Last August, I asked LaDainian Tomlinson to stretch his imagination. What if, he was asked, Drew Brees was allowed to hit free agency after the 2005 season? What if Brees was playing quarterback somewhere else but San Diego in 2006?
Tomlinson frowned in contemplation.
"I just can't see it," the Chargers running back said. "I guess anything can happen, but Drew is our quarterback. He's our leader. I don't know what this [team] would be like without him out there."
It might be time to start thinking about it. Without factoring in players under the franchise and transition tag – and with Terrell Owens yet to be released – Brees is heading into free agency as one of the few available Pro Bowl-caliber players.
Not only is Brees young and talented, but he is also stepping into a seller's market. With as many as eight teams that could use an upgrade at the quarterback spot, he'll be this offseason's hottest commodity, even with his torn labrum on the mend. That makes him the No. 1 free agent in this year's crop.
Here are the top 10:
1. Drew Brees, QB, San Diego Chargers – The surgery on his throwing shoulder after the season is disconcerting, but all indications are that Brees will be ready to go full bore by training camp. Some teams still don't like his size, and you can bet that's a big reason Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has maintained his favoritism for Philip Rivers. But the fact remains that Brees has been a Pro Bowl-level quarterback for two straight seasons, throwing 51 touchdowns and completing 65 percent of his passes in that span.
He has a strong enough arm to thrive in a West Coast system and actually gained more zip going into 2005 (thanks to core-strengthening workouts last offseason). With the premium on quarterbacks, Brees' age (he just turned 27) and his ability, it makes him the best free agent out there.
2. Julian Peterson, LB, San Francisco 49ers – Peterson has the potential to be a huge free-agent signing this offseason, but he also has the risk of being just another above-average linebacker. Peterson is still young (he turns 28 in July), and last season he clearly was still coming back from the torn Achilles he suffered in 2004. At times, Peterson looked tentative last season – like he was about 90 percent there mentally and physically. There is a possibility that he gains back that last 10 percent this season and returns to being one of the league's dominant play-making outside linebackers.
3. Edgerrin James, RB, Indianapolis Colts – James has age working against him. He'll turn 28 in August, and he most likely has about four more top-level years in the tank. James looks like he has fully bounced back from injuries suffered from 2001 to 2003. He's running tougher than ever, leading all backs in yardage after the initial hit in 2005.
He's a bigger factor in the passing game than Shaun Alexander and a year younger, but past durability issues make him more of a risk – even if he has been healthy the last two seasons. He's going to be looking for a deal at least commensurate to Alexander's deal, which means something in the neighborhood of $15 million to $20 million in the first year, and at least $25 million paid in the first three years of a pact.
4. Rocky Bernard, DT, Seattle Seahawks – After three years as a backup, Bernard materialized as an impact player last season, finally seizing a starting spot in his ninth game. Bernard had 8½ sacks in 16 regular-season games and two more sacks in the NFC championship win over the Carolina Panthers. He's precisely the kind of free agent that teams covet – he's young (turning 27 in April) and getting better. He's quick off the ball and athletic, but the 6-foot-3, 293-pound Bernard will have to be paired with another big tackle to balance out his own size issues against the run.
5. LeCharles Bentley, C, New Orleans Saints – Another nice young player (he doesn't turn 27 until November) who is a Pro Bowl-caliber center. What's more, he's getting better and offers flexibility with his experience at the guard position. He has a little nastiness to him, too. A center isn't exactly a sexy free-agent pickup, but consider this about Bentley's talent and age – if he were a tackle, he'd be the No. 1 free agent this offseason.
6. Jamal Lewis, RB, Baltimore Ravens – It's hard to know which Jamal Lewis teams will be getting for their money. Is he the guy with injury issues who seemed to be protecting himself last season while feuding with the Ravens over his contract? Or is he the punishing superstar runner of 2002 and 2003 who often looked unstoppable?
The bottom line: Lewis looks like he could be dominant, but his legal issues in 2004 and suspected half-hearted effort in 2005 raise plenty of character concerns. But he doesn't turn 27 until August, and there have been other running backs who rebounded from similar issues (see: Corey Dillon).
7. Charles Woodson, CB, Oakland Raiders – Once considered a shut-down corner, Woodson has really lost his luster over the last few seasons. But there are some personnel people who think Woodson just needs a change of scenery and a defense a little more talent-rich than Oakland has been over the last two years. It helps that he has demonstrated that he can play both corner and free safety. He's no longer young (he turns 30 in October), but for the right team, he could reclaim his Pro Bowl stature.
8. Aaron Kampman, DE, Green Bay Packers – With New York Jets defensive end John Abraham off the market, Darren Howard of the New Orleans Saints would seem to be the next best option. But Kampman gets the edge for being younger (26 to Howard's 29) and showing that he's still getting better. Plus, he gives some added flexibility to teams by having the ability to roll inside and play defensive tackle in spots. He's not going to blow anybody away, but Kampman could spend the next six years as a nice eight-sack defensive end who can play every down.
9. Will Witherspoon, OLB, Carolina Panthers – Witherspoon is young (he turns 26 in August) and can add speed to the linebacker mix of whichever team signs him. He's fast enough to handle his own in coverage, and can cover the field against the run. And although he's been a tad inconsistent – the Panthers grumbled a bit about his slow start last season – his last two years make him the best option beyond Julian Peterson. He's probably cheaper, too.
10. Adam Vinatieri, K, New England Patriots – Vinatieri turns 34 at the end of next season, but he could have five dependable years left in him. Obviously, Vinatieri has the reputation of being money when the game is on the line, but he never has had a huge leg, converting only eight field goals of 50-plus yards over the last 10 seasons. He has missed his last four 50-plus attempts since 2003. Still, he has iced two Super Bowl victories with his leg and is great in the pressure cooker. That makes him perfect for potential playoff teams with shaky kicking games (hello, Dallas Cowboys?).