Stopping the league's onslaught of offense has become a real headache for just about every team outside of Seattle. Accomplishing the task, with teams spreading the field in three-, four- and even five-wide sets, requires a deep secondary.
Both the cornerback and safety markets are chock-full of talent headed into free agency. Who stands out?
1. Aqib Talib
The Boston Herald reported that Talib "wants to be paid like a top-of-the-market cornerback." Quite frankly, why wouldn't he? He has played like one since arriving in New England midway through the 2012 season, quickly turning into the strongest piece of that secondary. For evidence, just look at how much the Patriots have struggled to defend the pass when he's out.
The health issues could be what holds Talib, 28, back. He has not played more than 13 games in a season since 2009.
On the flip side of the injury argument lies Verner, who has played every game of his four-year career. Combine that with his age (25) and that he just now appears to be tapping into his full potential, and you have an equation for a bidding war. It's rare that a player hits the market who simultaneously could step in as a No. 1 CB and also could be better two or three years down the road.
3. Vontae Davis
If we are going to keep killing Colts GM Ryan Grigson for the Trent Richardson trade, we ought to continue serving up praise for the Davis move. Grigson sent a 2013 second-round pick to Miami for Davis, who in 2013 turned into a legitimate No. 1 corner. A groin injury slowed him in the playoffs ... and Indianapolis promptly allowed 87 points in two games. Like Verner, Davis is just 25.
4. Sam Shields
Shields happened to have his best season in 2013, which has helped his stance against a "hometown discount" for the Packers. Even with multiple cornerbacks ahead of him in the pecking order, the 26-year-old Shields ought to find a friendly deal. He uses all of his 5-foot-11 size well, plus brings terrific speed to the position. Hence the 13 interceptions he's had in four NFL seasons.
After occasionally dominating at cornerback in 2013, Rodgers-Cromartie probably would be higher on this list had he not floated the idea of retirement at the Super Bowl. The 27-year-old (he'll turn 28 in April) appears set on continuing his career, but even that brief moment of letting his mind wander might make teams wary to commit guaranteed money to him long term.
Overrated: Brandon Browner. Big news this week as Browner's indefinite suspension was reduced to just four games in 2014, making him a viable option for a team at some point. But while he's a solid cornerback and had a stellar 2011 season with Seattle, there are better and more versatile options out there. Asking Browner to be anything more than a No. 2 or No. 3 corner would be a mistake.
Underrated: Tarrell Brown. A member of the 49ers for seven years, Brown essentially was handed his walking papers when the franchise committed to Tramaine Brock. Some other team could reap the benefit by landing a reliable DB here.
1. Jairus Byrd
So you want to copy the Seahawks' defensive formula? It's going to take a safety like Byrd, who can man the center-field spot by his lonesome with enough athleticism to go sideline to sideline or fly down on a run play. There will be a lot of money thrown Byrd's way because he can handle those tasks. He stands to become the highest-paid safety in the league.
2. T.J. Ward
In a dream world for some team, Ward would be the safety to pair with Byrd for a remarkably dynamic duo. Whereas Byrd can drop and man the deep middle, Ward is at his best stepping into the box and demolishing people -- he's a Kam Chancellor to the Earl Thomases of the world. The value of a player like that may be at an all-time high given the eruption of talent at tight end and the number of teams implementing spread-offense concepts.
Can the Colts afford to let Bethea leave? If they do, much of the free-agency period and draft will be spent trying to find someone to replace the durable, experienced safety. Bethea has suited up for every game over the past six seasons and has topped 100 tackles from 2010-13. That he'll turn 30 in July may cause a couple teams to pass.
Whitner brings a little more of a sideshow element to the table than the other safety options -- he famously wants to change his last name to "Hitner" to celebrate the numerous fines he's been handed by the NFL. He also tends to play overly aggressive at times, thus leaving himself out of position on big plays. Still, when he's on his game, few defensive backs are as tenacious as Whitner, who has missed just one game since 2010.
5. Louis Delmas
The Lions took extra care to nurse Delmas through training camp and the preseason, basically shutting him down for all of August. The approach paid off. Delmas turned in a career-year while playing all 16 games for the first time. There will be significant concerns about his ability to stay on the field consistently, but he proved that he's a game-changer on the back end when he does so.
Overrated: Mike Mitchell. The market definitely will be there for Mitchell, who can play either safety spot or drop down to a cornerback role. He's also coming off his best NFL season. But his 2013 performance came behind Carolina's dominant front seven. Mitchell is not as much an impact defender as his teammates made him look. Underrated: Chris Clemons. There may be nothing flashy here, but Clemons carries a steady and reliable presence into a secondary. In a lot of ways, that profile may be more appealing than that of boom-or-bust players like Whitner or Delmas. Clemons probably will not land a monster contract anywhere. He should see more than enough playing time, though, no matter where he winds up.