With the NFL season over, teams turn their attention to the impending crop of free agents. How do they replace guys they can’t afford to keep and how can they upgrade their talent level? These are just two of the questions they’ll be asking themselves as they prepare to write some pretty big checks.
Once again, we’re here to help them out by publishing our list of the top 50 free agents. We can’t guarantee who will be using the franchise tag, which restricted free agents will be tagged, or even which players will retire, so there’s only one criterion for eligibility: your contract is about to EXPIRE.
Here are the top 50 NFL free agents for 2013:
The chances of Flacco hitting the open market are between slim and none, but as the marquee quarterback he’s easily the top guy out there. He’s a threat to hurt teams deep, with 35 completions that went 20 yards or more in the air (only Drew Brees had more), and his 11-0 touchdown-interception ratio in the playoffs is the envy of every QB in the league.
Much is made of defensive ends getting pressure, but nothing quite disrupts quarterbacks like pressure up the middle, because they can’t step up into their throws and mistakes often follow. That’s part of what makes Melton so valuable, with his 37 combined sacks, hits and hurries ranking fifth among his peers. Add in a DT-leading 11.6 percent run stop percentage and you have yourself a true impact player.
Last season was a quiet one for Jennings as he battled injury, but you need only go back to 2011 to see a player who can operate all over the field. That’s what defines Jennings as a player. You can put him in the slot and he’ll be successful (he had the 11th-ranked yards per route run, 1.88, in the slot in 2011), and you can send him deep and watch him have success (his 309 yards on deep passes ranked 17th in the league). He’s a true No. 1 wideout.
How valuable was Clady to Peyton Manning? Well he gave up only one sack, six hits and 15 hurries all year, good for the fourth-best pass blocking efficiency score of all tackles in 2012. It’s unlikely Denver lets him test his worth on the open market.
This list may not have Ed Reed on it, but does it have the next version of him? Byrd has the kind of range that scares quarterbacks from going after him, and it shows in his numbers. He gave up just 0.28 yards per snap in coverage, picked off five passes and wasn’t beaten for any touchdowns.
A first-down machine and near uncoverable out of the slot, Welker once again led the league with 1,040 yards from that position. The only downside is that he doesn’t attack teams deep and better cornerbacks can slow him down.
We often wonder what Bowe could really do with a good quarterback. We’re now wondering if we might get to find that out, or if the Chiefs will tag him again. Bowe averaged only 2.0 yards per route run (23rd in the league), but when you consider no other Chiefs player had more than 1.22, you get an idea of how well he did to pick up that much.
The odds are that Gonzalez retires, and that even if he doesn’t, the Falcons would make him an offer he can’t refuse after he earned the highest receiving grade of any tight end in our system. But imagine he didn’t, and was to shop himself around. A guy who just keeps on picking up first downs would prove attractive for a lot of teams, even if it was for only one year.
What do you make of Long? On talent alone, he’s in a class of two (with Joe Thomas) as the elite tackles in the game over the past five years. But Long has struggled with injuries the past two years, and it has impacted his performance. In his first three years in the league, he gave up a sack, hit or hurry on 3.7 percent of pass blocks; in the past two years that number has climbed to 5.8 percent of pass blocks.
Is there a better pass-rusher available than Bennett? The Bucs would be wise to do whatever it takes to prevent teams from landing him, because where would they be without him? His 71 combined sacks, hits and hurries were the ninth-ranked figure of all defensive players. The fact that he’s just as good in the run game should ensure this former undrafted free agent gets a huge pay day
11. Brent Grimes, CB?2012 team: Atlanta Falcons
An Achilles injury meant that Grimes was limited to just 52 snaps this year, and it likely guarantees he’s off the radar of a lot of teams. But teams need only look back to his play in 2011 to know that if he’s healthy, he’s a stud. That season, Grimes gave up just 0.53 yards per snap in coverage, the lowest of all cornerbacks.
Many have pointed to the sack numbers of Spencer as if to say he only turned on his performance in a true contract year. While he is coming off the best year of his career, Spencer has consistently performed in Dallas, it’s just been in the run game where it has showed up. This year he finished sixth in pass-rushing productivity and topped the run stop percentage charts for 3-4 outside linebackers.
With 12 drops in 2012, Cruz experienced something of a down year. Nonetheless, the restricted free agent is unlikely to hit free agency because of, among other things, his big-play threat and nose for the end zone (10 touchdowns). He is another player who can line up at multiple spots on the field and hurt you.
Much was made of a change in offensive coordinator playing its part in Wallace not being given the opportunities to get deep. However, Wallace actually saw his deep targets rise from 24 in 2011 to 31 last year. Wallace just picked a bad season to have a down year, dropping two more balls and forcing 11 fewer missed tackles. Still, the 2011 season in which Wallace established himself as the league’s premier deep threat shouldn’t be forgotten.
15. Sebastian Vollmer, T?2012 team: New England Patriots
The only drawback on Vollmer is a lingering back injury, but his play since entering the league as a rookie is extremely impressive. Capable of lining up at left or right tackle, will the Patriots let our fourth-ranked right tackle in 2012 hit the open market?
Part of the reason the Jaguars’ defense took such a big step back this year was the loss of Smith for most of the season. A versatile player, Smith has excelled at outside linebacker in Jacksonville and showed his versatility by producing strong performances when the Jaguars briefly flirted with a 3-4 defense. He ranked No. 2 among 4-3 outside linebackers in 2011.
17. Martellus Bennett, TE?2012 team: New York Giants
Free from the shadow of Jason Witten, Bennett set about showing that he was more than just an excellent run-blocking tight end. He should consider that mission accomplished, as he averaged 1.48 yards per route run last season.
18. Will Beatty, T?2012 team: New York Giants
With so many offensive tackles hitting the open market, Beatty has kind of been lost in the shuffle. Part of that may be due to the 11 penalty flags he drew in 2012, but regardless it could work out to the benefit of the Giants. In his two years starting, Beatty has had just two bad outings in pass protection when Trent Cole got the best of him in 2011; he’s also given up only seven sacks in that period. He’s young and a player on the rise.
The drawback to Kruger is you can’t completely trust him in the run game, where an every-down role in 2012 saw every aspect of his game get worse. Fortunately, the Ravens returned him to more of a pass-rushing specialist, and his 55 regular-season pressures on 359 pass rushes resulted in the highest pass-rushing productivity score for all 3-4 outside linebackers.
You do wonder about Smith when you hear about some of the off-field incidents, but his work in the run game really separates him from other tackles. A decent pass-blocker who can have trouble with more explosive pass-rushers, don’t be surprised if the Bengals tag him.
21. Branden Albert, T?2012 team: Kansas City Chiefs
It’s surprising that a lot of people have the Chiefs going tackle with their first overall pick, when they could quite easily tag Albert. He doesn’t get much push in the run game, but he’s given up only six sacks the past two years.
A poor man’s Welker? Amendola has a knack for getting open on short routes and doing enough after the catch to move the chains. His yards per route run figure of 2.04 was 21st in the league, and shows how valuable he can be for a quarterback.
While Avril has always done a good job of keeping his sack numbers up, he has struggled to match the production of his real breakout 2010 season, where he had the sixth-highest pass-rushing productivity score of all 4-3 defensive ends. Since then he’s finished 15th (2011) and 40th (2012), so anyone snapping him up will be hoping that part of that is to blame on a rather predictable Lions pass rush that failed to help out its edge rushers.
24. Sam Shields, CB?2012 team: Green Bay Packers
I don’t see the Packers letting Shields, an exclusive rights free agent, hit the open market, especially after how he played this year. He gave up a first down or touchdown on just 4.09 percent of his coverage snaps, third lowest in the league.
25. William Moore, S?2012 team: Atlanta Falcons
What makes Moore an intriguing talent is that he has a knack for making plays. He has 11 picks over the past three years, and his 7.1 percent run stop percentage while he’s lined up in the box ranks 16th among all safeties.
The problem with Loadholt is that he’s likely at times to get beat, and badly, in pass protection. He’s much better going forward though, and he’s one of the tackles in the league who can have a big impact on his team’s running game. The Vikings averaged 8.4 yards per carry outside right tackle in 2012.
While it’s true that Seymour isn’t getting any younger, he’s still a player who gets plenty of push upfield. Being limited to just 361 snaps in 2012 may scare away some potential suitors, but the former Patriot made his presence felt on those plays. Capable of playing in both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes, he’s bound to draw plenty of interest.
28. Dennis Pitta, TE?2012 team: Baltimore Ravens
You’ll never confuse Pitta with a run-blocker, but when you can pick up 1.69 yards per route run (ranking seventh among tight ends in 2012), you know the Ravens could have a difference-maker at the tight end spot. As a restricted free agent, he’s unlikely to be leaving Baltimore.
29. Adam Jones, CB?2012 team: Cincinnati Bengals
No longer Pacman, the more mature Adam Jones is coming off a year in which he looked every bit the first-round talent he was drafted to be. Playing right cornerback in the Bengals’ nickel package, he gave up just 16 first downs and two touchdowns on 414 snaps in coverage; the seventh-lowest percentage of all cornerbacks.
If Moore were younger, he’d be ranked a lot higher given how he played this year. Our second-ranked right guard at the end of the season, his ability to generate movement in the run game would have earned more recognition but for some pedestrian running backs. He has surrendered just three sacks the past three years.
31. Brian Hartline, WR?2012 team: Miami Dolphins
Hartline may be coming off the biggest year of his career with 1,083 yards. But he found the end zone only once, and how much of that yardage was as a result of Miami forcing the ball into him? Still, with 2.08 yards per route run, he proved he’s a starter in the NFL, and has the kind of hands (only five dropped passes last year) that shows you can rely on him.
It’s hard to see De La Puente leaving New Orleans, though his play should have spiked the interest of plenty of teams. Since coming in for Olin Kreutz, he’s been a revelation, finishing second overall in our center rankings this year.
33. Michael Johnson, DE?2012 team: Cincinnati Bengals
His sack numbers this year may have caught the attention of many, but Johnson finished only 25th in our pass-rushing productivity score. What’s more, 21.8 percent of the pressures he generated came when he was unblocked, making Johnson a candidate for the Mark Anderson role of failing to deliver on a big contract. The big positive is Johnson stepped up his work in the run game, earning the sixth-highest grade among his peers this past season.
Nobody is questioning the talent of Talib, but far too often it’s not resulting in big-time performances. When you use a cornerback to track a receiver, you expect him to get beat at times, but the 8.75 percent of coverage snaps against Talib that were converted into a first down or touchdown was second most in the league. Whoever lands him will get some big plays, they just won’t all be positive.
35. Cary Williams, CB?2012 team: Baltimore Ravens
Williams made a name for himself in the postseason, but in the regular season he got beat for 45 combined first downs and touchdowns. Only Sean Smith gave up more, as Williams’ style of giving receivers a big cushion saw them picking up big gains on him. He got better as the season went on, but he’s not worth the money he’s going to expect.
Starks made the switch from 3-4 defensive end back to defensive tackle this year, and faded a little as the season went on. Still, given how he’s played the past three years, it would be foolish to write off this 29-year-old. He finished the year with 36 combined sacks, hits and hurries, which was ranked sixth among defensive tackles.
37. Desmond Bryant, DT?2012 team: Oakland Raiders
Bryant spent 2011 at defensive end as he filled in for injury, but was restored back to his defensive tackle role this year and stepped up very nicely. His 7.8 pass-rushing productivity score ranked fifth among defensive tackles, with his 15 combined sacks and hits showing a real impact to hurt the quarterback.
38. Dashon Goldson, S?2012 team: San Francisco 49ers
Goldson enjoyed the best season of his career, cutting out the mistakes that plagued him in earlier years. The big question with Goldson is whether he benefits from the talent around him, given how he struggled in the earlier parts of his career.
The top guard on the market to many, we’d have liked to see Levitre do more in the running game than he did. Instead, he’s part of a line that benefited from the playmaking of C.J. Spiller. His work in pass protection, however, earned him the best pass-blocking efficiency mark of all left guards.
While Reggie Bush may make for a better story, give us Jackson any day of the week. He’s older but he’s also the kind of guy who can run between the tackles and pick up the hard yards, earning a healthy 2.7 yards after contact per carry last season.
Cherilus has developed into a solid starting tackle, but he rarely wows you. Far from a punishing run-blocker, his numbers in pass protection benefit from 57.9 percent of Matthew Stafford‘s drop backs seeing him get rid of the ball within 2.5 seconds.
You line up Idonije at end, he produces. You line up Idonije at tackle, he produces. Why? Because he’s a productive player who just goes about his business. This year that gave him the 15th-highest run stop percentage of all defensive ends and the 12th-highest pass-rushing productivity score. His age will scare some away, but given how much he played in the early part of his career, there’s plenty of tread left on his tires.
43. Erin Henderson, LB?2012 team: Minnesota Vikings
If Henderson was more reliable in coverage, he’d be higher up this list. But as it is, he didn’t quite take advantage of the opportunity of more playing time in 2012. His work in the run game remains solid with the sixth-highest run stop percentage of all 4-3 outside linebackers in 2012.
Branch didn’t have the kind of year in 2012 that he did in his first season as a Seahawk — when he was our sixth-ranked defensive tackle — but he’s proved his talent since moving from the Cardinals. Best suited in a two-down role, he’ll need talent around him.
The conversion to outside linebacker didn’t really work for Freeney, did it? With his hand off the ground he managed just one quarterback hit and two quarterback hurries on 49 pass rushes. The move seemed to impact his productivity even with his hand on the ground, where he picked up pressure on only 11.1 percent of his pass rushes, down on the 11.9 percent a year earlier. A fading force perhaps, but there were enough flashes to suggest he could succeed in a limited role somewhere else.
Phillips has graded positively every year he’s been in the league in our system, so why so low? It’s the durability concerns that saw him on the field for only 304 snaps this year. Given how much time he missed in the early part of his career, it’s hard to ignore that. If he can stay healthy, then he’s a fine player. Not a true impact safety, he’s definitely someone who shores things up.
The skill set of Quin, a former cornerback who can be used in a number of positions, is bound to increase his value. It showed up big when he made life hard for Jermaine Gresham in the playoffs, but there have been times when he’s been shown up (10th-highest yards per snap in coverage allowed in 2012), and that’s why he’s not higher on this list.
Much like Talib, Rodgers-Cromartie has all the talent in the world. Yet all too frequently we see the negative aspects of his game. This year looked to be different with him making a fine start, but much like his time in Arizona, he seemed to lose interest and his performance fell off a cliff. He represents a big gamble on big talent.
Coming off an injury is going to hurt the value of Davis, but before he went down he was averaging a ridiculous 1.96 yards per route run. Only Rob Gronkowski had a higher average among tight ends, indicating the kind of threat Davis is as a receiver.
50. Mike Devito, DL?2012 team: New York Jets
You know what you’re going to get in Devito. Capable of playing along the defensive line, he’s stout against the run while offering very little rushing the passer. Since his 2009 season he’s graded positively every year, with the kind of consistency that makes him a valuable part of any defensive line rotation.