2013 NFL Free Agency: Projecting the 25 Best Available Players
With the end of the 2012 NFL season less than two months away, all eyes will soon turn to the 2013 NFL free agency period.
While this group of free agents doesn't have the star power that last year did with Peyton Manning and Drew Brees, it is still an extremely deep class with numerous impact players. Guys like Dwayne Bowe, Jake Long and Ed Reed have the ability to instantly improve any team in the league.
Today, we are going to project the 25 best available players in free agency.
Joe Flacco, Quarterback
The Baltimore Ravens are in an interesting spot with Joe Flacco this offseason. Flacco is still young (he'll be 28 years old in January), but questions surrounding just how good he can be still remain.
The biggest question the Ravens need to ask themselves is whether or not Flacco could ever lead this team to a Super Bowl. If they ultimately believe the answer to that question is no, they'll likely allow Flacco to leave in 2013.
However, Flacco is coming off a career year in terms of production, and I just can't see Baltimore looking to go another way right now. This is especially true with a defense that continues to look less and less dominant with each game that passes.
The Ravens will most likely re-sign Flacco to a modest deal and start taking a hard look at what backup Tyrod Taylor can bring to the table.
Rashard Mendenhall, Running Back
Injuries have derailed a promising career for Rashard Mendenhall up to this point. However, considering that Mendenhall is only 25 years old, he should see quite a bit of action in free agency.
When Mendenhall is healthy, he has the ability to be one of the top running backs in the league. He showed that back in 2010 when he played all 16 games, rushed for nearly 1,300 yards and added 13 rushing touchdowns.
Unfortunately, knee injuries are difficult for running backs to fully recover from, unless your name is Adrian Peterson. Look for a team like the Green Bay Packers, who desperately need stability at the running back position, to take a chance at signing Mendenhall.
Reggie Bush, Running Back
Despite having two of his most productive seasons with the Miami Dolphins in 2011 and 2012, Reggie Bush still hasn't become the legitimate No. 1 back that many expected him to become.
With that said, Bush is still a special talent who has the ability to make the hardest plays look simple. Unfortunately, injuries continue to hamper his career, as he hasn't played a full season since his rookie year back in 2006.
While the Dolphins have certainly enjoyed Bush's production and versatility, I'm not sure they'll be sold on bringing him back in 2013. They have two young backs in Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas who have shown potential of carrying the load in Miami.
If Bush is interested in taking a pay cut (he signed a two-year, $9.75 million contract in 2011), he could definitely remain on the Dolphins' roster for another few years. However, with Miami needing to improve in a number of other areas across the team, I ultimately see Bush on a new team in 2013.
Dwayne Bowe, Wide Receiver
Dwayne Bowe was a hot name as the trade deadline approached, and he is all but certain to be with a new team in 2013.
Bowe is an extremely talented receiver who could step in right away and be a No. 1 receiver for a number of teams in the league. The problem with him staying with the Kansas City Chiefs is that the taste in his mouth from this current season has to be so terrible.
The Chiefs' quarterbacks have combined to throw eight touchdowns heading into Week 17. Thirty-three other quarterbacks have thrown that many touchdowns by themselves, including two quarterbacks from the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars.
If Bowe ends back up with the Chiefs, it will be one of the biggest surprises of the offseason. Rather, look for a team like the St. Louis Rams or Miami Dolphins to make a strong push towards signing the talented receiver.
Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver
Before the 2012 season started, it would have been crazy to think of the Green Bay Packers not re-signing Greg Jennings. However, after struggling with injuries for the second straight year and the emergence of Randall Cobb and James Jones, Jennings staying in Green Bay seems less and less likely.
Jennings is easily considered a top-10 receiver when on the field. He is a precise route-runner, has great hands and can pick up huge chunks of yards after the catch.
It's a possibility that Jennings could take a pay cut to stay with the only team he's ever played for, but there will likely be plenty of teams in need of his talents that will be willing to pay him. Look for him to be wearing new colors in 2013.
Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
To say that it has been a rocky and disappointing season for Mike Wallace would be quite the understatement.
Wallace was expected to become one of the elite receivers in the league, but offseason contract issues limited his role this year.
While his numbers dropped this year, Wallace still needs to be considered one of the premier deep threats in the league. There are plenty of teams that could use a talent like him on their roster, so don't be surprised if he is one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason.
Wes Welker, Wide Receiver
Since joining the New England Patriots six years ago, Wes Welker has become one of the most reliable wide receivers in the league. He's recorded at least 100 receptions and 1,000 yards in five of those six seasons.
Many expected the Patriots to sign Welker to a long-term deal before the start of the season, but that clearly didn't happen. Now, many wonder whether or not he is a part of the future for the Patriots.
While it's hard to imagine him in a different uniform in 2013, we could certainly see it happening, especially if a deal isn't done soon.
Jared Cook, Tight End
For the past few seasons Jared Cook has been a popular pick to enjoy a breakout season. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened for Cook, who saw his 2012 season shortened with a torn rotator cuff.
There are two things working in his favor as a free agent this offseason. First, Cook is only 25 years old. He hasn't even hit his prime yet, which will likely drive teams crazy.
Secondly, at 6'5" and 246 pounds, Cook has the look of an absolute freak of nature. He's also shown brief flashes of the potential that has personnel drooling over the fourth-year player from South Carolina.
With the Tennessee Titans needing to surround Jake Locker with as many weapons as possible, I can't see them not re-signing Cook to a big contract.
Fred Davis, Tight End
After missing four games in the 2011 season due to a drug suspension, this year was supposed to be the year that Fred Davis would establish himself as a top tight end in the league.
However, he tore his Achilles tendon in a Week 7 game against the New York Giants, and his season was cut short.
There is no doubting the skills that Davis brings to the field, as he has great hands and a good feel for the game.
The Washington Redskins should do everything they can to bring Davis back for the foreseeable future. The potential pairing of Davis with Robert Griffin III could quickly become one of the top quarterback-receiver duos in the league.
Tony Gonzalez, Tight End
While no one expected Tony Gonzalez to not produce this year, I don't think anyone predicted that he'd be as dominant as he was in 2012. He's having one of the most productive seasons of his career at the tender age of 36.
However, Gonzalez has been rather clear that this will likely be his last season in the league. In fact, a report from the Associated Press (via the Washington Post) states that, "Gonzalez is still 95 percent sure he'll retire at the end of the season."
One scenario in which we could see Gonzalez coming back is if the Atlanta Falcons make it to the Super Bowl, but end up losing. That sour taste could prompt Gonzalez to play one more season to try and get that Super Bowl ring.
Ryan Clady, Offensive Tackle
As one of the top offensive tackles in the league, Ryan Clady will almost certainly get a lot of money this offseason. He's rated as the third-best offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus (subscription required), and he has only allowed one sack this season.
The most likely landing spot for Clady is back with the Denver Broncos, protecting Peyton Manning. In fact, the Broncos should pay Clady whatever he wants just to have comfort that Manning will remain upright for the majority of the 2013 season.
Jake Long, Offensive Tackle
There was a time when Jake Long was widely considered the best offensive tackle in the NFL. However, that is no longer the case, as Long has really struggled this year.
With that said, it'd be difficult for the Miami Dolphins to replace Long. Not only would they have a hard time finding a replacement as experienced and good as Long, but they could also harm the development of rookie Ryan Tannehill.
Don't be surprised if Long makes much, much less than the $11.2 million that he made in 2012.
Sebastian Vollmer, Offensive Tackle
As far as right tackles go, there have only been a handful of right tackles who have played as well as Sebastian Vollmer has this season.
He's extremely good in pass protection and has become much better in the ground game this year. Vollmer has also been called for only five penalties on the entire year.
With the New England Patriots and Tom Brady likely to continue being a pass-first team, it'd be a major surprise if they didn't re-sign Vollmer.
Branden Albert, Offensive Tackle
What has been lost in the disastrous season for the Kansas City Chiefs has been the play of offensive tackle Branden Albert.
He's been one of the most consistent players on the team this year, especially in pass protection. He has allowed just one sack and only 12 quarterback hurries.
If the Chiefs draft a quarterback in the 2013 NFL draft, which is certainly likely, they'll likely need Albert on their roster to keep him upright.
Cliff Avril, Defensive End
Over the past three seasons, Cliff Avril has established himself as a premier pass-rushing defensive end. He's averaged 10 sacks in each of the last three seasons.
The issue with Avril is that he really doesn't impact the game when he isn't getting after the quarterback. Pro Football Focus ranks Avril as the third-worst 4-3 defensive end against the run.
Still, a team in need of a pass-rushing specialist will take a long look at signing Avril if the Detroit Lions don't make a move on him.
Dwight Freeney, Defensive End
When the Indianapolis Colts made the change from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, Dwight Freeney was forced to make the switch from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Needless to say, it hasn't gone quite as planned for one of the best defensive players of the past decade. Freeney simply isn't an outside linebacker, which likely means that he won't be playing for the Colts in 2013.
However, a team like the Jacksonville Jaguars, who need a pass-rusher, would certainly be interested in him. While Freeney will be 33 years old when next season starts, he should still have a few productive seasons left in him for whichever team signs him.
Osi Umenyiora, Defensive End
While Osi Umenyiora's production has dropped in recent seasons, he is still one of the better defensive lineman in the league. He has six sacks on the season to go along with 31 quarterback hurries.
Umenyiora has taken a backseat to Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck in New York, but he still has the potential to be a starting defensive end in the league. The only hole in his game is against the run, where he can struggle at times.
With the New York Giants so deep at defensive end, it'd be a waste of money for them to bring back Umenyiora for the money another team would likely be willing to pay him. Don't be surprised if he is starting for a new team in 2013.
Connor Barwin, Linebacker
With the loss of Mario Williams, many expected Connor Barwin to step in and help with the loss of production. However, he has really struggled to do that this season.
While he has been decent against the run and in coverage, Barwin has really struggled in rushing the quarterback. He only has three sacks on the season and simply hasn't been able to get consistent pressure.
Teams looking for a pass-rushing outside linebacker will probably pass on signing Barwin in the offseason. However, we could see a team give him a chance at defensive end, where he may be a little more comfortable.
Anthony Spencer, Linebacker
Playing opposite DeMarcus Ware can often get you overlooked, but Anthony Spencer has been just as good as Ware this season. He has 10 sacks on the year to go along with an extremely impressive 87 total tackles.
In fact, you could even argue that Spencer has been even better than Ware this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Spencer is the top-rated 3-4 outside linebacker. He's definitely been the best 3-4 outside linebacker against the run this season, and it isn't even close.
It's hard to picture the Dallas Cowboys breaking up the great pairing of Spencer and Ware, so look for the Cowboys to re-sign him.
Daryl Smith, Linebacker
Daryl Smith might not be a household name because he plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he is still an extremely talented linebacker. In fact, he is the franchise leader in a number of defensive categories for Jacksonville.
Smith has missed every game so far this season, but he has been activated from Injured Reserve for Week 17. If he has a solid showing in his only game, he could end up with a big contract from Jacksonville.
Brent Grimes, Cornerback
Brent Grimes is another free agent who spent the majority of the season injured. He injured his Achilles in Week 1 against the Kansas City Chiefs and hasn't played since.
When healthy, Grimes is an ultra-talented cornerback who has the ability to make plays on the ball while it's in the air. The Atlanta Falcons could really use him on their roster to continue to boost their defense.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback
Now that we've had some time to digest the trade for Kevin Kolb, I'd say it is safe to say the Philadelphia Eagles won.
While Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie hasn't been a dominant cornerback for Philadelphia, he has formed a solid duo with Nnamdi Asomugha. They've both taken a step back in their play this year, but to be honest, who hasn't taken a step back for the Eagles this year?
With Philadelphia struggling so much and likely clearing house at the end of the season, we could certainly see the Eagles deciding to not bring back Rodgers-Cromartie.
Jairus Byrd, Safety
Few safeties have been as underrated as Jarius Byrd has been this year. Of course, that is what usually happens when you play for a mediocre team like the Buffalo Bills.
What makes Byrd such a talented player is his abilities in coverage. When quarterbacks throw his direction, he is holding them to an impressive 61.3 quarterback rating. On top of that, he has five interceptions, the third most of any safety in the NFL.
Byrd is the type of franchise player that the Bills need to build around for the future. It would be extremely surprising if he wasn't playing in Buffalo for the next few seasons.
Dashon Goldson, Safety
There aren't many players who hit with the power that Dashon Goldson does while on the field.
However, it isn't just his power in the open field that makes Goldson a coveted free agent this year. He's also underrated against the pass, as opposing quarterbacks are barely completing 50 percent of their passes thrown his way, with only one touchdown this year.
With the defense being what makes the San Francisco 49ers such a dominant team, I simply can't see them not re-signing one of their core players this offseason.
Ed Reed, Safety
After suggesting he may retire this past offseason, the future is truly unclear for Ed Reed.
He clearly isn't the same player he used to be, and we've really seen a decline in his play for the past two seasons. Of course, that doesn't mean that Reed isn't still extremely dangerous, he just isn't the most dominant safety in football anymore.
It'll be interesting how the Baltimore Ravens approach Reed in the offseason. One thing I can't see them doing is offering him a huge contract, which opens the door for another team to come in and swoop Reed away.
Of all the free agents available this year, Reed will be the most interesting to watch.
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