St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.
The NFL playoffs are still moving full steam ahead. However, for 28 other franchises, the three remaining games on the NFL schedule have nothing more than a novelty value. The vast majority of media attention is being placed upon the teams still in the hunt for the Lombardi Trophy, and deservedly so. However, the majority of teams around the league have shifted their focus to the 2013 offseason and the impending start of free agency.
This free-agent class is littered with monster names that will undoubtedly have trouble finding new contracts with their current organizations. Some veterans will be overpaid for, while some of the less experienced players will prove to be valuable finds. It's a vicious cycle of player movement that will play a large role in determining the outcome of the 2013 season.
Let's take a look at a few of the more prominent veteran names in this year's free-agent class. Needless to say, there are going to be some big names in new uniforms in 2013.
Patriots wideout Wes Welker.
It's hard to imagine New England Patriots wideout Wes Welker wearing any other uniform. He's become an iconic figure on a Patriots offense that has allowed the franchise to remain a perennial Super Bowl contender. However, the team used a non-exclusive franchise tag on Welker last offseason, which paid him $9.5 million. Welker can be franchise tagged again in 2013, but it would require the Patriots to give him a significant raise.
Bill Belichick is not afraid to let key players go. We've seen him trade the likes of Richard Seymour and Randy Moss because their contract demands were too high for them. Welker has been the quintessential professional for his entire career in New England. However, the NFL is a business and Welker is undoubtedly going to take the first long-term contract any team throws at him.
It's not a lock that someone throws big money at Welker. He's primarily a slot receiver with the ability to get open over the middle of the field. He does not possess the size or physicality to play consistently on the outside. His game skill set is limited and it's likely that his numbers have been drastically inflated by Tom Brady's quarterback prowess. In fact, Welker was a nobody before he paired up with Brady in New England.
Regardless, Welker is a five-time Pro Bowler with significant big-game experience. Someone will pay him, it just might not be the Patriots.
Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long.
The Miami Dolphins did not draft left tackle Jake Long with the No. 1 overall pick in 2008 with the intention of letting him walk in free agency just five seasons later. He was in Miami to be a cornerstone, and for the first four seasons of his career he played that way. In fact, up until 2012, Long had made the Pro Bowl every year of his career. That all changed after Joe Philbin took over as head coach.
In the NFL, scheme is just as important as talent. You can have an entire team of Pro Bowlers, but if the coach does not know to to effectively utilize his personnel and make them work as a cohesive unit, the talent will undoubtedly go to waste. In essence, this is what happened to Jake Long in 2012.
That's not to say Philbin isn't a good coach. He drastically improved the Dolphins this season and made them relatively competitive in the AFC East. However, his zone-blocking scheme did not suit Long's skill set. As a new head coach, it's his responsibility to tailor his scheme and ideals to the personnel on the roster. Instead of doing that, Philbin drafted left tackle Jonathan Martin in the second round of last year's draft.
Consequently, Long had the worst season of his career. He led the team with 12 penalties, gave up four sacks and finished the season on the injured reserve. He in no way played like a guy who is about to get big money on the free-agent market this offseason.
However, big money is exactly what Long is going to get. Left tackles are a highly coveted asset in the NFL and Jake Long has proven his ability to play at an All-Pro level. It still remains to be seen if Miami will bite the bullet and give him long-term contract given his recent history.
St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson.
St. Louis Rams running back Steven Jackson will likely be enshrined in Canton one day. He's been a model of consistency in St. Louis, which is one of the very few positive things one can say about the franchise since Jackson's arrival in 2004. In fact, Jackson has rushed for over 1,000 yards in eight consecutive seasons. In all but one of his nine seasons in the league, he's rushed for over 4 yards per carry.
Jackson turns 30 this offseason, which is going to preclude him from getting another big-money contract. He's a big bruising back, and he's already defied the odds by staying productive at this late stage of his career. There will be markets for Jackson's services, likely from contenders looking for a productive, veteran locker room presence. Look for him to generate a world on interest from team's looking to sign a running back on a short-term deal.
Like Wes Welker, it's hard to evaluate free-agent wide receivers that have played their entire careers with superstar quarterbacks. The difficulty of separating how much of the players production is based upon personal merit as opposed to outstanding quarterback play can cause general managers to give large contracts out to players who are just not all that great. Greg Jennings might be one of these players, but his production over the duration of his career is undeniable.
Jennings has missed 11 games over the last two seasons. He's going to turn 30 next season and will likely want a significant contract. Obviously, he's a great fit for a team with a solidified veteran quarterback. Jennings is productive if he can establish a connection with an established quarterback, but he has not proven the ability to make the players around him better.
Jennings is still one of the most talented players in this free-agent class and he's going to help whoever he signs with. However, unless he has a top-level quarterback giving him the ball, his Pro Bowl days are likely behind him.
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Anthony Spencer.
Dallas Cowboys defensive end Anthony Spencer did not receive a lot Pro Bowl hype. However, he certainly deserved a better look than he got. Compared to New York Giants standout Jason Pierre-Paul, Spencer had 26 more tackles and 3.5 more sacks.
The Cowboys are still dealing with the repercussions of their salary cap penalties and it's highly unlikely that the team will be able to muster enough money to sign Spencer to a long-term contract. Spencer is going to hit the market and get his pay day, but it still remains to be seen how he performs without DeMarcus Ware on the same unit as him.
New York Giants Strong Safety Kenny Phillips
New York Giants safety Kenny Phillips has had injury problems in the past. However, when healthy, he is one of the best over-the-top safeties in the NFL. His physical stature, along with his pure athletic ability will make him a welcome addition to any secondary this offseason. The Giants played their best football this season with the three safety look, and Phillips' absence coincided with the Giants darkest times on defense.
Given Big Blue's $4.17 million salary cap deficit, it's highly unlikely the team finds a way to compete for Phillips' services on the open market. With the emergence of Stevie Brown and Will Hill at safety, the Giants do not need to spend a significant amount of money on securing another strong safety on the roster. Barring some extremely unforeseen circumstances, Phillips will be playing for a new team next season.
It's not clear who will give him a long-term contract, but Phillips is an elite safety in this league and he will get his payday in 2013. It's just not going to come from the Giants.