It's almost that time again in the National Football League. Free agency is just around the corner as the league and players work diligently to iron out the final stages of the new collective bargaining agreement.
For NFL franchises, free agency is a period filled with hope, confidence and massive monetary investments. For players, it's their best opportunity to cash in on their determination and production. With up to 32 teams vying for their services, the costs of these players can quickly reach astronomical levels.
In many cases the price tag on free agents far outweighs their actual value on the field (see: Haynesworth, Albert).
Here's a look at 10 free agents who are strong candidates to receive an unnecessarily robust payday this offseason.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson entered the 2010 season with four career starts through three NFL seasons. He was essentially buried behind All-Pro Julius Peppers, who just so happened to leave for greener pastures prior to last season.
With a starting role, Johnson rose to pass-rushing prominence and is now a free-agency darling. The 25-year-old racked up 11.5 quarterback sacks, which ranked him fifth in the league.
Johnson had averaged only three sacks a season in his previously-limited role, but his 2010 performance has now vaulted him into contention for a major payday. The Gaston Gazette predicts Johnson will be looking to, "break the bank with a huge contract" this offseason, and it's a solid bet.
He's one of only four players in Carolina's franchise history to record double-digit sacks, and he did it in just his first year starting. There's no questioning this kid's potential, and he could easily prove worthy of a mega deal if he continues this type of disruptive production, but there is a good amount of risk here.
If the Panthers can retain him, Johnson has a great chance of sustaining his success, but a scheme change could potentially prove fatal. He's likely to command a salary of at least $10 million annually, and the team that lands him better hope 2010 wasn't a statistical anomaly.
The Panthers have multiple candidates for this list, as linebacker James Anderson is set to hit free agency as well.
Through his first four NFL seasons, Anderson made a combined nine starts for Carolina while compiling a total of 136 tackles. The 27-year-old entered the starting lineup after multiple injuries shook up the Panthers' linebacking corps early on.
He proved more than competent in the starting lineup racking up 130 tackles, 3.5 sacks, five passes defended, two forced fumbles and a pick.
Carolina seems to be the best bet to reacquire Anderson's services, but if another team dangles a bigger carrot in front of him it wouldn't be a surprise to see him leave. He's a one-year breakout player, and interested teams would be wise to consider the fact that he may also be a one-year wonder.
Our first two candidates for overpayment have major experience knocks, but Ray Edwards has been consistently productive for years.
The Vikings end has 29.5 sacks to his name through five NFL seasons, and his production has steadily increased over the years.
Pro Football Focus certainly has a positive assessment of the 26-year-old.
The site ranked Edwards as the third-most productive pass-rusher in the league last season. He only compiled 8.5 sacks, which ranked him 29th among pass-rushers, but PFF believes there's more to the story.
According to their data, Edwards was able to create a quarterback disruption on 69 of the 416 snaps in which he rushed the passer.
There's little doubt he'll continue to be productive elsewhere, but he may have reached his ceiling. Edwards' production was likely benefited by Minnesota's defensive front and pass-rushing prowess, which makes him a candidate for a contract he may not deserve.
Without his legal troubles, Benson is likely in line for a hefty contract this offseason. He experienced a career resurgence in Cincinnati after falling on his face in Chicago.
Benson rushed for 2,362 yards and 13 touchdowns from 2009-2010, and has averaged 1,000 yards a season with the Bengals. Problem is, he's a 28-year-old running back with less than stellar peripheral statistics.
His career yards per carry average is only 3.7, and he produced a 3.5 average in 2010 for Cincy. In fact, 2009 was Benson's only season with the Bengals in which he posted a yards per carry average above four.
Benson's a bit of a bonehead, getting up there in age, slowing a bit and has probably seen his best days. Not the resume you'd like to see if you're a NFL franchise with money to spend on a ball carrier, but there's a good chance someone will cough up a good chunk.
The 3-4 defensive scheme is experiencing a rise in popularity throughout the league as more and more teams employ the philosophy.
Among other specifics, the 3-4 requires a competent nose tackle to man the middle gaps. Aubrayo Franklin has been one of the undisputed premier NTs in the league for years, and he'll be hitting free agency this year.
Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com believes Franklin, "has every expectation of cashing in" during free agency. He's played under the franchise tag the last two seasons in San Francisco, which makes his aim quite understandable.
He stands to command a big contract, but at 31 (in August) one has to question how long he can continue to play at the level we've all come to expect from him. The NT position is typically one that forgives age more than others, as there are many players who have played at a high level into their mid-30's.
Franklin could do the same, but there's also a considerable chance he could sign a three-four-year deal upwards of $30-40 million and fail to live up to the lofty expectations of the contract.
On name value alone, Barrett Ruud will attract many suitors. He's been a staple of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense the last four years.
At 28, Ruud's primed for a big day, but interested teams would be wise to take note of his deficiencies. Ruud is a strong downfield tackler, but can struggle at times against the run. In 2010 he was asked to take on more responsibility in coverage and didn't experience much success.
He plays the MLB position, but has major flaws in his game for the position he plays. A year ago he was seeking a contract in the range of Bart Scott's six-year, $48 million contract. Ruud can rack up the tackles, and he's a strong character guy to have in the locker room, but he's not worth what he's about to get on the open market.
Lance Moore, the epitome of a player fitting perfectly in a specific system. Moore's production with the Saints recently has been mightily impressive.
He nabbed 145 receptions in his last two full seasons (2010 and 2008, 2009 was injury-shortened) in New Orleans. Those receptions went to the tune of 1,664 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Moore and the Saints have expressed mutual interest in continuing their relationship, and a deal between the two parties is the most likely scenario. Moore could attract attention elsewhere, but he is one of the top wide receivers available this year.
Jeff Duncan of New Orleans Times-Picayune had this to say about Moore's fit in the Saints' system:
"Moore is definitely an underrated talent but he'll be the first to tell you that he benefits from playing in the Saints' high-powered system with an elite quarterback like Brees. Stick Moore on the Cleveland Browns and there's no way he's going to produce the same numbers he did in New Orleans. That's not a knock on Moore. It's simply the reality of the situation. It's unlikely he'll find a better situation than the one he has with the Saints."
If another team does pursue him, they'll be overpaying.
Jason Babin spent the 2010 season finally living up to his first-round selection—the problem is he did it eight years and four teams later.
Babin will likely still cash in on his 12.5 sack-performance last year despite only having 17.5 career sacks to his name prior to 2010. The 31-year-old is looking, "'to get a three- or four-year contract,' Babin added. 'I plan to play the last few years on my terms.'"
If his terms are anything like they've been for the majority of his career, he'll be payed an awful lot for mediocre production on the defensive line. Babin is one of the most likely candidates for regression this season and into the future.
Whoever gives this guy a three-four-year mega-deal will be regretting it shortly.
Unlike Babin, Manny Lawson never had a break-out season. His highest sack total came in 2009 when he collected 6.5 quarterback takedowns. His next highest season sack total is three, and the former first-rounder only has 14.5 career sacks in his five NFL seasons.
Lawson is a great coverage linebacker, but has largely disappointed from the pass-rushing perspective. It can't help to be playing in the same defense as the tackle-machine that is Patrick Willis, but Lawson hasn't been very impressive in that regard either. His highest tackle total came in 2009 when he collected 68 stops.
Despite all of this, Lawson is still regarded as one of the premier options available this offseason at his position. He's got value, but his next contract is almost guaranteed to outweigh it.
Mathias Kiwanuka comes with similar knocks, but in his case, we can add injury-prone and team distraction to the list.
The 28-year-old, former first-round pick has started a full season only once in his five seasons—that feat was accomplished three years ago in 2008. Since then Kiwanuka has struggled with neck injuries and ineffectiveness.
He's got 23.5 sacks in his 41 career starts, which is an impressive collection. He's probably much better off in another city with a fresh start, but he remains unlikely to live up to sky-high potential he came out of college with.