With just over a month left until free agency kicks off, there's plenty of time to play "speculation" in terms of where this year's crop of NFL free agents go.
Still, we can make some educated guesses as to where the best might sign even now.
Some will move on, some will stay with their current teams—a few of those forcibly via franchise tag—and some will play every side against the other to leverage the best deal.
I shouldn't have to point this out, but I will: These are all educated theories, not fact. These things might happen; they might not.
This is one part theory, one part news watching, one part inside knowledge and 45 parts pure speculation.
Brees is pretty much the top of the class—the guy any team would sell off their kids, wives and expensive bling for.
They won't get the chance.
The Saints aren't crazy. They won't pull a San Diego Chargers and let Brees get away. They might franchise him if they cannot come up with a long-term deal both sides like, but in the end they'll get a deal done.
Brees is too much the centerpiece of this team to think he will be in any other uniform any time soon. He'll be a Saint again and for the foreseeable future.
Like Drew Brees, the former Rutgers running back is too critical to his team's success to see them letting him go.
While the team has some questions to answer about the receiving corps and several other spots, they have to lock Rice down.
He's another candidate for a franchise tag, though both he and the team will want a solution that is long-term.
Either way, he's a Raven now and will be for the foreseeable future.
Whether Nicks remains a Saint could depend on whether the Saints can lock Brees down with a contract or have to use the franchise tag on their quarterback or even wide receiver Marques Colston.
There's only so much room under the cap and the Saints gave their other guard, Jahri Evans, a huge seven-year contract for $56.7 million in 2010. It'd be hard to come close to that at one position, much less offensive line and guard.
All that said, Nicks wants to stay and the team wants to keep him, so I think they find a way to get this done. I actually wouldn't be shocked at all if Nicks remained and Colston ended up hitting the pavement.
Foster is a rare bird. Whether it's his random musings on Twitter or the fact that he's just not motivated by money and contracts, he's a guy who marches to the beat of his own drummer. Actually, knowing Foster, he marches to the beat of a trumpet because, well, that's how he'd roll.
He's different, and that's refreshing.
A lot of free agents like Foster will play coy. He's woefully underpaid, and while he's a restricted free agent (meaning a team who signs him away from the Texans would forfeit draft picks), he could try to leverage that into some large piles of money.
However, Foster has made it clear he wants to be a Texan. He's not the type of guy to hold out with the franchise tag, so even if a long-term deal isn't worked out, he'll be back in Houston.
There is a very good chance the Texans let Williams walk, or at least test the waters of free agency. The Texans want to bring him back, and he wants to be back, but that might be difficult to work out the finances on and, as the linked article points out, the team cannot franchise him at the $22.9 million price tag.
There is a good chance he may walk and if that happens, several teams are reportedly interested. Two that jump to mind are the Oakland Raiders and the San Diego Chargers.
Simply put, the Chargers have a lot more cap room right now than the Raiders and are desperate for an impact pass-rusher.
His versatility just makes him even more attractive as he could conceivably work either as a defensive end or linebacker.
The Cardinals have made retaining Campbell a top priority, as they should. They can ill afford to lose their best defensive player (arguably their best player next to Larry Fitzgerald, period).
What makes it easier is Campbell's apparent willingness to be franchised if a long-term deal can't be struck.
If the defensive end tested the free-agent market, he'd likely find a large bucket of cash waiting for him, but every indicator points to him remaining a Cardinal and very happy with that outcome.
This is a situation that has the potential to get really, really ugly.
The Bears will not let Forte hit the open market and have said they will use the franchise tag on him to prevent it from happening. They say they're willing to work on a long-term deal, but if they can't make it happen they will tag him.
“If they are doing the franchise tag just to get more time in order to negotiate a long term deal,” Forte said, "then I would be OK with it. But if it’s just to hold me another year and just, ‘Let’s throw some money at him right now to keep him quiet,’ that’s not going to solve anything.”
I have a feeling the Bears will end up doing exactly that. They don't seem (at least to me) to be inclined to pay Forte what he feels he should make and could very well end up tagging him. If that happens and Forte doesn't see a longer deal forthcoming, we may see him hold out.
Either way, Forte will be a Bear come the start of free agency.
The two sides already had a run-in last August when Finnegan was tagged and sat out of practice in protest. I can only assume nobody wants a repeat of that, so the Titans will likely let him test the market.
The Lions are an intriguing fit. They have a bunch of their own free agents to take care of, but the Lions are desperate for some help in the secondary.
Finnegan is a tough, feisty, hard-nosed player and his mentality on the field fits with the personality of the Lions defense.
It'd be a perfect fit for both sides.
The math on this is pretty simple on the surface—Finley is a big part of this offense. He had a down season (lots of drops, which is unusual for him), but he's a dynamic playmaker the Packers do not want to see leave town.
According to Finley's people, the Packers are most interested in a long-term deal, which would likely be just fine with them. It's possible that the team slaps him with a franchise tag, but that could be sticky as Finley plays multiple wide receiver positions as well as tight end and his people might argue he should get a receiver tag, not tight end.
What's the difference? About $4 million. The receiver tag pays $9.5 million, while the tight end tag pays $5.5 million.
That's no small thing.
The long and short of it is, though, that Finley will stay in Green Bay. Both sides want it and will find a way to work it out.
Wallace is another restricted free agent who is unlikely to see a new uniform this offseason.
It's not that teams wouldn't covet him. They will just balk at paying a first-round draft pick for him.
The Steelers wouldn't let him go easily anyway. They've got a great tandem forming with Wallace and Antonio Brown, which will assure a seamless transition as Hines Ward fades with each year.
I spoke a few slides ago how the Lions have plenty of free agents they need to deal with and Avril is one of the tops on that list.
He could be due a huge payday if he left, but neither side seems to want that to happen. Heck, Avril is even willing to swap to linebacker if they want him to. Neither side wants the franchise tag invoked if possible and Avril is hoping they can "meet in the middle," which says to me that he's willing to be reasonable.
Sounds to me like both sides will find a way to keep Avril a Lion.
After all the drama of 2010, the Chargers and Jackson are slowly circling each other to see if something can be done.
I'm not optimistic that the egos involved can put aside all that past fighting for a happy long-term solution and the Chargers have said they are probably not using the franchise tag on Jackson.
So there is a very good chance Jackson will test the waters of free agency. Teams that have been thrown out include the Bills, the Rams and the 49ers.
The 49ers are in desperate need of a vertical threat and if Jackson decides to head for greener pastures, he could be just what they are looking for. With Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, the Niners would have a pretty potent group of targets for Alex Smith (if he returns).
Not too long ago, I was thinking that Bowe would end up leaving Kansas City, but the team has come out and said that he is one of their top priorities this offseason, so I've reconsidered my stance.
It really shouldn't be too much of a shock either, as this is a team with very few offensive weapons and one who is coming off a significant injury in Jamaal Charles.
Why let another one go? If they can settle the quarterback issues, Bowe has proven he can be a very productive weapon for the Chiefs.
What a steal it would be if the Steelers could manage to get Grubbs away from their hated rivals.
It won't be easy, but the Ravens are in a precarious position with Marshal Yanda locked down for five years and $32 million at right guard. Grubbs deserves at least as much, and it's not common to see that much money tied up in offensive line positions, especially guard.
This opens the door for Grubbs to go and the Steelers have to make a run at him.
Current left guard Chris Kemoeatu was hurt and even when healthy, just plain not good. The Steelers have needed to improve the offensive line for years and Grubbs excels both as a run-blocker and a pass protector.
If they could pull it off, this would be a huge coup.
As has been discussed several times in this slideshow, the Saints face a tough challenge in keeping their three big free agents—Drew Brees, Carl Nicks and Marques Colston.
Brees will be a Saint no matter what and I think they do as much as they can to keep Nicks. Colston is a little harder to know for sure. His constant knee issues are a concern for any team, including New Orleans, and with a bevy of talented receivers they might decide they can let him test the market.
This will especially be true if the team has to use the franchise tag on Drew Brees because they can't get a long-term deal done.
The Bills haven't talked to Stevie Johnson about an extension or new contract yet, and it's not outside the realm of possibility that he moves on.
Even if they get him back, this offense lacks another threat in the passing game. Colston would be an outstanding complement to Johnson or a very good replacement.
The Colts are acting a bit strangely, I think. On the one hand, they are talking about rebuilding and saying goodbye to folks like Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne.
On the other hand, they are saying that keeping guys like the 31-year-old Mathis is a high priority.
Some stability is needed, though (especially when the team seems so schizophrenic), and it could be the Colts are hoping Mathis would lend a stabilizing hand to a rebuilding team.
It's too bad that the above image is the one we'll take away from this past season, rather than the myriad of catches he made during crunch time in 2011. It was only his sixth drop of the season.
The Patriots coaching staff will remember, though, and while Welker might be getting on in years, he will continue to be a big part of the Patriots offense. They still need to find another legit threat but that won't preclude them from keeping Wes in New England.
Lardarius Webb is a restricted free agent this year, but the Ravens want to lock him up long-term anyway and leave nothing to chance.
He'd be prohibitively expensive to get from the Ravens this year as an RFA—and it looks as though the Ravens will make sure there's no chance at him next year as well.
Yet another Lion on the list, this one departing from Ford Field. It's not that the Lions won't want to keep a linebacker like Tulloch—they do. It just may be too hard to do it. Tulloch played nearly every down for the Lions and led the team in tackles.
He played on a single-year deal and isn't likely to do so again. He'll want a contract with some security.
The Eagles will probably not be huge players in free agency this offseason, but they are desperate for a linebacker who can tackle and clog up the middle. Tulloch would be an immense upgrade and as this article points out, he has worked behind a wide-nine front his whole career and would be a good fit.
I think this is one the Lions lose out on and the one big signing the Eagles pull off.
A lot of the talk has been about the Miami Dolphins being hot for Flynn if their lust for Peyton Manning doesn't pan out.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said in an interview in late January that along with Miami, the Seattle Seahawks are players for Flynn's services: "Seahawks GM John Schneider, formerly with the Packers, is 'pulling some strings' to bring Flynn to Seattle, according to Rodgers."
I think that Miami will futz around waiting for Manning too long and miss out on Flynn. That will allow another team—in this case, Seattle—to make a deal while Dolphin owner Stephen Ross makes a blunder almost as ridiculous as his pursuit of Jim Harbaugh.
The Seahawks need a good quarterback and cannot survive with Tarvaris Jackson at the helm. Flynn carries some risk, but he's a step up from Jackson.
The Seahawks won't want to let Lynch go, regardless of their quarterback situation. Lynch wants to come back and while a longer-term deal makes some sense, there is speculation that the team might franchise Lynch for a year.
Either way, it looks and sounds very much to me like Lynch's "Rainbow of Flavor" will remain in Seattle for at least another year.
Lofton is a priority for the Falcons and it sounds like the team is willing to pay handsomely for his services.
I don't expect him to break away from the Falcons; Lofton is very young and tremendously effective.
There is a good chance the Falcons, who might balk at the six years Grimes is said to be looking for, could franchise tag Grimes. He's only been their best cornerback the last three years and played very strongly across the board.
However, the Falcons have a lot of irons in the fire and Grimes, at age 29, might be someone they have to let go.
There's a good chance that happens, and if it does, we know that Tampa Bay is very interested in Grimes.
Tampa's secondary is inconsistent and aging. Grimes would be able to step in and immediately be a factor in a division featuring some very good quarterback play.
Even if the Falcons try to sign Grimes long-term, expect the Bucs to make a run at him come March. He's that good and would make that big a difference on this team.
The Cowboys are pretty much set on letting Spencer hit the free-agent market, as he has failed to develop into the pass-rushing specialist/sack artist they were hoping he could be.
This isn't to say he's no good, because Spencer is a very good run-stopper who can create turnovers.
I mentioned earlier that the Raiders might miss out on some free agents because of cap issues, but I believe Spencer will be within their price range. His abilities would add a lot to this defense and help the Raiders regain footing after a rough couple of years.
Abraham is still an effective player at 33, but he is no longer an every-down player. He functions mostly as a pass-rush specialist and was the team leader in sacks for the Falcons.
Speculation is that he'd have to take a pay cut to stay with the team, but even if they had to match his $8 million base from this year, he's too important to the defense to let go.
He won't get a long-term deal, but he will remain a Falcon for at least one more go-around.
I spent a long time going over various scenarios to see where Jackson would make sense. The thing is, there are plenty of wide receiver-needy teams, but I believe very few who will take him on after his antics this past season.
Cap it off with knowing the Eagles won't let him walk for nothing and that spells franchise tag to me. Jackson might pout, but if he has a brain (and a decent agent) he'll know his best bet is to play hard and show the NFL he can be a good citizen.
There are some rumors the 49ers might be interested, but honestly, there are receivers with less baggage between the ears out there. Unless they all disappear, I think the Niners will pass.
The Denver Post's Mike Klis says that Bunkley is someone the Broncos want to keep around, which makes sense for both sides. First of all, we're talking about a guy with one good season and a ton of injuries and middling play.
He'll want to prove he can do it consistently.
Second, the Broncos can keep him on the cheap and with so many other holes to fill, keeping Bunkley in town (even on a rotational basis) will allow them to focus on bigger things like getting Tim Tebow a more consistent wide receiver to throw to.
It's a win-win for both sides.
While the 49ers are interested in having cornerback Carlos Rogers return, they will balk at his reported desire for a four- or five-year deal. Rogers played well in 2011, but the Niners will be more interested in safety Dashon Goldson, who is younger and will probably cost less.
Rogers was pursued by the Panthers last summer and should be on their radar again. While he doesn't have the best hands on the planet, he is outstanding in coverage and willing to contribute to run defense.
As bad as the Panthers defense played last season, he'd be a big upgrade in the secondary.
A lot has changed since I interviewed Stevie Johnson in California as he was prepping for the 2008 NFL draft.
As Johnson heads into free agency, he's had the good (some breakout years) and bad (really, really dumb celebration penalties). All that said, the Bills want him back and he wants to be back. The only question is cost.
Ultimately, I believe they get the deal done. Johnson might see what the free-agent waters feel like, but in the end he gets more targets in this offense than he would in most other situations. Even if a free-agent receiver comes in (and as you might recall I have that earlier in this piece), having Johnson will only make this offense more effective.
What a difference a year makes.
Not that long ago, Alex Smith couldn't buy friends in San Francisco.
Now, he might have finally found a home. The 49ers are very anxious to bring him back, and Smith is more than happy to entertain the concept.
Why not? Smith played well, and backup Colin Kaepernick is not likely to be ready for prime time by next season. This is a team that was on the cusp of a Super Bowl appearance.
Why rock the boat? Whatever head coach Jim Harbaugh did, it worked, and both Smith and the team must know they have a good thing going.
Smith will be back with the 49ers in 2012.
There is no way the Browns let Jackson go—not after the monster season he just had. Not with the team in disarray once again.
Jackson wants to come back and is willing to play under the franchise tag to make it happen. After missing all of 2010 and part of 2009, Jackson is hungry to prove himself and glad for the loyalty the Browns have shown him.
He's motivated. At least someone on this defense is.
Redding is coming off his second straight solid year after bouncing from Detroit to Seattle and finally to Baltimore.
While he didn't generate a ton of publicity, he has been one of the better run-stopping defensive ends for the Ravens and I fully expect them to keep him around next season.
The Chiefs and new head coach Romeo Crennel have stated that Carr (along with receiver Dwayne Bowe) are the priorities in free agency.
Carr should be. Overall, his 2011 was not quite as good as his 2010, but he had a career high in interceptions and it's not as if the rest of his stats fell off a cliff.
Do the Chiefs have some big issues to deal with? No doubt. However, not retaining Carr will only add another problem to the already long list.
The Chiefs will find a way to keep him in the fold.
After gorging themselves at the free-agency trough in 2011, expect a lower-key Eagles team in 2012.
While they will take a run at a few higher-profile, impact players (such as Stephen Tulloch), most of their efforts will probably be in keeping players like offensive guard Evan Mathis.
Mathis played very well on the line for the Eagles—not the easiest gig when you have Mike Vick freelancing all over the backfield.
The Eagles offensive line is key to any chance of success in 2012. No way do the Eagles let their best free-agent signing from 2011 walk away.
While the Texans have stated they won't go heavy for Myers and several other players, you can bet that a team that finally has the zone-blocking scheme working won't dump its center.
Myers was one of the best centers in the game in 2011, and we all know how vital the pivot is on the offensive line. Expect the Texans to do what they can to hold on to him, even with having to find a way to keep Mario Williams and Arian Foster happy.
While this is all purely connect-the-dots speculative, the math adds up if you think about it.
Lloyd had his best production under Josh McDaniels, who is now part of the staff in New England. New England could use a vertical threat to replace the departed Randy Moss.
While Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski can fill that void on occasion, a true vertical threat is something they could use.
It's hard to get a bead on Hillis' situation with the Browns. By the end of the season, it seemed clear he had worn his welcome out. Now there are rumblings the team might want him to stick around.
In the end though, I believe he's going to want more than the Browns are willing to pay him. Which leads me back to something I threw out there months ago—Peyton Hillis returning to Denver.
He'd be an excellent match with Willis McGahee—far better than the oft injured, usually underperforming and most recently arrested Knowshon Moreno.
Hillis is also a fan favorite, only ousted because he got on Josh McDaniels' bad side.
I believe we'll see Hillis come home in March.
Robinson wants to come back, though reports are he might test the waters a bit before signing.
On the one hand, it seems odd for a wide receiver to want to stay in such a crowded situation—fighting for targets with Miles Austin, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
On the other hand, it all finally came together for Robinson, who always had promise, but never was healthy enough to deliver on that promise. So why rock the boat?
Ultimately I believe Robinson returns to Jerry World and has a good-sized contract, even if he might have received more money elsewhere.
He sounds like a guy who feels at home in Dallas.
The long and short of it is that Darren McFadden is hurt a lot. The Raiders can ill afford to be left grasping for backup running backs if (when?) he goes down again.
Bush is more proven than backup Taiwan Jones and while the franchise tag isn't cheap, it would be better than getting caught with their shorts down.
Bush will get tagged and be a Raider for at least one more year.
Sione Pouha is a tremendous nose tackle and his presence in the middle of the field against the run is critical for the Jets.
Expect the Jets to make him a priority this offseason as he quietly anchors the defensive line.
There are several spots Orton could land in—Miami, Jacksonville, Indianapolis—but only one gives him a clear shot at the thing he most desires: a starting job.
In the other cases, he's more than likely coming in as a backup (similar to the reason why he will not return to Kansas City) and Orton feels he is a starter.
The competition in Washington is far from stiff. John Beck isn't an answer and neither is Rex Grossman.
Orton would have a good chance to walk away with the Redskins' starting quarterback job.
Every season brings a new crop of Jets wide receivers and 2012 will be no different. Plaxico Burress will not be back, and the Jets are in more need of a vertical threat anyway.
Enter Robert Meachem. Meachem is a deep-threat receiver who has great hands—something the Jets were sorely lacking in 2011.
The Saints have much bigger fish to fry (or crawdads to cook) and Meachem is likely to be the man left out at the end.
The Jets need to improve their receiving corps long-term and Santonio Holmes and second-year man Jeremy Kerley cannot do it alone.
Meachem could have a huge impact for the Jets.
Fred Davis was a much hotter prospect prior to his suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
After his "timeout," Davis is a risk for a much harsher suspension if he messes up again, so teams will likely be unwilling to roll out a big, multi-year contract for him.
On the other hand, the Redskins will surely need him with Chris Cooley on the downside of a career and Santana Moss the only other real threat for the passing offense.
Davis might not get a deal spanning many years—even from the Redskins—but he'll get a chance to prove himself again, which will lead to more money down the road.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a good enough player to convince some team to overpay for him, and in my opinion that team is the Bengals.
I'm not saying this would be a disastrous signing by any means. "Law Firm" just runs hard between the tackles and doesn't really pose much of a dynamic threat, nor does he do much in the pass game.
Of course, the Bengals don't need a back who can catch the ball. They need someone to pound the rock between the tackles while quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green pick secondaries apart.
While Cedric Benson has played well, he's not happy and hasn't been as effective the last year or so. They need a replacement.
Green-Ellis isn't a stud running back, but the Bengals don't need him to be.
The Jets need to improve their safety play this offseason, and Griffin would definitely do that. He is a playmaker first and foremost but while he's not perfect all-around, he won't get burned and will step up in run support.
He's the type of player that Rex Ryan loves to get his hands on and try to mold into something more than he has been.
He'd be a perfect fit between cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
I like LeGarrette Blount a lot, but he's pretty limited in terms of skill set. Blount has struggled both in short yardage and third-down plays and Tolbert does well with both.
New head coach Greg Schiano loves to run the ball and he'll need two backs who can carry a big load—Tolbert is right up his alley. His versatility would allow the Bucs to focus on other areas in April's draft.
Tolbert is definitely on their radar, and I believe they seal the deal in March.
As many issues as the Packers line has had, you couldn't expect them to let Scott Wells get far. Wells was graded by Pro Football Focus as the NFL's fourth-best center for 2011, behind only Chris Myers of the Texans, Nick Mangold of the Jets and John Sullivan of the Vikings.
The Packers have work to do on the offensive line, but Wells will be there to help build the foundation for the offense and they want him back.
It's not so much that the Dolphins are dying to keep Soliai—they aren't, especially if they switch to a 4-3 as is the current rumor.
However, there may not be a big market for Soliai since he has underperformed the last year or so. He has ability for sure, but he hasn't always followed through on it.
The truth is that Miami is probably going to be the primary suitor here, although other teams may come sniffing around.
Ultimately, the Dolphins may be in a position where they need a cheap nose tackle and Soliai will be exactly that.
Over the last few years, Grant has played solidly, but not spectacularly, for the Packers.
They've got other plans in the backfield now and will let Grant test the market to see who might be interested.
The Dolphins found a treasure in former Saints running back Reggie Bush, but rookie Daniel Thomas was less than awesome and with Bush, you always have to have a backup in case of injury.
Grant is certainly not elite, but he would be very effective in a timeshare with the more dynamic Bush.
If all else fails, Grant might get a pity offer from the Packers, but I believe he'll get a look by Miami and end up a Dolphin by the start of next season.
The Raiders are looking to make Tyvon Branch a priority in free agency this year, intending to bring the strong safety and team tackle leader back in 2012.
There is a good chance he might even see more work with new coach Dennis Allen, who will probably have Branch blitzing from the outside quite a bit.
Branch is a hard-hitting defender who is only getting better as he gets more experienced.