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Eight trends that will impact free agency market

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INDIANAPOLIS -- NFL teams reveal what they value in free agency before it even starts.

If a player can win on third down, he probably won't make it to the market. Pass rushers who can wreak havoc are protected like endangered wildlife. Offensive tackles who start and avoid comparisons to turnstiles get re-signed.

With just a few days left before free agency kicks off, a few other trends have emerged. Teams with a need at running back, cornerback or wide receiver will have options. Teams searching for a quarterback or needing someone to fly off the edge may have to wait for the draft.

After listening to coaches and general managers all week at the NFL Scouting Combine, here's a look at some of the big-picture developments to expect in the 2017 free-agent market:

Cornerbacks will get paid

No position has a greater supply and demand than cornerback this year. It's a premium position, which is why the Los Angeles Rams felt compelled to spend $16.7 million on a franchise tag for Trumaine Johnson, a mid-level starter. According to Cardinals general manager Steve Keim, cornerback is one of three positions that he believes traditionally are difficult to address in free agency.

"The ones that are hard to find: Left tackle, cornerback, quarterback," Keim said. "Those positions are so hard to find that when you are allocating your money and looking at the big picture, how are you going to divide that money up? If you are going to spend excess money, to me, you spend it on the guys that are hard to find."

Keim needs cornerbacks and has a solid crop of players to choose from. Top-shelf talent, such as Stephon Gilmore and A.J. Bouye will get huge bucks, but there is a healthy second tier of starters, too, including Dre Kirkpatrick, Logan Ryan, Prince Amukamura and Morris Claiborne, among others. Arizona Coach Bruce Arians indicated that Cardinals cornerback Marcus Cooper was set for a big payday, a sign that even lesser names will get money. Keim noted that versatility in today's NFL, where you need hybrid players to match up inside and outside, gives players extra value. That's one reason why we ranked Packers jack-of-all-trades defensive back Micah Hyde so high in our Top 101 Free Agents list.

Teams feel more comfortable paying cornerbacks, in part, because they transcend scheme easily. Arians believes that running backs and defensive backs face the smoothest transition from college to the pros because their roles are similar at both levels. The quick success of young running backs certainly won't help this year's older runners get paid in the open market.

Veteran running backs could be disappointed

The decline in salary for veteran running backs is hardly a new trend, but market forces are dramatically working against running backs this year.

As noted in Thursday's winners and losers edition of the Debrief, the release of Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles adds to an already deep group of free-agent running backs. The Vikings can hold the line on paying Peterson like a superstar because they know the draft can supplement the depth chart.

"It's one of the best running back classes in a long time," Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said.

Bengals Personnel Chief Duke Tobin agreed: "It's an exciting year for that position. Not only at the top of the draft [but] in every round."

Ezekiel Elliott's fast success is a reminder that premium running backs can make a huge impact and are worth first-round selections. However, all of that talent arriving in April will keep prices low for big-name veterans in March.

Few edge rushers

Carolina's early contract extension for little known defensive end Mario Addison was a bellwether move. Addison would have been one of the most compelling young pass rushers in free agency, so the Panthers showed foresight by preventing him from making it to free agency.

Franchise tags for Jason Pierre-Paul and Melvin Ingram highlighted the paucity of options available. The best edge rushers on our Top 101 list include Nick Perry, Jabaal Sheard and Andre Branch. Teams desperate for help can take a chance on older one-year solutions, such as DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney.

On the plus side, general managers routinely praised the depth and top-end talent of this rookie class of quarterback hunters. Tobin said it's one of the hardest positions to evaluate, but also one of the positions his team needs to focus on the most. It appears the draft will be the route most teams take to beef up their edge rusher positions.

Wide receivers available in all shapes and sizes

Chiefs general manager John Dorsey praised the depth of this rookie receiver class, a common sentiment throughout the week. The depth and variety of the free-agent crop is also better than it is at most positions. There are young players just hitting their prime (Alshon Jeffery and Terrelle Pryor), proven deep threats (DeSean Jackson and Kenny Stills) and trusty veteran chain-movers (Brandon Marshall and Pierre Garcon). There are also intriguing young players with red flags, such as Kendall Wright and Michael Floyd, who will get second chances. Similar to the pass rushers, there is good depth at wideout in free agency and the draft.

QB market could take time to shake out

Hurry up and wait. That could be the attitude for teams in need of a veteran quarterback this offseason. While players such as Mike Glennon should be signed quickly, the situations surrounding Tyrod Taylor, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo, AJ McCarron, Jay Cutler and Jimmy Garoppolo could take more time to shake out. Remember that Peyton Manning didn't sign with the Broncos for a full week after free agency started.

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport's Friday bombshell that Kirk Cousins could wind up in San Francisco while Tony Romo headed to Washington will only add gas to the fire in the coming days. So many big names and possible landing spots are at play!

The conventional wisdom is that Garoppolo and McCarron won't be dealt because their price tags are too high, but the Cousins trade talk shows how quickly things can change. Once one big-name quarterback changes teams, there's no telling how the other dominoes could crash into one another.

Watch the Patriots and Packers

Green Bay is going to be busy over the next month, whether Packers GM Ted Thompson likes it or not. So will the Patriots, who combined with the Packers, account for 11 of our top 35 players available overall. Green Bay has nine players in our Top 101 free agents list, while New England has eight. No other team has more than five.

As Patriots tight end (and impending free agent) Martellus Bennett put it, teams love to "overpay" for championship experience. That could create an incredible amount of turnover in Foxborough, something coach Bill Belichick embraces. It will make it easier for him to convince the 2017 Patriots they are starting from scratch again.

Similarly, Thompson didn't seem to be sweating all of the uncertainty in Green Bay.

"You guys have watched the guys we've signed," Thompson said. "Over the years, we've probably signed several right at the start of free agency. My guess is that's what's going to happen."

There is optimism that guard T.J. Lang could return to Green Bay, with coach Mike McCarthy blanching at the idea that Lang could be an ex-Packer. Center J.C. Tretter sounds less likely to be back, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

A league-wide offensive tackle problem

There is an offensive tackle epidemic plaguing the NFL. Practically half of the teams in the league are looking for help, and there are precious few quality options available in this year's draft.

"The last three years it was pretty strong. Not so strong this year," Panthers GM Dave Gettleman said about this year's tackle prospects.

That lack of talent is exacerbated by the struggle to develop tackles in the NFL. Plenty of ink has been spilled about the difficulty in converting spread quarterbacks to pro-style offenses, but it is just as jarring a transition for offensive tackles. Bruce Arians explained the dilemma well this week.

"I go with D.J. Humphries," Arians said of his 2015 first-round draft pick. "I loved him coming out (of Florida). We knew what we were getting, a very young guy who had very little skill set and a lot of athleticism. It took him a year to get the skill set. We knew he had the heart. To take these guys and teach them how to play, to hear a play in the huddle and decipher the information, to go up and get down in a stance, to run block that way, to get off on a hard count. It's very hard for these guys. They struggle all spring and a lot of times, they really struggle in training camp because that's the first time they've put on pads and actually hit anybody (in the NFL). That's a problem with our game, we just don't get to practice enough in pads with these young kids."

This is a weak group of college tackles that will mostly need time to transition to the NFL. That should drive up prices for free agent tackles, but who can teams even spend on? Average starters, such as Riley Reiff and Rick Wagner, could be paid like superstars. Veterans like Russell Okung, Ryan Clady, Kelvin Beachum and Matt Kalil won't come at a discount despite injury risks and shaky play.

Arians said that he would change his approach by allowing more contact and tackling in minicamp and training camp, in part to get players ready faster. But that won't solve the offensive tackle problem on its own. In the meantime, some questionable players will be paid a lot of money because teams don't have any other options. They have to spend that cap room somewhere ...

Unchartered territory with cap room

The most common question I heard in Indianapolis from executives: What will teams do with all of this cap space?

One theory: All of the cap space will encourage more trading. There aren't great free agents available, but teams should have more salary flexibility to take on big contracts in trades, or deal for players wanting new contracts.

According to OvertheCap.com, 12 teams have more than $40 million in cap space. Even after applying franchise tags, just nine teams have less than $20 million to spend. In short: the salary cap shouldn't get in the way of teams accomplishing their goals this offseason. This is a dramatic change from where the league was just a few years ago. But will teams be willing to rewrite the pay scales on these players?

There are fewer quality players about to hit free agency than ever before because teams have done a better job re-signing their own talent. All this cap space with so few top-level players available will test the discipline of general managers. That's an explosive recipe for megadeals that will have agents and players smiling wide.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.
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