The power balance of the entire NFL is about to shift.
Every year, it does. Sometimes it only shifts a little. Sometimes the whole league gets a shock to its system. Whether big or small, the coaches and general managers of the NFL know it's coming, and they've spent all winter preparing for it.
That's what free agency does in the NFL. Ever since R.C. Owens became the first NFL player to switch teams (in 1962), free agency has given players the ability to choose where to play and—ostensibly—where the good teams will be.
Think about the Denver Broncos. They weren't supposed to be any good in 2013. Maybe OK, but not Peyton Manning good. How about the San Diego Chargers? They've lost so much talent in free agency over the past decade, they could be considered a minor league team for the NFC South.
If the NFL draft is meant to be a great equalizer—giving bad teams a shot at the best players—the free-agency period is anarchy at its finest. Teams have little control over what happens, and coaches are tasked with recruiting like their college peers, hoping that they get their man.
The teams that make the best choices (or have the most discretion) during free agency are often the teams that come out on top. It isn't about signing the most players (see: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2012); it's about finding the right player at the right place for the right situations.
The teams that do that will likely see the competitive balance of the NFL shift their way sooner rather than later.
JaMarcus Russell is currently trying to stage a monumental comeback into the NFL. (Note: B/R's video team is chronicling this comeback). He's working out with Brian Martin of TEST Football in the new TEST West facility in California.
His personal quarterback guru? That's Jeff Garcia, who spent 18 years playing professional football. His speed guy? Oh, just a guy named Ato Boldon, who happens to have four Olympic medals and spent his career as one of the fastest men on the planet.
That's a good team around Russell, and he still has the phenomenal physical tools that got him drafted first overall. If he gets into game shape, it will prove to an NFL team that he's found a little of the spark that he never had as a pro.
Look for Russell to find a little redemption in a league in which half the teams are starving for better quarterback play. He may not take a regular-season snap all year, but some team is going to take the chance on a minimum deal.
When a team is young, singularly focused and coming off a Super Bowl appearance, fans tend to want to get over the next hump as quickly as possible. However, the 49ers have a bunch of draft picks and will be accumulating more through the soon-to-be-official Alex Smith trade and even more through compensatory picks.
While some expect the Niners to package some of those picks for Darrelle Revis or Percy Harvin, I do not. Why would they? This is a legitimate Super Bowl contender for the next decade without those big additions—both of whom have created plenty of headaches for their respective front offices in the past.
The Niners can boost the depth all over their team, as well as add numerous quality pieces in the upcoming draft, and they can trade up, down or into the future with plenty of ammunition. They can do so without upsetting the current building plan or their locker-room chemistry.
The Packers actually did this last year, bringing in Jeff Saturday and Cedric Benson, but Packer fans still treat free agency like it is anathema. "Ted Thompson doesn't sign free agents!" they cry. For the most part, they are right. This year, however, things will likely be different.
With a lot of holes on the roster and the league's best quarterback under center, players will be clamoring for a chance to meet with Thompson. No, he's not going to go on a spending spree, but don't be surprised if a big name or two ends up meeting with the team.
Hopefully, for Packer fans, it goes better than last year's signings did.
Team personnel I've talked to always seem to bring up Matt Moore in the free-agency discussion.
Some look at him as, potentially, one of the top backups in the league—someone to stick behind a young quarterback and a QB who can be ready at a moment's notice. Others view him as a starter who probably should've had more of a chance in Miami.
Either way, Moore is less of an afterthought in those circles than he is in the media. This is a very shallow quarterback offseason both in terms of free agency and the draft. Because of that, Moore should be starting for some lucky team very soon.
New general manager John Idzik inherited a cap mess from purported cap guru Mike Tannenbaum. With that in mind, don't expect the Jets to make their normal offseason splashes until he finds a way to get out from under the financial wreckage.
Sure, Rex Ryan might fight for a few back-of-the-roster guys who know his system (though wouldn't you want to play for Indianapolis if that were you?), and the offense needs a shot in the arm, but the Jets need to take a long-term approach, stop making Super Bowl guarantees and start getting their team back on the right track.
I am a Drew Stanton fan.
It's not because we both grew up in Michigan—he went to Michigan State, which is one of my least favorite places on earth. It's also not because he was a former Lions backup—he had the pleasure of being part of some of the worst teams in that franchise's history, which is saying a lot.
No, I started being a Stanton fan when he got injured covering a punt in a bowl game. First, that's all you need to know about Stanton's athleticism. Second, that's all you need to know about his competitive drive. He wants to win, and he has the tools to help a team do so.
Teams that miss on their quarterbacks in a weak draft class will take a long look at Stanton, who should get a shot to compete for a starting job this offseason.
Just a few years ago, Greg Jennings was a legitimate contender for "top-five receiver in the NFL" honors and could have commanded quite the pretty penny on the open market.
Sadly for him, this isn't a few years ago. Now, he's dealing with the stigma of an "injury history" and a market that also has a number of talented receivers in it paired with a deep receiver class in the draft.
Jennings wants a big deal with a contender, but it's just not coming. Unless he finds a Vincent Jackson-type deal with a team struggling to find its way, he'll need to take a short-term deal or something worth a lot less money than he expected.
Speaking of that Vincent Jackson deal...the Buccaneers were "winners" of free agency last year, which is a shorthand way of saying that they spent a lot of money on players whom the media has heard of.
Whether they spent wisely is still up for debate, as the Bucs continue to rebuild under the Greg Schiano regime. (We can, however, all agree that Eric Wright didn't exactly work out as expected.)
The Bucs have a ton of money to burn this year as well and should end up bringing in a bunch of players to stock their offensive line, defensive line, linebacking corps or defensive backfield. It's all part of a talent infusion sorely needed after years of underspending.
While he's not the "buzziest" name on the market, Sean Smith might be the most in-demand name for a lot of NFL teams who hope that their rivals don't remember him.
Smith is a legitimate impact player—something I don't say about many cornerbacks. He has the talent to play in a variety of systems and is only 25. That means a team can sign him to a big ol' contract with plenty of cap flexibility and still get five or six good years out of him before his physical abilities start eroding.
Only one team is going to end up breaking the bank for him, but quite a few teams will offer to fly him out and buy him dinner, hoping he picks them.
The Colts have money to spend and a really good reason to spend it.
The draft is a great way to continue to build that defense Chuck Pagano wants to install. He can find rush linebackers aplenty and big bodies for that defensive line deep into the draft's middle rounds. The last thing this team needs is another young player on offense who needs to learn the ropes of NFL life.
There is already good young offensive talent on this team, but it needs an infusion of seasoned talent—a veteran receiver who has sure hands or a dependable lineman who can play a number of positions. The Colts actually need a number of those guys if they want to keep their young quarterback healthy and headed back to the playoffs.
Reggie McKenzie took this job to set the Raiders back on the winning path. With the mess of the roster in 2012, he wasn't able to do much more than examine the players he had and dream about better days ahead. Look out for a bit of a shakeup this spring and even more in the years to come.
While I'm not staking my paycheck on it, Carson Palmer could be gone by draft time if the Raiders think Geno Smith would look good in black and silver. Their defense could use a pass rush sometime as well, and numerous players could end up coming in toward that end.
Of course, numerous players will have to be shown the door to make that happen.
This is a specific player-team linkup that I wanted to avoid because free agency is so fluid and such a crapshoot that saying "this player will sign with this team" is almost certain to be wrong.
This one I'm pretty confident about.
Abraham did much of his damage in the NFL with the New York Jets, which means Bill Belichick knows everything there is to know about him. Belichick's former protege, Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, is Abraham's former boss, so that means Belichick can find out anything else he might be interested in.
The Patriots want to continue to build their defense, and Abraham wants a shot at a ring. The Patriots love taking shots on high-character veterans. This is a match made in Patriots Heaven.
Speaking of Patriots Heaven...note that there aren't any highly paid receivers there.
Wes Welker has been almost synonymous with the "Patriot Way" over the past few seasons. A former castoff, he was the proof that Belichick and Tom Brady could win with just about anybody. Now, as one of the most prized possession/slot receivers in the NFL, he deserves to get paid a lot of money.
Just don't expect the Patriots to do so.
Now, Welker could come back, and I suspect Brady's recent contract extension was due in part to him not wanting to lose his favorite target. However if Welker draws any sort of line in the sand, Belichick will show him the door and not think twice about it.
Coming out of Purdue, a lot of scouts had Cliff Avril pegged as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Instead, he went to the Lions to play in their Tampa 2 scheme (which essentially asks defensive ends to pin their ears back like rush linebackers) and then in their Wide 9 scheme (where, again, it's all about the rush).
That means Avril already has some of the tendencies teams look for in a 3-4 scheme, and he clearly has the athleticism and a nose for the quarterback. Unless the Lions bring him back or the Dallas Cowboys find a hidden treasure chest somewhere, look for Avril to land with a team that won't make him put his hand in the dirt.
Another Lions free agent, another new position.
Gosder Cherilus was one of the better pass-blocking right tackles in the league last season. He's also tall (6'7"), athletic and still relatively young (28). Boston College tried moving him to the left side in his senior year, and that experiment was mostly a failure, but expect an NFL team to take another crack at it.
This isn't because I expect him to do well on the left side—oh no. Rather, this is more of a function of the sorry state of so many offensive lines out there. Cherilus would be an immediate upgrade at left tackle for a number of teams and will likely come cheaper than Jake Long or one of the other top-tier tackles.
Look for a team like San Diego, St. Louis or the New York Jets to realize it isn't getting its new left tackle in the draft and give Cherilus a one-year tryout at the position. You can always move him back to the right side when it doesn't work.
I fully expect this to happen, but it's not 100 percent certain which team it's going to happen on.
While the Buccaneers have money to spend, they're not necessarily at the top of Michael Bennett's wish list, as he clearly wanted a chance at the open market (though that seems financially motivated, as he's reportedly agreed to let the Bucs match any offer).
Still, do you really believe Martellus Bennett wants to go from football royalty like the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants to an afterthought like the Buccaneers? That's not meant to be a shot; it's the reality of the TV market-dominated world the NFL lives in.
Look for these two brothers to find a contender with the space and need for them both.
Many people have pegged Reggie Bush to the Detroit Lions, who are looking for an all-purpose back to replace Jahvid Best. However, the Lions can be interested in Bush all they want; free agency is about who the player is interested in signing with.
Bush should certainly talk to the Lions and see how much money they're willing to pay a speed back nearing 30, but it would make a lot more sense for him to end up with a contender that views him as the final piece to its puzzle.
Ozzie Newsome already wins the offseason by locking up the reigning Super Bowl MVP. While we can argue about whether Joe Flacco is worth the money he's being given, it's a heck of a lot better than going into 2013 with Tyrod Taylor or a draft pick at the helm when you're trying to repeat.
With that investment in mind, it's time the Ravens start putting more pieces around Flacco.
The offense looked a lot better with Jim Caldwell at the helm. The offensive line did as well. The Ravens could still use a number of pieces both on the line and as targets for Flacco to continue his ascent into the "elite" quarterbacks of the NFL.
The Eagles need to know their role and stop worrying about winning the mythical free-agency championship they've fought for each offseason for the last couple of years. The Eagles kept thinking they were just a player or two away as the talent on the back end of their roster eroded away.
Chip Kelly will want guys that fit his system—athletic guys on offense, attacking players and ball hawks on defense, coachable guys who aren't going to buck his methodical practice style, guys with good conditioning who can handle the tempo of both his practices and his game management.
Don't be surprised when the Eagles sign a bunch of guys no one else cares about and make as big of a splash in undrafted free agency to pick up a bunch of end-of-the-roster guys who Kelly coached or recruited in college.
We've already talked about the state of left tackle play in the NFL, so this prediction shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. Long is clearly one of the better free agents on the market, and a lot of teams will listen when he gives excuses for his decline in play over the last season or two.
Teams like San Diego, Chicago, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Atlanta would all love a shot at an elite left tackle in the draft, but Luke Joeckel, Eric Fisher and Lane Johnson will likely be long gone by the time those teams are on the board. Long's hometown Lions, as well as the Jaguars, Bills and Cardinals, might have a shot at one of those guys but have a ton of other needs as well.
Long will get a lot of money in the hopes of solidifying someone's offensive line this offseason. The team that wants him the most better have the Brink's truck ready to back up to his front door.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.