The Free-Agent Countdown, 100-51

Whatever the needs, NFL teams will soon be scrambling to fill them on the open market. Here’s Part I—from 100 to 51—of my ranking of the top available players
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Mike Mitchell (21) may be walking on air—and walking away from Carolina—given the strong demand for proven safeties. (Jed Jacobsohn/SI/The MMQB)

Carolina’s Mike Mitchell (21) may be walking on air—and walking away from Carolina—given the demand for proven safeties. (Jed Jacobsohn/SI/The MMQB)

100. M.D. Jennings // Signed, CHI


FS, Green Bay (Age 26)

Didn’t look the part of a starter last season when given an opportunity. Packers may not tender him at $1.4 million, but he’s flashed some talent. Best fit: Eagles. They need help at safety, and a change of scenery might help him.

99. Michael Oher


T, Baltimore (Age 28)

Had another below-average season in 2013 and at this point he is what he’s going to be:  a physically talented player who is wildly inconsistent with technique and focus. Best fit: Falcons. Could be a cheap upgrade from Lamar Holmes some point down the line.

98. Brandon Pettigrew


TE, Detroit (Age 29)

Has always looked the part of an all-around tight end at 6-5 and 265 pounds with some speed and solid hands, but he’s failed to live up to his first-round draft spot (2009). Best fit: Lions. The team has said he’s a priority.

97. Josh McCown // Signed, TB


QB, Chicago (Age 35)

Did an outstanding job keeping the Bears afloat after Jay Cutler’s injury last season and looked perfect for coach Marc Trestman’s offense. Best fit: Bears. No reason to break up a good thing at this stage in career.

96. Matt Cassel // Signed, MIN


QB, Minnesota (Age 32)

Voided his $3.7 million contract with the hopes of landing in a better situation. Ideal outcome would be a place with a rookie QB who’ll need to be tutored. Best fit: Texans. From their New England days, coach Bill O’Brien knows Cassel can operate his offense .

95. Mike Neal // Signed, GB


Edge, Green Bay (Age 27)

Very intriguing prospect after starting career as 294-pound 3-4 end. Shed 20-plus pounds to convert to a very strong outside linebacker. Could be low cost/high reward for next team. Best fit: Cardinals. They need to get young on the edge.

94. Graham Gano // Signed, CAR


K, Carolina (Age 27)

Comes off a fantastic season in which he hit 89 percent of his field goals, including all six of 50-plus yards. Even more impressive was his 79.7 percent touchback rate, best in league since 1994. Best fit: Eagles. Alex Henery just wasn’t good enough in any phase. 

93. Pat McAfee // Signed, IND


P, Indianapolis (Age 27)

Has been one of the league’s best, most consistent punters but slumped a bit last season. Colts valued him enough to tag him last year. Best fit: Bears. They’ll likely go draft or UDFA route to find competition for Adam Podlesh, but McAfee could be intriguing if cheap.

92. Austin Howard // Signed, OAK


OT, NY Jets (Age 27)

Seems to be getting better with every snap as a RT. Excels at the run game right now, but is just average pass blocking. It could all come together during next contract. Best fit: Jets. They see the potential and want to bring him back.

91. Desmond Bishop


LB, Minnesota (Age 30)

Generated plenty of interest when the Packers released him in June, but he was snake-bit again with injuries, tearing his ACL on Oct. 13. Best fit: Chiefs. GM John Dorsey knows Bishop well, and he’d be good competition for Nico Johnson.

90. Jonathan Babineaux // Signed, ATL


Interior DL, Atlanta (Age 32)

A stout run defender for most of his nine seasons with the Falcons. Would be a solid veteran pickup for any team needing help on the interior. Best fit: Falcons. They have no one proven remaining on the interior of the line.

89. Scott Chandler


TE, Buffalo (Age 29)

Had career highs with 53 catches for 655 yards. Never shown he’ll be more than solid and dependable—but he has been playing for the Bills. Best fit: Seahawks. Could be a little upgrade until a drafted athletic tight end is ready to contribute.

88. Garrett Graham // Signed, HOU


TE, Houston (Age 28)

Continued steady career progress with 49 catches, 545 yards, five TDs in bad offense. Ideal “move” tight end in many schemes. Best fit: Texans. Bill O’Brien used two-tight end system in N.E; Graham would be solid in Aaron Hernandez role. Patriots another option.

87. Shaun Phillips


Edge, Denver (Age 33)

Provided 10 needed sacks for Broncos when Von Miller was suspended/injured. Phillips won’t find much money out there, but veteran pass rushers always find a home. Best fit: Broncos. Carved out a nice role in Denver.

86. John Kuhn


FB, Green Bay (Age 31)

Showed his underlying value with a blocking adjustment on Aaron Rodgers’ game-winning pass against the Bears. Core special teams player. Best fit: Packers. Don’t want to hear Kuuuuhn anywhere else.

85. James Ihedigbo


SS, Baltimore (Age 30)

Showed he could be effective strong safety with a knack for blitzing while being a core special teams player. Ideally a sixth defensive back. Best fit: Ravens. Ihedigbo would continue to be a great mentor for free safety Matt Elam.

84. Louis Delmas // Signed, MIA


SS, Detroit (Age 27)

A big hitter in the secondary, Delmas’ body has rarely held up to the abuse. Knee issues limited him to one practice a week last season. Best fit: Falcons. Thomas DeCoud could be a cap casualty.

83. Robert Ayers


Edge, Denver (Age 28)

Former first-round pick never really lived up to the billing and became a role player. Has a lot of athletic skill. Best fit: Saints. They need to find more players who can rush the passer. The cheaper the better.

82. Anthony Spencer


Edge, Dallas (Age 30)

Played only 34 snaps last year after microfracture surgery for a knee injury; only started running recently. That will push the market down for him. Best fit: Buccaneers. Lovie Smith likes to have veterans around, and Spencer could have something left.

81. Shelley Smith


OG, St. Louis (Age 27)

Has been strictly a backup role player because he’s below average as a pass blocker. He is, however, a very good run blocker. Could be coached up with pass pro. Best fit: Jets. Smith would be best utilized by a run-first team.

80. Pat Sims


Interior DL, Oakland (Age 28)

Solid run-stuffing interior lineman who’s a little younger than most in that free-agent group. Best fit: Dolphins. Remains to be seen whether Miami can retain either Randy Starks or Paul Soliai. Sims could be younger, cheaper alternative.

79. Antonio Smith


Interior DL, Houston (Age 32)

Still top-notch pass rusher as he consistently showed up in our 2013 Pressure Points ratings. Best fit: Texans. Unclear if he’s ideal for new coordinator Romeo Crennel’s system, but GM Rick Smith knows Smith’s value.

78. Willie Colon


G, NY Jets (Age 31)

Is no longer the top-notch tackle he used to be, and Colon still gets too many penalties, but his ability to pass block can’t be denied. Best fit: Falcons. They need a solid veteran right guard in the worst way.

77. Travelle Wharton


G, Carolina (Age 33)

Coming off a very good season for Panthers, who waited until very late to re-sign him when injuries hit. Could be a good veteran add somewhere. Best fit: Dolphins. Facing nearly a complete OL rebuild, and it can’t all be with draft picks.

76. Earl Mitchell


Interior DL, Houston (Age 26)

A player who’s steadily improved during his career. Doesn’t seem quite to be a fit for Romeo Crennel’s new 3-4 scheme. He’s more of a tackle than nose tackle. Best fit: Bears. Could fill an instant need on the interior of Chicago’s line.

75. Bernard Pollard // Signed, TEN


SS, Tennessee (Age 29)

Doesn’t do anything extraordinarily well and seems to wear out his welcome quickly, but the well-traveled Pollard brings a physical attitude to each team. Best fit: Titans. Seemed to find a home in Nashville, and team wants him back.

74. James Starks


RB, Green Bay (Age 28)

Slashing runner with good speed who’s gained a tougher edge. Has consistently battled injuries but is valuable when healthy. Best fit: Giants. There’s a need for a veteran RB, and new OC Ben McAdoo coached Starks in Green Bay.

73. Josh Freeman


QB, Minnesota (Age 26)

Despite last year’s circus Tampa and then Minnesota, Freeman is still a former Pro Bowler and just 26. There’s talent there to develop in right situation. Best fit: Bears. If McCown leaves, Freeman should jump at chance to work with coach Marc Trestman.

72. Jon Beason // Signed, NYG


LB, NY Giants (Age 29)

After three straight injury-plagued seasons in Carolina, Beason found a home after a trade. Was great against the run but struggled in pass coverage. Best fit: Giants. Both sides should find a way to make this work, if Beason doesn’t overvalue his market.

71. Jared Allen


Edge, Minnesota (Age 32)

He’s not the dominating player he once was, but Allen still put up double-digit sacks (11.5) for the seventh straight year. Would be nice to cap off career with title. Best fit: Patriots. Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich could use a breather and some help.

70. Captain Munnerlyn


CB, Carolina (Age 26)

Coming off his best season on a one-year deal. At 5-8, not a fit for every system but has positional versatility. Expect a lot of teams to go bargain hunting after top CBs go. Best fit: Saints. Would give them options with Patrick Robinson and Corey White.

69. Jon Asamoah // Signed, ATL


G, Kansas City (Age 26)

A good starter at right guard before his injuries gave Jeff Schwartz a chance at the job he would not relinquish. Very good pass blocker. Best fit: Giants. Somebody may get a steal here. This ranking may be too low.

68. Mike Mitchell // Signed, PIT


SS, Carolina (Age 27)

GM Dave Gettleman made a smart value signing after Mitchell was under the radar in Oakland. Versatile first-time starter who is best blitzing. Struggles with tackling. Best fit: Redskins. Seems they’re always look for safety help on the open market.

67. Brandon Spikes


LB, New England (Age 26)

A brute, physical force and one of the best run stuffing LBs in the league, but struggles in space against the pass. Best fit: Chiefs. They love to flood the field with DBs in sub packages, so Spikes’ deficiencies wouldn’t be much of an issue.

66. Jeremy Maclin // Signed, PHI


WR, Philadelphia (Age 25)

Looked ready to take the next step with Chip Kelly’s arrival but suffered second ACL tear since college in July. He’ll likely get a one-year “prove it” deal somewhere. Best fit: Eagles. Cheaper than fellow free agent Riley Cooper, and fits the scheme better.

65. Jermichael Finley


TE, Green Bay (Age 27)

Supremely gifted and plays like a WR in a TE body but has yet to realize potential over a full season. Focus wanes at times. Coming of spinal fusion surgery so medicals trump all. Best fit: Seahawks. Could use an athletic tight end, and GM John Schneider knows Finley well.

64. Walter Thurmond


CB, Seattle (Age 27)

Nickel corner will be looking to cash in on the Super Bowl. Four-game suspension last season will be a negative for some teams. Best fit: Chiefs. They are stacked with big bodies in the secondary and could use a little more speed.

63. Perry Riley // Signed, WAS


LB, Washington (Age 28)

Better than he’s given credit for—has proven three-down ability and hasn’t missed a snap since becoming a starter during rookie season. Best fit: Redskins. With London Fletcher retiring, Washington would be in a bad spot replacing two inside linebackers.

62. Kendrick Lewis


FS, Kansas City (Age 28)

Versatile player who can man both safety spots, though more an FS. Doesn’t have the speed to be the man in a Cover 1 scheme like Seattle’s Earl Thomas. Not many do. Best fit: Dolphins. If Chris Clemons leaves in free agency, they’re going to need options.

61. Zane Beadles // Signed, JAX


OG, Denver (Age 27)

Second-rounder who had good potential but has never really taken the next step to be a big-ticket item. He’s solid and a good locker room presence. Best fit: Dolphins. They need all the real pros they can fit into that room.

60. Anthony Collins // Signed, TB


OT, Cincinnati (Age 28)

Career backup got chance to show his potential at LT when Andrew Whitworth battled injuries; proved he can play both sides well and might be too expensive to keep. Best fit: Cardinals. Desperate for a top-flight LT, and Collins could be good bang for the buck.

59. B.J. Raji


Interior DL, Green Bay (Age 28)

Ninth overall pick in ’09 draft has youth and durability on his side. But his play headed downward last season. A change to 4-3, one-gap system could unleash him. Best fit: Bears. Would be good pickup for the NFC North rival if allowed to freelance more.

58. Julian Edelman


WR, New England (Age 28)

Finally healthy for full season, Edelman caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and six TDs, and is a top punt returner. Best fit: Texans. Can plug right into Bill O’Brien’s offense and work the middle between Andre Johnson and DeAndre Hopkins.

57. Maurice Jones-Drew


RB, Jacksonville (Age 29)

Showed enough last year after no offseason with a Lisfranc injury to indicate he still has more in the tank. Best fit: Cardinals. With Rashard Mendenhall likely done in Arizona, a healthy Jones-Drew would make a great tandem with speedy Andre Ellington.

56. Rodger Saffold // Signed, STL


OT, St. Louis (Age 26)

Figures to be closely watched considering he can play both T spots and G, but his preference is to play LT or G. Teams losing out on top players at those positions will quickly shift to Safford. Best fit: Dolphins. Saffold could have his pick of positions, with four spots open.

55. Riley Cooper // Signed, PHI


WR, Philadelphia (Age 26)

Flourished in Chip Kelly’s system, with 47 receptions, 835 yards, eight TDs. But teams are going to have to determine how much of that was scheme. Cooper is not a No. 1, and has a hard time versus press coverage. Best fit: Lions. Could help take heat off Calvin Johnson. 

54. Rashad Jennings // Signed, NYG


RB, Oakland (Age 29)

After four years as a Jags backup, outperformed Darren McFadden with career highs in carries (163), yards (733) and TDs (six). Not quite a No. 1, he’s still good and has low miles for his age. Best fit: Raiders. Found a home behind a line that should be better in ’14.

53. James Jones


WR, Green Bay (Age 30)

Getting starter snaps in ’12, Jones led the NFL with 14 TD catches, so teams might think he has that in him. Bu he tends to get beat up and isn’t a No. 1 WR. Best fit: Raiders. GM Reggie McKenzie might want his former GB player to help finish rebuilding process.

52. LeGarrette Blount


RB, New England (Age 27)

Tampa cast-off revived his career late in ’13 season behind a very good run-blocking line. Won’t create many of his own yards but will get what’s blocked and then some. Best fit: Patriots. Wants to get paid but might not see the dough. NE wants him back at its price.

51. Zach Strief


T, New Orleans (Age 30)

A steady yet unspectacular right tackle whose reputation has been enhanced by the quarterback. Much better as a pass blocker. Best fit: Saints. Both sides want a reunion, but New Orleans could lose him with tight cap.

The countdown continues with numbers 50 to 1.

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Photo credits (photographers are SI/The MMQB unless otherwise indicated): Robert Beck (6); John Biever (4); Simon Bruty (4); Jed Jacobsohn (3); David E. Klutho (3); David Bergman (3); Guillermo Hernandez Martinez (3); Greg Nelson (3); Al Tielemans (2); Damian Strohmeyer; Jeff Haynes (2); Heinz Kluetmeier; Peter Read Miller; John W. McDonough; Tom Lynn; Carlos M. Saavedra; Hannah Foslien/Getty Images (2); Rich Graessle/Icon SMI; Charlie Neibergall/AP; Cliff Welch/Icon SMI; Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images; Jim Dedmon/Icon SMI; Gregory Shamus/Getty Images; Richard A. Brightly/Icon SMI; Charles Rex Arbogast/AP; Zach Bolinger/Icon SMI; Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports; MSA/Icon SMI; Mike McCarn/AP; Wesley Hitt/Getty Images; AP Photo/Jeff Roberson; Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images.