Analyzing the Top 10 Free Agents at each position (Offense)

March 12, 2012 by

TOP 10 FREE AGENT QUARTERBACKS

Disclaimer: Remember, roughly 90 percent of free agents are only free agents because their last team didn’t want them.

FIRST CLASS ELITE

1. Peyton Manning (Last team IND, currently 35 years old)

See “Weighing Risk and Reward on Peyton Manning”

http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/08/weighing-risk-and-reward-on-peyton-manning/

 

PRO BOWL CALIBER

None

 

QUALITY STARTER

2. Matt Flynn (GB, 26)

The most fascinating free agent quarterback of this year – and possibly of this millennium. Is he a superstar in waiting (as the staggering stats from his two career starts suggest)? Or is he a system quarterback with limited tools (as his seventh round draft status suggests)? On film, in his two starts, Flynn appeared to be the real deal. He played with poise in the pocket, threw with accuracy and, in the Detroit start, displayed an understanding of the complexities of Green Bay’s offense. But plenty of quarterbacks have looked like the real deal in their early starts only to be exposed once teams saw enough film of them (see Maddox, Tommy or Anderson, Derek).

Most interesting will be how much a team invests the 26-year-old. He’s worth signing to a hefty but safe Kevin Kolb-like contract, where a team pays big up front but allocates a bulk of the cash into what’s basically a second-year option. But if there are multiple teams bidding, will one roll the dice by making a substantial long-term investment? That’d be an enormous, perhaps even reckless, risk. Flynn was closely evaluated in the pre-Draft process five years ago and all 32 teams determined he was a seventh-round talent. Not usually do two starts and a bunch of quality practices drastically change that.

 

STARTER

3. Kyle Orton (KC, 31)

Classic plug-in veteran who has experience in systems ranging from “run-first” to “spread”. Orton has a much quicker release than given credit for, and his accuracy is aided by decent anticipation. He’s mechanical, though, so if you have limitations at wide receiver, he won’t be able to manufacture yards.

 

ROLE PLAYER (Could start in a specific offense, could be a solid backup)

4. Chad Henne (MIA, 26)

The 37 interceptions over the last 33 games are certainly concerning. But in a horizontal, shotgun-based scheme, Henne has the prototypical tools and size to be an effective distributor from the pocket. He wasn’t cerebral enough to thrive in a somewhat unstable situation as a Dolphin, and his overall body of work is not impressive enough to warrant anything better than a modest two-year deal. But Henne has better raw attributes than “game managers” like Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Rex Grossman and whatever McCown brother you might be partial to.

 

5. Alex Smith (SF, 27)

It’d make more sense for a team to invest in Jim Harbaugh, as it’s Harbaugh’s scheme that really sprouted the quality quarterbacking in Smith. Last season the Niners kept scaling back their offense until it was as rudimentary as a really complex high school scheme. Very few teams have the defense and run game to win that way. Smith’s was tremendous in the playoff win against the Saints, but that was because he faced a litany of man coverage blitzes that forced him to pull the trigger with aggression and decisiveness. Smith’s mediocre performance the following week against the Giants’ more convoluted, zone-based defense painted a purer picture of what the seven-year quarterback actually is.

 

6. Jason Campbell (OAK, 30)

A lot of people will cite that the Raiders had a 4-2 record with Campbell last season. There was a reason for that: Darren McFadden. On film, it was clear that Hue Jackson & Co. were hamstrung by Campbell’s slow, robotic style. The offense became more erratic once Carson Palmer showed up, but that was a function of receiver injuries and Palmer’s rusty turnovers. We hear all the time that Campbell has been victimized by playing in four different systems at Auburn and four different systems in the pros. That argument goes both ways, though. If Campbell, a former first-round pick, were really that capable, his teams wouldn’t be changing coaches and systems all the time (especially in the pros). You think it’s a coincidence that no one ever tried to change Peyton Manning’s system in Indy or Eli Manning’s system in New York?

 

BACKUP

7. Shaun Hill (DET, 32)

The journeyman backup doesn’t have the strongest arm, but he has proven many times that he can keep an offense afloat for a few weeks.

 

8. A.J. Feeley (STL, 34)

One of the smartest players in the game. Not a great passer – which is why he’s never come close to being a fulltime NFL starter – but someone who can help teach your offense and keep the entire playbook open when filling in.

 

9. Vince Young (PHI, 28)

To be frank, Young is a flat-out bad thrower (by NFL standards). And he’s not nearly as good of a runner as fans think. The idea that he could be a quality backup behind a run-oriented quarterback was disproved in Philly last season. Before that, the idea that he could be a game-managing starter was disproved multiple times in Tennessee.

 

10. Josh Johnson (TB, 25)

Hard to gauge the athletic Johnson given that his body of work is so limited at this point. The Bucs used him as a wildcat specialist (though not with great success).

 

OTHER FAMILIAR NAMES

Derek Anderson – Has regressed over the course of his career.

Chris Redman – Falcons might want to keep him but probably not worthwhile for him to go to another club.

Caleb Hanie – Had his chance last year and wound up unemployed.

Brady Quinn – Isn’t it curious that such a high-profile first-round pick has never really gotten a true shot anywhere?

Jake Delhomme – At this point, he’s every defense’s favorite player.

David Garrard – Injuries have scared teams off.

Charlie Whitehurst – Not even close to viable.

 

TOP 10 FREE AGENT RUNNING BACKS

Disclaimer: Remember, roughly 90 percent of free agents are free agents because they’re last team did not want them.

 

FIRST CLASS ELITE

None

 

PRO BOWL CALIBER

None

 

STARTER

1. Peyton Hillis (last team: CLE, currently 26 years old)

A true north/south grinder who can give you a sustainable, all-weather rushing attack. The problem is last season he got on the Madden cover in a contract year and became one of the few seventh-round old school country boys in history to develop a locker-room-dividing ego. Injuries were also an issue. Happy or unhappy, Hillis isn’t the type of player you bestow with a meaty long-term deal. If he can accept his status as part of the NFL’s upper middle class, he can be a featured back in a traditional offense. Augmenting Hillis’s value is the fact that, while he looks like a class two-down grinder, he’s actually a much better third down blocker and receiver than given credit for.

 

ROLE PLAYER

2. Michael Bush (OAK, 27)

Bush is capable of exploding for 150 yards, but he proved down the stretch last season that he’s best used as the thunderous compliment to a lightning runner. Bush has the sheer power to abuse defenses inside, and he flashes surprising bits of fluid agility. He’ll likely want to go wherever he can get the most carries (which would also bring the most money), but teams that are interested in winning over the long haul should view him as a puzzle piece, not a focal point.

 

3. Cedric Benson (CIN, 29)

He’s 29 and slowed down last season, but given that he only carried the ball 12 times per game over his first three years, he could serve as a viable starter in a two-back rotation. That is if he can be mature enough to accept such a role. He’s worth a shot; though not a consummate pounder, Benson runs with natural downhill momentum and a little more wiggle than his build suggests.

 

4. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (NE, 26)

Like vanilla ice cream: consistent, predictable and most effective when served as a complementary item in a more dynamic dessert. A team with a quality scat back – like the Chiefs with Jamaal Charles and Dexter McCluster or the Dolphins with Reggie Bush – could round out their offense with Green-Ellis’s steady inside running. Ironically, there’s a chance that Green-Ellis’s steadiness could limit his market, as teams may not identify any specific gameplan holes he could fill.

 

5. Mike Tolbert (SD, 26)

A fullback who can handle the ball in all varieties ranging from short-yardage running to third-down receiving. He’s not reliable enough to be a star, but he’ll make your team better in a multitude of ways. Many in the Chargers organization don’t want to let him get away.

 

6. Le’Ron McClain (KC, 27)

One of the best lead-blocking fullbacks in the game – and one of the few players who can actually instill true toughness and attitude in an organization. What people forget is that four years ago he rushed for 902 yards as the Ravens’ featured ballcarrier.

 

7. Jacob Hester (SD, 26)

It’s doubtful the Chargers will let him get away. He’s effective enough as a blocker, he shows soft hands out of the backfield and he’s carved out a deeper niche in Norv Turner’s system with each passing year.

 

BACKUP

8. Justin Forsett (SEA, 26)

Diminutive, space-oriented player who can dazzle with 10-15 touches a game but is prone to deteriorating after that. There are plenty of spread offenses that could incorporate him into sub-packages, though it’d help if he were a little more multidimensional in the passing game. The market for Forsett expands considering that he can return punts. That could allow a team to splurge on him as a No. 3 running back.

 

9. Ryan Grant (GB, 29)

Because Grant has posted 1,200-yard seasons in a prolific offense, people assume he is a star. But there’s a reason he came into the league undrafted. Grant’s a very mechanical runner. He takes too long to change directions and his stop/start crispness varies week to week. He’s not much of a weapon in passing situations and accumulates a lot of yardage by simply being a savvy runner who understands how to operate within the designs of a play. That’s fine but far from uncommon. You can manufacture yards for Grant, but he won’t manufacture a ton of yards for you.

 

10. LaDainian Tomlinson (NYJ, 32)

At this stage, his repetitions must be managed – even in a third down role. He can help a team because he’s an adept receiver – not just out of the backfield but also split in the slot. He pass-blocks well and still occasionally flashes watered down bursts of the lateral agility that once made him a superstar. The question is, Does he want to play for near minimum wage while getting three-to-four touches per game?

 

**Bonus: Brandon Jacob (NYG, 29)

His release came shortly after this list was completed. Put him somewhere either right above or right below Ryan Grant. Jacobs is a punishing downhill runner, but he’s not actually a power runner. He lacks the burst and leverage needed to consistently move the chains in short-yardage situations. The fact that he’s butter-fingered in the pass game won’t help him find a new team either.

 

**Bonus: Joseph Addai (IND, 29)

Nearing that wall that so many running backs hit at age 30. Hasn’t shown the same initial quickness and burst over the past two years – at least not on a consistent basis, anyway. He ranks near the bottom of the list, somewhere either slightly ahead or slightly behind Tomlinson.

 

OTHER FAMILIAR NAMES

Ronnie Brown – Still serviceable, but only as a backup. Problem is, he lacks a defining dynamic trait.

Tim Hightower – Coming off major injury.

Earnest Graham – Ditto (though ability to play fullback makes him slightly more attractive).

Maurice Morris – Has always had some quickness, but he’s 32 and not a big-time receiving weapon.

Thomas Jones – Too old for a playing style that demands consistent touches.

LenDale White – Fat and unfocused.

Kevin Faulk – Old (though deserves to go to the Role Player Hall of Fame).

Tashard Choice – Disappointing.

Chester Taylor – Old.

Mewelde Moore – Third down and special teams option, but so are a lot of younger guys.

 

TOP 10 FREE AGENT WIDE RECEIVERS

Disclaimer: Remember, roughly 90 percent of free agents are only free agents because they’re last team did not want them.

 

FIRST CLASS ELITE

none

 

PRO BOWL CALIBER

1. Vincent Jackson (last team SD, currently 29 years old)

It’s easy to see why the Chargers paid eight figures to franchise tag Jackson last year. At 6’5”, 230 and sound in the specifics of route running and ball-snagging, Jackson offers about as complete a package as any NFL receiver. Keeping him out of the First Class Elite category is a mild propensity to tail off against high quality coverage and a few off-the-field problems to his name. That said, if a team made Jackson one of the five highest paid receivers in the game, no one would bat an eye.

 

2. Mike Wallace (PIT, 25)

It’s rare to see restricted free agents sign with new teams – especially when they have a first-round tender. But even rarer is finding a player with Wallace’s field-stretching abilities. A lanky frame and long stride accentuate the fourth-year pro’s startling speed. Wallace can develop into a Randy Moss type weapon in the sense that he’s dangerous enough to command constant help coverage over the top. He’s not yet consistent enough to be placed in that top class that Moss was once in, however; refinements in route running, increased strength in possession type scenarios and a slight softening of hands are still needed.

 

3. Marques Colston (NO, 28)

It would be shocking if the Saints let their former seventh-round steal get away. Colston’s long size and supple strength make him a premier seam weapon from the slot. He can also operate in the red zone. Teams looking to sign Colston should be leery of his price tag. He has put up No. 1 receiver type numbers (1,000-plus yards in five of his six seasons as a pro), but he’s not a genuine No. 1. A genuine No. 1 lines up primarily outside and commands double teams a majority of the time; Colston’s success has been in exploiting single coverages from the inside as part of the Saints high powered machine.

 

4. Brandon Lloyd (STL, 30)

There’s something disconcerting about an insanely talented player who has been on five different teams in nine years. Clearly, Lloyd can be a headache to deal with. But in the right system (read: Josh McDaniels’) and in the right situation (read New England), he can be as dangerous as anyone in the game. He’s an acrobat downfield and near the sidelines, possessing two of the strongest hands the position has seen. His body control is amazing, and his route running, though not talked about, can be superb.

 

QUALITY STARTER

5. Pierre Garcon (IND, 25)

If we’re just going by career resume, or even the past three years, Garcon is not better than his former Colts teammate, Reggie Wayne. But he’s eight years younger and still improving. Thus, he presents better long-term value. Garcon fits in a lot of today’s offenses because he can run after the catch. He does so relying more on strength than speed (though that’s not to say Garcon isn’t fast). Polish and consistency remain small question marks, but good coaching and good quarterbacking should be enough to push the former small college star’s continued development.

 

6. Mario Manningham (NYG, 25)

Some team will pay Manningham 120 percent of his actual value because of what happened in the Super Bowl. No doubt, Manningham can be a big-game player and viable No. 2. But it’s unlikely that going somewhere else where he can be The Man will make him better than he was playing with Eli Manning in a familiar Giants system. Manningham has great footwork and is devoid of any major weaknesses. But he doesn’t have the build or dazzling tools to strike fear in a defense.

 

7. Reggie Wayne (IND, 33)

He’ll likely follow Peyton Manning, which will inflate his effectiveness. The hard truth is, ability-wise, Wayne has slowed down considerably the past few years. He doesn’t get off the line of scrimmage with as much quickness as he once did or accelerate in his change-of-direction. Consequently, he struggles to beat elite man coverage. That said, Wayne can still rely on his savvy and near-perfect fundamentals to be a quality No. 2 (especially if he’s with Manning).

 

ROLE PLAYER

8. Robert Meachem (NO, 27)

He’s more valuable as a Saint than he is anywhere else. As a Saint, he can be a fly-route specialist, which is really the only thing he’s done with great consistency in his career. That said, you couldn’t blame a team for rolling the dice by signing Meachem as a prominent No. 2. He’s improved throughout the course of his career and has just enough supple athleticism to justify his original first-round draft status.

 

9. Laurent Robinson (DAL, 26)

Robinson is essentially a lankier version of Miles Austin. At least, that’s what he looked like in a Dallas uniform. He’s a risk to sign to a long-term deal because, though he was phenomenal all-around as a breakout star last season, he was an injury-prone underachiever the previous four years. Still, Robinson is worth a chance given that he can go deep, play underneath and be fairly dangerous with the ball in his hands.

 

10. Jerome Simpson (CIN, 26)

Character concerns and inconsistent routes/hands are major large red flags. But when Simpson is right, he’s capable of a 150-yard Sunday afternoon. His quickness, athleticism and sheer playmaking prowess can be nightmarish for defenses, as there’s really nowhere on the field he can’t go. Overall, there’s more evidence suggesting Simpson will disappoint than satisfy…but that’s why a team can obtain his services at a bargain price.

 

OTHER FAMILIAR NAMES

Randy Moss – Forget the fact that he acted like a punk throughout 2010; the main reason he played for three different teams that season was that he had completely washed up. There’s no swiftness left in his change-of-direction.

Early Doucet – When Kurt Warner left Arizona, he apparently took the former third-round pick’s potential with him.

Roy Williams – Prone to maddening mistakes but still has good size and adequate tools.

Legedu Naanee – Versatility makes him valuable as a No. 4.

Eddie Royal – Never did turn into the next Wes Welker.

Andre Caldwell – Might still emerge as a quality No. 2 receiver, though he’s had plenty of chances to do so already.

Braylon Edwards – No longer good enough to overcome his personality.

Deion Branch – Wouldn’t work in any system other than New England’s – and New England probably isn’t pining to re-sign him.

Lee Evans – Hard to explain his drop-off other than saying that injuries have been a factor. Whatever it is, clearly the Bills got it right when they chose to release him last year.

 

TOP 10 FREE AGENT WIDE RECEIVERS

Disclaimer: Remember, roughly 90 percent of free agents are only free agents because they’re last team did not want them.

 

FIRST CLASS ELITE, PRO BOWL CALIBER

STARTER

1. Dallas Clark (Last team IND, 32 years old)

Won’t be the same player outside of Indianapolis’ Manning-led scheme, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be viable from the slot. He’d be wise to join a team that has a veteran quarterback.

 

ROLE PLAYER

2. Joel Dreessen (Last team HOU, 30 years old)

Lithe mover who can snag balls on the move. Also stands out at times as a help blocker in the run game.

 

3. John Carlson (SEA, 28)

Here’s how putrid the 2012 tight end free agent crop is: the man many consider to be the top prize is a fifth-year pro who has never had more than 627 receiving yards in a single season and who missed all of 2011 with a shoulder injury.

 

4. Bo Scaife (CIN, 31)

Serviceable blocker who can also catch what you throw him underneath.

 

5. Martellus Bennett (DAL, 25)

Has not lived up to second-round billing thus far but has sinewy athleticism and an ability to win on the perimeter as an in-line blocker.

 

6. Jacob Tamme (IND, 27)

Has H-back type skills but can also run most of the route tree (both from a natural tight end spot or out of the slot). Good build, fundamentally sound.

 

7. Jeremy Shockey (CAR, 32)

At this stage, runs almost as if he’s playing in heavy sand. Was productive in Carolina’s two tight end system last season, but it’s also telling that Carolina did not invite him back. His unquestioned toughness and decade worth of experience make him worth bringing in.

 

BACKUP

8. Visanthe Shiancoe (MIN, 32)

Can only produce if he’s a puzzle piece in a good offense, not the guy the gameplan is built around. Limitations as a blocker will make it tough to prolong his career.

 

9. Randy McMichael (SD, 33)

Has proven to be a serviceable fill-in starter and quality No. 2 blocker off the bench. Has a knack for acclimating himself to a gameplan.

 

10. Kellen Davis (CHI, 26)

Has the potential to be an excellent blocker, but last year’s inconsistency and mistakes give you pause.

 

TOP 10 FREE AGENT OFFENSIVE LINEMEN

Disclaimer: Remember, roughly 90 percent of free agents are only free agents because they’re last team did not want them.

 

FIRST CLASS ELITE

1. Carl Nicks, LG (Last team: NO, 27 years old)

Arguably the best guard in football right now. He is the size of a small house and possesses the powerful movement skills of a bucking bull. Improvements in pass protection over the past few years make him worth top dollar.

 

PRO BOWL CALIBER

2. Chris Myers, C (HOU, 30)

Fleet-footed agility makes him a consummate zone-blocking center. Has developed enough craftiness to neutralize powerful defenders who once took advantage of his size.

 

3. Jared Gaither, LT (SD, 26)

A gamble to sign long-term given that injuries (including a back) and personal frustrations curtailed his scintillating development in Baltimore. In the right environment – such as San Diego, where he signed late last season – he can develop back into a top 10 left tackle. Incredibly athletic for his size.

 

4. Ben Grubbs, LG (BAL, 28)

Very powerful run-blocker who is athletic enough to thrive in a zone scheme. Only concern is that he never quite fulfilled his Pro Bowl potential in Baltimore. He’s good, but initially, it looked like he was going to be great.

 

5. Scott Wells, C (GB, 31)

Revered by teammates. In his early 30s, he seems to have plenty left in the tank. It helps that he relies on intelligence and technical skills, not raw talent.

 

STARTER

6. Nick Hardwick, C (SD, 30)

Chargers really like him. Makes all the line calls and operates well when between mobile guards.

 

7. Chris Kemoeatu, LG (PIT, 29)

Coming off a bad 2011 campaign – bad enough to disqualify him from this list, in fact. But his run-blocking mobility is so outstanding that any team with an offensive line coach who can teach a player how to at least “not get demolished” in pass protection should consider taking a flyer on him.

 

ROLE PLAYER

8. Demetrius Bell, LT (BUF, 28)

Ranked too high on most people’s free agent list because it’s chic to tout an “under the radar” left tackle. The reality is, Bell was awful out of the gates. To his credit, he improved his pass-blocking significantly last season. But durability is a concern and left tackles, in general, are overpriced in today’s NFL. A team should be leery of reaching too much for this guy.

 

9. Vernon Carey, UL (MIA, 31)

Was never a liability in his seven years as a starter for the Dolphins. At this stage, he can fill a vacancy at right guard or right tackle or be a high quality utility backup.

 

10. Samson Satele, C (OAK, 27)

There might be some unsigned veteran centers who are better than him – Jeff Saturday, Dan Koppen, Matt Birk, Andre Gurode – but those guys are all aging stopgap options and likely to re-sign with their team or retire. When healthy, Satele was a very serviceable run-blocker in Oakland last season. He’s still relatively young yet has plenty of experience.

 

OTHER FAMILIAR NAMES

Jeff Backus, LT, DET – Not included primarily because he’s expected to re-sign with the Lions. Plus, he’s 34 and has never been much better than “very solid”.

Evan Mathis, G, PHI – Is high on everyone’s list just because the Eagles offense had a good run game last season. But watch the film and you’ll see a journeyman guard who consistently gets overpowered.

Kareem McKenzie, RT, NYG – It’s been a very respectable career for the longtime Jet/Giant. A Super Bowl victory is a great (and necessary) way to end it.

 

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