What Will It Take to Land These 15 NFL Stars?

Dan Van Wie@@DanVanWieContributor IIIFebruary 18, 2013

What Will It Take to Land These 15 NFL Stars?

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    The official 2013 NFL free-agency period doesn't begin until March 12. Some teams are already making big moves in advance of free agency by releasing veteran star players from their existing contracts. All of these moves are intended to free up salary cap space so that teams can either sign their own free agents or have enough money available to sign the free agents they covet.

    Next week, NFL teams can begin applying the franchise tag to players they want to hold on to. The franchise tag period begins on Monday, February 18, and runs until March 4.

    Sunday, we will look at 15 key free agents and will project what it will take for new teams to acquire them. We will also look at a few stars who have an opportunity to land elsewhere via trade and what kind of packages it would take for their teams to be willing to pull the trigger.

    Our final slide is devoted to players who will probably receive the franchise tag. There is no guarantee that all of them will be tagged, but if any of them don't and are allowed to reach the free-agent market, they will have plenty of suitors.

Veteran Stars Under Contract Who Could Become Free Agents in the 2013 Offseason

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    There have been a number of veteran star players who have been released or had their contracts voided since Super Bowl XLVII. Players like DE Osi Umenyiora, S Charles Woodson, LB Nick Barnett, S George Wilson, RB Ahmad Bradshaw, LB Michael Boley and DE Kyle Vanden Bosch will all be playing for new teams in 2013.

    Here are three key veteran players who are still under contract, but their situations could change over the next month or two, with any one of them winding up as a free agent.

    Pittsburgh Steelers LB James Harrison

    According to a story by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette, the coaches want Harrison back in 2013. They just have to convince the front-office personnel to make it happen, which might not be easy.

    A $6.57 million salary for a player who will be 35 years old in May and keeps getting injured doesn't work for everybody. If the Steelers can't work out a different deal, Harrison may wind up as a free agent, which seems almost unthinkable for the 2008 AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

    For a team that has a hole at outside linebacker and wants to take a chance on Harrison, the Steelers would probably need to offer up $5-6 million, as clearly his best days are behind him.

    St. Louis Rams RB Steven Jackson

    Steven Jackson has an opportunity to void his contract, which would allow him to test the free-agent market. Jackson has experienced one losing season after another in St. Louis over the years and this might be his opportunity to sign a deal with a team in contention while he can still play.

    If Jackson wants to play for a winner, he might need to consider signing for less money than he is worth to be viewed as "salary cap friendly" for teams that are loaded with talent all over the roster.

    The option that Jackson held was worth $7 million, so any team that is considering Jackson seriously would have to free up at least $5 million per year to make him an offer. One valid question is how much longer will Jackson's legs hold up? He has gained over 10,000 yards in his career since he began assuming the bulk of the Rams ground game since 2004.

    San Francisco 49ers QB Alex Smith

    The 49ers will do whatever they can to receive some kind of value in trade for Alex Smith to take advantage of a relatively soft quarterback market in 2013. Teams know that the 49ers aren't really in the driver's seat since Smith was demoted in favor of Colin Kaepernick. A midround draft pick might be all that is required for a team to grab Smith, as long as it is a team outside of the NFC West Division.

    If the 49ers can't find a team that is willing to part with some value, then they may not have any other choice but to release Smith and let him find a new team. Should Smith be allowed to test the free-agent market, offers would need to be in the $7-8 million range to get a deal done.

Indianapolis Colts DE Dwight Freeney

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    The Indianapolis Colts continue to let some of their key veteran players go, as they announced that the team will not sign Dwight Freeney this year.

    Letting Freeney test the free-agent market is the fair thing to do, as he seemed more like a fish out of water in the Colts' new defensive scheme in 2012.

    How much value does Freeney have left and will he be viewed as a star or as more of a situational role player at this stage in his career?

    Freeney will become 33 years old on Tuesday, Feb. 19, so one has to wonder how much longer he has left. Remember that Freeney is a member of the 100-sack club (107.5 total sacks in his career), so there are some tricks that he could share with a young defensive line that needs some leadership.

    Teams won't extend him contract offers as a top pass-rusher like John Abraham or Mario Williams. Freeney's sack totals in the past four years have been headed downhill: 13.5, 10, 8.5 and five sacks. As a result, contract offers in the $5 million range might be sufficient to land him at this stage of his career.

Cincinnati Bengals DE Michael Johnson

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have a great salary cap situation coming into the 2013 offseason, but they have two key free agents in tackle Andre Smith and defensive end Michael Johnson. They can only give out one franchise tag, so the question is which guy do they give it to?

    If the Bengals can't come up with a long-term contract offer to Johnson's liking, he is then free to explore the market. There are a number of teams that are in need of pass rush help. Johnson finished the 2012 season with 11.5 sacks, which was good for a tie for ninth-best in the NFL. That also means that Johnson is the only player who finished in the top 10 in sacks who also happens to be a free agent.

    That means big bucks are coming his way. It is still possible that the Bengals will try to sign Smith to a long-term deal and put the franchise tag on Johnson.

    Johnson finished the 2012 season as the No. 13 defensive end playing in the 4-3 scheme by Pro Football Focus. He graded out better against the run than the rush. Johnson was credited with 34 quarterback hurries to go along with his 10.5 sacks.

    The bottom line is that Johnson will be in demand, and that means getting paid what he is worth. Offers for Johnson would have to begin at at least $9 million, and then the bidding wars commence from there.

Detroit Lions DE Cliff Avril

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    One player who came up far short on returning the money invested in him in 2012 was Detroit Lions DE Cliff Avril. Avril received the franchise tag in 2012 from Detroit and rewarded them by turning in a season to forget.

    Avril managed to come up with 9.5 sacks on the year, but that doesn't justify earning $10.6 million in compensation. He deflected just one pass, had four tackles for a loss and forced two fumbles.

    Just to show you how much of an epic fail Avril was in 2012, Pro Football Focus graded Johnson in five categories: overall, rush, coverage, run and penalty. He received a negative grade in all five categories. In the rankings for 4-3 defensive ends in 2012, Avril didn't even crack their Top 50 list. 

    The strange thing is that Detroit offered Avril a contract for three years and $30 million last year, and he turned them down. In an article by Justin Rogers of Mlive.com, Avril feels that he is worth the kind of money that Mario Williams received last year from the Bills.

    All it takes is one team to believe that Avril is the real deal. As Rogers pointed out in his article, Avril sees the deals that other defensive ends are getting around the league:

    Carolina's Charles Johnson and Arizona's Calais Campbell. Johnson earned a six-year, $72 million package with over $30 million guaranteed. Campbell's deal will pay him up to $55 million over five years with $31 million guaranteed.

    But if teams were smart, they would offer Avril a one-year deal to see if he is still hungry enough to perform in 2013. Expect some kind of sticker shock to exist because Avril appears to be out of touch with reality. The truth will probably fall somewhere in the middle.

Atlanta Falcons CB Brent Grimes

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    The Atlanta Falcons thought enough of CB Brent Grimes that they gave him their franchise tag in 2012. Little did they know that he would be lost for the season after getting injured in the season opener.

    Fast-forward to the 2013 season, and now Grimes is a pending free agent. The Falcons never signed him to a long-term deal, and if they apply the franchise tag for 2013, it will cost them 120 percent of what Grimes made in 2012.

    Nobody knows yet what kind of shape Grimes is in, so for any team to pay somebody more than $10 million who wasn't able to last for one full game takes courage and conviction. Maybe a leap of faith as well.

    What Grimes has, though, is a track record. In 2011, Grimes wound up as the No. 3 overall corner in the NFL, as per the grades handed out by Pro Football Focus, behind only Darrelle Revis and Cortland Finnegan. Grimes wasn't a one-year wonder, as he had another top-10 finish in 2010, according to the grades by PFF (No. 10).

    Since there is ample tape to go by, and the franchise tag for corners is $10.688 million this year, free-agent bids for Grimes will have to come in at $10 million or better.

New England Patriots WR Wes Welker

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    Wes Welker had an uncharacteristic start to his 2012 season when the New England Patriots opted to start Julian Edelman over him, but that didn't last very long. Welker was back in stride and wound up the 2012 year leading the team with 118 receptions for 1,354 yards. Welker averaged 11.5 yards per catch and scored on six touchdown receptions.

    I find it rather amusing that everybody is quick to brush off all of Welker's accomplishments as being purely a direct result of playing with Tom Brady in the New England Patriots' offensive system.

    The truth of the matter is that Welker has only played for two offenses in his NFL career to date. When Welker made his NFL debut with the Miami Dolphins, for two seasons (2005 and 2006) he witnessed a quarterback carousel that included Joey Harrington, Dante Culpepper and Gus Frerotte. There was no continuity and no clear-cut leader at quarterback.

    He landed with the Patriots in 2007 and found success. So, if he winds up landing with a new team in free agency in 2013 and doesn't come up with at least 90 receptions for 1,000-plus yards, then I would be more convinced that there could be some truth to the system-made-him-successful comments. But until that happens, I believe that teams around the league know how to properly employ Welker and will find a way to make him a key component of their offenses.

    Offers would have to come in the $9-10 million range for Welker because he has proven that he is worth that kind of money.

Green Bay Packers S Charles Woodson

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    The Green Bay Packers made the tough decision to release popular veteran Charles Woodson, as his age, health and salary formed a perfect storm of reasons why they had to part ways.

    Now that Woodson is a free agent who will become 37 years old during the 2013 season, the question becomes who will he wind up playing for and how much will they have to pay him to come on board? 

    Like a select few players before him, such as Ray Lewis, Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis, Woodson has the opportunity to go out on top if he selects the right contending team to play with in 2013.

    The best options right now appear to be New England, Baltimore and, if it happens to lose Dashon Goldson to another team in free agency, San Francisco. Landing in either Baltimore or New England will be a direct result of where Ed Reed winds up playing in 2013.

    As far as compensation goes, there is no reason any team would have to offer up the $9 million that Woodson was scheduled to make this year. None of the teams that we have mentioned would be able to afford that, so Woodson will have to be resigned to the fact that he will make less money in order to have one last shot at earning another Super Bowl ring.

    So, how low would Woodson be willing to play for in 2013 without being insulted? If a contender has an opening for a starting role and could still pay him $5-6 million, that might be enough to get the job done. It would obviously have to be the right situation for Woodson to make that kind of a sacrifice, but then again, he isn't the same player that he was five years ago.

Baltimore Ravens S Ed Reed

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    Since we just mentioned Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed on the previous slide with Charles Woodson, it is now time to discuss Reed's situation in greater detail.

    With so much focus on the trio of star veteran players on the Ravens defense during the week leading up to the Super Bowl (Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs), there was a good deal of dialogue about the Super Bowl being the last time Reed would be playing for Baltimore.

    Since the Super Bowl, there have been no further developments in Reed's situation. There is still wide speculation that the Ravens will allow Reed to test the free-agent waters, confidant that he will realize that his best deal is to come back and play for Baltimore.

    But everybody knows that Reed has a big fan in Bill Belichick, and if Reed is allowed to test the market, then Belichick will find a way to free up the money to sign him to a deal. Reed would then become the 2013 version of Rodney Harrison as the key veteran leader in the secondary.

    If the Patriots are able to re-sign some of their key free agents like Aqib Talib, Sebastian Vollmer and Wes Welker, then there won't be any more money left over for Reed. In that scenario, he would probably return to Baltimore, just like Ray Lewis did when he was allowed to test the free-agent market years before.

    A franchise tag safety earns $6.798 million, so for one of the best safeties in the game, a team would need to come in at $7 million to grab Reed's attention.

Miami Dolphins Tackle Jake Long

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    If you would have asked Miami Dolphins fans two years ago what is the likelihood that tackle Jake Long would ever play for another team in his career, they would probably have told you "zero." Long seemed to be a great fit for the Dolphins, and he excelled in his game.

    But in the last two years, that perception has begun to change. Injuries have crept up and the team went to a different blocking scheme last year that didn't specifically cater to Long's strengths or skills. So, things have now become awkward. The team will have to try to come up with ways to prove to Long's agent that he isn't worth the money that they are asking for, and they don't believe he is currently worth the franchise tag price of $9.660 million.

    The way that things are going, it wouldn't be a surprise if Long goes out into the free-agent market and gets blown away by one of the teams that are desperate to improve a weak offensive line. Teams that are notorious for giving a ton of sacks or hits on their quarterbacks are Arizona, Green Bay and Chicago.

    For the record, Pro Football Focus ranked Long as the second-best tackle in the game in both 2009 and 2010. Since then, he has been in a downward spiral, at No. 21 in 2011 and No. 46 last year.

    Long will probably receive offers in the $8-9 million range in free agency. Depending on what the Dolphins wind up offering him, don't be surprised if he opts to leave for greener pastures in 2013.

New England Patriots CB Aqib Talib

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    This story from The Boston Globe states that the New England Patriots have to pick their poison. Which free agent do they dare to let walk away in 2013 free agency: Aqib Talib, Wes Welker or Sebastian Vollmer?

    The Patriots' secondary performance improved after they acquired Talib in a trade with Tampa Bay. Although Talib has his issues, the Patriots would like to retain him for 2013 and beyond. They have to figure out how to do it. If Talib is unwilling to accept a lower salary in exchange for playing on an annual contending team, then he will probably be allowed to see what is out there in free agency.

    There is still a chance that Talib will get the franchise tag from New England, and that would elevate his 2013 compensation to $10.668 million. For teams that are hoping to see Talib out there in free agency, he should be commanding offers in the $8.5-9.5 million range.

Dallas Cowboys LB Anthony Spencer

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    Although there is no doubt that the Dallas Cowboys would love to find a way to keep Anthony Spencer, the more likely scenario is that he will find a new team that is willing to pay him top dollar for his services.

    In a report by Nick Eatman of DallasCowboys.com, he didn't believe the Cowboys would be able to retain Spencer for 2013. He thinks that Spencer will wind up testing the waters in free agency and will get blown away by teams willing to offer him a deal in the  $10-12 million range.

    Part of the problem for Dallas has to do with their salary cap woes and that Spencer's play is worthy of top dollars. That is bad timing for Dallas right now and good timing for Spencer's financial handlers.

    If there is one team that needs help on defense it is the New Orleans Saints, and who knows the impact that Spencer makes better than Saints new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.

    When Pro Football Focus did their breakdown of the 2012 season, Spencer graded out as the top-ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL. That is further proof that Spencer will be blown away by the size of the offers he receives in free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace

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    Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace is almost assured of wearing a different team uniform in 2013. The question is which team will sign him, and further, how much will they have to pay to get him to sign on the dotted line?

    Wallace has the speed and hands to be a top receiver in the league. He has wanted to find a team that is willing to pay him like one, and that should happen during free agency in 2013.

    There are several teams that have huge holes at wide receiver, and they are the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams. Of the two, the Dolphins have the much better salary cap situation ($38 million under the salary cap), so they are in position to make Wallace an attractive offer.

    Wallace wants to see an offer in the $10-12 million range, but that doesn't necessarily mean that is what he will earn. After all, his performance in 2012 was less than stellar. The analysts at Pro Football Focus ranked him at No. 91 in 2012, with an overall negative grade.

    His performance last year will force teams to come in with offers less than he wants, but he will still be paid handsomely. Expecting to see offers upwards of $7-8 million per year for Wallace in free agency.

New York Jets CB Darrelle Revis

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    The New York Jets would love for CB Darrelle Revis to end his career playing for Gang Green. But the reality of the Jets' salary cap mess and the amount of guaranteed money to players like Mark Sanchez means that there simply isn't that much cash left to pay Revis what he is worth.

    So, as painful as it sounds, the Jets may have to bite the bullet and be willing to see what Revis could bring them back in trade value. How much would another team need to surrender to get the deal done?

    In an ideal world, the Jets would be able to lure teams into a bidding war for Revis, forcing the ante to continue to go up and up. In a debate held over at NFL.com, Jason Smith speculated that the ultimate package that a team would need to come up with would be a first-round draft pick, another draft pick (either a third- or fourth-round pick) and a player of some degree of substance.

    For the teams involved in the trade discussions, they would have to stop and think about what kind of a player they could get with that first-round pick, and then consider the financial ramifications. With the new CBA, the first-round draft picks will cost them far less than the annual demand of $14-16 that Revis will expect to earn. Buyer's remorse could quickly set in, so this trade is far from a slam dunk.

    The potential Revis trade will undoubtedly be one of the most talked about stories in the 2013 NFL offseason, but it won't last nearly as long as the Peyton Manning spectacle from 2012.

Expensive Stars Who Teams Could End Up Using the Franchise Tag On

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    NFL teams are free to start assigning their own free agents with a franchise tag starting on Monday, February 18. The last day to use the franchise tag is March 4. So, every NFL general manager then has eight days after that to begin making offers to agents for the free agents they represent starting on March 12.

    Just because a team places a franchise tag on a player, that doesn't prevent them from negotiating a long-term deal with the player. In most cases, reaching a long-term contract is what the team wants to do anyway. The key development is that by removing the player from the free-agent pool, they will more than likely retain that player rather then let them walk away.

    The following players stand a reasonable chance to receive a franchise tag. If they don't get one, then they will be in demand in the free-agent market, with several being the subject of a bidding war.

    Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco

    Based on Flacco's performance in the playoffs, he will be commanding top dollar and will get it. Baltimore will have to either place the tag on him for $14 million or the exclusive tag for $16 million. Long-term deal in the $18-20 million range per year is probably going to be required.

    Buffalo Bills S Jairus Byrd

    Franchise tag numbers for a safety are $6.798 million, but the Bills prefer to sign Byrd to a longer-term deal. The Bills may need to come in above $7 million for a longer-term deal.

    Chicago Bears DT Henry Melton

    The Bears don't have that much salary cap space available due to having a number of huge contracts on defense already with Julius Peppers, Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs. Melton will cost them $8 million to franchise, so this is far from a slam dunk. If he doesn't get a tag, NFL teams will need to come in above $8 million to get him, as Melton believes he is the best defensive tackle in the NFL right now. 

    Cincinnati Bengals T Andre Smith

    Smith is the first of five tackles on this slide. NFL teams know how important tackles are, and they have to take action to protect the better ones in the game. Going rate for a franchise tag tackle is $9.660 million. So, for any team that sees any one of these tackles hitting the open market, they should have at least $9 million in available salary cap space.

    As for Smith in free agency, his price range will probably be in the $9-10 million range.

    Denver Broncos T Ryan Clady

    Clady has the best chance of all five tackles to be franchised. He is Peyton Manning's bodyguard. If Denver lets him test the market, some team would step up over $10 million to steal him from Denver.

    Kansas City Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe

    With Andy Reid now in charge in Kansas City, the last thing he wants to see happen is to bring in a quarterback while the top wide receiver is leaving for greener pastures. Franchise tag money for wide receivers is $10.357 million, and remember that Bowe got the tag in 2012. So, Kansas City would have to pay him 120 percent in 2013. Looks like Bowe will get at least $10 million wherever he plays in 2013.

    New England Patriots T Sebastian Vollmer

    The Patriots offensive line went through some personnel changes in 2012, and it needs to retain Vollmer to prevent more shuffling in 2013. Tom Brady will lobby to see Vollmer brought back.

    New Orleans Saints T Jermon Bushrod

    The Saints will have to perform some salary cap surgery to find the space needed to franchise tag Bushrod. If they can't, teams will go after the talented tackle, which would make things less comfortable for Drew Brees. As we stated above, $9-10 million is the going rate for top-tier tackles.

    New York Giants T Will Beatty

    Beatty is the best offensive lineman that the Giants have, so unless they can convince him to sign a long-term deal, they will have to apply the franchise tag to him. The Giants have been aggressive in clearing up some salary cap room since the Super Bowl, so that bodes well for Beatty staying in New York.

    San Diego Chargers G Louis Vasquez

    Vasquez is one of the best guards hitting free agency this year (with Andy Levitre of Buffalo being the other), so teams that are in need of improving their interior offensive lines will be curious to see what the Chargers decide. All offensive linemen are lumped together in the franchise tag numbers by position, so putting a tag on Vasquez would cost the Chargers the same $9.660 million that the tackles receive. 

    San Francisco 49ers S Dashon Goldson

    Here is another example of a player who was tagged in 2012 (Dwayne Bowe was the other) who hasn't been signed long-term and whose team might have to apply the franchise tag again to keep him. San Francisco would have to pay Goldson 120 percent of what he got in 2012. The 49ers secondary looked vulnerable in the Super Bowl, so that might prevent teams from throwing out more than $6-7 million to try to lure Goldson away from San Francisco.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers DE Michael Bennett

    Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 7 defensive end in the NFL in 2012 in 4-3 schemes. Since he led the Bucs in sacks last year, Tampa Bay doesn't want to see him leave in free agency. The going rate for a defensive end with the franchise tag is $10.984 million, so if he is allowed to hit free agency, it would take roughly $10 million to sign Bennett.

    Tennessee Titans TE Jared Cook

    The going rate for a franchise tag tight end in 2013 is $5.962 million. If the Titans don't reach a long-term deal with Cook, then they will likely give him the franchise tag. If negotiations don't go well and he hits the open market, offers would need to start at at least $5 million to get him to sign a deal.

    Thanks for checking out the presentation.