2012 NFL Free Agency: Market Report for Top Available Players

Farzin Vousoughian@farzin21Contributor IIIFebruary 17, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agency: Market Report for Top Available Players

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    The NFL offseason continues to unfold as many teams are holding meetings with upcoming free agents all around the league.

    Cincinnati, Denver, Jacksonville, Kansas City, San Francisco, Seattle, Tampa Bay and Washington all have $40 million of cap room. Among those eight teams, Cincinnati, Kansas City and Tampa Bay have $60 million to spend this offseason.

    In 2012, there is not a lockout to prevent teams from meeting with and signing free agents.

    As of Tuesday, March 13, players who are without a contract will become free agents at 4:00 pm EST. Many teams will pull the trigger and go after players they would like to bring in.

    But who are the top available players this offseason? 

QB Drew Brees

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    One of the better football players in the league today, Drew Brees had a phenomenal season with 46 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions. The biggest highlight for Brees this season was passing Dan Marino for most passing yards in a single season.

    Brees already went through a franchise transition, having previously played for the San Diego Chargers. Although he is without a contract right now, it is likely he will stay in New Orleans, where he has established a remarkable career.

QB Alex Smith

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    Behind Brees, Alex Smith might be the most popular quarterback this offseason after playing a big role in helping the San Francisco 49ers reach the NFC Championship game. 

    In the regular season, he threw for 17 touchdowns against only five interceptions. He also started all 16 games for only the second time in his career. 

    It's taken a long time for Smith to get to where he is now, bit if he can carry over his success from 2011, he could be a valuable pickup for a team in need of a quarterback.

QB Matt Flynn

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    The media is still high on Matt Flynn after his huge season finale against the Detroit Lions, where he threw six touchdown passes for 480 passing yards.

    Do teams really want Flynn, or is the media over-hyping him over one game?

    Regardless of what fans might think, there should be a team out there that will welcome Flynn with open arms.

    But how much is he going to ask for? That will be the most interesting storyline to follow. 

RB Cedric Benson

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    This era of the NFL is now known more as more of a passing league, so teams are trying to employ the two-back system to help compose a balanced offense.

    Cedric Benson gained a little over 1,000 yards on 273 carries along with six touchdowns on the ground in 2011. Benson has been far more dominant in Cincinnati than he was in Chicago.

    If the Bengals let him go, Benson will be part of a strong one-two tailback punch somewhere in the NFL. 

RB Michael Bush

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    The Oakland Raiders have quietly been ranked in the top-10 in rushing the past two years.

    Michael Bush is a rising star in the NFL and made a lot of noise in the second half of the 2011 season filling in for an injured Darren McFadden.

    Bush was only 23 yards away from gaining 1,000 yards on the ground and scored seven rushing touchdowns despite starting only nine games.

    Like Benson, Bush can also be a valuable pickup if he joins an offense that wants two active running backs. He will help offenses immensely by moving the chains and keeping them on the field.

RB Matt Forte

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    Matt Forte has been everything the Chicago Bears wanted out of him since coming out of Tulane in 2008. In his four years in the league, Forte has managed to gain over 900 yards every season.

    Forte was on pace to earn himself a career high for most rushing yards in a single season, but that came to an end when he sprained his MCL towards the end of the season, forcing him to miss the season's final four games. 

    If he doesn’t return to Chicago, teams will have to consider taking Forte even if his late-season injury isn't fully recovered. 

RB Arian Foster

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    Arian Foster came out of nowhere in 2010 when he lit up the Indianapolis Colts to kick off the season. Foster avoided the one-year-wonder curse by continuing his aggressive level of play in 2011.

    Foster dealt with a minor hamstring injury early on in 2011, but was able to fight through the nagging pain for most of the season. 

    While many teams would go after Foster, it is doubtful that he will leave Houston.

RB Peyton Hillis

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    Peyton Hillis had a breakout season in 2010 after leaving Denver. Hillis rushed for 1,177 yards on 270 carries and scored 11 touchdowns. However, he missed several games in 2011 due to a strep throat and hamstring injury.

    In the 10 games he did play in last season, Hillis was unable to produce. He gained only 717 total yards on the season and had a 3.6 yard per carry average.

    Teams that want Hillis will have to think twice. Hillis, who gained a lot of popularity in 2010 before his rocky 2011 campaign, may not be able to earn the contract he once merited. 

    Regardless of his ups and downs, several teams will probably go after him. 

RB Marshawn Lynch

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    We continue the strong class of free-agent running backs with Marshawn Lynch, who rushed for over 1,000 yards for the first time since 2008.

    Lynch began to rebound towards the end of the 2010 season. He was featured on every sports television network for his 67-yard rushing touchdown against the Saints in the playoffs, where he emerged and dodged eight tackles to help the Seahawks advance in the postseason.

    While the Seattle Seahawks were not able to improve from their 2010 record of 7-9, Lynch gave Seattle fans a lot to look forward to every week.

    Lynch rushed for 1,204 yards for the Seahawks and tied for the second most rushing touchdowns among all running backs in 2011.

    The Seahawks have holes in several spots on their team, so letting Lynch walk would be a critical loss.

RB Ray Rice

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    Ray Rice is one of the best running backs in the league today and is considered the best free-agent running back this year.

    Rice finished second in the league individually in rushing with 1,364 yards and fumbled the ball only twice. Rice had 367 touches and managed to gain 2,068 total yards of offense. Rice gained 47 percent of the team’s yards and got 47 percent of the touches this past year with the Ravens on offense.

    A team that signs Rice will hit the jackpot—and so could Rice, with a big contract signing. The Ravens would suffer the worst out of all NFL teams if they can't re-sign their top player without a contract.

RB Mike Tolbert

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    Mike Tolbert is not a football player you want starting at running back. However, Tolbert's ability to be active and remain healthy, like Rice, is very beneficial.

    Out of 175 total touches, Tolbert gained 923 yards. Tolbert ran for eight touchdowns and caught two, which is where he really excelled to help the San Diego Chargers.

    Tolbert is best fit for a 1-2 running back system where he enters the game as a reliever and a blocker. He comes through the best when he enters the game in goal-line situations to get the ball in the end zone.

WR Dwayne Bowe

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    Dwayne Bowe is one of the most dangerous receivers in the NFL today.

    Bowe blasted through defensive backs with 15 touchdown receptions in 2010 to lead the Chiefs to the postseason.

    Bowe took a big step back in 2011 with only five touchdowns, but he was able to get his third 1,000-yard season in five years.

    Teams interested in Bowe will have to help him with his hands. Bowe has had a reputation of dropping easy touchdown receptions.

WR Plaxico Burress

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    Even though Plaxico Burress only caught 45 passes for 612 yards, Mark Sanchez had no problems finding him for eight touchdowns, including three against the San Diego Chargers during his comeback season.

    Even though Burress will be 35 years old in August, he can still be viewed as a reliable receiver. If the Jets don't retain him, look for a team that is thin on receivers to reach out to Burress.

WR Marques Colston

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    Alongside Brees, here is another player the Saints really want to keep.

    Colston caught 80 passes for over 1,100 yards and helped Brees have his record-setting season. With Brees as his quarterback, Colston was able to find a lot of success in New Orleans.

    In the end, the Saints and Colston should be able to come to an agreement. If not, the Saints will be losing a big part of their offense that allowed Brees to succeed and it will result in another team's gain.

WR Stevie Johnson

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    Stevie Johnson has been one of the bright spots for the Buffalo Bills, while the team collapsed in the second half of 2011 after starting out as one of the hottest offenses in the league.

    Johnson's value means a lot to the Bills as they try to bounce back next season. Johnson has caught at least 75 passes and 1,000 receiving yards in back-to-back seasons.

    Johnson has had a couple of games in his career where he has dropped some easy passes in close games.

    He went through that this past season against the New York Jets. If he can avoid those issues, one team might be able to sign an elite receiver.

WR Reggie Wayne

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    It's hard to judge Reggie Wayne for falling short of a 1,000-yard season after having to go from Peyton Manning to Curtis Painter and Dan Orlovsky throwing the ball.

    Wayne still managed to come down with 75 catches for 960 yards and had four touchdown grabs. While he is aging, Wayne has started every football game since 2003.

    Wayne's age should not be a concern to anyone. If he joins an offense with a healthy and consistent quarterback, he will be back on the top tier of receivers in the league.

OT Khalif Barnes

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    Khalif Barnes has been part of a Raiders offense that has consistently run the football very well.

    Barnes paved the way for McFadden and Bush for the past three seasons since coming to Oakland.

    Barnes is one of the league's most underrated tackles and is more than capable of building that big hole to allow a running back with breakaway speed to take off and run for big yardage.

OG/C Dan Connolly

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    As you see listed, Dan Connolly is able to play multiple positions as the offensive line and is one of the under-appreciated interior blockers in the league.

    Like a majority of the Patriots line, Connolly consistently blocked well for Tom Brady, giving him the time he needed to make big plays to help the team advance on the field.

    Connolly may end up staying with the Patriots and playing with a strong line.

OG Carl Nicks

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    Among all offensive linemen, Carl Nicks is probably considered the best player entering free agency.

    Nicks is one of three offensive players the Saints are trying to keep. Assuming the Saints can only keep two, Nicks could be the odd man out and will have the chance to join a new team and earn himself a big contract.

    Along with a Super Bowl ring, Nicks will be bringing Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors from the last two years.

DE John Abraham

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    John Abraham was one of the big defensive stars for the Atlanta Falcons.

    While playing for a top 10 defensive team, Abraham got 9.5 sacks and popped four footballs loose.

    Abraham is best fit to play defensive end in the 4-3. Abraham has collected 112 sacks in his career while playing for the Jets and Falcons.

    Abraham will be 34 years old in May. It may be in his best interest to stay in Atlanta, where he has been since 2006, and finish his strong career there.

DE Robert Mathis

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    Teams seeking a defensive end may not have a lot of options, but Robert Mathis might be a huge pickup for a team that gets him.

    Mathis has earned 9.5 sacks during the Colts' struggling season and stepped up while Dwight Freeney was hurt.

    As one of the best pass rushers in the 4-3, teams will be taking a strong look at Mathis.

DT Jonathan Fanene

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    Jonathan Fanene was one player who stepped up for the Bengals on defense after a short season in 2010.

    Fanene had a career high of 6.5 sacks to help the Bengals defense make a name for itself and earn a playoff appearance.

    Fanene has played well recently while healthy. If teams trust him that he can stay on the field, he could be a big-name player in 2012.

MLB London Fletcher

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    The interior linebackers free-agent class consists of a couple of big-name players who have made big contributions for their teams.

    London Fletcher is one of those guys the Washington Redskins can't afford to lose. Mike Shanahan already has enough holes to fix on the team.

    If the Redskins are unable to come to terms with Fletcher, the Redskins have a lot of work to accomplish this offseason.

    Fletcher led the league in tackles with 166 in 2011 and will is another slam-dunk pickup for any team that brings him in to their defense.

MLB E.J. Henderson

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    With over 100 tackles, two sacks and three forced fumbles, E.J. Henderson is one player offensive linemen have to double-team to either help scatbacks get through or their quarterbacks not to get sacked.

    Henderson fits best in a 4-3 defensive system, which is what Minnesota ran. Putting him in a 3-4 system is not out of the question, but it may concern some people if he has to make that adjustment.

    In the end, the Vikings, another team in disarray, will want to do whatever they can to keep him.

MLB Curtis Lofton

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    Curtis Lofton is one of the league's top tacklers in the league, finishing fifth in 2011.

    Lofton has the ability to put quarterbacks under pressure, but he can also come up with an interception. Lofton has had three interceptions in his last two years after having none the first two years in the league.

    It shouldn't be hard to get Lofton to a contract as he can make a difference for a defense in 2012.

MLB Anthony Spencer

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    The Dallas Cowboys have not had a lot of success the last two years by not living up to expectations.

    Anthony Spencer has had no problems individually. Spencer had six sacks and four forced fumbles this past year for the Cowboys.

    It may be likely that Spencer leaves Dallas to go play for a team where he can complete their defense and play in meaningful games in January.

CB Brandon Carr

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    Brandon Carr has improved drastically the past two seasons.

    Carr had a career high of four interceptions in 2011 and has been one of the better defenders in the league. Carr has also started every game since entering the league in 2008.

    With the Chiefs trying to bounce back from a huge setback, Carr may want to test the waters and see what is available for him.

CB Stanford Routt

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    Stanford Routt had four interceptions this season while playing for the Raiders and is one of the hottest free agent cornerbacks entering this year's offseason.

    Routt is very similar to Carr and has been in the league a little longer. Routt can bring in some veteran experience or stay with the Raiders, who barely lost the AFC West to the 8-8 Denver Broncos.

CB Lardarius Webb

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    Lardarius Webb could very well be considered the best defensive player entering free agency.

    Webb racked up five interceptions in the regular season and three more in the postseason. Webb has spent three years with a Baltimore Ravens defense that has helped him evolve into a star.

    Webb is another player who could test the market and see how much he could make elsewhere.