2012 NFL Free Agents: Predicting the First 5 to Sign Big Contracts

Scott ReighardAnalyst IMarch 8, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: Predicting the First 5 to Sign Big Contracts

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    With the 2012 free-agency season just over the horizon, it’s time to play money ball—meaning that teams will begin to play with numbers like politicians play with taxpayer money.

    This year’s salary cap is estimated anywhere from $120 million–$130 million. Some teams are in great cap shape while others try to cut some losses or restructure the contracts of older players in order to free up more space.

    There are five teams that top the list of cap room: Cincinnati Bengals, Kansas City Chiefs, Denver Broncos, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars. Each of these teams has an estimated $40 million or more in cap space. There are several other teams that are close to this as well.  

    Having a lot of cap money can be a blessing and a curse. It’s easy to overspend and realize a year or two from now the return on that investment was not what you had hoped for, or it can be a blessing where you are able to sign guys who will propel your team on to greater heights.

    Teams that need to be more frugal will most likely do greater research on whom they’ll bring in and attempt to sign.  

    So, on to my predictions for the first week of free agency—press on to see who I think will be the first five to sign, and who might soon follow.

Peyton Manning: Indianapolis Colts to ?

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    Let’s all assume that Peyton Manning is in high demand by—oh, let’s say 25 teams, but realistically there are three or four teams that will seriously vie for the future Hall of Famer’s services.

    In an article I wrote about a month ago, I said the Redskins, Cardinals, Dolphins and Broncos would lead the charge. I gave compelling reasons for all those teams, and I believe that Peyton will take his time in deciding where he wants to play.

    Money will not be a major factor, but the man will get paid plenty. The Redskins and Broncos have the most money, while the Cardinals and Dolphins hover around that $15 million mark.  

    For arguments sake, I am not going to include Peyton in this discussion, because I think the five players discussed in this article will likely sign before Manning.

    My goal is to focus on five other players who will most likely sign within days of free agency.  

    Also, I do not hit on all positions, even though the top five that I have chosen play different positions. Not included here are: safety, defensive line, tight end, running back, etc.

Vincent Jackson: San Diego Chargers to Chicago Bears

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    With all the receivers out there in free agency, Jackson jumps to the top of the list.

    The much-ballyhooed ordeal with the Chargers comes to a close as the Chargers part ways with the enigmatic talent.

    Most likely, the Chargers will compensate by signing someone or drafting someone in the early rounds to keep Rivers happy.  

    Also, the Bears have been scrutinized, criticized and circumcised (well, maybe not that far) about not addressing their WR position for Jay "I don't give a rat's #*&" Cutler, but truthfully, the Bears need Jackson more than Jackson needs them, so look for the Bears to pay big bucks.  


    Second Tier

    Dwayne Bowe (although KC would like to keep him), Pierre Garcon (worries about being go-to guy in someone else’s system), Marques Colston (system player?), Mario Manningham (Bucs have early lead) and Reggie Wayne (follow Peyton, and Wayne will not be far behind).

    There are some other names out there, but realistically, very few No.1-type receivers, so if teams are looking for complementary receivers, the market will yield such players.

Carl Nicks: New Orleans Saints to Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Chiefs have already signed Stanford Routt, but they still have a lot of money, and Nicks would fill a deep void for the Chiefs.

    He would fit great into any system, but the Chiefs have a similar style to the Ravens, and the fit would be perfect here.

    There are other teams that covet Nicks, but the money will be the No. 1 issue, and some teams just will not be able to afford Nicks.  


    Second Tier

    Ben Grubbs/Ravens to Rams, Buccaneers, Bills, Jacksonville. These are a few teams that will pony up for Grubbs' services.

    Jacob Bell/Rams: Despite a down year for Bell, teams will still vie for his services.

    Jake Scott/Tennessee: The Titans will do what they can to retain the seasoned guard who has anchored part of that offense for eight years.  

Mario Williams: Houston Texans to San Diego Chargers

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    Mario Williams' career came to an end in Houston when they became the No. 1 overall defense without his services—that made the decision that much easier for both parties.

    I sincerely believe the Chargers will make a hard run at Williams.

    They need to shore up a defense that had its share of problems last year.

    If the Chargers are unable to land the big prize, look for teams like the Dolphins, Jaguars or Packers 


    Second Tier

    Antoine Applewhite/Panthers: The Panthers want to re-sign the four-year vet, but he may find greener pastures elsewhere.

    Cliff Avril/Lions: Same scenario here. The Lions will do what they can, but don’t be surprised to see the Packers make a push to steal a division rival's rush end.

    Two other guys that could sneak into good situations are Adam Carriker/Redskins, and Matt Roth/Jaguars.

Cortland Finnegan: Tennessee Titans to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    There will be plenty of CBs available in free agency, but the most coveted is Finnegan.

    Teams looking for an attitude adjustment will heavily vie for Finnegan.

    Two teams other than the Bucs that will push hard for Finnegan are the Rams and the Cowboys.

    The Rams because of Fisher's ties to Finnegan and the Titans seems like an ideal fit, and that deal just may happen, but the Rams are sitting at around $5 million under the cap.

    Some of that will be freed up with restructurings, releases, etc, and it's why the Rams are so interested in selling off the No. 2 spot in the draft.

    I think it depends on Finnegan—does he take less to reunite with Fisher, or does he take more because it's all about getting paid and "respect."

    Also, I almost wrote down the Cowboys here, but my sense tells me that the Cowboys are growing tired of spending countless money on free agents, many of whom have not really panned out. Even though Finnegan might be a sure thing, another million over the Cowboys' offer lands Finnegan in Tampa Bay.


    Second Tier

    Brent Grimes/Falcons: If Cowboys lure Finnegan, look for Bucs to scoop up division rival. Other teams interested: Vikings, Bengals and Redskins.

    Tim Jennings/Bears to Vikings: I think the Vikings have a very good shot at Jennings given familiarity and the Vikings' look to upgrade defensive backfield with an experienced proven player. Other teams: Packers, Lions, Bengals.

Matt Flynn: Green Bay Packers to Washington Redskins

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    This is a tough one.

    So much depends on Peyton Manning.

    My assumption is that of the four teams that enter the sweepstakes, two of those teams will wind up with Manning while another winds up with Flynn.

    The other two? Well, that’s the way it goes.  

    Initially, I thought the Dolphins would be able to bring in Flynn, but my senses tell me the Dolphins will vigorously pursue Manning. For Manning, there are four compelling reasons for the Dolphins—they have a solid defense, the weather, several offensive threats (perhaps adding Moss or Wayne) and Manning gets to play against Brady twice a year—one there and one at home at the very least. And who knows? Maybe the playoffs.  

    As for Flynn, he would give the Redskins a legitimate quarterback and would finally put to rest a long-standing issue for the organization.  

    Disclaimer: If the Redskins are dead certain on pursuing RGIII in the draft, then look for someone like the Dolphins to pursue Flynn if Manning chooses the Cardinals or Broncos, or a team other than the Dolphins.


    Second Tier

    This is not a great year for free agent quarterbacks, but there are a few names that might get a look.

    Kyle Orton is every poor man’s QB, it seems. Look for Orton, if he does not re-sign with Kansas City, to look east like New York, as in the Jets.

    Also, Chad Henne could get some looks. Jason Campbell, who has been off the radar due to injuries, could wind up in Seattle or maybe even Jacksonville as insurance in case Gabbert falters. And then there's Brady Quinn—yes, he is still in the NFL.  

    In closing, this will be another exciting free-agency period highlighted by Peyton Manning, and the drama is surely to be one that will be tweeted and chronicled about ad nauseum.