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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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Other notable: WR Santonio Holmes.
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.
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.
10. S Dashon Goldson – Has flashed ball-hawking skills and is considered very bright.