The Super Bowl is in the books so unless you're busy dancing shirtless or enjoying a ticker tape parade, the inevitable lull between seasons has begun. Unless you have a fascination with the combine or you hoard mock drafts more than Bill Belichick hoards draft picks, this time of the year is the time to recover from a frantic season, catch some basketball or anticipate the upcoming baseball season.
Either that, or you could start looking ahead to what's really important and get a head start on the 2012 NFL regular season. The draft may be some distance away just yet, but it is only a matter of weeks before league-wide free agency breaks on March 13.
Roughly 600 free agents are scheduled to hit the free agent market already, but that doesn't mean new names won't be appearing and disappearing all the time. As the Oakland Raiders proved with Stanford Routt, nobody is safe at this time of the year. Routt signed a five-year deal with $20 million guaranteed ahead of last season, but was released shortly after the Raiders named their new coach.
Routt is not the only one to hit the free agent market already as another cornerback, and former starter Bryant McFadden was let go from Pittsburgh. You see, while others are measuring the length of Andrew Luck's earlobes and comparing them to Robert Griffin III's, there will be proven NFL talent either hitting or being taken off the market between now and the start of free agency.
With the franchise and transition tags still available for teams to lock up their biggest stars, some players such as Drew Brees, Wes Welker and Ray Rice are all but guaranteed to not hit the free agent market before the fun has even begun.
Outside of those players, there are still some pivotal names to watch out for in the weeks leading up to the beginning of free agency. As such, here are a few names worth watching/listening out for over the next few weeks.
In past years, Wallace wouldn't really be considered as a free agent at all. He is a restricted free agent, which prior to the lockout essentially meant he wasn't a free agent at all. However one stipulation of the new collective bargaining agreement has altered restricted free agency.
In the past, Wallace would have had a first- and third-round tender on him. Today, Wallace can be had for just one first-round pick at the most.
The Steelers do have their franchise tag available; however they don't yet have the cap room to give Wallace the $9-plus million that would require. Considering a wide receiver-needy team such as the New England Patriots would only have to give up the 31st overall selection to bid for Wallace, the Steelers will be desperate for him to not hit free agency.
If the Steelers cannot re-sign Wallace to a long-term deal in the weeks leading up to the start of free agency, a bidding war will ensue from multiple teams. The Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Patriots would all be more than willing to give up their late first-round selection to land the elite speedster.
Re-signing Brees isn't important for the team to retain Brees, there is no question that he will be a Saints player next season. However it is vital for the team to lock down Brees early to free up the franchise tag for one of their other star players who are hitting free agency.
Carl Nicks, the best offensive lineman and arguably second most valuable free agent behind Brees, is also a key player for the Saints, while Marques Colston, Tracy Porter, Robert Meachem and Jo-Lunn Dunbar are all players Sean Payton would like to bring back. If the Saints can't free up the franchise tag and are forced to use it on Brees, they face the prospect of losing Nicks, Colston and Porter who will all be highly sought after free agents.
Reggie Wayne/Robert Mathis
It's all but decided that the Peyton Manning era in Indianapolis is over. The franchise can't afford to pay him the money his current contract is paying him so expect Andrew Luck to be under center in Indianapolis next year. Re-signing Wayne or Mathis won't indicate if Manning is going to play for Indianapolis or not, but it will tell us about the aspirations of the Colts for next season.
After this season, you would expect the Colts to dive head-first into a rebuilding phase; however Jim Irsay isn't the type of owner to roll over and die. Depending on how much they believe in Andrew Luck, the Colts could bring back Wayne or Mathis and look to compete next year with the rookie quarterback. At the very least, it gives us more reasons to watch out for Rob Lowe's tweets.
The Raiders released Stanford Routt and are supposedly trying to lock down Tyvon Branch in order to use the franchise tag on running back Michael Bush. Until that actually happens, however, it will be interesting to see if the Raiders really are willing to commit so much money to their
Re-signing Bush doesn't guarantee that the Raiders will trade Darren McFadden, but it definitely makes ita possibility. If Bush is re-signed, we could see the Raiders entertaining offers from multiple teams for the former top-10 draft pick. McFadden has a huge amount of talent and is a game-changer lining up in the backfield. He would be highly sought after if he was placed on the trade block.
Most running backs are replaceable, but a dynamic playmaker like McFadden becoming available would cause a lot of intrigue around the league. For teams like the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns, who are in need of running backs with extra draft picks, McFadden could make a huge difference.
Lloyd was traded during last season and even if he leaves via free agency, the Rams will receive a better compensatory draft pick than they actually traded away for the receiver next year. Lloyd may not be the best receiver in the league coming free, but what happens with him in the next few weeks will have a domino effect on the rest of the offseason.
With Josh McDaniels back in New England, the Patriots will likely be looking to sign him if he hits free agency. Because of Lloyd's speed, he would become the piece that the Patriots' offense was severely lacking last year. If potentially being the difference-maker for a Super Bowl team isn't enough intrigue, Lloyd could have a major impact on the NFL draft this year also.
The Rams are more than likely going to trade down from the No. 2 spot in the draft as teams fight for Robert Griffin III. However what they do from that point will be determined by Lloyd. The best receiver in the draft this year is Justin Blackmon, but Blackmon doesn't really fit the Rams offense as Danny Amendola will return to do his job. The Rams could still take Blackmon if Lloyd returns, but if he doesn't Alshon Jeffrey becomes another possibility because of his deep ball ability.
If Lloyd stays, they are not guaranteed to draft a receiver, if he goes they essentially are unless they add a big name in free agency. With most teams below them anticipating the team taking a receiver, the Rams would drastically alter the course of the draft if they go against expectations in the top 10 of the draft. Re-signing Lloyd could even prevent them from trading the second overall pick as Morris Claiborne and Matt Kalil would then move into contention.