As the NFL lockout slowly edges towards a conclusion, we can begin to contemplate what the free agency landscape will look like once the new collective bargaining agreement is struck. Sources close to the talks have indicated that free agents with four or more years of accrued service in the league will become unrestricted. This is significant because it places a large number of excellent young players on the market.
It has also emerged that the salary cap floor is expected to be raised. A large number of teams will be forced to spend money this offseason in order to meet this figure. It looks likely that there will be a one week window once we have the collective bargaining agreement in place to allow teams to sign free agents before training camp begins.
This promises to be both an especially frenetic period for all NFL teams and a very interesting one for the fans. All teams will be scrambling to improve their team as much as possible in this limited period. The top players on the market figure to have considerable leverage in all of this. With this in mind, we take a look at where some of them might land.
Nnamdi Asomugha is the top free agent on the market. He is a shut-down corner and one of the top defensive players in the entire league. Once free-agency begins, there will be a bidding war for his services. Asomugha is 30 years of age so it is likely that this will be his last big NFL contract. However, I do not think Asomugha will necessarily be looking to go and play for the highest bidder.
He has been playing on a pretty average Oakland Raiders team for his entire career. They made him the highest paid corner in football last year. The contract that he opted out of for 2012 offered him $16.8 million or the quarterback franchise tender, whichever was higher. If he was motivated by money he could stay in Oakland. He wants to play for a contender.
As previously stated, there are likely to be a large number of teams vying for his services, from Houston to Detroit to Dallas to Washington, but the one team that sticks out as an excellent fit is the Philadelphia Eagles. Asante Samuel is a good corner but they have struggled to find a quality corner to play across from him. Michael Vick took that offence to another level last year. They came closer than anybody else to beating the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers last year and they will be firmly in the mix again this season.
They have plenty of playmakers on offence, but the defence needs to be upgraded. Having two excellent corners in Tramon Williams and Charles Woodson was a critical component of the Packers success last year. If the Eagles could sign Asomugha to pair with Samuel, it would give them an equally good, if not better, tandem of corners and improve their defence immeasurably. This signing would significantly increase the chances of both the player and the team achieving their ultimate goal next season of lifting the Vince Lombardi trophy.
Eric Weddle is a player who has shown steady improvement in each of his four seasons in the NFL. He epitomises the modern-day player at the position in that he performs all aspects of the position well. He can cover, tackles well in the run game and has the range to make plays in the deep third of the field in the passing game.
He can expect to sign a very lucrative deal. There are a lot of teams in need of a safety and he is the best one on the market. The Chargers are expected to make a strong push to re-sign him, but A.J. Smith is a notoriously tough negotiator and will not overpay for his services.
Possible landing spots for Weddle, should he decide to move on, include Houston, Minnesota, Miami and Detroit. But the one team which really sticks out as an excellent fit is the Dallas Cowboys. They have a huge need at safety. Gerald Sensabaugh was solid if not spectacular last year but the Cowboys must sign someone to play alongside him.
Their pass defence was one of the worst in the NFL last season and must be upgraded. Weddle would be a huge addition to their secondary from both a talent and character perspective. His best years are ahead of him. Mike Jenkins and Terrence Newman played well below their talent levels last year. Improved safety play is a must if they are to return to form this season.
Sidney Rice exploded in 2009 to help propel the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game. Catching passes from Brett Favre, he amassed 1,312 yards receiving to go along with eight touchdowns. He has imposing size at 6'4" and is a dangerous deep threat who has averaged over 15 yards per reception over the past two seasons. At only 24 years of age, he should continue to improve.
The knock on him is that he has not always performed at a high level. He did not have a major impact during his first two seasons and was hampered by injury last year, starting only five games. The Vikings will make re-signing him their primary objective once free agency begins. Percy Harvin is an excellent slot receiver but is not suited to play on the outside.
Rice has experienced what playing with a top quality QB can do for a receiver’s game and may be reluctant to return while rookie QB Christian Ponder learns the ropes in the NFL. The market for a potential playmaker of his ability promises to be strong, and you can expect teams such as New England, Washington, St. Louis and Tennessee to be interested.
Another intriguing landing spot for him could be the Chicago Bears. Their need for a No. 1 receiver has been well documented. They must upgrade the position if they expect to challenge Green Bay for the NFC North title. The fact that they would be depriving a division rival of Rice’s talents would be an added incentive to strike a deal. He would draw double teams and allow their existing personnel to flourish. Jay Cutler would be ecstatic if Chicago could win the bidding war for this guy.
Mathias Kiwanuka has played five seasons in the NFL with varying levels of success. A combination of injuries and the strength of the New York Giants defensive line have hampered his evolution into a dominant player. He has, however, flashed the potential to be excellent. He had four sacks in the opening three games last season, before injuring his neck and finishing the season on injured reserve. In 2008, the only season in which he started all 16 games, he produced eight sacks.
He played some linebacker earlier in his career and his versatility will make him appealing to both 3-4 and 4-3 teams if he can prove his neck is 100 percent. The Giants are unlikely to keep him because they have two excellent starters in Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyiora as well as 2010 first-round draft pick Jason Pierre Paul waiting in the wings.
The list of prospective suitors for Kiwanuka will include teams such as Atlanta, Jacksonville, Denver and Arizona. One intriguing landing spot for Kiwanuka would be with the New England Patriots. A former Boston College player, Kiwanuka could help the Patriots to solve their pass-rush woes. He has the prototypical size (6'4", 265 lbs) that Bill Belichick likes in his outside linebackers and possesses the athleticism to drop into coverage.
The Patriots have had a longstanding need at this position which they have unsuccessfully tried to fill with players such as Adalius Thomas, Derrick Burgess and Tully Banta-Cain. They have a very promising but very young defence. Adding a player of Kiwanuka’s experience and pass-rushing ability would be an excellent move. Jason Pierre Paul recently raved about the role Kiwanuka played for him as a mentor during his rookie season. These are the kind of characters Bill Belichick loves to add to his locker room.
Jonathan Joseph has combined with Leon Hall to give the Cincinnati Bengals one of the top cornerback tandems in the NFL over the last few seasons. At 27 years of age, he hits the market entering the prime of his career and can expect to be rewarded very handsomely for his services once the NFL opens for business. He possesses excellent size, cover skills and the ability to make plays on the football as evidenced by his 14 career interceptions.
The Cincinnati Bengals are expected to be competitive in trying to re-sign their star corner. He is an important part of their defence. Adam “Pacman” Jones' most recent arrest will serve to strengthen their resolve to retain Joseph. However, the fact that they are rebuilding after Carson Palmer’s refusal to play for them, combined with the high demand for quality corners in the league, may make it impossible for them to do so.
Joseph would improve any secondary in the NFL, but the teams I expect to be at the front of the queue for his services include Tampa Bay, Houston, Dallas and Philadelphia. Another team to keep in mind is the Detroit Lions who have arguably the worst secondary in football. Many people predicted they would pick either Prince Amukamara or Jimmy Smith in the NFL draft but Nick Fairley’s considerable talents proved too difficult for them to pass up. They must sign at least one quality corner in free agency.
A player with Joseph’s experience would be perfect. If they could add a couple of pieces to their defence, they have a chance to be very good, very quickly. They have two of the brightest young stars in the NFL in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh. Many have tipped QB Matthew Stafford for a breakout year. Joseph may find the idea of joining this up-and-coming team appealing if they can meet his wage demands.
DeAngelo Williams has been a very productive player for the Carolina Panthers since he was selected in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft. He has averaged five yards per carry over the course of his career. His most productive season came in 2008 when he had 1,515 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns. He is a very well-rounded player who can run between the tackles, catch the football out of the backfield and is always a big play threat. The knock on him at this stage of his career is his tendency to get injured. He only appeared in six games last year. He is fully healthy now though.
The presence of Jonathan Stewart in Carolina has limited his carries over the past couple of seasons. This may be seen as a positive by teams concerned about his durability. It seems likely he will leave Carolina. Stewart is an excellent running back in his own right and Mike Goodson is a more than capable back-up. The Panthers have a ton of needs to be filled, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Re-signing defensive end Charles Johnson is likely to be their top priority.
Running backs have decreased in value in recent years due to teams finding success with drafting players in later rounds of the NFL draft. Undrafted free agent Arian Foster led the league in rushing last year. However, DeAngelo Williams, as the top player available at his position, should receive plenty of offers. His former coach John Fox is sure to be interested in bringing him to Denver where Knowshon Moreno has had some struggles as the feature back. The New York Giants would love to add a player of his quality if they are unable to re-sign Ahmad Bradshaw who is also a free agent.
The team which currently has the biggest need at running back, however, is the Miami Dolphins. Ronny Brown and Ricky Williams are both free agents who are unlikely to be re-signed. Daniel Thomas was drafted by the Dolphins in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft. He is unlikely to be installed as the feature back in his rookie season, however. QB Chad Henne has been very inconsistent up to this point of his career. It is imperative for the Dolphins to have a strong running game to pair with their excellent defence. DeAngelo Williams would force teams to game plan for him. Teams bringing eight men into the box to defend the run game would be forced to single cover Brandon Marshall. This signing would give the Dolphins an excellent chance to make the playoffs next year.
Braylon Edwards has been a polarising player since he entered the league in the 2005 NFL draft as the third overall pick of the Cleveland Browns. He has had some memorable highs such as setting Browns' franchise receiving records for yards with 1,289 and receiving touchdowns with 16 in 2007. He has also had numerous run-ins with the law and been plagued by inconsistent play over the course of his career. He had a solid year for the New York Jets last year. He posted 907 yards receiving and seven touchdowns in an offence in which he was not the featured receiver.
At 6’3”, he is a very physical receiver who excels at running the deep routes as evidenced by his career average yards-per-reception total of 15.8. The Jets have three of their receivers entering free agency this offseason and it unlikely they will be able to re-sign them all. Santonio Holmes is likely to be their No. 1 priority, meaning it is likely that Edwards will sign elsewhere.
At 28 years of age, he is a player entering his prime. He has the talent to be one of the top players in the game at his position if he can improve his consistency. Teams interested in acquiring his services include the Chargers, Vikings, Redskins, Patriots and the Bears. Another interesting potential landing spot for him is Tennessee.
The Titans have a big need at wide receiver. Their best player at the position, Kenny Britt, has been arrested on multiple occasions this offseason and is likely to be suspended by Roger Goodell once the new CBA is agreed. They signed Randy Moss last season. The move was not a success, but did indicate that they were aware of their shortcomings at the position even before Britt’s troubles this offseason. They will certainly be looking to upgrade the position and Edwards would give them that.