Inside Slant  


Ten quick thoughts as league year kicks off with free agency


It's finally here.

NFL free agency kicks off this afternoon when the league year officially begins. Trades become official, teams must be fully cap compliant -- see the cap figures here -- and, come 4 p.m. ET, players will begin visiting and signing with teams. Oh, and the Peyton Manning sweepstakes rages on, while the New Orleans Saints' bounty penalties may just be a few days away. Quite a week for football ... and it's only March.

So, without further ado, here are 10 quick thoughts on all of the activity swirling around the NFL right now:

• How many true blockbuster deals will be consummated? Not as many as you'd think. The cream of this crop is pretty shallow, and even with the top guys, is anyone due to become the highest-paid at his position? Mario Williams has a chance to join the truly elite, and a pairing with Julius Peppers in Chicago is possible, but will he make more than DeMarcus Ware? Vincent Jackson is not going to get Andre Johnson/Larry Fitzgerald money, I don't believe. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees will do quite well, eventually, but without a plethora of stud tackles, pass rushers, shutdown corners or quarterbacks on the market, there may not be as many megadeals as we've come to expect.

• Sleeper name to remember in free agency: Josh Morgan. Although three big-name receivers were franchised before they could hit the open market (Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe and DeSean Jackson), this is still a pretty solid class of free-agent receivers. And one player who will do very well is Morgan. He is coming off injury, but he has speed and has shown flashes of greatness with the San Francisco 49ers. Teams like the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are sitting on a ton of cap space and need young pass catchers. Eddie Royal will attract a crowd, as well, with his special-teams prowess a big asset. The Washington Redskins are a natural fit. Despite the money the Buffalo Bills gave Stevie Johnson, I'm told they will explore Vincent Jackson and other high-end receivers. If Jackson's market turns out to be slightly soft from a money standpoint, don't rule out a return to San Diego.

• It's a good year to be a mediocre offensive lineman. It's a ripe possibility that teams will overpay across the line, with little elite talent available and plenty of teams needing help up front. (Many of those teams just happen to be sitting on oodles of cap space, as well.) Besides the two top guards available -- Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs, who are both young and healthy -- there are some buyer-beware signs with this crop. At tackle, it's pretty thin. Levi Brown is the best available, and Demetrius Bell is well positioned, too. If the Chargers can't get something done with Jared Gaither, I bet he does pretty well out there, too, despite injury issues the past few years.

• Restricted free agents will stay restricted. We spent a lot of time talking about the possibility of a restricted free agent getting plundered, particularly Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace. Don't think it'll happen, though. The Baltimore Ravens have decided against it, and it would be tough cap-wise for the New England Patriots to pull off the kind of offer sheet necessary. The Bengals have other needs. San Francisco would be the team I'd fear most if I was in Pittsburgh's front office between now and the April 20 deadline to sign a restricted free agent, but the Niners just signed Randy Moss as a vertical threat. When push comes to shove, I suspect the Steelers are OK. The history of restricted free agency would indicate not much action, and even though the first-and-third tender no longer exists, I predict it'll remain a quiet market.

• I still see the Manning hunt coming down to the two teams whose facilities Peyton has actually visited: the Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals. Manning spent six hours with the Miami Dolphins on Monday, but the meeting took place in Indianapolis. And it's tough to envision a rookie head coach (Joe Philbin) who has never called plays being the closer on this deal, given all of the high-level interaction Manning had in Denver and Arizona. Meanwhile, the Tennessee Titans are trying to line up an appointment with Manning, possibly in Houston (owner Bud Adams' hometown). The Titans, to me, would be more intriguing to Manning than the Dolphins, but as long as the Broncos and/or Cardinals are willing to do the kind of deal Peyton wants -- perhaps without him having to throw a pass -- you have to like their chances. If the 49ers and/or Houston Texans ever really jumped all-in, then they'd go to the head of the class, but I don't get the feeling either team will go about it that way.

• Kevin Kolb could be right back where he was a year ago, hoping teams like the Seattle Seahawks and Cleveland Browns are interested. He could fall somewhere between Matt Flynn and Ryan Tannehill on the West Coast QB depth chart. If the Cards do land Manning, it could be pretty difficult for them to find a trade partner for Kolb by Saturday's roster-bonus deadline. The reality is Arizona is willing to walk away from him at this point and isn't committed to him long-term, and anything short of a huge 2012 breakthrough won't change that. If he does begin next season as the starter, he won't be on a long leash, given how the team closed under John Skelton.

• Someone from the second tier of the quarterback market is going to end up starting plenty of games in 2012. Whether it's Jason Campbell or Kyle Orton -- and those would be the first two guys I'd tap from that group -- one of these overlooked signal callers will become a team's next starting quarterback, through injury or poor play by the current No. 1. Several agents will look to line up something with the Jacksonville Jaguars, given Blaine Gabbert's struggles his rookie season.

• Speaking of the Jags, several people I spoke to around the league are watching closely to see how big they go in free agency. They have all kinds of cap room and new owner Shahid Khan could end up being more aggressive than the franchise normally has been. Pass rusher is a huge need, and some believe the Jags could be sniffing around Mario Williams. (If they do land an edge player, Aaron Kampman's return is in jeopardy.) They definitely will be shopping for a starter-caliber receiver, if not a top-of-the-market guy. General manager Gene Smith has been draft-based and is huge on character guys.

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• Don't overlook some of the moves teams make just prior to the deadline to be cap compliant. These actions are often more significant than the deals that follow. Two situations to follow closely are the Detroit Lions and Calvin Johnson, and the Indianapolis Colts and Dwight Freeney. Both situations present huge cap numbers to sort through with one year left on each existing contract. Detroit is working hard to get an extension done with Johnson that will not only secure his services long-term, but also free up much-needed cap space to keep players like LB Stephen Tulloch (and allow for a move or two from the outside). The Colts will have a tough time finding fair value for Freeney, given the purge going on there and the limitations of his current contract.

• This week could mark the end of an era, at least to some degree. Remember, a year from now teams have to start spending 90 percent of the cap number in actual dollars, and the cap is also set to rise big time when the new TV money starts kicking in. Teams will have to spend that money somewhere, and with franchise tags so affordable, the best talent won't ever hit the market. There will be more incentive than ever before for teams to extend their players, and clubs that otherwise used to sit on their hands will be forced to eat into that cap space. The best players in the mid-20s, already a dying breed in terms of unrestricted free agency, are likely to become even rarer in years to come. The guys who do hit the market before their third contract increasingly will have issues with injury, attitude, off-field problems, etc.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora



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