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Top five NFL Free Agents to escape the franchise tag

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With the ninth-most cap space to play with this off-season, these five names will surely come up for the Raiders

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

With Wednesday’s 4 p.m. deadline to apply the franchise tag, seven players received assurances about where they’ll be playing in 2017. In the meantime, an entirely different group of players are now set to hit free agency, some of whom could make a big impact on the market.

Now, these aren’t all guys the Raiders will pursue or would even be interested in, but they’ll all be ‘players to watch’ next week...

Brandon Williams, Defensive Tackle

Long believed to be a potential franchise tag recipient, Williams will hit the market this spring as arguably the best interior lineman on the market (a position that seemed to get deeper overnight).

Williams, 28, attended the football powerhouse of Missouri Southern State before being drafted in the third round of the 2013 draft. After seeing limited action as a rookie (7 games, 0 starts), Williams has appeared in all 48 games since — including 46 starts. In that time, he has made 150 tackles and logged 4.5 sacks (although his real value is in the run game).

With lots of money to spend and a focus on building the lines, Williams could become a major target of Reggie McKenzie.

Alshon Jeffery, Wide Receiver

Ranked as the No. 1 free agent by NFL.com, Jeffery is going to get paid this year despite a PED suspension and inconsistent play in his past. The reason? Dudes as big and athletic as Jeffery simply don’t come around too often.

Jeffery’s best seasons came in years two and three, when he didn’t miss a game and posted 174 receptions for over 2,500 yards and 17 touchdowns. In the two years since, however, he has started just 20 games with 106 catches for over 1,600 yards and 6 touchdowns.

While he’s going to get paid like the 2013/2014 version of himself, there remain a lot of questions.

Dontari Poe, Defensive Tackle

When Eric Berry and the Chiefs reached an agreement on a new contract, many believed Poe would end up getting the franchise tag — but apparently the Chiefs had other plans. Like Williams, Poe bolsters a defensive tackle market (good news for Oakland!) with his athleticism and durability.

In five seasons, Poe, 26, has missed just two games while logging 13 sacks (including 10.5 between 2013 and 2014). Of course, from Oakland’s perspective, stealing from your rival wouldn’t hurt.

Dont’a Hightower, Linebacker

While defensive tackle is a deep market this year, linebacker is not (at least at the top). According to NFL.com’s rankings, Hightower is the only one of the top 14 free agents that plays this critical position.

One thing to note, however, is that Hightower continues a theme that seems to be developing on this list: guys whose best years are in the not-so-recent past. Like Poe and Jeffery, Hightower’s best seasons were in 2013 and 2014 — when he logged 186 total tackles and 7 sacks. Over the past two seasons, Hightower’s numbers dipped to 126 tackles and 6 sacks.

Of course, if you’re the Raiders, the most applicable cliche is this: beggars can’t be choosers.

Terrelle Pryor, Wide Receiver

Of all the free agents in this year’s class, none will be more fascinating to watch than Pryor. In his first season as a wide receiver, Pryor, 27, had 77 catches for 1,007 yards and 4 touchdowns. And that was with whatever garbage Cleveland trotted out there at quarterback throwing him the ball!

If you’re a team in need of a new receiver, isn’t it possible that Pryor is more attractive than Jeffery? He’s coming off a productive season, he doesn’t have any off-the-field issues and you could even argue he’s more of an athletic freak. While either guy will benefit from more consistent quarterback play, Pryor couldn’t do any worse.

Other big names: Calais Campbell, AJ Bouye, Nick Perry, Andrew Whitworth

With free agency set to officially begin next week (March 7 is when teams can begin legally talking to players, with contracts becoming official as early as March 9), the Raiders are on the verge of a critical period of adding players. Could one of these five don the Silver & Black next season? We’ll see.