NFL Free Agency 2012: Rating the Strength of Each Position in the Upcoming Class
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
While we gear up for the 2011 NFL playoffs, teams across the league are also gearing up for the 2012 free-agency class.
It doesn't matter what a team is doing right now—playoffs, non-playoffs, 14 wins or none, tracking players who will be available to a team is part of a year-round process.
Regardless of whether a team is successful or not this year, any franchise worth its salt is worried about next year as well.
Even the best can always be better. There's an old saying that is as true here in the NFL as it is anywhere else: You can rest when you're dead.
Kyle Orton may find himself on a third team in 365 days.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Let's get this out of the way: Drew Brees isn't really a free agent.
He heads the free-agency class of quarterbacks, but really in theory only. Face it—there is no way in any bizarro alternate reality that the Saints allow Brees to walk short of complete loss of sanity in the front office.
So right there, this free-agency group is going to take a hit. As much as virtually every team would like to add Brees, it isn't happening.
Which leaves this class a lot less than it might otherwise be, populated with middle-of-the-road journeymen and unproven upside.
At the top of the upside section of this class is undoubtedly Packers backup quarterback Matt Flynn. Flynn has played well in his few opportunities but is largely unproven as an NFL player. The hype around him reminds me of Matt Schaub when he was a backup with the Atlanta Falcons.
While the Packers could choose to franchise him, it's more likely they will use that on tight end Jermichael Finley.
Flynn has the potential to be a starter, and there are multiple teams in need of a quarterback: Oakland, Miami, Washington and potentially Indianapolis or Jacksonville if it likes Flynn's upside more than Blaine Gabbert's.
Kyle Orton is another quarterback who could gain some interest with a strong finish. I could easily see someone looking at his time in Denver and feeling that with better weapons and a solid defense he could be successful.
In my opinion, Orton is a limited quarterback who can move the ball between the 20s but not into the end zone. He isn't going to change what he is anytime soon.
On the other side of the spectrum is Alex Smith, who has been revitalized by San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh. Like Orton, I think he's a limited quarterback who could be successful (and already is) in the right system. I'm not sure San Fran will pay to hold on to him, though; other teams might.
My pure upside pick of the class is Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup Josh Johnson. Johnson has a good arm and is highly athletic and very bright—those three attributes will get him more than a little attention in free agency.
With the success of Cam Newton and the limited success of Tim Tebow, teams may start looking at mobile quarterbacks differently, and I believe Johnson to be the best of that breed. He's looked solid in limited action, but that's all it is: limited.
Like Matt Flynn, his lack of experience and our lack of pro film makes him a risk, albeit one with plenty of upside.
Class Strength Assessment: Middle of the Road; some value but largely backup-worthy.
If the Seahawks don't pay him, Lynch has a chance to make some team very happy.
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
I don't know if it's the Skittles or the change of scenery, but Marshawn Lynch has certainly been a new man since going to Seattle, and the Seahawks are tasting a rainbow of flavor because of it.
Lynch heads the list of running back free agents who may be available this offseason. Yes, Ray Rice and Arian Foster are both in the class, but it's hard to fathom Baltimore and Houston letting either of them go. However, if either team throws a cheap offer out, these two players will be exceedingly hot commodities.
After them, the aforementioned Lynch is going to get a lot of interest, and why not? He has shown the ability to run with power, break off big runs and just get the job done. There are more than few teams who would vie for his services if Seattle won't pay up.
An intriguing player who could be franchised or could be let go by his current team is Chicago Bear Matt Forte. Despite a season-ending injury, Forte has played well enough to deserve a big payday, but the Bears can go cheap at the oddest times.
While Jay Cutler is vital to the ability of this offense to move the chains, Forte is just as important, and I think allowing him to walk would be the height of foolishness. As would franchise-tagging him—why antagonize an important player when you can pay him?
After Forte and Lynch come several career backups who could either provide great depth or perhaps start in their own right. Ryan Grant hasn't wowed in Green Bay the last few years but always plays hard and might do better on a team that cared to run the ball more.
Mike Tolbert and Jason Snelling are backups who have played well at times, Tolbert even producing as a starter. Both could be significant parts of any backfield, and Snelling has the speed to be a great big-play weapon.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis has shown ability in New England and could be a very good lead back in the right scheme and, like Grant, on a team that liked to run the ball and feature one player heavily.
Class Strength Assessment: Hardcore; even if Rice and Foster are franchised, there is a lot of depth to this class and plenty of runners with a great deal of upside.
Welker is a good bet to stay in New England but what if....?
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
There are some very interesting receivers in the middle of this pack, guys like Early Doucet, Robert Meachem and Steve Smith (Philly Steve, not Carolina Steve). Any guy like these will certainly play well as a depth receiver but have the upside to be more.
It's about more than numbers when it comes to how good a position's free-agent class is; it's about ability. You can have a ton of players and be weaker than a group with half the numbers but more ability.
The free-agent wide receivers have both.
While there are some players I can't see slipping away from their current teams, I don't see any locks beyond a guy like Wes Welker. Sure, the Patriots have a habit of letting pricey vets go, but Welker is different.
Welker is a guy who makes this offense far more than the sum of its parts, and honestly, he's too big a safety blanket for Tom Brady to see him go anywhere. If they let him go, it would be a huge mistake.
A guy like Marques Colston also seems like a good bet for either a franchise tag or some other big effort to keep him in the Big Easy. However, the Saints might need to choose between Colston and Meachem. Neither player has become irreplaceable, so it could come down to money, and Colston will earn more.
He is a player who could be successful just about anywhere, so expect some intense bidding if the Saints don't franchise him.
Reggie Wayne is another receiver who you would normally assume will see either a big contract or a franchise tag. However, the Colts look like they may be about to embark upon a big rebuild, and the question is, can Wayne get a big contract when the team has so many needs?
Also, with both Wayne and Pierre Garcon being free agents, can the Colts keep both? I think if they have to choose one, it will be Garcon, who is younger and perhaps more dynamic.
Dwayne Bowe rounds out the top of the class, and as is the case with Wayne and the Colts, you have to wonder how much a team like the Chiefs will invest in a player when they face a big rebuild. Bowe's attitude issues in the past are also a concern, and with Todd Haley now gone, how much tolerance will the franchise have with this mercurial wideout?
Bowe could make the circuit this offseason and find a new home. If he can keep his head on straight, he'll be a dynamic addition to many offenses.
Class Strength Assessment: Solid and Deep; some question marks, but lots of ability across multiple tiers.
Finley can expect the Franchise tag this year. Beyond that, we'll see.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
It's interesting to see the potential changes in the use of tight ends, a position that some thought was perhaps dying out in some ways. Tight ends like Antonio Gates, Tony Gonzalez and Jason Witten were thought to be too few and far between and many two tight-end sets were used to give a team an extra blocker.
Then along come Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Now the NFL is thinking that two-tight end sets can mean more than just extra blockers.
Jermichael Finley could possibly be franchised. That won't make him happy (though it will pay him well) and isn't a long-term solution, but it will work while the team figures out whether 2009 or 2011 is the real Finley.
I also think they don't dare let him go because he could really hurt them in the NFC.
Greg Olsen will probably re-sign with the Panthers after a pretty good first year with them, but Olsen should have plenty of offers to choose from. His athleticism, speed and strength make him an attractive player for teams looking to make it tough on defenses trying to lock down the passing game.
Olsen matched up with another good tight end could be a real problem.
Marcedes Lewis is a guy who really took a tumble this year but has the ability to be a real player. I believe someone will take a chance on him and pay him bigger money than a rebuilding Jacksonville team will.
I'll be honest and say that while he has the size and strength to be effective, I'm not sold on his heart, and he will probably disappoint.
John Carlson had some success in Seattle before the offensive line died and he began spending all his time keeping quarterbacks upright. He may be far from an elite tight end, but he has speed and athleticism and will be far more productive in an offense with an effective front line.
Long stuck in Owen Daniels' shadow, Joel Dreessen rounds out the most interesting names in this class. Dreessen has played well when Daniels has been hurt, and his combination of size and speed, as well as reliable hands, might interest a few suitors.
Like Carlson, he isn't an elite talent by any means, but he is capable of more than merely a backup role.
Class Strength Assessment: Solid but Unspectacular; beyond Finley there is a lot of potential but no real home runs, and Olsen is the most proven.
The Jets have enough line issues. Expect the franchise tag.
Rob Carr/Getty Images
Adding—or losing—free-agent offensive linemen is a tricky business. You're messing with chemistry, and if you're wrong, it can cost you a quarterback.
It doesn't take much to miss a block and watch a season go down in flames, but it does take a ton to play in a scheme well. That's why, while there is no shortage of players who are free agents, it's not an exciting class.
With that in mind, I always expect the top offensive linemen to stay put. It's not always the case, though, and more than once I've seen a team throw caution to the wind and change out a veteran on the line.
One of the teams that has messed with chemistry and had issues this season is the New York Jets, whose offensive line was always an injury away from disaster. As that's the case, I honestly cannot contemplate the team allowing OT D'Brickashaw Ferguson to test the waters of free agency. This is a team that needs to add solid linemen, not lose them.
However, if a team can pry Brick away from the Jets, it will get one of the best tackles in the game. He has the size and athleticism as well as the strength to match up with anyone, as well as the experience to help out those around him.
He should stay, but the Jets have never hesitated to move things around on the O-line.
The Ravens face much the same dilemma with guard Ben Grubbs. It's going to cost them to keep him, but it's hard to argue he isn't important for as well as he played. Grubbs has been banged up this year, so it's possible that his replacement has won the job outright.
If so, teams should take a hard look at the veteran, who can be a stabilizing force at either guard position.
The San Francisco 49ers weathered losing their center much better than I anticipated, and a large portion of that is due to the play of tackle Joe Staley. Staley combines strength and size with a quick first move and will be a hot commodity on the open market unless the Niners move quickly.
Class Strength Assessment: Good at the Top, Not Much Underneath. There isn't much behind the first four or so linemen here. Some OK players, sure, but once you get past the guys above and Giants tackle Kareem McKenzie, it's not very exciting.
Abraham (pictured right) heads a good D-Line class this year
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
While the offensive line was limited in its potential, there is plenty to be excited about on the defensive line. Among the talent available are guys like Cory Redding, Aubrayo Franklin, Robert Mathis and Matt Roth, all of whom could have an impact in new schemes.
The top of the class, though, is John Abraham. While the Falcons may use a franchise tag on him, Abraham might find himself negotiating with not just the Falcons but several other teams. While not the player he used to be, he's still very effective and could be a catalyst in both run defense and the pass rush.
Juqua Parker has had a down year for the Eagles this year in parts due to injury and poor scheming by defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. With the right coach, you should be able to get three or four more years out of Parker.
Former Jet and current Patriot Shaun Ellis has also struggled this year in part due to injury and also because he is used more in a rotation than in years past. This doesn't mean Ellis isn't worth a look, as when healthy he is still a solid defensive end.
I wouldn't be shocked to see him back with the Jets or Patriots (though he may price them out), but I also would imagine it not hard for him to find another home for the right price.
Class Strength Assessment: Above Average. There are several tiers of worthwhile players here, and while some of the veterans are getting on in years, all of them have more left in the tank. There is plenty to like here on the defensive line.
Urlacher is worth franchise tag, but will often cheap Bears throw the money at him?
David Banks/Getty Images
There is a ton to like about the linebackers hitting free agency in 2012, with a good mix of lunchpail players as well as some big-time playmakers.
It's hard to imagine Brian Urlacher in anything other than a Bears uniform these days, and one would imagine the Bears feel the same way. They could franchise him, but if they're smart they'll find a way to keep him longer-term.
Urlacher's numbers are a bit off this year, but it isn't a sign of him slowing down so much as the fact that overall this defense isn't as good as it has been. On the off chance Urlacher could end up elsewhere (and as they paid Julius Peppers a ton of cash, they might not be able to keep him as well), he would be a monster on any team.
Like Urlacher, I have a hard time believing Mario Williams isn't a Texan in 2012 despite a season-ending injury back in October. Williams is a beast who has had two straight seasons with time missed due to injuries, but the Texans should still invest in the guy. If they don't, teams will line up to get this playmaking linebacker.
London Fletcher just had a career year in all categories but sacks, one of the few bright spots on an abysmal Redskins team. Fletcher could fit in virtually any scheme, and while I imagine his numbers regress to the mean in 2012, his mean is pretty darn good and will attract the attention of many teams this offseason.
Coming off a season-ending Achilles injury, Jon Beason should be back with the Panthers if they know what's good for them. Sure, Achilles tendon injuries are tough to come back from at 100 percent, but Beason is fired up to come back from this injury, and even if he's a step slower, he'll still be a force to be reckoned with.
Class Strength Assessment: Top-Shelf. Not only is there depth here, there is very good depth. This is the strongest group in free agency.
The Hair won't be leaving Pittsburgh, but his price might be steep.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
This is a fairly big group whose quality doesn't quite run as deep as that of the linebacker group, though that's not to say it's weak by any means.
Troy Polamalu isn't likely to be anything but a Steeler, but he heads the talented top end of this class and is by far the best available safety. A hard-hitting guy who can also be a pain in coverage, any team would love to get its hands on that luscious head of hair, but the Steelers are no dummies and will lock him up long-term.
Coming off an injury may hurt Terrell Thomas' asking price, but it really shouldn't, even though it was an ACL tear. Thomas is a willing tackler and a solid coverage guy who is just as good defending the run as he is against the pass.
Chris Hope is another safety one would expect to remain at home. He has struggled this season, in part due to injury, but I expect him to bounce back in 2012. Another solid strong safety, Hope is going to have to prove he can still be effective and might see less money than he would have had he been healthy.
That just means a team (including Tennessee) might get a real value.
Class Strength Assessment: Solid but Lots of Injuries. A ton of the top end of this class is coming off some sort of injury, and that limits the overall strength.