This time last year, the NFL lockout had just begun, claiming free agency as one of its first casualties. When the NFL finally got back to business on July 30, free agency was just one of numerous pieces of business that happened in earnest as teams had to scramble to make up for lost time.
Fortunately for teams, players and especially fans, that was then and this is now. The lockout is totally in the rear-view mirror and the NFL has resumed its normal operating schedule with free agency set to start at 4 p.m. ET on Tuesday.
Considering there about 600 free agents out on the market, more than 1/3 of all the players in the NFL, there’s no doubt teams have used all of the time afforded them to get ready for the flurry of activity that will begin Tuesday afternoon.
To keep you up to speed, we've put together a quick rundown of how this year’s free agent class shapes up.
For starters, this year’s class of free agents is heavy on the defensive side of the ball. About half of the entire class are defensive players. The biggest group of available players is cornerbacks and wide receivers, each of which numbers around 60. Safeties and outside linebackers follow on the defensive side, each having more than 50, while the number of available inside linebackers in this year’s class is fewer than 40.
It’s a widely held belief that championship teams are built up front, meaning the offensive and defensive lines. If that’s the case, then teams will have plenty of potential building blocks to choose from as there are more than 90 available players from each group.
On offense, it’s little surprise that wide receivers are the largest group (about 60) considering the proliferation of pass-oriented offenses in recent years. There are also nearly 50 running backs (including fullbacks) and more than 30 tight ends looking to land with a team.
Of course, we can’t forget about the quarterback, right? This year’s free agent quarterback class numbers nearly 40 and includes some guy named Manning.
And to be fair, we can’t leave out the special teams guys, represented by about 30 punters, kickers and long snappers, who round out this year’s free agent class. In fact, of the 21 teams that used the franchise tag this year, five of them applied them to their kicker. In addition, the New York Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions, applied their franchise tag to their punter, Steve Weatherford.
Now let’s take a closer look at each position group.
Peyton Manning is hands down the biggest prize of this group and he is the first domino that needs to fall to get the rest of the movement started. Manning’s decision not only dictates what will happen to some of the other free agent quarterbacks, but it’s also sure to have an impact on the upcoming draft as several teams will look to one (free agency) or the other (draft) to fill their signal-caller needs.
Besides Manning, Drew Brees is technically a member of this class, but he’s not going anywhere as New Orleans slapped the exclusive franchise tag on their field general. Brees may not be thrilled with the move by the team, which could hamper progress toward a long-term contract, but regardless he’s with the Saints at least for one more year because of the exclusive tag.
Then there’s Alex Smith, who, like Manning, is a former No. 1 overall pick. Smith played the best football of his career last season as his 49ers went 13-3 and won then NFC West. If Smith doesn’t re-sign with San Francisco, one of the many rumored potential destinations for Manning, it remains to be seen if another team’s willing to make him their starter.
The other interesting name out there is Matt Flynn. Flynn’s served as Aaron Rodgers’ back up in Green Bay the past four years, but could find himself headed to Miami. There he could become the Dolphins’ starter and be reunited with former Packers’ offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who is Miami’s new head coach.
Other notable free agent quarterbacks: Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, Chad Henne, Kyle Orton, Curtis Painter, Brady Quinn, Vince Young
Baltimore and Chicago both used their franchise tag on their running backs, so it doesn’t appear that Ray Rice and Matt Forte will be changing uniforms this season. Two other marquee running backs were removed from the potential free agent pool recently when Houston signed Arian Foster to a five-year deal and Seattle kept Marshawn Lynch in the fold with a four-year pact.
There’s still plenty of backs to keep an eye on, including Peyton Hillis, who is almost guaranteed of a change of scenery given how his last season in Cleveland went, both on the field and off of it. Staying in the AFC North, Cedric Benson’s time in Cincinnati may be coming to an end, but it seems highly likely that some other team will find room for a running back who’s rushed for 1,000 or more yards the past three seasons and doesn’t turn 30 until the end of the year.
Joseph Addai, LeGarrette Blount, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant, Brandon Jacobs and BenJarvus Green-Ellis are other 1,000-yard rushers who are currently less than 30 years old that are on the market. At first glance, it appears that Green-Ellis, depending upon what direction Tampa Bay goes with its first-round pick (Alabama’s Trent Richardson perhaps?), is the likeliest to remain with his old team. Addai and Jacobs are among the most recent free agents added to the pool as they were both released on Friday.
Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson headline the group of veterans with more than 10 years of experience looking for jobs. In the case of Tomlinson, he’s looking for the right fit on a team that has a good shot at winning the Super Bowl, the only thing missing from his impressive resume.
One other situation that bears watching is in Pittsburgh. Isaac Redman is a free agent, but don’t be surprised if he stays with the Steelers. Redman took over the starting duties after Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the team’s final-regular season game on New Year’s Day. While nothing’s been decided, it’s entirely possible that Mendenhall will be lost for the entire 2012 season, which would put even more impetus on bringing back Redman.
Other notable free agent running backs: Lance Ball, Michael Bush, Justin Forsett, Earnest Graham, Tim Hightower, Jerious Norwood, Kevin Smith, Mike Tolbert, Cadillac Williams
With nearly 60 wide receivers available, there figures to be a fair amount of movement within this group. This is also a group from which several bidding wars among interested teams could take place in the hopes of adding the likes of a Vincent Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Mike Wallace or Reggie Wayne.
That group doesn’t include Dwayne Bowe, DeSean Jackson and Wes Welker, who each tagged by their respective teams and most likely won’t be switching uniforms this coming season.
One wide receiver that is looking to cash in after a big season is Laurent Robinson. Robinson started last season with San Diego, but was released by the team at the end of training camp. Robinson quickly signed with Dallas, only to be released less than a week later due to a hamstring injury.
Robinson got a second chance with Dallas, however, due to a rash of injuries to the Cowboys’ wide receivers, and this time he made it count. In just 11 games, Robinson led Dallas and finished tied for fourth in the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions. Other than those already mentioned, there’s arguably no other wide receiver in a better bargaining position right now than Robinson.
There’s also one other interesting name out there that certainly bears watching – Randy Moss. Moss didn’t play in 2011 after a disappointing 2010 that saw him suit up for three different teams. However, it looks like Moss wants to return in 2012 as he worked out for New Orleans last week. Does any team have any interest in the mercurial Moss, who is currently second all-time in touchdown receptions, fifth in receiving yards, ninth and receptions and turned 35 in February? We shall see.
Other notable free agent wide receivers: Danny Amendola, Deion Branch, Plaxico Burress, Early Doucet, Lee Evans, Pierre Garcon, Ted Ginn Jr., Brandon Lloyd, Mario Manningham, Robert Meachem, Eddie Royal, Jerome Simpson, Donte Stallworth, Roy Williams
Washington used its franchise tag on Fred Davis, so it appears the Redskins will stick with him even though he missed the last four games of the season after being suspended for a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.
While Davis may not be going anywhere one former All-Pro tight end is definitely looking for a new team. Dallas Clark was one of five players cut by Indianapolis on Friday, just two days following the release of Manning. Clark was hampered by injuries all of last season and will turn 33 in June, but he's also a productive and dependable tight end with more than 400 receptions, nearly 5,000 yards receiving and 46 touchdowns. He compiled most of these numbers with Manning, could a reunion be in order?
Other notable free agent tight ends: Martellus Bennett, John Carlson, Kellen Davis, Joel Dreessen, Randy McMichael, Leonard Pope, Bo Scaife, Visanthe Shiancoe, Jeremy Shockey, Jacob Tamme
When New Orleans decided to use the franchise tag on Brees, that meant the team was not able to tag left guard Carl Nicks. The Saints top priority is to re-sign Nicks, but the First-Team All-Pro in 2011 is sure to attract plenty of interest from other teams.
Jeff Backus, Marc Colombo, Leonard Davis, Ryan Diem, Russ Hochstein, Steve Hutchinson and Kareem McKenzie are among the veterans of this group hoping to continue their NFL careers.
Center will be an interesting position to watch as well as free agent options include Matt Birk, Dan Koppen, Jeff Saturday, Scott Wells and Casey Wiegmann.
Other notable free agent offensive linemen: Stacy Andrews, Demetrius Bell, Jacob Bell, Dan Connolly, Ben Grubbs, Andre Gurode, Artis Hicks, Montrae Holland, Chris Kemoeatu, Doug Legursky, Deuce Lutui, Sean Locklear, Todd McClure, Chris Myers, Barry Richardson, Jake Scott, Max Starks
Cliff Avril (Detroit) and Calais Campbell (Arizona) were tagged, as was Robert Mathis (Indianapolis). That tag wasn’t on there long, however, as the Colts and Mathis quickly came to terms on a new long-term contract. Kroy Biermann also re-signed with Atlanta before making it to free agency, but that still leaves about 90 defensive linemen who are available.
The defensive end pool includes John Abraham, Raheem Brock, Shaun Ellis, Israel Idonije, Aaron Maybin and Cory Redding. Teams looking to bulk up the interior of their defensive line have plenty of choices as well, including Brodrick Bunkley, Tommie Harris, Albert Haynesworth and Paul Soliai.
It’s a pretty safe bet that Haynesworth won’t be signing another $100-million contract in the immediate future, However, considering the two-time First-Team All-Pro will be just 31 this season, there’s a good chance another team will take a chance on him, provided the price is right.
Other notable free agent defensive linemen: Anthony Adams, Dave Ball, Michael Bennett, Adam Carriker, Wallace Gilberry, Kelly Gregg, Williams Hayes, Jason Jones, Jeremy Mincey, Amobi Okoye, Cory Redding, Shaun Rogers, Aaron Smith, Dave Tollefson, Gerard Warren
Last year four linebackers were tagged by their respective teams. This season, the only team to use its franchise tag on a linebacker was Dallas on Anthony Spencer.
One team that could have used its tag on a linebacker was Houston on Mario Williams, but the Texans chose not to, making the former No. 1 overall draft pick a free agent. Even though injuries have limited Williams the past two seasons, including just five games played in 2011 due to a torn pectoral muscle, the two-time Pro Bowler who is just 27 figures to be one of the most attractive free agents in this year’s class.
The teams that miss out on Williams have other options including Chase Blackburn, who made the biggest play of his career when he picked off Tom Brady in the third quarter of Super Bowl XLVI in February, as well as Gary Brackett, Dan Connor, James Farrior, London Fletcher, David Hawthorne, Curtis Lofton and Stephen Tulloch.
Other notable free agent linebackers: Bobby Carpenter, Mario Haggan, Geno Hayes, E.J. Henderson, Erin Henderson, Leroy Hill, Bradie James, Manny Lawson, Rocky McIntosh, Joey Porter, Matt Roth, Barrett Ruud, Ernie Sims, Wesley Woodyard
This season teams applied the franchise tag to three safeties and one cornerback. So while Tyvon Branch (Oakland), Dashon Goldson (San Francisco), Michael Griffin (Tennessee) and Brent Grimes (Atlanta) are more than likely staying put, there are still more than 110 defensive backs who are free agents.
Cortland Finnegan, LaRon Landry and Reggie Nelson are three options who will probably draw a lot of attention in hopes of landing a lucrative long-term contract. Some other names to watch include Brandon Carr, Brian Dawkins, Jim Leonhard, Richard Marshall, Terence Newman, Tracy Porter, Carlos Rogers, Aaron Ross and Lardarius Webb, to name a few.
Other notable free agent defensive backs: Jason Allen, Will Allen, Oshiomogho Atogwe, Ronde Barber, Melvin Bullitt, Chris Carr, Cedric Griffin, Kelvin Hayden, Chris Hope, Adam Jones, Justin King, Jacob Lacey, Brodney Pool, Bob Sanders, Greg Toler, Madieu Williams, Gibril Wilson, Eric Wright, Tom Zbikowski
Thanks to the franchise tag, it appears that Connor Barth, Phil Dawson, Mike Nugent, Matt Prater and Josh Scobee won’t have to worry about trying on a new uniform this season. The same cannot be necessarily said about Jay Feely, Nick Folk, Shayne Graham, John Kasay and Neil Rackers, who are free agents.
And while Weatherford won’t be hitting the market, some punters who could be on the move include Britton Colquitt, Donnie Jones, Brad Maynard, Matt McBriar and Matt Turk. And let’s not forget about the long snappers, either, as nine of them are part of this year’s free agent class.
Regardless of your positional preference, the size and makeup of this year’s free agency class offers plenty to watch and monitor as the process gets underway on Tuesday afternoon. Football fans had to do without it out last year because of the lockout, but it’s back this year.
Fittingly enough, the NCAA Tournament also kicks off on Tuesday, as opening-round games will take place in Dayton, Ohio. So while the first step in determining this year’s men’s basketball champion happens Tuesday night, earlier in the day the fate of about 600 NFL players will begin to play out as well with the start of free agency. Welcome to March Madness, NFL-style.
— by Mark Ross, updated at 3 p.m. CT on March 13, 2012