Within 2010 rules, the proposed free agent crop for 2011 is hardly one to get the pulses of NFL general managers racing. The inclusion of fourth-year players would liven things up a bit. But by all accounts 2012 promises a much deeper pool of resources for teams to plunder.
By 2012 a new agreement between the league and its players must surely be in place. As things stand the protracted labor dispute has rendered the 2011 free agency market an afterthought. Assuming a deal can be reached, free agency is set to take one of two different forms.
If 2010 free agency regulations remain in place, players with six or more seasons of pro experience will be deemed eligible. Any new deal could also likely see the league return to 2006-09 stipulations. Under these guidelines players would only need four seasons NFL experience to be granted access to the free agent market.
The lack of a new agreement makes it hard to predict exactly what free agency will look like one year from now. With that in mind parts of this list reflect existing free agency rules and other entries have been made on the assumption that the old system could be back in place.
Here are 8 players who could venture into free agency in 2012. Some are star names whose willingness to audition for other teams would cause a sensation around the league. Others are intriguing prospects whose current situations on their respective teams, mean they may wish to test the market.
Ahtyba Rubin emerged as one of the most productive players on the Cleveland browns defense in 2010. The 330-pound nose tackle was a nightmare for interior offensive linemen to deal with. If Rubin can replicate or better his efforts from a year ago, then he could be on his way to superstar status in the NFL.
But the question is will Rubin be as effective in the Browns new 4-3 defense as he was playing in a three man front for former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan? New defensive play caller Dick Jauron plans to pair Rubin with another hulking nose tackle in the form of No. 6 overall draft choice Phil Taylor.
On the face of it this would provide Cleveland with an intimidating interior base for their new defense. But what kind 4-3 tackles will Rubin and Taylor be? Will they perform more as one gap 4-3 nose tackles or will one of these behemoths be expected to take on a more active, penetrating role?
If Rubin struggles to master the nuances of the new system, or is simply not overly enamoured playing a 4-3, he could test the market in 2012, in the hopes of finding a 3-4 team needing an anchor at the heart of their line.
Entering his fourth year Rubin would be eligible in 2012 if the league and the players reach a compromise that facilitates the return of the old rules. If so, Rubin would likely generate a lot of interest in free agency.
Tim Hightower is another player who be able to gain entry into the free agent class of 2012 in the event of a return to the old system. Hightower's situation in Arizona makes it quite likely that he could pursue another team under these circumstances.
In the last two NFL drafts the Cardinals have used a prime pick to select a running back. In 2009, the team opted for Beanie Wells. This year head coach Ken Whisenhunt couldn't resist snaring Virginia Tech big-play specialist Ryan Williams in the second round.
Hightower has so far fended off the competition from Wells. But the 220 pounder is a player you always feel should produce more than he actually does. A capable receiver out of the backfield and offering a decent threat to break the big run, Hightower would be a useful addition to many teams.
If the Cardinals continue to pursue efforts to upgrade Hightower, then the former Richmond prodigy may seek to try his hand in another city.
Drafted in the first round by then Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips back in the 2007 draft, Anthony Spencer has so far failed to consistently make the grade in Dallas. The jury is still firmly out on the former Purdue star who has endured an uneven transition form defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker.
Entering his fifth season Spencer's pro career is at a crossroads. He has managed just 15.5 sacks in his first four years. This is despite playing opposite the league's finest pass rusher DeMarcus Ware. With new Cowboys defensive honcho Rob Ryan known for lighting a fire under his players and employing a blitz happy system, there will be no excuses for Spencer not to produce better numbers.
Spencer has demonstrated the potential to be a fine pass rusher in the NFL. It may be that a move to a 4-3 team would suit him best. Teams with a woeful recent track record pressuring the passer, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, could be tempted to offer Spencer a fresh start. He could be a useful alternative to often injured Aaron Kampman and inconsistent Derrick Harvey.
If the previous free agency format returns, Spencer may see a change of scenery as the best option for igniting his stalling career. His inclusion in the 2012 free agent class may not be his choice alone. If Spencer can't step up his game under Ryan's tutelage, the Cowboys would likely opt against contesting suitors for his signature in 2012.
Marcedes Lewis is the most complete tight end in the NFL. The 6'6" 275 pounder is an excellent blocker and a crucial component in the Jaguars favoured power rushing attack. Lewis is also a genuine receiving threat thanks to his crafty route running and good hands.
The Jaguars slapped the franchise tag on Lewis to stave off free agent interest this time around. But the emerging star is looking for more than just a one year quick fix. Jacksonville will no doubt be keen to tie Lewis down to a long-term deal once the lockout is resolved.
If the Jags are prevented from dealing with Lewis this season or simply don't offer suitable terms, the ex UCLA standout would have no problem finding a new home. Any team seeking a reliable outlet for their quarterback would surely consider Lewis as the answer.
Jacksonville would do well not to risk letting his contract situation remain in relative limbo for too long.
The league's most explosive running back, Chris Johnson is growing tired of the Tennessee Titans reluctance to make him the NFL's highest paid runner. The lockout makes an already complex situation all the more murky for the Titans hierarchy.
Johnson is seeking a lucrative deal and has threatened a holdout. This is a nightmare scenario for a rebuilding Titans squad looking to accommodate top rookie Jake Locker at quarterback. Johnson's balletic, one cut running style makes him a threat to score every time he takes the ball. Blessed with cat-quick, nimble footwork, Johnson can point to three straight Pro Bowl berths and a 2,000 yard campaign in 2009 as justification for receiving an elite player's fiscal recognition.
Tennessee do hold some cards in the negotiations. Johnson still has two years remaining on his original rookie contract, officially tying him down for 2011 and 2012. But if the lockout is lifted and Johnson chooses to hold out, the Titans may be unwilling to pay him anything at all for sitting out two seasons.
It seems practically unthinkable that the Titans would even for a second risk losing their prize asset. But the franchise has resisted paying over the odds before, most notably in the case of Albert Haynesworth. It's also difficult to predict the kind of culture new head coach Mike Munchak and his staff might be looking to create. They may take a dim view of Johnson holding them to ransom when he still has part of an existing contract to honour.
If a deal cannot be struck Johnson could hope for a return to the old free agency system and opt to stay in the Music City for one more year, before delving into the market in 2012. Plenty of teams around the NFL would be only too willing to meet his demands.
Antonio Garay has rebounded from a serious injury, to emerge from practice squad obscurity. He became a key contributor for the Chargers number one ranked defense in 2010. After signing a two-year contract extension in March 2010, Garay will be eligible to test himself on the free agent market in 2012.
The Chargers would likely want to secure Garay's services for the remainder of his career following a spectacular showing last season. The powerful and agile nose tackle was a dominant force at the heart of the Chargers 3-4 defense.
But San Diego general manager A.J. Smith is difficult to predict in player negotiations. While rewarding Garay with remuneration akin to his talent level would seem a no brainer, Smith has fashioned a reputation for playing hardball with other Chargers stars.
Experienced in both the 3-4 and 4-3 fronts and equally adept rushing the passer and repelling the run, Garay would experience no shortage of suitors if he decided to pursue a bumper deal in 2012.
Having so many players with murky contract situations, means the New York Jets do run the risk of letting some of their top talent slip through the cracks. By 2012 D'Brickashaw Ferguson will have accrued six pro seasons and if the Jets still haven't agreed a suitable new deal, the accomplished left tackle may look to bail via free agency.
A skilled blocker, the 6'6" Ferguson is seemingly anxious to agree fresh terms but as yet the Jets haven't got round to offering them. The current labor dispute certainly doesn't help Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. If the lockout can be brought to an amicable conclusion, Tannenbaum faces a difficult choice concerning which of his star players should be prioritised on the negotiations schedule.
Losing the blindside protector for franchise quarterback Mark Sanchez would be a huge body blow to the Jets. But if Ferguson's future isn't resolved by 2012, the Jets will find it hard to match the offers that other teams would be sure to make the outstanding young tackle.
It would seem utterly fanciful stuff to even consider Adrian Peterson departing from the Minnesota Vikings. Then again, that's one many would have said when the idea of the Philadelphia Eagles severing ties with the late great Reggie White was first mooted back in early 1993.
Peterson is widely considered the most complete running back in the game. There is still however that nagging issue concerning ball safety. Peterson's propensity for fumbling the football is something which could damage his claims when it comes time to negotiate a new deal. Although the all-pro rusher can point to just a solitary spillage in 2010.
But Peterson has absorbed a lot of wear and tear during his first four seasons in the NFL. The Vikings will have to closely monitor his condition and factor in his potential longevity when discussing the appropriate scope of any new deal.
With contract issues surrounding Sidney Rice, question marks at quarterback and an ageing defense to reinvigorate, the Vikings face many free agency dilemma's in the next two years. The Vikes may struggle to find an amount of money suitable enough to retain the face of the franchise.
Peterson will be 27 when free agency begins in 2012. With running backs having a short shelf life and Minnesota facing a potential rebuilding project, the league's premier rusher may decide that 2012 is the right time to seek pastures new. Stranger things have happened in free agency.
Whatever form free agency takes in 2012, two things are clear. Any new agreement between the league and the players will likely feature a compromise regarding the current restrictions. 2012 also promises to offer a much deeper and more high-profile crop of players to choose from.