NFL Free Agents 2013: Biggest Impact Players at Every Position

John RozumCorrespondent IJanuary 14, 2013

NFL Free Agents 2013: Biggest Impact Players at Every Position

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    With pro football nearing Super Bowl XLVII, that also means the offseason for 2013 NFL free agents.

    Now that we're down to the conference championship games, the majority of the league and its fans can look ahead to the market and draft season.

    Here, we break down each position with the best players available.

    Wes Welker of the New England Patriots is among the top receivers, which comes as no surprise given his consistency throughout 2012. And regardless of where the following players may or may not end up, let's check out the most appealing free agents before the new NFL year begins.

     

    Note: Full view of 2013 free agents, courtesy of Nick Mensio of Rotoworld.com.

Quarterbacks

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    Joe Flacco is the only quarterback entering free agency that impacts his team.

    He's done quite a good job throughout the 2013 postseason, especially considering that he had an underachieving regular season.

    Once again, though, he is just one step away from the Super Bowl. But losing to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots would keep the playoff skepticism alive.

     

    Other Impact Players: None.

Running Backs

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    Reggie Bush has developed into an every down running back.

    Factor in all the talent the Miami Dolphins currently possess, and the immediate future holds much promise. Bush's dual-threat dynamic is quite reliable for Miami and quarterback Ryan Tannehill, so the Dolphins must look to retain him.

    Another solid ball-carrier to keep an eye on is Steven Jackson. Despite his age, Jackson can still take on the bulk of the attempts. The concern is whether Jackson remains with the St. Louis Rams.

    Per Rams reporter Howard Balzer of LockerDome.com:

    For now, Jackson’s salary remains $7 million for 2013. He has said he expects the Rams and his agent to talk and hopefully come to terms on a new contract. The Rams likely want to reduce his salary and cap charge for 2013.

     

    Other Impact Players: Rashard Mendenhall, Cedric Benson, Shonn Greene.

Wide Receivers

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    Wes Welker once again led the Patriots in receiving yards, targets, receptions and yards after the catch.

    New England can't afford to part ways with him, because he's simply too much of the offense. Not to mention it would be quite difficult in finding another player with his potential.

    One other receiver to keep an eye on is Dwayne Bowe of the Kansas City Chiefs. He's only turning 29 years old when the 2013 season commences and still possesses No. 1 receiver talent.

    Without question Bowe was limited due to K.C.'s horrendous quarterback play, but he'll produce with a better signal-caller. It just depends on whether that's in Kansas City or somewhere else next season.

     

    Other Impact Players: Mike Wallace, Greg Jennings.

Tight Ends

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    One of the most complete tight ends in pro football is Dustin Keller of the New York Jets.

    No one would know it, though, because of the atrocity that was Gang Green's quarterback situation in 2012.

    As a reliable run-blocker and receiver, Keller can make plays over the middle and move the chains on third down. New York needs him, but it wouldn't be surprising if Keller looked elsewhere.

    The other tight end worth noting is Tony Gonzalez of the Atlanta Falcons. Turning 37 years old next month, Gonzalez has improved with age. That said, don't expect the Falcons to let him go if he decides against retirement.

     

    Other Impact Players: Fred Davis, Martellus Bennett, Dallas Clark.

Tackles

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    Protecting the quarterback is the most important aspect of today's game.

    So, don't anticipate the Dolphins splitting up with left tackle Jake Long. Given that the franchise's future under center is with Ryan Tannehill, Miami has no choice but to keep Long anchoring the line.

    Plus, Reggie Bush needs him for getting outside and slicing off tackle against aggressive interior defensive fronts.

    Contrary to Tannehill's youth in Miami are the Denver Broncos with Peyton Manning at the helm. Allowing the aging Manning to remain upright is Denver's lone chance to try for a Super Bowl.

    That gets done by holding onto Ryan Clady. Given that Manning was sacked just 21 times this regular season, Clady is arguably the best in the biz at the offensive tackle position.

     

    Other Impact Players: Sebastian Vollmer, Andre Smith.

Guards

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    Fielding a strong interior offensive line is a distinct competitive advantage in pro football.

    Mainly due to so many teams relying on the passing game, guards are responsible for chip-blocking to the second level and extending the running lanes.

    Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills is a key reason why running back C.J. Spiller impacted the offense so well. For Buffalo to maintain solid balance and reliable pass protection, Levitre is key and easily a top performer at his position.

    Across the country from Buffalo resides Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers.

    Now, in no way did San Diego's offensive line live up to standards this season, but Vasquez remained dependable. Quarterback Philip Rivers completed 64.1 percent of his passes, many of which he was able to target over the middle at all levels.

    In short, that's attributed to Vasquez forming a passing lane inside the pocket.

     

    Other Impact Players: Brandon Moore, Jake Scott.

Centers

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    Dan Koppen of the Broncos is the best center in free agency this offseason.

    His cerebral approach to the game synchronized impressively well with that of Peyton Manning, which led to solid balance throughout the regular season.

    And even though the Broncos weren't a run-first team, Koppen was able to orchestrate an offensive line that got 31-year-old Willis McGahee to average 4.4 yards per rush. This set up the play action and another division title was the result.

     

    Other Impact Players: Todd McClure, Brad Meester.

Defensive Tackles

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    Defensive tackles that make an impact garner much notice when hitting free agency.

    Henry Melton of the Chicago Bears dominated in 2012 with 43 tackles, six sacks and two forced fumbles.

    With the ability to apply pressure, clog running lanes and create turnover opportunities, Chicago has to retain Melton for the long-term.

    This postseason we saw the impact of Jason Jones for the Seattle Seahawks. Or shall we say, his lack of impact due to his absence? Not having suited up since mid-December because of a knee injury, Seattle gave up 271 rushing yards in two playoff games.

    For the Seahawks to take that next step, especially in the defensive tough NFC West, retaining Jones is required. 

     

    Other Impact Players: Randy Starks, Desmond Bryant.

Defensive Ends

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    Defensive ends that can rush the passer and knock down quick releases from the quarterback are gems in pro football.

    Cliff Avril of the Detroit Lions has proven to be just that, with 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles this season. He has 13 defended passes for his career, which isn't too bad given he plays in a 4-3 system.

    Regardless of where he lines up next season, that team is getting a sound pass-rusher.

    In addition to Avril, make sure to check out Michael Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals. He's young and possesses an immense amount of potential. This season he recorded 11.5 sacks with 52 tackles, which were both career highs.

    The Bengals have to keep him on board, but it wouldn't be shocking to see some outsiders try to pull him out of Cincinnati.

     

    Other Impact Players: Osi Umenyiora, Israel Idonije.

Inside Linebackers

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    There's a lot of responsibility that goes into playing middle linebacker, because these guys are basically the quarterbacks of the defense.

    Fortunately for Bears and Bengals fans, Brian Urlacher and Rey Maualuga have been capable of that duty during their careers.

    Urlacher, though, is much older but still puts out dependable performances on an annual basis. He's a key reason why Chicago always ranks among the best defensive teams every season.

    Maualuga, however, is significantly younger than Urlacher but brings the same impact. Recording a career-high 122 tackles this season, the Bengals got a true defensive leader when they selected him in 2009.

     

    Other Impact Players: E.J. Henderson.

Outside/Rush Linebackers

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    The outside/rush linebacker is a distinct position in pro football.

    Similar to a receiver whose sole purpose is to stretch defenses, the outside linebacker must bring the pass rush capability whether he plays in a 4-3 or 3-4.

    Among those for this upcoming free agency period, Paul Kruger of the Baltimore Ravens and Connor Barwin of the Houston Texans are the most appealing. Kruger had a strong regular season with 42 tackles, nine sacks and six passes defended.

    Impressively enough, Kruger upped his play through two playoff games with seven tackles, 2.5 sacks and one forced fumble.

    By comparison Barwin was not as productive, although that's also due to the surge of J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed. Each, though, have the talent to be any team's No. 1 rusher and outside 'backer.

     

    Other Impact Players: Daryl Smith, Anthony Spencer.

Cornerbacks

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    One guy the Atlanta Falcons really missed this season was cornerback Brent Grimes, who missed the majority of the season with an Achilles injury.

    From 2009 through 2011, he defended 50 passes and made 202 tackles. Imagine how much better the Falcons would have been in 2012's regular season with him.

    Nevertheless, Atlanta has to retain Grimes because he is only 29 years old and his absence clearly affected the Dirty Birds' defense this season.

    The next guy to watch for is Sean Smith of the Dolphins. Despite Miami's setbacks in coverage, Smith fared well with 12 passes defended, three forced fumbles and 59 tackles. What Miami needs is to keep Smith and get him a No. 2 complement for next season.

     

    Other Impact Players: Cary Williams, Chris Houston.

Safeties

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    Ed Reed remains the best safety in pro football. When the Ravens were banged up in their front seven, he kept the pass defense afloat.

    Doing so kept opponents at bay during the regular season's second half and Baltimore backed into the playoffs. Reed defended 16 passes and made 58 tackles this regular season, but he's not done yet.

    One safety that can go overlooked is Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills. Only 26 years old, Byrd has picked off 18 passes in four seasons (27 total passes defended). Over the previous three years, Byrd has forced 10 fumbles and recorded 263 tackles.

    He is the NFL's next best upcoming safety, so expect Buffalo to keep him.

     

    Other Impact Players: Dashon Goldson, William Moore, Ronde Barber.

Kickers

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    Jason Hanson and Phil Dawson really standout among the free-agent kickers.

    Hanson had a long of 53 yards this season and the guy is 42 years old. He also connected 19 field goals from the 40 to 49-yard range.

    Dawson, on the other hand, wasn't kicking for an offense that could move the ball consistently. The Cleveland Browns displayed some flashes of a high-powered attack, but nowhere near on Detroit's level.

    The end result was Dawson, who is 37 years old, knocking seven field goals from 50-plus yards out. Had it not been for the veteran place-kicker, Cleveland would not have scored nearly as many points.

     

    Other Impact Players: Rob Bironas.

Punters

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    Field position is so crucial to winning games that punters deserve more recognition.

    Shane Lechler of the Oakland Raiders is the best pro football has to offer, because he averaged at least 47 yards per punt over the past seven seasons: Twice over 50 yards.

    For certain there are other punters with the leg to match that of Lechler, but his consistency rises above all else. His booming punts are a weapon for the Raiders. It's just unfortunate that Oakland lacks a reliable defense.

    Put Lechler on a team who can stifle opponents more consistently and his impact finds another level. And it would be a surprise if he stayed in the Bay Area for next season.

     

    Other Impact Players: Pat Mcafee, Donnie Jones.