As we went to press, some of the details about free agency were starting to come into focus. The salary cap, per ESPN, will be $120 million in 2011. We still do not know whether players with four years of experience and expired contracts will be unrestricted or restricted free agents, which is no small piece of the puzzle, but it is safe to say that free agency will be compelling, if for no other reason than that it will begin like a quarter-horse race.
As free agency approaches, here are four topics foremost on my mind:
Buyer beware at top of D-line list?
Vikings DE Ray Edwards, who seems likely to leave Minnesota, is in the catbird's seat. He is young. He has shown considerable pass-rush potential in a league full of accurate, quick-firing quarterbacks. Some team is going to pay him handsomely.
That said, Edwards never has had a double-digit sack season, and he's unlikely to play opposite of a defensive end as accomplished as Jared Allen should he move on to another club. Edwards has the potential to improve, and he'll have to do just that to live up to higher expectations.
However, my reservations about Edwards are not as strong as they are about Packers DL Cullen Jenkins, who has missed significant time with injuries in two of the past three seasons and is 30 years old. Jenkins can be a difference maker, but will he be worth the money?
Who's the value at cornerback?
Nnamdi Asomugha seems likely to command a monster deal in free agency. Those who lose out on Asomugha might look at Johnathan Joseph (Bengals), Antonio Cromartie (Jets) and Ike Taylor (Steelers) — which could drive up all of their prices.
Asomugha is a wonderful player, but he's 30 years old. Taylor is 31 and best in a zone scheme. Joseph and Cromartie are younger, but each has been inconsistent at times. It will be interesting to see what the top cornerbacks command — and how those deals look in a couple of years.
Whither Hasselbeck and Bulger?
The QB class is weak, and some of the suspense surrounding it is already zapped. Alex Smith appears likely to re-sign with the 49ers. Kerry Collins retired, putting the Titans, committed to move on without Vince Young, in a tough spot.
Will Tennessee make a push for Matt Hasselbeck, who had a strong postseason but has a balky back and turns 36 in September? And what happens with Marc Bulger? Surely he could help a handful of clubs as a short-term starter, but evaluators I have spoken with are cool on him. Could he really re-sign with Baltimore to continue as a backup?
Young and Donovan McNabb, a likely cut by the Redskins, could be late additions to the free-agent market, giving QB-needy teams a couple other options.
Who are the comeback kids?
To me, two of the more intriguing names in free agency are Steelers OT Willie Colon and Ravens OT Jared Gaither. Both missed 2010 with injuries, but each has been a solid starter when healthy. Each could be low-risk, high-reward propositions if they are signed to economical deals and return to health. Also, two younger cornerbacks who could benefit from a change of scenery are the Panthers' Richard Marshall and the Browns' Eric Wright. Both have their proponents around the league.