Predicting Where the Top 50 Free Agents Will Land, Post-Franchise Tags
Now that the deadline to assign franchise tags has come and gone, we now have a clear picture of what the free agent market will look like when it opens on March 13th.
Peyton Manning will dominate the headlines (and rightly so), but there are a lot of quality players whose decisions will change the landscape of the NFL over the next few weeks. Now that free agency will open before the draft for the first time in two years, teams will be looking to fill their top needs with proven players rather than roll the dice on young, unproven prospects.
Here are predictions as to where the top 50 free agents will land this spring.
(Note: This list is limited to UFAs only.)
50. Israel Idonije: Chicago Bears
Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers get all of the attention, but Israel Idonije is one of the more underrated players on a very good Bears defense.
He had one of his best seasons as a Bear in 2011, notching five sacks. He is starting to enter the latter portion of his career, and the Bears would like someone a bit more explosive opposite Peppers, but in a rotational role, he can be very effective.
My bet is that he stays in Chicago for a reasonable price. I have a hard time picturing another team coming in and offering him a ton of money to go somewhere else.
49. Chad Henne: New York Jets
For a guy who was once thought to be the next Dan Marino by his former owner Stephen Ross, Henne has taken quite a fall from grace.
Still, Henne is a talented quarterback who would be one of the better backups in the NFL. The Jets have hired Henne's former head coach, Tony Sparano, as offensive coordinator. Henne can come in and help a young Sanchez learn a new system.
The Jets have also expressed interest in Henne's services, and are looking to revamp their backup quarterback situation. Henne is still young and has considerable talent, so it seems like a logical fit.
48. Todd McClure: Chicago Bears
The 35-year-old center does not have a ton of football left, but any team looking for a stop-gap solution at the center position should have interest in McClure's services.
McClure would be an ideal fit for a Bears team that is looking for a veteran presence on an offensive line that will likely see some changes this summer. Roberto Garza is one of the worst starting centers in football (if not the worst), and McClure would be an immediate upgrade, even if it is for just one season.
Bottom line is, McClure can still play at a fairly high level, and he brings veteran leadership to a position that is highly mental.
47. Jeff Backus: Detroit Lions
Backus is on the decline, but in such a thin tackle market, it would be wise for the Lions to keep him around for another year.
Even if the Lions draft a long-term replacement, it would be a poor decision to gamble Stafford's health on an unproven player, especially since he just enjoyed his first injury-free season as a pro. If the rookie outplays Backus, then so be it—the Lions are not going to give him any kind of big-money deal.
It appears as if the Lions want Backus back. As long as both sides are reasonable in negotiations, It would be a long shot to see Jeff anywhere but Detroit next season.
46. Mike Tolbert: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
LeGarrette Blount is a tremendously physical, downhill runner, but he brings virtually nothing to the table as a receiver.
On the other hand, Tolbert has more receiving ability than is perceived for a back of his stature and running style. Tolbert would be an excellent complement to Blount, who have both yet to prove that they can handle a heavy workload as a feature back.
Tampa Bay has a lot of spending room, and they intend to use it. I expect them to take a hard look at using some of it on Mike Tolbert.
45. Matt Birk: Baltimore Ravens
Despite his age, Birk is still regarded as one of the better centers in the league. At 35, he brings a huge amount of veteran leadership and technique to the table.
The Ravens will make a play to retain him, but he was once seriously considering retirement. While facing the reality that they may lose another interior lineman in Ben Grubbs, Baltimore would find themselves in quite a desperate situation to lose another.
44. Mark Anderson: Miami Dolphins
Since Andre Carter went down in the middle of the season, Mark Anderson did an admirable job in supplying the Patriots with something that at least resembled a decent pass rush.
His versatility to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 system will prove to be extremely valuable to a Miami team that has not quite committed to play in either system full-time.
Now that Jason Taylor has retired into the sunset, adding another pass rusher to the mix could give them a boost on the side opposite Jason Taylor.
43. Vernon Carey: New York Jets
Carey had one of his worst years as a pro last year, but that was because the Dolphins kicked him inside to guard rather than playing him at his more natural spot at right tackle.
The Jets have a massive need at right tackle,and not a ton of cap money to fix it. Carey's stock is down, so if the Jets can get him at a bargain price, they could reap the benefits of moving him back to tackle. After all, the Jets have done a similar move a few years ago by grabbing Damien Woody from the Lions and moving him to right tackle, and he became one of the best in football.
If nothing else, he can't be a whole lot worse than Wayne Hunter was last year.
42. Jason Campbell: Jacksonville Jaguars
Campbell status as a starter is certainly in jeopardy, but at the worst is can become one of the premier backups in the league. Sure, he's a bit inconsistent, but he at least gave the Raiders some stability at the position for about a year and a half.
I honestly could have picked from about 20 teams that Campbell would be an upgrade over as a backup, but I picked the Jaguars because they had the worst quarterback depth chart in football. Josh McCown was awful, and Gabbert has not shown much promise in his rookie year.
Actually, should Campbell wind up in Jacksonville, he would probably be the best passer on the team.
41. Jarret Johnson: New York Jets
Rex Ryan knows Jarret Johnson well from his days in Baltimore, and with the Jets' need at outside linebacker, Johnson's underrated abilities would fit well to the Jets defensive scheme.
A terrific run player and an underrated pass rusher, Johnson could be the every-down player the Jets have been craving for at the position.
In fact, the Jets have already been linked to Johnson. The Jets have a gaping hole at outside linebacker, and adding one in free agency will allow them to spend their draft resources for other needs on the offensive line and safety positions.
40. Robert Meachem: Jacksonville Jaguars
Robert Meachem has been a bit of a disappointment as a former first round pick, but he still has a lot of upside.
The Saints have a ton of free agents to keep, and retaining Meachem will be very difficult to o. Meanwhile, the receiver-starved Jaguars will need to add several bodies at the receiver position in a short amount of time.
Guys like Vincent Jackson may be off the table, so grabbing second-level talent like Meachem should be the strategy in Jacksonville.
39. Antonio Garay: Houston Texans
After a promising season in 2010, Garay's production took a dive last year. His age, 32, does not exactly help him either in terms of raising his value.
However, the Texans could use an upgrade at nos tackle, despite their incredible defensive resurgence. If they can get Garay at a bargain price, they can use him in a rotational role to maximize his effectiveness.
38: Jim Leonhard: New York Jets
Leonhard was hoping to cash in after this season, but after suffering a devastating leg injury in a blowout win against the Chiefs, he may have to settle for less than he wanted.
As a disciple of Rex Ryan's system and the quarterback of one of the mst complex secondaries in football, he brings more value to the Jets than he does anyone else. However, he is still a very good tackler and makes more plays on the ball than he is given credit for.
He will not draw a ton of interest on the market, so his return to the Jets seems more likely to happen every day.
37. London Fletcher: Washington Redskins
Fletcher is still producing at a high level that is comparable to some of the best linebackers in football, which is remarkable for a player his age.
He would do a world of good for teams like the Eagles, but I would be shocked if the Redskins let one of their locker room leaders go to a division rival.
Until he shows some decline in his play, Fletcher will be a Redskin for as long as he wants.
36. Alex Smith: San Francisco 49ers
After several years of futility as the starter, Alex Smith finally silenced his doubters under Jim Harbaugh and helped lead his team to the NFC title game.
He limited his turnovers and made timely throws in pressure situations to get the 49ers so deep in the playoffs.
Despite spending a second round pick on Colin Kapernick in last year's draft, the 49ers want Alex Smith back. Unless a surprise team swoops in and offers him a huge deal, it seems inevitable that Smith will return to the Bay Area.
35. Laurent Robinson: Washington Redskins
Robinson came out of nowhere to soften the blow of various injuries to Miles Austin and Dez Bryant. He's not quite good enough to be the number one guy, but he beats man coverage enough to be quite effective as a number two receiver.
The Cowboys may have their hands tied in trying to improve their secondary, and may elect to gamble on the health of Bryant and Austin.
Meanwhile, the Redskins will look to give their receiving corps a major upgrade, and stealing one form a division rival would be icing on the cake.
34. Tracy Porter: Dallas Cowboys
Porter is not the most physically intimidating corner on the market, but he is still a very good in man coverage. The hero of Super Bowl 44 will draw considerable interest on the open market.
The Saints, who have their hands tied in trying to retain Brees and several other key free agents, will have a tough time keeping Porter. They may be more interested to see if former first round pick Patrick Robinson can get the job done.
On the other hand, Dallas has a huge need in the secondary, and Porter would be a great fit in Rob Ryan's system.
33. Demetrius Bell: Buffalo Bills
Bell started the 2011 off great, but his production dipped a little toward the second half of the season. Still, he has come a long way as a developmental player and is the kind of ascending player you want to build around.
The Bills, with plenty of cap money to spend, are interested in retaining Bell's services and have already commenced contract talks. Unless one side becomes unreasonable, I would be surprised to see Bell in a different uniform in 2012.
32. Jeremy Mincey: Jacksonville Jaguars
One of the most underrated defenders in the league, Mincey is a terrific all-around defensive end that can play the run and provide a pass rush.
Mincey is going to command a lot of money on the open market, but the Jags have a lot of room to spend. Should he leave in free agency, his presence (or lack thereof) will certainly be felt.
With Aaron Kampman's production decreasing with each year, losing a young, ascending player like Mincey would be a huge blow.
31. Jason Jones: Green Bay Packers
Jones had a down year in 2011, but a lot of that is due to the fact that he was playing out of position as a defensive end.
In his more natural spot at defensive tackle, he can be an excellent penetrator and proves a good interior rush. With his scheme diversity, he should be able to play in both a 4-3 and as a defensive end in a 3-4.
Meanwhile, the Packers defense showed how much they missed Cullen Jenkins, who may be the best interior pass rusher in football. Adding Jones will help them bring back that element to a defense that fell off a cliff in 2011.
30. Scott Wells: Chicago Bears
For some odd reason, the Packers seem willing to let Wells hit the open market. Wells is far from an elite center, but he is a solid player that is consistent and is worth more to the Packers than anyone else.
However, teams like the Bears would certainly be interested in Wells' services. Roberto Garza may have been the worst starting center in football. The Bears have money to spend, and finding ways to upgrade the offensive line before the draft is high on their priority list.
29. Pierre Garcon
As the Colts get set to completely start over, Garcon is set to hit the open market. He has some drops that drive you crazy, but there is no denying his talent and ability to get open and make big plays after the catch.
Any team looking for a premier number two receiver should have considerable interest in Garcon's services. Just imagine how effective he would be opposite Fitzgerald.
Of course, for every former Colt the Cardinals sign, it bring them one step closer to the ultimate prize - Peyton Manning.
28. David Hawthorne: Chicago Bears
Hawthorne does not get a ton of recognition, but he is a very productive linebacker that can line up at all three spots.
The Bears, who are looking for an upgrade at the linebacker spot opposite of Lance Briggs, have shown interested in Hawthorne. He would be an excellent fit in a Bears scheme that is starting to get away from its strict Cover-2 roots.
However, due to Hawthorne's versatility and ability to play in either a 4-3 or 3-4 system, the Bears will have a lot of competition for hi services, but they have enough cap room to make a realistic play for him.
27. Mario Manningham: San Francisco 49ers
The Giants are going to have a tough time keeping Manningham under contract when they know they will have to pay both Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks very soon. I'm also not sure if Manningham wants to go to a team where he will be the third receiver either.
The 49ers have a desperate need at wide receiver, and it was evident how ineffective their outside weapons are in the NFC title game.
Manningham brings an element of speed and big-play ability to an offense that was far too conservative all season long.
26. Jared Gaither: San Diego Chargers
When Marcus McNeil went down in the middle of last season, the Chargers were able to pick up Gaither off of waivers where he actually outplayed McNeil.
Gaither's path throgh the NFL has been interesting, as he was let go by the Ravens despite producing at a high level at left tackle. After just one play in Kansas City (a false start), he found himself in San Diego.
Nonetheless, in a thin tackle market, there will be some serious competition for McNeil's services, but the Chargers have tried to get a head start on the competition by entering contract talks with Gaither.
25. Peyton Hillis: Cleveland Browns
With rumors that he considered a career change after his controversial injuries, I just don't see a big market for a running back that may or may not have the team's best interests at heart. Oh, and by the way, he is an extremely physical runner, limiting his shelf-life.
I just don't see another team swooping in and offering Hillis the kind of money he wants.
The Browns are showing lukewarm interest in Hillis, especially if they can get him to sign an incentive-laden deal. Right now, they are the favorites to sign Hillis.
24. Andre Carter: New England Patriots
If there is one thing we learned about Andre Carter last year, it was that he is simply not a 3-4 outside linebacker. After moving back to his more comfortable spot as a 4-3 defensive end, he quickly became the Patriots' best pass rusher.
He sure helped his stock after his performance last season, but I expect the Patriots to do everything they can to retain him. The last thing New England can afford is to lose more quality defensive players.
23. Ben Grubbs: Baltimore Ravens
Grubbs is not quite the elite guard he is made out to be, but he is still a quality player, especially in the run game, and is vital to what the Ravens do on offense.
Baltimore has already made a "substantial" offer to Grubbs, who will likely test the free agent waters in an effort to maximize his value.
Ultimately, I think the Ravens are just too committed to keeping Grubbs to let him get away.
22. Reggie Wayne: Miami Dolphins
Ultimately, Wayne will want to go wherever Peyton Manning winds up, but for now, Miami seems like a good fit. While not the primary contender for Manning's services, Joe Philbin is at least meeting with Peyton in the near future.
With regards to Wayne, he is clearly a declining player. Yes, his huge drop in productivity has a lot to do with quarterback play, but it is clear that his best days are behind him.
However he can still be an elite number two target in the right situation.
21. Evan Mathis: Philadelphia Eagles
Mathis has quietly become one of the best left guards in football, and the Eagles know it. They will pull out all of the stops and make Mathis their top priority this offseason.
There is a chance that Mathis could leave for more money, but Andy Reid knows how valuable he is to the offense and won't let him get away without a fight.
20. Michael Bush: Cincinnati Bengals
With all of the roster cuts going on in Oakland, I would not bet anything on them giving a running back a bunch of money.
Bush is best used in a two-back system, as he struggled to maintain his effectiveness as the feature back when Darren McFadden went down in the middle of the season.
Meanwhile, the Bengals will have a significant need at running back with Cedric Benson likely on his way out. Besides, his former coach, Hue Jackson, is now on the Bengals' coaching staff.
19. Curtis Lofton: Philadelphia Eagles
When the Falcons signed Tatupu last week, it was a clear sign that they were not interested in giving Lofton the kind of money he wants.
The Eagles have a huge need at linebacker, as they struggled against the run all season long. Adding a veteran leader like Lofton would give them the talent and veteran leadership they have lacked at the position.
18. LaRon Landry: New York Jets
With the status of Jim Leonhard uncertain and the miserable play of Eric Smith and Brodney pool, the Jets need a safety in the worst way.
As a result, the Jets have shown real interest in the former Redskin.
Landry is a vicious hitter that would be a great fit in Rex Ryan's system, but they must be skeptical of Landry's injury history. However, if Landry can stay healthy, he could be a real bargain for the Jets.
18. Matt Flynn: Miami Dolphins
Personally, I'm not a huge fan of Flynn as a franchise guy, but someone is bound to give him a chance to become the face of their franchise.
Unless they are able to land Peyton Manning, Flynn to the Fins makes far too much sense.
When you combine an owner that is desperate for a franchise quarterback with the fact that his head coach was instrumental in Flynn's development in Green Bay, you get Matt Flynn in orange and teal colors.
17. Kendall Langford: Indianapolis Colts
Langford is quality player as a pure 3-4 defensive end, and with Miami moving to a 4-3, he will try to find a place that will be a better use for his skills.
The Colts are cleaning house and won't be big players in the free agency market, but they are still trying to install a new defensive scheme. Adding pure 3-4 guys like Langford will help make the transition much easier.
16. Brodrick Bunkley: Denver Broncos
Bunkley was one of the best "value" signings last August and did a great job for the Broncos in the middle of their defense.
With plenty of cap room to spend (even if they land Manning), retaining Bunkley has to be near of the top of John Elway's to-do list.
15. Marques Colston: Minnesota Vikings
To me, Colston is an interesting player. He is a terrific route runner and makes a ton of plays in jump-ball situations, but he stats may be a bit inflated after playing with Drew Brees for so long.
The Saints would love to keep Colston, but with so many other guys to keep, Colston is likely to leave.
Meanwhile, the Vikings could use another player to help out Percy Harvin in the slot and give Christian Ponder a weapon to throw to down in the red zone.
14. Carlos Rogers: St. Louis Rams
Rogers had a career resurgence in 2011, solving his case of the dropsies by reeling in six interceptions. He will be at near top of the list cornerback market for his cover skills.
The Rams defense took a nosedive last year, which was in large part due to the incredible amount of injuries to their corner. Adding another high-end corner will go a long way in improving their pass defense while adding depth.
13. Brandon Carr: Detroit Lions
The Chiefs could have easily kept Carr around with their ample cap room, but they went the frugal route and spent their money on the underachieving Stanford Routt.
Carr is an underrated player because of the team he plays on, but he is maybe the best pure man-coverage corner on the market.
Meanwhile, the Lions secondary could use some upgrades at the corner position - adding a talent like Carr could turn an ascending Lions defense into one of the elite defenses in football.
12. John Abarham: Buffalo Bills
As Abraham climbs the age ladder, I can easily see a divorce between the Falcons and John over his actual contractual worth.
The Bills have been starved for a pass rush for several years now, and now that they are making a move back to a 4-3, Abraham should fit the scheme perfectly. The Bills have the cap room to spend.
A defensive line with Kyle Williams, Marcel Dareus, and Abraham would instantly be one of the best in football.
11. Brandon Lloyd: New England Patriots
This move just makes way too much sense to not happen.
The Patriots need a downfield threat, and Lloyd need Josh McDaniels. Unless another team swoops in and give Lloyd a huge contract offer, New England will be the favorite to land Lloyd.
Adding a downfield threat to an offense that does so many other things well will make the Patriots very difficult to defend.
10. Paul Soliai: Kansas City Chiefs
Soliai is a pure two-down nose tackle that can anchor a 3-4 defense. He isn't exactly young, but he can still be one of the best noseguards in football.
Kansas City would greatly benefit from a talent like Soliai. They keep trying to fill the gap with over-the-hill veterans like Kelly Gregg, but Soliai has a lot more in the tank than Gregg does.
Plus, they have a ton of cap room to spend, so taking a chance on an aging player won't be as risky.
9.Red Bryant: Seattle Seahawks
Too few people know about Bryant, who is an excellent defensive lineman that can be moved all over the place and play in just about any scheme.
The Seahawks have a lot of cap room to spend, and they would be wise to use some of it retain Bryant. The Seahawks have made too many strides on the defensive side to start letting good players walk for no reason.
8. Cortland Finnegan: Cincinnati Bengals
Finnegan is better known for his brawl with Andre Johnson, but he has queitly become one of the best corners in football. For some odd reason, the Titans have no interest in even trying to retain Finnegan, and he will hit the open market.
On the other hand, the Bengals have a need at corner after losing Jonathan Joseph to free agency last August, and have plenty of cap room to spend. They also have built a reputation on gambling on guys that have attitude problems.
Adding Finnegan to an already solid defense could put the Bengals on another level.
7. Chris Myers: Houston Texans
Myers may be the second best center in the NFL, looking up only to Nick Mangold.
The Texans are strapped for cash, but after the stunning release of right tackle Eric Winston, perhaps they are trying to clear cap room to keep Myers.
There will be a lot of competition for Myers' services, but the Texans seem to be willing to do whatever it takes to keep him. His smaller size and agility fits the Texans' zone blocking scheme too perfectly to allow him to walk.
6. Steven Tulloch: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After signing a one-year deal last August, Tulloch has emerged as one of the best young linebacker in the game.
Detroit will do everything they can to keep him, but Tampa Bay has a lot more money to throw around.
The Bucs defense was soft up the middle, and Tulloch would make an instant improvement to a defense that struggled to stop the run, and will add an element of toughness to a team that seemed to quite toward the end of the season.
5. Eric Winston
For some inexplicable reason, the Texans decided to cut Eric Winston on Monday.
I know the Texans need cap room, but you don't just toss the best right tackle in the game away for a few million dollars in cap room.
Either way, Winston will actually benefit from his release - he is going to make a killing on the open market. There are a lot of teams with big needs at right tackle, but the Chiefs have the most money to spend on a player like Winston.
Other teams like the Jets and Redskins will be interested, but they probably will not be able to compete with Kansas City with less cap space.
4. Vincent Jackson: Chicago Bears
Now that Mike Martz is out of the picture, the Bears can go out and get themselves a big-time receiver that can utilize Cutler's arm strength.
The Redskins used to be the favorite to land Jackson, but after the latest cap penalties have been dealt out, they may have to bow out of the sweepstakes.
The Bears should have enough cap room to give Jackson what he wants. Besides, when was the last time the Bears had one of the premium receivers in football?
3. Carl Nicks: Denver Broncos
By his own admission, Nicks seems to be on his way out of New Orleans. The Saints simply will not be able to invest so much money into the guard position after giving Jahri Evans a boatload of money.
The Broncos, while trying to recruit Peyton Manning "at all costs", will gain some leverage by signing the best offensive lineman on the market.
In either case, the Broncos offensive is vastly overrated. Sure, they put up good rushing yards, but a lot of that is due to just by the inordinate amount of times they run the ball, and teams are more willing to "contain" Tebow as opposed to rushing him, making their protection look better than it really is.
2. Mario Williams: Seattle Seahawks
It will be almost impossible for the Texans to retain Williams for the amount of money he is going to command.
Meanwhile, now that Seattle is all but out of the Manning sweepstakes, they can use that money on the best defensive player on the market. Replacing Raheem Brock opposite the underrated Chris Clemons would make the Seahawks pass rush among the best in football.
Of course, just about every team in the NFL is going to see if they can make a run at Williams, so Seattle is going to have to shell out a lot of cash. But rarely do pass rushers of this magnitude (and at his age) hit the open market.
1. Peyton Manning: Arizona Cardinals
Even though Denver is the current favorite, the most highly-publicized free agent in NFL history will ultimately choose the Arizona Cardinals.
They have the defense, receivers and running backs. If they can add Dallas Clark and Reggie Wayne, the Cards will be just a few offensive lineman away from being unstoppable.
But is adding an offensive lineman even that important? Manning spent a lot of his career behind and overrated group in Indy - and almost won a Super Bowl with a bad group in 2009.
Throw in the fact that the Cardinals play indoors, and they could soon become favorites in a few days.