NFL Free Agents 2013: Ranking the Offseason's Top Targets
Cliff Avril, Mike Wallace and Steven Jackson are a few of the most coveted free agents in 2013, and they'll be in high demand when the NFL's free-agency signing period officially begins on Tuesday, March 12, at 4 p.m. ET.
Signing free agents is stressful for NFL general managers. The moves these men will make in March could either push their respective teams over the hump to become contenders or sink them into salary-cap purgatory.
For the players and their agents, it's a chance to cash in on past success and potentially move on from mediocre teams to play for contenders.
These upcoming players represent the best of the 2013 NFL free-agent class.
10. Jake Long, Offensive Tackle
Winslow Townson/Getty Images
It's no secret that Jake Long had a down year for the Miami Dolphins in 2012. He struggled in all aspects of his game, and was then placed on the team's IR in early December after tearing his triceps.
It wasn't long ago, however, that Long was one of the premier left tackles in the NFL, and according to Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole, he recently received a clean bill of health from renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews.
Long will bounce back from an abysmal 2012 season to play at the same high level he did in his early years, and the team that lands him might be able to do so at a discounted rate.
According to USA Today's Mike Garafalo, Long hasn't been generating a ton of buzz around the league:
It's been relatively quiet on the Long front. Bears and Rams believed to be among the most interested. We'll see.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) March 11, 2013
That could all change, however, once free agency gets underway.
9. Sean Smith, Cornerback
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
A player who combines excellent size with good speed and technique, cornerback Sean Smith is a hot target on the market right now.
According to ESPNRadio980's Chris Russell, the Washington Redskins are interested in Smith. CSN Bay Area's Matt Maiocco reports that the San Francisco 49ers are also interested in him, at the right price.
Yahoo! Sports' Jason Cole reported recently that the Kansas City Chiefs are not out of the running for Smith, either.
At 6'3" and 218 pounds, Smith excels in man-to-man coverage against big receivers, but he really struggles when asked to cover smaller, shifty receivers, who easily outpace him out of their breaks.
The 25-year-old corner has logged five interceptions and 40 defended passes in his four years with the Dolphins, and he has yet to realize his full potential.
8. Wes Welker, Wide Receiver
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Wes Welker has epitomized productivity since joining the New England Patriots six years ago.
During his tenure with the Pats, Welker has averaged 112 receptions each year for 1,243 yards and six touchdowns. His worst season with New England came in 2010, and Welker still managed to catch 86 passes for 848 yards and seven touchdowns.
Nevertheless, the soon-to-be 32-year-old slot specialist isn't receiving a ton of interest around the league and is expected to land with the Patriots once again in 2013 (h/t SI.com's Peter King).
Teams are looking for receivers who can stretch the field and play on the outside, which is why Mike Wallace is attracting so many suitors who are willing to pay him. Welker's abilities in the slot are valuable, but apparently not hardly as much.
7. Sebastian Vollmer, Offensive Tackle
USA TODAY Sports
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is one of the best pass-blockers at his position in the NFL. He allowed just six sacks last season, and the fleet-footed 6'8" giant of a man is still getting better.
Vollmer is also adept at sealing off blocks in the Patriots' zone-blocking scheme, which makes him a potential target for teams like the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins.
ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss expects Vollmer to be looking for a contract in the range of $7 million to $8 million per season, which is high for a right tackle. He's worth the money, though, for teams that like to pass the ball more than they run it.
6. Steven Jackson, Running Back
Steven Jackson Free-Agent Scouting Report
One of just 27 men in NFL history to rush for over 10,000 yards, Jackson is a living legend.
At the age of 29, he still has some tread left on his well-worn tires, too.
Jackson was being phased out of the starting lineup in St. Louis, as youngster Daryl Richardson's superior speed caused the Rams to give him more carries last year.
Make no mistake about it, though, Jackson is still capable of starting in the NFL, as his 1,042 yards and four touchdowns from 2012 clearly illustrate.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jim Thomas, it looks like the Atlanta Falcons are the favorites to land Jackson in 2013. He'd give the Falcons a much-needed boost in the running game next year and would have a chance to play for a ring with the talented young team.
5. Dashon Goldson, Safety
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Teams in need of a tone-setting, hard-hitting, ball-hawking safety need look no further.
Dashon Goldson is all that and a bag of chips.
Since becoming the starting free safety for the San Francisco 49ers four seasons ago, Goldson has racked up 248 solo tackles, three sacks, five forced fumbles, 14 interceptions and 31 defended passes.
He sometimes gets caught up too much in trying to make a big hit underneath, which exposes the back end to exploitation, but there's no doubt Goldson is one of the NFL's top safeties.
The 49ers were unwilling to pay him as much as he wants, however, and so Goldson will be fair game for teams on March 12, and there are a few teams with reported interest.
NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah reports that the Arizona Cardinals "will aggressively pursue a safety in free agency," NJ.com's Jordan Raanan reports that the Philadelphia Eagles are also in the hunt, and Goldson expressed an interest in playing for the Cincinnati Bengals in an interview with Tim Ryan and Pat Kirwan on Movin’ The Chains, on Sirius XM NFL Radio (h/t Cincinnati.com's Joe Reedy).
4. Andre Smith, Offensive Tackle
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
After getting off to a bad start with the Cincinnati Bengals in his rookie year, Andre Smith has evolved into one of the most dominant right tackles in the NFL.
SI.com's Peter King recently wrote that teams are "scared" about giving Smith a massive contract, though, because of his weight issues in the past. They wonder if his surge in the past couple of seasons was due to the fact that he was playing for a new contract and worry that he'll revert back to his bad habits once his financial situation is secure.
Smith is seeking a lot of money, too.
Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio recently reported that Smith is seeking upwards of $9 million per season, which is a staggering amount of money to pay for a right tackle.
If Smith can stay disciplined and play like he did last year, he's well worth the money. If not...well, you get the picture.
3. Paul Kruger, Outside Linebacker
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Paul Kruger made himself a lot of money last year, especially in the postseason.
Kruger played in 15 regular-season games in 2012, logging nine sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. He then tallied 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble in four games during the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl run.
He's an explosive pass-rusher with a quick first step, and he'll excel with a team that features a 3-4 defense and that plays in a dome, such as the Colts.
The Indianapolis Colts are expected to engage in a bidding war with the Cleveland Browns for Kruger's services (h/t the Baltimore Sun's Aaron Wilson), and both teams will certainly provide him with tempting offers.
2. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
Mike Wallace Free-Agent Scouting Report
The biggest offensive prize in the 2013 free-agency period is certainly Mike Wallace.
The Palm Beach Post's Ben Volin recently reported that free agent Mike Wallace to Miami is a "done deal," per someone he trusts.
This speedy receiver will certainly give rookie Ryan Tannehill a deep threat to play with, and his ability to get into the end zone is undeniable. In the past four years, Wallace has caught 235 passes for 4,042 yards with 32 touchdowns.
It remains to be seen if Wallace will end up being worth the massive contract the Dolphins (or any other team that should land him) will ultimately shell out for his services.
1. Cliff Avril, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
This year's top NFL free-agent prize is Cliff Avril, a pass-rushing specialist who has a proven track record of consistent production for the past five seasons with the Detroit Lions.
In the past three years, Avril has totaled 29 sacks, one interception and nine forced fumbles, and his size and speed make him an intriguing option for any defensive scheme.
SI.com's Peter King recently reported that he's leaning toward Avril to end up signing with the Cleveland Browns to become a 3-4 outside linebacker for Ray Horton's new defense. He has always been a defensive end since joining the Lions in 2008, but given his experience at Purdue as an outside linebacker, he'll be a quick study in a 3-4 scheme.
That said, there are plenty of other teams interested in landing him, and at this point, all doors are still open.
Follow me on Twitter @JesseReed78