At the end of today, 20 NFL franchises will begin looking toward next year and the impending offseason.
For fans, it means it is now time to turn their attention to the draft and free agency. One of the best things about sports is that the offseason always brings some sort of hope, as fans can dream about adding a prize free agent.
The possible 2012 NFL free-agent list has yet to be determined, but more than a handful of players seem likely to hit the market. My top 10 list doesn't include players like Drew Brees, as I don't see a scenario where he doesn't end up back in New Orleans.
I attempted to compile a list of players who have a possibility of hitting the open market and changing teams.
Kyle Orton isn't an elite quarterback, but he is more than capable of winning football games.
During the offseason, he will have an opportunity pick his next football team. This is something important for a player like Orton since he isn't a fit for every system.
He might be a great fit for the New York Jets, who could move on from Mark Sanchez. Orton has the skill set needed to make use of the Jets' talented receiving corps. He also does his best work when he is able to lean on a strong rushing attack.
Look for Orton to get a two or three-year deal, but not for a large amount of money. He might also find himself settling for a backup role behind a quarterback in danger of losing his job—again, the Jets might fit.
Robert Mathis is an excellent pass-rusher who has been overshadowed by Dwight Freeney.
However, Mathis should be one of the most coveted free agents this offseason.
The Colts are in a bit of a rebuilding mode and might not be willing to shell out the money needed to keep him. Mathis' strengths are his quickness and ability to attack the edge, so it would benefit him to find a new team with strong defensive tackle play. This would cover up some of his struggles stopping the run, while still allowing him to rush the passer.
A team like the Cleveland Browns might be willing to add Mathis; he would be a great addition to their young and emerging defensive line. Adding him opposite Jabaal Sheard can help the youngster learn some more pass-rushing techniques.
Cortland Finnegan might be known more for his on-the-field fight with Andre Johnson than for his coverage abilities.
However, he is one of the league's best cover-guys and a pesky defender. Finnegan's ability to frustrate and get in the head of the receiver is part of the reason he is so successful.
Finnegan likely will hit the free-agent mark, as I don't foresee the Titans offering him a big contract. The fact that the NFL is a pass-heavy league will drive up the cost for Finnegan, and there will be a team or two willing to shell out a long-term contract to upgrade their pass-defense.
The Detroit Lions could look to add Finnegan to their emerging defense. He would fit right in with the attitude and direction of this team.
Peyton Hillis' time in Cleveland seems to be coming to an end. The team doesn't appear willing to commit to a long-term deal with the powerful back.
Hillis is arguably the Browns' top offensive weapon, but the way he handled his contract dispute ruffled some feathers.
Last offseason, we saw free-agent running backs struggle to find big-money contracts. The best example was Ahmad Bradshaw and his inability to land the type of contract he desired. Hillis might find himself in a similar situation. Teams might be leery about adding a back who has only had one really successful season and seeks out contact.
Nonetheless, one team is going to land Hillis on a two-year deal and get a ton of value.
This past offseason, the Baltimore Ravens inked Marshall Yanda to a five-year, $32 million deal. That contract might prohibit the Ravens from keeping the talented Ben Grubbs. He should command a contract similar to Yanda's, and committing $13 million a year on guards is tough to stomach.
If Grubbs hits the open market, he will receive a lot of offers, as teams are putting more and more focus on the interior of the offensive line. NFL guards aren't flashy or exciting players, but they impact every aspect of the offense.
A team like the Chicago Bears might be willing to throw some cash at Grubbs to upgrade their offensive line.
Drew Brees will be the priority free agent in New Orleans, which could leave the door open for a Marques Colston departure.
Brees' ability to find success with mediocre players at wide receiver will also impact the return of Colston. New Orleans will not be willing to shell out a ton of money to a receiver they find easily replaceable.
Fortunately for Colston, most NFL teams don't have a quarterback like Drew Brees. Teams try to make up for their quarterback's shortcomings by adding explosive players on the outside, so plenty of teams would love to add a talented receiver like Colston.
Teams like the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Houston Texans might make Colston their offseason target.
The Seattle Seahawks would be crazy to let Marshawn Lynch leave via free agency, but it isn't out of the question. Lynch will be 26 years old next season, and his body might start to break down toward the end of his next contract.
Most fans love Lynch's "Beast Mode," but that punishing style of play will only shorten his career. His strong finish to the season will still give him plenty of suitors.
However, he might be a better fit on a roster ready to make an immediate Super Bowl run.
Lynch's style would be a great fit for the New York Jets, who face the possibility of losing LaDainian Tomlinson. Pairing Lynch with Shonn Greene would give the Jets an excellent ground attack, while also extending Lynch's career.
Carl Nicks and the New Orleans Saints have a very tough negotiation coming up.
During the past offseason, the Saints gave Jahri Evans a seven-year, $57 million deal. Many see Nicks as equal or just a small step below Evans, which means he will be looking for similar money.
However, I have a hard time seeing the Saints tying up more than $15 million a year on their starting guards.
Someone will see the value in Nicks, though, and will offer him a very lucrative contract. He has the talent to anchor the interior of an offensive line for the next several years. New Orleans might consider slapping the franchise tag on Nicks, but they have other free agents to consider.
Nicks could be the top target for a team like the New York Giants, who need help at several offensive line positions.
All signs are pointing to a regime change in San Diego, which will mean a change in approach to Vincent Jackson's contract.
Jackson has been clamoring for a long-term deal, but has yet to convince the team to pay up. He is unlikely to spend another season on a one-year deal, so either Jackson will hold out or be free to sign elsewhere.
Jackson's combination of size and big-play ability will make him a very sought-after free agent. As soon as he hits the market, he will find himself the subject of a bidding war. There aren't many receivers in the league capable of making plays like Jackson.
I could see the Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings and Washington Redskins as some of the teams looking to add Jackson.
Playing Mario Williams at outside linebacker just seems like a waste—he is too talented of a defensive end to be shoehorned into a different position.
Therefore, it might be in the best interest of him and the Houston Texans to part ways next season.
Williams is going to command a massive contract, one the Texans might not be willing to consider. He could easily get the franchise tag, but I doubt he will be pleased with that scenario. The Texans' defense recorded 36 sacks this season without Williams.
The Cleveland Browns might be willing to play Williams the money he is seeking.