Ignorance and confidence – this is what Mark Twain once coined as a certain recipe for success in life.
Right about now in the NFL, we look back at early free agent failures, and it's not hard to see the two attributes as cornerstones to the league's free spending frenzies. Confidence? It gave us Antwaan Randle El in Washington, Brian Williams in Jacksonville, David Givens in Tennessee, Edgerrin James in Arizona and Charles Woodson in Green Bay.
Ignorance? It gave the aforementioned five players about $51 million in signing and roster bonuses. And thus far, not a whole lot of return for the loot.
But like an offseason script written by Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, the failures only beget another round of shoveling $100 bills into the free agent furnace. Some spending works out for teams (Drew Brees in New Orleans and Julian Peterson in Seattle) and some of it works over teams (see: almost every move Snyder made this offseason, including the coaching staff).
Rest assured, more big spending is coming. With that in mind, here is a preliminary look at the top 10 free agents in the upcoming offseason. Only unrestricted free agents are listed, so you're not going to see some of the hot restricted guys listed (Atlanta's Matt Schaub and Kansas City's Jared Allen, for example).
1. Dwight Freeney, DE, Indianapolis Colts
Sure, heavy double-teaming this season has left Freeney with only a half sack and nine tackles through seven games, but at 28, he's still considered a premiere speed rusher in a game that values such players only slightly less than marquee quarterbacks and left tackles. The fact that his numbers have dropped off and that he remains at the top of this list is merely a testament to the impact he's had on games during his career. So mark him down as the phantom free agent because Freeney isn't going to hit the market. Colts general manager Bill Polian won't let it happen, and has the support of owner Jim Irsay to make Freeney one of the highest paid defenders – maybe the league's highest paid – at the end of this season. The only hitch in a deal is agent Gary Wichard seeks to make Freeney the highest paid player in the entire league. That's not going to happen. Right now, the likeliest scenario is Freeney signing an extension averaging north of $8 million a season. And if the two sides can't make that happen, he'll be slapped with the franchise tag.
2. Adalius Thomas, OLB, Baltimore Ravens
Get to know his name because he just might be one of the most versatile playmaking defenders in football today. And he's 29 with at least three prime years left. Thomas has been overshadowed this season by Bart Scott and Ray Lewis on the Baltimore defense, but he's every bit as good as that duo. And no, you can't say he's great because he plays next to Ray-Ray. When Lewis went down last season, it was Thomas who stepped up and became the big playmaker on the unit. How versatile is he? At 270 pounds, he's lined up at defensive end, tackle, safety and linebacker. And just for fun, the Ravens tinkered with him at cornerback in secondary drills in the preseason. Bottom line: for a team that needs a ridiculous outside linebacker for about 3-4 years (Hello, Jacksonville?) this is the guy. And because he'll command top dollar as a free agent, it's not likely Baltimore can keep him and the bevy of other defenders it is already paying.
3. Nate Clements, CB, Buffalo Bills
Thus far, Clements isn't having a Pro Bowl season, and there were rumors before the trading deadline that Buffalo was dangling him. But he's a talented and highly regarded commodity in many places. And if he hits the open market, there will be plenty of teams bidding for his services. He's young (turns 26 in December), talented and has been a Pro Bowler at one of the most coveted positions in football. Quietly, there are a few folks in the league who think Clements is going to be mercurial and overpaid for whoever signs him (think: Dre' Bly of the Lions), and point to games where Clements has been roasted by less-than-elite wideouts. Get a tape of last season's Miami game when Chris Chambers had 15 catches for 238 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo. Unless he rebounds for a strong string of games, there is a chance Buffalo will let him walk rather than franchise him again or pay him the $12-$15 million a long-term deal could command up front.
4. Lance Briggs, OLB, Chicago Bears
Briggs suffers from shades of Rosevelt Colvin. Like Colvin before him, Briggs hits free agency after his fourth year with the Bears. And like Colvin, there is a lot of debate about whether he can be a centerpiece linebacker when he's not playing next to Brian Urlacher. It's worth noting that Briggs had a career-high 126 tackles in the 2004 season that saw Urlacher miss seven games. One thing is for sure: Briggs is young (26 in November), aggressive, durable and has good leadership tendencies. Will he make it to free agency? It's quite possible, considering the money that will eventually be sunk into Chicago's other defensive stars, like defensive tackle Tommie Harris, defensive end Alex Brown and cornerback Nathan Vasher – not to mention the already hefty base salaries of Urlacher and Adewale Ogunleye. If the Bears were going to extend Briggs, it would have been cheaper last offseason. This offseason, they'll be dealing with having to pay him like a two- time Pro Bowler.
5. Asante Samuel, CB, New England Patriots
There are plenty of people in the league who think Samuel is better than one of last offseason's prized free agent cornerbacks – Jacksonville's Brian Williams – and who think Samuel could be looking at the same kind of double-digit signing bonus. Samuel has become New England's best cover corner, and quietly, one of the better ones in the NFL. But he hasn't had the highlight plays Nate Clements put up the last few seasons, so he hasn't gotten the vast attention. But he will if New England keeps winning. Don't be surprised if he becomes the No. 2 free agent this offseason behind Freeney and draws a franchise tag from the Patriots. Unlike so many other players New England has let go, Samuel is young (he'll be 26 until January) and is still improving. Teammates in his unit love his dedication in the film room, and Samuel has been taken under the wing of safety Rodney Harrison as far as the preparation end of the game. It would be a shock if the Patriots let him get away.
6. Cato June, OLB, Indianapolis Colts
He hasn't been making some of the amazing highlight plays that he made for Indianapolis' defense last season, but June should still be a hot commodity on the free agent market for teams seeking a speedy outside linebacker. A Pro Bowler in 2005, June is one of the best run-and- tackle coverage linebackers in the league. There are some who think if he's paired with a strong middle linebacker, he could be a perennial star in the league. Had it not been for an offseason sports hernia and some of Indianapolis' struggles against the run this season, June's age (he'll be 27 in November) and speed would have likely made him the most coveted linebacker in a strong free agent class at that position. That said, he should still be near the top of many lists. And with the money that will be devoted to Freeney this offseason, it's unlikely the Colts will be able to find a way to keep June at the high price other teams will be willing to pay.
7. Eric Steinbach, G, Cincinnati Bengals
In a perfect world, the Bengals wouldn't let Steinbach go, but there is the rest of the offensive line to consider. Tackles Levi Jones and Willie Anderson have both landed whopping contract extensions, and the Bengals have tipped their hand that draft pick Andrew Whitworth could be groomed to replace Steinbach at left guard. It's not a surprise, considering Steinbach could garner some top-tier money for a guard, and not a lot of teams think it's a great idea investing good money in guards (take a look at the Browns and the cash they sunk into Joe Andruzzi). But Steinbach is the athletic type who can be an impact player at the spot, particularly if he's slotted next to a good left tackle. At the end of the day, someone is going to want to solidify the left side of their line, and Steinbach can fit the bill at a near Pro Bowl level.
8. Leonard Davis, T, Arizona Cardinals
Can you tell it's a thin year at tackle? Davis is a soft spoken, nice guy. But he's never lived up to his status as the No. 2 pick in the 2001 NFL draft. Don't be shocked if he is signed and moved to guard. Then again, there aren't going to be a lot of surefire options among the unrestricted free agents at tackle. There is a lot of inconsistency or age in the group of offensive tackles in this free agent class. Davis falls in the former. But at 28, he's still got age going for him. And he's massive. Typically, there is always someone out there willing to take a gamble on a massive tackle, even if he's coming from an Arizona unit that has been horrendous. If he stays at tackle, he's going to have to be slotted next to someone at guard who is fantastic in the run game, because Davis hasn't been all that great in that department. And he's not really the guy who is going to step up and take a leadership position on the line, either. One thing is for sure: The Cardinals aren't going to re-sign him unless he has a spectacular finish to the season or Dennis Green and his staff are swept out and a new regime sees something it likes on Davis' game film (unlikely).
9. Ken Hamlin, S, Seattle Seahawks
Hamlin, named NFC defensive player of the month for September, looked like he was starting to mature into a more rounded player in coverage at his position. He's been a bit up and down since then, but he's going to head into the offseason as one of the hardest hitting safeties in the league. Some teams will be concerned about the skull fracture he suffered last season during an incident outside a Seattle club, but if he gets through this season healthy, some of that should dissipate. Teams blessed with good but less than physical cover corners should covet a safety like Hamlin. Another guy who turns 26 in January, Seattle views him as a key piece and should make a strong push to keep him. That said, he might get a bit pricey considering some of the other defensive pieces the Seahawks will have to fit under the cap in the next few years.
10. Chris Brown, RB, Tennessee Titans
Two seasons ago, when Brown ran for 1,067 yards in only 11 games, it looked like he was on his way to becoming a star in the league. But a salary cap tear-down of the offensive pieces around him and injuries have relegated him to a gamble for some team this offseason. But his youth (he turns 26 in April) and talent will make him worth a wager. He's healthy now but has fallen out of favor with the Titans. Not everyone in the league likes his size (6-foot-3) or upright running style. But there will be several teams looking for starting running backs this offseason, and Brown should get some action. It's likely going to have to come from places that either have schemes that suit bigger backs or offensive lines built for opening holes rather than pass protecting.