Put Peyton Manning aside for the moment. Every year when free agency begins, there is a market-setting deal that gets the ball rolling. Who will be the player who kicks off the 2012 free-agency period and where will he go?
Smaller names like Wright, Robinson will go firstA couple of less-talked-about players could come off the board pretty quickly. Corner Eric Wright, coming off a strong season in Detroit on a prove-it contract, will be in demand and could go quickly. Receiver Laurent Robinson will attract quite a crowd, as well. Dallas wants to keep him, but if he ends up somewhere around $6 million a season, that could be too rich for the Cowboys, given some other needs and the cap punishment handed down by the league.
San Francisco could well retain Alex Smith, as well as corner Carlos Rogers, but in terms of guys switching teams quickly, Robinson and Wright are in that group. The Rams, Titans and Cowboys are among the teams looking at corners, while the Buccaneers, Jags and Jets are among the teams in that second-tier receiver market.
The heavy hitters -- Mario Williams, Carl Nicks, Vincent Jackson -- could end up taking a visit or two before signing. Of that trio, however, Nicks would be my guess as someone to maybe sign more quickly.
And while the quarterback market for Matt Flynn should be robust enough, the lingering Peyton Manning courtship could obviously delay Flynn from putting pen to paper.
Bears will be hot for Williams, but watch Jags closelyMario Williams is about to make the big splash and it could very well be with the team that doled out huge bucks to a similar free-agent pass rusher a few years back: the Chicago Bears.
The Bears lavished the loot on Julius Peppers and are in the market to find him a short-term partner and eventual heir.
A team to keep an eye on in the Williams sweepstakes is Jacksonville, currently void of a pass rush. There are people in the building who want him and he could be the splash signing new owner Shahid Khan seeks. Williams also would get to face his former team, Houston, twice a season.
Keys to Carr? Broncos will make the moveMario Williams is the obvious choice, but that may take some time. So my vote is CB Brandon Carr.
Carr is young and plays a money position. The Bears have a need at CB and cash to spend. Detroit has a crucial need there, too, but it would need some creativity to get it done. The Seattle Seahawks have the space and the need, as well.
But my vote goes to the Denver Broncos. The defense could have Champ Bailiey on one side and Carr on the other to go along with the pass rush of Von Miller and Elvis Dumervil. These are the basics of a good defense that can certainly play with a lead if Peyton Manning becomes their QB.
Falcons will nab the crown jewel of the class in WilliamsPass rushers are the apple of every GM's eye (after quarterbacks, of course). So let's get ready to back up the Brink's truck to Mario Williams' house.
Williams knows how to get to the passer, can be terrific in any system (five sacks in five games as an OLB in a 3-4 last season) and is still hitting his prime as a player.
As for where Williams goes, he'll have plenty of options. But I said it before and I'll say it again: The Atlanta Falcons will get him. Get ready for Super Mario, Falcons fans.
Niners-Smith deal will happen fast, impact Flynn's contractAlthough he might not be the sexy name in free agency, Alex Smith's situation is intriguing. He could very well be one of the first major starters to sign.
The bigger question: How will Smith's deal impact Matt Flynn? Smith has 66 starts to his name. Flynn has two. The average person on the street expects Flynn to get a much bigger contract than the 49ers starter. But that shouldn't happen. Look no further than the Rob Johnson and Kevin Kolb deals. Both are guys who were paid big money based off a very small catalogue of games. Will a team similarly offer Flynn far more money than the Niners pay Smith to land Flynn's potential?
Seahawks will strike with quick 1-2 punchGet ready for the Great Blazing Checkbook of the Pacific Northwest. While last week Seattle was primed for Peyton Manning, they were jolted back into reality by not even being a player for the QB. But now? It's going to be different.
Mario Williams is by far the most marquee, impact player both from a production and age standpoint. His versatility makes him even more attractive. The Seahawks already made moves to free up enough money and clear out the position so they could go get him when the fury begins. I don't see Seattle coming in second on this one. The Seahawks are ready to spend, and Williams has been in their crosshairs for a while now.
I don't think they stop there, either. Seattle's GM was in Green Bay when the Packers drafted Matt Flynn, and with Flynn's price tag likely not as steep as was expected earlier this offseason, I can see the Seahawks hitting everyone with a 1-2 punch of signing both players early on.
Bears will target Williams, not JacksonWait, Randy Moss already kicked things off with his landmark deal in San Francisco! But Moss aside, Mario Williams will be the first big-name free agent to come off the board when we hit the ground running. Many teams should be interested in his services, including Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle. But I truly believe the Bears are going to put together a very competitive package, and the idea of playing alongside of Julius Peppers will be too much temptation for him to overcome.
This will likely take the Bears out of the Vincent Jackson bidding, but the team could end up drafting Michael Floyd to address a glaring need at receiver.