NFL Nation: 2012 AFC Free-Agency Primer

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Cincinnati Bengals

Key free agents: RB Cedric Benson, WR Andre Caldwell, WR Jerome Simpson, OL Nate Livings, OL Mike McGlynn, OG Bobbie Williams, DE Jonathan Fanene, DE Frostee Rucker, LB Manny Lawson, CB Kelly Jennings, CB Adam Jones, S Reggie Nelson, K Mike Nugent (franchise tag).

Where they stand: The Bengals have a long list of free agents, which includes seven starters from last season, but only a few of them are labeled priorities. After Cincinnati put the franchise tag on Nugent, the top free agent to retain is Nelson. The Dolphins, who hired Bengals secondary coach Kevin Coyle to be their defensive coordinator, are expected to make a run at Nelson. Cincinnati is interested in keeping its strong defensive line intact with Rucker and Fanene. The Bengals want more consistency and big plays at running back and will likely part ways with Benson, their leading rusher for the past four seasons. Cincinnati needs to upgrade at wide receiver, too. Simpson was a disappointment as the team's No. 2 receiver because of his poor route running and dropped passes (six of them, according to ESPN Stats & Information). He also faces a suspension from the NFL after he pleaded guilty to a drug charge as part of an agreement that could include a 60-day jail sentence.

What to expect: The Bengals' salary-cap space ranks among the top in the NFL and has been estimated as high as $60 million. Cincinnati, though, has never been known for getting into bidding wars and pursuing the big-name free agents. Don't expect them to go after wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks or cornerback Cortland Finnegan. The Bengals have to address running back, wide receiver and guard in free agency, but they want the best values. Potential targets include Oakland running back Michael Bush, New Orleans wide receiver Robert Meachem and Baltimore guard Ben Grubbs. Bush is a versatile back who can run and catch, Meachem is a red zone threat who can complement A.J. Green and Grubbs is a dependable interior blocker who has a familiarity with the Bengals.

Cleveland Browns

Key free agents: RB Peyton Hillis, FS Mike Adams, CB Dimitri Patterson, P Brad Maynard and K Phil Dawson (franchise tag).

Where they stand: The Browns have already made one move, keeping D'Qwell Jackson off the free-agent market by signing the NFL's second-leading tackler to a five-year, $42.5 million contract. While Cleveland kept the foundation of a its top-10 defense, the team has a massive rebuilding job on offense. The Browns have question marks at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. Cleveland will try to upgrade from Colt McCoy at quarterback and find a No. 1 wide receiver either through free agency or the draft. The running back position is more complicated. Hillis, the biggest name among Browns' free agents, said he believes the team want him to test free agency, although Cleveland officials have repeatedly expressed interest in retaining him. The Browns might not find much better in free agency, but they will be wary of giving a multiyear contract to a running back whose production dropped from 1,177 rushing yards in 2010 to 587 last season. Cleveland will look to re-sign Patterson, who has the potential to start over Sheldon Brown this season.

What to expect: The most pressing question is whether the Browns will pursue Matt Flynn, the top unrestricted free-agent quarterback. Going after Flynn wouldn't make much sense because he is so similar to McCoy in terms of quarterback style. Both lack prototypical arm strength and size. Flynn, however, makes better reads and has better pocket awareness. Signing Flynn would eliminate trading up for Robert Griffin III, but Flynn isn't a dynamic playmaker like the Heisman Trophy winner. The other positions of need are wide receiver and defensive end. The Colts' Pierre Garcon is the best fit for the Browns because he gives them much-needed speed and a proven track record. Garcon had 70 catches for 947 yards and six touchdowns in a season without Peyton Manning throwing the ball to him. As far as defensive end, it's a longshot to think the Browns can sign the likes of Mario Williams or Cliff Avril. The other free-agent defensive ends are older and riskier: John Abraham and Andre Carter. Perhaps Cleveland will wait until the draft to find someone to start opposite Jabaal Sheard.

Baltimore Ravens

Key free agents: RB Ray Rice (franchise tag), C Matt Birk, G Ben Grubbs, LB Jarret Johnson, LB Jameel McClain, DE Cory Redding, CB Lardarius Webb (restricted) and CB Cary Williams (restricted).

Where they stand: The Ravens took care of their most important free agent when they put the franchise tag on Rice. He would've been the top free-agent running back -- and one of the top overall free agents. Baltimore's biggest areas of concern are the interior offensive line and linebacker. The Ravens are trying hard to re-sign Grubbs because their offensive line struggled mightily when he was sidelined with a toe injury. But Grubbs appears intent on entering free agency and he'll probably get a more lucrative deal from a guard-needy team like the Bears, Cowboys, Falcons, Chiefs or Bengals. It's going to be much easier for Baltimore to keep Birk, who has decided to play after contemplating retirement. This will be a one-year stopgap, especially if the Ravens draft a center in the early rounds. Baltimore wants to retain two starting linebackers in Johnson and McClain, but both could get bigger deals elsewhere like Grubbs. Former Ravens defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches Rex Ryan (Jets) and Chuck Pagano (Colts) could have their eyes on those linebackers. The Ravens are expected to protect Webb with a first-round tender.

What to expect: Baltimore needs to find a productive No. 3 wide receiver for Joe Flacco after failing to do so in 2010 (T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and 2011 (Lee Evans). A logical target is Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal, who can fill the void as the third target on offense and the top returner on special teams. His numbers have drastically plummeted since his 91-catch rookie season in 2008 (Jay Cutler's final season in Denver) but the Broncos have struggled to find consistency at quarterback during that time, too. The Ravens would make a bigger splash with the Colts' Reggie Wayne, a former roommate of safety Ed Reed while the two were at the University of Miami. But coach John Harbaugh said the Ravens don't have the cap room to sign a high-priced wide receiver. The Ravens don't have to be aggressive in free agency because they can promote from within (Paul Kruger can replace Johnson, Dannell Ellerbe can take over for McClain and Pernell McPhee can step up for Redding) and fill other holes through the draft.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Key free agents: WR Mike Wallace (restricted), WR Hines Ward (released), LB James Farrior (released), QB Charlie Batch, QB Dennis Dixon, QB Byron Leftwich, RB Mewelde Moore, WR Jerricho Cotchery, OT Max Starks, NT Chris Hoke (retired), CB William Gay, CB Bryant McFadden (released), P Daniel Sepulveda, G-C Doug Legursky (restricted) and G Ramon Foster (restricted).

Where they stand: The Steelers have been the NFL's most active team this offseason out of necessity. Pittsburgh had to chop $25 million to get under the salary cap, and it surprisingly did so while losing only one starter (Farrior). The Steelers created room by cutting six players (Farrior, Ward, McFadden, defensive end Aaron Smith, guard Chris Kemoeatu and wide receiver Arnaz Battle) and restructuring the contracts of five players (Ben Roethlisberger, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Ike Taylor and Willie Colon). It wasn't enough cap space for the Steelers to use the franchise tag on Wallace. A first-round tender on Wallace leaves the Steelers vulnerable to losing the deep threat, although the Steelers intend to match any offer sheet.

What to expect: The Steelers won't be active in free agency because of their cap situation. But, really, when have the Steelers ever been aggressive in free agency? Pittsburgh has remained one of the top organizations by drafting the right players and rewarding them with long-term contracts to keep them away from free agency. The top free-agent signing might be the re-signing of Cotchery, who would compete with Emmanuel Sanders for the No. 3 wide receiver job. The Steelers want to keep Gay, who played well after regaining his starting job, and have to make a decision at backup quarterback (most likely Leftwich over Batch). On the offensive line, the Steelers will move Marcus Gilbert from right to left tackle and put Colon back at right tackle. With the uncertain future of nose tackle Casey Hampton (ACL surgery in January), drafting his eventual replacement is a priority.

AFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Houston Texans

Key free agents: OLB Mario Williams, C Chris Myers, G Mike Brisiel, TE Joel Dreessen, K Neil Rackers, CB Jason Allen.

Where they stand: The Texans did well to lock up running back Arian Foster with a long-term deal, which meant they didn’t need to franchise him. But it’s going to be next to impossible to retain Williams. The defense did well without him for 11 games in 2011. But it would still be far better with him than not. He’s in position to demand huge dollars on the open market, where plenty of teams are desperate for a premium pass-rusher. He is the line guy who fits the bill. Myers is a big priority, and while he’s a super system fit who’d like to stay, he can be effective in a lot of places and will be courted. Brisiel is a solid starter, and the backup center, so they’d certainly like to keep him as well.

What to expect: Not much. The team ventured into free agency last year to round out the secondary with cornerback Johnathan Joseph and safety Danieal Manning. But this time around there is little money and their focus will be on trying to lock up guys who are in line to come free in 2012. So that receiver they’ll add could come in the draft instead of in the form of Colts free agent Reggie Wayne or another veteran. They could make some money moves. Receiver/returner Jacoby Jones and inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans currently rate as too pricey.

Indianapolis Colts

Key free agents: WR Pierre Garcon, WR Reggie Wayne, C Jeff Saturday, TE Jacob Tamme, OT Ryan Diem, WR Anthony Gonzalez, G Mike Pollak, LB Philip Wheeler.

Where they stand: They did well to lock up defensive end Robert Mathis, who is sure to do some outside linebacker work as Indy transitions to a 3-4. Beyond that, it may be tough. They’re letting Peyton Manning go to avoid a big bonus and because of health concerns, so Andrew Luck from Stanford will be on his way in. Will they be aggressive in trying to keep Garcon and Saturday to be a help to Luck? If all the receivers go, they are quite thin. And the interior line needs to be rebuilt, so keeping Saturday for another year could help ease the process. New GM Ryan Grigson is an unknown quantity, and he could be more active in free agency than Bill Polian and Chris Polian were.

What to expect: Again, with Grigson in control and Chuck Pagano a first-time head coach, it’s hard to predict. With the holes on the roster, it’s hard to imagine the Colts won’t do at least a bit of shopping in the mid-priced market. If they do, a cornerback, interior offensive lineman, receiver and cornerback rank as top needs. Pagano is connected to a few guys from Baltimore coming free. Linebacker Jarret Johnson and safety/special-teamer Haruki Nakamura could be targets from the Ravens.

Jacksonville Jaguars

Key free agents: S Dwight Lowery, DE Jeremy Mincey, CB Rashean Mathis, DE Matt Roth, OT Guy Whimper, QB Luke McCown.

Where they stand: Lowery has to be priority one. They did good work to fix the safety position last year, so they don’t need to be in position to fix it again. Mincey’s value is up with all the ends who were tagged. Mathis is coming off a torn ACL. They should be able to wait with him and get him back late if they want to see if he can mentor a youngster for one year. They should seek a major upgrade on McCown as a fallback behind Blaine Gabbert.

What to expect: They’ve got a new owner with money and plenty of cap room, but have sent out a strong signal they won’t be super-active. Hopefully that still leaves room for big moves with veteran outsiders. Two ideal candidates who would show a real urgency -- Houston’s outside linebacker/ defensive end Mario Williams and San Diego receiver Vincent Jackson. They have to have veteran receiver help. And don’t sleep on cornerback, where they don’t have a clear No. 1 guy and need depth.

Tennessee Titans

Key free agents: CB Cortland Finnegan, DE Jason Jones, G Jake Scott, FB Ahmard Hall, DE William Hayes, LB Barrett Ruud, S Jordan Babineaux.

Where they stand: They franchised safety Michael Griffin and are expected to sign Babineaux as soon as free agency hits. But they’ve told Finnegan they are letting him go and he could land in Dallas, Detroit or even St. Louis. They have enough at corner to go forward. They made a mistake moving Jones to end and should put him back at tackle if they can retain him, but an outsider may value him more. Hayes and Ruud are goners. A guy like Hall is good in the locker room and should rebound from an off year, but as he’s situational he can’t be any sort of priority.

What to expect: They need a pass-rusher above all else. So while I don’t think they will overpay as much as other candidates for Mario Williams, they should at least dip their toe into the water. They are going to move on from Scott and at least tinker with the interior offensive line. Look for them to sign a second-tier guard or center they think can blossom with them. They do not view receiver as the sort of need many outsiders do, but certainly need depth.

AFC East: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Buffalo Bills

Key free agents: TE Scott Chandler, WR Roscoe Parrish, OT Demetrius Bell, OL Kraig Urbik (restricted)

Where they stand: The Bills are in good shape with free agency. After signing leading receiver Steve Johnson on Monday, the Bills don't have any big names hitting the market. Buffalo also has solid cap room, and general manager Buddy Nix said the team plans to use it all. The Bills will do their best to lure big-name free agents to Buffalo, which has been a challenge in previous years.

What to expect: Signing Johnson set the tone and direction for the Bills in free agency. It allows Buffalo to focus on other needs, such as left tackle, cornerback and an outside pass-rusher. I expect the Bills to try to make a splash. But they may have to overpay for top names to get their attention. Buffalo also plans to work out a contract extension with starting running back Fred Jackson.

Miami Dolphins

Key free agents: DT Paul Soliai, QB Chad Henne, G Vernon Carey, OT Marc Colombo, DE Kendall Langford

Where they stand: The Dolphins are in the thick of the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Miami's cap situation is decent, but not great, and a lot of that will be saved to see if the team can make a strong pitch to recruit Manning to Miami. After Miami hits or misses on Manning, everyone will have a much better idea how aggressive the Dolphins will be in free agency. The Dolphins have needs at right tackle, safety and an outside pass-rusher.

What to expect: Don't expect Miami to sign many of its own free agents. Soliai, Henne and Colombo have little or no chance to return. Carey is a possibility, because of his versatility. The Dolphins have a new head coach in Joe Philbin, and there will be roster turnover to fit the style of offense and defense Philbin wants to run next season. I think Miami has all the chips to make a strong run at Manning, but former Green Bay Packers quarterback Matt Flynn wouldn't be a bad Plan B.

New England Patriots

Key free agents: WR Wes Welker (franchise tag), RB BenJarvus Green-Ellis, WR Deion Branch, DE Mark Anderson, DE Andre Carter

Where they stand: The Patriots are in great shape. They have more cap space than any team in the division and four draft picks in the first two rounds. Welker's franchise tag will eat up a good chunk of their cap space, but the Patriots could make room later by working out a long-term contract. The reigning AFC champions have a lot of free agents, and I expect some roster turnover with this team.

What to expect: Little information gets outside the Patriots' walls, so New England is always hard to gauge. With Welker tagged, I think Anderson and maybe Carter, if healthy, would be targets to return. The Patriots would rather add pass-rushers instead of letting them go. Branch could return in a limited role, but not as a starter. Although I think New England would like to keep the sure-handed Green-Ellis, I doubt the team will overpay for him. New England has the room to make a splash and get at least one stud free agent. Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Mike Wallace are among the names often mentioned.

New York Jets

Key free agents: WR Plaxico Burress, S Jim Leonhard, RB LaDainian Tomlinson, DT Sione Pouha, LB Aaron Maybin (restricted)

Where they stand: The Jets have several needs but not much cap space to fill all of them. New York was a team built to win now and has a lot of guaranteed money tied up in veteran players. The Jets will let many veterans who are unrestricted free agents walk, such as Burress, Leonhard and Tomlinson. The team also restructured left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson's contract and gave permission for starting linebacker Bart Scott ($4.2 million salary) to seek a trade. The Jets are trying to remain in contention without rebuilding their roster too much.

What to expect: Don't expect any top names in free agency for the Jets. The Jets did enough to get under the cap and free some wiggle room to chase a few mid-level players. Veteran outside linebacker Jarret Johnson is one example. The team will also try to retain free agents such Pouha and Maybin, who tied for the team lead in sacks and is a restricted free agent. But don't expect the Jets to pay for an expensive and elite player such as Manning.

AFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
3/07/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Denver Broncos

Key free agents: K Matt Prater (franchised), DT Brodrick Bunkley, S Brian Dawkins, TE Daniel Fells, FB Spencer Larsen, WR Eddie Royal, QB Brady Quinn, DT Marcus Thomas, LB Wesley Woodyard, P Britton Colquitt (restricted).

Where they stand: The Broncos will have plenty of salary-cap room. For a team that went from 4-12 with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to winning the AFC West and a playoff game in John Fox’s first season as coach, the Broncos are in position to improve through free agency. With Prater franchised, the team’s only priority unrestricted free agent is Bunkley.

What to expect: Don’t expect a huge spending spree. The Broncos are cash conscious and I think the franchise is still recovering from some undisciplined spending during the Mike Shanahan era that ended in 2008. We will see the Broncos try to add several pieces at lower prices. Denver could address needs at safety, running back, receiver, tight end, linebacker and quarterback. Keep an eye on players such as Washington safety LaRon Landry, Seattle tight end John Carlson, quarterbacks Chad Henne (Miami), Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh) or Josh Johnson (Tampa), running backs Michael Bush (Oakland) and Mike Tolbert (San Diego), and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene Cincinnati.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key free agents: WR Dwayne Bowe (franchised), CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, RB Jackie Battle, LB Jovan Belcher, S Jon McGraw, C Casey Wiegmann, RB Thomas Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Kelly Gregg

Where they stand: The Chiefs are in great shape on cap space even after signing cornerback Stanford Routt and franchising Bowe. They have already done a nice job in free agency with these two moves and have a good, young roster. Kansas City can become a serious playoff contender with the right moves. It is likely Carr will leave in free agency, but the Chiefs should be able to re-sign most of their other free agents if they wish.

What to expect: I’m not sure we will see the Chiefs break the bank for any of the super-hot free agents, but I expect them to do some significant shopping. I think we could see Kansas City look for help at nose tackle, linebacker, safety, tackle, running back and quarterback. Of course, the intrigue could start if the team gets in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. But they could also look at several other quarterbacks, including Orton, Henne, Jason Campbell (Oakland) or even Quinn. They could also be in the mix for Miami nose tackle Paul Soliai, Saints guard Carl Nicks and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Bush and Tolbert.

Oakland Raiders

Key free agents: S Tyvon Branch (franchised), RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, LB Quentin Groves, C Samson Satele, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, FB Marcel Reece (restricted).

Where they stand: The Raiders are one of the few teams that must get under the salary cap. Oakland coach Dennis Allen recently acknowledged the team has work to do. The Raiders have some contracts that can be easily restructured, but they also may have to cut some players, particularly on defense. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and defensive tackle John Henderson are among the top candidates.

What to expect: The Raiders likely face some limitations once they get under the cap, but they can add two or three starting-quality players under the right circumstances. Their primary needs are on defense, starting at cornerback and linebacker. The offensive line could be upgraded as well. I think they can be in on the second wave of cornerbacks. A player to watch is New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who previously played for Allen. There are some solid second-tier cornerbacks Oakland could be interested in other than Porter. There will be some good players available on both sides of the ball after the initial wave of free agency for short-term deals. Expect the Raiders to do some bargain picking during that time. I think Oakland will be interested in signing several of its free agents, but I expect Bush and Campbell will leave.

San Diego Chargers

Key free agents: WR Vincent Jackson, C Nick Hardwick, RB Tolbert, DT Antonio Garay, OT Jared Gaither, FB Jacob Hester.

Where they stand: The Chargers will be in decent shape and they are getting even better after cutting Luis Castillo, the retirement of guard Kris Dielman and the expected release of tackle Marcus McNeill. But San Diego still has a lot of work to do. They have the most priority free agents of any team in the division. Signing Jackson, Hardwick, Gaither, Tolbert and Garay will be a challenge.

What to expect: The Chargers will likely stick to their usual plan and concentrate first on their own free agents. But they also have other needs and they will likely spend more in free agency than they have done before under general manager A.J. Smith. I get the sense from some agents that the Chargers may spend wildy in an attempt to win back the fan base’s trust after the unpopular contract extensions for Smith and coach Norv Turner. The pair were brought back even after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. I also get the sense from inside the organization, however, that the Chargers will not act out of desperation. Look for the team to consider pass-rushers, nose tackles, safeties and offensive linemen if Hardwick and Gaither aren’t brought back. A receiver will also become a major need if Jackson goes. The Colts' Reggie Wayne could be an option in that case. A running back such as Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) reportedly will be in the mix if Tolbert walks. Soliai could interest the team as well. Chicago special teams ace Corey Graham may also be a target. If the Chargers want to make a huge splash, they could try to get in on Houston pass-rusher Mario Williams, who is widely considered the best player on the market.

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