The franchise tag period sapped the 2012 free-agent class of much of its top talent. But that doesn't mean there won't be plenty of record-setting deals going down when players hit the open market next week. In fact, there will be players setting the market at their respective positions, as ample teams have cap space to burn.
It won't be the sexiest free-agent class we've seen, though, and some players who would typically have to wait until the second wave of the process will likely get better money earlier in the process. That's the trickle-down effect of so many players getting franchised.
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The franchise period essentially impacted 3/4 of the NFL. Twenty-one teams used the tag on a player, and then there were also the contract extensions of D'Qwell Jackson (Cleveland), Jermichael Finley (Green Bay), Marshawn Lynch (Seattle), Arian Foster (Houston) and Stevie Johnson (Buffalo), all of which were very much driven by the March 5 franchise deadline. (Robert Mathis was tagged by the Colts to beat that deadline, but the sides continued to work through a longer-term deal that was agreed to shortly thereafter.)
Only a small handful of teams were completely unaffected by the franchise deadline, with the Rams, Panthers, Steelers, Vikings, Chargers, Dolphins and Jets neither tagging a player nor signing someone who would have been tagged. Still, some highly notable players were left untagged, spicing up free agency in a major way.
•Mario Williams will be highly coveted and likely will earn more money than anyone else on the open market. He is a dominant pass rusher in his prime, and though he's coming off an injury, it's not a major deterrent. This is a former top overall pick who happens to play on a team loaded with edge talent. With Foster's five-year extension, QB Matt Schaub in the last year of his contract and OLB Connor Barwin out-performing his deal, the Texans can't truly compete to keep Williams.
There will be no shortage of suitors, and Williams could end up earning in the ballpark of $13 million guaranteed. The Falcons are never shy this time of year and need a pass rusher with John Abraham on the way out and Ray Edwards coming off a poor first season in Atlanta. Seattle has cap wiggle room and could certainly utilize an established edge threat on what is rounding into a fearsome young defense.
•Vincent Jackson is a freak of nature at receiver with tremendous size and speed, and the 29-year-old will be the most highly coveted offensive player available. A number of teams need a No. 1 receiver and many of those same teams just happen to have a ridiculous amount of cap room, as well. Washington and Chicago could end up in a bidding war here, and Jackson is going to end up making more than $10 million a year.
• Despite just two career starts, Matt Flynn is the best young quarterback available in free agency. And given all the concerns about Peyton Manning's health, he's also the best healthy quarterback available. Look at Kevin Kolb's contract with Arizona as a guide; Flynn will get roughly $10 million a year, but the deal will have roster bonuses and payments will be staggered in a way in that his next club is protected. With Mike Holmgren as team president, Cleveland knows plenty about ex-Green Bay backup quarterbacks hitting it big time as starters elsewhere, so the Browns will be suitors. Seattle general manager John Schneider was with the Packers when Flynn was drafted. With new coach Joe Philbin coming over from Green Bay, the Dolphins have obvious ties to Flynn, as well, though I expect them to be hot and heavy for Peyton Manning.
•Carl Nicks is the best offensive lineman available at a time when top guards are starting to make big money (more than $8 million a season, in some cases). The Saints are vulnerable now with Drew Brees on the franchise tag, and it's almost impossible to pay two guards top dollar (Jahri Evans got paid a year ago). Dallas has set the market for offensive linemen in the past and is in good cap shape. Kansas City is still rebuilding its offensive line since its heyday and cap room is no issue there, as well, though it remains to be seen how much these Chiefs will spend.
• Just a few years ago, LaRon Landry was one of the highest-drafted safeties in NFL history (sixth overall in 2007). His unreal physique will catch the eye of some owners -- Jerry Jones, anyone? -- and when he was healthy in Washington, he was an intimidating presence who made some bone-jarring hits. With Tyvon Branch franchised, Landry is the best in-the-box safety available and could end up staying in the NFC East with Dallas or Philadelphia. Regardless, a return to Washington looks highly unlikely now.
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• While safety is a position of strength in this free agent class, nose tackle is anything but. Paul Soliai is a year removed from being franchised by Miami and is coming off an outstanding 2011 season. He is by far the best 3-4 defensive tackle available, but he could also fit in a 4-3 front. (He can generate plenty of push from the interior.) The Dolphins, by not franchising him two years in a row, are almost assured of losing him. I can't help but think John Fox would love to see this guy continue to beef up his defense in Denver and the Broncos have plenty of cap room.
•Cortland Finnegan won't be back in Tennessee. That's virtually assured. Finnegan and Carlos Rogers will be the best corners on the market. Finnegan has been more consistent and possesses a nasty streak many defensive coaches covet. Dallas badly needs secondary help -- Aaron Ross or Brandon Carr are options, as well -- and the Bears or Rams might make a lot of sense for Finnegan, too. St. Louis head coach Jeff Fisher and secondary coach Chuck Cecil know Finnegan well, and corner is just one of many positions of need for their new squad.
A week from now, many of these guys will fly off the market. That immediate free-agent rush is always fast and furious. And despite all the activity in the past few days of the franchise period, nothing will change with that.