Top 30 free agents in class of 2011

Peyton Manning

Could one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of the NFL and one of the most talented in the league’s history become free agents at the same time?

The possibility of Peyton Manning(notes) and/or Michael Vick(notes) hitting free agency this offseason is highly unlikely. In all likelihood, Manning and Vick will either sign new contracts or receive the franchise tag (either the exclusive or non-exclusive designation). Still, this could be a banner year for the free-agent market … depending on many factors.

Looking ahead to the free-agent class of 2011 is a precarious issue because of the lack of a collective bargaining agreement. There are a number of labor related scenarios that could happen:

First, owners could follow through on their threat to lock out players, meaning that free agency wouldn’t begin until a new agreement was negotiated. Even then, players could put a wrench in that if they were allowed to decertify the union.

Second, owners could continue to negotiate with players during the offseason, using the current rules (no salary cap and six years to unrestricted free agency) of the CBA until either a new agreement is reached or there is impasse (in which case the owners could invoke their last offer).

Third, there could be a strike.

Fourth, the sides could reach an agreement by March, which would likely mean a system similar to the previous rules (a salary cap and four years to unrestricted free agency).

With that in mind, here’s a look at the top potential free agents broken into three categories. The first is the players with at least six years, who will almost assuredly be unrestricted free agents regardless of what happens with the CBA. Then there is a list of players with five years experience and with four years experience.

Under the previous rules, players in all three categories would have a shot at unrestricted free agency:

SIX-YEAR (OR MORE) CLUB

1. QB Peyton Manning – He can name his price with the Colts and he will (Manning doesn’t do discounts). The worst-case scenario is that he gets slapped with the exclusive franchise tag.

2. QB Michael Vick – Vick and agent Joel Segal are dreaming about a $15 million a year deal. Based on Vick’s play, he’s worth it. Based on his past, yikes. This is going to be a tough one, meaning the franchise tag is probably coming.

Mankins

3. G Logan Mankins(notes) – Great offensive linemen don’t often get to free agency. When they do, they’re expensive. Mankins could be the first interior lineman to make $10 million per year.

4. WR Vincent Jackson(notes) – San Diego’s passing game without him and his off-field issues will give teams reason for pause. When they actually see him and talk to him, they’ll pay. He can ball and he’s very bright. More than $9 million a year is a lock.

5. DL Richard Seymour(notes) – Somebody is going to pay handsomely for the 31-year-old Seymour, who is having a terrific season. He’s really good, but has a tendency to play on cruise control.

6. CB Ike Taylor(notes) – When cornerbacks hit the market, they get paid. That’s just the way it is. Taylor, 30, isn’t great (11 picks in eight seasons), but he’s a good one and he can run.

7. LB Barrett Ruud(notes) – Ruud was miffed in training camp when Tampa Bay extended LT Donald Penn(notes) before they extended him. Sorry, Barrett, but that’s the reality of left tackles and inside linebackers. Ruud is very good and still young, but he would be best served re-signing with a team that knows his limitations.

Bailey

8. WR Randy Moss(notes) – His value on the open market is going to be interesting. Is a team going to pay a lot on the belief he’ll play to the big deal or will the 33-year-old receiver be forced to play on a make-good contract?

9. CB Champ Bailey(notes) – Again, cornerbacks get paid and there is little question that Champ Bailey is better than Taylor. However, Bailey is two years older and has had a run of nagging injuries.

10. WR Terrell Owens(notes) – At 35, Owens is proving he can still put up great numbers. Whether he can help a team win is debatable. Then again, it’s hard to blame him when he plays for the Bangles.

Other notables: WR Braylon Edwards, LB Shawne Merriman, RB Cedric Benson(notes), S Quintin Mikell(notes), OT Matt Light(notes), DT Pat Williams(notes) and RB Ricky Williams(notes).

FIVE-YEAR CLUB

1. CB Johnathan Joseph(notes) – Don’t expect a down year by the Bengals defense to impact Joseph’s value. The franchise tag beckons for a guy who can both cover and lay the wood.

Ngata

2. NT Haloti Ngata(notes) – Pure beast. He’s one of those rare players you look at and say, “How in the world do I attack that?” He also picked a good year to have nearly as many sacks (five in nine games) as he had in his first four years (6.5).

3. LB Tamba Hali(notes) – He’s not only one of the great stories of the NFL (his escape from his native Liberia is the stuff of movies), but he’s a very good pass rusher having a great year. Emphasis on “very good.” He’s not great, but even “very good” pass rushers get paid.

4. DE Ray Edwards(notes) – Where Hali has to be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, Edwards is purely a left defensive end in a 4-3. There’s nothing wrong with that, but he’s more of a complementary piece than a guy who stirs the drink.

5. LB Chad Greenway(notes) – An absolute tackling machine. Has 92 in the first nine games this season. Has also shown pass rush skill in the past with 5.5 sacks in 2008.

6. DL/LB Mathias Kiwanuka(notes) – After getting four sacks in the first three games, Kiwanuka suffered a herniated disc in his neck. This is an example of why free agency needs to be after four years. It would be a shame if he’s healthy and gets stuck as a restricted free agent.

Williams

7. RB DeAngelo Williams(notes) – He had one magnificent season with 1,515 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns scored in 2008. He’s out for the rest of this season (he played in six games) with a foot sprain. Will have to be healthy to get paid.

8. G Davin Joseph(notes) – He’s a very good guard, but a notch below Logan Mankins. He’s the type of player who gets paid because of scarcity, not necessarily talent. On the open market, he’ll do very well, perhaps as much as $8 million a year.

9. TE Marcedes Lewis(notes) – Picked a great year to realize his vast talent. But tight ends generally don’t get paid and he could be heading for the franchise tag with the penurious Jags.

10. TE Owen Daniels(notes) – Before his knee injury, he was a pass-catching machine bound for elite status. The return has been slow and painful.

Other notable: WR Santonio Holmes.

FOUR-YEAR CLUB

1. LB LaMarr Woodley(notes) – Critics say he’s not great against the run or in coverage. But when you’re projected to average more than 10 sacks in three straight seasons, you get paid. That’s the bottom line.

2. LB David Harris(notes) – Stout, sure-tackler with just enough pass rush ability from the inside to be dangerous. He’s going to make some serious money soon.

Smith

3. CB Eric Wright(notes) – Like Ike Taylor, Wright is a good corner at a time when even the very good become the very rich (See: Robinson, Dunta). Wright has better ball-hawking skills than Taylor, so that will put him at a higher premium.

4. WR Steve Smith – The Giants’ version is an incredibly versatile wideout, capable of being a terrific third-down guy and a good deep threat. Great hands, great route runner.

5. TE Zach Miller – Always good, but is having a career year now that the Raiders offense is competent.

6. WR Sidney Rice(notes) – Sitting out the year won’t hurt him as much as some might believe. He’s a monster target and a big-play threat. Another guy likely to be franchised.

7. RB Ahmad Bradshaw(notes) – The little back that could. He plays extraordinarily hard and can hit big plays if defenses aren’t careful. He has a bad attitude, but that’s part of his talent.

Goldson

8. OT Doug Free(notes) – Workmanlike left tackle who will never look like much under the eyeball test. But he can play and competent offensive linemen get paid.

9. S Eric Weddle(notes) – Some people prefer Dashon Goldson(notes), but Weddle has been more consistent. Probably will never be a star, but he’s the glue of a defense.

10. S Dashon Goldson – Has flashed ball-hawking skills and is considered very bright.

Other notables: LB Stewart Bradley(notes), DL Paul Soliai(notes), LB Paul Posluszny(notes), TE Kevin Boss(notes).