Is it too early to talk about NFL Free Agency in 2012?
Considering that we've talked about the 2012 draft since Week 1, it would only make sense to discuss free agency.
After all, free agency begins in March, while the draft takes place in April. Many teams will know what to do in the draft after they canvas the free agent class first.
So why not take a look at the one free agent every team could sign that could make a huge difference next season?
I went in the order that the draft would go if it were to take place tomorrow; the only difference is that this order is the one you would see in the draft if each team held on to its original No. 1 pick.
You will see some free agents named here more than once, as many teams will vie for the services of these players. You might also see a team's top free agent as the difference-maker that their current team needs simply because losing them would be more devastating than it would be beneficial for any other team to sign them, if that makes any sense.
So let's take a look at who should be No. 1 on each team's shopping list this offseason.
Indianapolis has more holes than they do cap room and draft picks to fill those holes. Their 0-10 record is a testament to this.
It's a good thing they don't play this week—bye is favored by 10 1/2.
But a healthy Peyton Manning and good draft class in 2012 (or Andrew Luck and a good draft class helped by picks acquired from Peyton Manning...dear Miami Dolphins, say no when the Colts offer up Manning this Spring) will be enough to take the Colts back to the upper echelon of the NFL that they've become accustomed to in the last decade.
However, the climb back to NFL elite status will be tougher for Indianapolis without their three-time Pro Bowl defensive end.
Mathis is on the wrong side of 30 and has been very unhappy with the lack of a long-term extension from the Colts, but without him it will be difficult for a Colts defense that's already terrible to build itself back to being playoff-caliber.
It's hard to believe but this offseason it looks like Mathis will be more valuable and more important to the Colts than Manning will be.
It must be great to have a future franchise quarterback almost assured to fall in your lap for the second time in 15 years.
Robert Meachem is more of a luxury for the Saints. He's a great weapon downfield and has great instincts in the red zone.
For the St. Louis Rams and quarterback Sam Bradford, this is exactly the type or receiver they need.
Meachem would help spark an aerial attack that would go together well with Stephen Jackson's ground assault; he would also likely mean fewer turnovers and sacks for Bradford.
The end result: more points on the board for the Rams. His age (27) also helps the Rams, as he's old enough to have experience to guide the team, but still young enough to be a valuable weapon for years to come.
"Wait, stop it Tommy, you pathetic Dolphins homer. There is no way that Green Bay lets go of Finley. None!"
Getting that out of the way before I:
A. let you know that the title of this article is called "NFL Free Agents: Potential Difference-Makers for all 32 Teams" (I put a link to this article in the article itself, when was the last time you saw Bleacher Report go meta like that?).
B. Believe it or not, Finley is pretty expendable in Green Bay.
Plenty of great tight ends are available in the draft for the Packers, a team with very few needs. If they lose Finley, they'll live and likely come back next season just as good as they've been this season (and the season before).
But for Miami, signing Finley would help bolster an offense that is lacking two big weapons: a quarterback and a tight end.
The quarterback will come in the draft (Matt Barkley or Robert Griffin III are the most likely candidates) or trade (Peyton Manning, excuse me while I go throw up as Miami will just have a two-year placeholder whose health is questionable at this point as opposed to a quarterback for the next decade).
But what about the tight end? That's the position I see the Dolphins addressing in free agency as long as Finley is available for the taking.
DeSean Jackson wants to be paid.
So far, the Eagles have not paid him, and it's become a distraction on a team that doesn't need anymore of those.
He will certainly test the waters, and there is one place where he will be a blessing.
The Panthers already have a very good offense with Cam Newton at the helm. But their defense is terrible and will have to be their main focus come draft day.
But when it comes to free agency, the Panthers should pursue Jackson with every fiber so that they won't have to draft a receiver.
Jackson will instantly become Newton's top weapon and will lead to the Panthers getting on more highlight reels than they have this season, if that were possible.
Now if they can draft a defense to go with signing Jackson, the NFC South might just become that much tougher of a division.
The Vikings have a decent offensive future behind Christian Ponder and the always excellent Adrian Peterson.
But who will block for them?
That will be a question the Vikings are going to have to answer going forward. Yes, drafting an offensive lineman should be a priority for the Vikes, but for now they could do worse than signing Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell.
Bell is an above-average pass-blocker and excellent run-blocker. Sounds like just what the doctor ordered in Minnesota.
Carl Nicks has emerged as one of the premier guards in the NFL, and with the Saints already committing enough money towards Jahri Evans, there might not be enough in their coffers to pay a second elite guard.
The Browns need protection for Colt McCoy (or whoever winds up replacing him) as well as someone who can create holes for the running back the Browns plan on drafting next Spring.
Nicks would be the pick. The Browns struggle the most in the interior of their line, where Nicks resides.
Reggie Wayne has been on a contender his entire NFL career.
Well, until this season.
With so many pending Colts free agents, Wayne will likely be the odd man out.
In Arizona though, Reggie Wayne would be a great complement to Larry Fitzgerald while at the same time bringing a veteran presence that will help further the development of Kevin Kolb.
Jacksonville's defense has played well, and Blaine Gabbert looks like the quarterback of the future despite the Jaguars' conservative style of play.
But Gabbert is going to need pieces to further open up their offense.
He already has Maurice Jones-Drew and Marcedes Lewis, but what he lacks is a game-breaking wide receiver.
Vincent Jackson has been that type of receiver with San Diego the last three seasons. While he has held out in the past, he still hasn't been paid his worth.
It would hurt for San Diego to let Jackson go, but if Jacksonville has the chance to add him, they should.
For all of the money the Eagles spend on corners and receivers (and quarterbacks), they seemed to overlook the position of linebacker.
It's pretty tough to play defense without competent ones (and even tougher when they're coached by a former offensive line coach who's coaching on defense for the first time ever in his career).
The Eagles need help both up the middle and on the exteriors of their linebacker slots.
And if they can weaken a division rival, it will be even better.
Enter Anthony Spencer, Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker and pending 2012 free agent.
Spencer could be the centerpiece of he Eagles defense for years to come, along with various draft picks and other free agent pickups for Philadelphia.
He can defend the run well and is good at putting pressure on the quarterback.
Yeah, the Eagles need him or someone like him. Well, four of them at least.
So you're the Washington Redskins, and you need a quarterback.
There's a decent chance that, unless you tank the rest of the season, you might fall out of the running for Barkley or RGIII.
What do you do?
You could try to trade up for Andrew Luck, but your team has far too many holes that need to be filled during the offseason, and the draft is usually the easiest way to fill them.
Or you could sign someone who's already been in the NFL for a while and can work in a West Coast offense used by head coach Mike Shanahan.
At least every three or four years, a team pulls a "Scott Mitchell."
Scott Mitchell of course was the former Miami Dolphins backup quarterback who parlayed a few excellent games (and a few stinkers that are never talked about) on a decent team into a big long-term deal with a team desperate for quarterback help. Detroit were the recipients of a "Scott Mitchell" when they signed Scott Mitchell in 1994.
You could also call this being "Elvis Grbac'd," "AJ Feely'd" or more recently, "Matt Cassel'd."
Next year we might be adding "Matt Flynn'd" to that list, because a team like Washington will sign him to be their starting quarterback.
But Flynn does have the tools to start in the NFL and probably would have by now, if you know the best quarterback in the league (according to everyone but Skip Bayless) weren't on his team.
Flynn would right now start for the Redskins, Dolphins, Broncos, Colts, Chiefs, Raiders, Seahawks, Browns and many other teams.
Next year he'll get his chance—and will prove that he can succeed in the NFL.
And it will be in Washington, where he'll have a huge impact.
The Seahawks can boast a strong rush defense, but this comes at the expense of their pass rush.
They will need a player on defense who can come in and provide balance.
Titans DT Jason Jones, a free agent this season, fits the bill perfectly.
When healthy, which has been somewhat of an issue for Jones, he has been one of the league's best interior pass rushers, accounting for 77 tackles and 15.5 sacks so far this year.
Production like this would help the Seahawks pass defense improve enough to match up with their run defense.
I had to include someone ballsy enough to drive this into this list.
Antonio Garay will be a free agent after this season, and despite being 32 at the start of next season, his services will be sought out by many teams in need of a nose tackle.
Kansas City fits the bill here. Garay can turn the Chiefs defense into a good one with an improved interior line.
Carlos Rogers is having a great season in San Francisco, one that might force a team to overpay for him.
I could see Denver doing that since they need help in their secondary.
Rogers is the best corner available on the open market this offseason, and despite being one of the most overlooked players, is a stalwart in the 49ers secondary.
He would do the same in Denver and make an impact by creating turnovers and covering speedsters such as Jacoby Ford, Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson and other AFC West receivers that the Broncos at times have trouble with.
How have the Patriots not locked him up?
Granted, with Gronkowski and Hernandez, the Patriots might not need any wide receivers, but Welker is a major part of the success of both tight ends.
Now imagine what he could do if he went back to San Diego (the first team in the NFL he played for) and worked with the likes of Phillip Rivers, Vincent Jackson and Antonio Gates?
Or how good of a replacement for Vincent Jackson would Wes Welker be?
Either way, if he's still available, the Chargers would improve their offense greatly by signing Wes Welker.
Taking away one of Brady's best weapons would also be a plus for the Chargers.
I'd suggest that the Buccaneers figure out how to stop the run, but those parts can (and likely will) be added in the draft.
But let's look at their offense: You have Josh Freeman, who is still a good QB despite his regression, a decent (but not great) receiving corps and LeGarrette Blount.
Blount needs a complement back, and who better to fill that role for the Bucs than Peyton Hillis.
Hillis reminds me of a smaller Mike Alstott (no, that's not a race thing it's a style thing).
What place would be better for a smaller Alstott than the place Alstott made home?
Tennessee committed so much money to Chris Johnson, but in order for their investment to pay dividends, the Titans will need someone who can create holes for Johnson to run through.
At the same time, next year you might see Jake Locker make some starts for the Titans and he'll need some protection.
The Titans need a guard and a center, and a good center in Houston's Chris Myers will be available in free agency.
Myers might stay in Houston, but Tennessee would be a great spot for him too.
Once again we go to a team's own free agent being the one that will make the biggest impact.
Not to sound like Tim McCarver here, but the Falcons losing Grimes will be a worse loss than any gain made by the other team that signs him.
The Falcons secondary is already pretty bad; losing Grimes will only make it worse.
Atlanta has to re-sign him.
Take a healthy Mario Williams and put him on a Rex Ryan defense, do you know what you have?
A quarterback's worst nightmare, and mine.
Just imagine the possibilities here if the Jets can sign Williams.
Scary thing is, he would actually fill a need; the Jets don't have a true "quarterback killer," something that a healthy Mario Williams has proven to be one of the best at.
Yikes, let's move on before this Miami Dolphins fan wets his pants in fear over this actually happening.
The Raiders secondary is thin and needs a bit of attitude—you know, old school Oakland Raiders attitude.
Courtland Finnegan adds both to a secondary that needs all the help they can get. Oakland doesn't have the picks to improve in that category, but Finnegan will work well and create havoc.
Remember what I said about seeing some players more than once?
Carl Nicks is one of those players.
The Cowboys are in need of interior offensive line help; in fact you could say that the Cowboys offensive line has prevented this offense from being 100 percent effective.
Carl Nicks, as I mentioned in the Cleveland Browns slide (now I'm linking you to previous slides ha-ha!) would help the Cowboys immensely.
Once again we have a repeat guest on this list.
Mario Williams on the Jets is scary, but Mario Williams on the Bills will improve them in a huge way.
The Bills need a pass rush, Williams provides it. What more is there to say?
The Giants will need a backup for Ahmad Bradshaw once Brandon Jacobs leaves (and he is leaving), and Ryan Grant is the type of change-of-pace back that the Giants can effectively use.
Teams who need interior linemen aren't just limited to the Cowboys and Browns; the Lions need them as well.
Considering that I already had Carl Nicks listed twice, for the Lions I went with Ben Grubbs.
Grubbs has been fantastic in Baltimore despite the shuffling around him and would be an asset to a team like Detroit that needs to provide Matt Stafford with more time in the pocket and get him some semblance of a running game.
First off, the Ravens have to sign Ray Rice. I'm pretty confident they'll do that.
Secondly, and more importantly, they have to address safety as far as who plays next to Ed Reed.
LaRon Landry would be a great addition to the Ravens defense, and he wouldn't have to move too far away. His age (27) is also an asset.
With Landry and Reed, the Ravens would have the best pair of safeties in the NFL.
Saying Matt Forte is the Bears MVP is almost a widely known truth at this point.
A free agent after this season that the Bears still haven't re-signed, he will hurt the Bears if he's not in Chicago next year.
In more ways than one.
More important to Chicago than seeing what's on the market is making sure their superstar and MVP never reaches the market.
For if he does, there will bad times ahead in the Windy City.
You know what should really scare the Colts about Mathis not re-signing with them?
The fact that he is exactly what New England needs.
The Patriots pass rush is almost non-existent at this point, and will need a veteran to lead that unit.
Mathis could very well be that veteran.
Brandon Carr has underachieved so far this season, which is rare for a contract year.
Maybe he might need a change of scenery.
Cincinnati would be a good place for him. The Bengals already tough defense needs another corner, and Carr is a pretty solid option as the No. 2 man.
Curtis Lofton has been a key component to the Falcons defense this season and should continue to be an integral part of that unit.
But what if he decides to test the open market?
New Orleans will be a place where he's needed, since the team needs an outside linebacker that can cover tight ends and is good at stopping the run.
Lofton makes sense here because he can do both.
Making his second appearance on the list, ladies and gentlemen, Demetrius Bell!
Now Pittsburgh usually doesn't make the big free-agent splash, preferring to build through the draft.
However, Bell would solidify a Steelers offensive line that needs to learn how to better protect Ben Roethlisberger.
After mentioning Mario Williams twice, did you think I would for the Texans?
Yes, losing him would stink for the Texans, but they seem to be doing very well without him.
But they do need help in the secondary.
So here's where Carlos Rogers makes his second appearance on our list.
What does the team that has just about everything need in the offseason?
A pass rushing defensive end.
Calais Campbell would work well in Dom Capers' system doing just that. Campbell, along with Hawk and Matthews, would scare any quarterback into sliding.