1.5 sacks and two passes defended in five games. His athleticism allows him to cover tight ends and running backs but still brings enough toughness to stay active around the line of scrimmage. There aren’t many of those types of players in the 2014 class, which makes his next landing spot very important.
Aqib Talib – CB – New England Patriots
Bill Belichick is almost up to the level of Al Davis when it comes to reclamation projects of players. His latest gem is former disgruntled cornerback Aqib Talib who got traded from TampaBay following a very rough stay. He has since become the best corner on the New England Patriots defense, routinely matching up against the best receiver of an opposing offense and winning the majority of the battles. Before getting hurt in week six he had four interceptions and a forced fumble. Teams will look hard at him in March especially with a lack of size characterizing the upcoming college class of top corners.
Jairus Byrd – FS – Buffalo Bills
If corners are lacking in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, safeties are practically non-existent. Only Hasean Clinto-Dix of Alabama was among the top players and his stock took a nose dive when the team suspended him for accepting payments. After that the next closest is Dion Bailey out of USC who draws anywhere from second to third round grades. That is why Jairus Byrd, two-time Pro Bowl safety for the Buffalo Bills, could draw lots of interest on the free agent market. He seems intent on leaving the team after not reaching a long-term extension and receiving little playing time from the new coaching staff. He is easily the best safety set to hit the market and could earn a healthy pay day.