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Free agency primer: Top 25 defensive backs

Looking for secondary help? You've come to the right place.

This year's crop of free-agent cornerbacks and safeties includes a host of proven starters and a handful of players we judged as franchise-tag candidates.

A team with ample cap room has an immediate chance to rebuild its defensive backfield this spring through free agency and one of the deepest drafts in memory.

Here's our list of the best available cornerbacks and safeties:

Top cornerbacks

In a class of their own

People talk about Verner as a player who emerged from the abyss this past season, but Pro Football Focus ranked him as a top 25 corner in all four of his campaigns with the Titans. He developed as a cover man last season, finishing second in the league in passes defensed and holding opposing quarterbacks to a 55.8 passer rating, a figure topped only by Richard Sherman, Byron Maxwell and Logan Ryan. Tennessee was unwilling to tag him and isn't likely to re-sign Verner if his price tag creeps to an expected $10 million per year.

Talib and the Patriots have expressed mutual interest in a new deal, but New England -- just roughly $12.7 million under the cap -- can't overspend for the 28-year-old cover man who wants to be paid as a "top-of-the-market" player. An incentive-heavy pact makes sense for the Patriots, but Talib won't come cheap.

Solid starters

I'll be surprised if the Colts don't shell out the money to keep the 25-year-old Davis. With the fourth-most cap room in the league, Indy's leaky pass defense can't afford to lose its most talented press corner. ... Shields offers outstanding speed and should thrive on the open market. ... Rodgers-Cromartie pondered retirement during Super Bowl Week, but he's coming off his best campaign in years (finishing as the NFL's fourth-ranked corner, per Pro Football Focus) and reportedly remains a "top priority" for Denver's front office.

After thriving as Seattle's nickel back, Thurmond is primed for a starting job. How about Jacksonville's Gus Bradley swooping in for his former pupil. ... Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman told us that "cap-strapped" Carolina might be limited to offering Munnerlyn a one-year deal, which makes the undersized playmaker a strong candidate to bolt. ... Brown is a possibility to stick with the 49ers, who drafted him in 2007 and saw the corner start 42 games over the past three seasons.

Starters with questions

The 33-year-old Tillman doesn't want to play safety, but we don't expect the Bears to overpay for him at either position. The Bucs are a logical landing spot. ... Cook isn't certain the Vikings still want him, but physical, speedy corners (in this case an underachieving one) tend to find work. ... The 29-year-old Browner makes our list after he was conditionally reinstated by the NFL from his suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. He'll miss the first four games of 2014, but we still see Browner as a legitimate contributor and a logical fit with Gus Bradley in Jacksonville. ... Moving past the aging Samuel, you're looking at players who can help but won't save the day.

Best of the rest

Top safeties

In a class of their own

I'm tempted to put Byrd in a class of his own. He's a superior cover man to Ward and more valuable as a ball-hawking defender.

The hard-hitting Ward is consistent against the run, but game film reveals a safety occasionally scorched in coverage. The Browns say they're interested in re-signing Ward, but it's Byrd who appears to be the apple of coach Mike Pettine's eye -- and we expect Cleveland to make a run at him.

Second wave

Jenkins is only 26 with 63 starts under his belt. He's another logical candidate for the Eagles. Whitner wasn't happy with anything we had to say about his free-agency chances, but we stick by our assessment.

I love Delmas on tape. He's an old-school bruiser who shines against the run. He shook off the injury bug to play all 16 games last season, but any team signing him must be concerned about the durability factor. ... Bethea is one of the group's better coverage men and we expect the Colts to push to bring him back. ... Look for the Dolphins to sign someone on this list to replace Clemons, who reportedly is "not a priority" for Miami.

Starting material

Mitchell is another heavy hitter who made plays in coverage for the Panthers. ... Lewis wasn't special last season and hasn't played up to his early promise in recent years. ... Ihedigbo gives you depth or a middle-of-the-road starter for cheap.

Best of the rest

Best fit: Jairus Byrd to the Eagles

Many have linked Byrd to the Browns, but Chris Wesseling presented an interesting counter: What if the Eagles went after the playmaking safety? It would fill a gaping void in Philly's defense and revive a long-troubled position group for a team that looms as the class of the NFC East.

Toughest to evaluate: Louis Delmas

I love his play on tape, but nagging injuries make Delmas a tricky signing. He's generated interest since being released by the Lions, but the 26-year-old defensive back will likely wait for a new deal. While Detroit's secondary was markedly better with Delmas on the field, teams will patiently judge his market value.

Best bet for an encore: Aqib Talib

Talib isn't about to give New England a discount, but I still believe the Patriots will find a way to keep him. Bill Belichick praised the corner after a season in which he brought stability to the secondary. Talib arguably was the team's most valuable defender and -- like LeGarrette Blount -- I don't believe he'll thrive to the same degree if he signs elsewhere.

The latest edition of the "Around The League Podcast" weighs in on Monday's franchise-tag surprises and unpacks all the 49ers drama out west.

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