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Free agency preview: Breaking down the top 25 NFL players before they hit the market

Anwar S. Richardson
Shutdown Corner

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With the NFL's salary cap increasing by about $10 million from last year to $133 million and teams having holes to fill, free agency should be hectic. Shutdown Corner will have you covered, with a preview of a different position each day leading up to the start of the free-agency period on March 11.

The list of the 25 best free agents looked a lot stronger just a few days ago.

With a flurry of activity in the days leading up to Monday's deadline to use the tag for franchise and transition players, the market got a lot weaker. Jeremy Maclin, Anquan Boldin, Riley Cooper, Brent Grimes, Donald Butler and Dennis Pitta were just some of the players re-signed by their teams. Four players got the franchise tag: tight end Jimmy Graham (New Orleans), linebacker Brian Orakpo (Washington), defensive end Greg Hardy (Carolina) and kicker Nick Folk (N.Y. Jets).

There are still quality players who are unsigned with a little more than a week before free agency begins, and we've ranked the top 25. The franchise players aren't included because it's so rare for another team to sign them away, but clearly Graham, Hardy and Orakpo would have been at the top of the list had they hit the open market.

Here is our list of the top 25 free agents, with the best fit for each:

1. Jairus Byrd, Bills, S: He is one of the NFL's best safeties. Byrd played on the franchise tag last season, but is seeking a long-term deal. Unfortunately, for Byrd, he may have to join another subpar team to get paid. Best fit: Browns

2. Eugene Monroe, Ravens, OT: Left tackles are always in huge demand, and Monroe is the best on the market. The former first-round pick, who was traded from Jacksonville to Baltimore last season, is just 26 and is going to get a huge contract. Best fit: Dolphins

3. Jared Veldheer, Raiders, T: Oakland cannot let Veldheer get away. Veldheer is a former third-round pick who became one of the NFL’s top left tackles. Re-signing him must be Oakland’s top priority, especially with a projected $65 million in salary cap space. Best fit: Raiders

4. T.J. Ward, Browns, S: Ward had only two interceptions last season, but is strong against the run. He will compete against Byrd to be the highest-paid safety in free agency. Considering he is 27 years old, he will not wait long to find a new home. Best fit: Eagles

5. Michael Bennett, Seahawks, DE: He took a risk by signing a one-year deal with Seattle, and it paid off with a Super Bowl championship. Tampa Bay did not want to pay Bennett, Seattle acquired him at a bargain price, but he expects to get paid this offseason. Best fit: Bears

6. Alex Mack, Browns, C: Mack is a Pro Bowler, and regardless who is under center for Cleveland in 2014, the Browns need a standout offensive lineman to protect their quarterback. Cleveland placed a transition tag on Mack, which guarantees a one-year deal at the average of the top 10-highest-paid players at his position. Cleveland has the right to match any offer he receives on the open market, but gets no compensation if Mack leaves. Best fit: Browns

[Be sure to check out Shutdown Corner's NFL free-agent rankings. Click here for the list of offensive players, and click here for the list of defensive and special teams players]

7. Michael Johnson, Bengals, DE: He was franchised last year, but this offseason teams will fight for Johnson. Johnson has 26.5 sacks in five seasons, and at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, it is hard to pass him up. Best fit: Vikings

8. Branden Albert, Chiefs, T: He has been a solid player for Kansas City, but has struggled to stay healthy. Albert is better at pass protecting than run blocking, but that small flaw is not enough to scare off most teams. Best fit: Cardinals

9. Alterraun Verner, Titans, CB: Tennessee is already paying cornerback Jason McCourty big-time money, which might make it hard to retain Verner. Verner, a Pro Bowl cornerback, led the team in interceptions last season. Best fit: Chargers

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10. Aqib Talib, Patriots, CB: There was a time when Talib was better known for being disruptive off the field, but after a Pro Bowl season in 2013 he will garner plenty of attention as a free agent. Talib’s injury during last season’s playoffs led to New England’s loss against Denver, and he is too valuable to New England to let him walk away. Best fit: Patriots

11. Vontae Davis, Colts, CB: He is Indianapolis’ top corner, but there are several elite cornerbacks available this offseason. Miami’s Brett Grimes may be off the market, but the presence of Verner, Talib and Chicago’s Charles Tillman may hurt Davis’ ability to negotiate. Best fit: Colts

12. Jason Worilds, Steelers, LB: He has eight sacks and two forced fumbles in 11 games last season. He played great down the stretch of 2013, and is poised for a breakout season, which explains why he received Pittsburgh's transition tag. Best fit: Titans

13. Eric Decker, Broncos, WR: He will gain a lot of free-agent interest, but teams have to be careful to not overpay. Decker was a No. 2 receiver, and he may not be able to handle No. 1 responsibilities, especially without Peyton Manning: Best fit: Jets

14. Michael Vick, Eagles, QB: He turns 34 in June, struggles to stay healthy and is turnover prone. However, he is the best quarterback available. If a team is looking for a short-term solution at quarterback, Vick is the guy. Best fit: Buccaneers

15. Lamarr Houston, Raiders, DE: He has 16.5 sacks in four years, and in that time he has not missed a game. If Oakland is crazy enough to let Houston walk, he will be among the first players signed when free agency begins. Best fit: Eagles

16. Arthur Jones, Ravens, DE: He is a run-stopping end who can alter the pass too. He is one of the NFL’s best 3-4 defensive ends, and he is about to get paid. Best fit: Jets

17. Geoff Schwartz, Chiefs, G: He is a versatile offensive lineman and Kansas City may have trouble re-signing him because of salary-cap restraints. He played left guard, right guard and right tackle last season. That is enough versatility for any team. Best fit: Broncos

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18. Ben Tate, Texans, RB: He has been a solid backup in Houston for three seasons. Tate had 771 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season. He is 25 years old and could have a major impact with another team. Best fit: Giants

19. Henry Melton, Bears, DT: He is recovering from an ACL injury sustained last season, but was an elite player when healthy. Melton had 15.5 sacks between 2010 and 2012, and is worth the risk. Best fit: Cowboys

20. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Broncos, CB: He is viewed as one of Denver’s top free-agent priorities. Is he worth a mega multi-year deal? Considering Denver does not have many options, the answer is yes. Best fit: Broncos

21. Jason Hatcher, Cowboys, DT: He turns 32 in May, but so what? He went to the Pro Bowl last season after leading Dallas with a career-high 11 sacks in 15 games. Best fit: Buccaneers

22. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos, RB: Denver drafted Montee Ball to replace him, but that inspired Moreno to play better. He had 1,038 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns last season. However, he struggled to stay healthy prior to last season. Best fit: Raiders

23. Donte Whitner, 49ers, S: He has 669 career tackles, 10 interceptions and a high number of punishing hits during his career. Whitner has missed only one game during the past three seasons. It is hard not to love the NFL's hardest-hitting safety. Best fit: Browns

24. Hakeem Nicks, Giants, WR: There was a time when Nicks was expected to emerge into an elite receiver. That was before Victor Cruz arrived on the scene and last year's dismal performance by Nicks. However, Nicks is 26, and some NFL team will try to resurrect his career. Best fit: Panthers

25. Jared Allen, Vikings, DE: He might turn 32 in April, but it's hard to argue against his productivity, especially on bad teams. He had 11.5 sacks and broke up six passes in 2013. Allen has 128.5 career sacks, and can transform a team in need of a pass rush. Best fit: Buccaneers

Shutdown Corner's free agency preview schedule
Monday, March 3:
Shutdown Corners's top 25 free agents
March 4: Quarterbacks
March 5: Receivers/tight ends
March 6: Running backs
March 7: Offensive linemen
March 8: Defensive backs
March 9: Linebackers
March 10: Defensive line

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Anwar S Richardson is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at NFLAnwar@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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