2012 NFL Free Agency: 16 Players Who Could Score Major Contracts

Matthew BrownCorrespondent IJune 27, 2011

2012 NFL Free Agency: 16 Players Who Could Score Major Contracts

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    With player movement and contract negotiations on hold due to the NFL's current lockout, the 2011 iteration of free agency has yet to occur. While a number of players await their chance to re-sign or sign with new teams, next year's free agents have to start thinking about their futures in the NFL. Their value depends on the moves of this offseason as well as their performance in the coming season.

    The 2012 class of free agents could see big paydays in the post-lockout NFL to go along with some big names on the market.

    Some players may sign contracts between the start of the 2011 season and the following free agency period, which would remove them from the conversation entirely. Regardless of that fact, here are the players that could top the list of potential earners from the 2012 class of free agents.

Drew Brees, Quarterback, New Orleans Saints

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    Drew Brees has done incredible things with and for the New Orleans Saints. Since being signed in 2006, Brees has set 21 franchise records, 10 NFL records, been selected to three Pro Bowls, won a Super Bowl and been named Super Bowl MVP. In his five seasons as a Saint, Brees has cemented himself as the face of the franchise and done great things for both the team and the community.

    A player of Brees's caliber is worth a lot on the open market, and the Saints will want to do everything in their power to keep him around.

    Brees has passed for over 4,000 yards in each of his five seasons with the Saints, as well as amassing 155 passing touchdowns and 49 wins. He is a top five quarterback and he will be compensated as such. There are no signs of Brees going anywhere after the 2011-2012 season as preliminary contract negotiations have already taken place.

    If not for the lockout, Brees would likely already have a contract extension with the Saints. However, he may put off talking about a new contract until after the season to avoid distractions. If he waits for his deal to expire, he will get a huge contract from the Saints to keep him for the rest of his career.

Haloti Ngata, Defensive Tackle, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Baltimore Ravens franchise tagged Haloti Ngata for the coming year and will not let him go without a fight when he hits free agency next year. He has shown the ability to play both defensive end and nose tackle in the Ravens 3-4 defense, which boosts his value more than mere statistics. At just 27 years of age, Ngata has quietly established himself as a force along the defensive line.

    If the Ravens don't start negotiations now, and Ngata isn't locked up before free agency next season, they may not be able to outbid the field.

    Ngata can stuff the run, he can rush the passer, he can drop back into coverage, he can occupy blockers and he'll do it every down on every game day. He averages 2.4 sacks per season, and has three career interceptions. Teams will pay a lot for a player that can play multiple positions and do so with no significant drop in production.

    It could turn into a bidding war for Ngata, but he deserves to be paid as one of the top defensive linemen in the NFL. He may not reach Albert Haynesworth money, but he has shown himself to be worth it and he doesn't come with severe personality issues.

Larry Fitzgerald, Wide Receiver, Arizona Cardinals

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    Larry Fitzgerald is another case of a player being up for a new deal with little likelihood of leaving his current team. Fitzgerald is one of the best receivers in the NFL—if not the best—but could seek greener pastures if the Cardinals don't rectify their current quarterback quandary. Arizona won't let him go without a fight, but will have to pay him for his play and his potential to be enamored by another team with a sweeter deal.

    Fitzgerald is a big target with amazing hands, leaping ability and route running, and will demand a big deal from Arizona.

    In his seven seasons, Fitzgerald has averaged 1,172 yards nine touchdowns per year with the Cardinals. He caught 90 of the 93 passes targeted to him, and has the best drop percentage of any no.1 receiver in the NFL. He continued to perform at an elite level despite the parade of sub-par quarterbacks the Cardinals tried to run with last season.

    If the Cardinals can't bring either Kevin Kolb or Kyle Orton in to ease Fitzgerald's quarterback concerns, he may give free agency a legitimate try. He will be the hottest commodity on the market if he doesn't re-sign with Arizona beforehand.

Marcedes Lewis, Tight End, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    The Jacksonville Jaguars are in the early stages of an offensive rebuild whether they want to admit it or not. They've given up on David Garrard and intend to ease rookie Blaine Gabbert into the starting quarterback job. Marcedes Lewis is literally the biggest weapon they have on offense and is due for a big contract.

    At 6'6", 275 pounds, Lewis is a huge target at tight end, and the Jaguars can't afford to lose him if receiver Mike Sims-Walker signs elsewhere this offseason.

    Lewis has already been franchise tagged for the 2011 season, but is not happy about it. He had his breakout year last season, catching 58 passes for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns. He has expressed his desire to play for Jacksonville, but is willing to hold out for a long-term contract.

    The Jaguars need Lewis if they want to help their franchise revitalization efforts. He is a massive target that every team in the NFL would love to have. Lewis will get a big deal no matter what.

Michael Vick, Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

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    It seems so long ago that there were no takers in the Michael Vick sweepstakes. The Eagles took a chance on Vick and somehow came away looking like geniuses and big winners. Vick signed a one-year deal for the 2011 season, but will be a free agent when the season ends.

    After a career passing year, Vick has seen his stock rise to astronomical heights which should lead to an enormous contract in 2012.

    Vick has always been known for his tremendous agility and speed as a running quarterback, but has always been questioned as a true passer. In his 12 starts with the Eagles last season, Vick threw a career-high 3,018 yards, 21 touchdowns, with career-highs in completion percentage (62.6) and passer rating (100.2). He didn't rush for 1,000 yards as he did in 2006, but he rushed for a career-high 11 touchdowns.

    It may be Andy Reid's incredible feel for a quarterback's strengths and weaknesses, but Vick is headed for a deal to rival his 10-year, $130 million contract extension from 2004. It may not be Philadelphia, but some team is going to throw a ton of money at the resurgent Vick.

Dwayne Bowe, Wide Receiver, Kansas City Chiefs

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    The Kansas City Chiefs were one of the surprise teams last season, finishing with a 10-6 record and making the playoffs after managing just four wins in 2009. Dwayne Bowe was the lone receiving threat on the Chiefs offense, and his 15 touchdowns accounted for more than half of Matt Cassel's season total.

    The Chiefs are committed to building a long-term contender and re-signing Bowe is a priority for the coming season.

    After a disappointing 2009 season, made worse by a four-game suspension for an NFL drug violation, Bowe rebounded with the best season of his career. He averaged a career-high 16.2 yards per catch and finished the season with 1,162 receiving yards.

    Kansas City drafted Jonathan Baldwin in the first round to open things up for Bowe on offense, which could be enough incentive to re-sign him. However, he could have an even better year in the coming season and drive his price beyond what the Chiefs can offer him.

Lawrence Timmons, Linebacker, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Lawrence Timmons may not have the highlight reel of 'dirty hits' that teammate James Harrison does, but he is an important part of the Steelers defense. In his first full season as a starter, Timmons registered 135 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions. He may be early in his career, both as a professional and as a Steeler, but he is criminally underpaid for the talent he has displayed.

    Timmons is perfect for Pittsburgh, but could see some big offers next offseason if the Steelers don't lock him up before.

    The Steelers defense as a unit fell just shy of an NFL record for fewest rushing yards allowed in a 16-game season, and Timmons played a part in that success. As an inside linebacker, Timmons has to focus on attacking the holes meant for opposing ball-carriers. He doesn't get the sacks of an outside linebacker, but his success discourages offenses from running and creating more opportunities for his teammates to get sacks.

    Quality 3-4 linebackers are in short supply these days, but there is no better team than Pittsburgh at finding players suited for their defense. Pittsburgh will reward him for his production, or he'll get paid elsewhere.

Mario Williams, Outside Linebacker, Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans are making the switch from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense with Wade Phillips as the new defensive coordinator. Former first-overall pick Mario Williams will be the most impacted by the switch, and could be in for a career year in 2011. The transition from defensive end to outside linebacker could give Williams a much-needed boost for his slumping sack totals.

    Williams is an integral part of Houston's defense, and is franchise tag material for the 2012 season.

    With the switch in defensive schemes, Williams has already dedicated himself to losing 15-20 pounds to help him in coverage situations. He has hardly been a disappointment, averaging 9.6 sacks per year, but he Williams missed three games last season and finished each of the last two seasons with less than 10 sacks.

    Even though his numbers are spectacular, Williams is still franchise pass rusher.

    The Texans will likely keep negotiations ongoing throughout the season, and prepare to tag him if they cannot reach a deal. If Williams opts to test free agency, he'll get some big offers and force the Texans to shell out some serious cash.

Leon Hall, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Leon Hall is part of one of the best cornerback tandems in the NFL with Jonathan Joseph, though their efforts are lost in the mire that is the Cincinnati Bengals. Hall has shown himself to be a willing tackler and displayed great ball skills in his four seasons in the NFL.

    The Bengals will have a lot of holes to fill come next season, and it isn't certain if they will have the resources to bring Hall back.

    Hall has 18 interceptions and 71 pass deflections in his career, and made teams think about throwing to him. He is just 26 and has plenty of years to improve and reach true elite status, which is a rarity in any free agent class.

    The Bengals would love to re-sign him to keep their needs to the offensive side of the ball, but they've got a lot needs. Hall may find his best interest lie with another team with a higher pay grade.

Marques Colston, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints

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    It isn't often that seventh round draft picks make big impacts in the NFL, but Marques Colston has done just that. After being three picks away from Mr. Irrelevant, Colston has caught 369 passes for 5,097 yards and 40 touchdowns for the New Orleans Saints. Lucky for the Saints the Colston is a reserved player, or they would have a huge problem on their hands given the deal Colston is currently playing on in relation to his production.

    Even after microfracture surgery earlier this year, Colston remains the top receiver for the Saints, and projects as one of the best free agent receivers for 2012.

    It has to help that Drew Brees is the one throwing the passes, but Colston has come a long way since being projected as a tight end and potentially undrafted in the 2006 draft. He has excellent speed for his size and he can win just about any jump ball that comes his way.

    The Saints have an explosive offense, but Colston plays a big part in what they're able to do. If he doesn't re-sign sometime during the season, he will garner serious interest next offseason.

Jon Beason, Linebacker, Carolina Panthers

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    The Carolina Panthers aren't exactly the hottest ticket in town, even with the newly drafted Cam Newton expected to make things interesting. It would not be surprising to see some of the more talented players looking elsewhere for their future deals. Jon Beason is projected to be one of the best linebackers of the 2012 class of free agents.

    The Panthers will likely approach Beason about a contract extension once the lockout is over, but it is more than a small possibility that Beason will test the waters of free agency after the season.

    Beason has played bout outside and middle linebacker positions, and averaged 135 tackles per season. for the Panthers. His 29 pass deflections and eight interceptions are evidence of his ball skills, and he hasn't missed a game in his four-year career. Durability is important for any football player, especially one playing a particularly violent position at linebacker.

    Carolina needs Beason if they expect to make new head coach Ron Rivera's transition easier. Beason would be a rock in the middle of any defense, and could play in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense. If he doesn't get an extension, he will see a big contract next offseason.

Matt Forte, Running Back Chicago Bears

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    With Mike Martz calling the offense for the Bears, Matt Forte took on the role of Marshall Faulk last season. He was already an established runner and pass catcher, but the Martz offense caters to big production from running backs.

    Forte is expected to have an offer from the Bears once the lockout has ended, but there is no guarantee he will sign it before next offseason.

    After bursting onto the scene to the tune of 1,237 rushing yards, 477 receiving yards and 12 total touchdowns, Forte had a down year in 2009. The Chicago Bears offensive line wasn't the strongest and the lack of receiving threats made the offense one-dimensional. Last season, Forte reached the 1,000 yard mark again and upped his receiving yards to 547 and finished the season averaged 4.5 yards per carry.

    The Bears won't let Forte hit free agency without offering him as much money as they possibly can, but none it he'll be a top-earning running back one way or another.

Robert Mathis, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts

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    The Indianapolis Colts defense has revolved around Dwight Freeney and his sack mastery. Opposite Freeney since 2003 is Robert Mathis and his 74 career sacks. Freeney may be the more accomplished pass rusher, but Mathis is a better tackler and has just 56 starts in his career.

    In a league where defenses depend on their pass rush for success, Mathis will be a valuable free agent when he hits the market in 2012.

    Mathis has already stayed away from team activities because he wants a new contract, but the Colts may be unwilling to meet his demands. He hasn't been a regular starter, but has done great with his opportunities. A lot of his success has been a result of the focus teams place on stopping Freeney, but Mathis is by no means incapable of producing by himself.

    Mathis will be 31 after the 2011 season and has had some injuries in his career. Still, he is coming off one of his best seasons and is entering a contract year. Someone will pay him handsomely for his services if the Colts don't give him the contract he desires.

Troy Polamalu, Safety, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Troy Polamalu has been one of the best strong safeties in the NFL since becoming the starter in 2004. Steelers fans love him, but just as many people can't stand him. He's made his fair share of enemies on the field, but he always plays with a controlled intensity that comes with being a member of the Steelers defense.

    Polamalu is will be 31 after the 2011-2012 season, and will likely seek a long-term deal to close finish his career in Pittsburgh.

    Most players who are as effective as Polamalu like to let the world know about it. Polamalu lets his play do the talking for him, and it comes through loud and clear. Aside from the 515 career tackles, 27 interceptions, and eight sacks Polamalu has some of the best timing of any player in the NFL.

    Polamalu is a highlight reel player without the baggage of some other NFL stars. The Steelers aren't going to let him walk away, but will have to pay a hefty sum to retain him.

Wes Welker, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots

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    Freddie Mitchell may have tried to force the nickname on himself years ago, but Wes Welker truly is the 'Sultan of Slot.' Welker is the best player to suit up for the Patriots in the last 10 years other than Tom Brady. He has averaged over 100 receptions and 1,000 yards in his four years with the Patriots and is up for a new contract after this season.

    The Patriots have a history of letting veteran players go in free agency, but Welker is far to valuable to let him go anywhere else.

    New England isn't exactly flush with great receivers these days, and losing Welker would be a tough hole to fill. Brady and Belichick have found success with less accomplished players, but why risk it by not bring Welker back? Welker tore his ACL and MCL in his left knee in the final game of the 2009 season, but showed no ill-effects in 15 games last season. 

    Welker may not play the most important position on the field, but he has made Brady look great under center. Even if the Patriots don't re-sign him, Welker will get a big contract in 2012.

Adrian Peterson, Running Back, Minnesota Vikings

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    Very few running backs can match the speed and physicality with which Adrian Peterson carries the ball. He entered the league with a ton of hype that he has lived up to and criticism that he has dispelled. While many question his longevity given his physical running style, he is only 26 and hasn't slowed down yet in his career.

    The Vikings won't let Peterson get away, but that means he'll be one of the highest paid running backs in the league.

    In his rookie season, Peterson averaged 5.6 yards per carry, rushed for 1,341 yards,and 12 touchdowns. He saw a dip in his total rushing yards last season, but still managed to increase his yards per carry average from 4.6 in 2009 to 4.8 last season. Even with the Vikings struggling, Peterson still finished top 10 in the NFL in rushing.

    With Bill Musgrave calling the shots on offense, the Vikings' offense is slated to run through Peterson and ease rookie quarterback Christian Ponder's transition into the NFL. Peterson could be due for a career year if he remains healthy and productive for the entire season.

    Peterson isn't desperate to sign a new deal, but will get a very lucrative contract in the next year. If he decides to test free agency before re-upping with Minnesota, expect his number to go up.