There's a difference between great players and irreplaceable ones. And distinguishing where fan-favorites fall in such situations provides a unique conflict for NFL owners and general managers.
Every free-agency period is marked with big-name players on the verge of receiving top dollar, salary-cap casualties, and players falling victim to changes in the head coaching regime or newly drafted rookies.
Nonetheless, difficult decisions must be made. And I have made it my obligation to speculate upon them!
Let's get this out of the way first. It's already known that Matt Cassel will receive the franchise tag from New England.
Given the way the tag has been used in recent years, there's a good chance even more players will be punished with it. Expect Nnamdi Asomugha to remain in Oakland as well.
LB Ray Lewis, BAL
It's weird to even picture Ray Lewis in a different uniform, but it's a reality fans should try and embrace. The Ravens long-time leader and former Super Bowl MVP may find himself listening to offers in March. While Lewis is the undisputed heart and soul of that defense, the explosive Ed Reed, young Haloti Ngata, and dominant Terrell Suggs should be the focus for Baltimore's defensive future.
DE Julius Peppers, CAR
The Panthers are faced with quite the dilemma. They're poised to make a playoff run, and will want to do whatever they can to keep their 12-4 squad in tact. But two line of scrimmage anchors on both sides of the ball are primed for a big pay day. My belief: they let Julius Peppers hit the open market. Jordan Gross was given the franchise tag in 2008, and deserves a long-term commitment in 2009.
RB Derrick Ward or RB Brandon Jacobs, NYG
It remains to be seen which player will emerge as most valuable to the Giants. My money is on Brandon Jacobs sticking around, but it's a double-edged sword. Jacobs misses games with injuries, and Ward steps in and makes sure the offense doesn't miss a step. But when Jacobs is on, he's the most vicious player on the field. He makes the rest of the offense work in a way no one else can while battering down the defense.
CB Dunta Robinson, HOU
If the Houston Texans don't apply the franchise tag to Dunta Robinson, expect him to attract mountains of attention in March. Cornerbacks are always in high demand. And with the Raiders likely tagging Nnamdi Asomugha again, Robinson instantly becomes the next guy to receive a lot of interest and a monster contract.
LB Jonathan Vilma, NO
When the Jets traded the former Defensive Rookie of the Year to New Orleans, it was expected that he would be a dominant presence in the middle of their defense. And he didn't disappoint, but he was still part of the NFL's most disappointing units. The Saints never gave Vilma a new contract, and he can hit the free agent market and attract plenty of attention.
Teams who need him most: Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
RB Darren Sproles, SD
Sproles' recent emergence will have a lot of teams watching him closely leading up to March. San Diego has been fortunate enough to draft talented backs to complement LaDainian Tomlinson. If they believe Jacob Hester can fill the role, then Sproles should expect Michael Turner money in 2009. He's shown he can be a feature back, and an all-around weapon from anywhere on the field.
Needing a Change of Scenery
WR Chad Johnson, CIN
The future of the Bengals' receivers revolves around T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Johnson is a well-paid liability in Cincinnati. For all his talent, he's more mouth and decreasing production. The Bengals should be looking to sever ties with him going into 2009.
TE Tony Gonzalez, KC
The future Hall of Fame tight end could find his way out of Kansas City if a new general manager is dedicated to developing a youth movement. Gonzalez has contemplated retirement lately, but he could benefit from a new home in 2009—somewhere he won't be the focal point.
Teams who need him most: Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Seattle Seahawks
QB Derek Anderson, CLE
It looks more and more like the Cleveland Browns QB job will be Brady Quinn's to lose. If anything was learned in Cleveland this year, it's that you can never have enough quarterbacks. But you can have too much money tied up in them. Braylon Edwards may have cost Anderson a job, and a new home in 2009.
Teams who need him most: Detroit Lions, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers
WR Braylon Edwards, CLE
A severe case of the "dropsies" plagued Edwards in 2008, but he still has what it takes to be a great receiver. But Edwards may have worn out his welcome in Cleveland. He's still a strong and fast route-runner, and if 2008 was just a down-year, he has very good hands. The poor season may have decreased his value for teams if the Browns do part ways.
Teams who need him most: New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers
RB Edgerrin James, ARI
He may have exploded in the Wild Card round on the Atlanta Falcons, but he's still not happy. Maybe a Super Bowl could fix that and make him honor his contract, but the scenarios aren't in his favor. He wants to be a runner on a team that's built to pass. The next playoff game will provide a clearer picture on his future.
Teams who need him most: Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks
QB Brett Favre, NYJ
Woody Johnson may be on record saying he wants Favre back in 2009, but the dollars won't make sense for New York. The Jets adopted his contract from the Packers, and the numbers placed New York $9 million over the projected cap. New York could let him play his retirement game, but they don't feel the same sense of obligation to his legacy as Green Bay.
Teams who need him most: Mississippi Retirement Home Badgers
RB Cadillac Williams, TB
The oft-injured running back could find his way out of Tampa Bay this offseason. The Buccaneers have stood with him because of his potential and awesome nickname—but he hasn't been with his team for what feels like forever. If he can get over the injury bug, he can be an excellent complementary back elsewhere—especially if the Buccaneers feel tapped out by the gas guzzler.
Teams who need him most: New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts
QB Matt Hasselbeck, SEA
Usually with coaching changes come quarterback changes. This doesn't mean Seneca Wallace is the new man for the job, but it means Hasselbeck may not be in their next coach's future plans. Hasselbeck counts for $6.3 million against the cap, and has had injury issues. A new coach may not be as dedicated to him.
Teams who need him most: Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers
CB Chris McAlister, BAL
Injury problems may have dropped McAlister's value in recent years. When he's healthy and on the field, he's top five in the NFL. Unfortunately, he hasn't been on the field. He's on the wrong side of 30, on a team with a defense that's still among the NFL's best even without him. If he can return to health, McAlister will be an excellent no. two corner for a team with a rookie, or short on depth.
Teams who need him most: New York Jets, Kansas City Chiefs, Jacksonville Jaguars