Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Expect Skins to set the pace
By John Clayton ESPN.com
Last summer, free agency was thrown together late because of the lockout.
Even though teams have had an extra two weeks to prepare, free agency 2012 has the same feel. The $120.6 million cap number wasn't circulated until Sunday, 48 hours before the start of free agency. The Cowboys and Redskins were docked a combined $46 million for previous salary-cap violations, and the money was redistributed Monday at about $1.6 million per team.
Tenders to restricted free agents were being given at the last minute and a handful of teams were scrambling to get under the salary cap. Free agency officially begins at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, and teams are bracing for chaos.
More than 420 players are expected to hit the market, although a bunch will likely re-sign Tuesday morning. Here are the five things to watch in what will be a wild free-agent ride.
1. Good luck competing against Dan Snyder: Redskins owner Dan Snyder rarely loses a bidding war in which he holds some cards. Look what happened last week. The Browns had two first-round picks and more to offer the St. Louis Rams to move up to the draft's No. 2 spot in order to take Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Still, Snyder kept raising the stakes and ended up getting the No. 2 pick by offering three first-round choices and a second-rounder.
Because good cap management allowed the Redskins to move $13.36 million of last year's cap space into this year, Snyder will be a big player in free agency. Getting Griffin to be his quarterback will make him only hungrier and more aggressive going after free agents. And with no first-round picks in 2013 and 2014, Snyder has even more incentive to go after free agents.
That news should strike fear into the hearts of teams such as Chicago, which will likely go after Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson. Watch for the Redskins to target Jackson, Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and others. Snyder and the Redskins suffered a big blow Monday when the league took back $36 million of cap room for cap moves made in 2010, but he'll find a way to get whom he wants in free agency. Despite the cap hit, he's a player.
2. The post-Peyton Manning sweepstakes: Manning has dominated the headlines, but his signing will cause a trickle-down effect on the free-agent market. Packers backup Matt Flynn is the top free agent after Manning. If the Dolphins can't land Manning, they will go after Flynn. The Seahawks and Browns will be in the mix on Flynn. If Manning goes to Arizona, that could lead to Kevin Kolb's release. The Browns might be after him. The Seahawks might consider him, too. Kyle Orton remains the next option for a team that doesn't land a starter. As for Vince Young, Jason Campbell, Chad Henne and others, they have to accept backup roles.
Wherever he ends up, Mario Williams is in line for a monster payday.
3. Mario mania: The top free agent on defense is Texans defensive end Mario Williams. The debate is whether 3-4 teams are willing to meet the price demands that work. Williams is the biggest name on defense to hit the market since Julius Peppers. The Atlanta Falcons and Seahawks will be the most likely 4-3 teams to get into the mix, but the price could go as high as $15 million a year. Williams offers a team a pass-rusher who is good enough to get 12 to 16 sacks a season. Because the top of the draft isn't loaded with top pass-rushers, the race to get Williams will be intense. Teams using 3-4 defenses will look at the five games he played in that scheme last season to determine if they can justify such an expense.
4. Receivers are everywhere: At the scouting combine, the list of tall, fast wide receivers was long and impressive The free-agent market could also be fruitful for teams in need of wide receivers. Jackson of the Chargers is the headliner. The Redskins, Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are expected to lead the efforts to sign him. Pierre Garcon didn't like the Colts' final offers and plans to hit the market. The Saints have Robert Meachem available. Mario Manningham of the Giants could end up in Tampa Bay or somewhere else. The Jaguars need the most help at wide receiver, but they have to determine if they want to use free agency, the draft or both.
5. Restricted area: The restricted free-agent market is often boring and without activity. The reason is simple. Four-year rookie contracts and first-round deals that go five years limit the pool of restricted free agents. Restricted free agency starts after three accrued seasons and usually involves a lot of players drafted lower than the second round or not at all. With Arian Foster of the Houston Texans signing a five-year contract to stay, the most interesting restricted free agent is wide receiver Mike Wallace of the Pittsburgh Steelers. To protect themselves, the Steelers put a first-round tender on him. The question other teams will face is whether to gamble money and a first-round pick to acquire him. Because the Steelers would have seven days to restructure contracts and match a Wallace deal, opposing teams may shy away from going for him. Another interesting restricted free agent is Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb, who excels in man-to-man coverage. Overall, the list of restricted free agents likely won't get much action.