What do Drew Brees, Ray Rice, and Calais Campbell have in common?
At the end of the 2011 season, they will all be free agents.
It is a fact of the NFL that players work on contracts that will eventually expire. In some cases that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps the player was making too much or too little compared to his contributions on the field. Maybe he’s just not a good fit for the team.
In other cases, an expiring contract can be a source of drama and woe for everyone involved. In these situations, it often happens that a player is being paid less than he is worth, but the team would be hard-pressed to pony up the cash he deserves for a new contract.
There are some players that will never receive the big payday they feel they deserve from any team in the NFL. Then there are others who are simply too good for any team to pass up on—whether it is that player’s current team or some other team in need of talent at that position.
Over the next 13 slides, we will take a look at a representative sample the second type of player. These are the guys who are too good to pass up on, no matter what the price: They will always find themselves in a seller’s market for their services.
There’s no reason to believe that the Chicago Bears will be willing to let Matt Forte go during the offseason.
His injury was devastating to the Bears’ playoff hopes, but it demonstrated pretty effectively how important he is to the team. Kahlil Bell has been effective as a replacement option, but he’s just not the same as Matt Forte.
Should Forte decide not to remain with the Bears, he will find no shortage of interest in the new year.
Ryan Grant has found himself playing second fiddle in Green Bay to an upstart running back named James Starks.
They’ve evolved into a pretty decent running back tandem.
Grant isn’t used to playing second fiddle to anyone, though, and it’s questionable whether he’ll remain in Green Bay to continue sharing the spotlight.
There’s still plenty left in Grant’s tank, and he has several good seasons to back up his value. The free agency market will be flooded with running backs in the upcoming offseason, but Grant is the big name most likely available to move to a new team.
Although Wes Welker has been a more-than-adequate wide receiver throughout his career, he is having a breakout year.
It is fortunate for Welker that his best season yet also coincides with his next bout of free agency.
After showing his skill with the New England Patriots, Welker looks untouchable heading into the postseason. He will have a lot of interest in the offseason unless the Patriots lock him up quickly.
Drew Brees may be the biggest name on the quarterback market come free agency, but Matt Flynn might be the hidden gem.
After sitting behind Aaron Rodgers on the depth chart for years, it is time for Flynn to spread his wings and find a team for whom he can start.
There’s no reason he shouldn’t make the cut as a first-string quarterback.
He has been a serviceable backup, despite his lack of reps with the first-team receivers. There are plenty of teams who probably liked what they saw when Flynn came in and led the Packers to a close game with the New England Patriots last year, so he should find a pretty warm welcome when he hits the free agent market.
With a team of his own to command, Flynn could become one of the next up-and-coming quarterbacks in the league.
LaRod Stephens-Howling isn’t well known for his abilities as a running back, mostly because he’s not an every-down back.
Instead, he’s better known as one of the more dangerous kick returners in the NFL.
Stephens-Howling has a unique ability to dance through tackles and to speed past defenders to gain huge chunks of yardage. He is also known to come through in clutch situations, which has benefited the Arizona Cardinals enormously.
Stephens-Howling is not the type of running back who will make top dollar in the free agency market, but he is definitely a talent that is too good to pass up for teams looking for a reliable returner who can fill in for running plays in a pinch.
The Seattle Seahawks basically owe Marshawn Lynch for the late-season comeback they were able to stage.
Their playoff hopes may be over, but they might have a bright future ahead of them if they are able to hang onto Lynch.
He had a number of lackluster seasons over the past several years, but it seems as though he has found his stride again in Seattle. In this case, it would be for the best for both parties if a deal can be worked out and Lynch stays.
The job of center is one that is often underrated by the NFL fan base. Let’s just put it this way: A good center is hard to find.
Scott Wells is a pretty darned good center.
He may have a lot less interest in his services than his solid play would merit because he’s a bit on the small side for a center, but Wells has never let that little detail slow him down. Indeed, he’s been a solid option for the Packers for years.
The Packers would be foolish to let him go.
In free agency, there is not a position that will be leaner for talent than tight end. Jermichael Finley, who is coming off of a season filled with dropped passes and uninspiring performances, represents the best of the bunch.
Finley is poised for a breakout year, but he might not be able to make it happen in Green Bay, where he is surrounded by competition for the ball.
It is possible he will look to other teams where he can be a more prominent receiving option. It is certain that teams in need of receiving options will be looking to Finley.
Demetrius Bell of the Buffalo Bills is looking to cash in big time on a contract renewal, particularly after watching teammate Erik Pears get his payday.
Bell has done all of the right things. He has been a reliable member of the Bills’ offensive line, protecting the quarterback and opening holes for the run.
It is extremely unfortunate for Bell that he suffered from injury in this crucial year of his career. There should be a lot of interest for his services on the free agent market, but he will likely fly under the radar and be signed to a less-than-lucrative contract.
Reggie Wayne has been a staple in the Indianapolis Colts wide receiver stable for a decade and counting, posting Pro Bowl-caliber numbers for most of them.
After a lackluster 2011 without Peyton Manning throwing to him, Wayne will be hungry for redemption.
Any number of teams will be happy to have him, but he won’t be happy unless he has a decent quarterback to help him finish up his great career.
Sometimes it can take a few years for defensive players in the NFL to develop fully.
Calais Campbell has finally arrived.
He has shown improvement every year that he has played, but he has improved by leaps and bounds in 2011. He’s defending passes like a maniac, making tackles and disrupting play all over the field.
Don’t be surprised to see several teams come knocking on Campbell’s door during the offseason if the Arizona Cardinals don’t get moving on extending Campbell’s rookie contract.
Despite posting his third 1,000-yard rushing season in a row, Ray Rice finds himself in a bit of an awkward situation.
He’s still working off his rookie contract, and as we near the end of the season the Baltimore Ravens have made no major moves to work on a long-term extension.
Rice has proved to be one of the top running backs in the league, coming up big on the ground and as a receiver option. He has also gone three full seasons without missing a start, which is a big deal for a running back.
Rice has made noise about wanting to be a Raven in the 2012 season, but make no mistake: Whoever he plays for, he will start and get the paycheck his performance proves he deserves.
After breaking the single-season passing yards record held by Dan Marino for a quarter of a century, there is little doubt Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.
The New Orleans Saints would be fools not to bring him back.
If by some bizarre and unlikely twist of fate Brees and the Saints were to part ways, there would be a line about 30 teams long to jockey for his services.