Commentary

Mike Wallace is the gem of this class

How will NFL's new free-agency negotiating period that starts at midnight work?

Originally Published: March 8, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL now has a its own version of Midnight Madness.

To help teams better determine the value of free agents, the NFL created a new negotiating period in which agents for potential free agents can talk with other teams. It starts at midnight Friday and concludes at 4 p.m. Tuesday, which is the official start of free agency.

The rules are simple. Teams can't arrange visits for unrestricted free agents. They can't even discuss travel arrangements until after the official start of free agency Tuesday. If deals are reached, the contracts can't be executed until Tuesday.

How many deals will be struck over the weekend? No one knows. For a team to agree to a free-agent contract, that team must be willing to accept the player sight unseen. The NFL knows agents always talk to teams before the start of free agency, but many teams who have rights to those free agents believed they were getting blindsided when free agency started because in the past they didn't know the market prices of these players.

Midnight Madness should fix that problem.

Here are the five things you need to know about the start of free agency:

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsMike Wallace's speed sets him apart from the other wide receivers available.

1. Mike Wallace is the star offensive player: Even though Greg Jennings of the Green Bay Packers and Wes Welker of the New England Patriots have had more accomplished careers, Wallace is the star of this free-agent class. His speed is the reason. Jennings and Welker work the middle of the field well, but it's hard to find outside threats with speed. Wallace offers that, which should earn him a contract worth more than $10 million a year. The re-signings of Dwayne Bowe and Brian Hartline has taken an edge off the receiver market and might send more teams into the rich tight end market. Jared Cook of the Tennessee Titans, Dustin Keller of the New York Jets, Martellus Bennett of the New York Giants and Brandon Myers of the Oakland Raiders head an impressive list of tight ends who can work the middle of the field for receptions. The draft doesn't appear to be loaded with top wide receivers, so more teams may dip into the free-agent market for upgrades.

2. A shift to the right along the offensive line: Taking Branden Albert and Ryan Clady out of the free-agent market with franchise tags weakened the left tackle market. Jermon Bushrod of the New Orleans Saints, Sam Baker of the Atlanta Falcons and Jake Long of the Miami Dolphins head the remaining list of free agent left tackles. But the right tackle market might be richer. Andre Smith of the Cincinnati Bengals, Gosder Cherilus of the Detroit Lions, Sebastian Vollmer of the New England Patriots and Phil Loadholt of the Minnesota Vikings were arguably the four best right tackles in football last year. Added to the list of right tackles was Eric Winston, who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs. Left tackles can command contracts worth between $8 million and $12 million a year. Only one right tackle, Doug Free of the Dallas Cowboys, makes more than $6.2 million a year, and he got that contract when he was a left tackle. Smith wants to set the right tackle market at $9 million a year. Andy Levitre of the Buffalo Bills and Louis Vasquez of the San Diego Chargers head the list of guards.

[+] EnlargePaul Kruger
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsPaul Kruger's performance in the playoffs may take him out of the Ravens' price range.

3. There will be a rush for pass-rushers: All teams are looking for pass-rushers, and this year's class of free agents offers plenty of options. The most interesting name is Baltimore Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger. Like Joe Flacco, Kruger got hot at the right time and should earn a big paycheck. He had a nine-sack regular season, but he had four and a half during the playoffs. His late run to glory could make him too expensive for the Ravens to keep. Four teams are switching from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and that might put teams such as Cleveland and Buffalo in the market for Kruger. Cliff Avril played out of his franchise tag in Detroit and hopes to land a big contract. The Giants hope to find a way to keep Osi Umenyiora, but he could bolt to Atlanta or Seattle. John Abraham and Dwight Freeney may be getting older, but they could entice 4-3 teams looking for pass-rush upgrades to sign them. A sleeper is Michael Bennett of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He had nine sacks last season.

4. Not a good year to be in the market for a running back: The draft may not have a first-round running back, and free agency doesn't offer much more. The top running backs in free agency are Steven Jackson and Reggie Bush. Jackson voided his contract with the St. Louis Rams because he knew the Rams weren't going to keep him at a $7 million salary. The Rams still want him, but he could be lured by the Atlanta Falcons. Bush could be targeted by the Detroit Lions, who want a versatile back to replace Jahvid Best, whose career might be over because of concussions. Shonn Greene of the Jets has had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, but his modest yards per carry average may not draw much of a market. Rashard Mendenhall and Felix Jones are former first-round picks looking for chances to restart their careers.

5. The Miami Dolphins could be the big players: Last year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the big players when they invested more than $30 million of cap dollars to sign Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. The Dolphins could be the big players this time, but they need to be. The Dolphins headed into the offseason with $45 million of cap room. They've already spent a bunch by franchising Randy Starks and re-signing Brian Hartline and Matt Moore. General manager Jeff Ireland needs to hit it big in free agency because of past roster decisions. Last year, Ireland traded away Brandon Marshall and Vontae Davis without having replacements. Although that has given him extra No. 2 and No. 3 draft choices, Ireland is juggling a tricky roster. Jake Long, Reggie Bush, Sean Smith and Chris Clemons are free agents, and he has to make sure he's not at a loss for a left tackle, running back, cornerback and safety. He also needs to sign Mike Wallace, who is a No.1 wide receiver despite his off-the-field issues, to replace Marshall. As of Friday, close to $500 million of cap room is available across the NFL, but that money will go quickly. The Cleveland Browns have $47 million of room and could go for Kruger and a cornerback. The Bengals have $42 million, and the Indianapolis Colts, $41 million. The Bengals may invest more in re-signings. The Colts will use some of their money on defense.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer