Unlike some free-agent classes that feature one huge name and a bunch of lesser lights, the 2012 class features one big haul on each side of the ball. Obviously, Peyton Manning is the big name on offense, and we have Mario Williams as the main man on defense. By position, here's a look at the most important names to know once the new league year kicks in on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, and the pursuit of many great players begins. First, the offense:
Once Manning makes his decision, and gets a major front-loaded contract as a result, other teams will scatter to other options, which in turn will be made more interesting and plentiful by Manning's decision. No matter what happens, Matt Flynn of the Green Bay Packers becomes the A-player of the bunch. Like Kevin Kolb a year ago, Flynn will parlay a small sample size from a greased-up, quarterback-friendly offense into a huge payday somewhere. Seahawks GM John Schneider was in the Packers' front office when Flynn was drafted, and new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin was on Green Bay's coaching staff as Flynn developed. Those are two likely spots, but if Manning chooses Arizona, Kolb could be cut loose. Whether his availability cuts into Flynn's value is an interesting topic.
Beyond that, pickings are relatively slim this time around. At this point, Alex Smith and Jason Campbell are among the most "interesting" options at the position, and most people expect Smith to re-sign with the 49ers. If you're looking closer to the bottom of the barrel but need a guy who could spot-start, Kyle Orton and Chad Henne are among those players you could try.
With the Big Four off the board — Ray Rice and Matt Forte have been franchised, and Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster have signed new deals with their old teams — the list grinds down heavily. You can take a shot on Cedric Benson, see what Joseph Addai has left in the tank, or go after underrated rotational backs like Justin Forsett and Tashard Choice. We'll talk more about these guys when we write up the more underrated players in 2012 free agency, but Mike Tolbert and Michael Robinson should get a lot of looks.
Things are a bit more interesting here — teams can look at return-specialty speedsters like Ted Ginn and Harry Douglas, or veterans such as Brandon Lloyd and Legedu Naanee. But it's a position of big names at the free-agent level this year, starting with ex-Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, who will certainly grab a big-money contract from some team desperate for his combination of speed and physical play. If the Steelers don't come to terms with restricted-free-agent Mike Wallace, the cost for certain teams in need of an elite downfield threat (hello, New England Patriots) might not be too much. Add in two New Orleans Saints who might be on the outside looking in with their team's many troubles — receivers Marques Colston and Robert Meachem — and there's a clear path to upgrading many passing games around the NFL.
There's a reason the Washington Redskins franchised Fred Davis — the tight end options aren't that plentiful on the open market. There are few names providing middling production (Martellus Bennett, Marcedes Lewis, John Carlson, Visanthe Shiancoe), and a few other players past their prime but still able to bring decent numbers to the table in the right system (Dallas Clark, Randy McMichael), but the big names are gone here.
That's not the case at the guard position — in fact, depending on Manning's ability to recover from his medical issues, it could be argued that former Saints guard Carl Nicks is the most valuable offensive free agent in this year's market. A peerlessly physical player asked to do many things in New Orleans' complex offense, Nicks could bring the same difference-making ability to a new team that Steve Hutchinson did when he went from Seattle to Minnesota before the 2006 season. Baltimore's Ben Grubbs is another mauler with a lot of versatility — able to play right or left guard, he's ready to slot just about anywhere and be a big factor. Lesser lights (but reliable talents) include Vince Manuwai and Chris Kemoeatu. Hutchinson is now on the market, recently cut during a Vikings cap purge.
If you don't have your franchise tackle already, this isn't the place to look. There are a few interesting options, like Miami's Vernon Carey and Buffalo's Demetrius Bell, but Jared Gaither is probably the best of a decent lot. Bargain hunters might take a look at ex-Lions tackle Jeff Backus. Beyond that, it's time to get your draft board ready, though if the Chargers release left tackle Marcus McNeill, expect him to head to the top of the list.
UPDATE: Add a new name to the top of the list. Eric Winston of the Houston Texans announced via Twitter that he'll be released, which should make one team in need of a right tackle very, very happy.
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