Storylines to watch as NFL free agency begins
NFL free agency kicks off at 4 p.m. ET on March 13, as the league calendar officially flips from the 2011 season to 2012.
The annual market usually brings with it a bunch of unexpected outcomes, but here are several things to keep an eye on as the NFL’s free agents become available Tuesday:
• How will NFL’s punishment of Cowboys, Redskins impact things?: In case you missed it on Monday, the NFL smacked Dallas and Washington for violating a, uh, “rule” regarding front-loading contracts during the uncapped 2010 season. As a result, Dallas is out $10 million and Washington $36 million in cap space, though the franchises are free to spread that hit out over the next two seasons.
Both the Cowboys and Redskins are still free to pursue any free agents they’d like — they just have less money to spend. That’s particularly noteworthy in Washington’s case. The Redskins, prior to all this going down, traded three first-round picks and a second-rounder to St. Louis for the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft (and a shot at Baylor QB Robert Griffin III).
The plan was for Washington to account for those lost draft picks by spending some of the $30 million-plus it looked like it had available under the salary cap. Now, the Redskins might have to be a bit more frugal.
• Tracking Matt Flynn: Sure, everyone wants to find out where Peyton Manning will wind up, but Flynn, Aaron Rodgers’ former backup, could play just as big a role in how the 2012 season shakes out.
Manning does not appear to be in any rush to find a home, so it’ll be interesting to see how quickly teams move on Flynn once he officially becomes available Tuesday — Manning was free to scout new teams prior to that because Indianapolis released him. Where might Flynn wind up? Well, the list of possibilities includes Miami, Cleveland and Seattle, to name a few.
• Who will jump on the “Plan B” quarterbacks?: Flynn and Manning seem to be the two big QB prizes on the market, but there is a grab bag of guys who you could consider the next level of available bodies. Included in that group are Chad Henne, Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Rex Grossman, Brady Quinn, Vince Young and others. Considering how many teams are unsatisfied with their current quarterback situations, the price might drive up on the best of that bunch.
• Will ex-Colts follow Peyton?: While we’re on the subject of quarterbacks …
Manning’s pending decision has been covered ad nauseum already — if you’re a big fan of flight tracking, this is the free-agent chase for you — but there can be no denying that where he winds up will reverberate throughout the league. Beyond the impact Manning can have if he’s healthy, there is some buzz that he would like to bring some of his free-agent friends along with him wherever he goes.
Reggie Wayne, Pierre Garcon, Dallas Clark and Jeff Saturday are all free agents, and Wayne might become the new No. 1 priority for the team that finally signs Manning.
• Is Mario Williams the top prize out there?: Enough with the quarterbacks already, and we’ll get back to the offensive side of things in a minute. But the fact of the matter is that Williams might be the most important free agent to hit the market Tuesday.
Even though he missed 11 games with a torn pectoral in 2011, Williams is, by far, the best pass-rusher in this year’s class and could be a complete game-changer for the team that adds him (there remains a possibility that Williams could return to Houston). It certainly does not hurt his case (or his wallet) that he is athletic enough to play as a defensive lineman in the 4-3 or as an outside linebacker in the 3-4. That versatility leaves him on the table for any team out there, as opposed to limiting him to those that run certain schemes.
Williams will cost a small fortune. He also should be totally worth it, if he stays healthy.
• Change coming in New Orleans: The Saints have enjoyed a sensational run lately and would love to keep the gang together. Unfortunately for them, it doesn’t look possible — especially after they had to give Drew Brees the franchise tag, lest he slip away into free agency.
The result of that Brees tag is that New Orleans seem certain to lose All-Pro guard Carl Nicks, plus defensive back Tracy Porter and another productive receiver, Robert Meachem. Oh yea, that’s in addition to Brees for now not signing his franchise-tag tender in search of a long-term deal.
Nicks has already said he wants to be the highest-paid guard in the league.
• Pittsburgh gambles with restricted free agency: It is rare that restricted free agents find their way to new teams, and even more so since the NFL’s decision to eliminate “poison pill” contract offers — in essence, offers to restricted free agents that were set up in ways to ensure their current teams would not match.
One big RFA could wind up in a new home, though: Pittsburgh’s Mike Wallace. Because the Steelers found themselves in such a financial quagmire this offseason, they opted not to place the franchise tag on Wallace, their No. 1 receiver. Instead, they handed him a first-round tender, meaning they could match an offer from another team or receive a first-round draft pick as compensation.
Wallace’s proven success at the NFL level could make him worth a gamble by another team, even one in Pittsburgh’s own division like Baltimore or Cincinnati.
Colston, Vincent Jackson, Wayne, Brandon Lloyd and Mario Manningham comprise the best of the unrestricted free agents. If a team thinks Wallace is better than any of them — or can get him for a cheaper contract plus the handed-over first-round pick — then the Steelers could be in trouble.
• So, which teams have money to spend?: Well, the Redskins were near the top of this list until Monday. Now, it’s TBD.
Aside from Washington, the Bengals, Broncos, Bucs, Jaguars, Chiefs, Bills and Seahawks all have about $30 million or more to spend under the current $120.6 million cap, per the folks at ProFootballTalk.com. Tennessee ($28.1 million), Chicago ($22.6) and San Francisco ($21.8) find themselves in favorable situations as well, though the 49ers still have QB Alex Smith to re-sign.
• And which teams are in money trouble?: The aforementioned issues of the Steelers and Cowboys will make it tough for them to be really active in free agency.
Meanwhile, the Giants, Panthers, Raiders, Lions and Cardinals were all projected to be over the cap as of this weekend. Oakland axed tight end Kevin Boss on Monday, while the Lions restructured the contracts of Matthew Stafford, Ndamukong Suh and Nate Burleson. Arizona reportedly was on the verge of cutting standout lineman Levi Brown, who carries a monster $17 million cap hit for 2012.
Given the Cardinals’ supposed interest in Peyton Manning, they’d have to do much more than just get below the cap — and they were $16 million or more over it just 48 hours ago.