With a number of teams already out of the playoff picture, the hype for the 2012 draft is already gathering pace.
For teams set to miss out on the top prize—Stanford's Andrew Luck—free agency could end up being the solution for quick fixes and substantial investment in missing pieces.
For every Julius Peppers acquired in the open market however, there's an Albert Haynesworth lurking around the corner, holding teams to ransom on super-contracts that wreck a franchise's finances for years to come.
With that in mind, here are the top 25 players hitting unrestricted free agency at the end of the season, that come with warning signs slapped on their chests.
Whatever the outcome of the Dolphins' season from here on in, the Chad Henne era in Miami is over.
Even if Andrew Luck lands with the Colts in next year's draft, there's always a consolation prize in the shape of Landry Jones, Matt Barkley or Robert Griffin to fall back on, all of whom offer more hope for the future than Henne.
A fourth-year quarterback, with more career interceptions (37) than touchdowns (31)? Pass.
I'm fairly certain Vince Young won't be pursued in free agency, but just in case anyone was thinking that he might provide a spark that a team currently lacks, stop and think.
First, Young is not a leader. That much is clear, from his erratic behaviour in Tennessee, and now Philadelphia. Negative news stories are never far away. If you're trying to build a family brand, Vince Young is bad for business.
Second, he's not good enough on the field to merit the investment. Throughout his career he may have won his fair share of games, but rarely is he ever the key reason why.
A game manager, who throws (on average) less than 150 yards per game? Next please.
Gary Guyton is one of the league's over-achievers, landing with the Patriots as an undrafted rookie in 2008, and featuring in all but one game in his career to date.
Despite showing a turn of speed at the inside linebacker position, his tackling is suspect in the run game, and, three career interceptions aside, is a key contributor to New England's worst-ranked pass defense, rarely in the same area code as the receiver on crossing routes.
As a product of Bill Belichick, there may be a group of teams interested in his services next season—Belichick disciples such as Kansas City spring to mind—but don't be fooled. Guyton will be out of the league quickly if his journey takes him away from Foxborough.
Cedric Benson has a 3.8 yards per carry career average, and three brushes with the law over a four year span.
Have I missed anything? Didn't think so. Move on, nothing to see here.
I'm not expecting a wild bidding war for the services of the nine-year veteran out of Morgan State, but he does have an 11 touchdown season on his resume, from 2009.
The production over the course of his career is less than stellar however—he averages a touchdown in every five or so games.
He may earn more money in Minnesota than on the open market, but Christian Ponder will need more reliable targets than this to continue his development in future seasons.
Fresh off the San Diego production line, Mike Tolbert is the latest back to catch the eye with a breakout season, following in the footsteps of Michael Turner and Darren Sproles.
Tolbert's 11 scores in 2010 make him a prime candidate for a longer contract than AJ Smith is likely to offer, but with 3.7 yards per carry this season, and no individual 100-yard game, he comes with a "buyer beware" sign hung round his neck.
Rex Grossman filtered into the wider consciousness of NFL fans with his Super Bowl run with the Chicago Bears in 2006.
That year, he was given an extended opportunity as a starter, and proved that he is an erratic decision-maker who throws as many picks as touchdown passes.
In Washington, very little has changed, and losing his job to John Beck after a four-interception horror show at home to the Eagles, has likely had his final chance under Mike Shanahan. Avoid.
John Abraham is a solid defensive end who has six double-digit sack seasons through his 12 year career in the NFL.
At 34 however, his best bet of a final payday will come in Atlanta, who are the team most likely to pay a premium in the hope of one final hurrah.
This year, his play has taken a step back from 2010, and with Robert Mathis hitting free agency at the same time, there are younger, more appealing prospects to invest in at the end of the season.
Matt Flynn may well benefit from the same treatment given to Kevin Kolb, when he served as a backup in Philadelphia.
Teams in need of a quarterback have been known to take a small, if impressive, sample size and project a viable career for signal callers who back up elite starters. Matt Cassel, anyone?
After a competent performance in New England at the end of the 2010 season, it would be tempting to predict a bright future for Flynn.
Any offer for him in free agency ought to be made in the knowledge that he is raw, talented, and nowhere near ready to take over a permanent starting role.
Barrett Ruud is in Tennessee on a one-year deal as a replacement for Stephen Tulloch. However, he has struggled to fill the void in the center of the Titans defense and is building a reputation as an overrated talent.
Put simply, Ruud is a tackle machine, without ever making an impact as a play-making defender. He sits somewhere between the Patriots' Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton, which is a replaceable commodity.
A career of consistently poor angles to the ball, cheap shots, poor positional awareness and off-the-field issues earned Meriweather a "go" route out of New England, despite a total absence of veteran experience or ability elsewhere in the Patriots' secondary.
The Chicago Bears have benched him in recent weeks too, so expect little to no market for the former University of Miami product, and (somehow) two time Pro Bowl selection.
After a glittering 11-year career in Philadelphia, McNabb's fall from grace has been short and sharp.
It took McNabb six games to post a quarterback rating higher than 90 this season in Minnesota, before being replaced by the rookie Christian Ponder. After a succession of throws at receivers' ankles, coach Leslie Frazier has had enough.
At this stage in his career, a starting job may be a bridge too far for McNabb.
Pierre Garcon's numbers may have suffered in a system containing plenty of alternative passing options, such as Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark, but a spate of dropped passes at key moments in his short career keep him down on Peyton Manning's pecking order.
Niggling injuries have played a part in his occasional reliability issues, and teams looking for a second or third wide receiver could pick up a more dependable option, such as Mario Manningham.
Aubrayo Franklin was brought in along with Shaun Rodgers before the season to shore up the defensive line in New Orleans.
Ranked 17th against the run after nine games however, the signings have yet to deliver against some fairly high expectations.
Franklin had a nice few years in San Francisco, but at 31 years old, is unlikely to improve as he enters the back nine of his career.
Brandon Lloyd's one monster season in a Broncos uniform might be enough to land him a long-term deal either in St Louis or on the open market.
But Redskins and 49ers' fans will remember Lloyd for his stone hands as much as his athleticism and, on occasion, jaw-dropping grabs.
Everything came together in 2010, in a perfect storm of coaching, quarterback play and good fortune with injury. At 30 years old, this is unlikely to last long into a new deal.
For Robert Meachem, read Brandon Lloyd.
The issues here are very similar—a burner with a bad case of the drops, injury concerns and breakout games on his resume that may trick GM's into offering a long-term deal.
If you are paying decent free agency money, you want consistency from your veteran talent, and Meachem will frustrate and delight in equal measure.
Wes Welker may end up as one of the best slot receivers to play the game, but this year, he's one of the best wide receivers in the league—period.
Currently leading the NFL in receiving yards with 960, Welker said he was "in his prime" this preseason, and the Patriots clearly agree, sending him on more "go" and "post" routes than ever before, and the results have been impressive.
Welker's current form makes it highly unlikely that the Patriots will allow him to test the waters of free agency, but there are a couple of red flags that might keep a blockbuster extension off the table.
Much as he deserves a big payday—in recognition of his past efforts—contracts are drawn up in line with expected future returns.
The challenge for New England in February is: How do you set a deal for a soon-to-be 31 year old with a surgically-repaired knee?
It shouldn't be a problem if the Patriots overpay for Welker's declining production in future years. But there's no room for sentiment in the salary cap era, and he may end up struggling to strike a deal that rewards him appropriately.
Another talent with a torn ACL.
Terrell Thomas will be 27 by the time free agency opens, so he's definitely young enough to secure one big final payday.
However, the Giants won't have had a chance to see him test out his new knee before potentially tying him down to a long-term deal, which leaves the front office with a contract headache.
If Thomas takes longer than anticipated to recover his speed and agility, he could prove to be an expensive liability, in the short term at least.
The absence of Peyton Manning this season has radically altered the perception of the players that surrounded him.
Reggie Wayne turns 33 next week, and with diminishing returns without his future Hall of Fame quarterback supplying the production, he suddenly looks like a prospect to avoid.
His reliability may secure him one final contract—he hasn't missed a regular season game since 2001—but if the Colts decide to clean house after a dismal season, a youth movement like the one we are watching unfold in Cincinnati may leave Wayne without a home.
With an season average of 57 yards receiving per game, he is no longer the type of player that makes those around him look better.
If you need any further proof that the NFL is strictly business, look no further. Jason Campbell found out about the Carson Palmer trade on television, no phone call, nothing.
I'm not sure what the market will look like for a 30 year old game manager, but unless the price is right, avoid.
Campbell has only led a team to a winning season once in his six seasons—in 2007, when the Redskins were bounced out of the playoffs at the wild card stage—which begs the question: Are teams better off developing a young draft pick instead?
Green Bay managed to extract two years of heavy workload out of Ryan Grant before an ankle injury curtailed his 2010 season after just eight carries.
Not the most dynamic of runners, the Packers may be tempted to let Grant hit free agency if his demands prove to be excessive. They have the younger James Starks, who is marginally more productive this and could take on an expanded role in future years.
As a featured back, Grant would be an underwhelming acquisition. With a 4.1 yards per carry average since 2008, cheaper alternatives can be found in the later rounds of the draft.
On the surface, Forte doesn't look like a free agent prospect to avoid. But there are a number of warning signs that general managers should pay attention to before splashing the cash.
Forte is clearly unhappy at the lack of commitment from the Bears' front office. But his body of work over his four years of NFL service pales in comparison to elite running backs.
4.2 yards per carry and 20 touchdowns over 55 games? Those are not the numbers of a featured back.
The sample size of Forte's production at an elite level is small—his 672 yards have been impressive in the context of the offensive line problems in Chicago—yet he is approaching 1,000 carries for his career.
Forte has been a real workhorse during his time in the league, which inevitably leads to a short shelf life. History suggests that obtaining four years of solid production out of him is a reach too far, despite what he and his agent may tell us.
This is clearly not the best week to suggest that Vincent Jackson—he of the three touchdowns and 141 yards last Sunday—is best avoided on a long, expensive contract.
A history of DUI cases have built a perception that Jackson is either a liability, or just plain naive. Commissioner Goodell is unlikely to go soft on any future indiscretions, and teams are understandably reluctant to pay top dollar to players with a knack for attracting suspensions.
His most productive season in the NFL came in 2009, with 1,167 yards and nine scores. He has similar numbers to Calvin Johnson, who is a consensus elite wide receiver, yet has rarely had more than a journyeman quarterback to catch the ball from.
With Phillip Rivers throwing his way, I would expect much more consistency from his resume. A good, but not great receiver, who wants elite money from his next deal. I'd be reluctant to pay,
Kyle Orton's career peaked over the 2009 and 2010 seasons in Denver, which coincided with the Josh McDaniels era.
McDaniels is known for his alchemy, turning quarterbacks into gold, so there is a glimmer of hope for teams looking to restore him to his former glory, providing the structure and support is there for Orton.
Bear in mind though, that the Broncos' best year with Orton under center was 8-8. Elway and Fox have clearly cut all ties with him this year, which is an indication that despite his fundamentally-sound technique, something is missing.
Whatever "it" is, Tebow doesn't have it either. After his unceremonious fall from grace, repairing Orton's confidence may take time and effort that ultimately produces no more than a younger prospect would.
With the news that the Cleveland Browns are prepared to let their star running back walk at the end of the season, the latest player to fall victim to the "Madden Curse" ought to have no shortage of suitors.
After all, who doesn't want a young, 250-pound wrecking ball coming off a 1,000 yard, double-digit score season, right?
270 carries (his 2010 total) is a heavy load to bear for runners like Hillis, who are built to run over, rather than around, the roadblocks in their path. Are the niggling injuries this season a precursor to bigger ones down the road?
Can he replicate his 2010 season again in the future? Of course he can. But there are reasons not to pay him, to find out.
His attitude throughout the contract situation has been terrible. His own teammates are on his case; there's a feeling that his selfish behaviour has let the Browns down at a time when they need him most.
Jamison Hensley of ESPN sums up the situation perfectly:
"He went public over his lack of a contract, missed a game because of strep throat over the advice of his agent, failed to show up for a scheduled appearance at Halloween party for children and got married last Tuesday in Arkansas instead of getting treatment at the Browns facility for his injured hamstring."
A long contract for Hillis represents more risk than reward. Steer clear.