4. Wide Receiver
The wide receiver free-agent eligibles fall off a cliff after the initial six or so players, but there is obvious star power at the top. Dwayne Bowe, 28, can take over games when focused, and he's never, ever played with a competent quarterback. Mike Wallace, 26, was considered the NFL's premier deep threat as recently as the 2012 offseason. Greg Jennings, 29, is a playmaker both in the slot and along the sidelines. Wes Welker, 31, is uncoverable between the numbers. Soo too is Danny Amendola, 27, at least when healthy. Brian Hartline, 26, was stretched as the Dolphins' No. 1 receiver in 2012, but is still coming off a breakout year.
The best of the rest are slot receiver/special teamer Julian Edelman, 26, brittle burner Donnie Avery, 28, mentally unreliable Jerome Simpson, 26, washed-up Randy Moss, 36, and Braylon Edwards, 29, concussion-prone Austin Collie, 27, and flash-in-the-pan Kevin Ogletree, 25.
5. Defensive Tackle
There's a good chance you've never heard of Desmond Bryant, 27, but you need to get used to it. He's going to be a very hot free agent. I recall watching tape of offensive skill position players last offseason, and defensive end No. 90 for Oakland kept showing up. In 2012, Bryant kicked inside to replace injured Richard Seymour and graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 6 overall defensive tackle. He was the best player on a bad defense. A Harvard alum with a scheme-versatile body (6'6/311), Bryant will appeal to 3-4 teams as a five-technique end and 4-3 clubs at interior tackle.
Almost like offensive tackle, defensive tackle can be split into two parts: Pass rushers and run-plugging space eaters. The best free-agent interior pass rushers are Bryant, Henry Melton, 26, Randy Starks, 29, Jason Jones, 26, Seymour, 33, Chris Canty, 30, Glenn Dorsey, 27, and Corey Williams, 32.
The top free-agent space eaters include "Pot Roast" Terrance Knighton, 26, Isaac Sopoaga, 31, Vance Walker, 25, Casey Hampton, 35, Roy Miller, 25, Sammie Lee Hill, 26, and Pat Sims, 27.
6. Rush Linebacker
"Rush linebacker" is traditionally associated with 3-4 defenses. As the 3-4 becomes more and more prevalent, we need to consider "rush 'backer" its own position rather than grouping it in with defensive ends or outside linebackers.
Paul Kruger, 27, was the Super Bowl champions' best pass rusher for the duration of the 2012-2013 season and is arguably the premier prize of free agency. He's going to rake in a ton of money. Anthony Spencer, 29, was always a stud edge-setting run defender before breaking out with 11 sacks this past year. He outplayed future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware. Connor Barwin, 26, registered 11.5 sacks in 2011 before crashing back to Earth with three in 2012. Barwin is not an explosive outside-edge rush 'backer and is a candidate to get overpaid on the open market.
Shaun Phillips, 31, Antwan Barnes, 28, and Victor Butler, 25, round out the rush linebacker depth. Butler is intriguing. Buried behind Spencer and Ware the past four seasons, Butler still managed 11 sacks and four forced fumbles while starting just 1-of-63 games. He is a free-agent sleeper.
The safety class looks swell on paper, but I'm afraid it'll be thinned out by franchise tags and seemingly obvious re-signings. The franchise number for safeties is an affordable $6.798 million; only tight ends and kickers cost less to tag. I think we'll see top safety Jairus Byrd, 26, tagged and quite possibly William Moore, 27. The Niners also won't let Dashon Goldson, 28, get away.
So that would leave Ed Reed, 34, Ronde Barber, 37, physically unreliable Louis Delmas, 25, and LaRon Landry, 28, benched ex-Patriot Pat Chung, 25, former first-round disappointment Kenny Phillips, 26, and Texans free safety Glover Quin, 27, atop this year's free-agent safety group.
Chung and Phillips might be the safeties to target for teams incapable of ponying up for what'll be an unwieldy price tag on Landry, Byrd, Moore, or Goldson. Chung and Phillips both possess Pro Bowl-caliber talent; only bad injury luck has diminished their market value. Since both are under 27 years old, it's quite possible Phillips and Chung would be amenable to one-year, prove-it deals.