Thursday, March 15, 2012

2012 NFL Free Agency

So I've taken a break from looking at the wide receiver prospects in this years draft to have a look over the start of free agency. I'll cover as much as I can about the stuff that interests me, in a some what random order. Have to say though, while generally speaking I'm not a huge fan of teams splashing the cash in free agency, this years crop has some real tantalising names on it.

Starting with quarterbacks, the big name is obviously Peyton Manning. The Titans, Dolphins, Broncos and Cardinals appear to be the four destinations topping every list and the Titans are supposedly number one in many peoples books. Certainly the opportunity to get one over the Colts might appeal to Manning, but I'm guessing money will do the eventual talking.

It's an interesting choice because either one of those four teams would have talent for Peyton to work with, though not all possessing the same kind of talent. The Dolphins and the Cardinals hold the promise of top wide receivers for Manning to throw to, while the Cardinals and the Titans both have solid running backs in place too. Unless you want to argue for Reggie Bush in Miami, which has some merit.

The Titans would probably benefit the most because it would take the pressure off of Chris Johnson to carry that team and it would be a wonderful learning experience for young Jake Locker. The Broncos would probably be the least attractive. Their receiving corps still needs a ton of work and while the defense is strong, it's just not the best home for Manning right now.

Some signings in the QB market include Chad Henne going from the Dolphins to the Jaguars, who seem to have already conceded (which is a good thing) that Blaine Gabbert needs a hell of a lot of work. Kyle Orton has been snapped up by the Cowboys which is a bit of a head scratcher, as I'm pretty sure the Cowboys could have gone elsewhere for a back up and paid a lot less money.

Chris Redman, the back up in Atlanta, will be returning to the Falcons which is smart move on their part as Redman is one of the better back ups out there. Also looking for a back up and, frankly, a potential replacement for Jay Cutler was the Bears, who have picked up Jason Campbell of former Redskins and Raiders fame (perhaps "Infamy" is a better word?).

That then makes Matt Flynn the next hottest property on the QB board. The former Packer who shot to fame with some great performances as a stand in for Aaron Rodgers is drawing the attention of the Browns, Dolphins and Seahawks. Any of those teams would be an ok spot to land, providing the Browns are going to draft the way I think they will (receiver in 1st round).

I expect however lands him will probably over pay for him and his future potential is very much up in the air. It's one thing to put up 400+ yards with guys like Greg Jennings, Donald Driver and Jordy Nelson. It's quite another to do it with lesser receivers.

After Flynn you have three names that pop up and should really be treated together; Dennis Dixon, Vince Young and Josh Johnson, of the Steelers, Eagles and Buccaneers respectively. All three share two traits in common, the first being their mobility out of the pocket and the second being their questionable ability as passers.

Personally I think Young did more harm than good to his stock with the Eagles. Dixon has been an afterthought in Pittsburgh, but like Johnson he has youth and a lack of off field issues playing in his favour. Johnson has been probably a slightly better passer than Dixon, but is still something of a project.

If you're looking for more of a pure passer then David Garrard, Alex smith and Dan Orlovsky are all available. Orlovsky and Smith are both in the same boat in that they have shown at times that they can succeed in shotgun based, spread style offenses, but only when the conditions are right. Garrard has had more time and success on the field, and that was in a shabby Jaguars passing offense. There is still an attraction to Garrard. Not a huge one admittedly, but enough to take a peek if your quarterback sucks.

There's also your usual assortment of Charlie Batch's and Kyle Bollers for people looking for an over paid back up.

On to running backs and only a few names have found their way to new homes so far. Dallas probably have one of the under rated signings so far in former Houston full back Lawrence Vickers. That gives them a nice lead blocker for DeMarco Murrary this year. Peyton Hillis is off to the Chiefs, presumably to replace Le'Ron McClain as their power back of choice, as McClain has been scooped up by San Diego, which to me makes no sense for two reasons.

Those reasons are Jacob Hester and Mike Tolbert. Right there you have a very under rated one-two, full back/running back combination that have done really, really well on a pass first team in the Chargers. If someone picked up the pair of them together I think they have a great backfield already set up. Hester in particular has a lot attraction because of his fearless blocking and his upside of being a very capable, very smart special teams captain.

The list of running backs goes on though. Joseph Addai didn't get much love with the pass happy Colts but he's actually a really good running back who can hit hard between the tackles and cuts well. The Colts never really gave him the appreciation that he deserved.

Michael Bush from the Raiders is a young(ish) back who deserves some attention. He did well with the Raiders and after four seasons he has a good combination of youth and experience. The same could be said for BenJarvus Green-Ellis, formerly a Patriot, who has really done superbly on a team not reknowned for its ability to run the football.

Tim Hightower got the chance to show what he could do behind a good running line in Washington and what he showed was a surprising turn of speed in the open field. I'm surprised he hasn't garnered more attention yet. Brandon Jacobs, fresh off a Super Bowl win is available, presuming he decides not to take a job with TNA wrestling which shouldn't be too hard given the salary comparisons between them and the minimum wage for an NFL player of his experience. He can be a little temperamental though, so that may shy people away.

If you're looking for an old hand then Thomas Jones is available Jones led the AFC in his last season with the Jets before moving to Kansas where he wasn't used much thanks to the explosion of Jamaal Charles. Jones may be old, but he's still a clever and tough down hill runner. As is Mewelde Moore of Pittsburgh, with the added bonus of being a bit faster. Despite his eight seasons in the league Moore has been under utilised so he's not as beat up as some would believe.

Kevin Smith from Detroit is another attractive prospect. 4 seasons into his career and really he was shunned aside only by the explosiveness of Jahvid Best. The Lions O-line aren't the best run blockers in the world and the Lions aren't the most run happy team in the league either. For that reason Smith is something of an "under the radar" guy, but he has speed, can pass block and is a good receiver out of the backfield.

Ryan Grant should also get an honorable mention for his size, pass blocking ability and the fact that when called upon by the Packers he did pretty well for himself. Another back who doesn't get all the plaudits he deserves. Justin Forsett, Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward and Ryan Torain also get nods for being serviceable number twos.

Now any talk of wide receivers has to start with Vincent Jackson going to Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers desperately need targets for Josh Freeman and in Jackson they have the first. Jackson brings speed and size along with a safe pair of hands which should boost the Buccaneers offense up a notch this year.

Reggie Wayne was another big name attraction but he's going back to the Colts, and Falcons receiver Harry Douglas is also staying put with his current team. Washington however have lured two new names into their fold with the anticipation being that they plan to draft Robert Griffin III as the number two overall pick. They've brought in Josh Morgan from the 49ers, a receiver who promised much but never delivered on it, along with Pierre Garcon from the Colts, who is well known for making both spectacular one handed catches and for dropping easy clangers.

To make up for losing Jackson the Chargers have signed Robert Meachem from the Saints, which is a pretty good pick up, though not really a one for one signing if you see what I mean. The Jaguars meanwhile have snagged themselves a pretty good deal with Laurent Robinson, who was one of the break out stars of the Cowboys last year. He's a good, dependable receiver who has promise to become a number one target for Chad Henne this year.

The number of other receivers still available is quite extensive so I can't really hit on all of them, just the ones that interest me the most. I guess we better do this alphabetically.

In that case we start with Andre Caldwell, the four year receiver from the Bengals. Caldwell has never gotten really any appreciation, but Caldwell is actually quite a dependable receiver who has proven time and again to be a safe pair of hands and a good route runner, especially on 3rd and 4th downs. I'd love to see Caldwell get some hard won recognition.

Jerricho Cotchery is free from the Steelers. Cotchery won some admiration from Ben Roethlisberger and will probably resign with the Steelers, but I think he might be a good catch (see what I did there?) for someone in free agency as an experienced hand (or pair of hands. On fire). Another 8 year veteran is Patrick Crayton who definitely doesn't get the respect he has earned as a pretty well polished route runner with both the Cowboys and Chargers.

Early Doucet from the Cardinals is a four year guy who showed flashes of potential in Arizona. Not the greatest receiver, granted, but for a freebie he makes a good number two. Ted Ginn Jnr is on a free from San Francisco. He's caught a bad rap over the years (one of the only things he caught. Thank you, I'm here all week) for dropping passes, but he adds a deep threat with reasonable hands and has utility on special teams as a return man.

Brandon Lloyd is on the market and is pulling interest from a number of teams, but I have questions about Lloyds catching ability. He's certainly not a bad receiver, but I'm surprised by the amount of heavy interest being shown in him. Ultimately I don't think he's worth the price someone is going to end up paying in a bidding war.

Mario Manningham on the other hand? He's drawing interest from the 49ers off the back of a Super Bowl win and while he may have been over shadowed recently by Victor Cruz, he's still a good target man with pretty good hands and a knack for the run after the catch. Whether he could be a number one man or not is perhaps open for debate, but I think in the right set up he's got the talents to make it work.

Next is Legedu Naanee, a five year veteran who didn't hit it off with the Panthers but did pretty well for the Chargers. Like a number of receivers on this list his career numbers have been hurt from being on a team with one or two legitimate top talents who took most of the receptions, but Naanee has shown he can be a good receiver, especially over the middle. Worth a look at a reduced contractual price.

Courtney Roby from the Saints should eventually draw a few eyes. He has quite a bit of speed and has shown potential in the special teams return game. Worth a late look at some point. Then we have Eddie Royal, four year receiver from the Broncos. Me personally I think this guy should take some of the flack for Tebow's performance so far because this guy has been a bad offender when it comes to drops and bad routes. Badly over rated and included only for that reason.

Steve Smith from the Eagles, formerly of Giants fame (infamy?) is also available. He didn't really have the impact that many expected in Philadelphia, mainly because many (including the Eagles) over stated his impact. He's still a good receiver though and was a favourite target of Eli Manning at times. Has viability as a number two or three guy, depending on where he lands. Just keep the price down.

And lastly, if you really want, we have Roy Williams leaving Chicago. Formerly of the Lions and Cowboys, Williams has earned a reputation as an under achiever, but I'd suggest that has more to do with people over paying for him at his various stops. As a free agent and on a smaller contract, Williams can add value as a second string receiver and target man (6'3) in the red zone.

Tight ends now and the pickings start to get slimmer. Martellus Bennett has already been snatched from the Cowboys by the Giants, which is probably one of the few stand out moves that you'd expect in this years tight end market. The next big name would be Kevin Boss, formerly of the Giants and then the Raiders. Boss is a solid tight end who can block and run routes, with good hands. for a modest price he's a good pick up.

Thirdly, and some would argue should have been number one on this list, Dallas Clark. The now former Colts tight end was let go as the Colts seem to be cleaning house (and cap space). Clark has nine seasons under his belt and is widely recognised for both his excellent blocking and receiving skills, but the simple fact is he's 32 now, missed most of the 2010 season with a wrist injury, and last year he was hindered by more injuries that lead to a greatly reduced production (Curtis Painter also played a role in this). Medicals will have a lot to do with whether Clark gets picked up and how much he gets paid, but I'm sure someone will take him.

Leonard Pope from Kansas is available this year, not the best tight end but ok for a back up. Dante Rosario fits that bill as well, and is a pretty good run blocker as well as having some nice catches under his belt. Bo Scaife is now kicking about too, though he didn't impress as much in Cincinnati as many had hoped.

If you want some older hands with experience, Jeremy Shockey is available as is Visanthe Shiancoe. Shockey is still a good receiver and Shiancoe has surprising speed for a tight end, but both are somewhat questionable as run blockers.

Onto the offensive linemen and we start with guard Carl Nicks who's been picked up by Tampa Bay. Not a bad signing considering the move to get Vincent Jackson and the obvious hint that the Buccaneers would like to air it out more this year. Bigger than this though (?) was the re-signing of tackle Jared Gaither by the Chargers. I think Gaithers is a good pass blocker and the Chargers did the right thing in tying him up with a new deal.

We'll go through the rest in terms of interior linemen and then tackles.

That means we kick off with Dan Connolly from New England. If that name sounds familiar it's because he holds the record for the longest kick off return in NFL history by an offensive linemen. He's also been an off and on guard for the Patriots, filling in for Logan Mankins when he had his contract dispute as well as starting 13 games last year. There's a lot worse guards available for anyone in the market.

Fellow Patriot Dan Koppen is also up for grabs. He suffered an ankle injury in week 1 that did him for the season. Teams will need to get that checked out but other than that Koppen is an excellent center who could command a sizable fee, even despite the injured ankle and his 32 year age.

Andre Gurode had something of a comeback year in Baltimore last season and might draw some interest. His team mate Ben Grubbs reportedly already is from the Saints. Chris Kemoeatu from the Steelers is available and I've been impressed with some of his work, especially as a run blocker, over recent years.

Onto the tackles and outside of Gaither there's not a huge amount of free talent, but Khaliff Barnes from the Raiders could turn a few heads. For a man of his size he's pretty athletic, which is likely what caught the Raiders interest in the first place. Demetrius Bell from Buffalo is a notable name. Marcus McNeil is of the Chargers is something of a stand out being a two time pro bowler, but the price is likely to be high.

Moving to the D-line and we start with two importing re-signings in Adam Carriker returning to the Redskins and Red Bryant returning to the Seahawks. A nice snatch away so to speak would be the Patriots landing Jonathan Fanene from the Bengals. The Patriots defense needs all the help it can get up front so Fanene makes good sense. The excellent Cory Redding of the Ravens has been bought up by the Colts.

Among defensive ends there's a lot of guys getting old in the tooth like John Abraham from the Falcons, Andre Carter from New England and Shaun Ellis from the Saints. They could serve some use to someone, but they're getting into the twlight of their careers now and their physical skills are declining compared to the sort of money they'd be expecting.

Israel Idonije of the Bears could provide some value, as he's been something of the unsung anvil to Julius Peppers hammer last season. Jason Jones of the Titans is drawing some interest and with only four years under his belt his price is probably more appropriate for the life he has left in him. Jarvis Moss from Oakland could draw some interest and for a final "oldy but goody" as they say over here in England, Juqua Parker (11 seasons) is available from the Eagles. Parker has had some good seasons lately and could still have another year left in him at the right price.

The tackles include experienced interior man Rocky Bernard from the Giants, who's a pretty good run stopper. Brodrick Bunkley of the Broncos will be hoping to generate some love after the Broncos defense had a good season last year. And that's literally it for the D-tackles.

P.S. I just found out that Brandon Marshall was traded to the Bears? Eh, what? Shows ow deeply I've been buried in the draft process. And for two third round picks? Why? The Dolphins have issues.

Linebackers next and all the talk is around Mario Williams for obvious reasons. The Seahawks, Bills, Bears, Jaguars and Texans are all in the hunt, with Houston probably having an edge due to the stability, but the Seahawks are reportedly going out of their way to reel him in with a big deal.

Other than Williams the cupboard is pretty bare this year for outside linebackers. Not that there aren't many available, but when you're wondering whether Manny Lawson should make the list, that's a bad sign. Erin Henderson of the Vikings isn't a bad shout and nor is Geno Hayes of the Buccaneers. Both are young, pretty talented and yet to reach their full potential.

If you're looking for a Mike linebacker things get a bit easier. Gary Brackett has nine years under his belt from the Colts and while not the best on offer, could provide an experienced head to a young corps of linebackers.

Slightly more tempting targets would start with Curtis Lofton of the Falcons. Lofton is an excellent anchor man in the middle of a 4-3 defense and has plenty of tackles to his name. His pass coverage still needs some work but he'll be just hitting the peak of his career in the next 2-3 years so there is still time to work on that.

Barrett Ruud of the Buccaneers and Gary Guyton of the Patriots are also worth a mention here. Neither is a name that exactly blows people away when they hear it, but both are solid interior backers with a hint of play making ability.

James Farrior, London Fletcher and Keith Brooking are probably a little too old now to generate much interest except as last ditch back ups or fill in guys after the draft, but young Jameel McClain of Baltimore could pick up a few suitors as the main guys come off the board.

Finally we'll go to Corners and Safeties, with corners first I think. And no, I'm not doing kickers or punters. Or long snappers. Just... no.

Probably the biggest name off the list already is Cortland Finnegan who will be leaving the Titans for the Rams. Given the shabby quality of the Rams defense in general this is a big signing, but without a substantial pass rush you have to wonder how much of an impact Finnegan will generate. Brandon Carr is next, having left the sun of Kansas for even more sun in Dallas. Not a bad deal, especially considering the Cowboys have a stronger pass rush to support their secondary with.

The biggest retention has been that of the 49ers wrapping at Carlos Rogers. Rogers was a key player last year on one of the best defences in the league and as a 49ers fan I have to say I'm more than happy to see him back again.

Looking at the rest, alphabetically, we have to start with Alan Ball of the Cowboys. He's been a fairly solid corner in his tenure and at 6'2, with four years of experience, he has a nice blend of size, athletic ability and veteran know how.

William Gay from Pittsburgh isn't a bad shout. 5 years in the league now, a little short, but has been a reasonably solid corner opposite Ike Taylor. The Steelers pass rush would have helped, but Gay is not a bad zone corner. He may not have the interceptions to his name that some corners have, but he has a good tally over his career of defended passes. Cedric Griffin from Minnesota fills the same sort of role, but to a lesser extent.

Terrance Newman is another Cowboy looking to test the waters. He's experienced and regularly reaps in 4-5 picks per season, which isn't a bad tally at all. Pretty mobile and difficult to trick out. Tracey Porter of the Saints is also out there and personally I think Porter has been one of the better corners out there. Didn't have the best year last year, but he's young and has Super Bowl experience behind him.

Aaron Ross would be next up and the Giants corner had a great 2011 season including four interceptions. He played well for the Giants and should start to generate some reasonable interest in the next few days as things start to settle down a little, especially with Finnegan, Carr and Rogers out of the picture.

Onto the safeties and other than the Jacksonville Jaguars re-signing Dwight Lowery (why?) there has been little to no movement except for some visits for LaRon Landry. So me might as well start with Landry. He's been a good playmaker for the Redskins and I'm surprised he hasn't generated more buzz lately. Safeties are increasingly becoming key trades on defense and Landry is better than a whole string of safeties currently out there.

Following in that vein we have to talk Reggie Nelson of the Bengals who really does have a good track record as a safety. So far I've not seen or heard any reports about teams sniffing around him which is odd because along with Landry he's one of the top safeties out there in free agency.

As for the rest, Jim Leonhard of the Jets is out there and has proven himself over time to be a reliable guy. Maybe he's lost a step or two since his first season but he's still a generally cool head on a working body. Corey Lynch of the Buccaneers is a young safety with some promise. He's been getting better with time and still has some way to progress, but he's eager and has experience.

Then for the last two we have Brandon Merriweather of the Bears who could be a good safety if he could just resist the urge to run around head butting receivers and also Tom Zbikowski who is pretty good in run support if a little raw in pass coverage, but also has utility on special teams.

That's your whack for free agents for now. I'm going to try and churn out my 2012 draft preview of the wide receivers over the course of the weekend, then I might pick up the free agency thread once more and see what's happened since today.

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