Several big-name players will hit free agency after the 2012 NFL season and their teams would be smart to work out long-term deals for them.
As we have seen this offseason, once a player hits free agency in the NFL these days, it can be extremely difficult to get him to return. Guys like Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks weren't able to work out extensions with their teams, and they wound up with new addresses.
Here is a list of four players that teams need to get signed before they hit free agency.
Joe Flacco isn't one of the NFL's top five quarterbacks, but he is solid with a chance to get even better. The Baltimore Ravens need to lock him up to a long-term deal before he hits free agency after the 2011 season.
In 2011, Flacco took a step back as a passer. He completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 3,610 yards, with 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. His passer rating of 80.9 ranked 18th out of the 34 quarterbacks who qualified league-wide.
But in 2010, the Delaware product was much better, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 3,622 yards, with 25 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 93.6.
Flacco is just 27 years old and will be entering his fifth NFL season this fall. He isn't the best quarterback in the NFL like he claims, but he is certainly capable. He needs to be better than he was in 2011, but Baltimore's other option is to draft a new quarterback and essentially start over.
The Ravens have a team built to win for the next few seasons; Flacco should be the guy to lead them during that time.
Ray Rice led the NFL in yards from scrimmage in 2011 with 2,068. He rushed for 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns on 291 carries (4.7 yards per carry), while also catching 76 passes for 704 yards and three more touchdowns.
Rice is just 25 years old and essentially the Baltimore Ravens offense. As things stand now, he will play the 2012 season under the franchise tag, meaning he will make $7.7 million. But the Rutgers product deserves to be paid like one of the NFL's best running backs because he has performed at that level.
If the Ravens can't work out a long-term deal with their star running back, he will hit free agency after the 2012 season. Baltimore can't afford to let him walk away.
The Ravens may have to shell out a ton of dough to get a deal with Rice done, but they have to do it. He and Flacco are the keys to everything Baltimore does on offense, and both need to be locked up.
Tom Brady may be the guy who makes everything tick for the New England Patriots, but Wes Welker is his favorite target and their pass-catch bond is one of the best in NFL history. New England can't afford to lose its diminutive wideout.
Welker is a four-time All-Pro and has topped 111 catches and 1,000 yards four times in his career. In 2011, he led the NFL in receptions with 122 and finished second in yards (1,569), while setting a career high in touchdowns with nine.
As things stand now, the 31-year-old receiver will play the 2012 season as the team's franchise-tagged player, but both sides seem to want to get a long-term contract done. I know that Welker isn't the specimen that guys like Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald are, but he works incredibly hard and is still able to be a legitimate No. 1 target despite his physical limitations.
The Patriots just can't let Welker, the heart and soul of their receiving corps, leave after this season. Both sides need to get together and work out a long-term deal.
I'm not sure the Pittsburgh Steelers can afford the kind of long-term deal receiver Mike Wallace is looking for, but they should figure out a way to make it work.
Wallace had his first Pro Bowl season in 2011 after hauling in 72 receptions for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns. He is the Steelers' best receiver, but he will have to play the 2012 season under the restricted free agent tender at just $2.742 million per year. He will certainly be underpaid at that price.
The Steelers are currently battling salary cap issues and may not be able to shell out the kind of money that Wallace wants. That means Pittsburgh's front office must get creative and work out some kind of deal for the 25-year-old.
Pittsburgh simply can't allow him to hit free agency after the 2012 season, because he has the kind of raw ability that is hard to find at receiver in the NFL. He is a legitimate deep threat and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has developed fantastic chemistry with him.
The Steelers are currently strapped for cash, but they need to figure out a way to lock up Wallace long-term.