The stakes in NFL free agency would be so much higher this offseason if NaVorro Bowman, Kam Chancellor, Geno Atkins, Sean Lee, Clay Matthews, Percy Harvin and other headliners hadn't signed contract extensions keeping them off the market. Teams have gotten pretty good at identifying their best players and securing their services preemptively. The short list of potential high-priority unrestricted free agents will get even shorter as teams re-sign top players or use the franchise tag to buy additional time.
That explains why it was tough to come up with many potential UFAs falling into the "must-keep" category with less than two months remaining until the signing period opens. Two agents and two general managers lent assistance, with all four placing the same player atop their lists. I wasn't going to argue, but there were some differing perspectives once we moved past the top four or five players.
While the agents focused on how much money UFAs might command, the GMs also considered players whose value to their current organizations went beyond what the market might bear. That was where I chose to focus -- not exclusively on which players might get paid the most, but also on which ones teams need to re-sign if they hope to avoid a significant drop in performance next season. I set out to list 10 "must-sign" free agents and wound up listing 25 overall, including a few with lesser qualifications.
Here are the top 25 "must-sign" free agents of 2014.
1. Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints: We can debate whether Graham should be valued as a tight end or wide receiver based on where he lines up most of the time. We can debate whether the Saints used him properly in the postseason or whether Graham shrank under pressure. But there is no debating what Graham has meant to the Saints' passing game while leading the league in touchdown receptions over the past three seasons (36). The Saints' championship window should remain open for the next couple of seasons as quarterback Drew Brees remains in his prime at age 34. Graham has to stay in New Orleans and it's highly unlikely that the Saints will let him leave. The agents and GMs expect Graham to get the franchise tag.