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Free agent rankings by position

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A position-by-position rundown of the 2004 class, with this caveat: The best player at many positions will end up re-signing or has been slapped with the franchise tag.

Quarterbacks (Position grade: C)

Best player: Peyton Manning, Colts. Tagged as a franchise player, he would be the gem of this free-agent class but figures to be wearing horseshoes on his helmet in Pro Bowls through 2010.

Best value: Shane Matthews, Bengals. A veteran who has started games and isn't yet gumming his food, Matthews can hold down the fort as a fill-in.

Biggest risk: Anthony Wright, Ravens. A tasty athlete who put on a show in Week 12 last season, Wright still hasn't proved he can read defenses.

Sleeper: Shaun King, Buccaneers. King has a lot of skills, but his intangibles are in question.

On the rise: Billy Volek, Titans. An ordinary athlete who has good game-management qualities, Volek looks like the next Jake Delhomme.

Running backs (Position grade: C+)

Best player: Charlie Garner, Raiders. Tougher and more durable than he's given credit for, Garner is an underrated blocker and interior runner. And he's a better receiver than many wideouts.

Best value: Kevin Faulk, Patriots. He will do a lot of the things Garner does — plus return kicks — at a fraction of the price.

Biggest risk: Thomas Jones, Buccaneers. Jones actually looked like a former first-round pick in the second half of 2003, but will the fire in his belly go away after a big payday?

Sleeper: Stacey Mack, Texans. Blame a nightmarish 2003 on injuries and a so-so line.

On the rise: Mike Cloud, Patriots. Cloud has a nose for the end zone (five TDs on 27 carries in '03).

On the decline: Duce Staley, Eagles. Staley will draw interest because of his experience, versatility and hands, but he no longer is a dangerous runner.

Fullbacks (Position grade: C-)

Best player: Terrelle Smith, Saints. A one-time college linebacker, Smith is a punishing blocker and still is young (he'll be 26 in March).

Best value: Reuben Droughns, Broncos. Droughns is too small to blow open holes. He does, however, run, catch and shine on special teams.

Biggest risk: Sam Gash, Bills. Gash still can level a linebacker, but he will be 35 in March.

Sleeper: Dan Kreider, Steelers. A powerful lead blocker, Kreider has untapped potential as a runner and receiver.

Most versatile: Patrick Pass, Patriots. Pass is small, but he can cover or return kicks and also line up at receiver.

Wide receivers (Position grade: C)

Best player: Terrell Owens, 49ers. No longer technically a free agent, but the team likely will trade him to avoid paying him. Hall of Fame ability, bush-league attitude. Still, Owens will dominate if motivated.

Best value: Darrell Jackson, Seahawks. He's such a good value that the Seahawks will do everything they can to re-sign him.

Biggest risk: Kevin Dyson, Panthers. After missing 34 games in the last four years, Dyson must prove he can stay healthy and fulfill his big-play promise.

Sleeper: Ron Dixon, Giants. Immature and injury-prone, Dixon nevertheless has the size, speed and quickness to develop into a solid No. 2.

On the rise: Dennis Northcutt, Browns. Considering its depth at the position, the team may deal him if the price his right, despite his loss of free-agent status. Rail-thin but cat-quick, Northcutt has great hands, runs sharp routes and jets after the catch.

On the decline: Antonio Freeman, Packers. Crafty and tough in traffic, Freeman no longer has the speed or separation skills to be a difference-maker.

Best vertical threat: Marcus Robinson, Ravens. Size, strong hands and leaping ability make him a jump-ball master.

Tight ends (Position grade: B-)

Best player: Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings. He's stiff and slow but has the size and reliable enough hands to be a viable outlet receiver. He also is a punishing blocker and is steady on blitz pickups. The Vikings will push hard to re-sign him.

Best value: Todd Yoder, Buccaneers. He's athletic, hard-working and versatile enough to line up at H-back and excel on special teams.

Biggest risk: Cam Cleeland, Rams. Hamstrung by injuries, Cleeland barely has topped his rookie numbers in his last four seasons combined.

Sleeper: Jed Weaver, 49ers. An excellent route runner who has some downfield speed. We haven't seen his best yet.

On the rise: Erron Kinney, Titans. Massive and athletic, Kinney is a brutal matchup. He has the skills to become a complete player.

Centers (Position grade: B-)

Best player: Damien Woody, Patriots. Woody has the size, power and range to pull, trap or slug it out. He can play guard, too.

Best value: Todd McClure, Falcons. Limited upside hurts his value, but McClure's quick feet and sound technique will be assets in a pass-heavy scheme.

Biggest risk: Jerry Fontenot, Saints. Reliable and durable, but age (37) and diminished range are signs Fontenot could fade fast.

Sleeper: Todd Washington, Texans. A mauler with outstanding size, he could be a force in a run-heavy offense.

On the rise: Chris Bober, Giants. A small-school product who has most of the necessary skills and intangibles, Bober will be a load with added experience and strength.

On the decline: Rich Braham, Bengals. A leader and still an ox of a run blocker, but a weak link in pass protection.

Guards (Position grade: B+)

Best player: Adam Timmerman, Rams. An intelligent enforcer who's fundamentally sound and forceful in the running game. He lacks only athleticism.

Best value: Kelvin Garmon, Chargers. Strong, powerful and compact, Garmon is a run-blocking force who keeps getting better.

Biggest risk: Jeno James, Panthers. A serviceable blocker who could be overpaid after helping pave a

path to the Super Bowl. The Panthers want to re-sign him, especially after the retirement of Kevin Donnalley.

Sleeper: Bobbie Williams, Eagles. Last year, Williams got some of the experience he desperately needed. A solid starter if his technique improves.

On the rise: Cosey Coleman, Buccaneers. He had a strong second half in 2003. A promising package of size, quick feet and active hands.

Tackles (Position grade: A-)

Best player: Orlando Pace, Rams. Pace is at the top of his (or anyone else's) game. The Rams have placed the franchise tag on him for the second straight year.

Best value: John Tait, Chiefs. He's heading into his prime and one of the league's top five right tackles, which is why Kansas City used a transition tag on him.

Biggest risk: Todd Wade, Dolphins. A strong drive blocker, Wade lacks range in pass protection and has a tendency to get nicked up.

Sleeper: Lewis Kelly, Vikings. Kelly has the feet, hands and balance to excel. Power and technique could come with work and experience.

On the rise: Damion McIntosh, Chargers. A former college defensive tackle, McIntosh brings power and a surly disposition to the offense.

On the decline: Orlando Brown, Ravens. Age (33) and size are a bad mix, and Brown has a quick temper and slow feet to boot.

Defensive tackles (Position grade: B+)

Best player: Warren Sapp, Buccaneers. A once-great one-gap penetrator who now is merely very good. Age, size and conditioning are catching up.

Best value: Cornelius Griffin, Giants. His size, power, quickness and instincts are above average. By far the most complete player among available young tackles.

Sleeper: Kendrick Clancy, Steelers. Clancy is rangy and relentless but also is inexperienced and undersized for a two-gap tackle.

On the rise: Robaire Smith, Titans. Smith has benefited from playing on a great line, but he's a good all-around performer with upside.

On the decline: Keith Traylor, Bears. Traylor is becoming more injury-prone and less dynamic as the years and pounds pile up.

Best run stuffer: Ted Washington, Patriots. A gigantic hole plugger who is aging but remains a game-changing force.

Defensive ends (Position grade: B )

Best player: Jevon Kearse, Titans. The Freak is undersized and injury-prone, but his quickness and speed are as otherworldly as his nickname suggests. The Titans could have used the franchise tag on him, but not without a severe salary-cap squeeze.

Best value: Eric Hicks, Chiefs. He lacks the physical gifts that come at a premium at his position, but he is efficient, disciplined and steady.

Biggest risk: Kenny Holmes, Giants. Holmes is a brand-name player with a generic game. His athleticism is a plus, but everything else — including durability — is average or worse.

Sleeper: Tyrone Rogers, Browns. Rogers lacks bulk but has killer quickness and speed. Another Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila?

On the decline: Bobby Hamilton, Patriots. Strength, effort and wiles get him far, but there is little burst left in those legs.

Best pass rusher: Kearse. When healthy, he's close to unstoppable.

Inside linebackers (Position grade: D)

Best player: None. Al Wilson would have been the only elite, every-down middle linebacker on the market, but the Broncos locked him up Tuesday with a seven-year, $42 million contract.

Biggest risk: Randall Godfrey, Seahawks. An older, injury-prone Wilson. Godfrey still is a good starter when healthy, but that isn't often enough.

Sleeper: Nate Webster, Buccaneers. Size is an issue, but Webster's speed, instincts and aggressiveness have drawn comparisons to a young Zach Thomas.

On the decline: Kevin Mitchell, Redskins. Once a decent starter, he no longer has the speed to be more than a run-stuffing reserve.

Outside linebackers (Position grade: C-)

Best player: Julian Peterson, 49ers. Tagged as a franchise player, Peterson is a top playmaker who runs, tackles, covers and rushes the passer about as well as, or better than, anyone at his position.

Best value: Barrett Green, Lions. Another undersized, speedy playmaker. Playing in Detroit has kept Green's profile and production low.

Biggest risk: Ian Gold, Broncos. Returning from ACL surgery is a challenging prospect for an undersized player whose game is built on speed.

Sleeper: Adalius Thomas, Ravens. Converted from end last season, Thomas still is learning how to unleash his speed and quickness at his new spot.

On the rise: Clark Haggans, Steelers. A no-name apprentice to this point, Haggans has followed the typical career path of other blitz-happy Steelers stars.

Safeties (Position grade: D+)

Best player: Donovin Darius, Jaguars. A vicious hitter who has the speed to close on the ball in zone coverage. No wonder the Jaguars slapped the franchise tag on him.

Best value: Antuan Edwards, Packers. Prone to injury and inconsistency, this former corner could blossom into a nice starter.

Biggest risk: Mike Logan, Steelers. His better numbers in '03 had more to do with a change in his role than in his play. He's a liability in coverage.

Sleeper: Deon Grant, Panthers. He makes some boneheaded mistakes but works hard and has Pro Bowl ability.

On the rise: Mark Roman, Bengals. A former cornerback, Roman plays big and has good coverage instincts and ability.

On the decline: Reggie Tongue, Seahawks. He's a hitter, but he'll be 31. His range and playmaking ability will drop in a hurry if he doesn't start preserving himself.

Cornerbacks (Position grade: A)

Best player: Chris McAlister, Ravens. Another franchise player, his focus seems to be catching up to his top-shelf ability. When locked in, he can smother any receiver.

Best value: Antoine Winfield, Bills. If he were 5-11, Winfield might be the league's best cover corner. At 5-9, he is merely its toughest.

Biggest risk: Charles Woodson, Raiders. An enigma, Woodson has the ability but gets beat too often. The Raiders have put the franchise tag on him.

Sleeper: Shawn Springs, Seahawks. Springs has the size, speed, quickness, smooth hips and ball skills. What he needs is good health.

On the rise: David Macklin, Colts. He lacks ideal size and speed, but Macklin is developing into a rock-solid Cover 2 corner.

On the decline: Troy Vincent, Eagles. He has the smarts and strength to shine for another year or two, but Vincent is slowing down.

Best in coverage: Champ Bailey, Redskins. The Redskins put the franchise tag on him, but a deal to send him to the Broncos for Clinton Portis is in place, if the finances work out.

Kickers (Position grade: D)

Best player: Matt Stover, Ravens. An experienced, accurate, clutch kicker with a leg that still is plenty strong.

Best value: Doug Brien, Jets. His leg strength is limited, but Brien is quite accurate out to 50 yards.

Biggest risk: Steve Christie, Chargers. Never a boomer to begin with, Christie is losing leg strength and becoming less reliable.

Punters (Position grade: B )

Best player: Darren Bennett, Chargers. Even though he's 39, Bennett is accurate, strong and in great shape. He remains one of the league's best.

Best value: Tom Tupa, Buccaneers. Tupa is getting better with age.

Biggest risk: John Jett, Lions. Jett's leg strength was dwindling before a calf injury ended his season in Week 4.

The War Room is a team of football scouts that analyzes NFL and college players, coaches and teams for the Sporting News.

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Can't believe Bobby Taylor didn't make that list.... or Rogers Beckett..?

You have to remember it just the consensus of this group of writers. :rolleyes:

Were you a little surprised to see the Chiefs Hicks listed at DT? I wasn't.

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I still  think that Eric Hicks is a bum... his name on that list only shows how desperate a team will pay for Jevon Kearse' !!.

I knew that statement would get a comment outa you Chris. And I think in both the draft and FA there are better DT's! :lol:

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