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By Kipper @pghsportsforum
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Although the 2013 NFL Free Agency period is one month away and the market will be thinned at the top by franchise tags and contract extensions, this is a good time to survey the prospective field. The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off in less than two weeks, and it is in Indianapolis that free-agency scuttlebutt commences as player representatives meet face-to-face with team officials.
This is a free agency position ranking. As it stands, I believe cornerback to be the deepest, most talented group of players with expiring contracts. I think quarterback is the weakest, for an obvious reason: NFL teams simply don't let franchise signal callers hit the open market. Offensive tackle and defensive end look very strong. Inside linebacker and center are bereft of quality starters.
On the back page is my Free Agent Top 40 for the 2013 offseason. I did not include Joe Flacco or Ryan Clady, because neither of them is going anywhere. Tony Gonzalez's contract is up, but his future is murky at best and he is not included, either.
Restricted Free Agents are not considered here because they so rarely change teams.
1. Cornerback
This position is loaded with quality NFL starters, and the prohibitive $10.67 million cornerback franchise number ensures it will stay that way. Aqib Talib, 27, Brent Grimes, 29, Sean Smith, 25, Chris Houston, 28, Derek Cox, 26, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 26, all have experience as No. 1 corners, and of them only Grimes will be 30 years old when the 2013 season starts.
Super Bowl champ Cary Williams, 28, is believed to be looking to break the bank and may have trouble landing the lucrative deal he desires. E.J. Biggers, 25, Antoine Cason, 26, Keenan Lewis, 26, and Mike Jenkins, 27, could be more affordable targets with their best football ahead of them. Bradley Fletcher, 26, and Greg Toler, 28, are potential diamonds in the rough. Darius Butler, 26, Brice McCain, 26, Kyle Arrington, 26, and D.J. Moore, 25, can cover the slot on passing downs. Pacman Jones, 29, is coming off a quietly solid season as Cincinnati's nickel back. Jerraud Powers, 25, and Tracy Porter, 26, are intriguing "rehab" projects after injury-affected years.
Obviously past their primes, Sheldon Brown, 33, Quentin Jammer, 33, Terence Newman, 34, and Rashean Mathis, 32, each may have a year or two left as solid starting cornerbacks in the league. Brown, Jammer, and Mathis could potentially extend their careers by converting to safety.
Although former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin has not panned out as a cover corner, he is still only 27 and led the NFL in 2012 punt return average while bringing back two punts to the house.
2. Offensive Tackle
If cornerback is the gold standard in 2013 free agency, offensive tackle isn't far behind. Even with Clady off the board, Andre Smith, 26, Branden Albert, 28, Jake Long, 27, Sebastian Vollmer, 28, Will Beatty, 27, Gosder Cherilus, 28, Phil Loadholt, 27, Jermon Bushrod, 28, and Sam Baker, 27, all have extensive, successful track records as strong NFL starters and will be paid accordingly.
Since the positions are valued differently inside the NFL, offensive tackles can be halved into left and right. Left tackles are the highest paid O-Line position. Right tackles are viewed as inferior, although the league's best running teams unfailingly field high-impact tackle play on the right side.
Albert, Long, Beatty, Bushrod, Baker, and Bryant McKinnie, 33, are the best left tackles free agency has to offer. Smith, Vollmer, Cherilus, and Loadholt are difference makers on the right side. Vollmer is especially intriguing because he possesses athleticism and length to play both tackle spots, and made five starts on Tom Brady's blindside as a rookie in 2009. If Vollmer hits free agency -- and the Patriots** will probably make sure that he does not -- it's conceivable that interested teams would view him as a left tackle, setting up Vollmer for a monster pay day.
3. Defensive End
This year's free-agent defensive end class isn't quite as talent rich as the big names atop the list might indicate. But it's a reasonably solid group with, by my count, at least seven capable NFL starters.
Cliff Avril, 26, has 29 sacks and nine forced fumbles over the past three seasons. He's "scheme versatile," capable of fitting 3-4 defenses at outside linebacker and 4-3s as a hand-in-the-dirt end. Avril is the clear prize of this year's defensive end class. Michael Johnson, 26, isn't far off after a breakout, 11.5-sack season. Always oozing talent, Johnson has long faced questions about his motor, however, and it's red-flaggy that he put together a career year in a contract season. It makes him an ideal franchise-tag candidate for the Bengals. So perhaps he won't hit the market.
Versatile Michael Bennett, 27, is No. 3 in the defensive end rankings and can rush the passer from both tackle and left end. Bennett was a key contributor on Tampa's league-best run defense in 2012. Osi Umenyiora, 31, Dwight Freeney, 32, and Israel Idonije, 32, all have good football left but are past their primes. Matt Shaughnessy, 26, once looked like a future star in Oakland, but lost his passing-down role to early-season street free-agent pickup Andre Carter because Shaughnessy couldn't generate any pressure. He still may be the best value signing in this group.
Wallace Gilberry, 28, Mike DeVito, 28, Darryl Tapp, 28, William Hayes, 27, Lawrence Jackson, 27, and Jonathan Fanene, 30, are all role players but give the position some free-agent depth.
4. Wide Receiver
The wide receiver free-agent eligibles fall off a cliff after the initial six or so players, but there is obvious star power at the top. Dwayne Bowe, 28, can take over games when focused, and he's never, ever played with a competent quarterback. Mike Wallace, 26, was considered the NFL's premier deep threat as recently as the 2012 offseason. Greg Jennings, 29, is a playmaker both in the slot and along the sidelines. Wes Welker, 31, is uncoverable between the numbers. Soo too is Danny Amendola, 27, at least when healthy. Brian Hartline, 26, was stretched as the Dolphins' No. 1 receiver in 2012, but is still coming off a breakout year.
The best of the rest are slot receiver/special teamer Julian Edelman, 26, brittle burner Donnie Avery, 28, mentally unreliable Jerome Simpson, 26, washed-up Randy Moss, 36, and Braylon Edwards, 29, concussion-prone Austin Collie, 27, and flash-in-the-pan Kevin Ogletree, 25.
5. Defensive Tackle
There's a good chance you've never heard of Desmond Bryant, 27, but you need to get used to it. He's going to be a very hot free agent. I recall watching tape of offensive skill position players last offseason, and defensive end No. 90 for Oakland kept showing up. In 2012, Bryant kicked inside to replace injured Richard Seymour and graded out as Pro Football Focus' No. 6 overall defensive tackle. He was the best player on a bad defense. A Harvard alum with a scheme-versatile body (6'6/311), Bryant will appeal to 3-4 teams as a five-technique end and 4-3 clubs at interior tackle.
Almost like offensive tackle, defensive tackle can be split into two parts: Pass rushers and run-plugging space eaters. The best free-agent interior pass rushers are Bryant, Henry Melton, 26, Randy Starks, 29, Jason Jones, 26, Seymour, 33, Chris Canty, 30, Glenn Dorsey, 27, and Corey Williams, 32.
The top free-agent space eaters include "Pot Roast" Terrance Knighton, 26, Isaac Sopoaga, 31, Vance Walker, 25, Casey Hampton, 35, Roy Miller, 25, Sammie Lee Hill, 26, and Pat Sims, 27.
6. Rush Linebacker
"Rush linebacker" is traditionally associated with 3-4 defenses. As the 3-4 becomes more and more prevalent, we need to consider "rush 'backer" its own position rather than grouping it in with defensive ends or outside linebackers.
Paul Kruger, 27, was the Super Bowl champions' best pass rusher for the duration of the 2012-2013 season and is arguably the premier prize of free agency. He's going to rake in a ton of money. Anthony Spencer, 29, was always a stud edge-setting run defender before breaking out with 11 sacks this past year. He outplayed future Hall of Famer DeMarcus Ware. Connor Barwin, 26, registered 11.5 sacks in 2011 before crashing back to Earth with three in 2012. Barwin is not an explosive outside-edge rush 'backer and is a candidate to get overpaid on the open market.
Shaun Phillips, 31, Antwan Barnes, 28, and Victor Butler, 25, round out the rush linebacker depth. Butler is intriguing. Buried behind Spencer and Ware the past four seasons, Butler still managed 11 sacks and four forced fumbles while starting just 1-of-63 games. He is a free-agent sleeper.
7. Safety
The safety class looks swell on paper, but I'm afraid it'll be thinned out by franchise tags and seemingly obvious re-signings. The franchise number for safeties is an affordable $6.798 million; only tight ends and kickers cost less to tag. I think we'll see top safety Jairus Byrd, 26, tagged and quite possibly William Moore, 27. The Niners also won't let Dashon Goldson, 28, get away.
So that would leave Ed Reed, 34, Ronde Barber, 37, physically unreliable Louis Delmas, 25, and LaRon Landry, 28, benched ex-Patriot Pat Chung, 25, former first-round disappointment Kenny Phillips, 26, and Texans free safety Glover Quin, 27, atop this year's free-agent safety group.
Chung and Phillips might be the safeties to target for teams incapable of ponying up for what'll be an unwieldy price tag on Landry, Byrd, Moore, or Goldson. Chung and Phillips both possess Pro Bowl-caliber talent; only bad injury luck has diminished their market value. Since both are under 27 years old, it's quite possible Phillips and Chung would be amenable to one-year, prove-it deals.
8. Tight End
I have tight end ranked relatively low, but I think it's a quietly strong group. Especially when you include Texans fullback/H-back James Casey, 28, who demonstrates Hernandezian movement skills in pass routes but played out of position as a lead blocker in Gary Kubiak's offense. Casey needs to get out of Houston and find a chance to start. He can get open and has great hands.
Fred Davis, 27, is a field stretcher and underrated blocker if his Achilles' checks out. Dustin Keller, 28, has been held hostage statistically by putrid Jets offenses and needs to leave New York to maximize his god-given ability. Jared Cook, 25, is a freak of nature talent. Martellus Bennett, 25, is a terrific blocker and flashed taking his receiving game to a top-ten level when healthy in 2012.
Other free agent tight ends include backup types Delanie Walker, 28, Brandon Myers, 27, Dallas Clark, 33, Ben Watson 32, and Anthony Fasano, 28.
9. Outside Linebacker
This is where free agency begins to really thin out. The top get would be longtime Jaguars outside linebacker Daryl Smith, who can play strong side, weak side, or even man the middle. Smith, however, is going on age 31 and struggled in his only two 2012 appearances after returning from recurring groin problems.
Aside from Smith, Erin Henderson, 26, and Philip Wheeler, 28, the best 4-3 outside linebacker free agents all have injury concerns. Thomas Howard, 29, is coming off a torn ACL. Gerald McRath, 26, ruptured his patellar tendon. Justin Durant, 27, has a scary concussion history. Leroy Hill, 30, is facing a suspension. Jonathan Casillas, 25, is brimming with talent but has never stayed healthy.
Ultimately, 4-3 outside linebacker offers only stopgap solutions in free agency.
10. Running Back
Steven Jackson will be the cream of the 2013 free-agent running back crop if he declines his $7 million player option. Jackson has until March 12 -- the first day of free agency -- to decide. It's been expected that S-Jax will indeed decline the option, though it's always possible Jackson and his agent will determine they wouldn't pull in more money on the open market. I'd probably set Jackson's chances of returning to St. Louis at 55:45. If he doesn't, expect Atlanta and Green Bay to be among the contenders that pursue him. At age 29, Jackson has plenty left in the tank.
There's a steep falloff behind him.
Reggie Bush, 27, is best suited for a complementary, third-down type role in a pass-first offense, ideally playing in a dome. The pass-happy Lions make a lot of sense as a suitor, assuming Bush's price tag is reasonable. Rashard Mendenhall, 25, has talent to be an NFL feature back, but his health has been unreliable the past two seasons and Mendenhall is maddeningly inconsistent on inside runs, too often bouncing outside. Released by the Giants, 26-year-old Ahmad Bradshaw suffers from chronic foot injuries and is much too brittle for any team to count on as a starter. He'll be viewed as a potential committee back or strict backup by clubs in the market for running backs. Cedric Benson, 30, is coming off a Lisfranc fracture. Bernard Scott, 29, returns from a torn ACL.
Shonn Greene, 27, Felix Jones, 25, Peyton Hillis, 27, Danny Woodhead, 28, and Cedric Peerman, 26, are other notable free-agent running back names. They are all backups or role players at best.
11. Offensive Guard
Another thin free-agent position, guard offers five or six NFL starters with two or three who might command big money should they hit the market. Athletic Andy Levitre, 26, has never missed a start in four seasons with Buffalo and was a top-ten guard in 2012 per Pro Football Focus' ratings. The Bills need to make re-signing Levitre a priority.
Donald Thomas, 27, can play all three interior line positions and held up well in seven 2012 starts. Brandon Moore, 32, is limited to right guard but is still blocking at a high level. Louis Vasquez, 25, is well regarded around the NFL and after Levitre may be the likeliest guard to receive a lucrative, long-term deal. Lance Louis, 27, Geoff Schwartz, 26, and Chad Rinehart, 27, are young guards with potential.
12. Fullback
Jerome Felton, 26 brings little to the table as a ball carrier or receiver, but he was the NFL's premier lead blocker in 2012 and deserved first-team All-Pro recognition over Baltimore's Vonta Leach. Fullbacks historically have short shelf lives and ought to max out their market whenever possible. If Felton and his agent are smart, they will prioritize testing free agency unless the Vikings blow their socks off with a contract offer before March 12.
Greg Jones, 31, is the only other fullback who might generate serious free-agent interest. Jones is getting up there in age, but he's still a pile-driving run blocker and also excels in blitz pickup.
13. Inside Linebacker
I haven't studied up much yet on this year's draft-eligible inside linebacker class. But if it isn't stocked with talent, your team is in trouble if it needs a starter inside. Rey Maualuga, 26, is a poor starter and he's among the best free agency can offer. Brian Urlacher's 34-year-old knees are shot. Tim Dobbins, 30, is a major liability in coverage. Dannell Ellerbe, 27, is a candidate to get overpaid on the heels of his team's Super Bowl win.
Perhaps the one free agent inside linebacker worth the longest look for needy teams is Brad Jones, a 26-year-old converted pass rusher who more than adequately replaced D.J. Smith for the Packers in 2012. Jones started ten games and outplayed A.J. Hawk. Teams still figure to be wary of Jones because his experience inside is so limited.
14. Center
There isn't a free-agent center who'll be viewed as a surefire starter. Todd McClure, 36, Brad Meester, 35, and Dan Koppen, 33, are all nearing retirement. And they're the best there is in this year's center class.
15. Quarterback
With Flacco a virtual lock to return to Baltimore, quarterback is another position that lacks a single bankable starter. Matt Moore, 28, comes the closest after losing the Dolphins' starting job to Ryan Tannehill last summer. Moore will probably wind up in a camp battle on a quarterback-desperate team like the Jets, Cardinals, Jaguars, or Bills.
Tarvaris Jackson, 29, Jason Campbell, 31, Josh Johnson, 26, Byron Leftwich, 33, Brady Quinn, 28, and Rex Grossman, 32, are all low-end NFL backups. Chase Daniel, 26, and Brian Hoyer, 27, have major arm strength limitations. David Garrard, 34, never did latch on with a team in 2012 and it's unclear if he envisions football in his future. Vince Young, 29, may be done in the league.
1. Rush linebacker Paul Kruger
2. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe
3. Defensive end Cliff Avril
4. Cornerback Aqib Talib
5. Rush linebacker Anthony Spencer
6. Free safety Jairus Byrd
7. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer
8. Defensive tackle Henry Melton
9. Wide receiver Mike Wallace
10. Free safety Dashon Goldson
11. Defensive end Michael Johnson
12. Left tackle Branden Albert
13. Cornerback Brent Grimes
14. Left tackle Jake Long
15. Right tackle Andre Smith
16. Wide receiver Wes Welker
17. Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant
18. Guard Andy Levitre
19. Cornerback Sean Smith
20. Running back Steven Jackson
21. Defensive end Michael Bennett
22. Defensive tackle Randy Starks
23. Strong safety William Moore
24. Right tackle Phil Loadholt
25. Wide receiver Greg Jennings
26. Wide receiver Danny Amendola
27. Tight end Dustin Keller
28. Defensive tackle Jason Jones
29. Free safety Louis Delmas
30. Tight end Jared Cook
31. Running back Reggie Bush
32. Cornerback Chris Houston
33. Guard Louis Vasquez
34. Defensive end Osi Umenyiora
35. Outside linebacker Daryl Smith
36. Free safety Ed Reed
37. Tight end Martellus Bennett
38. Nose tackle Terrance Knighton
39. Running back Rashard Mendenhall
40. Fullback Jerome Felton
Kinda long but sort of explains the picture. We could use some of these players but doubt we can afford them. That to me points to how poorly our last few drafts have really been because we have historically (as well as currently) relied so heavily on it.

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