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The First Fifteen: Free-agency edition

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Posted March 12, 2012 @ 10:23 p.m. ET
By Eric Edholm

Updated March 13 at 1:06 p.m. ET

While you fill out your NCAA brackets, keep in mind that the NFL is on the verge of its annual round robin of free agents and teams filling out dance cards — the rite of passage known as free agency, which begins Tuesday:

1. A quick glance at PFW's list of Top 100 free agents will reveal something quite unusual: players who might actually switch teams. Because of the franchise tag and its restrictive properties, most years feature only one or two top free agents who might actually move from one team to another. Take PFW's 2010 list, for example; Julius Peppers was the only top-10 free agent able to switch teams freely as a free agent (others were traded). With uncertainty at the time about the CBA negotiations, it kept many teams in spending check. But this year, you have Peyton Manning, Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks likely to move to new teams, with Mike Wallace (restricted free agent), DeSean Jackson (franchised, but perhaps on the trade block), Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr also possible movers. It's a buyer's market with the cap set around $120 million and many teams having already conceded the losses of some top players.

2. Manning certainly will set the table in a lot of ways, already free to move prior to the actual start of free agency because the Colts released him. His whereabouts will affect what happens with Packers QB Matt Flynn, and we already have seen the effects of the draft and how quarterbacks will shake out there (Andrew Luck will go first to the Colts, Robert Griffin III to the Redskins). That Manning reportedly is down to four teams — the Broncos, Cardinals, Titans and Dolphins, depending on what reports you believe — does clear up the picture a bit.

3. Williams is an anomaly. He's a dominant, 27-year-old defender entering the prime of his career who is set to his free agency. This is a once-a-decade kind of happening. The Texans never should have let it get to this point. Certainly, the lockout took away months of precious negotiation time last spring and summer, and there was some question about committing millions of dollars to a player who may or may not have been a great fit in the team's new 3-4 scheme. But five games (before Williams suffered a season-ending pec injury) showed just how rare and versatile he was. And is. Both 3-4 (Patriots, Texans) and 4-3 teams (Bears, Falcons, Titans) will come calling and make a big push to sign him to what might be the richest contract signed by a defensive player in league history. He's an ace pass rusher in a league that is woefully short of them. The Giants won a title fielding, at times, four players like Williams on the same line and going hell-bent after quarterbacks. Is there a chance Williams could remain in Houston? It's slim. Possible, but slim. They could not afford to place the (in his case, $22 million) franchise tag on him and might have run out of tangible room to sign him with Arian Foster deal in the books.

4. The developing salary-cap saga with the Cowboys and Redskins, who apparently angered the other NFL teams' owners with the way they structured contracts in the uncapped 2010 season, really changes the landscape. You'd have to think that the Redskins were aware of the league's findings in this case a few days ahead of time, which might have triggered them to trade three first-round picks to the Rams for the slot to pick Griffin. And with all of their cap room virtually gone and holes at receiver (they were considered among the favorites for Vincent Jackson), safety (LaRon Landry is apparently gone in free agency, and Oshiomogho Atogwe was just released) and the offensive line are not going to fix themselves. As for the Cowboys, who were docked a reported $10 million in cap space, can they now make a big push for Carr (to help out their weak secondary) or Nicks (to shore up their spotty O-line)? It's questionable now, even though the teams can shuffle the cap hits over the next two seasons.

5. The receiver market is flush with talent, and the Redskins now might be out of the sweepstakes to land Jackson. That means the Bears, Buccaneers and Broncos (especially if Manning goes there) all have to feel better about their chances to get their big receiver and deep threat all rolled into one. The Buccaneers are swimming in cap space, and even though they might have to beg some players to come join what was a drowning pool late last season, the money always speaks clearly to some. Jackson, after being shackled with the tag the past two seasons, clearly wants to cash in — and it's his God-given right now. The Redskins would have been all over him, and maybe they still can be if they can assume this league-imposed cap hit over next year, too. But don't rule out the hungry Bears, who need both size and speed.

6. The other receivers must not be ignored: Wallace (tendered at first-round level, making him vulnerable to sign elsewhere), Jackson (if he doesn't re-sign with Philly), Reggie Wayne (following Manning?), Brandon Lloyd (has mentioned Rams, Patriots in his free-agency campaign tour) and Pierre Garcon (Colts have no legs to stand on). That's the top tier, and someone will not get paid what he thinks he's worth. So what does that leave for the next strata? Mario Manningham, Laurent Robinson, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Early Doucet, Plaxico Burress and Randy Moss? This might be the kind of deep field — with a deep draft class to back it, mind you — where a WR-needy team can sit back, assuming it doesn't land one of the top guys, and get talent for lower-than-market value. Or another scenario: All these players could return to their former clubs. All except Burress and Moss, that is.

7. The Buccaneers no longer have the reported $67 million they once appeared to, with player salary increases to several players including QB Josh Freeman. But having reportedly more than $40 million in cap room still makes them buyers — especially after GM Mark Dominik said at the Combine they'd be — we think. They are going to be in on Jackson. They might try to gut the Saints by signing Nicks. They also could go after the Falcons and 25-year-old MLB Curtis Lofton. Mike Tolbert, the under-the-radar Chargers back, also is said to be on their list of players they like. They'll go big before they go home. It might not be an Eagles-like "Dream Team" bounty from last season, but the Bucs will be adding players — and hefty salaries.

8. Speaking of the Eagles, where did their spending get them last season? There was a confluence of bad events that happened, but all of their spending flopped — in Year One. Maybe in Year Two, it pays off. The feeling is that the lockout really crushed the team's ability to install a defense, and it still got a few good players — singning CB Nnamdi Asomugha and DT Cullen Jenkins, trading for CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie — who could prove their worth this season. Will there be a team that goes gung ho this season? Just because the Bucs, Broncos, Bengals and Jaguars (per figures) all have more than $40 million before they reach the cap doesn't mean they will spend it. A stipulation in the new CBA says that individual teams don't have to spend up to 89 percent of the cap until next season, 2013. They can continue to squirrel away cap space and pounce when they are good and ready.

9. The Saints have to feel vulnerable, despite the re-signing of Marques Colston on Tuesday morning. We've heard long about their plight, even before this whole bounty mess. Drew Brees was given the exclusive franchise tag, meaning he's staying put, even if negotiations are reportedly stalled. But Nicks, Meachem and CB Tracy Porter all could walk. The team would like to salvage one of those players if it can, but there will be no added benefit from the Cowboys-Redskins mixup; the Saints and Raiders will not receive the additional $1.6 million in cap space that the other 28 teams will be gifted. Nicks is as good as gone. Salvaging what they can out of the rest of this group, without much money, is going to be a very tough chore.

10. Finnegan and Carr headline the CB position with the Falcons franchising Brent Grimes. It's very possible that both Carr and Finnegan could have new homes this week, as the Chiefs and Titans, respectively, might not be able to keep them. Carlos Rogers, coming off a career season, also is very attractive, but at 31 will he get a big-money, long-term deal? It's likely he could stay with the 49ers after finding a home there. The Cowboys are said to be fond of Carr, and his skills would fit very well in their pressure scheme, but the loss of cap space could hinder them. Likewise, the Lions would love a feisty, playmaking corner such as Finnegan (he played for Jim Schwartz in Tennessee), but the Lions have a top-heavy salary structure with Ndamukong Suh and Matthew Stafford and still need to sign DE Cliff Avril (a free agent this year who was franchised) and WR Calvin Johnson (up after next season) to long-term deals.

11. It's rare that centers are available in such depth, but the Texans' Chris Myers, the Packers' Scott Wells and the Chargers' Nick Hardwick are all quality talents who were not protected by their respective teams. Myers might be the best of the bunch, but Wells also will appeal to zone-blocking teams if he's not brought back by the Packers, who traditionally have not overspent on interior offensive linemen. The draft is a bit thin, as usual, at the position, so you could see some money thrown around in offers to these players.

12. Offensive tackle is not a terribly deep position, although it fattened up with the pending releases of Levi Brown (Cardinals) and Eric Winston (Texans). Along with the Bills' Demetrius Bell, a late bloomer, and the Chargers' Jared Gaither, who played well after being cut previously by the Ravens and Chiefs, it's a middling group. The talent at guard is a little more pricy at the top with Nicks and Ravens OG Ben Grubbs headlining that position, but there is a falloff after those two. Looking for a sleeper? Eagles OG Evan Mathis became one of the team's best starters on the line in his first year there after being a reserve in Cincinnati.

13. There are some big-name players in this year's market who are looking for fresh starts. That list is not restricted to Moss and Burress. The Redskins' Landry angered the team by not having surgery on his Achilles, and it's likely the former No. 6 overall pick will not return to D.C. One player who likely will return is MLB London Fletcher, who has talked about finishing the job with the Redskins and should get a fair offer. Fletcher, who turns 37 in May, is still incredibly productive and is the leader of that otherwise young defense. Former Redskin (and current Patriot) Andre Carter had a successful first season in New England as a rusher before suffering a season-ending injury, but teammate Mark Anderson's nice performance there could outprice his return to New England. Another former top pick, Jets OLB-DE Aaron Maybin, became a successful part-time rusher last season. Will someone give the restricted free agent top dollar? Not likely, but the price has gone up. Former starting QBs Jason Campbell, Chad Henne and Kyle Orton almost have to look for quality backup spots. Henne has been mentioned with the Jets, and Campbell could have a few options (including a return to the Raiders) at his disposal. Many think Orton could be Chicago-bound again, backing up Jay Cutler. As for Vince Young? His future is unknown; it's possible he might have to wait a long time before a team comes up with what he deems to be a proper offer. There just is little buzz for the man who struggled as Michael Vick's backup last season.

14. The RB crop was weakened with the franchise tags on the Ravens' Ray Rice and Bears' Matt Forté, meaning they likely will stay put. But Michael Bush is an intriguing third option. He fared well for a stretch in Oakland, and even with the Raiders' financial manipulations recently, they might not be able to re-sign him. Bush might never be a 20-carry back, but he could bolster some other team's backfield. Peyton Hillis, who struggled last season, could remain in Cleveland as other teams appear to be shying away from his quirky personality and inconsistent on-field performance. Instead, the market might be a bit thicker for the Bengals' Cedric Benson, the Patriots' BenJarvus Green-Ellis and the Chargers' Tolbert. None are No. 1 backs per se, but they have the talent to be strong complementary players.

15. Looking for other sleepers? We've got a few. Titans DT Jason Jones did not have his best season in 2011, but his positional versatility (DT or DE) could make him attractive to the right team. Dolphins DE Kendall Langford will fit well as a five-technique to 3-4 teams and is sturdy. The Seahawks want to keep DE Red Bryant and MLB David Hawthorne, and they have the money to do so. But if either hits the market, their production could spark another team into action. Bryant, a quality special teamer (blocked kicks) and run stuffer, and Hawthorne, a tackling machine, are effective when they can stay healthy. E.J. Henderson might be a bit past his prime, but lesser-known little brother Erin Henderson has some upside as a "Will" linebacker he showed in his first season as a starter last year. Finally, Packers CB Jarrett Bush is an excellent blitzer and special-teamer (especially as a gunner) who could earn decent money from a team that is committed to building depth.

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