25 Bold Predictions for 2012 NFL Free Agency
Although the NFL draft will garner more headlines and attention, free agency is arguably more important to the improvement of teams, all the way from the top (the Giants and Patriots) to the bottom (the Colts and Rams).
This winter/spring's crop of free agents isn't quite as overloaded with big names and talent as last summer's post-lockout freefall, but there is plenty of intrigue.
Inside are 25 predictions—of a bolder nature than the grossly obvious—for this spring along with a look at what kind of impact the moves might have.
No. 25: Drew Brees, Ray Rice, Mike Wallace, Arian Foster Stay Put
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Alone, none of the aforementioned names returning to their current teams is not a bold predictions. But as a single unit, for them all to stay put is something of a surprise.
Nevertheless, I think that's what will happen, simply because they are all prominent offensive and specifically skill players.
Brees isn't going anywhere no matter where the negotiations are; he's as critical to that team's success as any player in NFL history.
And although Foster and Rice would like to be paid historic contracts, no team will give them what they want, so they might as well stay with their current teams, both division champions.
As for Mike Wallace, because he (like Foster) is a restricted free agent, and teams will have to give up both tens of millions and at least a first-round pick; that's too much in a market that has several good wide receivers.
No. 24: Laurent Robinson Signs with Cleveland
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In another move that will frustrate Cleveland fans, the Browns won't spend one of their two first-round choices on a star college wide receiver, nor will they land one of the premier pass catchers in the free agency market.
Instead, look for them to go after a second (third?) tier wide receiver in Laurent Robinson, enticed by his potential and cheaper price tag.
Robinson had a huge year in 2011, catching 54 passes for 868 yards and 11 touchdowns. That will be enough to convince him and his agents that he's worth more than what the Cowboys—who will turn their offseason attention to the other side of the ball—want to pay.
No. 23: Brian Hoyer Becomes the “It” Player
Right now, Matt Flynn is the hot quarterback name in the NFL, much like Kevin Kolb was the year before.
But it's certainly worth pointing out that the backup of another another recent league MVP and Super Bowl MVP quarterback, (i.e. Brian Hoyer, Tom Brady's backup) is a free agent this spring....sort of.
He's a restricted free agent, and it looks like he'll garner a second-round pick just to acquire his services.
That's a major road block for some teams, but because the Pats already have Ryan Mallett, there's probably going to be some willingness to move Hoyer.
No team would make go after Hoyer as their clear-cut intended first string, franchise signal-caller. But teams like Denver, Seattle or Chicago might want to think about a nice Plan B.
No. 22: Curtis Lofton Won’t Re-Sign with Atlanta
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The shakeup in the Atlanta coaching staff will result in a variety of changes to the personnel.
But the top (and therefore most expensive) player headed for the open market is middle linebacker Curtis Lofton.
He's only 25 years old and has been the most reliable player on that defense (hasn't missed a game, averaging well over 100 tackles per season), but reports have him asking for at least $9 million per season.
Mike Smith might think he can make a middle linebacker for his 4-3 with what he has on the roster or via the draft, opting to spend the money on keeping their best corner, Brent Grimes, and at least one of their two free-agent defensive ends, Kroy Bierrman and John Abraham.
No. 21: Teams Overpay for Average Tight Ends
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Aside from 49er, Saints and Patriots fans, the people most pleased with this new era of tight end prowess (i.e. Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Vernon Davis) has to be this year's crop of tight end free agents.
Several teams needing an infusion of offense will seek out "the next" superstar tight end. As we all know "it's a copy cat league."
Jermichael Finley, Scott Chandler and Fred Davis are all on the open market and their price went up the last month.
One or two of those young possible stars might pan out as worth the long-term deal, not all three.
No. 20: Giants Spend on a Tight End
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Speaking of tight ends....
The Giants may have won the Super Bowl, but there seems to be a huge hole in their roster forthcoming.
Travis Beckum will probably miss a huge chunk of next year because of the torn ACL he suffered in the Super Bowl. Ditto for Jake Ballard, who was the third-leading pass catcher on the roster.
That leaves Bear Pascoe....and nothing else.
With that trio of available tight ends (Fred Davis, Jermichael Finley and Scott Chandler) free agents, they will look there for a replacement and perhaps outbid anyone else for the player they deem the best fit.
No. 19: Chad Henne Signs with Denver
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It seems a foregone conclusion that Chad Henne is not going to be back in Miami next fall, but his lack of consistency the last few seasons won't be enough to force him into early retirement.
There's still a lot about him that teams in need of a quarterback will like: his size, his youth, his background and the fact that he has plenty of experience.
Tim Tebow is entrenched as the Broncos starter right now, but every team in the NFL needs a Plan B at quarterback, and Denver even more so. Right now, they don't have anyone under contract besides Tebow.
They don't want to spend a ton on a player like Matt Flynn, Jason Campbell or (gulp) Peyton Manning. Henne is a cheaper option with huge upside.
No. 18: The 49ers Pay Alex Smith Whatever He Wants
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I doubt that it's a "bold" prediction to say the 49ers will re-sign Alex Smith. He may not be Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers, but in the clutch, he performed and guided San Francisco back to the playoffs.
Give him a second year in the same offense (a novel thought to Smith, who routinely has a new offensive coordinator each summer), and they can be even better.
But it's not like the 49ers don't have leverage. Colin Kaepernick will presumably be ready eventually.
Still, it's a horrible PR move to let Smith walk and would be a colossal waste of the investment of a first-overall pick. And his agent knows that.
No. 17: Someone Will See Something in Rex Grossman
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Some guys are just late bloomers, right?
That's what a few GMs across the league will probably see in Rex Grossman. Well, that and the fact that he's played in a Super Bowl and had a few moments last year on a pretty offensively anemic team.
Personally, I don't think there will be a spot (or money) on the Redskins for him (see No. 1 on this slideshow as to why). But there are too many teams in need of a veteran Plan B, and Grossman has better bona fides than most of the free agents out there.
No. 16: The Bills Break the Bank for Mario Williams
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He may have had a nice half-season in Wade Phillips' 3-4 scheme last year, but Williams belongs in a 4-3 as an overly agile end.
Fortunately for the Bills, they are switching back to a 4-3 under Dave Wannstedt, and no team needs help with their pass-rush more than Buffalo.
They were tied for third-fewest sacks in the NFL last year, with rookie Marcell Dareus leading the way with just 5.5.
Pairing Williams with Dareus will make that pass rush instantly better, something they will sorely need if they hope to continue their resurrection.
No. 15: Evan Mathis Signs with Pittsburgh
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It's not like the Steelers to go out and spend a ton of money on free agents, but given the offensive line issues in Pittsburgh (and the change in offensive regimes), they have to do something.
The bookend tackles are probably set for now. Marcus Gilbert played well as a rookie, and if Willie Colon is unable to come back strong from another major injury, they have Jonathan Scott.
But the interior offensive line (sans Maurkice Pouncey) needs a lot of work. Chris Kemoatu showed tremendous drop off, and Doug Legursky is better suited at center than guard.
Evan Mathis isn't exactly a transcendent player, but he was a key part of LeSean McCoy's great season in 2011, and improving the running game will be key for Todd Haley.
No. 14: Peyton Hillis Signs with Indianapolis
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The back and forth—will they or won't they—between the Browns and Hillis continues on and on. As of now, the front office reportedly wants to bring him back.
But there might have been irreparable damage between the two sides.
More to the point, the Browns are interested in seeing what a healthy Montario Hardesty can do.
Still, Hillis has some fans around the league, and Bruce Arians would like to have a big back to build around to take the pressure off Andrew Luck or Peyton Manning.
And since Hillis is very good in the passing game, he is a nice fit.
No. 13: LaDainian Tomlinson Won’t Retire, Signs with Patriots
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On the surface, this isn't a "free agent" prediction, but think about it for a moment: Tomlinson has to decide a) if he wants to retire and b) if he doesn't where will he play.
It's almost unimaginable that he'll return to that messy situation in New York, but because he is still desperate for a Super Bowl appearance, he'll probably come back, even if it's as a bit player and at a tremendously reduced price.
There are going to be teams out there—even some contenders—who want a big name and a player who can have a locker room presence.
Maybe that's New England, who would love to take away any player from the Jets.
No. 12: Cliff Avril Will Remain in Detroit
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The salary cap makes things extremely difficult, but the Lions have a chance to assemble the best defensive line the NFL has seen since the days of Reggie White's Eagles.
Nick Fairly missed a lot of time due to injury, but showed tremendous promise, and despite Ndamukong Suh's anger issues, he might be the best defensive tackle in the game.
But Cliff Avril was the team's best pass rusher, recording 11 sacks last year. And at age 25, he has plenty more years ahead of him.
Jim Schwartz knows the value of a great defensive line, and he also knows how much losing Avril will hurt an already shaky defensive unit.
Somehow they'll find a way to keep him, even if it's for one more year.
No. 11: BenJarvus Green-Ellis Will Leave New England
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Given what they're going to have to pay Wes Welker, it's going to be difficult to keep Green-Ellis in New England.
They'd like to, but the math is tricky.
Now, that might not be the case if no one else puts a serious offer in on the Law Firm, but look at his track record. He literally NEVER fumbles, is a great red-zone/goal-line runner (24 touchdowns in the last two years) and has very little wear-and-tear.
He's something of an undervalued commodity this spring, but someone will swoop in and wow him, and New England just won't be able to match it....hence giving LT a one-year deal.
No. 10: Jarret Johnson Leaves Baltimore
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Given the presence of not one, not two, but three NFL Defensive Players of the Year (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and now Terrell Suggs), it's hard to believe that the Ravens were able to keep Haloti Ngata last year.
Asking Ozzie Newsome and his capologists to pull off a similar miracle this year regarding Jarret Johnson is even more unlikely.
Johnson is one of their top goals, and everyone says how valuable he is to that defense, but he's going to be 31 years old at the start of the 2012 season, and it might not be the wisest investment for a Ravens team that is fast approaching "old" and will have to pay Ray Rice an exorbitant amount this spring.
No. 9: Michael Griffin Signs with the Jets
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Safety Michael Griffin already tweeted that he's played his last game as a member of the Tennessee Titans, so let's take him at his word.
The Jets may love Jim Leonhard and what he's able to do for them as their "defensive quarterback," but he's suffered two terrible leg injuries the last two seasons, and he too is a free agent.
From a purely football standpoint (Leonhard is regarded as a strong locker-room presence, something the Jets really need), Griffin is an upgrade, and that may be enough to warrant paying him the long-term deal he'll want.
No. 8: Carlos Rogers Lands in Dallas
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Jim Harbaugh's staff resurrected Rogers career this past season, but that won't account for much when it comes time to negotiate a new contract.
Dallas is desperately in need of upgrades at the corner position. They could end up parting ways with both Mike Jenkins and Terence Newman.
It's not that cost-efficient to do that, then turn around and give Carlos Rogers an enormous deal, but who ever said Jerry Jones was cost efficient?
No. 7: Matt Flynn Won’t Land in Miami
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Everyone just seems to assume that (if they don't land Peyton Manning) the Dolphins will go after Matt Flynn. He's been in Joe Philbin's system for four years, and in his two starts, has been outstanding.
But the Kevin Kolb effect—he really didn't seem worth the hype, the draft pick or the money for Arizona—will mute the zeal for him.
Certainly someone will go after him, but the Dolphins will have an outside shot at landing Robert Griffin (either via trade or some minor stock falling) or perhaps Ryan Tannehill later on, and bringing in two young QBs at a high price isn't the right way to start off their new regime.
No. 6: Vincent Jackson Joins Cam Newton
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It sure will be interesting to see how the Panthers approach Cam Newton's future. If he can put up those types of numbers as a rookie, with only one real wide receiving threat (a 33-year-old Steve Smith), what might he do with a better corps of pass catchers?
So adding another receiver should be one of the Panthers top goals this offseason.
Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson and Marques Colston are possibilities, but the combination of size and experience that Vincent Jackson is ideal. Even if they have to overpay for him.
No. 5: The Colts See Both Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne Go
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Again, everything is starting a new in Indianapolis, and it doesn't make much sense to pay a pair of over-30 players eight figures.
They're paying Dwight Freeney $14 million next season, so giving Mathis the huge contract he wants isn't in their best interest.
And as for Reggie Wayne, he'll probably command more money than Mathis. Despite all the Colts quarterback problems, he still nearly reached an eighth straight 1,000-yard season.
They'd like to provide (presumably) Andrew Luck with a veteran pass catcher, but with Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon as a much cheaper option, Wayne might be another player turning the page.
No. 4: Super Bowl Hero Mario Manningham Leaves Giants
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Come on! Super Bowl heroes turned free agents ALWAYS cash on their fame and leave town: Dominic Rhodes in Indianapolis, Dexter Jackson in Tampa Bay, Desmond Howard in Green Bay, Larry Brown in Dallas and so on.
Manningham made the play of the game in the win over New England, but with Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz and two promising young players in Jerrel Jernigan and Ramses Barden (whose size is so intriguing), they have plenty of wide reciever talent.
Tight end and offensive line are much more critical positions for the Super Bowl champions.
No. 3: Matt Forte Stays in Chicago
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Forte has told media members that he really wants to remain in Chicago, but at this stage of the game, that means very little.
He's probably the most versatile back on the open market, and teams will be willing to pay him the season-ending knee injury.
But new offensive coordinator Mike Tice is going to be far more committed to the running game than Mike Martz was, and the Bears aren't more than a tweak or two away from being a playoff team....especially if they land a wide receiver in the draft or on the free-agent market.
A chance to win and be a superstar should appeal to Forte more than a few more dollars.
No. 2: DeSean Jackson Stays in Philadelphia
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On the field, DeSean Jackson is one of the most explosive, volatile players in the NFL.
Off the field, he's just as volatile, and in the Eagles' delicate situation, that is problematic.
Even if they have to place the franchise tag on him to keep him for just one more season, they will. The Eagles clearly aren't build for the long-term anyway. We saw proof of that last summer.
No. 1: Peyton Manning Signs with Washington
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As of today, Peyton Manning is not a free agent. On March 8, that will change. Not wanting to pay him $28 million and eager to completely hand over the reins to Andrew Luck, they'll release "The Franchise," and he will become a free agent.
(On a side note, they really have no hope of trading him. Teams know the Colts have little bargaining power.)
Miami is the front-runner, Arizona now has an inside track with Frank Reich's hire and even the Titans have been thrown into the mix.
But Washington is the perfect fit for him and the NFL.
Mike Shanahan knows how to take Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks (Steve Young, John Elway) to the Super Bowl, and he's quietly building a deep set of skill players.
And as for the NFL: Peyton vs. Eli twice a year, rather than once ever four years? Huge plus.