2013 NFL Free Agents: Highlighting Biggest Names on Free-Agent Market

Tyler ConwayFeatured ColumnistFebruary 4, 2013

2013 NFL Free Agents: Highlighting Biggest Names on Free-Agent Market

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    Joe Flacco may have vanquished Peyton Manning and Tom Brady en route to leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl XLVII championship, but those two have something he doesn't: a job in 2013.

    The Ravens quarterback heads into the offseason after one of the more magical runs in playoff history. Flacco is a free agent after the 2013 playoffs, a fact that came up throughout Baltimore's run to the Super Bowl championship. 

    To put it mildly, Flacco made himself a pretty rich man in January and February. 

    In fact, the 2013 offseason should be notable for how many high-profile names are on the open market. Among them are All-Pros, past and present, arguably the best left tackle in the NFL and a bevy of other notable faces.

    Who are the biggest names hitting free agency this offseason? Here is a complete breakdown of all the best free agents about to hit the open market. 

Jairus Byrd (S, Buffalo Bills)

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    New Bills head coach Doug Marrone's first huge personnel decision will almost certainly between choosing whether to franchise Jairus Byrd or guard Andy Levitre. Smart money is on that player being Byrd and for mostly good reason.

    Whenever Byrd is on the field, he's one of the NFL's best safeties. The homegrown talent finished the 2012 season with 76 tackles, five interceptions and four forced fumbles, making his presence known against both the run and pass. 

    Those counting stats were also backed up with a strong metric performance from the 26-year-old. According to Pro Football Focus, Byrd ranked first among safeties in combined tackling efficiency and sixth in both coverage snaps per reception allowed and run stop percentage

    It was arguably Byrd's best career season and he was named to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro teams for his trouble. 

    That obviously makes his retention critical for the Bills. They are a mess at linebacker and still desperately need help at the cornerback spot, so there won't be much time or cap space to find a replacement if Byrd departs.

    Look for Marrone to franchise Byrd and simply hope Levitre will re-sign for a hometown discount. If Byrd somehow hits the open market, however, look for a bidding war to commence among safety-needy clubs. 

Greg Jennings (WR, Green Bay Packers)

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    When healthy, Greg Jennings is the Packers' most explosive target and a yearly candidate for All-Pro teams. The problem is that the last time Green Bay saw Jennings healthy, it was 2010—otherwise known as the team's Super Bowl season, or the year Ke$ha's "Tik Tok" topped the Billboard charts, your choice.

    Over the past two seasons, Jennings has missed 11 games and hasn't looked 100 percent even when on the field. He played in just eight games in 2012, catching 36 passes for 366 yards and two touchdowns. That 10.2 yards per catch average was over five below his career average and continue the decline the Packers saw in 2011.

    Jennings' absence over the past two seasons have pretty much irreparably damaged his title as Aaron Rodgers' favorite target. Jordy Nelson emerged with a massive season in 2011, and Randall Cobb and James Jones both emerged in the stead of Green Bay's top targets this past season.

    All of that adds up to a likely departure for the 29-year-old receiver. Jennings is still widely seen as a star throughout the NFL, and the Packers aren't the type of franchise that will overpay a declining player, especially at a non-need position. 

    The only realistic scenario where Jennings could return is if he tests the open market and finds little interest in his services. With wide receiver being a need for many teams this offseason, that seems highly unlikely. 

Wes Welker (WR, New England Patriots)

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    When not playing damage control for his wife's loose mouth (or, rather, Facebook post button), Wes Welker is arguably the NFL's most consistent receiver. He's caught more than 110 passes in five of his six seasons with the Patriots, emerging as Tom Brady's security blanket and favorite target. 

    Welker has also been one of a select few constants in the revolving personnel door in New England. Of the skill-position players on the Patriots' undefeated team from 2007, Welker is the only one who has remained with the club over the past half-decade.

    On that basis, it seems almost inconceivable that Welker would leave this offseason. Brady has made it abundantly clear that he wants Welker back and the New England signal-caller's word would be gold in a typical franchise.

    Unfortunately for Welker, the Patriots aren't a typical franchise. They've jettisoned Brady favorites in the past, most notably Deion Branch, and kept trucking as the league's best offense.

    As it's prone to do, the dispute between Welker and his team will be financial. He wasn't exactly thrilled by New England's offers after being franchised last season, and the team was unhappy with his public comments. 

    Franchising Welker again seems unlikely for the fiscally conservative Patriots. In order to keep Welker around, they would have to pay him 120 percent of his salary from 2012, or right around $11.42 million.

    According to Spotrac, that figure would make Welker the Patriots' highest-paid player by a little less than $2 million. With more negotiations in the offing, it's highly likely that New England and Welker will come to a long-term agreement, or he'll walk.

Ryan Clady (OT, Denver Broncos)

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    The Broncos cannot afford to allow Ryan Clady to walk and it seems unlikely that they will. Clady served as Peyton Manning's main protection this past season and once again proved why he's one of the NFL's best tackles.

    The 26-year-old allowed just one sack all season long, per the Washington Post, a shocking feat considering Manning threw 583 passes. Displaying an increased awareness, Clady also cut his number of holding penalties nearly in half from 2011.

    Here is the part where you say it's easier to protect when you have the smartest quarterback in NFL history making the reads. That's true. However, Clady was excellent with Tim Tebow under center in 2011, and his greatness the following year is exemplified by advanced metrics.

    According to Pro Football Focus, Clady ranked fourth in the NFL in pass blocking efficiency and had only two instances where his offensive rating was negative.

    In other words, Clady is a "free" agent in technical terms only. He'll either sign a fat extension once the league allows business to resume or Denver will give him its franchise distinction. 

Joe Flacco (QB, Baltimore Ravens)

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    Speaking of guys who aren't going anywhere, Joe Flacco should be in Black and Purple for a very long time after an incredible postseason run to a thrilling Super Bowl victory. 

    Coming into the 2013 NFL playoffs, it seemed increasingly likely that the Ravens would let him test the market. In fact, there was a growing faction of fans who thought the team should let Flacco walk.

    Finishing the season with 3,817 yards and 22 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, Flacco turned in what most would consider a thoroughly mediocre season. He finished 25th among quarterbacks in ESPN's QBR metric and was 17th in Football Outsiders' DVOA measurement.

    What's more, Baltimore collapsed down the stretch. The team lost four of its last five regular-season games, and looked so bad that many were picking the far less talented Indianapolis Colts to eliminate the Ravens at home.

    As just about everyone on the big blue marble knows, that didn't happen. The Ravens dispatched of Indianapolis at home then the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos on the road en route to making the Super Bowl.

    Flacco was the man leading the entire charge. Ascending when his team needed him the most, Flacco threw for 853 yards and eight touchdowns without an interception. His excellence was particularly needed against Denver, where two special teams touchdowns put the Ravens up against the wall. 

    Granted, the last time Baltimore won a Super Bowl, it did allow Trent Dilfer to walk. Well, Joe Flacco isn't Trent Dilfer.

    Look for the Ravens and Flacco to try to get a long-term deal done, with the team franchising its quarterback if only to give the sides more time to negotiate. 

Dwayne Bowe (WR, Kansas City Chiefs)

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    The Chiefs will find out just how quickly the Andy Reid era will change the culture in Kansas City this offseason. By all accounts, the team desperately needs to keep Bowe. He and Jamaal Charles are the only two Pro Bowl-caliber players the Chiefs have at the skill positions, and they have way too many needs to be worrying about adding a wide receiver.

    One problem: Bowe pretty much despised being in Kansas City under the previous regime. Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole reported that Bowe wanted out "very badly" around the trade deadline and his name was bandied about down to the very last minute.

    Reid brings more clout than Romeo Crennel offensively and loves having talent at receiver, but the damage could be irreparable. 

    As for the interest in Bowe on the open market, that's a very good question. Though he's considered a borderline star, Bowe has made just one Pro Bowl team (in 2010), is already 28 years old and was injured throughout 2012. 

    Part of the semi-effectiveness is certainly due to the Chiefs' revolving pu-pu platter at quarterback. Not too many receivers can excel when Brady Quinn, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Tyler Thigpen and Damon Huard throw them grounders on every play.

    It will be interesting to see whether there's a non-Kansas City team desperate enough to give him star-worthy money on the open market. If not, the Chiefs and Bowe could wind up back together due to circumstance more than anything. 

Andre Smith (OT, Cincinnati Bengals)

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    Before being arrested with a gun at an Atlanta airport, Andre Smith stood to become a very, very rich man this offseason. He emerged as arguably the NFL's best right tackle in 2011 and followed that up with another stellar campaign this past season.

    According to the Washington Post, Smith committed only three penalties all season and just one was for holding. What's more, per Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards metric, the Bengals were far and away a better team running the ball to Smith's side than over on the left.

    For a guy whose overarching purpose is to be a run-blocking stalwart, his low holding rate and ability to maul defensive linemen make him an invaluable asset in Cincinnati. 

    If one wants to nitpick Smith's place among the league's best right tackles, he did allow 7.5 sacks in 2012. That figure is up from only two in 2011 and pass blocking was a huge problem for the 25-year-old early in his career. 

    Nonetheless, he plays a premium position and resources are always rather scarce for tackles on the free-agent market. If he can convince teams his character problems are a thing of the past, the Bengals are going to have to fork over a ton of guaranteed money to keep Smith in Cincinnati.

Mike Wallace (WR, Pittsburgh Steelers)

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    Despite being arguably the best receiver hitting the market this offseason, Wallace is probably the least likely to get franchised. We know this because Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette as much on Jan. 16:

    Colbert: "Very doubtful" they will put franchise tag on anyone because "I don't think we have too many franchise players.''

    — Ed Bouchette (@EdBouchette) January 16, 2013

    If Colbert sticks to his word and Wallace is not franchised, it's nearly impossible to see him being in Black and Gold come 2013. Pittsburgh has historically always let players walk via free agency, including former stars like Rod Woodson, Kevin Greene and Joey Porter. 

    You don't quit the Steelers; the Steelers quit you. And based on everything we've heard and seen from Pittsburgh during the season and prior, it seems like the team's patience has worn thin with Wallace.

    Luckily for those receiver-needy teams on the open market, Wallace should be worth every penny paid. He's still just 26 years old and doesn't look to have lost even a half-step from his track and field-worthy speed.

    While it's true Wallace's numbers took a nosedive this past season, his descent had more to do with a schematic change than a decline in talent. With offensive coordinator Todd Haley's scheme emphasizing short, check-down throws far more than predecessor Bruce Arians, the Steelers' passing numbers exemplified that change.

    After averaging 12.7 yards per reception as a unit in 2011, Pittsburgh averaged only 11.3 this past season. The biggest losers in this scenario were Wallace and Antonio Brown, both of whom saw their yard per catch average drop by more than three a reception.

    Wallace needs a new scheme or a new home to thrive. Something tells me he'll get both in 2013.