Analysis  

 

Position-by-position look at NFL's top free agents in 2012

David J. Phillip/Associated Press
QB Peyton Manning and DE/OLB Mario Williams (right) will be the two biggest prizes in free agency this offseason.

Free agency begins Tuesday and the list of available players will grow as teams look to reduce payroll to get under the salary cap. There will be some pretty solid players that become available, but none will have the big-name appeal of quarterback Peyton Manning. He actually could be off the market by the time free agency officially begins because he's free to sign wherever he wants right now.

Defensive end Mario Williams, wide receiver Vincent Jackson and cornerback Cortland Finnegan all look to land big deals on the open market unless their respective teams can come up with last-ditch solutions to retain them.

Let's take a position-by-position look at the top free agents. The pool is deep at wide receiver and along the defensive line, but there are few tight ends or linebackers who will draw much attention.

Quarterback

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Peyton Manning: If his health checks out, he could make the Jets, Dolphins, Cardinals, Seahawks or Broncos immediate Super Bowl contenders. None of those team will get Manning without giving him everything he needs to do his thing.

Matt Flynn: Aaron Rodgers' backup could be the consolation prize for whoever doesn't get Manning, although some teams may opt to draft Robert Griffin III instead.

Alex Smith: He's staying in San Francisco. They like him and they can get him at a decent price because there's not a huge demand on the open market.

Jason Campbell: A perfect fit to back up Matt Cassel in Kansas City or Mark Sanchez in New York. He could step in and win if either gets hurt or falters.

Kyle Orton: Might he be Andrew Luck's backup in Indy? Could be a smart move for a franchise that got caught with its pants down when Manning was hurt.

Running Back

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Michael Bush: Bush is a capable starter and might be a nice fit in Cincinnati, where Cedric Benson won't be re-signed.

Cedric Benson: Definitely a productive player who could best thrive in a rotational system. The Browns could be a good fit if they don't re-sign Peyton Hillis.

Mike Tolbert: A very reliable player who can do just about anything that's needed. He can't carry a running game, but he sure can enhance it.

Peyton Hillis: Injuries, flakiness and the inability to play through contract issues hurt him last season and really diminished his free-agent earning power. He went through more agents than tackles in the past year.

BenJarvus Green-Ellis: He's an understated grinder who fits what the Patriots do well. He won't command a huge salary, but he's fairly young and could be around for a while.

Wide Receiver

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Vincent Jackson: He's a threat at all levels and can make a quarterback's life much easier with his size. If he leaves San Diego, we'll see the difference in the Chargers' offense. He'll be one of the highest-paid free agents on the market.

Reggie Wayne: At 33, he's not a long-term answer, but he's someone who can help a contender that needs a sure-handed red-zone threat and someone who never seems to drop a pass near the sideline.

Marques Colston: There are questions whether this highly productive possession receiver is a product of the Saints' offense. That's his best fit. If he leaves, he should not be counted on to be an elite No. 1 target. Still, he's one of the most underrated players in the NFL.

Brandon Lloyd: A big-play threat who has really come into his own the past few seasons. He can work in just about any system.

Mario Manningham: The Super Bowl hero has made some huge catches, but he's also dropped his share of balls. A nice No. 2, but not a player teams will pay big money. He's never eclipsed 1,000 yards in a season, and his career high in catches is 60 (in 2010).

Tight End

Visanthe Shiancoe: The former Vikings standout is a little long in the tooth, but he's the best in a group of situational tight ends.

Martellus Bennett: Bennett is loaded with talent, but he failed to distinguish himself in Dallas. He could have the chance to join his brother Michael in Tampa Bay.

Joel Dreessen: Dreessen is a nice fit with the multi-tight end/H-back sets the Texans use. Sticking in Houston seems like a win-win.

Jeremy Shockey: With 13 starts and four TDs last season in Carolina, Shockey had to be accounted for. But the 10-year vet only managed 37 receptions. He's a luxury, but still has some game left.

Offensive Line

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Carl Nicks: Nicks is a man and guards have become increasingly valuable in this free-agent group that is light on dominant tackles. He'll be one of the highest-paid players in free agency, and he's an immediate upgrade for any offense.

Chris Myers: The Texans center is one of the best in the NFL and there are some teams in serious need. Houston will miss him big time if it fails to re-sign him.

Jared Gaither: The mercurial tackle really played well with the Chargers. A lot of questions could limit his market appeal, which is good for San Diego because it needs to re-sign him to its banged-up offensive line.

Scott Wells: The Packers center is a very solid player whom Green Bay wants to retain, but not at a high price. The Pack could favor Myers should it lose Wells.

Ben Grubbs: The Ravens guard is a very nice player who could be a casualty of Baltimore investing sizeable bucks in fellow guard Marshal Yanda. Losing Grubbs would be a big blow.

Defensive Line

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Mario Williams: The cream of the defensive free-agent crop. The Texans don't want to lose the pass rusher they chose first overall in 2006, but they might not be able to compete if a big-spending team with boatloads of cap space targets Williams.

Paul Soliai: The Dolphins nose tackle is a solid player who could get snapped up quickly by a team like Kansas City, which has cap space to burn and could use a big plugger like Soliai.

Red Bryant: A combo end-tackle, Bryant is a huge part of a nice defensive front in Seattle. He is a very good player few people recognize.

John Abraham: Abraham will be 34 when the season starts and he's primarily a situational pass rusher, but he's a good one. The Falcons will see what the market dictates then come at him if the price isn't too high. Abraham's salary hopes could limit his options.

Jason Jones: The Titans defensive end/tackle will only be 26 when the season starts, and quickly he's developed into a solid player who could earn a surprisingly nice payday on the open market.

Linebacker

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Curtis Lofton: Lofton has been a rock in the middle for the Falcons, who would like to re-sign him if his price-tag doesn't get too high. Not great in coverage, but adequate enough for a nice run stuffer.

Stephen Tulloch: The stocky leader was solid last season with Detroit -- a strong leader whose fearlessness fits the Lions way of doing things. If he doesn't stay in Detroit, he could be good for a younger front seven.

London Fletcher: The ageless Fletcher has shown he can play the Mike in a 4-3 or in a 3-4. He's a key cog in Washington's solid defense, but could be a nice short-term fix for a team like Tampa Bay, which needs some leadership.

David Hawthorne: He's been productive and solid for the Seahawks as their defense has really come together. Hawthorne probably won't command top dollar, which is why Seattle should be able to retain him.

Defensive Back

Cortland Finnegan: The Titans' feisty corner could be bound for Dallas or Tampa Bay and finally receive the payday he's been seeking. Finnegan plays with an edge and a fresh start could be good for him, even though he seems like a fixture in Tennessee.

Brandon Carr: There are mixed feelings on Carr, but he had a nice season for the Chiefs, who signed Stanford Routt after he was released by Oakland. Carr is a solid starter and plays a well-paying position. He could land a lucrative deal.

LaRon Landry: Injuries have limited the hard-hitting safety the past two seasons, which will limit his ability to get a lot of guaranteed money. He could be a steal for a team like the Vikings.

Carlos Rogers: The talented cornerback finally put it together and had a Pro Bowl season after signing a one-year deal with San Francisco. The Niners are his best fit, but they won't break the bank to retain him.

Aaron Ross: The Giants cornerback played well in the Super Bowl season. New York is thin at CB and familiarity with Ross could prompt the team to work something out. Ross won't command a ton of loot, but if the Giants don't re-sign him, he is a starter that could help a lot of teams in need.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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