Stock Up, Stock Down for NFL Free Agents
With the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine behind us and the start of NFL free agency less than two weeks away (March 12), it's time to gauge whether the stock is up or down for big-name free agents.
For some players, the emergence at the combine of college products sharing the same position hurt their stock. For others, their stock improved on the basis of their teams freeing up money or moves that they've already made or will make.
Let's analyze the stock for 12 top free agents, starting with the best wide receiver on the market.
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We've all heard the knocks on Steelers free-agent wide receiver Mike Wallace. He's not a complete receiver. He drops too many passes. The effort isn't always there.
Bottom line: Those complaints don't matter.
Why? Because Wallace has elite speed, and NFL teams will always overpay for elite speed.
I expect a few receivers to go in Round 1 of the NFL draft, but none of them are currently at Wallace's level. Cordarrelle Patterson is a bit of a project, Keenan Allen doesn't have Wallace's speed and Tavon Austin is undersized compared to Wallace.
So, regardless of the knocks against Wallace, I expect him to eventually sign a contract north of the one Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson inked last offseason, which was five years, $55.55 million dollars.
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Anthony Spencer is an above-average pass-rushing and run-stopping DE/OLB, which means he will get paid. But I believe his stock is currently down.
There are a number of players projected to be selected in the first round of April's draft that can do the same things Spencer does for a fraction of the price. Prospects like LSU's Barkevious Mingo, Oregon's Dion Jordan, Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, Florida State's Bjoern Werner and Georgia's Jarvis Jones would all come with a cheaper price tag.
I don't buy the argument that the Cowboys' recent hyperactive restructuring of contracts to get under the $123 million salary cap will help ink Spencer to a huge deal. The fact is, the Cowboys are still strapped, and they just cannot afford to franchise Spencer again, which would pay him $10.6 million in 2013.
I'm not saying that Spencer won't be paid; he will. But his stock isn't as high as it was a few weeks ago.
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The Kansas City Chiefs will have a new starting quarterback on March 12, when their trade with the San Francisco 49ers for Alex Smith becomes official.
This is important news for the free-agent stock of receiver Dwayne Bowe, as the Chiefs cannot afford to let their clear-cut No. 1 target leave via free agency.
It's becoming increasingly likely that the Chiefs will use the franchise tag on Bowe. While I'm sure Bowe would like the security of a long-term deal, he would be paid $11 million under the tag in 2013, which is nothing to sneeze at. However, I do believe that Mike Wallace will end up signing for more money than Bowe, since he's the younger and more attractive player.
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Jake Long, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, has been a descending player for the last two seasons, as he's been hampered by injuries.
Still, I believe Long would be a worthwhile gamble for a team in need of help along the offensive line, and he will certainly receive a nice payday.
But, much like Anthony Spencer's situation, the availability of quality left tackles in the upcoming draft will hurt him.
With Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Lane Johnson's stock all rising, and with players like Menelik Watson and D.J. Fluker also threatening to go in the first round, it's possible that teams may pass on Long in favor of a younger, cheaper, healthier alternative.
So, while Long will definitely sign somewhere and get paid, many teams will be skeptical considering his recent history.
Wes Welker and Sebastian Vollmer
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This is excellent news for New England's top in-house free agents, wide receiver Wes Welker and tackle Sebastian Vollmer.
Players know the value of being part of an organization like the Patriots. You'll be in the Super Bowl hunt year in and year out, and should you win one, the financial windfall can last a lifetime.
Brady's move will allow the Patriots' flexibility to bring back both Welker and Vollmer, and that's what I expect to happen. That's good news for both men.
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Bush is an intriguing player because of his versatility in the backfield. He ran hard for the Dolphins last season, averaging over four yards per carry and didn't cause any off-field distractions. He'll surely be targeted during the free-agent period.
However, his price tag (last year's salary was $4.5 million) and older legs (he turns 28 on Saturday) might prevent him from receiving the kind of interest and payday he'd like.
Plus, while the running-back class in this draft isn't elite, it is deep with players to be had throughout. Teams might go for a younger, cheaper alternative to Bush.
Bush will definitely sign somewhere and get paid, but teams probably won't be fighting over him.
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The case of Packers free-agent wide receiver Greg Jennings is a curious one, as Jennings has been one of the more productive players at his position in recent years, but he's not even the top-ranked player on the market (that's Mike Wallace).
Ultimately, Jennings' injury-riddled 2012 campaign will work against him. While Jennings surely wants a deal in the $13-14 million range per season, I cannot see that happening.
Further complicating matters is the Packers' current financial situation. The team cleared nearly $14 million in cap space with the release of Charles Woodson and Jeff Saturday, but there are long-term extensions looming for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and linebacker Clay Matthews.
With the emergence of receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, I think it's unlikely that the Packers would apply the franchise tag to Jennings, unless they look to move him in a sign-and-trade.
Then, there's the Miami Dolphins, coached by Jennings' former offensive coordinator in Green Bay, Joe Philbin. While many (including yours truly) connected the dots on a possible Jennings signing in Miami, reports now state that Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland are more likely to pursue Wallace.
With all of that said, there can only be one direction for Jennings' stock to go.
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While Ravens free-agent pass-rusher Paul Kruger finds himself in the same position as Anthony Spencer, I don't believe his stock is down.
There is a history of teams overpaying players based on their postseason performance (Dexter Jackson and Larry Brown, anyone?), and Kruger had a dominant second season, recording 4.5 sacks, forcing a fumble and recovering another in the Ravens' run to a Super Bowl title.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that Kruger would be targeted by the Indianapolis Colts, a team flush with cap space and in need of a 3-4 pass-rusher. Everything I've heard since corroborates my thought, and Kruger will certainly get paid. It just won't be by the Ravens, who now, of course, have a bit of money tied up to franchise quarterback Joe Flacco.
Michael Johnson and Andre Smith
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Bengals free-agent defensive end Michael Johnson and right tackle Andre Smith are two of the more underrated players in free agency, as not many people seem to be talking about them. They should be.
Johnson recorded 11.5 sacks last year and has improved each season. Still just 26, he has home-run potential along the defensive line, and players of that ilk are usually rewarded handsomely.
Also 26, Smith has overcome his man boobs and a first-year holdout to become a solid player for the Bengals.
Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis recently spoke about wanting to retain the team's in-house free agents, which is good news for Johnson and Smith.
The Bengals are flush with cap space and are an ascending team. They'd be wise to retain two of their best, young players, Johnson and Smith. I think they'll do so.
UPDATE: The Bengals have given Johnson the franchise tag.
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Buffalo recently released safety George Wilson and linebacker Nick Barnett, allowing them the financial flexibility to retain free-agent safety Jairus Byrd and guard Andy Levitre.
Although I believe it behooved the Bills to lock Byrd up to a long-term deal and save the franchise tag for another time, they have decided to play it safe with Byrd instead. One of the best ball-hawking safeties in the NFL, the franchised Byrd will now make about $6.9 million next season should he sign the team's qualifying offer.
This speaks very well for teammate Levitre, Buffalo's "other" big impending free agent. As SB Nation's Brian Galliford noted in December, $9.66 million is what Levitre would get should the team exercise the franchise tag on him.
Though that option is now out of the picture, the fact the team may have even contemplated such an uneconomical option speaks tremendously well for the 26-year-old guard's free-agent prospects. Expect Andy Levitre to be paid quite handsomely this offseason. By what team, is the only question.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter.