We've come to the end of the 2012 NFL season. Now comes the speculation and preparation for the 2013 campaign.
And the league is a little over a month away (March 12) from the start of free agency, which first began in the NFL in 1993.
So who stands to benefit the most during this offseason?
We’ve put together a list of 25 players that we feel will get the biggest new contracts this offseason. Keep in mind that we’re talking one restricted and 24 unrestricted free agents. And don’t assume we’re saying that these players are headed elsewhere.
Also keep in mind that these projected contracts are in the order of smallest to largest total amount and not the projected guaranteed money. In terms of finances, we’ve taken into account position, team need and league tenure.
So, to quote former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell, “Show me the money.”
Projected Contract: 3 years, $29 million, $18 million guaranteed
There’s not a lot that San Francisco 49ers tight end Delanie Walker can’t do.
Just consider his performance in Super Bowl XLVII. He caught three passes for 48 yards, sprung teammate Frank Gore on a touchdown run and totaled three tackles on special teams (including a big hit on Jacoby Jones on a kickoff) in the team’s 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens.
It would probably be a surprise to see Walker go elsewhere, as he and Vernon Davis have emerged as a great one-two tandem. But it would not be a surprise to see a team jump at the chance to add this versatile player.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $31 million, $25 million guaranteed
To say that the New York Jets suffered through a forgettable 2012 season would be an understatement.
And no one probably understands that better than tight end Dustin Keller.
The former first-round draft pick was limited to just eight games last season after playing in all 16 contests in each of his first four NFL seasons. Keller totaled just 28 catches for 317 yards and two touchdowns in 2012.
With quarterback Mark Sanchez back in the picture, the Jets offense could look a whole lot better with healthy targets such as Keller and wideout Santonio Holmes back on the field.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $35 million, $28 million guaranteed
Admittedly, the San Francisco 49ers defense, especially the secondary, took a beating down the stretch and in the postseason.
And that kept free safety Dashon Goldson very busy. The Pro Bowl defender totaled 21 tackles in the team’s three postseason games.
During the regular season, Goldson finished fourth on the club in stops (69) and amassed five of the team’s 25 takeaways, including a team-high three interceptions. The rangy performer also finished third on the team with 11 passes defensed.
The Niners slapped the franchise tag on Goldson last season, and it will be interesting to see if they opt to do that again.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $36 million, $22 million guaranteed
Tight ends have certainly thrived in recent seasons in the National Football League, and Washington Redskins tight end Fred Davis certainly has the talent to get the job done.
Unfortunately, his 2012 season consisted of just seven games—good for 24 receptions, 325 yards and zero touchdowns. But it’s also worth pointing out that Davis was the team leader in receptions before he was lost for the remainder of the season in later October.
Davis was given the franchise tag last season and played under the one-year deal. His next deal will obviously be dictated by his health, and it will be curious to see how the Redskins handle this. He can only make the Washington offense better.
Projected Contract: 3 years, $36 million, $22 million guaranteed
So it looks like wideout Wes Welker wasn’t fazed out of the New England Patriots offense after all?
When the productive receiver got off to slow start in 2012, there was speculation that he may have earned a permanent seat in Bill Belichick’s doghouse, all concerning his contract situation. Welker was given the franchise tag, and he played last season under the one-year tender.
He also became the first player in NFL history to catch 100 or more passes in five seasons. In 2012, Welker totaled 118 catches, and in six years with the Patriots, he’s amassed an astounding 672 receptions.
It’s hard to believe that, with that kind of production, Welker will be somewhere other than Foxborough in 2013.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $38 million, $22 million guaranteed
It’s tough to make a name for yourself at inside linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers these days unless you’re stars like Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
But in a salary-cap league that makes it difficult (not impossible) to add depth and keep it for long, linebacker Larry Grant may be getting ready to make a name for himself, even if it may be somewhere other than San Francisco.
In 2011, the one-time St. Louis Rams defender started three games for Willis and made his presence felt. Now, we’ll see if Grant will get an offer from another team looking to fortify its inside linebacking corps.
Don’t bet against it.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $40 million, $25 million guaranteed
When he’s on the field, Detroit Lions free safety Louis Delmas always seems to make an impression.
Unfortunately, the play-making defender has had problems staying healthy as of late.
In 2012, Delmas was limited to eight games and starts. And dating back to 2011, he’s missed almost as many games (13) as he has played in (19).
Delmas totaled 38 tackles and one interception in a very disappointing season for the Lions, who lost their final eight games and finished 4-12 in 2012.
If Jim Schwartz’s team is to rebound from last year’s disaster, keeping Delmas would be a good start.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $42 million, $30 million guaranteed
Although the Chicago Bears squandered a 7-1 start and wound up missing the playoffs with a 10-6 record, there was at least one bright spot that came out of the disappointing season.
Defensive tackle Henry Melton was one big reason Chicago finished fifth in the NFL in fewest yards allowed and eighth in rushing defense in 2012. The former Longhorn totaled 44 tackles, 6.0 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles. Melton had one fewer sack, but totaled 20 more stops than he had in 2011.
While there will certainly be some changes on the Chicago defense, what with new head coach Marc Trestman at the helm, Melton is a young and talented player who figures to stay put in the Windy City.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $42 million, $25 million guaranteed
There was little doubt that the New England Patriots' much-maligned defensive unit was starting to make some strides in 2012.
And there’s little doubt that one-time Buccaneers first-round pick Aqib Talib was a factor in that improvement.
Unfortunately, the Patriots got a taste of life without Talib when he went down in the middle of the AFC title game vs. the Baltimore Ravens. His absence was a big reason that Anquan Boldin wound up having his way with Bill Belichick’s secondary.
Talib could command big money on the open market, one where teams are looking for a play-making physical cornerback. We’ll soon see just how much money.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $42 million, $28 million guaranteed
It wasn’t long ago that Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings was toying with opposing secondaries.
Now we’ll see if he’s about to play somewhere else other than in “Titletown.”
The Packers will no longer have the services of veteran wideout Donald Driver, who announced his retirement during the days leading up to the Super Bowl. Now they must make a decision on Jennings, who saw injuries limit him to a career-low eight games and 36 receptions in 2012.
Still, Jennings’ seven-year body of work with the Packers includes 425 receptions, 53 for touchdowns. He could certainly break the bank on the open market, but then again, he’s coming off an injury-shortened year.
Stay tuned on this one.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $42 million, $30 million guaranteed
Timing is everything. While Houston Texans outside linebacker Connor Barwin has proven in the past that he knows how to get to the quarterback, it certainly wasn’t his forte in 2012.
One season after leading the team with 11.5 sacks, Barwin totaled just 3.5 sacks in an equal amount of games in 2012.
Certainly, the play of NFL Defensive Player of the Year and teammate J.J. Watt was a factor in Barwin’s numbers being down, as the defensive end managed to get to the quarterback a lot faster than his teammates.
In a league where finding and developing pass-rushers is essential, Barwin is a somewhat proven commodity who figures to cash in somewhat.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $44 million, $26 million guaranteed
There were concerns about the Atlanta Falcons defense this past season. And many of those issues reared their heads in the NFC title game loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
Pro Bowl strong safety William Moore was not one of those concerns.
The hard-hitting and rangy defender made his presence felt all season in an opportunistic Atlanta secondary that saw him and free safety Thomas DeCoud finish 2012 in Hawaii.
Moore totaled 75 tackles, four interceptions, eight passes defensed and he forced a pair of fumbles in 2012. He may be just skimming the surface in terms of performance.
Projected Contract: 4 years, $46 million, $35 million guaranteed
The Pittsburgh Steelers are just about to begin an interesting offseason in terms of deciding who the main targets for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be in 2013.
While the franchise locked up speedy Antonio Brown last summer, wideout Mike Wallace is an unrestricted free agent and he figures to garner some pretty big offers.
Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is a restricted free agent, and possibly before he’s given a tender, don’t be surprised if the Steelers’ front office takes care of business to ensure he won’t get an offer sheet once the process starts. Sanders totaled 44 receptions for 626 yards and one touchdown last season.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $48 million, $37 million guaranteed
One year after the Detroit Lions reached the playoffs for the first time since 1999, it all came apart in the Motor City.
But will pass-rushing standout Cliff Avril be around in 2013 to see if the Lions can orchestrate a comeback?
It’s hard to imagine he won’t be, unless he receives an offer he can’t refuse. In 2011, Avril totaled 11.5 sacks and was given the franchise tag. He responded with a team-high 9.5 sacks this past season and can hardly be blamed for what proved to be a disaster in Detroit, as the Lions take an eight-game losing streak into 2013.
The need for pass-rushers is high in the quarterback-driven league. The team just released veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, so we’ll see if that plays a part in Avril’s return.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $52 million, $33 million guaranteed
To say it was a forgettable season for the Kansas City Chiefs would be an understatement. Now we’ll see if the Chiefs plan on remembering wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
The talented wideout, who spent the final three weeks of the season on injured reserve, was the team’s designated franchise player a year ago. In 13 contests in 2012, Bowe caught 59 passes for 801 yards and had more touchdown receptions (three) than the Chiefs has wins (two).
Enter new head coach Andy Reid, who knows the value of talented wide receivers. Bowe figures to earn a big payday, whether it is in Kansas city or elsewhere.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $52 million, $35 million guaranteed
With legendary linebacker Ray Lewis on the shelf for most of the season, Baltimore Ravens inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe was called on to fill the void.
Did he ever.
The productive defender finished second on the team with 92 tackles, totaled 4.5 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles. In the Super Bowl XLVII victory over the San Francisco 49ers, Ellerbe led the Ravens with nine tackles in the 34-31 win.
Now, Lewis is off the shelf and into retirement. And Ellerbe’s stock has risen a bit as a result. The Ravens not only have to try and secure his services but re-sign team sack leader Paul Kruger was well. But Ellerbe may be the first priority here.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $53 million, $40 million guaranteed
When you are the member of a defensive unit that’s ranked 27th in passing yards allowed, there’s liable to be skepticism.
But Miami Dolphins cornerback Sean Smith is worth the discussion.
The physical defender totaled 59 tackles (53 solo) and two interceptions. Smith also led the team with 12 passes defensed and tied for the club lead with three forced fumbles.
Keep in mind that while the Dolphins were near the bottom of the league in terms of yards allowed through the air, they also gave up only 18 touchdown passes. And Smith’s play was a big part of that.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $54 million, $40 million guaranteed
There were some good things predicted for the Kansas City Chiefs as they prepared for the 2012 season. Unfortunately, predictions can be very wrong.
In a season in which the Chiefs allowed 40 sacks, committed 37 turnovers and scored only 18 total touchdowns, it’s hard to recommend any player on the offensive side of the ball.
While Kansas City won only a pair of games in 2012, left tackle Branden Albert and company opened up holes for running back Jamaal Charles, who ran for 1,509 yards and five touchdowns this past season.
With Andy Reid in charge, it would be a surprise to see Albert play elsewhere in 2013. With Eric Winston on the other side, the Chiefs have one of the best tackle tandems in the league.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $55 million, $48 million guaranteed
There have already been big changes in Big D, as the Dallas Cowboys hope to avoid a third straight non-winning season and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
Enter new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who will bring his 4-3 to the Pokes.
How big of a year did outside linebacker Anthony Spencer have for the Cowboys in 2012? He led the team with 95 tackles and totaled 11.0 sacks. The former first-round pick was franchised a year ago, and it could happen again.
What may also be interesting is to see where his former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan winds up in 2013.
As mentioned, times are a changing in Dallas. We’ll soon find out how and just how big those changes will be.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $55 million, $30 million guaranteed
Safe to say it’s somewhat hard to get excited about the play of the Philadelphia Eagles defense the last two seasons.
Still, when you have the ability of cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and you have plenty of football ahead of you, you’re going to get some offers.
The one-time Arizona Cardinals defender totaled 51 tackles and led the Eagles with three interceptions in 2012. He also amassed a team-high 17 passes defensed last season.
Philadelphia’s declining pass rush was one factor in the club’s poor defensive showing a year ago. It will be interesting to see what the market is for Rodgers-Cromartie considering the Eagles’ disappointing showing the last two years.
Projected Contract: 5 years, $60 million, $40 million guaranteed
One season after setting a team record for receiving yards, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz continued to open eyes and was named to his first Pro Bowl.
Now you can look for him to cash in, as the former undrafted free agent remains quarterback Eli Manning’s favorite target.
Although he totaled nearly 500 fewer receiving yards in 2012 (1,092) than the previous year (1,536), Cruz caught 86 passes, 10 for touchdowns—both of those numbers topping his 2011 performance.
Young and talented, Cruz may be just getting warmed up when it comes to his potential. Don’t look for him on the available free-agent list when the sweepstakes begins on March 12.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $65 million, $50 million guaranteed
It proved to be a shorter season than usual for Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long.
The one-time first overall pick in the NFL draft (2008) was limited to just 12 games in 2012 and was not named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his brief but solid career.
Miami finished 7-9 under first-year head coach Joe Philbin—a one-game improvement from 2011. With young and talented Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, as well as some other promising young talent, things are looking up for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 2000.
And you can’t expect Long to continue to be a part of it.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $72 million, $50 million guaranteed
For the second straight season, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace totaled eight touchdown receptions. But that was just about the only consistent part of the former Pro Bowler’s performance in 2012.
After totaling team highs in receptions (72) and receiving yards (1,193) the previous season, Wallace dropped to only 64 grabs for 836 yards in 2012. And "drops" seemed to be the operative word for the talented wideout.
Last summer, the Steelers re-signed receiver Antonio Brown to a big contract that Wallace may have received had he not opted to hold out last year. With talented Emmanuel Sanders in the fold as well, it remains to be seen if quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will have Wallace at his disposal in 2013.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $74 million, $50 million guaranteed
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning remained productive, but he's obviously not getting any younger, so protecting the prolific signal-caller always remains a priority.
And that’s why getting left tackle Ryan Clady back into the fold will be one of the team’s biggest offseason priorities.
The former Boise State star was named to his third Pro Bowl in the last four seasons—easier said than done in a conference that boasts the likes of Jake Long and Joe Thomas, who are basically automatics when it comes to being named to that All-Star team.
It would be a huge surprise if Clady hit the open market, and if there is a delay in the process, the franchise tag is a strong possibility.
Projected Contract: 6 years, $105 million, $72 million guaranteed
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has never missed a game in his five-year NFL career (93, including playoffs).
He’s led his team to the playoffs in each of his five seasons, put together a 9-4 record in the postseason and capped off 2012 with MVP honors in Super Bowl XLVII thanks to his three touchdown passes against the San Francisco 49ers.
During this playoff run, Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. In fact, in his last eight postseason games, the Ravens signal-caller is 6-2 and has thrown for 18 scores and been picked off just twice.
Should I go on? Look for Flacco to cash in handsomely with the Ravens sooner than later.