The NFL free-agency period is one of the most tumultuous times of the year for NFL teams. Because of the salary cap, budding young talent and aging veterans, teams are faced with some tough decisions.
While this year’s free-agent pool isn’t deep at quarterback, it is still one of the deeper groups of free agents in recent years, especially at the wide receiver position.
What teams do in April’s NFL draft will largely be determined by what they do first in free agency. Some top names like Joe Flacco and Jake Long will likely get hit with the franchise tag this offseason, there are several players that may have overstayed their welcomes and will be looking for a new team this year.
Here is a look at some of this year’s top free agents.
Mike Wallace: WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers were unceremoniously bounced from the playoff hunt this year, and the Steelers front office will look to retool at some key positions.
The Steelers are deep at the wide receiver position. Emmanuel Sanders is a rising talent, and fellow wideout Antonio Brown received a new contract from the Steelers before the 2012 season.
Brown’s new contract may have been a warning shot at Wallace. He held out before the season for a new contract, but the Steelers weren’t willing to give him No. 1 money at a time when salary cap constraints would limit Pittsburgh’s spending at other positions.
Wallace may not be back with the Steelers next year given their propensity for making the tough decisions and letting top talent go in favor of younger, cheaper options.
Several teams in the league need help at wide receiver, including the Miami Dolphins. The city of Miami is always a top destination for professional athletes, and Miami needs to bolster its receiving corps. As long as Wallace can get his money elsewhere, he won’t be a Steeler in 2013.
Wes Welker: WR, New England Patriots
As good as Welker has been for the New England Patriots, he may be expendable. The Patriots are one of the best teams in the league at retooling and allowing players to walk when they reach the downside of their careers.
Welker is still highly productive, though, and remains a staple in New England’s passing attack. If he isn’t welcomed back in New England, he’ll get looks from several other teams.
The Patriots could franchise Welker for the second year in a row, but Welker’s new contract would eat up a good chunk of their salary cap (via ESPN). Given the success of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, now may be the time to address other needs with that money.
A team like the Houston Texans would greatly benefit from the addition of Welker. The Texans lack a quality slot receiver, and Welker’s presence would open up the field for Andre Johnson—and vice versa.
While Welker’s future is very much up in the air, his potential exodus from New England would be less than surprising given the team’s history of adding new weapons for Tom Brady through the draft.
Ryan Clady: OT, Denver Broncos
It’s highly unlikely the Denver Broncos will let Clady walk in free agency, but there’s always the possibility.
The Broncos inked Peyton Manning to a huge contract last year, and given his value to the franchise, providing Manning with a blindside protector of Clady’s talent level is paramount. But with the contract Manning possesses, salary cap concerns may play a big role in what happens with Clady.
The Broncos may look to franchise Clady as many teams do with their elite talent after a contract year, but again, Clady’s one-year deal with the franchise tag would be a hefty sum.
More likely, Denver will adjust its salary cap situation at other positions and at least give Clady another year in Denver. If he does walk, though, Clady would be one of the hottest targets on the free-agent market.
Many teams in the league don’t have an elite-level left tackle and would be willing to pay Clady a huge amount for his services.
The coming months will decide Clady’s fate with the Broncos, but the most likely scenario is one in which he stays with the team to protect Manning.
Osi Umenyiora: DE, New York Giants
Umenyiora’s days appear to be up in New York, and he’ll test the free-agent waters this offseason (via New York Daily News).
Umenyiora was a big part of New York’s recent Super Bowl runs, but contract disputes soured the situation between he and the Giants. He’s ready to move on, and will likely find a big contract in the offseason.
While it’s too early to predict a clear-cut favorite in the Umenyiora sweepstakes, there are several teams that would offer him a handsome contract.
One team that seems like a great fit for Umenyiora is the New York Jets. The Jets need another pass-rushing presence, and although the Jets run a base 3-4, Rex Ryan can find a place for Umenyiora in his hybrid 46 defensive front.
Another plausible option for Umenyiora is Detroit. The Lions may lose Cliff Avril to free agency this offseason, and Kyle Vanden Bosch was largely ineffective this year. Given the strength of Detroit’s defensive line and the team’s need for defensive ends, Umenyiora would make a nice addition.
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