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Free agency 2012: Peyton leads a big class

Peyton Manning is a free man. Drew Brees is not.

A week after a record 21 players were given franchise tags - only Saints star quarterback Brees got an exclusive tag and can't even talk to other teams - the NFL's free agency free-for-all begins. And it will be crazy.

For teams willing to part with two first-round draft picks, such game-changers as Ray Rice, Wes Welker and Matt Forte are available. For those looking just to spend money to acquire new talent, Saints starters Marques Colston and All-Pro guard Carl Nicks are on the market. So is highly touted quarterback Matt Flynn, who doesn't seem to have much future in Green Bay behind Aaron Rodgers.

And for teams ready to gamble, there is four-time MVP Manning.

"I have no idea who wants me, what team wants me, how this process works," Manning said after being released by the Indianapolis Colts, who are rebuilding, uncertain about his health after four neck surgeries, and have a $28 million roster bonus remaining in their bank account by cutting Manning. "I mean, this is all so new to me."

Manning can even sign before free agency opens Tuesday because he was released. Already, cornerback Stanford Routt took that route, joining the Chiefs for a three-year, $19.6 million deal soon after he was cut by Oakland.

This could be the wildest free agency period in years. Coming off the 2010 season that had no salary cap and different free agent rules, then the lockout and a condensed bidding war, the marketplace is crowded. Many of those available figure to be backups: quarterbacks Chad Henne and Rex Grossman, running back Ronnie Brown, defensive back Pacman Jones, for example.

But there are quality players with starting potential, even Super Bowl credentials - such as Giants receiver Mario Manningham and Colts wideout Reggie Wayne - who could wind up wherever Manning goes.

"I want to be here," Manningham said of remaining with the Giants after his star turn in the Super Bowl. But he would be the No. 3 receiver in the Meadowlands behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. "I feel like we can do a lot of damage in these next four, five years. That's just how I feel, because we're all young. ... It's not up to me, I want to stay. It's a business, too. You've got to look at it like that, too. You got to look out for your family, that's how it is."

One player expected to be franchise-tagged who wasn't and could draw interest is Chargers wideout Vincent Jackson. Another is Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, who will cost one first-rounder because he is a restricted free agent. Pittsburgh also has the right to match any offer to the speedy Wallace.

If your secondary is leaky, cornerbacks Brandon Carr of the Chiefs and Carlos Rogers of the Lions can help patch it.

Perhaps the most intriguing free agents, aside from Manning, also are coming off injuries. Mario Williams, the outstanding defensive end in Houston who was making a strong transition to linebacker in a 3-4 alignment, missed the final 11 games with a torn chest muscle. Center Dan Koppen, the glue for New England's offensive line for several years, was out for all but the opening game, but is better than more than half the incumbents around the league.

Looking for veteran leadership from likely Hall of Famers nearing the end of the NFL road? There's LaDainian Tomlinson, Brian Dawkins and Hines Ward.

Looking for headaches from likely Hall of Famers nearing the end of the NFL road? There's Randy Moss and Terrell Owens.

Plenty of offensive linemen become less anonymous during free agency as they are coveted to solidify blocking units. Centers Scott Wells of Green Bay and Chris Myers of Houston, guard Ben Grubbs of Baltimore and the Saints' Nicks figure to make out best.

And there are potential bargains, players who won't command top dollar and will be dependable contributors: Jets nose tackle Sione Pouha, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and linebacker Barrett Ruud, Colts receiver Pierre Garcon and tight end Jacob Tamme, Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Chiefs RB Jackie Battle, and Panthers linebacker Dan Connor.

Quite a few free agents simply need a chance of scenery, including running backs Cedric Benson of Cincinnati, Michael Bush of Oakland and Peyton Hillis of Cleveland.

As always, quarterbacks command most of the attention. San Francisco still is haggling over contract numbers for Alex Smith, whose superb 2011 season and rapport with NFL Coach of the Year Jim Harbaugh makes it logical he will re-sign with the 49ers.

Kyle Orton has been a decent, sometimes impressive stopgap in several places and is available again. Jason Campbell had the Raiders in contention before a broken collarbone sidelined him for two months.

Then there is Flynn, who has been superb in his infrequent stints when Aaron Rodgers was either hurt or rested. Several teams hungry for a new starter must figure out if Flynn has shown enough to command big bucks - and a starting role.

Surprisingly, considering what he has meant to the Saints and to New Orleans in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, Brees' contract situation remains unsettled as free agency approaches. He won't be leaving the Big Easy, but finding a salary that works for both the record-setting quarterback and the team has proven quite difficult.

New Orleans used the exclusive franchise tag on the 2011 NFL Offensive Player of the Year, meaning he can only negotiate with the Saints. The sides are millions of dollars apart and Brees has the option to sit out offseason workouts if a deal isn't reached.

Meanwhile, he can watch hundreds of other contracts finalized.

Let the feeding frenzy begin.

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