The NFL’s new league year officially starts today. One of the first orders of business will be free agency, which starts up at 4 E.T. this afternoon. With about 600 free agents on the market, there will be lots of activity and business should be brisk from the outset.
Here are 10 key players that everyone will be keeping an eye on in anticipation of where they will end up signing. All of these players are unrestricted free agents, meaning they can sign with whichever team they want to or makes them the best offer.
1. Peyton Manning, QB
Even though he turns 36 in less than two weeks, Manning is the hottest commodity on the market. Released by Indianapolis last week, Manning has crisscrossed the country since then visiting different teams to gauge their interest in signing him so he can resume his NFL career.
There’s no shortage of interest in the four-time NFL MVP despite the questions surrounding his physical condition following three neck surgeries in 19 months and not playing in a single game all of last season. At this stage in his career Manning clearly wants to go to a team that will turn over the offense to him from the start and that has the pieces in place to be a Super Bowl contender.
Interested teams: Manning has already visited Arizona and Denver and teams like Miami, Kansas City, Seattle, Tennessee and Washington have all expressed interest in some form or fashion. I don’t think you should rule out San Francisco either, especially if the 49ers don’t re-sign Alex Smith.
Where he ends up: At this point, it sounds like it’s a two-team race between Arizona and Denver, although Manning is reportedly meeting with both Miami and Tennessee over the next couple of days. Denver, Miami and Tennessee each would allow Manning to stay in the AFC, something he seems to prefer. Miami has the biggest need at quarterback of those three, but Manning's meeting with the Broncos was said to have gone well and Titans owner Bud Adams has said he will do whatever it takes to sign the former University of Tennessee quarterback. Arizona doesn't have a lot of cap space to work with, but the Cardinals can free up some by cutting players, starting with incumbent quarterback Kevin Kolb. Arizona also appears to have the offensive personnel and game plan that fits better with Manning, especially when it comes to one Larry Fitzgerald. In the end, I think Manning will follow in Kurt Warner’s footsteps and relocate, fittingly enough, to Phoenix where he will look to resurrect his career out in the desert. ARIZONA
UPDATE: Manning informed Denver on March 19 of his desire to sign with the Broncos. On March 20, prior to his introductory press conference, Manning and the Broncos agreed on a five-year, $96 million contract.
2. Mario Williams, LB
Houston could have applied the franchise tag to Williams in order to keep him with the team, but they chose not to, making the former No. 1 overall pick a free agent. The Texans instead committed big money to re-signing running back Arian Foster and have several other key free agents and very little cap space to work with, so the chances are Williams will be wearing a new uniform in 2012.
Injuries have limited Williams the past two seasons as he played just five games last season due to a torn pectoral muscle. Still, he is a two-time Pro Bowler who is just 27 years old and he averaged nearly 11 sacks a season from 2007-10. There figures to be a large market for an athletic, dynamic pass-rusher who can play either linebacker or defensive end.
Interested teams: Pretty much any team that can afford Williams would love to add him to their roster. Teams like Dallas, New England and Tennessee will surely reach out to gauge his interest, as could Chicago, Jacksonville, Seattle and Tampa Bay. I also wouldn’t rule out Denver, especially should the Broncos not manage to bring Manning into the fold. Broncos coach Mike Fox had a fair amount of success in Carolina with a player similar to Williams by the name of Julius Peppers.
Where he ends up: Titans owner Bud Adams has already gone on record that he wants Manning on his team. But who is team really needs is Williams, a dynamic defensive player who has an established track record of being able to get to the quarterback. The Titans finished 31st out of 32 teams in sacks last season and have several free agents of their own along the defensive line. Williams fills both needs and the Titans also offer the added bonus of facing his former Texans’ teammates twice every season. TENNESSEE
UPDATE: Williams signed a six-year contract with Buffalo on March 15 that could be worth as much as $100 million.
3. Vincent Jackson, WR
San Diego chose not to use the franchise tag on Jackson a second straight season, granting the Pro Bowl wide receiver the free agent status he has been yearning for. Now’s the opportunity for Jackson, who bounced back from a disappointing 2010 season with 60 catches for 1,106 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, to finally cash in.
There are about 60 wide receivers in this year’s free agent class, but Jackson’s combination of size, speed and athletic ability will probably make him the most sought after at the position. He would fill the bill for any team looking for a No. 1 wideout, especially one that has a quarterback that likes to throw the ball deep down the field.
Interested teams: Teams like Chicago, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Washington all need a bona fide No. 1 wide receiver. San Diego fits that bill as well and don’t rule out a reunion with the Chargers, who have some cap space to work with. Buffalo, St. Louis and Tampa Bay are possibilities as well. And there’s teams like Carolina, Minnesota and New England who could look to add Jackson as a complement to what they already have. Can you imagine Jackson lining up beside or opposite of Wes Welker with Tom Brady pulling the trigger or Cam Newton having Jackson and Steve Smith as options?
Where he ends up: Jackson wants to get paid and I think he also wants to be the clear-cut No. 1 guy wherever he lands. Jay Cutler likes to throw the ball downfield and the Bears haven’t had a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver since the days of Willie Gault. Or at least that’s the way it probably feels like to Bears fan. Either way, this makes too much sense to me to not happen. CHICAGO
UPDATE: Jackson signed a five-year contract with Tampa Bay worth more than $55 million on March 13.
4. Carl Nicks, OL
New Orleans’ preference would have been to apply its franchise tag to Nicks rather than quarterback Drew Brees. But the Saints were unable to come to terms with Brees on a new contract before the deadline, so they tagged Brees, making Nicks a free agent.
A First-Team All-Pro last season, the Saints’ top priority is to re-sign Nicks, who is certain to draw plenty of attention. If anything, re-signing Nicks could serve two purposes. Besides keeping the Saints’ stout offensive line intact, bringing Nicks back would figure to make Brees, who Nicks helps protect and keep upright, happy and possibly more amenable to working out their differences regarding a new, long-term contract.
Interested teams: Which team wouldn’t want to add an All-Pro left guard like Nicks? That said, New Orleans is going to do everything it can to keep him, but I expect teams like Buffalo, Dallas, Denver, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Minnesota, Seattle and even Washington to be involved and if anything, drive up the bidding.
Where he ends up: Unless some team with a lot of cap space decides to throw a ridiculous amount of money Nicks’ way, I just don’t see the Saints letting him get away and risk ticking off Brees even more at this point in their contract negotiations with him. NEW ORLEANS
UPDATE: Nicks signed with Tampa Bay for five years and a reported $47.5 million.
5. Stephen Tulloch, LB
Probably not a name many would expect on this list, but Tulloch has been one of the best middle linebackers in the entire league the past three seasons and like the aforementioned Williams, he is just 27 years old. Tulloch didn’t miss a beat in his first season with Detroit after being with Tennessee the previous five as he collected 92 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and recovered three fumbles.
Interested teams:Detroit would like nothing more than to bring Tulloch back as he is a perfect fit for head coach Jim Schwartz’s, who also coached him in Tennessee, defensive system. However, young, productive middle linebackers who can cover a lot of ground and are available like Tulloch are few and far between. Don’t be surprised to see teams that need help at linebacker, like Buffalo, Philadelphia, Seattle and Tampa Bay to be in play either.
Where he ends up: Of these candidates, the Eagles probably have the biggest need, but given how much they spent in free agency last season, probably won’t be able to last long should a bidding war develop. If the Eagles aren’t seriously involved, I don’t see Tulloch wanting to leave a situation like he has in Detroit and some Lions’ players have already restructured their contracts to free up more cap space to help keep last season’s roster intact. DETROIT
UPDATE: On March 20, Tulloch agreed to a new five-year contract to remain with the Lions.
6. Marques Colston, WR
Colston (6-4, 225) has the look of a No. 1 wide receiver, but is probably best suited for a team where he can share the load, and not tote it on his own. He has certainly produced like a top wideout, with five 1,000-yard receiving seasons and an average of eight touchdown receptions during his career.
He also has missed at least one game in four of his six seasons and a pretty extensive medical history for someone under 30. Colston also is more of a slot or possession-type of receiver who is perfectly suited for his role in New Orleans’ passing attack.
Interested teams: I’m pretty sure New Orleans would gladly welcome Colston back, but it would have to be at their price given their other free agents and available cap space. Outside of the Saints, Colston seems to a good fit for teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tampa Bay or Washington, who could use a possession/slot receiver to help bolster their corps. Chicago could be a player if they are unable to sign the aforementioned Jackson, and Indianapolis and St. Louis are two other teams to keep an eye on.
Where he ends up: The Saints are the best fit for him and who wouldn’t want to catch passes from Drew Brees? I’m just not sure the Saints are in a position to afford him and will be hard-pressed to match any offers made by teams with more cap space. If a bidding war does ensue for Colston, then it may come down to who offers him the most money, even if it means going to a team that doesn’t have the look of a contender next season or even in the immediate future. This may seem a little far-fetched, but we know for sure that there will be a new quarterback in place here and most likely the top two receivers from last year will not be back, so why not the Colts? INDIANAPOLIS
UPDATE: New Orleans re-signed Colston before the start of free agency on March 13 to a four-year contract worth around $40 million.
7. Matt Flynn, QB
Flynn has served as Aaron Rodgers’ back up in Green Bay the past four years. His apprenticeship under the 2011 NFL MVP is similar to Rodgers’ three-year stint as the backup to Brett Favre.
Now does that mean Flynn is going to be a Super Bowl champion and NFL MVP within the next four years? Not likely, but at the very least it does look like he’s going to get his chance at being some team’s starter. Several teams appear to have a need at the position and Flynn could serve as Plan B for these teams if they are not able to lure Manning to their city.
Interested teams:Cleveland, Miami and Seattle appear the most likely destinations for Flynn, and two of these three seem be out of the running for Manning’s services. The Dolphins’ new head coach is Joe Philbin, who served as the Packers’ offensive coordinator the past five seasons.
Where he ends up: Familiarity with the head coach and the offensive system he most likely will implement are no doubt appealing, but let’s not forget about the south Florida climate. Where would you rather play in December – sunny Miami or on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field? Come on now. Be honest. If the Dolphins are unable to lure Manning's talents to South Beach, then I think Flynn is Plan B. MIAMI
UPDATE: Flynn reached agreement with Seattle on a three-year contract on March 18. The deal is reportedly worth $26 million.
8. Brandon Lloyd, WR
After a breakthrough 2010 campaign with Denver, Lloyd started off slowly last season while being caught up in the Broncos’ quarterback controversy. Lloyd was traded to St. Louis after just four games and was fairly productive (51 rec., 683 yards, 5 TDs in 11 games) considering the Rams ranked 30th in the league in passing offense.
Lloyd will be 31 by the time the 2012 season rolls around, but still looks to have plenty left in the tank as he came up just shy of his second consecutive 1,000-yard receiving season in 2011. He would be a perfect sidekick for a team that already has an established No. 1 wide receiver.
Interested teams: The same teams that figure to go after Jackson and Colston will more than likely keep tabs on Lloyd as well. That means teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, Minnesota, San Francisco, Tampa Bay and Washington will probably at least kick the tires. Then there's New England, where Josh McDaniels is the offensive coodinator running a system that Lloyd has already had success in at both Denver and St. Louis. Lloyd appears to be a perfect complement to Welker should New England be willing.
Where he ends up: Lloyd’s breakout season in Denver came when McDaniels was the Broncos’ head coach. The two were reunited last year in St. Louis, where McDaniels was the Rams’ offensive coordinator, after Lloyd was traded to the Rams. McDaniels is now back with New England as the Patriots’ offensive coordinator. So guess where Lloyd has already started he would like to end up? NEW ENGLAND
UPDATE: Lloyd and the Patriots reached agreement on a three-year, $12 million deal on March 17.
9. Cortland Finnegan, DB
Tennessee and Finnegan were unable to agree on a long-term contract and the Titans used their franchise tag on safety Michael Griffin, placing the former All-Pro cornerback on the market. The cost of the franchise tag for cornerbacks (more than $10.2 million for a one-year deal) is one of the reasons why the Titans didn’t tag Finnegan, who is certainly looking to be paid like one of the top cornerbacks in the league.
The former seventh-round pick has played with a chip on his shoulder from the start of his rookie season in 2006 and has established a reputation for his physical style of play. Any team looking to shore up its secondary and add some fire to its roster will probably take a close look at Finnegan.
Interested teams:Detroit and St. Louis, two teams with ties to Finnegan already immediately come to mind. Schwartz, the Lions' head coach, previously served as the Titans’ defensive coordinator. Then there are the Rams, now coached by Jeff Fisher who was the Titans’ head coach when Finnegan was drafted through 2010. Cincinnati and Tampa Bay are two other teams that could show interest and I wouldn’t rule out Dallas or Washington either.
Where he ends up: Detroit and St. Louis both bear watching if nothing else for their connections to Finnegan and need for a top-flight, tough cornerback. The Rams are in better shape cap-wise, but the Lions appear to offer the better opportunity to make it to the postseason and possibly contend for a Super Bowl. However, Finnegan has made it clear he wants to be paid and paid well, so I think he will end going to the team that makes him the best offer, which usually brings Dallas and Washington into play. However, on Monday the NFL announced it was taking away millions of cap space from both the Cowboys and Redskins for front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season, which could take both teams out of the running for Finnegan and any of the other marquee free agents for that matter. That leaves the Bengals and Buccaneers, both of which have plenty of cap space to make Finnegan a big offer. On the surface, the Bucs seem to be the better fit and have the more pressing need for Finnegan, who is reportedly trying to convince a certain free agent wide receiver with the last name Jackson to join him in Tampa as a package deal. If this happens that would be quite the housewarming gift for new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano.TAMPA BAY
UPDATE: On March 13, Finnegan signed a five-year deal worth approximately $50 million with St. Louis on where he will be reunited with Jeff Fisher, his former head coach when he was wtih the Titans.
10. Reggie Wayne, WR
Wayne, who will turn 34 in November is on this list for the same reason that I could have put fellow Indianapolis cast-off tight end Dallas Clark. They both were very productive playing with Peyton Manning and it's not out of the realm of possibility that either of them could be reunited this fall.
Wayne has already put together a Hall of Fame-worthy resume with 862 receptions, 11,708 receiving yards and 73 touchdowns in 11 seasons. The majority of that came with No. 18 throwing the ball to him. Wayne's days as a true No. 1 wide receiver are probably behind him, but he could be a very productive complementary wide receiver for some team who also could serve as a mentor for young players at his position.
Interested teams: The ties to Manning connection shouldn't be overlooked, but when you consider the teams Wayne's former quarterback has either visited or is scheduled to visit, only Denver and Miami seem to fit. Arizona has cap space issues to negotiate and other needs they will need to fill other than wide receiver, while I don't think Tennessee is that interested in a Manning-Wayne reunion. If Wayne is willing to play with another quarterback than I think his market could increase quite a bit and teams like Buffalo, Cleveland, Jacksonville, San Diego, Seattle, Washington and possibly even New Orleans could get involved.
Where he ends up: As I said earlier, I think Manning ends up in Arizona, but I don't see Wayne joining him there. I actually think Clark would have a better chance of ending up with the Cardinals in that scenario than Wayne for what it's worth. If he can't play with Manning then I think Wayne will look to either get back to Miami, where he played in college, or to New Orleans, where he's from. The Saints will more than likely lose Colston to another team, so Wayne would be a nice replacement. And if he can't catch passes from Manning, I think Wayne would "settle" for Brees. NEW ORLEANS
UPDATE: On March 13, Wayne agreed to a new three-year deal to return to the Colts.
— by Mark Ross, published on March 13, 2012, updated at 2 p.m. CT on March 29
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