The NFL’s new league year officially begins today. The more prominent indicator that business has begun for the 2013 season is the start of free agency at 4 p.m. ET. While some teams have already made several moves, with more than 500 players on the market, the activity will really pick up starting later today.
Some teams figure to be more active than others in free agency, and here are just some of the names that should draw plenty of attention from both teams and observers alike.
Related: 2013 NFL Free Agency: Teams to Watch
15 Players to Keep an Eye On
1. Wes Welker, WR
Welker has averaged 112 receptions over his six-year tenure with New England, leading the NFL in catches and ranking fourth in receiving yards (7,459) during this same span (2007-12). He will be 32 in May and probably realizes this is his last time to cash in on that sustained production. The Patriots have a history of not handing out exorbitant contracts (unless your name is Tom Brady), and there’s already been some bad blood between the front office and the receiver on the compensation front.
Welker is in an ideal situation when it comes to quarterback-wide receiver relationship and the Patriots have been contenders for years, but he wants to get paid and feel that he’s valued and appreciated. Who blinks first – the player or the team? Or does Welker move on to greener pastures?
Potential interested teams: There's no team that wouldn't want to add a 100-catch wide receiver, but let's throw out Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Jacksonville, Miami, Minnesota, New England, and Tennessee as the ones most likely to pursue Welker in some form or fashion.
Comes down to: New England vs. the field.
Potential dark horses: Cincinnati, closely followed by Houston. The Bengals can pay and have been to the playoffs the last two seasons, while the Texans appear on the verge of establishing themselves as a perennial contender.
Where he ends up: In the end, Welker finds out the grass may not actually be greener on the other side of the fence, even if it means he takes a little less green to stay with Bill Belichick and company. NEW ENGLAND
2. Mike Wallace, WR
Wallace is similar to Welker in that he also wants to get paid like a true No. 1 wide receiver. Where they differ, however, is in age (Wallace will turn 27 in August) and production. Wallace averaged 1,225 yards receiving from 2010-11, but that dropped to just 836 yards last season. Still, he’s tied for 4th in the NFL with 26 touchdown catches over the past three seasons combined and has a four-year average of 17.2 yards per reception.
Potential interested teams: Pretty much any team looking for a No. 1 wide receiver or a legitimate deep threat that can afford Wallace – Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tennessee all come to mind.
Comes down to: Depending on who you ask or what you read, the Dolphins seem to be the odds-on favorite to sign Wallace, who would be a nice complement to the re-signed Brian Hartline. A potential monkey wrench to the Dolphins’ plans, however, could be Minnesota trading Percy Harvin to Seattle on Monday, which puts the Vikings also in the market for a No. 1 wide receiver. If money is the prime motivator for Wallace, the Browns could be the Dolphins’ only true competition in that respect.
Potential dark horse: Indianapolis doesn’t “need” Wallace with Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton already on the roster, but the Colts do have the cap space to afford Wallace and he could serve as the heir apparent to Wayne, much like Marvin Harrison did for him years ago.
Where he ends up: Unless the Browns or Colts back up the Brinks truck, I think Wallace is taking his talents to South Beach. MIAMI
3. Jake Long, OT
It’s not often a 27-year-old All-Pro left tackle becomes available, but that’s the case with Long. Miami chose not to use the franchise tag on the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft, as he was hampered by injuries the past two seasons, including a torn triceps in 2012. Still, some team is going to make a significant commitment in hopes that the four-time Pro Bowler still has several productive seasons in him.
Potential interested teams: Long is a hard one to peg because chances are he still would like to get paid like a former No. 1 overall pick, even though no one is really sure if he can still play like one. Still, there are plenty of teams for which Long would serve as an upgrade on its offensive line, including, but not limited to: Arizona, Chicago, Dallas, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Diego and Tennessee.
Comes down to: How many of these teams will pursue Long is hard to tell because he may simply be too cost-prohibitive for some. His overall market may be determined in large part by the size of his contract demands. I do think that Arizona, Chicago, Cincinnati, Green Bay, Indianapolis, Oakland, San Diego and Tennessee hang in there as long as they possibly can.
Potential dark horse: Even though they may not have as much cap space as some of the other teams listed, don’t rule out the Cardinals, Chargers or Raiders, who could use someone like Long to stabilize their line.
Where he ends up: I don’t think Long will be able to break the bank like he was hoping to, but in the end he lands with a team that can desperately use his pass-blocking skills, one of his strengths. CHICAGO
4. Ed Reed, S
The future Hall of Famer checked off the last thing on his Canton-worthy resume with Baltimore’s Super Bowl win in February. The Ravens would like to bring Reed back so he can finish his career with the team that drafted him, but another team may be able to offer Reed more money and the chance at a second Super Bowl ring. Should Reed leave, can Baltimore fans really harbor any ill will against him? Even if he ends up playing for another AFC North team?
Potential interested teams: If he doesn’t re-sign with the Ravens, Reed more than likely will look to land with a team that he feels gives him the best chance to win, and quickly. In the AFC that means Denver, Houston and New England could be potential destinations with Atlanta, Green Bay and San Francisco the most likely landing spots in the NFC.
Comes down to: With Ray Lewis retired and now Anquan Boldin traded to San Francisco, I would think the Ravens would do all they can to bring Reed back. If not Baltimore, then I say the 49ers, Packers and Patriots are next on the list.
Potential dark horse: Miami’s got the money and Reed is a former Hurricane. What better way to end your career than by playing in South Florida, right?
Where he ends up: Before the Boldin trade, I would have put the percentage of Reed returning to Baltimore at no worse than 80/20. Now, I’m not so sure as it looks like the Ravens are looking for ways to rebuild as quickly as possible. Even if Reed is in the team’s plans, he may not want to be a part of it. That said, I think he sees enough reasons and gets just enough money to stay with the only team he’s played for his entire pro career, unless he decides to join Boldin in San Francisco. BALTIMORE
5. Cliff Avril, DE
Avril has racked up 29 sacks over the last three seasons as he has been one of the more disruptive defensive ends in the league. Unlike Reed, Freeney and Harrison, Avril is still a relatively young pup who will turn 27 in April. His production in Detroit speaks for itself and his age only makes him even more appealing to teams in need of a playmaking defensive end.
Potential interested teams: Any team that’s looking to add an impact defensive end that has proven he can get to the quarterback. Atlanta, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and Tennessee all fit the bill. I also think Detroit would have no problem bringing Avril back, and don’t rule out a team like Denver, Green Bay or New England either, although cost could be a factor for these clubs.
Comes down to: Of the teams listed above the Buccaneers, Browns, Colts, Eagles and Jaguars appear to be the ones that can potentially offer Avril the most money. I expect the Falcons, Lions, Packers and Titans to hang around as long as they can afford to as well.
Potential dark horse: The Broncos have reportedly expressed an interest in Freeney, so why not Avril who’s younger and plays a position they seem to have a bigger need at?
Where he ends up: The Browns and Colts could get into a bidding war for Avril’s services and if that happens I would give the Colts the edge because they play on turf, just like he did in Detroit. In the end, I believe he will stay in the NFC and continue to play his home games indoors, albeit in another division. ATLANTA
6. Dwight Freeney, LB
Freeney has 107.5 career sacks, but has seen his production decline in that category four straight seasons. So while the 33-year-old may not be an every-down defender anymore, there should more than enough left in the tank to contribute as a pass-rush specialist for another team, especially a contender. Besides, a change of scenery did wonders for Peyton Manning’s career, so why can’t the same thing happen for another former All-Pro Colt?
Potential interested teams: Whether you believe the rumors or not, Denver does make a lot of sense and not just because of the Freeney-Peyton Manning ties. Other teams that could use Freeney’s talents include Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, New England and Tampa Bay.
Comes down to: Broncos or bust? Again, this just makes a lot of sense as the best situation for Freeney appears to be one where he can be used on a rotational basis and not as an every-down player.
Potential dark horses: If not Denver, I think it would have to be somewhere he thinks he can win, like Atlanta, Houston or New England. Freeney is a Connecticut native and played for Syracuse in college if that means anything.
Where he ends up: Not to repeat myself, but Freeney to Denver almost makes too much sense. So watch him end up in Arizona instead. DENVER
7. Greg Jennings, WR
Jennings wants to be paid like a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver, but he hasn’t produced like one since 2010. Injuries have limited him to just 21 games and a total of 13 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He had 12 touchdown receptions in 2010 alone. With the right fit, and if he can stay healthy, Jennings still has more than enough talent to be an impact receiver, considering he has 53 career touchdowns in seven seasons.
Potential interested teams: Pretty much the same list as Wallace’s – Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Miami, Minnesota, St. Louis and Tennessee – but his market also could include some other teams since Jennings probably won’t come as expensive as Wallace.
Comes down to: If the Dolphins miss on Wallace, then I suspect they would turn their attention to Jennings. Otherwise, I look for the Bills, Browns, Rams and Vikings to gauge the most interest with the Titans hanging around for a bit.
Potential dark horse: Even though they are similar, who wouldn’t want to see Jennings and Andre Johnson lined up on opposite sides in Houston? I know Texans fans and Matt Schaub probably would.
Where he ends up: In my opinion, Wallace is Miami’s Plan A and Jennings is Plan B. Since I think the Dolphins reel in Wallace, that leaves the Browns and Vikings as Jennings’ most aggressive suitors. One of these teams plays indoors, which is nice, but it’s the same division as his former team and nowhere near the same level of quarterback. Besides, it’s not like Jennings hasn’t played outside in cold weather before. CLEVELAND
8. Dashon Goldson, S
Goldson earned first-team All-Pro honors last season, doing his part to fully maximize his value in a contract year. The secondary market is flooded, but it’s clear that Goldson is one of the more attractive options out there. He would probably like nothing more than to return to San Francisco and try and help the 49ers make it to a second straight Super Bowl, but will the lure of more money be too tough to pass up?
Potential interested teams: San Francisco has to be considered the lead dog, but the 49ers will have plenty of competition for the All-Pro safety’s services. Teams like Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Green Bay, Miami, New England and Philadelphia have room in their secondary and/or salary cap.
Comes down to: The 49ers versus everyone else, but in particular the other contenders like the Broncos, Packers and Patriots. The Bengals could be a player too if they present him with a big offer.
Potential dark horse: Watch out for the Eagles. Brian Kelly may be new to the NFL, but he’s got plenty of cap space to work with and the team’s new brain trust would make a huge statement to the fans by signing Goldson. Kelly also should be somewhat familiar with Goldson since he played in college at Washington, one of Oregon’s Pac-12 rivals.
Where he ends up: This situation definitely bears watching. As much as the 49ers want to keep Goldson, I just have a hard time seeing how they can afford him, especially following the trade for Boldin. Even though San Francisco presents him with the best chance to win, I think he capitalizes on his prime position in the secondary market and maximizes his payday. CINCINNATI
9. Steven Jackson, RB
It may be hard to believe, but even though he’s produced eight straight 1,000-yard seasons, Jackson has yet to turn 30. Still there’s no denying that Jackson has lots of tread on the tires, as he’s logged nearly 2,400 carries in his nine seasons. The good thing for Jackson is that very few teams rely on just one main back to carry the load, which should only help his chances of landing with a new team.
Potential interested teams: While I suspect a lot of teams are interested in Jackson, my guess is he wants an opportunity that will allow him the chance to carry the ball a lot and win. These two factors taken together limit his market.
Comes down to: Atlanta or Green Bay. The Falcons have already cut Michael Turner, a role that Jackson could easily fill, while the Packers desperately could use more production out of their running game.
Potential dark horse: I don’t think there’s one, but for the sake of argument I’ll say Cincinnati just because the Bengals appear to be an up-and-coming team and they should be able to find a way to fit him in their roster and backfield, even though they already have a similar type of back in BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
Where he ends up: The Falcons make a lot of sense, but I think they will go with a younger option, which leaves the Bengals and the Packers. In this case, it’s pretty clear to me that the best chance for carries is in Green Bay, where Jackson’s blocking and pass-catching skills would also be a good fit with Aaron Rodgers. GREEN BAY
10. James Harrison, LB
The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year has not had the same impact on the field over the last two seasons. Injuries played a part in this, but in the end, Pittsburgh decided to sever its ties with the five-time Pro Bowler. Even with his age (35 in May) and diminishing production, Harrison will probably not lack for suitors, although my guess is he would prefer a situation that offers him his best chance at another Super Bowl ring.
Potential interested teams: Harrison’s market is another tough one to get a grasp of, but I’ll pick Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, New England, Oakland, Philadelphia and San Diego as the teams most likely to kick the tires.
Comes down to: How badly he wants to play for a contender versus possibly making more money. The Browns, Colts and Jaguars can probably pay him more, but do they want to? Harrison would probably prefer playing for the Eagles, Patriots or Ravens, which would allow him at least two shots against his old team, but it will have to be on the team’s terms and not his. I think the latter matters more to him.
Potential dark horse: Cincinnati for three reasons – 1) They have plenty of cap space 2) He’s from Akron, Ohio, and played in college at in-state school Kent State 3) Like the Browns they play in the AFC North.
Where he ends up: Wherever he goes, he should be plenty motivated, feeling like he has something to prove. Also, which head coach has a track record for taking on reclamation projects, if you will, and having success with them? That’s right, Bill Belichick. NEW ENGLAND
11. Brian Urlacher, LB
Unless he changes his mind, Urlacher will be playing a 14th NFL season this fall. Chicago would love nothing more than to keep the four-time first-team All-Pro and 2005 NFL Defensive Player of the Year in the fold, but the Bears also have to start looking towards the future at middle linebacker. If not the Windy City, Urlacher should have little trouble finding a new home. For one, there could be no better mentor and example to learn from for a young linebacker than the likely future Hall of Famer.
Potential interested teams: He may no longer be the dominant, every-down force he once was, but there are very few teams that Urlacher wouldn’t represent an upgrade for in their linebacking corps. Money is no doubt important, but I don’t think it’s the biggest driving force for Urlacher, who wants to win. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay all come to mind, as do contenders like Houston and New England, and of course there’s Chicago.
Comes down to: Urlacher’s agent has already presented the Bears with a contract proposal, so at least we know the two sides are talking. I think Urlacher’s side is willing to meet the Bears more than halfway on this one, so it’s up to Chicago to come the rest of the way. Otherwise, I think he goes to a team like the Browns, Bengals or Eagles, who all offer the same sort of climate as that of the Windy City.
Potential dark horses: I’ll give you two – Dallas because his former defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is there now and St. Louis because he seems to fit the mold of a Jeff Fisher-type player.
Where he ends up: It may be the Bears fan in me talking, but I think the two sides work together to ensure that Urlacher finishes his career where he rightfully should. CHICAGO
12. Osi Umenyiora, DE
So why would a 31-year-old backup defensive end like Umenyiora be so attractive to other teams? For one, considering he played on the same team with the likes of Jason Pierre-Paul and Justin Tuck, chances are Umenyiora would have started on most every other team in the league. Second, the three years he has started all 16 games (2005, ’07, ’10) he had at least 11.5 sacks in each season. Teams looking for a pass-rush specialist could do a lot worse than this Giant.
Potential interested teams: If the price is right, Umenyiora could up anywhere, including back with the Giants. However, I think he wants to capitalize on his free agent status and look to land somewhere he can be a full-time starter. I’ll put Cleveland, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa Bay and Tennessee into that category.
Comes down to: The Browns, Buccaneers, Colts, Jaguars and Raiders appear to be the best options on the money and playing time front for Umenyiora, although I wouldn’t rule out Andy Reid trying to lure his former NFC East foe to Kansas City either.
Potential dark horses: Detroit and Philadelphia. For the Lions he could be a cheaper, albeit older, replacement for Avril while the Eagles could pay him and offer him a chance to hurt his former team.
Where he ends up: The Eagles are awfully tempting for the revenge factor, but I don’t think his age fits in with the team’s plans. Umenyiora played his college football at Troy, which is located in the deep south, so I’ll say he ends up in the same geographical region and in the NFC South, a division where getting to the quarterback is paramount to success. TAMPA BAY
13. Michael Bennett, DE
Bennett doesn’t have the track record or resume of Avril or even Umenyiora, but he did have a breakthrough 2012 season. He registered nine sacks, which was three more than he had collected in his first three seasons combined, and also forced three fumbles. Like Avril, Bennett will turn 27 in November, so the potential is there for a team to lock up a potential difference-maker on its defensive line for years to come.
Potential interested teams: Bennett is reportedly not a priority for Tampa Bay, which makes little sense to me unless his contract demands are outrageous. If that is the case, however, I don’t think he will lack for other suitors as teams like Arizona, Jacksonville, Oakland, Philadelphia, Tennessee among others would like nothing more than to add him to their roster.
Comes down to: Despite the seeming lack of attention from the Buccaneers to this point, Bennett has said he will give the team the opportunity to match any offers he receives. If anything, he should be able to find out just how much the team values him. I suspect the Jaguars, Eagles and Titans will be more than happy to test that theory as well.
Potential dark horse: Atlanta. The Falcons have seen this guy in person, so they fully know what he’s capable of, and his younger age is just a bonus.
Where he ends up: Some football observers think Bennett and not Avril or Umenyiora is the best defensive end on the market. If that’s the case, then I suspect a team will have no problem paying him like one. TENNESSEE
14. Reggie Bush, RB
It is pretty much a foregone conclusion that Bush will be playing for his third NFL team in eight seasons this fall. While the No. 2 overall pick of the 2006 NFL Draft has failed to produce along those lines, Bush is coming off of two productive seasons in Miami in which he rushed for a total of 2,072 yards. At just 28 years old, Bush may get another shot at proving he can be a premier back, but at the very least he should be a very productive, potentially dynamic weapon in the right offense.
Potential interested teams: Detroit is the team that’s been most associated with Bush already. I would add Arizona, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Indianapolis to it, with Green Bay and Philadelphia as more remote possibilities.
Comes down to: The situation that offers him the best fit and chance to maximize his talents and capabilities, along with getting paid a “fair” wage. Again the Lions meet the criteria, as do the Cardinals, Bengals, Eagles and Packers.
Potential dark horse: I’ll say St. Louis because the Rams play on turf and with Jackson pretty much out the door, their backfield is up in the air for the most part.
Where he ends up: Detroit and Bush seem tailor-made for each other, as he can team with Mikel Leshoure and potentially form a potent backfield. If not the Lions, watch for the Cardinals or Bengals. DETROIT
15. Charles Woodson, DB
The 15-year veteran and 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year was limited to just seven games last season because of injuries. Combine that with the fact he will turn 37 in October and it’s clear that he’s nearing the end of a career that will more than likely result in enshrinement in Canton, Ohio. That said, Woodson could still either serve as a key contributor for a contending team that’s lacking something in its secondary or a valuable mentor for a team with young players in its defensive backfield.
Potential interested teams: At least four teams – Miami, New York Giants, New York Jets and Seattle – have reportedly already made overtures to Woodson, so it seems there is some sort of market for him. I would think Denver, Houston and possibly New England also may kick the tires a little bit at some point.
Comes down to: Does Woodson want to win or play a lot? For example, the Dolphins can probably pay him more, but Seattle is in much better shape to not only make the playoffs, but contend for a title next season. Unless a non-contender is willing to pay him a lot, I think winning trumps the number of snaps he gets on the field.
Potential dark horses: Cincinnati or Cleveland. Even though the Bengals offer the better chance at winning, both AFC North teams can pay and have room for him, albeit in different roles, in their respective secondaries. He also is no stranger to playing in cold weather.
Where he ends up: If he’s willing to play second fiddle, Woodson would be an awfully nice supporting piece in Seattle’s already stout secondary. The Seahawks have already showed the league that they are all in next season with the acquisition of Percy Harvin, so why not add another former NFC North All-Pro? SEATTLE
Others to Watch(in alphabetical order):
John Abraham, DE – A little older (35 in May) than some of the other options out there, Abraham should be able to find a role as a sack specialist for a team like Arizona, Cleveland or Tennessee. He could be an option for Denver if Dwight Freeney doesn’t end up with the Broncos.
Danny Amendola, WR – Wes Welker-lite in a lot of ways, Amendola could land in Cincinnati or Houston as a complementary receiver to A.J. Green or Andre Johnson. He also could stay with St. Louis or end up replacing Welker in New England.
Ahmad Bradshaw, RB – Produces when healthy, but staying on the field has been easier said than done for Bradshaw. Just at just 27 years old, some team that needs a big back, like Atlanta, Indianapolis, San Diego or Tennessee, is sure to give him a look.
Jared Cook, TE –Tennessee chose not to tag its 25-year-old tight end for some reason. Don't be surprised if the Titans’ loss ends up being Chicago’s, and, more importantly, Jay Cutler’s gain. The Bears haven’t had a viable tight end target since Greg Olsen got traded.
Victor Cruz, WR – Cruz is a restricted free agent with a first-round tender, but Minnesota and St. Louis both have two first-round picks in April’s draft and could take a chance and force the New York Giants to have to match their offer. New England also could be lying in the weeds, especially if Welker doesn't come back. I don’t think Cruz goes anywhere else, but I also don’t believe the Giants want to have to match someone else’s offer to keep him.
Fred Davis, TE – Last season was basically a lost cause for Davis, but he has had two seasons with 48 or more catches. Teams in need of tight end help like Chicago, Cleveland, Kansas City, Tampa Bay, or possibly even Atlanta should Tony Gonzalez not return, could express interest.
Dannell Ellerbe, LB – With Ray Lewis retired and fellow linebacker Paul Kruger (see below) also a free agent, Baltimore can ill afford to let Ellerbe get away.
Shonn Greene, RB – He’s put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and won't turn 28 until August. His best fit would be as a complementary back. If Atlanta doesn’t get Steven Jackson, I think the Falcons will take a long look at Greene.
Brent Grimes, CB – If Grimes can prove he’s completely recovered from the torn Achilles tendon that he sustained in Week 2 last season, he should find a healthy market for his services. I think Atlanta does all it can to bring him back, but if not the Falcons the 2010 Pro Bowler would probably attract the attention of the likes of Cincinnati, Denver, the New York Giants, New York Jets, New Orleans and Tampa Bay.
Paul Kruger, LB – Came up big for Baltimore in the sack department last season (9.0), but don’t expect him to remain with the Ravens. Cleveland and Indianapolis could engage in a bidding war for Kruger’s services, and I’ll give the edge to the Colts and head coach Chuck Pagano, Kruger’s former coordinator in Baltimore.
Andy Levitre, OL – Levitre may not be flashy, but he’s one of the better offensive guards on the market and could be one of the safest options available. Chicago, Cincinnati, Green Bay, San Diego and Tennessee all could be players for him.
Phil Loadholt, OL – Adrian Peterson sure doesn’t want to see his big right tackle leave Minnesota, but the Vikings chose not to use the franchise tag on Loadholt to make sure he would stay. The Vikings won’t let him get away without a fight, I’m guessing, but Chicago, Oakland and San Diego may be willing to battle them for his services.
Rey Maualuga, LB – An under-the-radar type of player, Maualuga played a huge role in Cincinnati’s growth as a defense last season. The Bengals should make every effort to retain him, but Baltimore, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay could make their own bids for Maualuga.
Aqib Talib, CB – got his second chance in New England after getting traded from Tampa Bay last season. Patriots need him too much with so many free agent defensive backs to let him get away now. Washington could be a dark horse even with their cap troubles because Raheem Morris, Talib's former head coach in Tampa Bay, is now with the Redskins.
Sebastian Vollmer, OT – Similar to Levitre, Vollmer doesn’t get that much publicity, but he got the job done as New England’s starting right tackle the last three seasons. The Patriots have so many free agents and holes to fill, however, that they may not be able to compete in a bidding war with Arizona, Chicago, Jacksonville, Miami, Oakland, San Diego and/or Tennessee should it get to that point.