NFL Free Agency 2011: The Top 20 Players with Game-Changing Talent
I hate to sound like a broken record, because every football piece written in the last two months says something about free agency with the condition that it will only happen if the league and the players' union come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement.
That is the reality of the situation, however, and the teams have until March 4 to work out a deal that will allow free agency to operate as normal, because that is the date when the new league year (and free agency) would officially begin.
After a year with no CBA and a pretty shallow pool of free agents thanks to the accrued seasons requirement for unrestricted free agency increasing from four years to six, we could potentially go back to the old system of just four years if a new CBA is reached.
In that event, a very large and talented class of players will hit the open market, which is sure to excite fans of all teams at the prospects of landing a game-changing talent.
Of course, some of these players might be retained by their old clubs with the franchise tag (which itself is another matter of contention regarding the new CBA).
That being said, here are the top 20 players in the NFL with expiring contracts in 2011—all of which could go a long way in turning a franchise's fortunes...
Chris J. Nelson majored in journalism at Georgia State University and is currently a programming coordinator for Turner Sports in Atlanta. He operates his own Miami Dolphins website, The Miami Dolphins Spotlight, and he can be followed on Twitter here.
20. C Ryan Kalil, Carolina Panthers
After appearing in just six games as a second-round rookie in 2007, Kalil started all 12 games in which he played in 2008 and has started all 32 games over the past two seasons.
Kalil was named a second-alternate to the Pro Bowl in 2009 and a first-alternate in 2010, eventually being added to the NFC's roster both times. In 2008, Kalil helped running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart combine for over 2,300 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground.
Kalil isn't huge and isn't going to be a great fit in power-blocking schemes, but he's a very talented player that could be of great use to a lot of teams.
19. LB Chad Greenway, Minnesota Vikings
After missing his 2006 rookie season to a torn ACL after being selected in the first round out of Iowa, Greenway hasn't looked back with 63 starts and 64 games played in as many chances.
Greenway has topped 100 tackles three of the past four seasons, with 99 tackles in 2009 but a career-high 144 tackles this past year. He also boasts 6.5 sacks, seven forced fumbles, five interceptions and 18 pass deflections to his credit.
An excellent sideline-to-sideline linebacker, Greenway combines good run-stuffing ability with above-average skills in pass coverage. While he's been limited to the outside linebacker spot in the Vikings 4-3, he can really play anywhere in that scheme or even inside in the 3-4.
18. WR Braylon Edwards, New York Jets
His attitude and off-the-field decisions will make you cringe and want to shy away from him, but there is no denying Edwards is one of the more talented receivers in the game today.
During his first season in New York after arriving via trade from the Browns, Edwards caught 53 passes for 904 yards and seven touchdowns, posting an impressive 17.1 yards per reception average.
While he has topped 1,000 yards just once in six seasons and has had his share of concentration issues on routine passes, Edwards is a rare talent that can stretch the field and make big plays.
17. RB DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers
A first-round pick out of Memphis in 2006, Williams got off to a bit of a slow start due to injuries before erupting with one of the best single rushing seasons by a running back in recent memory in 2008.
In 16 starts that season, Williams ranked third in the NFL with 1,515 yards on the ground and led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns. While he did not make the Pro Bowl that season, he was selected the following year with 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in 2009.
Williams doesn't have ideal size at only 5'9", and he's played all 16 games in a season just once in five years, making his durability concern. He also struggled greatly in 2010, although most of those struggles can be attributed to the lack of talent around him on the 2-14 Panthers roster.
However, Williams is an excellent starting NFL running back and can be a superstar in this league when paired with another talented guy in the backfield that can limit his carries and keep him fresh.
16. CB Johnathan Joseph, Cincinnati Bengals
Since being drafted in the first round out of South Carolina in 2006, Joseph has become one of the most reliable yet unheralded cornerbacks in the NFL.
Teaming with talented teammate Leon Hall, Joseph has amassed 76 pass deflections, 14 interceptions (three returned for touchdowns) and two forced fumbles in 67 career games.
Joseph was arrested for marijuana possession in 2007 but has kept his record clean since and hasn't really had any other problems off the field. He has the talent of a Pro Bowl corner and could be a hot commodity if he hits the open market.
15. LB Barrett Ruud, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Limited to special teams as a rookie in 2005, Ruud started five of 16 games the following season before taking over as the Buccaneers' starting middle linebacker full-time.
Ruud hasn't looked back since, topping 110 tackles each of the past four seasons as one of the elite run-stuffing linebackers in the game.
For his career, Ruud has started 68-of-95 games, including 63 of the past 64. In that time, he's racked up 587 tackles, five sacks, six forced fumbles, six interceptions and 20 pass deflections.
A hard-hitting linebacker with solid athleticism, Ruud is an excellent middle linebacker in the 4-3 scheme and could even project inside in the 3-4.
14. TE Marcedes Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars
It took a while, but Lewis finally became in 2010 what the Jaguars thought he could be when they drafted him in the first round out of UCLA in 2006.
Lewis' receiving yardage has increased in each of his five pro seasons to date, and he erupted with 58 catches for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns along with his first Pro Bowl selection in 2010.
Also a strong blocker, Lewis is a game-changing tight end that can stretch the field and could be in for a big pay day if the Jaguars don't franchise him.
13. NT Aubrayo Franklin, San Francisco 49ers
Originally a fifth-round pick by the Baltimore Ravens in 2003, Franklin spent four years with his drafting team as a backup and starting only one game (in 2005) during that span.
Franklin them joined former Ravens assistant Mike Nolan in San Francisco and was immediately installed as the starting nose tackle in the team's 3-4 scheme.
Over the past four seasons, Franklin has been one of the most reliable nose tackles in the game, helping pave the way for linebacker Patrick Willis to make plays in the backfield.
Franklin helped the 49ers run defense go from the 22nd ranked unit in the NFL in 2007, to 13th in 2008, all the way up to sixth in each of the past two seasons.
Hit with the franchise tag last year, Franklin appears poised to finally hit the open market and should be highly sought after by the plethora or 3-4 teams in the NFL.
12. WR Sidney Rice, Minnesota Vikings
Rice missed much of the 2010 season recovering from hip surgery, but he showed no signs of being slowed once he did get on the field, catching 17 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns in six games.
While his first two seasons were unspectacular, receivers often take a few years to develop, and he showed what he could do when he finally got a legitimate quarterback (Brett Favre) to work with in 2009, catching 83 passes for 1,312 yards and eight scores on his way to the Pro Bowl.
Rice has all the size and ability you look for in a No. 1 receiver and would be one of the top players at his position on the open market.
11. TE Zach Miller, Oakland Raiders
As the Raiders have tried and failed to draft young talent on offense for years, Zach Miller has been one of the lone bright spots as one of the most sure-handed and reliable tight ends in the league.
Miller has never caught fewer than 44 passes in any season, and his four-year totals come out to a very impressive 226 catches, 2,712 yards and 12 touchdowns, including a career-high five scores this past season.
Miller is likely to get hit with the franchise tag, which is unfortunate for teams in need of a tight end as he is the top player at his position in this year's free-agent class.
10. LB Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs
After 27 sacks in four solid seasons since being selected in the first round out of Penn State, Hali had a career year with the Chiefs in 2010 with 52 tackles, 14.5 sacks and four-forced fumbles.
In fact, Hali has been a turnover machine ever since he entered the league, with 18 forced fumbles, an interception and a safety to his credit in five seasons.
Hali, who has missed only one game in his five-year career, profiles as both a 3-4 outside linebacker or 4-3 defensive end, but he is likely to receive the franchise tag in 2011.
9. LB David Harris, New York Jets
Harris has been a mainstay in the Jets 3-4 scheme at inside linebacker since he was drafted in the second round out of Michigan in 2007, starting 52 of the 59 games in which he has played, including all 32 the past two seasons.
In four pro seasons, Harris has compiled 428 tackles (totaling 127 in both 2007 and 2009), 14.5 sacks, two interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Harris is slightly limited in his mobility, which means he's a better fit inside in the 3-4 than he is in the 4-3, which would have him running sideline to sideline a bit more.
That being said, he's one of the best thumpers inside in the NFL and is likely to be franchised, giving him at least one year as the anchor of Rex Ryan's top defense.
8. CB Champ Bailey, Denver Broncos
A future Hall of Famer as one of the best shutdown cornerbacks of his generation, Bailey has amassed a very impressive 48 interceptions (four returned for scores) and 120 pass deflections on his way to 10 Pro Bowl selections in 12 seasons.
He might be 32 years old, but Champ Bailey has still got it with excellent speed and top-notch coverage skills.
The Broncos and Bailey do not appear to be close on a new contract, making him a great free-agent pickup for someone that needs an elite corner for the next 3-4 years.
7. WR Vincent Jackson, San Diego Chargers
Six years after being drafted in the second round out of Northern Colorado, Jackson has become one of the best deep threats and playmaking receivers in the NFL.
Before his holdout and suspension-shortened 2010 season, V-Jax topped 1,000 yards receiving each of the previous two seasons and totaled 16 touchdowns during that span.
Jackson may play next season under a one-year franchise tag deal, but he's absolutely someone every team would love to have if and when he becomes available.
6. OG Logan Mankins, New England Patriots
The final pick of the 2005 NFL Draft's first round, Mankins started 80 straight contests for the Patriots before missing the first seven of the 2010 season due to a lengthy holdout and contract dispute.
In his time in New England, Mankins has become one of the most dominant guards in all of football, helping Tom Brady have seemingly infinite time to pass and making productive players out of mediocre talents in the backfield.
Mankins is a candidate for the franchise tag in New England but has clearly soured on the franchise and would definitely like to test the open market. If he gets his chance, he's going to cash in big time.
5. QB Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles
To go over Vick's entire career story would take more time than I have, and I think everyone pretty much knows the story anyway.
After becoming one of the most exciting players in NFL history in Atlanta, a dog fighting scandal landed Vick in prison for over a year. He spent 2009 with the Philadelphia Eagles primarily as a backup and wildcat quarterback.
That was until 2010, when he took over for an injured Kevin Kolb and never looked back. Despite never completing 57 percent of his passes or posting a quarterback rating of 82 or higher in any full season with Atlanta, Vick tore apart teams in the passing game with the Eagles in 2010, completing 62.6 percent of his passes for 3,018 yards and 21 touchdowns against six interceptions in just 12 starts.
Vick has never been great at reading defenses or throwing with great accuracy, but 2010 showed what kind of player he can be with the right system and tutelage.
With Kevin Kolb likely on the trading block, the Eagles will probably franchise Vick to retain him in 2011. The demand for him if he hits the open market would certainly be a lot greater than it was in 2009.
4. LB LaMarr Woodley, Pittsburgh Steelers
After playing most of his 2007 rookie season as a backup, Woodley quickly became the Steelers' top pass rusher in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 scheme, helping the team to two Super Bowl berths in three seasons.
For his career, Woodley has amassed 186 tackles, 39 sacks, seven forced fumbles and three interceptions while earning a Pro Bowl selection in 2009.
Woodley will almost certainly be franchised by the Steelers this month but would be the top pass rusher on the open market if he were to be available.
3. CB Nnamdi Asomugha, Oakland Raiders
Looking at his career stats, you'd almost think the 2003 first-rounder hadn't panned out. He failed to record an interception during his first three seasons, then burst onto the league leaderboard with eight picks in 2006.
Since then, he recorded one interception in each season from 2007-09 and was again shut out in that department in 2010.
So what gives? Quite simply, Asomugha is such a good cover corner that opposing teams simply don't throw his way anymore. Thus, he doesn't have many chances for interceptions.
There is no question Asomugha is one of the best cover corners in the NFL, and there is a strong case for him being the absolute best player at his position in the league.
There is also no doubt that Asomugha is in for a huge pay day if he becomes available, and the team that eventually signs him is going to enjoy him taking away an entire half of of the field from the opposing offense.
2. DE Haloti Ngata, Baltimore Ravens
In five pro seasons, Ngata has appeared in 78-of-80 possible regular season games, starting 76 of them. In that time, he has become a dominant member of the Ravens defense which regularly ranks near the top of the league.
A defensive end that can also play nose tackle (but doesn't have to with Kelly Gregg around), Ngata is a huge talent with a huge size, great strength and athleticism for his build.
Ngata is the Ravens' No. 1 priority this offseason, and understandably so. He'll either be signed to a long-term extension or franchised in 2011, which is sure to disappoint the other 31 teams in the league.
1. QB Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts
Okay, so there is zero chance Manning hits the open market in March if we do have free agency. He'll either sign an extension with the Colts before then, or he'll be franchised in the meantime until he eventually signs an extension with the Colts.
Quarterbacks like Manning are few and far between, and they never hit the open market, for good reason. Arguably no one in history has understood the intricacies of football like Manning, and he continues to build a strong case for being the best quarterback in NFL history.
Having started every game since being the No. 1 overall pick in 1998, Manning has led the Colts to a Super Bowl title and has completed 64.9 percent of his passes and has amassed 54,828 yards and 399 touchdowns with a 94.9 quarterback rating.
Even at 34, Manning still has plenty of good years left and should end up owning most of the NFL's passing records by the time he's through. Unfortunately for the other 31 teams in the league, he's going to be doing it all in the same Colts uniform he's worn for over a decade.
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