No matter how well or how poorly your favorite team is playing, you can always look forward to next year and start to target the free-agent players who you think will help out your team.
We are going to look at the best free agents that are expected to be in play when free agency begins in 2012. We can't possibly know yet which players will actually leave their current team and consider testing the waters until teams have declared which players will get the franchise tags and which players are being re-signed by their current teams. We will designate any restricted free agent in italics.
But what we really want to focus on is the risk factors inherent with each of the free agents in question. We will provide you with their current 2011 compensation and age at the time of this article going to publication, and then rank each free agent according to where they fit within their positional grouping.
We will place the lowest-risk free agents at the top and the highest risks at the bottom of the slide.
Drew Brees (New Orleans - Age 32 - $7.39 Million). Lowest risk of all quarterbacks. Playing at a peak level and shows no signs of slowing down. Will be the most valuable free agent on the market.
Kyle Orton (Kansas City - 29 - $7.37 Million). Moderate risk. Had trouble winning in Denver, while Tebow stepped in and proved the team could win. Some teams will go after him in free agency to compete for starting quarterback job.
Jason Campbell (Oakland - 29 - $4.5 Million). Moderate risk. Proved that he could lead an explosive offense with the Raiders. Injuries might cause some teams to shy away. Showed a good arm this year.
Vince Young (Philadelphia - 28 - $4.0 Million). Higher risk. Helped his future by being a good citizen in Philadelphia this year and showing well in games he started for Vick. Some GM's will still shy away due to character issues he showed in Tennessee.
Matt Flynn (Green Bay - 26 - $600,000). Higher risk. There's talent here, but he's so unproven and green that you really don't know what you're getting. Everybody was high on Kevin Kolb and look at what he did this year in Arizona. Flynn has less experience than Kolb did.
Brian Hoyer (New England - 26 - $480,000). Higher risk. Only restricted free-agent QB in our group. Similar to Flynn in that he hasn't played very much yet. Not really sure how good he can be yet.
Chad Henne (Miami - 26 - $555,000). High Risk. Henne wasn't impressive in running the Miami offense. Started out great in 2011, but that was cut short due to injury. Jury is still out on him.
Matt Forte (Chicago - 25 - $600,000.) Low Risk. Complete back that can do it all. Young, healthy and in his prime. He will be a coveted free agent in the open market.
Ray Rice (Baltimore - 24 - $600,000). Low Risk. Consider Forte 1A and Rice 1B. They are both highly desirable free agents. Another complete back, young and in his prime. Good attitude.
Arian Foster (Houston - 25 - $525,000). Low Risk. The injury this year is a slight red flag, but the committee approach with Ben Tate, but if anything, it will keep Foster fresher going forward. Foster is young, talented and is the only restricted free-agent running back on our list.
Michael Bush (Oakland - 27 - $2.61 Million). Moderate Risk. The injury to Darren McFadden has allowed Bush to remain in the spotlight, and he has demonstrated that he can carry the load as a featured back. This will make him more attractive in free agency. Not as young as our three studs up above him.
Marshawn Lynch (Seattle - 25 - $1.14 Million). Moderate Risk. Lynch will amaze you with some runs like the playoff touchdown against New Orleans, and then, he'll disappear for weeks at a time. Physical style suggests he won't last as long as some of the other backs on the list.
Cedric Benson (Cincinnati - 28 - $3.0 Million). Higher Risk. Benson's ability to get into trouble continues to follow him and will force teams to shy away. Talented but can you always count on him? Not sure.
Ryan Grant (Green Bay - 28 - $2.5 Million). Higher Risk. Ability to start but has been losing reps to James Starks. Getting up there in age and the injury history makes me think he is needing to take a pay cut.
Peyton Hillis (Cleveland - 25 - $600,000). Higher Risk. All kinds of question marks coming out of Cleveland on Hillis this year. Attitude, Madden cover jinx, effectiveness, ability to play hurt.
Thomas Jones (33 - $1.9 Million). Highest Risk. Like Tomlinson, Jones is up there in years and is winding down a productive NFL career.
Wes Welker (New England - 30 - $2.5 Million). Low Risk. Welker continues to lead the league in receiving and has been one of the most consistent players over the last five years with respect to production. Not concerned about the age or the prior injury. Just look at the results.
Marques Colston (New Orleans - 28 - $3.0 Million). Low Risk. Goes about his job in professional manner. No waves. Still highly productive. Age isn't a factor yet.
Mario Manningham (New York Giants - 25 - $1.4 Million). Low Risk. Productive, still young and his prime years are still ahead of him.
Mike Wallace (Pittsburgh - 25 - $480,000). Low Risk. Only restricted free-agent receiver on our list. Young, athletic. Will be a high producer for years to come.
Vincent Jackson (San Diego - 28 - $11.424 Million). Moderate Risk. From the holdouts, games where he shines to games he disappears, Jackson is not as consistent as you would like to see for that much jack.
Brandon Lloyd (St. Louis - 30 - $1.395 Million). Moderate Risk. Starting to get up there in age. See what he is able to produce catching balls from Sam Bradford, because he wouldn't be with Tim Tebow.
Steve Johnson (Buffalo - 25 - $550,000). Moderate Risk. The drops at crucial times are an issue (focus) and the immaturity with the touchdown celebrations will have some teams shying away.
Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City - 27 - $2.765 Million). Moderate Risk. Another receiver with a history of drops and inconsistent play. Can be very streaky but is also still in his prime and is talented.
DeSean Jackson (Philadelphia - 24 - $600,000). Higher Risk. Missing team meetings, attitude and distraction in locker room force his risk rating. No question the dynamic talent is there but dropped key passes in the clutch last week. Team suspension doesn't help either.
Reggie Wayne (Indianapolis - 33 - $5.95 Million). Higher Risk. Been making good money, but at 33 years old not sure what kind of deal he can get. Maybe one-year deals until it's time to retire.
Ben Grubbs (Baltimore - 27 - $2.995 Million). Low Risk. This is not a great year for offensive linemen in free agency, as you will only see a small list here. Compared to the 30 something's, Grubbs is more desirable at just 27 years old.
Carl Nicks (New Orleans - 26 - $2.61 Million). Low Risk. Another younger lineman with upside and has been very productive. Will be in demand in free agency.
Nick Hardwick (San Diego - 30 - 3.675 Million). Slight Risk. Now going in to his 30's, the body will start to show a few more signs of wear and tare. Not many centers in the market, so Hardwick could be in demand.
Kraig Urbik (Buffalo - 26 - $480,000). Moderate Risk. Developing in Buffalo now that he's getting regular starts, has played both guard and center this year. Is the only restricted free agent in this group.
Kareem McKenzie (New York Giants - 32 - $4.3 Million). Higher Risk. Now 32 years old, McKenzie has the veteran knowledge, but can his legs allow him to get to where he needs to be on every play?
Demetrius Bell (Buffalo - 27 - $555,000) Higher Risk. Seems to be get hurt often. Been practicing in last week to two, but Bills are starting rookie Chris Hairston over him.
Bobbie Williams (Cincinnati - 35 - $2.6 Million). Higher Risk. At 35 years old, the mind remembers what to do, but the body has a harder time getting there. Probably doesn't have much left in tank.
Jeff Saturday (Indianapolis - 36 - $2.4 Million). Higher Risk. He's getting up there in years, and what a hard year this had to be on Saturday. Long labor negotiations, losing Peyton Manning, and then losing first 11 games after being accustomed to winning for so long. Wonder if he wants to come back.
Jermichael Finley (Green Bay - 24 - $1.2 Million). Low Risk. Not much depth here to report in the 2012 NFL class of free agents with respect to tight ends. Finley is the best of the lot, as his talent sometimes gets lost with so many other options for Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball too. Young and in his prime.
Fred Davis (Washington - 25 - $555,000). Low Risk. Another prime of his career free agent, Davis is starting to come on this year, and the rest of the league will take notice. Should be in line for a very good contract in 2012 from someone. A tight end that leads his team in receptions and yardage will be in demand on the open market.
Visanthe Shiancoe - (Minnesota - 31 - $ 3.1 Million). Higher Risk. Not as productive as the other tight ends, but is earning much more than his younger counterparts, Shiancoe might find the suitors thinning out for his services. The years or the dollars might not come in to what he has been accustomed to. Also dealing with the age factor as well.
Mario Williams (Houston - 26 - $13.8 Million). Low Risk. Despite the injury suffered in 2011, Williams has demonstrated enough that he's the kind of player who can be a difference maker. Versatility of being either a defensive end or outside linebacker adds to his overall appeal.
Robert Mathis (Indianapolis - 30 - $3.41 Million). Low Risk. Mathis has been able to play at least 13 games per season over his entire nine-year career. Is still productive and disruptive to enemy QBs.
Paul Soliai (Miami - 27 - $12.381 Million). Low Risk. Doesn't have a sack this year but is tough to move on the defensive line. Miami is paying him a small fortune but has stopped negotiations.
Cliff Avril (Detroit - 25 - $2.61 Million). Low Risk. Having a career year on the last year of his contract. Should cash in on free agency, but Lions might franchise tag him. In his prime of career now.
Matt Roth (Jacksonville - 29 - $3.0 Million). Moderate Risk. Solid player, not flashy just gets the job done. Is second on the Jaguars in sacks, so can still play and be effective.
Broderick Bunkley (Denver - 28 - $635,000). Moderate Risk. Bunkley is playing well for Broncos since the trade from Philadelphia. Will be seeking bigger pay raise.
Kroy Biermann (Atlanta - 26 - $555,000). Moderate Risk. Our two non-millionaire linemen back-to-back. Biermann is part of a three-man rotation at Atlanta but might want to be the big fish for someone else.
Israel Idonije (Chicago - 31 - $2.55 Million). Moderate Risk. Is he that good or is he a product of the Bears defense? Three sacks this year and still appears to be playing well, into his 30's.
Cory Redding (Baltimore - 31 - $2.5 Million). Moderate Risk. Still playing well with 3.5 sacks on the year and second on the team with five tackles for a loss. Getting up there in years now.
John Abraham (Atlanta - 33 - $8.0 Million). Higher Risk. Another productive defensive pass rusher, but now at 33, questions about his legs and how much does he have left will be evaluated every year. Is tied for Falcons team lead with four sacks on the year.
Stephen Tulloch (Detroit - 26 - $3.25 Million). Low Risk. Tulloch has played well in his one year in Detroit. Of course, it helps to have that defensive line in front of him, but he should do well in free agency.
Manny Lawson (Cincinnati - 27 - $3.0 Million) Low Risk. Still in his prime years, Lawson is tied for second on the tough Bengals defense in tackles for a loss and is an active defender in the passing game.
Bradie James (Dallas - 30 - $3.5 Million). Moderate Risk. Downgraded due to production issues. Has 30 tackles, but outside of one forced fumble, the rest of his stat line is a big fat zero. Not a playmaker.
E. J. Henderson (Minnesota - 31 - $4.7 Million). Moderate Risk. Good at stopping the run but is no longer effective in pass coverage compared to what he used to do. Getting up there slowly but surely in years.
London Fletcher (Washington - 36 - $5.0 Million) Moderate Risk. You would naturally want to put him in a "High Risk" category due to advanced age, but he takes great care of himself to stay in shape and is still the best player on the Redskins defense.
Geno Hayes (Tampa Bay - 24 - $1.044 Million). Moderate risk. At just 24 years old, Hayes is active LB and is tied for team lead in tackles for a loss. No sacks and one interception on the year.
Anthony Spencer (Dallas - 27 - $1.001 Million). Higher Risk. When a player admits to taking plays off, or even entire days off, you have to wonder how serious his commitment is to the game. Buyer beware.
LaRon Landry (Washington - 27 - $3.715 Million). Low Risk. Landry has been a solid performer in his career and at just 27 years old, has prime years still ahead of him.
Michael Griffin (Tennessee - 26 - $3.3 Million). Low Risk. Another young player who has been a solid safety, Griffin looks for a bigger raise in 2012.
Jim Leonhard (New York Jets - 29 - $2.075 Million). Low Risk. Leonhard isn't very big, but he gives you everything he has and is playing a solid year at safety for the Jets.
Reggie Nelson (Cincinnati - 28 - $957,000) Low Risk. Is second on Bengals in both tackles and passes defended. Tied for team lead in interceptions. Will be an attractive free agent in the market in 2012.
Tyvon Branch (Oakland - 24 - $555,000). Low Risk. Is our youngest safety. Leads the Raiders in tackles this year by a wide margin. Lots of career left ahead of him. Has upside.
Brandon Meriweather (Chicago - 27 - $3.25 Million). Moderate Risk. To go from Pro Bowl player to released, Meriweather wound up going to a better defensive team where he can score a big contract.
Chris Hope (Tennessee - 31 - $6.5 Million). Higher Risk. At 31 years of age, he's the oldest of our safeties and is coming off a year with a broken arm to boot. Might need to take a pay cut next year.
Cortland Finnegan (Tennessee - 27 - $3.793 Million). Low Risk. Finnegan finds ways to get inside of the heads of opponents. He probably turns some teams off with his antics, but other teams will want him to play there. Finnegan leads team in passes defended and is second in tackles for a loss.
Carlos Rogers (San Francisco - 30 - financial terms unknown) Low Risk. Although 30 years old, Rogers is a solid corner, leading the team in passes defended and is third in NFL in interceptions (5).
Brent Grimes (Atlanta - 28 - $2.61 Million). Low Risk. Having a solid year, leads team in passes defended and is fourth on tackles. Still young enough to get a fairly long deal.
Lardarius Webb (Baltimore - 26 - $480 K). Low Risk. Webb is having a great year in Baltimore, leading team in interceptions, passes defended and third in tackles. Is due to make a huge raise in 2012.
Brandon Carr (Kansas City - 25 - $2.61 Million). Moderate Risk. Is second on the team in passes defended and has two interceptions on the season. Young and has some upside.
Aaron Ross (New York Giants - 29 - $1.249 Million). Moderate Risk. Is tied for Giants. team lead in both interceptions and passes defended, despite being benched. Maybe needs a change of scenery.
Tracy Porter (New Orleans - 25 - $630,000). Moderate Risk. Just okay stat line this year. 36 tackles, two tackles for loss, five passes defended and two forced fumbles. No interceptions this year. Still young.
Rashean Mathis (Jacksonville - 31 - $4.45 Million). Higher Risk. Is now 31 years old and coming off a major ACL reconstruction surgery. Will have probably lost a step or some speed, so buyer beware.
Terrell Thomas (New York Giants - 26 - $600,000). Higher Risk. Just like Mathis, Thomas is coming off of a ACL surgery to reconstruct the knee, so he will have to prove he can still play corner. At least, he's younger so has better chance to come back quicker.