Commentary

Free agents who will shape next season

These five may not have highest profiles, but they might have biggest impacts

Originally Published: February 18, 2012
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

The posturing between Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and team owner Jim Irsay has gone on so long, it's easy to forget that other major moves are on the horizon in the NFL. The free-agent signing period begins March 13, which will be about 12 days after we know Manning's future with that franchise. But don't think the suspense around the league will end with that news. Other storylines will generate interest. A few of them will have just as much impact on what happens this fall as the decision that Irsay and Manning are pondering.

We already can guess that some of the biggest free-agent names won't be part of the suspense. New Orleans isn't going to let Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees leave town. The Chicago Bears surely will place the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte if the sides can't reach a long-term deal, and the Philadelphia Eagles reportedly will do the same with star receiver DeSean Jackson. But what will happen to the rest of the high-profile talent? After an abbreviated offseason last year, these players should be eager to see what their paydays will be in the near future.

These veterans are interesting for another reason: Like Manning, their decisions will have a profound impact on what happens next season. Some might be overvalued in the end. Others could leave a huge void in their old teams if they join new franchises. One thing is for certain: They will be talked about plenty over the next few months -- maybe not as much as that Manning fellow in Indianapolis, but you get the point.

Here are five other free agents who will influence what happens in the 2012 season:

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/Dave EinselMario Williams may be too expensive for the Texans to re-sign.
1. Mario Williams, OLB, Houston: The Texans are in a bind. They're one of the most salary-cap strapped teams and they're dealing with a Pro Bowl-caliber player who makes his living at one of the most expensive positions in the game. If Houston merely decided to place the franchise tag on Williams, it would mean guaranteeing him $22.9 million this season. That's a lot of coin when the team still needs to address the contract of restricted free-agent running back Arian Foster. Even worse, the Texans could potentially lose Williams -- who has 53.5 sacks sacks in five seasons -- when they've finally emerged as a legitimate championship contender. The best-case scenario here for the Texans is that Williams loves Houston so much that he takes less money to stay put. That also would be the dumbest decision of his career. Despite losing half of last season to injury, Williams is just 27 years old and has proved that he's versatile enough to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end. Williams is likely to become the highest-paid defensive player in league history and a major asset for somebody's pass rush. Unfortunately for the Texans, they probably won't be writing his checks.

2. Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City: Carr is intriguing because he's an unrestricted free agent at exactly the same time as the Chiefs' best receiver, Dwayne Bowe. So general manager Scott Pioli may have to decide to franchise his top target on offense or a 25-year-old cornerback who has good size (6-feet, 207 pounds) and reliable man coverage skills. The Chiefs may not re-sign both despite having as much salary cap space as any team in the NFL. Cornerbacks with Carr's potential tend to attract lots of money on the open market, and Kansas City owner Clark Hunt is far too cheap to compete in that kind of bidding war. The safe bet is that the Chiefs will secure Bowe because they need as much help as possible for quarterback Matt Cassel. They've also already given sizable extensions to cornerback Brandon Flowers, outside linebacker Tamba Hali and inside linebacker Derrick Johnson in recent years. Carr is good enough to be what Carlos Rogers and Johnathan Joseph were in San Francisco and Houston this season: maturing cornerbacks who can elevate a good defense to great.

3. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay: This is the scariest free agent in this class. He's the only quarterback with any serious clout -- San Francisco already has decided to re-sign Alex Smith after his breakout season -- and so much of his promise is based on the two games he's ever started in the league. Recent history suggests caution is warranted. Cassel did a great job of replacing the injured Tom Brady during New England's 2008 season, and he's been only a mediocre starter in three years with the Chiefs. Kevin Kolb should've been a great deal for the Arizona Cardinals after his four years in Philadelphia (three behind Donovan McNabb and a fourth that involved his losing his job to Michael Vick), and he's only generated more skepticism about his future after an inconsistent, injury-marred first season in Arizona. Please spare me all the talk about how well former Packers backups do once they become starters. Aside from Aaron Rodgers, most of the evidence in that argument came from the 1990s (when old-timers like Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks were backing up Brett Favre). Flynn's brightest moments came against a New England defense in 2010 that ranked 31st against the pass and a Detroit team this past season with an injury-riddled secondary. This isn't to say Flynn won't deliver when all those suitors come looking for a franchise quarterback. It's just that he may not be the same hot prospect without the supporting cast he's about to leave.

4. Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans: Nicks is another Pro Bowl player who finds himself in an unsettling place. As much as he'd like to continue being a part of a Saints offensive line that has helped drive one of the league's top offenses, he also has to be realistic. The Saints have to work out a long-term deal with Brees. The team has a few other free agents to address, most notably wide receiver Marques Colston and cornerback Tracy Porter. Finally, Nicks hasn't been thrilled about the lack of communication from the front office since the end of the season. If the Saints really want to lock him up, they have a strange way of showing their commitment. The tough part here for New Orleans is that Nicks knows his value. The Saints gave fellow guard Jahri Evans a seven-year, $56.7 million deal in 2010, making him the highest paid interior lineman in football. Nicks certainly would want more than that, and the Saints might not have the luxury of putting the franchise tag on him if Brees' negotiations aren't settled quickly. Don't expect Nicks to linger if he's free to talk to other teams come March 13. He's worth every bit of the $8 million to $9 million he'd be seeking annually, and his departure would be a huge blow to the Saints' offensive line.

5. Randy Moss, WR, unretired: Moss generated instant buzz the minute he decided to come out of retirement last week. Most people seemed to have forgotten the reasons he wound up retired in the first place. Though Moss claims he can still run a 40-yard dash in the 4.3 range, that was never his biggest issue when nobody wanted to sign him last season. He needs to prove that he's had a serious attitude adjustment and that the guy who played for three teams in 2010 actually wants to be a productive, committed team player. People rave about the fear he can strike in NFL defenses -- although at least one person, former Colts general manager Bill Polian, believes Moss has lost that burst -- but Moss always has been a classic front-runner. He quit on two teams (Minnesota twice and Oakland), never earned the faith of a third (Tennessee) and eventually wore out his welcome with the only franchise that ever took him to a Super Bowl (New England). The odds are good that he'll be useful only on a team that has serious championship potential. Even then, Moss, who's 35, might not be worth the risk.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.

Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.