2012 NFL Free Agents: Identifying the Surest Bet at Each Position

Dan Van WieContributor IIIMarch 12, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agents: Identifying the Surest Bet at Each Position

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    The NFL is now ready to unleash the start of the free-agency period for the 2012 offseason. This year's free-agency period won't be as crazed as it was in 2011, only because every NFL team was able to try to address their own free agents first this year, which wasn't the case in 2011 due to issues with the collective bargaining agreement. 

    Don't get me wrong, the 2012 free-agency period will be filled with lots of tension and anxiety for the team owners, coaches, players, general managers, agents and fans of every NFL team. The two biggest free agents are Peyton Manning and Mario Williams, and once they have officially signed, a number of other deals will come together as the dominoes start to fall.

    For today's article, we are interested in determining who is the best free agent at every position on the market. We will also identify who is the next-best option in case your team doesn't cash in on its first option. 

    On to the presentation.

How NFL Teams Prepare for Free Agency

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    While every NFL team has their own unique approach to the process of evaluating free-agent talent, I thought it might be an interesting exercise for our readers to see how the year-long process is done from one team's perspective. 

    The article in question comes from Chris Brown, the lead analyst at BuffaloBills.com. I like the work that Chris did here, because it shows how thorough the approach is and how many people are involved to stay on top of the entire database of NFL players.

    According to an article by ProFootballTalk, Buddy Nix, the Bills general manager, has promised that Buffalo will be more aggressive in 2012 free agency to obtain a difference maker.

    In the past two years since Nix took over, the team has used patience and waited for bargains to surface, after the initial first big wave of deals had come and gone. In 2010, they landed Andra Davis and Dwan Edwards taking the patient approach. In 2011, the Bills signed Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison.

    For 2012, the Bills will look to jump out early in the process and be proactive in going after the players that are their main priorities. To the extent that they are successful remains to be seen, but it will be interesting to see if all of their preparation work and attention to detail pays off this year.

Quarterback: Peyton Manning

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    Got Peyton? That seems to be the biggest question in the NFL right now. Who will have Peyton Manning on their roster in 2012? When this article was published, Manning had not yet decided on what team he was going to play for. The visits to Denver and Arizona just finished this past weekend, and now we are awaiting word to see if he will follow through and take a meeting with the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans.

    There is word that Manning might also talk to the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans. The plot continues to thicken.

    Until Manning signs on the dotted line, he remains the unquestioned surest bet at a free agent quarterback in 2012. In fact, he might be the best free agent in the history of the NFL. If you are expressing optimism as to how "sure of a bet Manning is from a medical perspective," consider this article from Mike Freeman of CBS Sports, who stated that the Broncos never asked Manning to throw for them during his visit.

    As Manning continues to work feverishly to regain his strength and work out to be able to return to his form from 2009-2010, whoever winds up with him will probably be happy that they took the risk, because for now he is looking like he is the surest bet.

    Who is next in line after Manning on the market? Your choices here could range from Chad Henne, Vince Young, Jason Campbell, David Garrard, Matt Flynn or Kyle Orton. The key term here is surest-best. For that reason, we have to eliminate Matt Flynn, because there is nothing sure about him at all. In fact, he might be the second coming of Kevin Kolb, due to having so little playing experience.

    McNabb seems to be on his last legs and Young didn't look that solid in his starts when Michael Vick was injured last year. Garrard missed the entire 2011 season, and he is up there in years. That leaves us with the trio of Henne, Campbell and Orton. Orton was healthy for 2011, but just didn't play that great, as he lost with Denver while Tim Tebow proved he could win with the same team.

    I liked what Jason Campbell did when he was healthy in 2011, so he will get my nod for the runner-up nod for second best free-agent QB.

Wide Receiver: Vincent Jackson

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    Out of all the positions to assess for the free-agent class of 2012, there is no position that is deeper than wide receiver, even with a number of key potential free agents being signed to transition tags prior to the NFL deadline last week.

    The deep class includes Vincent Jackson, Mike Wallace (restricted free agent), Marques Coltson, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, Larent Robinson, Pierre Garcon, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Lloyd, Lee Evans, Early Doucet, Josh Morgan, Deion Branch, Braylon Edwards, Roscoe Parrish, Steve Smith and Plaxico Burress. These receivers can help some of the struggling NFL offenses that need an extra weapon or two.

    My surest bet for wide receiver is Vincent Jackson. Jackson sat out 11 games in 2010 due to a holdout, so his production that year was down. But for the last three years that he played the full season, Jackson produced at least 1,000 yards in receptions each of the three years. He has caught 272 passes in his career for 4,754 yards and 37 touchdowns. He averages 17.5 yards per catch in his career.

    Jackson was tied for No. 6 in the NFL with 21 catches of at least 20-plus yards. If you are looking for a big play receiver who offers a big target, Jackson is your best bet.

    As for my backup choice, I am going with restricted free agent Mike Wallace. Wallace is more of the vertical threat type of wide receiver that will stretch the field for you. He won't be running a lot of patterns over the middle of the field because that is not who he is. But he will come up with a number of big plays and his career average of 18.7 yards per catch has to be exciting for any potential employer to envision how he can impact their offense.

    Wallace has only been in the NFL three years, and is already averaging eight touchdowns and over 1,000 receiving yards per season.

    True enough, if a team decides to extend an offer to Wallace that Pittsburgh can't match, they will have to surrender a first-round draft pick to the Steelers in addition to paying Wallace handsomely. The Baltimore Ravens or New England Patriots might be willing to surrender their late first-round pick to make that kind of a move.

    Some might prefer Marques Colston over Wallace, but Colston isn't that solid in gaining separation from defensive backs, and that is one asset you want to have for an expensive receiver, especially if you desire somebody that is a sure bet.

Running Backs: Michael Bush

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    The majority of the surest bet free-agent running backs were prevented from ever reaching free agency, as Ray Rice and Matt Forte were hit with a franchise tag last week. So, since the top end of the free-agent running backs in the class was eliminated, who exactly is left?

    The options include Michael Bush (Oakland), BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Mike Tolbert (San Diego), LaDainian Tomlinson (New York Jets), Peyton Hillis (Cleveland) and Brandon Jacobs (New York Giants).

    If reading those names leaves you less than inspired, you are not alone. It is admittedly not a great year for free-agent running backs.

    So who then is the surest bet free agent running back? I will go with Michael Bush of the Oakland Raiders as my surest bet running back. Bush's numbers are trending in the right direction. His rushing totals over the last four years go from 421, 589, 655 and then 977 yards in 2011, just falling shy of his first 1,000-yard season.

    Bush's average is suspect at 3.8 yards per carry in 2011, but he was often used as a goal line specialist in the beginning of the year, and there is only so many yards you can gain down there. His career average is 4.2 yards per rush. In 2011, he caught 37 passes for 418 yards. He has scored 21 rushing touchdowns in his career.

    For the backup to Bush, I will go with BenJarvus Green-Ellis. If a team is going with a committee approach, the "law firm" could make sense. He does have 29 rushing touchdowns in his four-year career.

    The issue with Green-Ellis is his yardage dropped from 1,008 to 667 last year, and his average carry dropped from 4.4 yards per rush to just 3.7 yards per rush in 2011. The Patriots hardly ever throw the ball to him, as he caught just nine passes from Tom Brady for the whole season.

    Cedric Benson is coming off of three straight 1,000-plus yard seasons in rushing. But don't let that fool you, there is more to the story than just breaking the century mark three straight years. His average yards per rush in the last five seasons reads like this: 3.4, 3.5, 4.2, 3.5 and 3.9. Those are terrible numbers and now you understand why Cincinnati is willing to let him walk. In addition, Benson has had a number of off-the-field issues, so teams unwilling to pay big money with red flags will look the other way.

Tight Ends: Martellus Bennett

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    The various tight ends in the free-agent market are: John Carlson (Seattle), Martellus Bennett (Dallas), Jeremy Shockey (Carolina), Visanthe Shiancoe (Minnesota) and Dallas Clark (Indianapolis).

    When the Green Bay Packers decided to sign Jermichael Finley to a new contract before the start of free agency, that made the tight end free-agent class decidedly weaker.

    Note: Before we went to publishing, the Oakland Raiders were set to release Kevin Boss on 3/12/12, so he will now be a free-agent member of the tight end free-agent class and should warrant consideration as well.

    The player we name as our surest bet is Dallas Cowboys tight end Martellus Bennett. The selection of Bennett reflects the lack of star power in this free-agent class of tight ends. Bennett has some skills and some upside, but so far he has yet to fully realize what he can do.

    In this article from Dallas Cowboys.com, and Rotoworld, Bennett is thought to have some maturity issues and his production tends to be up and then down. In this update from Profootballtalk.com, via Rotoworld, the word is that Bennett's goal is to be the No. 1 starting tight end for a new team, which he can't do in Dallas due to Jason Witten blocking his path. Bennett thinks he can be at least a 60-catch tight end.

    Our runner-up is John Carlson of the Seattle Seahawks. Since Carlson was injured in 2011 due to a torn labrum and didn't play for the entire season, that tells you all you need to know about the quality of this tight ends class.In his career, Carlson has 137 receptions in three seasons, for 1,519 yards and 13 touchdowns. His career average is 11.1 yards per catch. Carlson is just 27 years old, so if he can prove he is healthy, he should have a number of years left to produce.

Tackles: Jared Gaither

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    Free-agent tackles to consider include Jared Gaither (San Diego), Demetrius Bell (Buffalo), Jeff Backus (Detroit), Matt Light (New England), Kareem McKenzie (N.Y. Giants) and Geoff Schwartz (Carolina). Matt Light is trying to decide if he will retire from the NFL.

    We name Jared Gaither as our surest bet at tackle. Gaither is a massive 6'9" and weighs 340 pounds. He is only 25 years old. Gaither did a solid job in San Diego last year. In this article by Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union Tribune, Gaither didn't allow a single sack in the five games he started.

    My runner-up choice would be Demetrius Bell of the Buffalo Bills. Bell's father is the "Mailman" Karl Malone. Demetrius is big like his dad, as he goes 6'5" and weighs 311 pounds. Bell is just 27 years old, and he is continuing to improve his play with the more starts that he receives.

    But Bell has been battling injuries and as a result he has only played a full season just one time so far in his career. That will be a red flag for many teams, unless they have another tackle they can rotate in, as needed.

    Note: As we were taking this presentation to be published, tackles Levi Brown (Arizona) and Eric Winston (Houston) were both set to be released, bringing some needed depth to the tackles being made available in free agency. 

Guards: Carl Nicks

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    Of the guards that are in the market the two that stand out the most to me are Carl Nicks (New Orleans) and Ben Grubbs (Baltimore).

    It is almost inconceivable that either the Saints or Ravens would let Nicks and Grubbs test the free-agent market and have an opportunity to be overwhelmed by an offer that can't be matched. But both the Saints and Ravens are trying to free up money to sign their starting quarterbacks to longer deals, and the offensive linemen suddenly become a lesser priority.

    Both could wind up playing for new teams in 2012 as a result. I will offer Carl Nicks as my surest bet guard for free agency. Nicks' stated goal is to be the highest paid guard in the NFL, as per this update from Rotoworld. While we are not assessing what are the best value picks in this presentation, we are quite sure he will be the most expensive free-agent interior linemen from the 2012 free-agent class. 

    He is a sure bet, however. Nicks has been named to the All-Pro team and to the Pro Bowl for each of the last two seasons. He is as consistent a guard as you would want to protect your star quarterback. It will be interesting to see once the Saints finally reach a deal with Drew Brees if Nicks will have already signed another deal elsewhere, or if he has already moved on. My guess is that he takes the money and runs.

    My runner-up to Nicks is Ben Grubbs. Grubbs is 6'3" and weighs 310 pounds. He is 28 years old and still has many years of football ahead of him. What is sad for Ravens fans is that the team made a fairly big offer to Grubbs, but for whatever reason, he turned the deal down. Due to the lack of many quality guards in free agency, much less a Pro Bowl player like Grubbs, he could get a very big contract offer.

    Here is a story from Ravens Insider.com that talks a little more about the Grubbs situation.

Centers: Chris Myers

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    Of the centers that are in the 2012 free-agent marketplace, there is some talent there, including: Chris Myers (Houston), Scott Wells (Green Bay) and Nick Hardwick (San Diego), Matt Birk (Baltimore), Todd McClure (Atlanta), Samson Satele (Oakland), Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis) and Dan Koppen (New England) and Dan Connolly (New England). 

    My choice as the surest bet at free-agent center is Chris Myers. Myers is 30 years old and made the Pro Bowl team in 2011. He is 6'4" and weighs 296 pounds. Myers is durable, and has made 80 straight starts now in Houston for the Texans.

    My runner-up choice at center is Scott Wells. He is going to be expensive, as has been demanding a salary of $7.5 million from Green Bay, and they refuse to give in, so he is going to test free agency as a result. According to this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, they are trying to see which side blinks first.

    Wells is 6'2" and weighs 300 pounds. He is 31 years old.

Defensive Ends: John Abraham

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    Defensive ends that are in the free-agent market in 2012 include: Mario Williams (Houston), John Abraham (Atlanta), Jeremy Mincey (Jacksonville), Red Bryant (Seattle), Luis Castillo (San Diego), Cory Redding (Baltimore), Mark Anderson (New England), Kendall Langford (Miami), Juqua Parker (Philadelphia) and Dave Tollefson (N.Y. Giants).

    If the Colts can't get enough of a return by trading Dwight Freeney, and decide they won't pay his huge compensation package in 2012, they might just have to release him. If he becomes a free agent, he would then vault to the top of this list.

    Depending on what your favorite team needs are, you can consider Mario Williams at either defensive end or at linebacker, since he has played both positions for Houston. He would be our top rated free agent at either position, but we are going to use him as our outside linebacker, so that is why you don't see his name as the choice for defensive end.

    Our surest best at defensive end is John Abraham of the Atlanta Falcons. We wouldn't necessarily advise teams to sign Abraham to a long-term deal, but if you are looking for pass-rushing help and could put a veteran to use that picks up 10 or more sacks per season, then you could do a lot worse than Abraham.

    Abraham is 33 years old and is entering his 12th season in the NFL. He is 6'4" and weighs 263 pounds. What you can't afford to do is to spend a ton of money on a free agent and he becomes a bust. Abraham has delivered at least 9.5 to 16.5 sacks in six of the past eight years. One of two years he came up short was due to only playing in eight games that year due to injury.

    Our runner-up to Abraham at defensive end is Jeremy Mincey of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Mincey may not get the national acclaim that Mario Williams or Abraham receive, but he is a solid player. Mincey is just 28 years old. He is 6'3" and weighs 270 pounds. Mincey has been steadily improving and put up some of the best numbers of his career in 2011.

    Mincey came up 57 tackles, eight sacks and forced four fumbles last year.

Defensive Tackles: Brodrick Bunkley

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    The defensive tackles free-agency class of 2012 seems to have plenty of quantity, so it is a case of figuring out which ones are the best fit for your defensive scheme, and what you expect your defensive tackles to do.

    The defensive tackles available in free agency include: Jason Jones (TEN), Aubrayo Franklin (N.O.), Brodrick Bunkley (Denver), Albert Haynesworth (Tampa Bay), Antonio Garay (San Diego), Paul Soliai (Miami) and Pat Sims (Cincinnati).

    One quality tackle is no longer available, as the New York Jets struck a deal with NT Sione Pouha. 

    Brodrick Bunkley is our call for surest bet at defensive tackle. According to this article from ESPN 1500 Twin Cities, Bunkley is thought to be the best 4-3 nose tackle that is in the free-agent market, according to some personnel directors. Teams will look for Bunkley to penetrate the offensive backfield and disrupt plays.

    Bunkley is 6'2" and weighs 306 pounds. After five years with the Philadelphia Eagles, Bunkley played with Denver for one year. He has 187 career tackles and is 28 years old.

    The backup choice to Bunkley is Jason Jones of the Tennessee Titans. Jones has experience in Tennessee in playing at both defensive end and at defensive tackle. He is a skilled pass-rusher and will be in demand in free agency. Jones is 6'5" and weighs 276 pounds. He is only 25 years old, and has already recorded 15.5 sacks in his short four-year career. He will be sought after in free agency.

Outside Linebackers: Mario Williams

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    You can debate on the position we list Mario Williams, but for this presentation it will be outside linebacker. A team like the Chicago Bears would likely slot him at this position to play alongside Julius Peppers, but he could just as easily be listed at defensive end with several teams now using a hybrid 3-4 defense. 

    The point is, we do have him listed and he along with Peyton Manning are the top-two free agents in 2012 free agency.

    The class of outside linebackers isn't overwhelming. After Williams of the Houston Texans, you have Jarrett Johnson (Baltimore), Erin Henderson (Minnesota), Erik Walden (Green Bay) and restricted free agent Aaron Maybin (New York Jets).

    Another name that might join this list in the near term is Kamerion Wimbley of the Oakland Raiders. But as we went to publish this, nothing formal had happened on the Wimbley front yet.

    Mario Williams is unquestioned as the surest bet in free agency for an outside linebacker. He possesses the speed, strength and ability to move around offensive linemen to put great pressure on the quarterback. Williams has played in the NFL for six years and has already amassed 53 sacks in that time. He is also very adept at stripping the ball, as he has created 11 forced fumbles during his career to date.

    He is 6'6" and weighs 283 pounds. At just 27 years old, Williams will be playing for many more years to come. 

    Our backup choice at outside linebacker to Williams is Jarrett Johnson of the Baltimore Ravens. Johnson isn't a spring chicken at 30 years old, but he is a veteran player that you basically know what you are going to get from him.

    Johnson is 6'3" and weighs 260 pounds. Johnson has appeared in all 16 games for the Ravens for eight straight years. In fact, he has only missed one game in his career, which happened back in his rookie campaign. He has made 20 sacks for Baltimore, to go along with 20 passes defended and has made 382 tackles.

Inside Linebackers: Stephen Tulloch

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    There are some quality inside linebackers in free agency in 2012, starting with Stephen Tulloch (Detroit), David Hawthorne (Seattle), Jo-Lonn Dunbar (N.O.), London Fletcher (Washington), Erin Henderson (Minnesota), Jameel McClain (Baltimore), Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), Dan Conner (Carolina) and James Farrior (Pittsburgh).

    Our surest bet at inside linebacker is Stephen Tulloch of the Detroit Lions. Tulloch is in the market because the Lions couldn't come up with the salary cap space to sign him to a long-term deal. Tulloch doesn't mind as he expects to be handsomely rewarded in his new deal, which should allow him to take care of his family, as we see in this article from Detroit Lions.com. 

    Tulloch is 5'11" and weighs 240. He is 27 years old. In 2011, Tulloch led the Lions in tackles with 111, had three sacks, two interceptions, recovered three fumbles and defended five passes. He is a playmaker, and that is what you hope to get from every free agent you sign.

    Our backup to Tulloch is David Hawthorne of Seattle. Hawthorne has been strong against the run, as he has averaged 113 tackles over the past three years in Seattle. Hawthorne is 6'0" and weighs 246 pounds and is only 26 years old.

    During his career, he has made seven interceptions, six sacks, forced five fumbles and recovered three fumbles. Another young playmaker. He will also be in demand in the market. 

Cornerbacks: Brandon Carr

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    Another position that has pretty good talent in 2012 free agency is the cornerback position. The top-tier would include: Brandon Carr (Kansas City), Cortland Finnegan (Tennessee), restricted free agent Lardarius Webb (Baltimore), Carlos Rogers (San Francisco) and Terrell Thomas (N.Y. Giants).

    Other corners in the market include: William Middleton (Jacksonville), Tracy Porter (N.O.), Eric Wright (Detroit), Chris Johnson (Oakland), Tim Jennings (Chicago), Aaron Ross (N.Y. Giants) and Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay).

    Between Carr, Finnegan, Webb and Rogers, there is a number of corners to really like for teams in need of secondary help. Thomas missed the 2011 season due to a torn ACL, so he will need to get medical clearance before he is signed to a big payday.

    Our surest bet at cornerback is Brandon Carr of the Kansas City Chiefs. Carr is 6'0" and weighs 207. He is just 25 years old, so will be coming into his prime years.

    Carr has defended 65 passes in his four-year NFL career, to go along with eight interceptions. According to this article in Pro Football Weekly, Carr is coveted in the free-agent market.

    As far as the backup corner, or second-surest bet, I would nominate Baltimore Ravens corner Lardarius Webb, because he is that good. But, he is the only corner on this list that will cost an expensive contract as well as giving up a first-round draft pick, so that makes him more expensive than we are sure that he is worth. With that being the case, our backup choice is Cortland Finnegan of the Tennessee Titans.

    Finnegan is 5'10" and weighs 188 pounds. He has been in the NFL for six years and is 28 years old. Finnegan is another corner that will be in the demand in the free-agency market, but there is word that he has been trying to package a deal where he and Vincent Jackson would join a new team together. We have yet to figure out how that one will work.

    Ravens tendered contracts to restricted free agent CBs Lardarius Webb and Cary Williams.

    Webb has been tendered at the highest level, while Williams has drawn a second-round tender. Williams is expected back in Baltimore, but Webb could draw interest on the open market even though any signing team would have to surrender a first-round draft pick if the Ravens chose not to match their offer. Still just 26, Webb notched five interceptions in 2011, and graded out as the league's fourth best cornerback by Pro Football Focus.

Safeties: Dwight Lowery

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    The safety class of the 2012 NFL free-agent market is not very deep with high-quality talent. You have LaRon Landry (Washington), Dwight Lowery (Jacksonville), Abram Elam (Dallas) Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati), Bryan Scott (Buffalo), Brandon Meriweather (Chicago), Haruki Nakamura (Baltimore) and O.J. Atogwe (Washington).

    LaRon Landry is a quality safety but due to his Achilles injury last year, we don't want any part of coming close to calling him a sure bet. Bryan Scott plays both safety and nickel linebacker for Buffalo, so his value is probably highest with the Bills. 

    From that group, the surest bet safety for 2012 would be Dwight Lowery of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Lowery is one of the better safeties in the league in pass coverage.

    Lowery is 5'11" and weighs 198 pounds. He is just 26 years old, so has many years of football left in him. In his four years in the NFL, Lowery has defended 40 passes, had nine interceptions and 143 tackles.

    Our backup safety would be Reggie Nelson.  Nelson plays for the Cincinnati Bengals. According to this article from the Cincinnati Enquirer, Nelson will be looking to sign a deal in the $5 to $5.5 million range. That might be too pricey for some teams, but the teams that have the cap space (that also played by the rules with the salary cap) will be in a position to extend him an offer that makes him happy.

    Nelson is 5'11" and weighs 206 pounds. He has been in the league for five years and has defended 39 passes and come up with 13 career interceptions.

Where Do These Free Agents Rank Overall?

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    Great picture, as the top two free agents if the 2012 class meet for a brief exchange in an earlier game.

    If you are curious where the free agents we discussed rank overall in the free-agent class of 2012, here are some links to give you an idea of what NFL experts think are the top players that are available to sign:

    From Peter King at Sports Illustrated, list of his top 50 free agents.

    From ESPN.com, their list of the top 50 free agents.

    From NFL Trade Rumors.com, here is their list of the top 50 free agents.

    If you sift through all of these, you should have enough information to come up with your own conclusions. As you will see from looking over these lists, the opinions vary greatly as to who are the best free agents.

    While some players exist on every list, there are a number of players that appear on just one list, but on none of the others. You can say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but when in doubt, go back and check out the tape, and make sure you can create enough cap space to come up with the winning bid.

    For what it is worth, we will conclude with a little bit of Q & A from NFL Communications.

    Question: What is the final salary cap number for the 2012 season?  $120,600,000.

    Question: What is the time period for free agency signings in 2012? For restricted free agents, from March 13 to April 20.  For unrestricted free agents who have received the June 1 tender from their prior Club, from March 13 to July 22 (or the first scheduled day of the first NFL training camp, whichever is later).  For franchise players, from March 13 until the Tuesday following the 10th week of the regular season, November 13.  If a franchise player does not sign by 11/13/12, he must sit out the season.  There are no transition player designations this year.

    Thanks for checking out our presentation.