Nov 7, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; The helmet of Washington Redskins linebacker Brian Orakpo (98) featuring a Salute to Service and United States Marine Corps sticker during the third quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at Mall of America Field at H.H.H. Metrodome. The Vikings defeated the Redskins 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Defensive End: Greg Hardy – Carolina Panthers
Michael Johnson in Cincinnati is another quality choice but Greg Hardy is not only younger, he is better too. The Carolina Panthers defensive end started out the season slow but has since rounded into form with five sacks in his last six games. Not turning 26 until next April will certainly help his cause.
Defensive Tackle: Henry Melton – Chicago Bears
A torn ACL certainly doesn’t help his cause but the Chicago Bears are seeing first hand that life without defensive tackle Henry Melton is far more difficult than they imagined. His gamble to play out the franchise tag contract backfired thanks to the injury but he is still one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL. Somebody will want him on their team, just not at the price he intended.
Outside Linebacker: Brian Orakpo – Washington Redskins
He hasn’t had the comeback season he envisioned after missing most of 2012, but Brian Orakpo continues to round himself back into dominant form. He has four sacks on the year, a pick six and continues to play well against the run. The same can’t be said for the rest of his teammates. Regardless, he is the best 3-4 pass rusher that will be available next March.
Inside Linebacker: Wesley Woodyard – Denver Broncos
Middle or inside linebackers are required more and more to have the ability to drop into coverage. That requires not just size but athleticism and speed. Never mind the typical intelligence and leadership expected from that position. Wesley Woodyard is that kind of player. He has 40 tackles, 1.5 sacks and is a big help in coverage despite having no interceptions. That versatility is rare.
Cornerback: Aqib Talib – New England Patriots
Injuries don’t mask ability. Before getting hurt Aqib Talib was playing like the best cornerback in the league, and definitely the best one with an expiring contract. The New England Patriots may look to keep him long term but given his size and athleticism, it’s hard not seeing another team taking a strong crack at him. The question then will be if Talib wants to stay or is truly seeking one more long-term deal.
Safety: Jairus Byrd – Buffalo Bills
Money is the clear objective for Jairus Byrd. After two Pro Bowl seasons in four years one can understand his thinking. Unfortunately the Buffalo Bills weren’t willing to pay or let him walk, so he held out. Since returning he has 15 tackles in four games with no interception or forced fumbles. That will hurt his stock, but he is still the most talented player at his position heading into 2014 NFL free agency.
Kicker: Robbie Gould – Chicago Bears
He hasn’t made the Pro Bowl since 2006 but that overshadows how consistently good Robbie Gould has been for the Chicago Bears since they picked him up as an undrafted free agent. At age 31 he’s having one of his best seasons in terms of field goal accuracy and touchbacks on kickoffs.
Punter: Dave Zastudil – Arizona Cardinals
They don’t get a lot of love until they’re needed but punters are very important players too. Among those teams in need of one, they can’t do better than Dave Zastudil. While not a distance type, he ranks 2nd in the league with 20 punts downed inside the 20. He averages 45.1 yards per boot and is a 12-year veteran. There is nothing he hasn’t seen or done. That kind of mixture is something contenders will want.