The Biggest Wild Cards of NFL Free Agency
There is always some risk involved in NFL free agency.
Whether it is an injured player looking to get back to the top of his game (Greg Jennings) or a player loaded with potential having off-field issues (Desmond Bryant), NFL teams need to tread with caution in free agency. However, if a wild-card free agent actually pans out, the payoff could be huge.
While players are most commonly seen as wild cards, franchises also have the potential of being wild cards. It's perennially difficult to predict what the New England Patriots will do in free agency, and it's similarly tough to do so for other teams that have a wealth of cap space.
Today we'll take a look at the biggest wild cards of NFL free agency, discussing both teams and players.
Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver
If it weren't for the injuries Greg Jennings has sustained the past two seasons, we'd be talking about one of the better free agents available in recent years. However, we can't forget about those injuries, so we now have a wild card on our hands.
Is Jennings the elite, top-five receiver from just a few seasons ago? Or is he a lesser version of his old self who will struggle to produce and stay on the field?
Jennings will likely get offers from teams in desperate need of a wide receiver, such as the Minnesota Vikings, St. Louis Rams or Miami Dolphins. If it turns out that Jennings can get back to playing like he was a few years ago, he could end up being the steal of free agency.
Desmond Bryant, Defensive Tackle
Desmond Bryant may not be the most well-known free agent this year, but there is little doubting his overall talent. He was rated as the sixth-best defensive tackle in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus.
Unfortunately, an offseason arrest will likely scare a few teams away from paying Bryant what he really deserves. At only 27 years of age, Bryant still has plenty of time to be an intimidating defensive tackle in the NFL.
However, he'll need to prove that his recent mistake was just a one-time thing. If he can keep his mind focused on the game of football, he could be a dominant force in 2013.
If he can't, he could end up washing out of the league rather quickly.
New England Patriots
As long as Bill Belichick reigns supreme for the New England Patriots, they are always going to be wild cards in free agency.
Not only do they have a number of talented free agents on their roster (Sebastian Vollmer, Wes Welker, Julian Edelman and Aqib Talib), but there are also a number of big-name players that New England could target. Guys like Ed Reed, Dashon Goldson and Dwight Freeney are all potential targets that would make New England an even more dangerous team.
You can almost be certain that the Patriots will make some moves in free agency, but it'll be interesting to track just how many moves and how much elite talent they bring in.
Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
Heading into the 2012 season, Mike Wallace was still considered an elite deep threat in the league. However, after struggling throughout the entire season, there are major questions surrounding what Wallace can bring to a team.
Not only did Wallace post just 64 receptions for 836 yards, but his 13.1 yards-per-reception average was the lowest of his four-year career. While he did manage at least eight touchdowns for the third straight year, that might not be good enough to convince teams that Wallace is still an elite receiver.
But it's tough to give up on Wallace since he is still so young. He turns 27 years old in August, so he should really just be hitting his prime.
It's possible that whoever ends up signing Wallace could gain a major boost to their receiving corps and become instant contenders.
After a 2-14 season in 2011, the Indianapolis Colts completely turned around their franchise in 2012. Not only did they go 11-5 and make the playoffs, but they did it with youth at a number of key positions.
According to Spotrac, the Colts have just under $79 million on their books for 2013, leaving them about $45 million in cap space with which to work. That is a lot of money for a young team to have at its disposal in free agency.
It is very likely that Indianapolis could make a huge splash in free agency and become a very dangerous team heading into the 2013 season.
Much like the Indianapolis Colts, the Cleveland Browns have a ton of money to toss around as they wish. Spotrac has the Browns' cap number at just over $74 million, leaving them nearly $50 million for the offseason.
There are a few players that the Browns could target that would make them an interesting team to watch in 2013. One of those players is outside linebacker Paul Kruger. He's an ideal fit for the 3-4 defense to which Cleveland is switching and would be a huge upgrade on defense.
With a young roster that has some talent in players like Trent Richardson, Joe Haden and Josh Gordon, the Browns could be a few solid free-agent signings away from competing in 2013. They certainly have the money to do it, but whether they make the right moves with that money is the wild card.
Steven Jackson, Running Back
Even though Steven Jackson will be 30 years old when the 2013 season starts, he still has plenty to offer a team in need of a running back. He's coming off his eighth straight season of at least 1,000 rushing yards, despite only carrying the ball 257 times last season.
Depending on where Jackson signs, we could see a team emerge as an early Super Bowl favorite. One team that seems ideal for Jackson is the Green Bay Packers. They desperately need a true No. 1 running back, and Jackson could be that player from day one.
If the Packers ended up signing Jackson, they'd have one of the most well-rounded offenses in the league. It'd be crazy to not consider them among the teams most likely to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
It'd be hard to imagine Jackson going to a team that isn't a legitimate contender in 2013. Whomever Jackson does end up playing for in 2013 will get a fantastic player and a huge boost to their offensive production.
Of all the teams with large amounts of cap space, the Cincinnati Bengals are the most dangerous. They have nearly $47 million in cap space, as their 2013 cap number currently sits at just under $77 million, per Spotrac.
The Bengals are coming off two straight playoff appearances and are only going to get better. They have young talent in Andy Dalton, A.J. Green and Geno Atkins, as well as a number of other key players.
If Cincinnati can use some of its extra cash to boost its roster, the Bengals could become an extremely dangerous team in 2013. A few good signings would almost certainly make them the team to beat in the AFC North.
Phil Dawson, Kicker
It isn't often that you'd consider a kicker as a wild card in free agency, but Phil Dawson is an exception to the rule.
Despite being 38 years old, Dawson is still an accurate and talented kicker. Considering that so many top teams (Green Bay Packers, San Francisco 49ers, Indianapolis Colts) struggled with their kickers last season, Dawson could be a hot commodity in free agency.
As we've seen in recent years, a solid kicker is a necessary element of making a deep playoff run. Look for Dawson to sign with a team ready to contend this upcoming season and be a key component of that team's postseason.
Dwight Freeney, Defensive End
When the Indianapolis Colts switched to a 3-4 defense, many thought that Dwight Freeney would struggle in his new role. While Freeney wasn't awful as an outside linebacker, he certainly didn't produce like he did earlier in his career.
Now that Freeney is a free agent, he has a chance to be signed by a team running a 4-3 defense. He'd switch back to defensive end, where he has the potential to become a top pass-rusher again.
As long as Freeney still has some gas in the tank, he could provide incredible talent for a team looking to improve its pass rush.
Ed Reed, Free Safety
Of all the potential free agents available, Ed Reed might be the biggest wild card of the bunch. His decision on where he plays in 2013 could send shock waves throughout the NFL.
For example, if the Baltimore Ravens re-sign Reed, then they'd have little drop-off from last year's team. They'd still have a key defensive leader and playmaker on their roster and would have to be considered legitimate threats to get back to the Super Bowl.
However, if Reed doesn't re-sign with the Ravens, they could really struggle in 2013. The team he does sign with, on the other hand, would potentially become an extremely dangerous team on defense.
Reed's free agency will be watched closely due to the impact he'll have on a number of teams.