We all saw how crazy the 2011 NFL free-agency period was handled. Teams didn't even have the chance to sign their own free agents before they were swept off their feet by other NFL teams. It almost seemed reminiscent of the old AFL versus NFL battles when both leagues were trying to steal players from each other.
The 2012 NFL free agency will be a return to business as usual. Agents will be looking to find how much salary cap space the general managers are prepared to offer to their clients, while general managers will try to figure out how many of their own free agents they can retain while looking to fill other team holes.
Today, we're going to look at the 12 best unrestricted free agents in 2012 that are expected to hit the market. We will attempt to predict a figure that they should be going for in the market and then finalize each slide with an ultimate prediction if they will be signed over or under that figure.
Here's a report I found from Forbes.com, which details the top 10 NFL contracts from the current 2011 season. I will tell you right now that there are five quarterbacks and five defensive players that make up the top-10 list.
Do you know who they are?
Here's the link to the report, which also includes their brief summary of what the total compensation is for each player in question.
With that being the case, the Saints could still try to iron out a multi-year deal, but the current speculation centers around the Saints ability to simply put a franchise tag on Brees and try to get him to sign a longer-term deal.
Since Brees is the face of the Saints franchise, and with the escalating salaries of quarterbacks in the league right now, I am going to peg the annual compensation to be in the $15 million range.That doesn't necessarily mean that Brees has to sign for $15 million. There are a number of franchises that would be delighted to have him take over their offenses.
Brees is 32 years old, but he has been extremely durable, and that will bode well for getting a big deal done.
My prediction: Saints will have to go over the $15 million annual figure to keep Brees in New Orleans.
Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice is making $600,000. This year is the final year of his contract. You know that Rice is going to want to cash in with his new deal, so it will be interesting to see what happens in negotiations.
As per a tweet from ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeting about Rice's situation, he seems to think that the Ravens will go the franchise tag route with Rice. Schefter's tweet says that running back franchise tag amounts will be dropping in 2012 from $9.45 million to $7.71 million.
If that's the case, then it takes most of the guesswork out of predicting the salary.
My prediction: Ravens will franchise Rice at $7.7 million, but he will hold out for more.
Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis earned $3.41 million in 2011 but is basically underpaid for what he does.
There is just no way for me to separate the Mathis situation without discussing Peyton Manning and his deal. If Manning turns out to be unable to practice or the Colts don't think he can come back, they draft Andrew Luck and then signing a player like Robert Mathis becomes a major priority.
If Manning returns, he still has that massive contract, and as a result, the Colts hands are tied and will have a very hard time offering him enough money to stay with the team. I have no insight into Manning and his neck, so for the sake of this presentation, we will make the assumption that Manning returns and that Mathis will leave the team to take the highest contract offer out there.
My prediction: Mathis should be earning something closer to the $7 million area, and I think somebody will go higher than that to sign him. He's still only 30 years old.
Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte finds himself basically in the same situation as Ray Rice does. The NFL has been able to see what happens when running backs are extended for huge deals (Chris Johnson and DeAngelo Williams are two great examples), and then, the deal blows up in the team's face.
So, if the Ravens are going to apply the franchise tag to Ray Rice, it appears that the Bears will do the same thing to Matt Forte. It doesn't mean that Forte will be happy as a result, and it might make him even more unhappy than he was this year. There's that fine line to balance.
But as we saw in the earlier Adam Schefter tweet, the running back franchise tag is actually getting less expensive, placing Forte at the $7.7 million mark for 2012.
My prediction: The Bears have not been overly generous to Forte, and they will try to get him to sign for less than the $7.7 million figure.
The Houston Texans best pass-rusher is Mario Williams. Too bad he had to go on to the IR list this year, now that the Texans have more talent on defense and appear to be headed to the playoffs without him.
As per an article from Pro Football Talk, the Texans will need to declare in February if they are going to use a franchise tag on Williams, or if they are going to try to sign him to a longer term deal.
He's effective either at outside linebacker or defensive end, and if for some reason the Texans decide to let him walk, there will be a long line of NFL teams ready to throw boatloads of cash at Williams to join their team.
In 2011, Williams earned $13.88 million. It would not be surprising to see that number bumped up a little, but if he hits the open market, all bets are off. We need to remember that he's in the prime years of his athletic career and is only 26 years old right now.
My prediction: Texans offer him $14.5 million, but Williams will sign for even more than that.
Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson has been one of the distractions that have contributed to the Eagles record of 4-6. There's no question that he has all of the talent in the world, but Jackson strikes me as one of those "me-first" kind of players, and that's something that's noticed in the locker room and will be part of the deliberation process for any team that thinks about extending him an expensive contract in 2012.
Jackson's immaturity and inconsistent play will likely result in the league "low-balling" him, and it might result in him signing a one-year deal with somebody just to prove that he can get his act together.
With the Eagles season on the line for every remaining week, we will see if Jackson has the ability to step up over the final six weeks and prove that he's worth more. For now, color me skeptical.
Jackson is just 24 years old, and his 2011 salary is just $600,000.
My prediction: Jackson will be offered in the $2.5 - $3 million range for one year only, due to the reasons sighted above, but he will refuse to sign and will hold out for more.
Ever since wide receiver Wes Welker joined the New England Patriots and became the favorite target of Tom Brady, you can basically figure that Welker will be either leading or in the top two or three wide receivers in pass receptions and passing yards gained. He's one of the most consistent players year in and year out.
For that consistency, Welker should be rewarded with a big contract. As of now, he's the No. 1 receiver again this year, leading in both receptions and yardage.
Welker joined the Patriots five years ago, and back then, the contract was for $18.5 million. Times have changed, and Welker will be seeing a huge bump in his pay.
This year, Welker is earning only $2.5 million. He's 30 years old and is two years removed from his major knee injury. ESPN Business Analyst Andrew Brandt speculated that Welker could see an offer around what Santonio Holmes got this year, (five-year, $45.25 million deal with $24 million guaranteed).
For his production, his consistency and being a guy that remains professional, Welker should see a deal in the $8 to $9 million range per year. How many years he's offered will be the result of his age and concerns over the knee.
My prediction: Offers will come in at the $8 million range, but Welker will earn more than that.
Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe is in the final year of his contract and is taking advantage of the situation to have a solid year. Well, at least he was while Matt Cassel was running the offense.
Now that Cassel is injured, and southpaw Tyler Palko is going to be passing him the ball for the foreseeable future, it's difficult to project what the rest of Bowe's 2011 stat line will look like. That could have a direct bearing on the size of the contract offers that his agent will receive in 2012.
Bowe is 27 years old and is still in his prime. He projects as a 1,000-yard receiver and has averaged 14 yards per catch over the course of his career. In 2011, Bowe is earning $2.76 million.
We should also remember that Bowe had a monster 2010, when he scored 15 touchdowns on the season. But that season appears to be the outlier, as Bowe only has four touchdowns this year, so he wasn't able to match the production levels.
My prediction: Bowe will want to earn in the $6 million range but will be offered less.
Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham is now 33 years old. He has registered double-digit sacks in three of the last five years (which is what his agent will argue), while the general managers will argue that he didn't get double digits in two of the last three years. He only has four sacks on the year with six games to go.
Maybe age is starting to catch up to Abraham. He's not a spring chicken anymore. Abraham is a free agent in 2012 and was earning $8 million this year.
It will be interesting to see if Abraham is able to make a late-season push to make teams sit up and take notice. Either that or doing some special in the playoffs, assuming that the Falcons make them.
Maybe Abraham has peaked and will be starting that slow downward-decline that eventually most players have to come to terms with.
My prediction: Abraham will want to continue earning the $8 million but will have to settle for less.
Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Paul Soliai is going to be a very rich man in 2012. Well, he is already rich, but he's about to get even richer.
Soliai earned a fully guaranteed $12.38 million in 2011 and is going to be a free agent hitting the market in 2012 looking for a long-term deal and will probably get it. That's what happens when you are considered to be one of the best in the NFL.
The Dolphins used the franchise tag on Soliai in 2011, and it cost them dearly. Care to guess what it would cost them if they tried to apply the same tactic again in 2012? According to Armando Salguero, of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins could apply the franchise tag again, but if they did, it would bump up Soliei's salary to a staggering $14.97 million.
Soliai is going to be a very heavily pursued free agent in 2012. The offers will be attractive because he's only 27 years old and will be effective for years to come.
My prediction: Miami will want to offer him $8.5 million, but he will be able to earn more somewhere else.
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson came into the NFL as an unheralded player until he blew up in 2010 when the Bills finally gave him a chance to start. Johnson went from two catches for 10 yards in 2009 to 82 catches for 1,073 yards, when he finished as the No. 11 wide receiver in the NFL.
Now after 11 weeks of 2011, it seems that Johnson's game has taken a step backwards. One of the strongest parts of his game in 2010 was his ability to gain yards after the catch (YAC), as he picked up 406 YAC yards. This year, that number has plummeted to 160 YAC.
No doubt, opposing secondaries are keying on Johnson. Lee Evans was traded to Baltimore and the other two deep threats, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley are both on IR. So, defenses could shift their attention to Johnson, and it shows. Johnson's average yardage per catch has dropped from 13.1 to 11.9.
If you look at the Bills best wide receivers in history, they were professional types like Andre Reed, James Lofton, Don Beebe, Eric Moulds and Lee Evans. They weren't prima donnas and didn't make waves. Johnson had the dropped-pass episode last year blaming God, and then, he had the "Why So Serious" moment with Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco.
Many Bills observers thought Johnson would be the next Bills player to be signed to an extension after they signed Ryan Fitzpatrick, but nothing has been announced and maybe the Bills are dragging their feet. Johnson is only 25 years old and was earning $550,000 this year.
My prediction: Jackson will look to finally get a bigger deal and will be seeking something in the $4 million range. I think he will have to settle for less.
Oakland Raiders quarterback Jason Campbell is our final player in the presentation.
Now that the Raiders are effectively "all in" on Carson Palmer by trading away two first-round draft picks to the Cincinnati Bengals, it's clear that Palmer is their man going forward, so Campbell will be free to strike his own deal in free agency.
Based on the quarterback frenzy over talents like Palmer, trading Kevin Kolb and the probable waiver claims war over Kyle Orton, we can only imagine that there will be a very genuine interest from NFL teams in Campbell as a free agent.
Campbell is just 29 years old and is earning $4.5 million in 2011. Because of how good he looked throwing the ball for the Raiders during his run as the starter, I expect that teams will have to aggressively bid for him, and Campbell will reap the benefits of being one of the best free agent quarterbacks in the market.
My prediction: Teams will try to sign him in the $7.5 - $8 million range, but it will require more than that to sign him.