Free agency is always a time for NFL fans to get excited about the upcoming season. And this year, with an abundance of notable free agents on the block, it will be no different.
Super Bowl XLVII MVP Joe Flacco, star receivers Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, Dwayne Bowe and Wes Welker; stud linebacker Anthony Spencer and hard-hitting safety Dashon Goldson are among the best players entering free agency. Some, like Flacco, are unlikely to leave their current homes, but others may bolt.
Who will go and who will stay? Here are some destination predictions for the most notable free agents.
Dwayne Bowe is a legitimate No. 1 receiver, but he didn't have a quarterback to throw him the ball last year. But with a quarterback, he can be an absolute stud.
Bowe has great hands and will go up to make a tough play, and there are quarterbacks who will give him the ball. There will also be teams in intense pursuit of him, as there are a lot of teams in need of a game-changing wide receiver.
Some teams that could use a receiver include the Steelers, Rams, Dolphins, 49ers and Packers, although some of those teams, like the Rams, are likely to use the draft (the Rams have two first-round picks) to fill their needs. Plus, St. Louis isn't a very attractive destination for someone like Bowe.
Green Bay, Pittsburgh and San Francisco are attractive places, though, and Bowe could play for any of these teams. However, Pittsburgh and Green Bay have receivers of their own (Greg Jennings and Mike Wallace) who they should be focusing on, and Green Bay has other holes to fill. They could look for a wide receiver, such as Justin Hunter or DeAndre Hopkins (if he is available) in the draft.
Plus, the Packers need to spend their money on other things. They already have three good young receivers, and while the Steelers don't have as many needs, if they want a receiver, they should sign Mike Wallace. In addition, Pittsburgh isn't as attractive of a place right now, and I can't envision Bowe sporting the Steelers black and yellow in 2013.
San Francisco, however, has more receiving troubles, as they were stuck with no receiving depth in the playoffs (Randy Moss was the No. 2 receiver). I can see the 49ers forking over the dough for Bowe instead of paying Moss, who has a bad track record, on a short deal.
Bowe and Crabtree would make the 49ers very hard to stop, and I think that they can and will pair up. San Francisco can take Bowe in, and he will fill a huge hole that Moss and A.J Jenkins failed to fill. Bowe won't be staying in Kansas City, and San Francisco has what it takes to lure him in.
Destination: San Francisco
Joe Flacco won Super Bowl MVP honors after an incredible playoff performance in which he dissected defenses for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. So, pretty much everyone is assuming that he won't be going anywhere.
Baltimore is smart enough to realize that a quarterback with a 9-4 playoff record, at least one playoff win in all five of his NFL seasons, three AFC Championship appearances and a Super Bowl ring deserves money. I don't believe he deserves Peyton Manning money, but it looks like he will get paid a lot.
Flacco is an elite quarterback in my book, and while Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan are better (in my opinion), Flacco has earned a hefty paycheck. Baltimore's not going to let him go, as they feel like he is their franchise quarterback.
There are certainly teams that could use Flacco, but Flacco loves Baltimore and they want him. He will be locked up by the Ravens, and he'll be patrolling with the Ravens for the next several years.
Is it possible for Flacco to be in a different uniform next year? Yes. Is it likely? About as likely as the Jaguars and Lions facing off in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Greg Jennings has done a lot of great things for the Packers, including his incredible performance in Super Bowl XLV in which he caught two touchdowns and could have made a case for being the game's MVP. However, many people feel that his time in Green Bay is up.
The Packers will need to fork over a lot of dough while completely changing their offseason plans if they keep Jennings, and I think that they're fine with James Jones and Jordy Nelson. So, for me, it's down to a couple of teams.
Some people might say the Vikings can go for a receiver, but I see them addressing that need in the draft. The division factor also plays a role, so I don't see Jennings going to Minnesota. I can, however, see him playing for the Dolphins or Browns.
The two teams combined to go 12-20 last year, but both teams are headed upward and ready to compete for a playoff berth. Ryan Tannehill is a developing young quarterback who showed lots of promise in 2012, even with Brian Hartline and Davone Bess as his go-to receivers.
Miami needs receivers badly, and they have the cap space to take in Jennings. I can see the Dolphins giving Jennings a lot of money due to them needing a receiver very badly, but I can also see them going for Cordarrelle Patterson or Keenan Allen, both great receivers with the ability to succeed in the NFL, in the draft with the 12th pick.
Cleveland, on the other hand, has other needs to address on the defensive line, and they can definitely nab a good player with the sixth overall pick. In free agency, they can address their need at wide receiver, as Josh Gordon and Greg Little aren't going to cut it as primary receivers. Jennings could opt to sign with the Browns, as Cleveland just needs Brandon Weeden to step up in his sophomore season to make the playoffs.
Jennings could help Weeden a lot, and I think Jennings will realize that and will sign with the Browns. Cleveland isn't the most attractive option, but they know how to support a winning franchise and a good player like Jennings. I see Miami going after and possibly landing a receiver in free agency, if not the draft, and trying to upgrade the secondary in free agency.
As for the Browns? They will fill a major need here with Jennings.
Dashon Goldson fizzled down the stretch for the 49ers, but he is still one of the most notable free agents who is likely to garner a serviceable amount of money.
It's not going to be easy to sign Bowe and Goldson, and I think the 49ers will land Bowe. So, this would likely mean that Goldson would bolt, but that doesn't mean he won't find a home. Plenty of teams will give Goldson a good amount of money to anchor their secondary.
One of those teams is the Dolphins. I think Miami will make a play for Goldson, who can add a good presence to a needy defense. The Dolphins ranked 21st in total defense in 2012, and the hard-hitting safety can make a monumental impact in 2013. If Goldson does leave San Francisco, his career as a 49er would not end well. However, a fresh start can benefit him.
As I said, the Dolphins can have a very good season if they can bring in a talented receiver and secondary player, and Goldson can be that secondary player. Goldson has nine interceptions in the last two seasons, and if you include the playoffs, that number goes up to 10.
He's had some troubles lately, as I mentioned, but he would still bring a strong presence to the Miami secondary. Goldson has made the last two Pro Bowls, and he has experience from the last two 49ers playoff runs.
Miami needs a guy like this. So, because of the dent in the 49ers payroll, Miami will splash the cash and sign Goldson. Even if the 49ers can sign him, I think he bolts for Miami and the 49ers address their secondary need in the draft.
After huge drops in Super Bowl XLVI and the 2013 AFC Championship, Wes Welker has angered Patriots fans and hurt his chances of staying in New England. However, what some people fail to realize is that Welker caught an incredible 118 passes for 1,354 yards in 2012 and has been Tom Brady's go-to guy for years.
While Welker is small, he is slippery, he gets open and he catches passes (he had 133 catchable passes, and his 11.28 drop rate is far from the worst in the league). He is targeted often by Brady because he has Brady's trust, and it would hurt Brady to lose Welker.
Teams could make offers and try and sign Welker, but the Patriots could also put the franchise tag on him. Even if they don't, the front office realizes how valuable Welker is and how much he has done for the franchise, and it would be hard for them to watch another team take him.
Welker also has lost two Super Bowls and an AFC Championship, in addition to some other crushing playoff games, and I believe he has a burning desire to win a Super Bowl. While teams like Minnesota and St. Louis are on the rise and have good chances of making the playoffs, he is much more likely to win a Super Bowl with the Patriots than any other team that signs him.
To me, this case is like Joe Flacco. As a Broncos fan, it's extremely frustrating to watch Welker, and I imagine the Patriots want to keep him. They'll make an offer, and he will stay, whether it's the money or the winning tradition. Whatever it is, I can't see Welker leaving New England.
Destination: New England
The Cowboys have enjoyed a lot from Anthony Spencer, but they don't have the money to sign Spencer. For Dallas to re-sign their star linebacker, they would need him to take a pay cut, and that's unlikely with the Cowboys not even making the playoffs in the last few years.
However, there are teams that will make a run at Spencer, as lots of teams are in need at outside linebacker. Teams like the Browns could go after him, as Cleveland has a lot of money to spend. I predicted that they would sign Greg Jennings, but Jennings could go somewhere else.
While Cleveland isn't the most exciting place for a free agent, teams like Indianapolis, New York (Jets), Cincinnati and even Pittsburgh could make a run for him. However, the Steelers have lots of depth there, and the Jets aren't exactly succeeding at luring in free agents.
Indianapolis, however, needs a linebacker, as Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis combined for 13 sacks and 45 tackles (yes, 45 total) in 2012. Spencer recorded 11 sacks and 95 tackles alone, and he can help greatly against the run. The Colts allowed 5.1 YPC last year, and they have to face off against Arian Foster, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson, Jamaal Charles, Frank Gore, Marshawn Lynch and other talented backs in 2013.
Spencer can help against the run, and he is improving and now in his prime, as he set career bests with his sack and tackle totals last year. Indianapolis has to find him attractive, as they allowed over 24 PPG and finished 26th in total defense in 2012. They only made the playoffs because of a very easy schedule and Andrew Luck, and it will be a lot harder in 2013.
Luck has Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton to catch passes, but a poor offensive line and a below-average running back in Vick Ballard. Indianapolis realizes that it needs help on defense because the offense is far from invincible. And Spencer can help.
As ESPN notes here, the Colts have cap space and are willing to pay. Spencer would fill a major need and could change the dynamic of the whole team, and I think the 11-5 record in 2012 and the money will lure Spencer to the Colts. Indianapolis lands a big fish here.
Mike Wallace wanted top dollar last offseason, but he did nothing to prove that he deserved a large contract in 2012.
Wallace and the Steelers struggled in 2012, going 8-8 and missing the playoffs by two games. Wallace was 34th in receiving with 64 catches for 836 yards and eight touchdowns, down from his 72 receptions for 1,193 yards in 2011.
While Wallace is still a big name, and while he can still make great catches, it's going to be harder for him to get a lot of money. He doesn't seem too happy with the Steelers, and I doubt he returns to Pittsburgh.
According to Mike Max of WCCO (via CBS), Minnesota will try and trade Percy Harvin, but largely due to attitude. This could mean that the Vikings will be making a run at a receiver in free agency. However, if the Vikings can trade Harvin, they would get rid of one headache, and they won't want to bring another one into the locker room.
The same thing could happen to a lot of teams that run on chemistry, and it may be hard for Wallace to find a deal that he thinks is fair. It's safe to say fellow Steelers players didn't enjoy Wallace's contract dispute, and it's safe to say most players wouldn't like sharing a locker room with someone in those talks either.
Still, there are teams that will pursue Wallace intensely. The Dolphins could be a fit, as they have a lot of money to spend. Seattle could try and add one more offensive weapon, as they would be nearly unstoppable with Golden Tate, Sidney Rice, Wallace, Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch and a defense that allowed 15.5 PPG.
However, I don't know if Wallace would want to play second fiddle or go in a rotation, as the Seahawks also have to give time to tight ends Anthony McCoy and Zach Miller. That would cause some problems for the Seahawks, and I don't think they will try and take in Wallace. However, the Dolphins could try.
As I mentioned, Miami has lots of money to spend, and it can lock up Goldson and Wallace, which would completely change the team. Wallace would be the main receiver and would receive a satisfactory paycheck, as the Dolphins would probably overpay for him.
Maybe the Dolphins won't sign Wallace. But he's definitely the best fit, and I think he will sign with the Dolphins.
It's hard to leave a team when you've just won the Super Bowl with them, and that's the scenario Ravens safety Ed Reed is in.
Reed is 34 years old and on the decline, and there was even speculation that he would retire after the 2012 season. He would be going out on top (as Reed had an interception in Super Bowl XLVII) while holding up the Lombardi Trophy for the first time. However, Reed wants more.
Baltimore will definitely try to keep their star safety, but Reed could have played his last game as a Raven. According to Jamison Hensley of ESPN, Reed could definitely see himself playing for Bill Belichick in New England.
Belichick has always admired Reed as a player, and it could be a great fit, as New England needs secondary help to support their explosive offense. Reed probably has a better chance winning another Super Bowl with the Patriots than he does in Baltimore, as there are some question marks with the Ravens, and Baltimore had lots of trouble before January.
However, if the Patriots sign Welker and lock up top cornerback Aqib Talib, it's going to cause major payroll problems. There will be a large bidding war for Reed, and I think it will be too much for the Patriots in terms of money.
New England will lock up Welker and keep their offense strong, and try and upgrade at receiver through the draft. Talib is tied to the Patriots because he finished the 2012 season with them, but it's hard for me to see Reed leaving, while I can definitely see New England locking up their top corner.
That being said, other teams have holes in the secondary and other teams will go after Reed. Denver could be a possible fit, as their secondary was torched in the postseason. However, I think they have enough talent back there and the ability to steal a good player in the draft, and I don't see the Broncos getting in a bidding war.
With Denver and New England out of the mix, I don't see any more realistic teams that would make Reed want to leave Baltimore. He has to love being a Raven, and since he's going to retire soon, I imagine that he would want to end his career a Raven.
And that's exactly what I think he will do.
Victor Cruz is a fan favorite and a star in New York, and it's going to take a big-time offer from a big-time team to lure him away from the Giants.
Teams like the Dolphins have the cash, but Jennings and Wallace are much more likely to sport a new uniform than Cruz, and the Dolphins and every other team realize that. The Giants want him badly, and other teams will have to overpay to get him.
Why? Because Cruz is a restricted free agent.
If a team makes an offer for Cruz, the Giants will likely make them wait until the last second and then match the offer, which will ruin a lot for whichever team makes the offer. I doubt many teams will make a serious run at Cruz, seeing that there are four other great receivers on this list who are much more likely to be leaving their team.
There is no shortage of receiving talent in this free-agent class, and the Giants will make sure they keep their receiving talent around for a long time.
Destination: New York (Giants)
Steven Jackson is an example of an incredible talent stuck on a team that's far short of incredible.
The Rams took major steps in 2012, going 1-0-1 against the NFC champion 49ers while beating the Redskins and Seahawks as well in a 7-8-1 season. The Rams can make the playoffs in 2013, as things are finally looking good in St. Louis. Unfortunately for the Rams, they are extremely unlikely to win a Super Bowl in the next few years.
Jackson has been losing for his entire career while posting 1,000-yard seasons in every year except his rookie year and eclipsing 10,000 rushing yards total. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk explains here how Jackson might retire, and it's unlikely for him to sign a long-term deal with the Rams.
If Jackson is serious about retiring, he wouldn't want to sign a short-term deal with St. Louis either, because, as I mentioned, the Rams aren't likely to be going anywhere in the near future. The Rams may be able to win a playoff game, but Steven Jackson wants a Ray Lewis ending, not a Tony Gonzalez ending.
He's more likely to find that in a place like Denver. The Broncos could make a play for Jackson, as Knowshon Moreno is unproven and Willis McGahee has experienced major fumbling issues. However, I think Moreno could have a very good year in 2013, and as I mentioned in the previous slide, I see Denver making small changes. I can't see them forking over tons of money for Jackson.
However, there are teams that need to take that final step. While they have found lots of success in the last few years, there are some major holes in Green Bay. They don't have any talent at running back or at offensive line, and they have a major shortage of playmakers.
For a couple of years, though, Aaron Rodgers, arguably the NFL's best quarterback, and Jackson, one of the NFL's best running backs, could wreak havoc on opposing defenses. Green Bay could try and upgrade the offensive line or bring in another pass-catcher in the draft while filling a huge hole at running back.
Teaming up with Rodgers has to be an exciting possibility for Jackson, and it would create a vast chance of winning a Super Bowl. I have to imagine that Jackson would want to play with the Packers, as he would have major running lanes because defenses would have to focus so much on Rodgers.
If Green Bay makes an offer, I imagine Jackson accepts. They have the money to take him in, and Green Bay is a place free agents want to play. To me, Green Bay seems like the most realistic option for Jackson.
Destination: Green Bay