NFL Fantasy News 2012

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hacheman@therx.com
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NFL Free Agent Master List

The 2011 free agent class was the deepest, most talent-rich in league history. The 2012 class comes pretty close.

With transactions disallowed during last year's lockout, NFL teams and agents had significantly less time to broker long-term contracts. When the lockout was lifted in late July, negotiators had just over a month to strike agreements before the start of the season. A large chunk of talented players was forced to settle for one-year arrangements. Contract-year players who normally would've received multi-year deals played out their final seasons.

Unlike most other sites, Rotoworld has NFL Players Association access and can produce the most accurate free agent lists on the web. Chris Wesseling, Pat Daugherty, and myself will soon begin delving deeper into the 2012 free agent class, but this is a preliminary look at the inventory. The unsigned players are loosely ranked in the order we expect them to be valued on the open market.

2012 free agency opens on the afternoon of March 13.

* = likely will be franchise tagged.
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Quarterbacks

Drew Brees *
Matt Flynn
Kyle Orton
Chad Henne
Alex Smith
Jason Campbell
David Garrard
Vince Young
Josh Johnson
Shaun Hill
Byron Leftwich
Sage Rosenfels
Brady Quinn
Drew Stanton
Donovan McNabb
Chad Pennington
Rex Grossman
Dennis Dixon
Chris Redman
Josh McCown
Charlie Whitehurst
Luke McCown
Charlie Batch
Jake Delhomme
J.P. Losman
Dan Orlovsky
Derek Anderson
A.J. Feeley
Caleb Hanie
David Carr
Kellen Clemens
Kyle Boller
Mark Brunell
Jeff Garcia

Running Backs

Ray Rice *
Matt Forte *
Michael Bush *
Marshawn Lynch
Peyton Hillis
Cedric Benson
Mike Tolbert
Kevin Smith
Jason Snelling
Justin Forsett
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Tim Hightower
Steve Slaton
Cadillac Williams
LaDainian Tomlinson
Ronnie Brown
Ryan Grant
Jackie Battle
Sammy Morris
Mewelde Moore
Maurice Morris
Earnest Graham
Chester Taylor
Kevin Faulk
Tashard Choice
Derrick Ward
Thomas Jones
Jerious Norwood
LenDale White

Fullbacks

Le'Ron McClain
Jacob Hester
Michael Robinson
Spencer Larsen
Owen Schmitt
Ahmard Hall
Moran Norris

Wide Receivers

Vincent Jackson
Dwayne Bowe *
Wes Welker *
Brandon Lloyd
Marques Colston
DeSean Jackson
Stevie Johnson
Reggie Wayne
Robert Meachem
Mario Manningham
Pierre Garcon
Laurent Robinson
Braylon Edwards
Early Doucet
Ted Ginn
Plaxico Burress
Roscoe Parrish
Jerome Simpson
Jerricho Cotchery
Eddie Royal
Steve Smith (PHI)
Mark Clayton
Harry Douglas
Andre Caldwell
Josh Morgan
Donte' Stallworth
Legedu Naanee
Eric Weems
Terrell Owens
Deion Branch
Chaz Schilens
Devin Aromashodu
Mike Sims-Walker
Lavelle Hawkins
Derek Hagan
Patrick Crayton
Donnie Avery
Domenik Hixon
Greg Camarillo
Devin Thomas
Ruvell Martin
Maurice Stovall
Anthony Gonzalez
Kevin Curtis
T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Matt Slater
Micheal Spurlock
Courtney Roby
Bernard Berrian
Roy Williams
Rashied Davis
David Anderson
Bryant Johnson
Jerheme Urban

Tight Ends

Jermichael Finley *
Fred Davis
Martellus Bennett
John Carlson
Jacob Tamme
Scott Chandler
Kellen Davis
Craig Stevens (Signed 4-year deal on 1/13)
Visanthe Shiancoe
Jeremy Shockey
Joel Dreessen
Daniel Fells
Bo Scaife
Leonard Pope
Randy McMichael
Alex Smith
Dante Rosario
Kris Wilson
Donald Lee
Reggie Kelly
Anthony Becht
Stephen Spach
John Gilmore
Justin Peelle
Billy Bajema

Offensive Linemen

Carl Nicks
Jared Gaither
Ben Grubbs
Evan Mathis
Chris Myers
Jeff Backus
Kareem McKenzie
Jake Scott
Chilo Rachal
Samson Satele
Bobbie Williams
Max Starks
Scott Wells
Nick Hardwick
Demetrius Bell
Matt Birk
Jeff Saturday
Mike Brisiel
Jeremy Zuttah
James Lee
Jacob Bell
Dan Connolly
Todd McClure
Sean Locklear
Deuce Lutui
Mike Pollak
Vernon Carey
Casey Wiegmann
Will Montgomery
Guy Whimper
Derrick Dockery
Ryan Diem
Anthony Collins
Andre Gurode
Leonard Davis
Mike McGlynn
Brandon Keith
Montrae Holland
Nate Livings
Mike Otto
Stephon Heyer
Mackenzy Bernadeau
Dennis Roland
Adam Snyder
King Dunlap
John Greco
Stacy Andrews
Tony Moll
Breno Giacomini
Barry Richardson
Dan Koppen
Mark LeVoir
Khalif Barnes
Trai Essex
Geoff Hangartner
Robert Turner
Adam Goldberg
Scott Mruczkowski
Russ Hochstein
Tony Wragge
Artis Hicks
Kirk Chambers
Pat McQuistan
Mike Gibson
Paul McQuistan
Jamey Richard
Oniel Cousins
Ryan O'Callaghan
Scott Kooistra
D'Anthony Batiste
Steve Vallos
Quinn Ojinnaka

Defensive Linemen

Calais Campbell *
Mario Williams
Robert Mathis
Sione Pouha *
Jason Jones
Cliff Avril
John Abraham
Paul Soliai
Mark Anderson
Kendall Langford
Jeremy Mincey
Brodrick Bunkley
Matt Roth
Andre Carter
Aubrayo Franklin
Red Bryant
Trevor Laws
Cory Redding
Israel Idonije
Jarvis Moss
Kroy Biermann
Tony Brown
Colin Cole
Marcus Thomas
Phillip Merling
Letroy Guion
Pat Sims
Antonio Garay
Derek Landri
Trevor Scott
Dave Ball
Dave Tollefson
Rocky Bernard
Shaun Rogers
Anthony Hargrove
Juqua Parker
Jamaal Anderson
Amobi Okoye
Adam Carriker
Wallace Gilberry
William Hayes
Andre Fluellen
Raheem Brock
Brandon McKinney
Jovan Haye
Tommie Harris
Howard Green
Frostee Rucker
Aaron Smith
Tim Bulman
Jason Hunter
Turk McBride
Kelly Gregg
Kedric Golston
Jimmy Kennedy
Eric Foster
Vonnie Holliday
Derrick Harvey
Eric Moore
Igor Olshansky
Gary Gibson
C.J. Mosley
Shaun Ellis
Jeff Charleston
Fred Evans
Tyler Brayton
Darrion Scott
Gerard Warren
Amon Gordon
Jonathan Fanene
Ronald Fields
Victor Adeyanju
Daniel Muir
Jimmy Wilkerson
Chris Hoke

Linebackers
Curtis Lofton
Dan Connor
D'Qwell Jackson
David Hawthorne
Anthony Spencer
Stephen Tulloch
London Fletcher
Joe Mays
Ahmad Brooks
Jarret Johnson
Philip Wheeler
Quentin Groves
Jameel McClain
Manny Lawson
Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Leroy Hill
E.J. Henderson
Barrett Ruud
Geno Hayes
Rocky McIntosh
Wesley Woodyard
Channing Crowder
Brandon Johnson
Jonathan Goff
Mario Haggan
Bryan Thomas
Ernie Sims
Kirk Morrison
Erin Henderson
Clark Haggans
Lofa Tatupu
Darryl Blackstock
Xavier Adibi
Bryan Kehl
Bobby Carpenter
Chase Blackburn
Bradie James
Reggie Torbor
Erik Walden
Chris Chamberlain
Gary Guyton
Blake Costanzo
Heath Farwell
David Vobora
Antwan Applewhite
Kevin Bentley
Keyaron Fox
Andra Davis
Ikaika Alama-Francis
Ricky Brown
Keith Brooking
Mike Peterson
Tracy White
Brady Poppinga
Marvin Mitchell
Tavares Gooden
Matt McCoy
Tim Shaw
Jordan Senn
Brendon Ayanbadejo
Patrick Bailey
Tim Dobbins
Ben Leber
Na'il Diggs
Omar Gaither
Isaiah Ekejiuba

Cornerbacks

Brent Grimes
Cortland Finnegan
Brandon Carr
Carlos Rogers
Terrell Thomas
Rashean Mathis
Aaron Ross
Eric Wright
Richard Marshall
Tracy Porter
Marcus Trufant
William Gay
Tim Jennings
Jason Allen
Kelvin Hayden
Kelly Jennings
Justin Tryon
Corey Graham
Pacman Jones
Zackary Bowman
Will Allen
Benny Sapp
Dimitri Patterson
Ronde Barber
Alan Ball
Phillip Buchanon
Patrick Lee

Jonathan Wilhite

Elbert Mack

Donald Strickland
Justin King
Michael Coe
David Jones
Reggie Corner
Roderick Hood
Travis Daniels
Cletis Gordon
Frank Walker
Will Blackmon
Brandon McDonald
Leigh Torrence

Safeties

Tyvon Branch
LaRon Landry
Dashon Goldson
Michael Griffin
Dwight Lowery
Thomas DeCoud
Jim Leonhard
Brandon Meriweather
Reggie Smith
Sean Jones
Mike Adams
Chris Harris
Reggie Nelson
Brodney Pool
Husain Abdullah
Tom Zbikowski
Jordan Babineaux
Madieu Williams
James Sanders
Steve Gregory
Abram Elam
Deon Grant
Tyrell Johnson
Dominique Barber
Jarrad Page
Craig Steltz
Erik Coleman
Bob Sanders
Haruki Nakamura
Anthony Smith
Jarrett Bush
Derrick Martin
Chris Hope
Craig Dahl
Atari Bigby
Corey Lynch
Gibril Wilson
Bryan Scott
Quintin Demps
Paul Oliver
Matt Giordano
Nathan Jones
James Ihedigbo
Courtney Greene
Hamza Abdullah
Antwaun Molden
Jon McGraw
Sean Considine
Sabby Piscitelli
Lito Sheppard
Randy Phillips
C.C. Brown

Kickers

Matt Prater
Neil Rackers
Jay Feely
Josh Scobee
Connor Barth
Phil Dawson
Rian Lindell (Signed 4-year deal on 2/3)
Dave Rayner
Mike Nugent
John Kasay
Nick Folk

Punters

Mat McBriar
Donnie Jones
Steve Weatherford
Dave Zastudil
Nick Harris
Daniel Sepulveda
Brad Maynard
Ben Graham

Top Restricted Free Agents

Mike Wallace
Arian Foster
Lardarius Webb
Aaron Maybin
Brian Hoyer
Desmond Bryant
Keenan Lewis
Michael Bennett
Antonio Dixon
Danny Amendola
DeAndre Levy
Geoff Schwartz
Greg Toler
Kory Lichtensteiger
Kahlil Bell
La'Rod Stephens-Howling
Marcel Reece
Steven Hauschka
William Middleton
Cary Williams
Chase Daniel
Lydon Murtha
Fernando Velasco
Corey Hilliard
Tony Fiammetta
Marcus Benard
Sammie Lee Hill
Larry Grant
Demar Dotson
Kory Sperry
C.J. Spillman
Doug Legursky
Ramon Foster
Rashad Johnson
Dannell Ellerbe
Lex Hilliard
Graham Gano
Adrian Arrington
Vance Walker
Ryan Mundy
Chad Rinehart
C.J. Ah You
Jovan Belcher
David Johnson
Russell Allen
Ashlee Palmer
Reggie Walker
Jamon Meredith
Nick Hayden
Jason Phillips
Kraig Urbik
Byron Westbrook
Dan Skuta
Brandyn Dombrowski
Lorenzo Booker
Titus Brown
Bear Pascoe
Kregg Lumpkin
Roy Lewis
Thomas Williams
Leger Douzable
Ryan McBean
Matthew Mulligan
Chris Pressley
Jake O'Connell
Ryan Baker
Jamaal Westerman
Marquice Cole
Brock Bolen
Kevin Ogletree
Kenny Onatolu
Jacob Lacey
William Robinson
Patrick Turner
Brit Miller
 

hacheman@therx.com
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2012 Keeper Rankings

Welcome to the sixth-annual Top-50 keepers spectacular. A few thoughts on the changing nature of NFL offenses before we get to the proceedings:

With three passers over 5,000 yards and another within 70 of reaching the mark, we realize 2011 was the year of the quarterback. Change happens quickly in the NFL, and last season brought a confluence from the lockout after-effects, illegal-contact rules inhibiting pass defenders, innovative play-callers, and a continuation of the trend away from workhorse running backs.

The league’s two most prolific passers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, were buoyed by the acumen of their front office and coaching staff in targeting athletic tight ends and almost immediately exploiting mismatches and loopholes created by the strict rules limiting contact by linebackers by defensive backs at the point of the catch.

While the tight-end position has been revolutionized, fantasy football continues to witness the decline of the running-back driven draft. The league’s most prescient coaches now institute plans to keep their most effective runners healthy for December and January through tandem attacks that play to a back’s specific back’s skill-set.

“I’m not interested in a 1,700-yard back,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in November. “It takes a pounding. I want James [Starks] as fresh as he was last year at the most critical time of the year. Same with Ryan [Grant]. It’s important to play with multiple backs. I’m a big believer in that.”

Fantasy owners can rail against the committee attack, but it’s not going away. The four highest NFL seasons in rushing yards per carry are 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 -- in that order.

The result? There are only seven running backs in our top-20 keepers this year, down from 12 in 2011, 10 in 2010, and 13 in 2009. The average positional breakdown in five previous editions of this list is 7 QBs, 23.5 RBs, 17 WRs, and 2.5 TEs. This year’s list has produced 9 QBs, 15 RBs, 22 WRs, and 4 TEs.

A few more thoughts on keeper-league dynamics:

1. The key to fantasy football success will always be acquiring as many difference-makers as possible. As we’ve pointed out in previous editions of this article, roughly half of the Top-10 at any position will repeat their performance from the previous year. Any player can post a good or even great season, but it's the uniquely talented and driven studs that produce year-in and year-out. These players must be valued highly even if a flavor-of-the-month might post better stats in a best-case scenario (i.e. Peyton Hillis, LeGarrette Blount last season).

2. These rankings are geared toward short-term keeper leagues where owners are generally keeping anywhere from two-to-five players from year-to-year. While keeper leagues value stability more than redraft leagues, they also value short-term production more than Dynasty formats. Rotoworld's Dynasty ranks (coming later this month) necessarily emphasize talent over situation while projecting value beyond the next season. Keeper rankings, on the other hand, must value talent and situation equally while focusing primarily on the upcoming season and secondarily on the long view.

3. The upcoming prospect Combine will serve as a handy reminder that player values are anything but static even in the offseason. Free agency, trades, the NFL draft, OTAs, and training camp will keep player values fluctuating right up to the start of the fantasy drafts in August.

Where will Peyton Manning land? Could his addition lead to career-years to Larry Fitzgerald or Brandon Marshall? Will Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, and DeSean Jackson be hit with the franchise tag or be granted their freedom? Will Panthers coach provide clues that Jonathan Stewart could be headed for a much-deserved increased role? Is Ryan Mathews a top-five fantasy back if Mike Tolbert walks?

Keep up with Rotoworld’s always-fresh news page, and you will be prepared when it’s time to finalize keeper selections later this spring or summer.

These keeper rankings assume the scoring is for a standard non-PPR league. PPR leaguers should make the necessary adjustments on receivers and pass-catching backs.

On to the near misses!

Just Missed

Previous ranks in parentheses

DeSean Jackson, Eagles (31, 26) - While Jackson remains a unique talent, he’s now reached the “show me” stage of his NFL career. A one-trick pony who refuses to go over the middle, drops too many wide open downfield passes, and disappears for long stretches, Jackson is purely a wild card for the 2012 season.

Matt Ryan, Falcons - A strong second-half produced career-highs in yards and TDs, but Ryan’s playoff breakdown was another reminder that he doesn’t trust his offensive line or his own ability to make stick throws into tight windows. Unless he gains arm strength and confidence, Ryan will stall out as a low-end QB1.

Peyton Hillis (40) - Increasingly injury-prone with a fumbling problem and dwindling per-carry average, Hillis is a bit of chimera. He’s most valuable as a workhorse, three-down battering ram, but his body can’t withstand the pounding while staying healthy and effective. As a free agent, his Browns future is up in the air.

Beanie Wells (NR, 42) - I hate to Beanie out of the top 50 after a stellar season, but he doesn’t catch passes, can’t stay healthy, will lose touches to Ryan Williams, and relied too much on touchdowns for 2011 fantasy value.

Antonio Brown, Steelers - Brown is a more refined route runner than Mike Wallace, seeing more targets with just 88 fewer yards in a breakout season. While he may continue to feast on the single coverage afforded by Wallace’s presence, he’s never going to match the deep threat in touchdowns. I need to see a repeat before anointing Brown as a bonafide top-15 WR.

Steven Jackson (22, 6, 4) - An underappreciated warrior on a string of embarrassing teams, S-Jax is one of my favorite players of the past decade. It’s not his fault that running back is a young man’s bailiwick. Turning 29 in July while embarking on another rebuilding season, Jackson is better left for redraft leagues.

Frank Gore (19, 5, 6) - A series of nagging injuries slowed Gore’s production to a crawl in the second half, and Jim Harbaugh’s offense rendered him a fantasy non-factor as a receiver. Like Jackson, Gore is looking down the barrel of age 30. The Niners would do well to work Kendall Hunter in next season, saving wear and tear on Gore for the season’s stretch run.

Jermichael Finley, Packers (46) - There’s reason to believe Finley’s 13 drops were a one-year aberration, but the bigger problem is that he’s been passed by Jordy Nelson in Aaron Rodgers’ pecking order. As a free agent, Finley’s Green Bay future is cloudy.

Antonio Gates (39, 41, 46) - Once a no-brainer keeper due to his edge over the rest of the NFL’s tight ends, Gates can no longer keep up with the new guard while battling chronic foot injuries. The 32-year-old (in June) remains a top-five redraft tight end, but the risk is no longer worth the reward in keeper formats.

Ben Roethlisberger (NR, 35) - Big Ben flirted with QB1 status under pass-heavy coordinator Bruce Arians, but there was never much separating his fantasy production from the ranks of Ryan Fitzpatrick or Mark Sanchez. While still an elite NFL QB, Roethlisberger isn’t worthy of keeper status until he emerges as a weekly advantage.

The Next 10: C.J. Spiller, Demaryius Thomas, Roy Helu, Fred Jackson, Reggie Bush, Stevie Johnson, Mark Ingram, Fred Davis, Michael Bush, Brandon Lloyd\



Editor's Note: For offseason NFL news and analysis, follow @ChrisWesseling,@EvanSilva,@AdamLevitan,@RotoPat and @Rotoworld_FB on Twitter.


Falling off the List
Ranking from last three seasons in parentheses

Peyton Manning, Colts? (18, 9, 21) - The 36-year-old (in March) is impossible to rank not only due to the uncertainty of his 2012 team, but also the numbness, atrophy, and loss of arm strength in his upper throwing arm. Gun to my head, I’d bet against Manning placing in the top-10 among fantasy QBs more than once from here on out.

DeAngelo Williams, Panthers (23, 18, 14) - Don’t cry for D-Will’s removal from the top-50 keepers. He’s going to sleep soundly on top of the $21 million the Panthers foolishly guaranteed last July.

Reggie Wayne, Colts (29, 12, 13) - Wayne was a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver in his own right, but a substantial percentage of his WR1 value was tied up in his quarterback. The odds are stacked against that reunion in 2012, and Wayne’s skills are clearly slipping at age 33.

Michael Turner (30, 8, 8) - Rotoworld has developed a reputation as Turner detractors, and we can’t apologize for it. While “Burner” was a strong fantasy bet early in his Falcons career, he’s now an aging back worn down by heavy workloads and a nagging groin injury with no role in the passing game. An offensive millstone down the stretch, Turner will have his role reduced in 2012 if the Falcons opt to pay his $5 million salary.

Ahmad Bradshaw (33) - Obviously the better of the two Giants backs, Bradshaw continues to lack stability in keeper formats due to chronic foot/ankle woes and an inconsistent workload. He’s a committee back.

Knowshon Moreno, Broncos (35) - The No. 12 overall pick in the 2009 has fallen from the prospect ranks after losing his job to Willis McGahee, tearing his ACL, and capping it off with a drunk-driving arrest.

Jahvid Best, Lions (37) - Best’s six games produced top-10 fantasy output, but his football future is bleak after three known concussions in the past three seasons. While the talent may be undeniable, Best is no longer in control of his football career. A best-case scenario would be a return to a limited role as the Lions’ answer to Darren Sproles.

Shonn Greene (41, 48) - Greene’s role should be scaled back after finishing 30th in yards-after-contact among running backs and losing goal-line duties to Mark Sanchez. A third of his fantasy output came in just two December games.

LeGarrette Blount, Buccaneers (42) - A poor man’s Michael Turner, Blount lacks lateral agility, isn’t trusted in the passing game, fails too often in short-yardage, and can’t hold onto the football. This is a role player, not a foundation back.

Felix Jones, Cowboys (48, 50) - Lacking the power and the durability to succeed between the tackles, Jones is headed back to his ideal change-of-pace role behind DeMarco Murray.
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50. Rashard Mendenhall, Steelers (12, 14) - Mendenhall turns 25 in April while recovering from ACL surgery on the heels of a disappointing fantasy season. There’s buy-low potential here with the Steelers ostensibly recommitting to the run under a new coordinator, but the payoff may be a year away due to the timetable on Mendenhall’s full recovery.

49. Jeremy Maclin, Eagles (45) - Maclin’s year-three numbers would have been more impressive if not for Week 1 rustiness due to a mysterious illness followed by second-half hamstring and shoulder injuries that caused him to miss three games and parts of two others. A healthy Maclin is a good bet for WR2 numbers going forward, and the upside is higher if DeSean Jackson departs via trade or free agency.

48. Vernon Davis, 49ers (49) - Reliable beat writer Matt Maiocco noted that Davis finally “clicked” late in the season after “struggling mightily” to pick up Jim Harbaugh’s offense. The statistical evidence supports that claim. Arguably the best player on the field in all three games, Davis averaged 136.7 yards with four total TDs from Week 17 through the NFC Championship loss compared to under 45 yards per from Weeks 1-16. Look out for double-digit scores and a first career 1,000-yard season in 2012.

47. Dez Bryant, Cowboys (50) - While the off-field news continues to be overblown, it’s true that Bryant’s nagging injuries, sub-optimal conditioning, and spotty route running prevented a true breakout season. The good news is that Bryant was credited with improving the latter as the season progressed, and he still finished as a top-15 fantasy receiver at age 23. Only Calvin Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald can match Bryant’s red-zone prowess. If the light finally flips on, Bryant could vie with those two for best receiver in the NFL honors.

46. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots - According to Pro Football Focus, Hernandez forced 23 missed tackles in 2011, which is six more than any other wide receiver or tight end. Despite losing two games to a knee sprain, Hernandez finished behind only Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham in fantasy points among tight ends. Still one of NFL’s youngest players at age 22, Hernandez’s arrow is pointing up with the increased backfield snaps in the playoffs.

45. Marques Colston, Saints (43, 32, 32) - “Catch-Radius” Colston finished seventh in total fantasy points despite missing two games with a fractured collarbone. Averaging well over a surgery per season, Colston continues to produce borderline WR1 numbers as Drew Brees’ indestructible go-to receiver. The only kryptonite is an exit from the Big Easy, a possibility if Colston hits the open market in March. Move him up 5-7 spots if he re-signs with the Saints.

44. Kenny Britt, Titans (47) - The 23-year-old was emerging as one of the top five receivers in the NFL before his season-ending ACL injury in September. Britt was not only getting open with ease at the second level, he was also producing as a reliable possession receiver for Matt Hasselbeck. While there’s some risk due to the injury and Britt’s off-field track record, the upside is enormous in a Titans offense that could feature legit playmakers at quarterback (Jake Locker - 8.2 yards per on 66 attempts), running back (Chris Johnson), and tight end (Jared Cook - over 100 yards per over the final three games).

43. Vincent Jackson, Chargers (38) - Though his output was highly inconsistent in 2011, V-Jax has still finished as a top-12 fantasy receiver in each of his past three full seasons. One of the NFL’s most effective beyond 20 yards, in the red zone, and in percentage of receptions producing first downs, Jackson will draw plenty of interest if the Chargers allow him to hit the open market in March. His skill-set should translate to any offense in the league.

42. Miles Austin, Cowboys (24, 19) - Austin’s output was ravaged by a pair of hamstring injuries (one to each leg), though he still finished in the top-15 in fantasy points per game thanks to a career-high touchdown percentage. While his talent -- particularly after the catch -- is among the league’s best, keeper owners have to be concerned with so many mouths to feed in the Cowboys’ offense.

41. Jordy Nelson, Packers - Nelson closed out the season as a top-three fantasy WR due to single coverage, refined route running, explosive run-after-catch ability, increased trust from his QB, Greg Jennings’ late-season knee injury, and -- last but not least -- unsustainable good luck with the deep ball. Pro Football Focus notes that Nelson accrued half of his yards and scores on passes thrown 20+ yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The talent and high-powered offense may be legit, but the elite WR1 production is fleeting.

40. Steve Smith, Panthers (NR, 31, 16) - As expected, it took only a QB upgrade to prove that Smith remains one of the NFL’s few true No. 1 receivers capable of producing WR1 numbers while drawing double coverage. Only Calvin Johnson boasted more 20-yard receptions than Smith’s 29, evidence that the soon-to-be 33-year-old still has plenty left in the tank. As long as he and Cam Newton both stay healthy in 2012, another top-eight fantasy finish is not only possible but likely.

39. Philip Rivers, Chargers (27, 33, 43) - A tattered offensive line, depleted receiver corps, and his own errant passing killed Rivers’ fantasy output over the season’s first two months, but he did respond with 270+ yards or three TDs in each of his final five games -- finishing in the top-10 among QBs for the fourth consecutive season. His value drops to the low 40s if Vincent Jackson doesn’t re-sign with the Bolts.

38. Percy Harvin, Vikings - Despite the early-season hand-wringing over Harvin’s playing time, new OC Bill Musgrave still put the ball in his hands once every 2.3 snaps. From late November on, Harvin was utilized as a double-threat on the ground and through the air, turning back the clock to his Gator days as the most explosive player on the field. Still just 23 years old, Harvin averaged 103.3 scrimmage yards and a touchdown on 11.3 touches per game from Week 10 on while easily establishing career-highs in receptions (87), receiving yards (967), and rushing yards (345). Only Wes Welker finished with more yards than Harvin’s 616 after the catch.

37. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks - Was Lynch’s career-year merely a contract push or an epiphany for a player who recommitted after falling out of playing shape in 2010? Even first-round talents can’t get away with minimal effort at this level. The good news is three-fold: Lynch is still in his mid-20s, a prime candidate for the franchise tag, and -- with the exception of Adrian Peterson -- no back ran harder in 2011. The bad news is that Lynch’s fantasy value was inflated by a high touchdown total not likely to be repeated.

36. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs (44, NR, 44) - It seems counterintuitive, but Bowe is ranked higher this year than he was after last year’s career-season of 15 TDs. Whereas Bowe feasted on the league’s friendliest pass defense schedule in 2010, he was often the best player on the field against stiffer competition in 2011. The 27-year-old could find greener pastures this offseason if the Chiefs eschew the franchise tag.

35. DeMarco Murray, Cowboys - Citing Murray’s vision, “dimension of power,” and finishing ability, owner/GM Jerry Jones confirmed that the 24-year-old will remain Dallas’ primary early-down back in 2012. Murray’s immense fantasy potential in a high-powered offense is somewhat offset by a checkered injury history and the presence of Felix Jones as a potential receptions vulture.

34. Jonathan Stewart, Panthers (15, 36, 39) - Boasting three superstar-level talents among their offensive skill-position players, the Panthers did themselves no favors in limiting one of them to the supporting cast. Only LeSean McCoy, Adrian Peterson, and Maurice Jones-Drew earned a higher running grade from Pro Football Focus, and Stewart forced 20 missed tackles on 47 catches (more than any other back on receptions) compared to DeAngelo Williams’ three on 16 16 catches. Cam Newton won’t hog 14 TDs again in 2012, but the threat of the run will continue to open wide lanes for Stewart to flirt with 5.5 - 6.0 YPC.

33. Darren Sproles, Saints - Thanks to league-highs among RBs in receptions (86), receiving yards (710), and receiving scores (7), Sproles finished 10th in standard-scoring fantasy points and 5th in PPR formats in his New Orleans debut. Drew Brees’ offense now runs at peak efficiency when exploiting mismatches created by the uncoverable Sproles and Jimmy Graham. With Marques Colston due to hit free agency, Sproles’ role could even be expanded in 2012.

32. Victor Cruz, Giants - Hakeem Nicks is the superior talent, but Cruz’s knack for finding open spaces and creating after the catch is legit. The breakout star finished the 2011 with more yards per route run (3.08) than any other receiver in the league.

31. Tony Romo, Cowboys (26, 29, 29) - Romo produced his highest career passer rating and second-highest touchdown total despite a two painful fractured ribs that hindered his ability to throw downfield for over a month. Among all QBs in NFL history, Romo sits second in passer rating and fifth in yards per attempt (behind only Aaron Rodgers among active players in both categories in addition to Passing TD %). I’m buying at every opportunity this offseason.

Keepers 1-30 coming Thursday.
 

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The 2012 Quarterback Market

Last year’s quarterback market was slim pickings due in large part to the lockout-related CBA rules that limited unrestricted free agents to those players with at least six years of NFL experience. Whereas pure backups and fringe talents such as Bruce Gradkowski and Trent Edwards made this list last May, this year’s market boasts the most riveting story of the offseason: Where will Peyton Manning land?

With Drew Brees and Alex Smith fully expected to return to their respective teams, Manning and Packers backup Matt Flynn are the two big-ticket quarterbacks of the 2012 free agency period. The franchises most in need of a signal-caller are the Redskins, Colts, Dolphins, Seahawks, Browns, Chiefs, and Cardinals. I laid out my QB predictions last week on Twitter, but we’ll go into more detail below.

Evan Silva, Pat Daugherty and I will be rolling out analysis of the offensive skill-position player market throughout this week, touching on all commodities likely to be available as free agents, trade targets, or candidates for release.

Quarterbacks Expected to be Franchise Tagged

Drew Brees

Overview: Brees and the Saints have three weeks to come to agreement on a long-term deal before the March 5 deadline for the franchise tag. Although agent Tom Condon has been “baffled” by the slow pace of contract talks, both sides have incentive to avoid the tag. Brees wants to ensure that key free agents such as Marques Colston and LG Carl Nicks remain in the Big Easy. Saving the franchise tag would allow GM Mickey Loomis to apply it to Colston or Nicks if necessary. Whether it’s the tag or a new contract, the reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year is guaranteed to be back with the Saints in 2012.

Quarterback Free Agents

1. Matt Flynn, Packers



Scouting Report: In an essentially meaningless season finale, Matt Flynn and Matthew Stafford joined Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Y.A. Tittle, and Norm Van Brocklin as the only QBs in history to pass for 475 yards and 5+ touchdowns in a single game. The question is whether Flynn has more in common with those four Hall of Famers or Titans flash-in-the-pan Billy Volek, who exploded for 492 yards and 4 TDs during a fluky late-season run seven years ago. Drawing comparisons to Kevin Kolb, Flynn is widely viewed as a cerebral system quarterback with above average mobility to go with a questionable arm. His accuracy, decision-making, and quick feet are ideally suited to a West Coast scheme sharing the same roots as Green Bay’s. With a small sample size average of 365.5 yards and 4.5 TDs in two career starts, Flynn will draw interest even if it’s simply because he’s yet to fail.

Availability: With Jermichael Finley and C Scott Wells as priority free agents, the cap-strapped Packers are not expected to follow the Patriots’ tag-and-trade blueprint applied to Matt Cassel four years ago. GM Ted Thompson’s preference is to save the low-cost tight-end tag for Finley, leaving Flynn to seek a new home in 2012. Dot-connecting leaves the Dolphins as the obvious favorites, as Flynn could follow offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to Miami. The Seahawks and Browns, both employing West Coast offenses, could also be interested. Seattle GM John Schneider cut his teeth under Thompson in Green Bay and is plenty familiar with Flynn’s talent level.

Prediction: Dolphins on a six-year, $49 million contract.

2. Alex Smith, 49ers

Scouting Report: NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell is fond of pointing out that coaching staffs tell us what they think of a player by how he is utilized. While the Jim Harbaugh staff takes offense to Smith’s game-manager reputation, they rarely trusted him to do more than control clock, play keep-away, and make the occasional key throw. Smith earned plenty of leeway with his dramatic fourth-quarter play against the Saints in the playoffs, but the caveat is that he only made a handful of quality throws and often looked skittish in the pocket. Cosell noted that Smith was overly “hesitant and cautious” to let loose on routes that were well executed and throws that were clearly defined in the follow-up loss to the Giants. Despite the impressive comeback season, Smith’s unwillingness to make “stick” throws on third downs and in the red zone remains a concern going forward.

Availability: Niners fans may now insist otherwise, but Smith remains a game-manager best suited to a contender that also boasts elite units on defense and special teams. In other words, he has far more value to San Francisco than any other franchise. Harbaugh insists the organization is unanimously behind Smith going forward, and the quarterback spent last week caddying for his head coach at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament. The front office wants to bring Smith back without over-paying, which explains the current holdup. Expect the two sides to hammer out a deal over the next few weeks.

Prediction: 49ers on a three-year, $30 million contract.

3. Kyle Orton, Chiefs

Scouting Report: Orton’s trade value was diminished and his leash shortened last summer because NFL teams believe he’s proven to be a mediocre starter, more of a stopgap than a solution. A viable gun-for-hire best suited to an offense stocked with quality receivers and a solid offensive line, Orton’s limitations tend to surface on third downs and red zone -- often a sign of poor arm strength and questionable decision making. Much like Alex Smith, Orton is solid enough to ride a talented team to the playoffs but not talented enough to get over the hump.

Availability: The Chiefs reportedly maintain an interest in bringing the veteran back as competition for an underwhelming Matt Cassel. With the Kansas City brass silently cheering for Cassel to finally emerge as a franchise quarterback, however, Orton’s best chance at immediate playing time may be in Jacksonville. New coach Mike Mularkey and OC Bob Bradkowski are seeking a mentor to enable Blaine Gabbert, clearly not ready for prime time, to sit and learn for a while. From a financial point of view, Orton should have accepted the $27 million extension the Dolphins offered as part of a trade with Denver last summer.

Prediction: Jaguars on a two-year, $13.5 million contract.

4. Chad Henne, Dolphins

Scouting Report: Henne enters free agency with both health and ability concerns. Coming off season-ending left shoulder surgery, Henne never got a chance in 2011 to answer holdover doubts about down-field accuracy, red-zone efficiency, pocket presence, intangibles, and game-to-game consistency. Previous reports have suggested Henne’s weaknesses were stark enough for Bill Parcells and ex-coordinator Dan Henning to throw in the towel on his development. On a positive note, Henne is one of the few available quarterbacks with the physical tools to succeed long-term if he lands with a coaching staff that can hew that raw talent.

Availability: Despite the big arm and occasional flashes of production, Henne closes out his disappointing four-year Dolphins run with 13-18 record. Matt Moore is already rostered as a cost-effective insurance policy, and owner Stephen Ross and GM Jeff Ireland are on the warpath for a franchise QB this offseason. Henne could follow new coordinator Tony Sparano to the Jets in case Mark Sanchez regresses for a second consecutive season.

Prediction: Jets on a two-year, $9 million contract.

5. Jason Campbell, Raiders

Scouting Report: Sporting strong pocket composure, a long delivery, and sub-optimal anticipation, Campbell requires a dominant rushing attack to succeed with consistency. Although he earned respect as a team leader and executed Hue Jackson’s offense by staying composed and avoiding turnovers, Campbell was less effective down field than Carson Palmer despite a stronger arm. A solid, albeit unspectacular NFL starter, Campbell will have to compete for a starting job in 2012.

Availability: Campbell can’t return to Oakland because he would reportedly become a “polarizing” force among a wide receiver corps that viewed him as an offensive leader prior to the Carson Palmer trade. For the first time in a half-decade, Campbell will not go into training camp with a starting job all but locked up. His best bet may be to re-join QBs coach Jim Zorn in Kansas City as competition for Matt Cassel.

Prediction: Chiefs on a two-year, $9 million contract.

6. Vince Young, Eagles

Scouting Report: Due to questions about his leadership, ability to handle adversity, and commitment level, Young was forced to accept a backup job with the Eagles last summer. While Young is indeed a rare athlete with the ability to make plays down field and out of the pocket, his passing consistency is inhibited by poor awareness and decision-making. More of a read-and-react passer as opposed to an anticipator, Young would ideally be supported by a strong rushing attack. After eight picks in 12 quarters as Michael Vick’s fill-in, V.Y. is likely to receive a chilly reception on the open market.

Availability: If not for Young’s four-interception performance versus Seattle in a deflating December 1 loss, we could be talking about the Eagles -- not the Giants -- as Super Bowl champions. After helping Philly to the NFL’s worst percentage of aimed throws intercepted, V.Y. has run his course in Philadelphia. Young could make for an interesting alternative to Tim Tebow should the Broncos staff continue the transition to an unconventional offense.

Prediction: Broncos on a one-year, $4 million contract.

7. David Garrard, Jaguars

Scouting Report: Another erratic passer best utilized as a game manager supported by a consistently productive ground attack, Garrard sat out the entire 2011 season following back surgery and a release by the Jags. Although Garrard may have appeal as a proven starter with career-highs in touchdowns and completion percentage the last time he played, that is offset by his age (34), commitment concerns, and chronic back woes. He should consider himself lucky to land a backup job with the opportunity to take over in-season.

Availability: Garrard sat out the entire 2011 season to recover from back surgery after the Jaguars unceremoniously dumped him just prior to opening day. Although he faces commitment questions at age 34, Garrard expects to be 100 percent healthy by the time post-draft OTAs kick off in May. The Bears are in obvious need of a veteran backup after last year’s Caleb Hanie debacle. New coordinator Mike Tice was on staff with Jacksonville when Garrard broke into the league a decade ago.

Prediction: Bears on a non-guaranteed one-year, $3 million contract.

8. Rex Grossman, Redskins

Scouting Report: Grossman came as advertised in 2011: Mind-boggling carelessness with the football, erratic accuracy, poor pocket presence, and yet the ability to consistently move the offense between the 20s. As Tony Kornheiser is fond of pointing out, Grossman is the master of the pick-six and inventor of the fumble-six. It’s his move; he’s going to use it. His primary assets are a willingness to take chances down the field and an intimate knowledge of the Shanahans’ offense.

Availability: The nine-year veteran hopes to return to the Redskins after saving the offense from John Beck’s ineptitude down the stretch. Grossman may be the league’s most turnover-prone quarterback, but he has the advantage of mastering the Shanahan’s offense. Expect Grossman to return as a possible “bridge” to the next franchise QB, perhaps after the Redskins trade up to select Baylor’s Robert Griffin III.

Prediction: Redskins on a one-year, $2 million contract.

9. Shaun Hill, Lions

Scouting Report: The ideal backup, Hill offers the experience, savvy, and game management skills to succeed while lacking starter-level arm strength. He’s rendered useless as strictly an underneath passer when defenses take away the second level. Willing to stand in the pocket and take hits, Hill has been forced to play through significant injuries in the past. While Hill’s production has been heavily skewed as a garbage-time compiler, it’s worth noting his respectable career 84.7 passer rating and 39-to-23 TD:INT ratio.

Availability: The Lions have made it clear to Hill that they want him back as Stafford’s caddy, and the interest is mutual. In fact, the 32-year-old might even take a “slight discount” to ensure that it happens. Look for Hill to return to Motor City as one of the league’s top backups in 2012.

Prediction: Lions on a three-year, $9 million contract.

10. Donovan McNabb, Vikings

Scouting Report: Never known for being especially accurate, McNabb began to struggle with mobility, arm strength, and mechanics in Minnesota last season. Benched by three teams in three seasons, McNabb continues to face persistent questions about his conditioning, commitment level, and ability to master a new offense in timely fashion. Under the delusion that he remains a top-flight NFL starter, McNabb doesn’t fit the requirements of a good soldier who will hold the clipboard in a backup role.

Availability: McNabb has been eminently available since gaining his release from Minnesota on December 1, but he’s been left without a dancing partner. Believing he can help at least three teams right now, the 35-year-old has no plans to retire in favor of a broadcasting career. Unless Andy Reid leaves the door open to return as Michael Vick’s backup, McNabb may just go unsigned.

Prediction: Eagles on a two-year, $8 million contract.

More Quarterback Free Agents: Dennis Dixon, Josh Johnson, Drew Stanton, Byron Leftwich, Charlie Whitehurst, Brady Quinn, Sage Rosenfels, Chris Redman, Caleb Hanie, David Carr, Dan Orlovsky, A.J. Feeley, Derek Anderson, Kellen Clemens, Kyle Boller, Mark Brunell, Chad Pennington, Luke McCown, Josh McCown, Charlie Batch, Jake Delhomme, J.P. Losman, Restricted Free Agent Quarterbacks

1. Brian Hoyer, Patriots

Scouting Report: Hoyer can’t match Ryan Mallett's physical gifts and career upside, but he’s drawn high marks for leadership and football IQ while possessing adequate size and arm strength. Hoyer is said to be “loved” within the organization as a developmental prospect on par with Matt Cassel five years back. In 43 career regular-season attempts, Hoyer has posted a 62.8 completion rate, 6.7 yards per attempt, and 80.2 passer rating while his preseason passer rating flirts with an impressive 95.0

Availability: One of league’s top young backups, Hoyer is expected to receive at least a second-round tender in March. NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi has been stumping for Hoyer as a trade candidate since last offseason. That opportunity to compete for a starting job may have to wait until next offseason, when Hoyer’s free agency becomes unrestricted.

Prediction: Patriots on his one-year restricted tender.

2. Chase Daniel, Saints

Scouting Report: Highly accurate but lacking NFL size and arm strength, Daniel landed with the perfect team after being cut from the Redskins in 2009. He’s proven to be a good fit for Sean Payton’s scheme, completing 73-of-125 (58.4 percent) passes for 959 (7.67 YPA) and a passer rating north of 90.0 in preseason action the past three seasons.

Availability: Daniel’s pre-season prowess and the NFL’s transition toward spread offense could lead to more interest than expected on the open market. NFL Network’s Jason LaCanfora has floated Daniels’ name as a possible Redskins target, but they’re likely to be aiming much higher. The best bet is that Daniel returns for another season as Trade Candidates

1. Ryan Mallett, Patriots

Scouting Report: Widely viewed as the best pure passer in last year’s draft, Mallett also drew praise from NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell for possessing the “best NFL skill set” among the QB prospects. Mallett went on to showcase a quick release, cannon arm, and impressive composure in preseason action, particularly in a 12-of-19, 164-yard performance against the Jags. On the flip side, Mallett drew pre-draft comparison to Ryan Leaf for off-field concerns, reported drug use, and a lack of leadership skills. Perhaps just as important, not many NFL quarterbacks have succeeded with Mallett’s lack of foot speed.

Availability: Expect coach Bill Belichick to be all ears on trade offers as long as the Pats bring back RFA Brian Hoyer as the No. 2 quarterback. Mallett certainly has NFL starter measurables, and he’s managed to stay out of the headlines since game action started last summer. We suspect it will take at least a second-round pick to entice the Patriots after they invested a third-rounder last April.

Prediction: Stays with Patriots.

2. Colt McCoy, Browns

Scouting Report: Entering the season as the undisputed starter, McCoy did nothing to ease concerns about a lack of size, playing under center, and the ability to make the array of throws necessary to succeed as an NFL starter. McCoy can’t power through the elements to make stick throws or vertical strikes, and the late-season concussion renewed durability worries. McCoy may play well for stretches of the season, but he’s ideally suited to a backup role.

Availability: The Browns are in a bit of a pickle at the game’s most important position. The team’s brass reportedly drafted McCoy as a long-term backup, only to turn around and extend Seneca Wallace at three years and $9 million once McCoy exceeded expectations as a rookie. Team president Mike Holmgren is now back to square one with two high-end backups, no commitment to McCoy, and a glaring need under center. Wallace and McCoy will become redundant once the Browns address the position this offseason.

Prediction: Stays with Browns.

3. Jimmy Clausen, Panthers

Scouting Report: Overmatched as a rookie two years ago, Clausen drew pointed criticism from top wideout Steve Smith while bringing up the rear among NFL starters in passer rating. Consistently staring down receivers and showing little touch, Clausen was also held back by “limited arm talent,” shoddy mechanics, and shaky pocket presence. The inability to complete downfield throws suggests Clausen has blown his one chance at a starting gig.

Availability: Carolina needs to clear close to $10 million in salary cap space before the start of the league year. Bailing on Clausen’s $1 million option bonus isn’t out of the question after he spent last season as the third quarterback behind Release Candidates

1. Peyton Manning, Colts

Scouting Report: The Colts’ neurosurgeon has assured Manning that he’d advise him to continue playing football even if it was his own son in question. While the neck checks out, Manning must still regenerate nerves and overcome atrophy in his upper throwing arm. ESPN’s Sports Science suggests that range of motion will be a bigger factor than arm strength once Manning is fully healed later this offseason. Although Manning was showing signs of diminished skills late in the 2010 season, the future first-ballot Hall of Famer is easily the top quarterback available if he regains even 85-90 percent of his pre-injury form.

Availability: Manning is a mortal lock to gain his release once the Colts decline his $28 million option in the next few weeks. A trade is prohibitive for salary cap as well as health reasons. Although the Dolphins and Redskins are expected to be the most aggressive suitors, it’s important to point out that Manning will be calling his own shots even if he doesn’t gain clearance from team doctors until after the NFL draft in April. Look for the 36-year-old (in March) to prioritize franchise stability, respected coaching, quality personnel, offensive freedom, and perhaps climate control over dollar signs. He will be more receptive to an incentive-laden contract from a contender than a mega contract from a pretender.

Prediction: Cardinals on an incentive-laden, three-year, $58 million contract.

2. Kevin Kolb, Cardinals

Scouting Report: The blockbuster trade turned out to be a poor fit for player and team. Kolb landed in Arizona with concerns over durability, arm strength, and pocket composure. While he tended to lose mechanics and arm strength in a “muddy pocket,” it was hard to judge Kolb’s early-season play because the offensive tackles were swinging gates. A late-season concussion has Kolb facing a “China Doll” reputation entering 2012. If he’s going to succeed as a starter, it’s likely going to be by relying on accuracy and anticipation in a West Coast scheme.

Availability: It turns out that Kolb’s six-year, $65 million contract was closer to a one-year, $12 million deal with a team escape clause. While Kolb and the beat writers expect the Cardinals to pick up his $7 million option in March, it’s far from a certainty after he was outplayed by John Skelton in his desert debut. Kolb failed to answer doubts about his durability, pocket presence, and arm strength, leaving the franchise with an easy out if they decide to go all-in on Manning. Browns GM Tom Heckert has carried a torch for Kolb since drafting him out of Houston, reportedly inquiring about his availability at the deadline two years ago. Expect Heckert to waste no time in scooping up Kolb if he is indeed jettisoned by Arizona.

Prediction: Browns on a three-year, $21 million contract.

More Quarterback Release Candidates: Matt Leinart
 

hacheman@therx.com
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Franchise Tag Primer
Fourteen players received the franchise tag in 2011. That set an NFL record, and my guess is that another record will be set this year.

Let’s take a look at what players are likely to get the tag this year, and what players are on the bubble. You will not find a more complete franchise tag primer on the internet, possibly because no one is more bored than me without football in my life.

THE NO-BRAINERS

It would be stunning if these players don’t receive the franchise tag, barring a long-term contract beforehand. Tags can be applied on Monday, Feb. 20. The deadline for applying the tag is March 5, more than a week before free agency starts.

Each team can use one franchise tag. It allows teams to retain a potential unrestricted free agent with a one-year contract offer. The contract is for the average of the five largest prior year’s salaries at their position. For example, the running back tag this year is expected to be around $8 million — the average of the top five running backs last year.

1. Guard 2. Campbell picked up Ray Horton’s 3-4 defense faster than his celebrated (and effective) teammate Darnell Dockett. Campbell is only 25-years-old and will be difficult to sign long term. His representation knows his value.

3. 4. Multiple reports in Green Bay indicate that quarterback 5. Yeah, you might want to hold on to this guy. Brees has all sorts of leverage because the Saints would love to wrap up his deal before March 5 so they can use the tag on receiver Marques Colston or guard 6. 7. 8. Grimes is an above-average starting cornerback in his prime. It makes no sense to just let a guy like that walk away. (Unless you are the Bengals, circa 2011.)

Initially, I thought the team might seriously consider tagging linebacker The next 11 players aren’t slam dunk picks to be franchised, but I’m predicting they will all get tagged for a league-wide total of 19 players. That number will get reduced if players on this list receive long-term deals before March 5. The list is in no particular order.


9. 10. John Elway prays to you, Matt Prater. Defensive tackle 11. This probably isn’t that tough of a choice for the Seahawks. It should be. Running backs are replaceable and Lynch has experienced more downs than ups in his career. He was mediocre for two and a half seasons before a strong stretch run. $8 million is a lot of a money. Still, a one-year deal is much more palatable for Seattle than a long-term contract.


12. If Vegas set odds on franchise tags, 13. 14. The most underrated player on the Jets is 33. That makes him a perfect candidate for a one-year contract. The Jets could gamble they will get Pouha back for less money in free agency, but Rex Ryan will freak out if they lose him.

15. Dashon Goldson, 49ers safety
The cornerback tag costs too much for a 31-year-old like Carlos Rogers. Linebacker 16. 17. The franchise tender for kickers is so low, it’s silly not to use it. If you are looking for a big surprise tag, Jaguars defensive end 18. 19. 1. Let’s also rule out a tag for Mario Williams because it would cost roughly $21 million. That would be crippling for a team so close to the cap. The offensive lineman tag is also too high even for a great center like 2. 3. Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson


Jackson is a great player, but he’s an inside linebacker. The projected linebacker franchise tag (over $9 million) is pass rusher money. Kicker 4. The old Raiders would tag Bush. New G.M. Reggie McKenzie knows he doesn’t need to pay that much for a back, especially with Darren McFadden on the roster. Safety 5. See 6. The Colts talked about how badly they want to keep Mathis. It just isn’t logical. He’s a great pure pass rusher, but doesn’t fit with new coach Chuck Pagano’s physical, 3-4 defensive background. $11 million is a lot to pay for a rebuilding team.


7. 8. All reports indicate the Chargers are likely to let Jackson go instead of tagging him for roughly $13 million. A last minute change of heart by the Chargers wouldn’t be stunning because San Diego knows Jackson is as good as gone if he hits the open market.

TEAMS WITH NO TAG CANDIDATES


Just so you didn’t think I forgot about you guys. Here are the teams without any realistic tag candidates: Carolina, Cincinnati, Minnesota, New York Giants, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay.

And that’s more information about franchise tags than you probably wanted.
 

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The 2012 Running Back Market
In terms of yearly earnings (apy), here are the ten highest paid running backs in football:

1. Adrian Peterson -- 7 years, 96 million. 36 million guaranteed (13.7apy).
2. Darren McFadden -- 6 years, 60 million. 26 million guaranteed (10apy).
3. Chris Johnson -- 6 years, 55 million. 30 million guaranteed (9.17apy).
4. DeAngelo Williams -- 5 years, 43 million. 21 million guaranteed (8.6apy).
5. Steven Jackson -- 6 years, 44.8 million. 20.5 million guaranteed (7.47apy).
6. Frank Gore -- 4 years, 25.9 million. 13.5 million guaranteed (6.48apy).
7. Maurice Jones-Drew -- 5 years, 31 million. 17.5 million guaranteed (6.2apy).
8. Michael Turner -- 6 years, 34.5 million. 15 million guaranteed. (5.75apy).
9. C.J. Spiller -- 5 years, 25 million. 20.8 million guaranteed (5apy).
10. Jamaal Charles -- 6 years, 28 million. 10 million guaranteed (4.67apy).

Four of the top six backs on this list signed their contracts in 2011. Johnson and Williams' deals will be 2012 market setters because at least four free agent running backs are coming off better seasons than them. Williams' contract, in particular, was a clear overpayment and will make the franchise tag a more appealing means of retaining players at a position that has been devalued by susceptibility to injury, replaceability, and diminished reliance on featured rushers.

Let's have a look:

Running Backs Expected to be Franchise Tagged

1. Ray Rice, Ravens

Overview: The most valuable offensive player on Baltimore's roster, Rice has said publicly that he's willing to play the 2012 season under the franchise tag should the sides fail to strike a long-term agreement. Rice will not be hitting the free agent market.

2. Matt Forte, Bears

Overview: Forte is in a similar position to Rice. The Bears do not have a capable replacement, and it's believed Forte (with good reason) is pursuing a contract worth in excess of DeAngelo Williams' five-year, $43 million pact. Forte will likely be tagged before the Combine.

Running Back Free Agents

1. Marshawn Lynch, Seahawks

Scouting Report: A disappointment in Buffalo as the former 12th pick in the draft, Lynch was shipped to Seattle in October of 2010 for a 2011 fourth-round choice and conditional 2012 pick. (The 2011 pick turned out to be Bills LT Chris Hairston, and the conditional selection will be a fifth-rounder this April.) Lynch managed 3,479 yards and 24 touchdowns on 898 carries (3.87 YPC) in his first 61 games. Realizing 2011 was his contract year, Lynch exploded for 1,063 yards and 11 touchdowns on 239 carries (4.45 YPC) in the Seahawks' last 11 games. Lynch is a tackle-breaking power back at 5-foot-11, 215, though he's never developed into much of an asset in the pass game. Lynch isn't yet 26 years old, but already has 1,137 career carries.

Availability: Lynch's sudden, dramatic leap in contract-year production sends up an obvious buyer-beware red flag. His conditioning has consistently been an issue, particularly during offseasons, and the franchise tag would make for an ideal compromise between player and team. The Seahawks could keep Lynch hungry in another "walk year", and he'd receive a guaranteed salary of roughly $8 million. Don't expect Lynch to hit the market, but he very well may in 2013.

Prediction: Seahawks on the franchise tag.

2. Michael Bush, Raiders

Scouting Report: Bush bucks the trend of one-trick pony power backs with smooth receiving skills and bone-crushing pass-blocking ability. He's a three-down player and has fumbled just once among his last 456 carries. While Bush pushes piles and consistently falls forward, the 245-pounder lacks homerun-hitting speed and is more reliant on effective run blocking than shiftier backs with wheels to exploit downfield running lanes. Another potential concern is Bush's slow finish to the 2011 season. Whereas he averaged 4.44 YPC on his first 134 carries, Bush slipped to 3.13 YPC on his final 134 attempts. Bush's feet moved noticeably more slowly down the stretch, and he appeared on late-season injury reports with a shoulder ailment.

Availability: The Raiders reportedly hope to sign free agent SS Tyvon Branch long term, and have at least considered tagging Bush. Bush turns 28 this June, and Oakland needs insurance for would-be feature back Darren McFadden, who missed nine games in 2011 and is recovering from a Lisfranc foot injury. But would GM Reggie McKenzie commit upwards of $14 million to the running back position alone? The RB tag will cost nearly $8 million. McFadden's 2012 salary is $5.65 million. We suspect the Raiders will ultimately decide against franchising Bush, and instead sign a relatively affordable free agent to compete with Taiwan Jones behind McFadden.

Prediction: Bengals on a four-year, $20 million contract.

3. Peyton Hillis, Browns

Scouting Report: A slightly souped-up version of Bush, Hillis goes 6-foot-2, 250 and displays impressive versatility for a power runner. Hillis has 83 catches over the past two seasons, and is the rare back with size to counter defensive ends and 3-4 linebackers in pass protection. It's fair to argue that Hillis' monster 2010 season (270/1,177/4.4/11) may be indicative of a one-year wonder, however. Dating back to the stretch run of that year, Hillis has managed just 635 yards and three touchdowns on 179 carries (3.55 YPC) in his last 12 games. During that span, he's battled ribs, knee, elbow, hip, and recurring hamstring injuries. Hillis was rumored to let a contract issue affect his 2011 performance. He has nine fumbles in two years.

Availability: The Browns won't tag Hillis, but the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported in late January that the team has renewed interest in re-signing him. While speculation has linked the Redskins to Hillis because of his background with Mike Shanahan, keep in mind that Shanahan drafted Hillis to play fullback, and he was almost strictly a lead blocker in Denver, carrying the football only in short-yardage situations. Staying in Cleveland still makes the most sense for Hillis because the Browns do view him as a tailback, and Montario Hardesty has proven both ineffective and injury prone. A one-year, "prove-it" contract would work well for both parties. Hillis is still only 26, so he could reenter the market in 2012 after a healthy, productive season.

Prediction: Browns on a one-year, $5 million contract.
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4. Cedric Benson, Bengals

Scouting Report: Benson does fit the description of a one-dimensional power back and must be paired with a complementary runner who plays in passing situations. He struggles mightily as a receiver and has never learned to block. Benson does well to stay north-south and finishes his runs, but he's exceeded 4.0 yards per carry in just one of the past four seasons. Now 29, Benson is in the twilight of his career. He also has a checkered off-field history and openly criticized the Bengals' coaching staff after the season. Benson is not expected back in Cincinnati.

Availability: The Bengals have two first-round picks following last October's Carson Palmer trade, and are tentatively expected to use one of them on a new starting tailback. Benson has never taken well to playing second fiddle in a backfield, but he's going to have to suck it up in order to continue his playing career. Benson's skill set is so limited and his character so unsavory that he'll have very little market appeal. He may struggle to find a new home before training camp.

Prediction: Chargers on a one-year, $2 million contract.

5. Mike Tolbert, Chargers

Scouting Report: Tolbert is the anti-Benson. He runs with power and purpose and can play in all phases of the game. In San Diego, the Chargers were comfortable bringing former No. 12 overall pick Ryan Mathews along slowly because Tolbert was so sound in the pass game and chews up every blocked yard. He excels in short-yardage and goal-line situations. A 5-foot-9, 243-pound bowling ball, Tolbert is only 26, can function as a third-down and powerful change-of-pace back, and even made ten special teams tackles in 2011. He's going to have many suitors.

Availability: The San Diego Union-Tribune has reported that Tolbert will test the market, seeking to max out his worth after four solid seasons as a Charger. While Tolbert's lack of explosiveness will prevent him from signing for feature back money, the market should be kind because he's a major passing-game asset in a pass-first league. The Ravens make some sense as a team that runs an offense similar to San Diego's, though they are expected to be in on free agent FB/RB Le'Ron McClain. The Cowboys and Rams also run Norv Turner-style offenses.

Prediction: Cowboys on a four-year, $12 million contract.

6. Kevin Smith, Lions

Scouting Report: At 6-foot-1, 217, Smith is a well-built runner with some lateral hops and elusiveness. He ran 4.43 at the 2008 Combine. Smith's bread and butter is the passing game, where he is a sure-handed check-down receiver and can make defenders miss in space. Since entering the NFL following a 450-carry season at Central Florida, however, Smith's biggest obstacle has been health. The 25-year-old suffered a recurring shoulder injury as a rookie, then tore his ACL in December of 2009. He underwent season-ending thumb surgery the next season, resurfaced with the Lions late in 2011, and suffered a high ankle sprain in his second game back.

Availability: The current Lions regime did not draft Smith, but they are familiar with his injury history and potential. He just can't stay healthy. The Lions are also nursing back Jahvid Best from two concussions, however, and Mikel Leshoure from a torn Achilles' tendon. Taking one more shot on Smith makes sense because he knows OC Scott Linehan's offense and is at the very least insurance for Detroit's other injury-plagued backs. Smith should also come cheap.

Prediction: Lions on a one-year, $2 million contract.

7. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots

Scouting Report: Originally undrafted out of Ole Miss, Green-Ellis has parlayed pedestrian talent into a productive career through reliability, durability, and a bruising running style. Green-Ellis has not fumbled in 536 career touches and has never missed a game due to injury. One of the NFL's better goal-line backs, Green-Ellis has scored 22 of his 29 career rushing touchdowns from inside the five-yard line. Just one has come from beyond the opposing 16. Green-Ellis lacks big-play ability and offers little in the passing game. He is a system back, converting short-yardage scoring opportunities that wouldn't be available in offenses less potent than New England's. In 2011, he did not hit a single run of longer than 18 yards on 181 carries.

Availability: The Pats used 2011 second-day picks on more explosive youngsters Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley, and won't overpay to retain Green-Ellis. Because Green-Ellis is still relatively young (27 before the season) with a productive track record, he may be overvalued on the open market by running back-needy teams. Green-Ellis has history with Chiefs GM Scott Pioli and knows the ins and outs of new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense. Chiefs starter Jamaal Charles is coming off a torn left ACL, while Jackie Battle and Thomas Jones are both free agents.

Prediction: Chiefs on a four-year, $11.5 million contract.

8. Justin Forsett, Seahawks

Scouting Report: Still the holder of an impressive 4.63 yards-per-carry average in his four-year career, Forsett's production sagged in 2011 as his role diminished. According to Pro Football Focus, Forsett's snaps played fell from 492 in 2010 to 294. Seahawks coaches wanted Leon Washington more involved on offense, and a streaking Marshawn Lynch became impossible to take off the field down the stretch. Forsett does hold his own in blitz pickup despite modest size (5'9/198), and the 26-year-old excels as a receiver out of the backfield. As a ball carrier, Forsett lacks pop and struggles inside the tackles, but displays elusive qualities and has primarily played in zone-blocking schemes dating back to college. He is a shifty, change-of-pace/third-down back.

Availability: Forsett's decreased usage suggests the Seahawks don't envision him as part of the long-term plan. The current regime did "inherit" Forsett, after all, and aggressively pursued Washington before signing him to an extension last March. Forsett has ties to Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, as well as new Bears quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates.

Prediction: Raiders on a two-year, $5 million contract.

Other running back free agents: Tim Hightower, Jason Snelling, Le'Ron McClain, Jacob Hester, Steve Slaton, Cadillac Williams, LaDainian Tomlinson, Ronnie Brown, Ryan Grant, Jackie Battle, Michael Robinson, Sammy Morris, Mewelde Moore, Maurice Morris, Tashard Choice, Jerome Felton, Derrick Ward, Thomas Jones, Spencer Larsen, Jerious Norwood, Chester Taylor.
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Restricted Free Agent Running Backs

1. Arian Foster, Texans

Scouting Report: The NFL's premier one-cut zone runner, Foster's acceleration after he sticks his foot in the ground separates him from productive backs who play in similar schemes. A 25-year-old self-made player, Foster has climbed football's steepest ladder from undrafted free agent, to the practice squad, to the league's leading rusher. He is a true every-down back, ranking second in the NFL in receptions among running backs in 2010 and fifth in 2011 despite missing three games. Foster is averaging 4.70 yards per carry for his career.

Availability: While Foster has shown enough that he likely could produce in any scheme, he has the most value in Houston because he's fully grasped the system and is the offense's lynchpin. The Texans tied for first in the league in 2011 rushing attempts and ranked second in rushing offense. At very least, GM Rick Smith will slap a first-round tender on Foster and require any team interested in signing him to an offer sheet to fork over a top-32 draft pick. Smith could even consider franchise tagging Foster. The bottom line is he isn't going anywhere.

Prediction: Texans on a five-year, $45 million contract.

2. Kahlil Bell, Bears

Scouting Report: Bell went undrafted after running 4.74 at the 2009 Combine, but he's been a more effective NFL back than the measurable suggests. The 25-year-old is averaging 4.68 yards per career carry and racked up 19 catches in four late-season spot appearances in 2011. Bell goes 5-foot-11, 219. He can get what's blocked and is not a liability in pass protection.

Availability: Bell was originally undrafted out of UCLA, so he wouldn't be safe with an "original pick" tender because a team could sign Bell away without coughing up a draft choice. Look for the Bears to extend Bell the second-round tender and re-sign him to a one-year deal.

Prediction: Bears on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.

3. Marcel Reece, Raiders

Scouting Report: Reece played wideout at the University of Washington, where he averaged over 20 yards per career reception. Despite a 4.42 forty at the Huskies' 2008 Pro Day, Reece was viewed as a "tweener" by NFL evaluators and went undrafted. In parts of four seasons with Oakland, Reece has flashed explosive ability as a fullback, averaging 4.98 yards per carry. He's scored five receiving TDs over the past two seasons. Reece is not a true lead blocker, so he needs a creative playcaller to find ways to get him the rock and capitalize on his playmaking skills.

Availability: New Raiders coordinator Greg Knapp runs a West Coast offense and has utilized backs similar to Reece in the past. Knapp oversaw T.J. Duckett and Justin Griffith's best seasons in Atlanta, and William Floyd was a versatile weapon at fullback with Knapp on the 49ers' staff in the late 1990s. Reece may not quite be headed for a breakout year, but staying with the Raiders could be a good situation for him. Expect Reece to stick on a second-round tender.

Prediction: Raiders on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.

Other restricted free agent running backs: La'Rod Stephens-Howling, Tony Fiammetta, Lex Hilliard, Lorenzo Booker, Kregg Lumpkin, Chris Pressley, Brock Bolen, Brit Miller.

Trade Candidates

1. Darren McFadden, Raiders

Overview: We don't expect McFadden to be traded, but the possibility has been floated by beat writers in Oakland. Though injury prone and only moderately expensive ($5.65 million salary), McFadden is the Raiders' single biggest offensive difference maker. It's worth noting that Oakland is implementing a zone-blocking scheme, and McFadden struggled in a similar system under ex-coach Tom Cable. Still, trading McFadden isn't worth it for the Raiders. His trade value is adversely affected by a season-ending Lisfranc injury, and the team won't be willing to hitch its wagon to 28-year-old free agent Michael Bush. New OC Greg Knapp is one of the most run-minded playcallers of the modern era. He's going to want to keep his best back.

Prediction: Stays with Raiders.

2. Felix Jones, Cowboys

Overview: Unlike college teammate McFadden, Jones is entering a contract year and makes sense as a trade candidate after DeMarco Murray's 2011 emergence. While Jones has averaged an impressive 5.08 yards per career carry, he's blown repeated opportunities to be Dallas' feature back, due to injuries and/or ineffectiveness. Only 24, Jones is a dynamic home-run threat best cutout for a change-of-pace role. More negatives include ball security (ten fumbles 2009-11), poor pass protection, and suspect instincts when running inside the tackles. Ultimately, it's more likely Jones stays with the Cowboys as the lightning to Murray's thunder. Interested teams won't offer more than a fourth- or fifth-round pick, and Dallas views itself as a contender.

Prediction: Stays with Cowboys.

3. Ben Tate, Texans

Overview: The Texans almost certainly won't trade Tate because he's a starting-capable back in the league's most run-heavy offense, and costs a meager $490K. They're going to get phone calls, though. Houston intends to sign Arian Foster to a long-term contract, and the 23-year-old Tate emerged as one of football's top young power backs in 2011 by averaging 5.38 yards per carry and finishing as a top-20 NFL rusher despite making only two starts. Tate is still developing in the passing game, but has flashed vicious ability as a pass blocker. If the Texans do listen to offers, don't expect them to budge off a first-round asking price. Tate is a big-time player.

Prediction: Stays with Texans.

4. Chris Ivory, Saints

Overview: A north-south collision runner completely devoid of passing-game value, Ivory has flourished whenever given opportunities to be the Saints' early-down back. Appearing in 18 games through two years, Ivory has averaged 5.05 yards per carry with six touchdowns. The relentless, take-no-prisoners style has led to an array of injuries, however. Ivory blew out a knee five games into his senior college season. Undrafted in 2010, he missed time as a rookie with an MCL injury, concussion, separated shoulder, and a hamstring strain. Ivory suffered a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot in Week 17. He also underwent hernia surgery during the 2011 offseason and missed one game with another hamstring injury last season. Ivory is only two years into the league, and he's already got a laundry list of medical flags. The Saints will be all ears in regard to trade offers because he's fourth string behind Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Mark Ingram.

Prediction: Elsewhere before 2012 trade deadline.

5. Anthony Dixon

Overview: Dixon has a power back's build at 6-foot-1, 248, but he has frustrated two separate coaching staffs with a tendency to dance around the line of scrimmage. He quickly fell behind rookie Kendall Hunter in 2011 training camp, playing only 52 regular season snaps. Dixon did contribute six tackles on special teams. While Dixon remains a work in progress entering his third NFL season, there is still some potential for him to emerge as a poor man's Michael Bush. The 24-year-old entered the league with polished receiving skills coming out of Mississippi State, and Dixon has pass blocked effectively when called upon. With Hunter and Frank Gore both signed through 2014, Dixon may be deemed expendable this offseason.

Prediction: Traded to Buccaneers for sixth-round pick.

More Running Back Trade Candidates: Mike Goodson, Rashad Jennings, Javon Ringer, D.J. Ware.

Release Candidates

1. Michael Turner, Falcons

Overview: The wheels are coming off. Turner's 2010 finish sent up red flags when he managed 436 yards on 121 carries (3.60 YPC) in the last six games against perhaps the NFL's softest run-defense schedule. The decline began sooner in 2011. Turner was bottled up for 280 yards on 84 carries (3.33 YPC) in Weeks 12-16 before a fluky 172-yard Week 17 game against a Bucs defense that gave up in November. Burned out and prone to negative runs, Turner was held to 15 rushes for 41 yards in the Falcons' playoff loss. Turner has a limiting effect on the offense because he can't play in the hurry-up without passing-game skills. He turned 30 this week and is owed a $5 million salary. The team has already spoken openly of limiting Turner's role in 2012.

Prediction: Released after the draft.

2. Brandon Jacobs, Giants

Overview: Jacobs agreed to a restructured contract to stay in New York after a surprise 2010 renaissance, averaging a career-best 5.60 yards per carry with nine TDs. Jacobs' per-play production slipped dramatically at age 29, posting a 3.76 YPC mark while forced into a larger role due to Ahmad Bradshaw's four missed games. Jacobs isn't a featurable back and is now going on 30 with $4.9 million coming due in bonuses and salary. Outed by ESPN's Jerry Rice for tip-toeing behind the line and getting tackled by "190-pound defensive backs" in 2011, Jacobs often runs as if he's more concerned with his long-term well being than extra yards. Jacobs is a negative in the passing game as well as the running game when he's not playing hard. He may have to accept a pay cut all the way to the eight-year veteran's minimum to stay with the Giants.

Prediction: Released in early March.

3. Joseph Addai, Colts

Overview: Scuffling through another injury-plagued year, Addai missed four games with a right hamstring strain in 2011 after sitting out eight the previous season with a severe neck injury. By the end of last season, former first-round bust Donald Brown had overtaken Addai as the Colts' best option at tailback. Peyton Manning was behind Addai's re-signing in late July, and the face of the franchise is now moving on. Addai is a sluggish, injury-prone ball carrier whose value lies almost strictly in his pass-protection skills. He's probably not much longer for the NFL.

Prediction: Released, resurfaces with team that signs Manning.

4. Knowshon Moreno, Broncos

Overview: Moreno was pushed as an aggressive, competitive runner with every-down tools coming out of Georgia in 2009, but his poor Speed Score forewarned of an ordinary back lacking big-play ability. Replacing Donte' Stallworth as the NFL's Human Hamstring Pull, Moreno suffered multiple leg injuries in his first two seasons before tearing his right ACL last November. In the meantime, Moreno lost his starting job to 30-year-old Willis McGahee and played sparingly under Denver's new coaching staff. On February 1, Moreno was pinched for DUI in a Bentley with a license plate that read "SAUCED." He is due an $855,000 salary in 2012.

Prediction: Waived at final cuts.

5. Marion Barber, Bears

Overview: Barber couldn't overcome lower-leg injuries during his final few seasons in Dallas, and they reappeared in 2011 training camp with the Bears. He missed the first three games with a calf injury, as well as the final two with a similar ailment. It stands to reason that Barber wasn't 100 percent all season, and he hasn't been at full health since 2009. Barber's passing-game skills are eroding and he's not nearly the tackle breaker he once was. After 1,335 career touches, many of a high-velocity collision variety, Barber's body is breaking down at age 29.

Prediction: Released in March, catches on in a camp.

More Running Back Release Candidates: Greg Jones, Brandon Jackson, Ovie Mughelli, Mike Sellers.
 

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2012 NFL Combine Preview

The importance of the NFL Combine has recently shifted in the public's eye. Once viewed as a crucial piece of the evaluation process, it is now more of a media spectacle. The significance lies in the eye of the beholder, of course. In the NFL, teams value test results and measurements differently. What happens behind closed doors may actually impact prospects' draft value more than any stopwatch.

(Here's a look at the official 2012 Scouting Combine schedule.)

All-Important Interviews

NFL front office personnel arrive in Indianapolis armed with thorough background information on every prospect courtesy of college coaches and trainers. Participants with histories of off-field issues must understand this and be truthful during interviews. Two Oklahoma prospects, OLB/DE Ronnell Lewis and CB Jamell Fleming, struggled with academics (and disagreements with coaches in Lewis' case) that cost them playing time in college. In some cases, book smarts and football intelligence are unrelated, but each instance is worth researching.

One method is to put players, especially quarterbacks, in front of a whiteboard. Teams present a situation or play versus a certain look and ask prospects to regurgitate information on a clean slate. Russell Wilson (Wisconsin), B.J. Coleman (UT-Chattanooga), and Austin Davis (Southern Miss) should shine in these scenarios, as all three responded immediately to NFL coaching at their respective all-star games. The whiteboard is important for every position (Boise State WR Austin Pettis excelled last year), and an outstanding showing can pique an evaluator's interest just like test numbers.

Many seniors completed interviews at postseason all-star games, but the Combine is underclassmen's first exposure to NFL questioning. This year's obvious question mark is Arizona State ILB Vontaze Burfict, who failed to improve in college despite guidance from former veteran NFL coaches, with whom he consistently clashed. Tennessee/McNeese State DB Janzen Jackson and Oregon CB Cliff Harris are former top high school recruits with outstanding athleticism, but were dismissed from their college teams due to off-field issues.

Other cases include Alabama CB Dre Kirkpatrick, who still needs to answer every question about his dropped marijuana charge, North Carolina early entry DE Donte Paige-Moss, who took to Twitter to call out his team, coaches, and school after their bowl game, and Miami DE Olivier Vernon, who was suspended following the Nevin Shapiro benefits fiasco. These interviews are a crucial piece in a team's thought process when deciding whether to draft an "upside" player with character concerns. If failed, prospects can be removed from draft boards entirely (see Florida's Will Hill).

Medical Checks

Teams give prospects do-not-draft grades for extensive medical history just as they do for character concerns. The majority of clubs bring medical staffs to poke and prod players, putting each through a physical before taking the field. The relationship between the decision maker and lead medical trainer must be built on trust and understanding. The last thing a General Manager wants is to waste a draft pick on a player that will rarely practice. Three receivers who were highly touted before their senior seasons face uphill battles to clear their names from the "fragile" list: Nick Toon (Wisconsin), Ryan Broyles (Oklahoma), and Greg Childs (Arkansas).

Florida State OT Andrew Datko and Nebraska DT Jared Crick both missed the majority of their senior seasons due to injury. Datko played through a shoulder injury until he was shut down, while Crick suffered a torn pectoral muscle. Separation, through use of the upper body, is a key part of both players' games. Datko and Crick could reappear prominently in draft discussion if cleared medically.

Measuring In

Senior Bowl weigh-ins revealed that Russell Wilson stands shorter than 5'11". Moving from Mobile to Indianapolis, the spotlight will be on Baylor QB Robert Griffin III, who I expect to measure in right over 6'2". Wilson and Griffin come from different college offenses, and Griffin would ideally be about two inches taller, but both flash the awareness and footwork to find clear throwing lanes as well as an ability to throw on the move. They are not limited to the pocket but surely can be efficient in it.

For linemen, arm length may be most important. If I had to guess, I'd tab Syracuse DE Chandler Jones as the favorite to measure in with the longest arms. Jones is lanky and uncoordinated, but he may be a completely different-looking player a few years from now. There is a frame to build on.

It's a hunch from watching his game tape, but I expect Memphis DT Dontari Poe to be at the opposite end of the spectrum from Jones in terms of arm length. Just keep in mind that long arms are not necessary for a nose tackle, especially one as athletic as Poe.
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Speed Kills

General opinion has Kendall Wright (Baylor), Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), and Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) in some order as the 2012 draft's top four wide receivers. Disagreements are common, but in some ways I still think receivers are linked to a stopwatch, and it shows in terms of burst, quickness, and straight-line speed. "Play speed" is most important, of course, but from watching their games I see Blackmon and Floyd playing in the 4.55-4.65 range, Jeffery in the 4.7+ range, and Wright at 4.35-4.45. Wright will surely pique the interest of fans tuning into Combine forty-yard dashes. He's already caught the attention of NFL teams.

Without pads, Indianapolis can turn into a glorified track meet. But it's always entertaining to see whether the top long-speed performers are the ones who can actually play. Florida WR/RB Chris Rainey, who played receiver at the Senior Bowl, North Carolina State WR/KR T.J. Graham, Oregon RB LaMichael James, Miami KR Travis Benjamin, Miami RB Lamar Miller, Virginia Tech RB David Wilson, and LSU CB Ron Brooks are all in the running for the top spot in speed tests.

Another player certain to test well is North Carolina LB Zach Brown, who holds the Tar Heels' 60-meter indoor track record. Keep in mind Brown plays without physicality on the field. His hands resemble pillows on contact, instead of delivering a solid pop.

Short-Area Quickness

Though it fails to account for upper-body strength and skills, the 20-yard shuttle effectively showcases which offensive linemen have an ability to bend, plant, and burst quickly in their lower body as well as move in open space. This is important because nimble linemen can react and redirect against quick-twitch pass rushers. Since 2006, Eagles C Jason Kelce, Raiders C Samson Satele, Panthers C Ryan Kalil, Patriots OT Nate Solder, Jets C Nick Mangold, and Colts OT Anthony Castonzo make up six of the top seven clocked times in the 20-yard shuttle. USC OT Matt Kalil and Iowa OT Riley Reiff's athletic playing styles will likely translate well in this test.

Much is made of a pass rusher's initial upfield get-off, but an ability to plant and quickly change direction can be equally effective. The 3-cone drill puts different types of pass rushers on an equal playing field. Since 2006, physical rushers like Cardinals OLB Sam Acho, Texans OLB Connor Barwin, Texans DE J.J. Watt, and Vikings DE Brian Robison make up the majority of the top six 3-cone times with Lions DE Cliff Avril directly behind. In this class, Marshall DE Vinny Curry, Boise State DE Shea McClellin, Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox, and Oklahoma DE/OLB Ronnell Lewis exhibit short-area quickness when working around offensive linemen.

Position Switches

Two seniors that will make the switch from defensive end to linebacker stick out because they have limited experience in that area. Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey looked out of place at 4-3 outside 'backer during East-West Shrine practices, but displayed a nice upfield move and length off the edge. It was shocking that West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin was not invited to the Senior Bowl. After being miscast at defensive end in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 scheme, Irvin's best role will be situational pass rusher early in his pro career. Irvin lacks counter moves, but may flash in movement drills. He plays like a running back when rushing the quarterback, consistently avoiding contact.

Air It Out

Stanford's Andrew Luck, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill will not throw in Indianapolis, opening the door for Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State), Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), Nick Foles (Arizona), and Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) to make an impression. I expect Weeden and Cousins to look the best, Foles to flash arm talent but look uncoordinated in his drops, and Osweiler to show decent footwork but underwhelm with arm talent. Perhaps Osweiler will surprise, but he lacks both the necessary accuracy to lead receivers and velocity due to an erratic release. Misses against air are expected. Cam Newton was heavily criticized for overthrowing sideline outs in Indy last year, of course, so take reviews of these performances with a grain of salt.

Positional Precision

I am a big fan of the Gauntlet drill, where pass catchers are forced to secure multiple throws while running in a straight line across the width of the field. Most notably, I look for receivers that struggled to consistently catch the football during their college careers due to locating, laziness, or lack of hand-eye coordination. Three that stand out are Arizona's Juron Criner, North Carolina's Dwight Jones, and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller, all big bodies that lose focus on easy catches or high targets. It may be the biggest knock on all three.

I'll also be watching to see whether Appalachian State's Brian Quick can rebound from his shaky Senior Bowl performance, where he dropped a couple balls each day. Quick can really locate the football, especially on high targets, so his unreliable hands surprised me. Check out Quick's game versus Virginia Tech to see his immense potential. Another receiver to watch is Stephen Hill, who may catch more passes at the Combine than he did during his entire career in Georgia Tech's option offense. I expect Kendall Wright, LSU's Rueben Randle, Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu, and Cal's Marvin Jones to show very reliable hands in every drill, even on poorly thrown passes.
 

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The 2012 Wide Receiver Market

Chris Wesseling and I teamed up to break down the 2012 free agency and trade markets at wide receiver, and Pat Daugherty will end our offense series with a look at the tight ends later this week. Click the following links for Wesseling’s Quarterback Market column and my take on the Running Back Market.

Wide Receivers Expected to be Franchise Tagged

1. Wes Welker, Patriots

Overview: The Pats have discussed a long-term deal with Welker's camp, but the sides don't seem likely to find common ground by early March. Welker is seeking a top receiver contract after a career year. New England is predictably loath to hand over a mega contract to a skill-position player on the wrong side of the age-30 barrier. National as well as local writers fully expect the Patriots to apply the franchise tag by the March 5 deadline.

Overview: Patriots on a one-year, $9.6 million contract.

2. Dwayne Bowe, Chiefs

Overview: The Stanford Routt signing paves the way for Brandon Carr's exit, leaving Bowe as the obvious candidate for the Chiefs' franchise tag. GM Scott Pioli confirmed as much Tuesday morning, stating "one way or another" Bowe would be back in Kansas City in 2012. While Bowe's numbers were down across the board versus a tougher schedule last season, he continued to show game-breaking ability by leading the NFL in receiving broken tackles.

Overview: Chiefs on a one-year, $9.6 million contract.

3. DeSean Jackson, Eagles

Overview: Though the Eagles have been tight-lipped about their plans for Jackson, the Philadelphia Inquirer has twice reported that he will be tagged in lieu of a long-term contract. GM Howie Roseman won't lose one of the game's most dangerous vertical threats with nothing in return, but he will entertain trade offers over the next few weeks. Should Jackson show increased commitment and a willingness to make tough catches in traffic next season, the Eagles will be more inclined to meet his asking price of more than $10 million per year.

Overview: Eagles on a one-year, $9.6 million contract.

Wide Receiver Free Agents

1. Vincent Jackson, Chargers

Scouting Report: Jackson is seen as a high-risk signing in some circles due to his pair of DUIs and subsequent three-game suspension to open the 2010 season. While coaches have praised Jackson's work ethic and football IQ, the one hole in his game is a lack of game-to-game consistency a true No. 1 receiver must possess. On the flip side, Jackson is one of the NFL's elite downfield playmakers, a dangerous red-zone threat, and a first-down machine. Still in his prime at age 29, Jackson has averaged more than 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns in his last three full seasons.

Availability: The Bolts will reportedly "do everything in their power" to re-sign their top receiver, and there appears to be mutual interest on Jackson's end. The franchise tag is prohibitive, however, as Jackson would collect 120 percent ($13.7 million) of his $11.4 million 2011 salary. GM A.J. Smith will make a competitive offer, but there will be at least one desperate team with the cash flow to overpay. The Rams, Bucs, Redskins and Vikings should be among Jackson's most ardent suitors.

Prediction: Buccaneers on a five-year, $56 million contract.

2. Brandon Lloyd, Rams

Scouting Report: A boundary receiver and downfield threat, Lloyd succeeds with fluid long strides, outstanding leaping ability, and acrobatic body control at the point of the catch despite mediocre speed. After a career year in 2010 due in large part to Josh McDaniels' creative play-calling and scheming to create advantageous matchups, Lloyd's production dipped in two of the NFL's weaker passing attacks last season. Bright yet complicated and opinionated, Lloyd seems to have worn out his welcome in several locker rooms over his nine-year career.

Availability: Lloyd's age (31 in July) and checkered history would seem to make him an ideal candidate for the franchise tag, but the Rams reportedly have no interest in going that route. Acknowledging McDaniels' role in his late-career renaissance, Lloyd has made it clear that reuniting with the Patriots' new coordinator is a high priority. He's also open to returning to St. Louis, though it's clear that the team won't break the bank to bring him back.

Prediction: Patriots on a two-year, $15 million contract.

3. Marques Colston, Saints

Scouting Report: A picture of consistency despite persistent injuries, Colston excels in traffic by "high-pointing" the football with one of the most wide-spanning catch radiuses the NFL has seen. As a solid all-around receiver, Colston has long been an asset in the red zone, down the field, and as a go-to option on third downs. After a half-decade as Drew Brees' favorite target, Colston fell behind explosive matchup nightmares Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham in 2011 while remaining highly productive in his own right.

Availability: Saints GM Mickey Loomis has a history of managing the salary cap to keep home-grown talent, especially those offensive weapons for whom Brees has gone to bat. Brees can substantially increase the odds of Colston returning to the Big Easy by agreeing to a long-term deal of his own, freeing up the franchise tag. Should Colston hit the open market, teams in need of a big, physical receiver such as the Bears, Raiders, Vikings, and Redskins are potential suitors.

Prediction: Saints on a four-year, $36 million contract.

4. Stevie Johnson, Bills

Scouting Report: While Johnson has been the primary beneficiary of coach Chan Gailey's shotgun-heavy, short-passing based offense, he's also showcased physicality, separation skills, and red-zone chops the past two seasons. Among his primary concerns are a handful of high-profile drops, a penchant for juvenile back-breaking penalties, and an inability to consistently beat double coverage. As a result, Johnson falls just shy of the top tier of free agent receivers.

Availability: Johnson's preference is to stay in Buffalo, as he's not guaranteed to be featured heavily outside of Gailey's scheme. While the two sides have exchanged proposals, they haven't had luck finding common ground. Much like the Chargers with Vincent Jackson, the Bills aren't currently inclined to franchise Johnson but could reverse course over the next few weeks.

Prediction: Bills on a five-year, $33 million contract.

5. Reggie Wayne, Colts

Scouting Report: Wayne reversed a five-year decline in yards per reception last season, but his production predictably declined across the board without Peyton Manning under center. Wayne no longer separates from quality cornerbacks and didn't give consistent effort in a lost year. Entering his age-34 season, Wayne's ideal fit is as a possession receiver for a veteran quarterback on a playoff team.

Availability: Displeased with his contract the past two offseasons, Wayne is likely to flee the rebuilding Colts for a contender. Clearly on the decline, Wayne is headed for disappointment in a buyer's market at wide receiver. Although there's been talk of a package deal with Peyton Manning, the quarterback may not sign with a team until April or May.
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Prediction: Cardinals on a three-year, $16 million contract.

6. Robert Meachem, Saints

Scouting Report: Although he possesses ideal size and legit downfield playmaking ability, Meachem's career has been filled with stops and starts due to injuries, questionable commitment, and the Saints' mix-and-match approach at receiver. Meachem has sat between 40-45 receptions and 620-720 yards in each of the past the past three years, but he's had 22 games of fewer than 30 yards compared to just eight games over 75 yards during that span.

Availability: With Drew Brees, Marques Colston, and Carl Nicks as GM Mickey Loomis' top priorities, Meachem figures to be the odd man out in the Big Easy. The 49ers, Bengals, Bears, Raiders, and Redskins should be interested in the services of a physically gifted 27-year-old receiver.

Prediction: 49ers on a three-year, $13 million contract.

7. Mario Manningham, Giants

Scouting Report: Manningham ran in the 4.6s coming out of Michigan, but his bread and butter is the vertical passing game. An impressive 38 of his 160 career receptions have gone for 20 yards or longer, and Manningham's ability to make difficult over-the-shoulder catches showed up on the biggest play of Super Bowl XLVI. Manningham is not a physical wide receiver, however, and plays smaller than his size (6'0/185). While he consistently creates separation downfield, Manningham isn't going to make any plays over the middle or in double coverage. He needs to be a No. 2 or 3 receiver and would be stretched as more.

Availability: After Victor Cruz's franchise record-breaking year, Manningham's time in New York is up at age 26. The Giants won't engage in a bidding war for a player no higher than third on the depth chart at receiver. Although SI.com's Peter King has predicted Manningham will collect at least $7 million per season on the open market, we see that as highly optimistic.

Prediction: Bears on a four-year, $22 million contract.

8. Pierre Garcon, Colts

Scouting Report: An inconsistent deep threat with a penchant for taking advantage of suspect secondaries, Garcon bounced back from a drop-plagued 2010 season to mirror Reggie Wayne's production. Digging deeper, though, all six of his touchdowns and nearly half (44.5 percent) of Garcon's 947 receiving yards came in three games versus the Bucs, Chiefs, and Pats due in large part to broken coverage, poor tackling, and garbage-time defensive effort. The talent is there, but the production is spotty.

Availability: Owner Jim Irsay has claimed Garcon and pass rusher Robert Mathis as his two highest priorities in free agency, though Garcon is expected to explore his market before deciding whether to return to Indy. Turning 26 in August, Garcon seems likely to team with Austin Collie as Andrew Luck's top two receivers.

Prediction: Colts on a four-year, $19 million contract.

9. Laurent Robinson, Cowboys

Scouting Report: A lean, long-armed wideout with 4.38 wheels coming out of Illinois State, Robinson appeared poised for an impressive career after catching 37 passes for 437 yards in only six starts as a rookie. Injuries and inconsistency plagued Robinson for the next three years, but he rehabbed his stock with career highs in receptions (54), yards (858), and touchdowns (11) in Dallas last season. Robinson abused single coverage while Dez Bryant, Miles Austin, and Jason Witten drew the vast majority of defense's attention. While Robinson has some good-looking tools, the sudden breakout as a fifth-year player is concerning. He's been incredibly brittle, and Robinson's track record inspires no confidence that he wouldn’t be a free agent bust.

Availability: Robinson has made it clear that staying in Dallas is his first choice and money won't be the driving factor in his decision. His player rep, on the other hand, expects Robinson to attract plenty of interest as a 27-year-old coming off a career year. Owner/GM Jerry Jones has said re-signing Robinson will be a top priority. That sentiment will be tested if the injury-prone red-zone threat lands an offer with high-dollar guarantees. We suspect he won't.

Prediction: Cowboys on a two-year, $8 million contract.

10. Braylon Edwards, 49ers

Scouting Report: When healthy, Edwards is a smooth deep threat with a knack for creating separation downfield. He is 6-foot-3, 214 and ran 4.45 coming out of Michigan. Edwards is also an underrated run blocker. Off-field issues crushed his 2011 market value, however, and medical woes may do the same this spring. Edwards pleaded guilty to DUI in 2010 and was fined for violating the league's substance abuse policy in September. Another infraction could result in suspension. Edwards tore his right meniscus in Week 2 with the 49ers and missed the next five weeks. He separated his right shoulder almost immediately after returning and was completely ineffective down the stretch. Edwards was cut on December 27. No team put in a waiver claim.

Availability: As a suspension risk, Edwards could only manage a one-year, $1 million offer from the 49ers last summer. After bombing spectacularly in San Francisco, Edwards received no interest upon being waived in late December. Jets coach Rex Ryan hinted that Edwards would be welcomed back with open arms. Bengals owner/GM Mike Brown has a history of collecting name players on the cheap once their value has reached its nadir.

Prediction: Bengals on a one-year, $3 million contract.

11. Early Doucet, Cardinals

Scouting Report: With a 4.56 forty time and 34.5-inch vertical, Doucet is an average athlete lacking downfield playmaking ability. He's spent his first four NFL seasons rotating in the slot for Arizona, playing behind Steve Breaston, Jerheme Urban, and Andre Roberts. Though known as a tough receiver, the 26-year-old has battled a laundry list of injuries, most notably fractured ribs, sports hernia surgery, recurring hamstring woes, and an abdominal strain. Doucet did seem to take a step forward in 2011, setting career highs in receptions (54), yards (689), and touchdowns (5) while making it through the first 16-game season of his career.

Availability: The Cardinals are expected to let Doucet hit the open market on March 13. The Arizona coaching staff appears to have determined that Doucet is a slot receiver only and a replaceable player. Doucet has some history with new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who ran Arizona's offense during Doucet's rookie year. Chiefs assistant head coach Maurice Carthon was also a position coach on the Cardinals' staff when Doucet entered the NFL.

Prediction: Steelers on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

12. Randy Moss, "Retirement"

Scouting Report: Contrary to popular belief, Moss' decline didn't happen suddenly in 2010. Moss' numbers began hitting the skids around midseason in 2009, as he averaged under 53 yards per game in the final eight weeks, including the playoffs. His career spiral became more obvious the following year, when three teams essentially gave up on Moss during a three-month span. Moss sat out the 2011 season, allegedly in "retirement," and later cited off-field issues for his decision not to play. Now 35, Moss can likely still run fast in a straight line, stands 6-foot-4, and has some of the softest hands on the planet. At the very least, Moss could make for an effective clear-out route runner, draw some double coverage and make the players around him better. But is he willing to fight for tough catches in traffic, or to accept a diminished role as a No. 2 receiver? The feeling here is that if Moss is to make a successful comeback, it will be mostly up to him.

Availability: The Jets preferred Moss over Plaxico Burress last year, but word on the street had the future Hall of Famer only willing to return to New England. While many teams will be wary of the potential headache, the Jets are both needy at receiver and willing to take calculated risks. Moss will come cheap, and he's not going to command much guaranteed money.

Prediction: Jets on a one-year, $2.5 million contract.

Other Wide Receiver Free Agents: Ted Ginn, Plaxico Burress, Roscoe Parrish, Jerome Simpson, Jerricho Cotchery, Eddie Royal, <a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=2386" target="_blank">Steve Smith, Mark Clayton, Harry Douglas, Andre Caldwell, Josh Morgan, Donte' Stallworth, Legedu Naanee, Eric Weems, Terrell Owens, Deion Branch, Chaz Schilens, Devin Aromashodu, Mike Sims-Walker, Derek Hagan, Patrick Crayton.
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Restricted Free Agent Wide Receivers

1. Mike Wallace, Steelers

Scouting Report: A third-round steal in the 2009 draft, Wallace quickly passed Limas Sweed to be Pittsburgh's No. 3 receiver as a rookie. The Steelers felt comfortable trading Santonio Holmes during the 2010 offseason, primarily because of Wallace's emergence, and he's led the team in receiving two straight years. While Wallace is sometimes billed as a straight-line speedster, his ability to take the top off a defense opens things up for other players. Wallace has been durable for his size (6'0/199) and has yet to miss a game due to injury. He's averaging 18.7 yards per career reception with 24 TDs. In 34 starts, Wallace has averaged 78 yards per game. Only eight NFL wide receivers had more first-down catches in 2011. Wallace ran a 4.33 forty time at the 2009 Combine, also demonstrating explosion with a vertical leap of 40 inches and 10-foot, 9-inch broad jump. Not yet 26 years old, Wallace is the most dynamic deep threat in the AFC.

Availability: The new CBA prevents restricted free agents from receiving the old first- and third-round tender, a once-prohibitive tag for interested teams. The highest tender is now a first-round only designation, requiring clubs in pursuit to surrender a top-32 draft pick if they propose an offer sheet the restricted free agent's current team cannot match. In other words, Wallace can be acquired for a first-round pick and contract the Steelers decline to pay. Pittsburgh is strapped for salary cap space and may balk at any contract proposal that contains a large first-year roster bonus. As a top-ten NFL receiver, Wallace is well worth the money and draft choice.

Prediction: Ravens on a five-year, $47.5 million contract.

2. Danny Amendola, Rams

Scouting Report: Undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2008, Amendola spent time on the Cowboys and Eagles' practice squads before securing a spot on the Rams' 53-man roster in September of 2009. He earned St. Louis' full-time slot receiver job a month later, also returning punts. Amendola led the Rams in receiving in 2010, but was lost for the year in Week 1 of 2011 with a dislocated left elbow. A torn triceps was discovered in the same arm and Amendola had surgery. A quicker-than-fast slot receiver, Amendola is an efficient pass catcher with nine career drops among 133 receptions. He averages only 8.0 yards per career catch, however, and runs in the 4.6 range at 5-foot-10, 186. Amendola lacks versatility to play the outside receiver positions.

Availability: Short on playmaking ability, Amendola will generate little to no interest on the restricted free agent market. If the new Rams front office wants to retain Amendola, they can safely do so with a second-round tender. The round-two tag is valued at just over $1.9 million.

Prediction: Rams on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.

3. Adrian Arrington, Saints

Scouting Report: A surprise underclassman draft entrant after a modest college career opposite Mario Manningham at Michigan, Arrington was selected with a late seventh-round pick in 2008 by the Saints. He spent the next three years either on New Orleans' practice squad or injured reserve, battling various ailments (e.g. turf toe, torn hamstring). Arrington was on the 2011 active roster, but made only four appearances. An annual training camp star, Arrington has racked up 24 catches for 482 yards (20.1 average) and three TDs in four career preseasons. The 6-foot-3, 192-pound 26-year-old has been unable to unseat Marques Colston, Lance Moore, Robert Meachem, and Devery Henderson for playing time. He doesn't play special teams, either.

Availability: Arrington is a somewhat intriguing prospect and has put a fair amount of action on tape, at least in preseasons. If the Saints extend Arrington only an "original pick" tender, he may generate some interest from receiver-needy teams at the cost of a cheap contract and seventh-round draft choice. Ultimately, it's more likely Arrington returns to New Orleans. His value would rise if the Saints lost Colston or Meachem, both of whom are unrestricted free agents.

Prediction: Saints on a one-year, $1.26 million contract.

Wide Receiver Trade Candidates

1. James Jones, Packers

Overview: Essentially black-balled on the free agent market after two unforgettable playoff drops, Jones settled for a three-year, $9.4 million contract to stay in Green Bay last July. The deal was incredibly affordable for a durable, 27-year-old playmaking wide receiver. While drops are an ongoing issue, Jones has averaged 14.5 yards per career reception and scored 17 touchdowns over the past three seasons despite making just six starts. Jones, who packs 208 pounds onto his 6-foot-1 frame, is a physical possession receiver willing to make tough grabs in traffic. His bread and butter is run-after-catch. Jones is a backup in Green Bay, and 2011 second-round pick Randall Cobb will have a bigger role on offense in 2012. While staying with the Pack is Jones' most likely scenario, he could be an interesting trade target for receiver-needy clubs during training camp. His salary is a reasonable $2.3 million, and Jones could start for at least ten teams.

Prediction: Stays with Packers.

2. Arrelious Benn, Bucs

Overview: The 39th pick in the 2010 draft, Benn slumped through a pedestrian first season (25/395/2) before tearing his left ACL in late December. While Benn recovered quickly enough to start the Buccaneers' 2011 opener, he was part of the problem in a receiver corps that created little separation from defensive backs all season long. Benn shared time with Dezmon Briscoe for most of the year, breaking 75 yards once in 14 appearances and averaging 13.5 yards in his final four games. Benn figures to be stronger and faster a full year removed from the ACL tear, but he's not proven much better than Briscoe, and Tampa Bay is starved for a vertical field-stretcher to book end <a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=5568" target="_blank"><a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=3124" target="_blank">Mike Williams. Benn, when healthy, is much more of a possession threat. The odds are ultimately against GM Mark Dominik giving up on Benn after two seasons, but he's a tradable commodity with a cheap salary ($490K) and not an especially good fit for the offense.

Prediction: Stays with Buccaneers.

3. Louis Murphy, Raiders

Overview: Murphy led Raiders wideouts in catches (41) and yards (609) in 2010, but fell behind Jacoby Ford, rookie Denarius Moore, and an emerging Darrius Heyward-Bey last season. Behind the eight ball after August hernia surgery, Murphy returned as a fourth receiver at midseason and experienced more groin tightness late in the year. Murphy goes 6-foot-3, 205 and ran a 4.43 forty coming out of Florida in 2009. He's in the last year of his rookie deal, and that's when teams often begin looking to unload players for trade. It seems unlikely that the Raiders would be willing to extend Murphy's deal. The 25-year-old has history with new Bengals assistant Hue Jackson, Jets wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal, and Seahawks assistant head coach Tom Cable.

Prediction: Traded to Jets for seventh-round pick.

Other Wide Receiver Trade Candidates: Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Hartline, Ramses Barden, Riley Cooper, Brandon Gibson.

Wide Receiver Release Candidates

1. Santana Moss, Redskins

Overview: The Redskins' split end in two-wideout sets and slot receiver in three-wide packages, Moss started the 2011 season hot with at least 70 yards and/or a touchdown in each of the team's first four games. Moss fractured a bone in his left hand in Week 7, however, and missed the next four weeks before finishing the season slowly. He failed to clear 50 yards in five of the final six games. Moss still handles himself well on underneath patterns, but he's no longer a vertical threat. The Redskins are unlikely to release Moss because doing so would cause a salary cap hit. Going on age 33, however, this will likely be Moss' last year in D.C.

Prediction: Stays with Redskins.

2. Nate Burleson, Lions

Overview: A veteran slot receiver with limited playmaking ability, Burleson struggled through an error-prone second season in Detroit. His nine drops led the Lions and tied Burleson for seventh in the NFL, per Pro Football Focus. Burleson also ranked seventh in penalties among wideouts while averaging a career-low 10.4 yards per catch. Burleson has entered the non-guaranteed portion of his contract, and is owed a $4 million salary in 2012. GM Martin Mayhew stated in January that Burleson is not a candidate for offseason release, but he may have to restructure to stay on. Set to turn 31 before the season, Burleson is expected to be the No. 4 option in Detroit's passing game, behind Calvin Johnson, Brandon Pettigrew, and Titus Young.

Prediction: Stays with Lions after pay cut.

3. Chad Ochocinco, Patriots

Overview: Acquired last July for a 2012 fifth-round pick and sixth-rounder in 2013, Ochocinco was painfully slow to pick up the Patriots' offense and failed to capitalize on increased playing time when Aaron Hernandez missed two early-season games with a knee injury. As of mid-October, teammates were still telling Ochocinco where to line up for certain offensive plays. Ocho fell behind Tiquan Underwood and Julian Edelman on the depth chart in December, and finished the regular season with 276 yards on 15 receptions in 15 appearances. He was a healthy scratch for the AFC Championship Game. At age 34, Ochocinco's separation skills have declined sharply and he is mentally unreliable. Ochocinco is due $4.6 million in 2012 salary and bonuses.

Prediction: Released by April.

4. Lee Evans, Ravens

Overview: Attempting to address their need for perimeter speed, the Ravens sent a 2012 fourth-round pick to Buffalo in exchange for Evans on August 12. After racking up 128 yards and a touchdown on six catches in two preseason games, Evans suffered a high left ankle sprain and was totally ineffective while attempting to play through the injury in September. The Ravens shut Evans down for all of October and most of November. He returned for the stretch run but could not get open, finishing the regular season with four catches for 74 yards in nine games (two starts). In the AFC Championship Game, Evans had a critical would-be touchdown catch stripped from his hands by Patriots CB Sterling Moore. Now 31, Evans is due a $1 million roster bonus on March 18 in addition to a $3.275 million base salary. His cap number is $5.61 million.

Prediction: Released before the bonus due date.

5. Hines Ward, Steelers

Overview: Ward was listed as a "starter" in eight of the Steelers' 2011 regular season gamebooks, but five of his starts occurred in the first five games and he was demoted to fifth receiver at midseason, falling behind Mike Wallace, <a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=5698" target="_blank">Antonio Brown, Jerricho Cotchery, and Emmanuel Sanders. Ward averaged 14 snaps played in Pittsburgh's final nine games, including the playoffs. His 8.3 yards-per-reception average was easily a career low, and Ward's 381 receiving yards were his fewest since 1998, Ward's rookie season. Turning 36 in March, Ward has deteriorated into a slow-moving slot receiver who struggles mightily to get open and is easily taken out of plays by physical press coverage. In late January, Ward underwent surgery to remove loose bone fragments from his right ankle. He has a $4 million base salary for 2012.

Prediction: Released in early March.

Other Wide Receiver Release Candidates: Anquan Boldin (if Ravens pursue Wallace), <a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=5568" target="_blank"><a href="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=3124" target="_blank">Mike Williams (Seattle), Devery Henderson, Donald Driver, Jacoby Jones, Michael Jenkins, Ben Obomanu.
 

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The 2012 Tight End Market

The NFL is nothing if not a copycat league. It’s why the terms “West Coast Offense” and “Tampa Two” have become generic, and why the Detroit Lions and Arizona Cardinals have both donned black jerseys in the past 10 years.

Although it’s true the NFL is constantly evolving, it’s only ever really being pushed forward by three or four of its brightest thinkers. For every Bill Walsh, there are 100 Eric Manginis. That is not to say the plagiarists get left behind, however. They often make up for their lack of innovation via wholesale appropriation. Whoever’s first can still end up last, while the smartest aren’t always the strongest.

So which fad pioneered by the few will soon be exploited by the whole? Tight ends that are bigger than a Hummer but quicker than a Jetta. “Gargoyles” who stretch the field and create mismatches whenever they’re in the game.

The chances the phrase “the next Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham” isn’t muttered at least once in every single NFL front office this offseason are zero. The problem, of course, is that players of Gronkowski and Graham’s ilk are exceedingly difficult to find. It will be downright impossible in a free agent market where the best tight end has already been re-signed and the second best is expected to be franchise tagged.

Tight Ends Expected to be Franchise Tagged

1. Fred Davis

Overview: One of fantasy football’s favorite preseason sleepers in 2011, Davis exceeded expectations by hauling in 59 catches for 796 yards and three touchdowns. Only a bad habit of smoking grass after he played on it could mar his breakout campaign. Were he not suspended for the final quarter of the season, Davis would have finished with a final line of 79/1,061/4 had his per-game averages held. The only consistent playmaker in Mike Shanahan’s atypically moribund offense last season, there’s a zero percent chance Davis will be allowed to sign elsewhere despite his off-the-field issues.

Tight End Free Agents

1. Jeremy Shockey

Scouting Report: Despite appearing in more than 14 games for the first time since 2006 last season, a 31-year-old Shockey still managed to catch a career-low 37 passes while tallying fewer than 500 yards for the second consecutive year (and third time in four). No longer capable of abusing linebackers the way he did before age and injury sapped his explosiveness, Shockey settled in behind Greg Olsen on the depth chart before injuries slowed Olsen down the stretch. Never a gifted blocker and now little more than a big target (6-foot-5, 251 pounds) in the passing game, Shockey has nowhere to go but down entering his age-32 season.

Availability: Believed to be seeking a deal similar to the one-year, $3.8 million pact he signed last March, Shockey could price himself out of the cap-strapped Panthers’ plans if he doesn’t lower his asking price. A proven pass catcher in a thin market placing a renewed emphasis on tight ends, it’s not impossible that Shockey might get his $4 million, but it’s certainly unlikely. Unless the Panthers have designs on finding a young Gronk or Graham in the draft, they should make a meaningful effort to re-sign their fifth-leading receiver from 2011.

Prediction: Panthers on a one-year, $2.5 million deal.

2. Visanthe Shiancoe

Scouting Report: De-emphasized in favor of promising rookie Kyle Rudolph down the stretch, Shiancoe went without a catch in the Vikings’ final three games last season, and saw his yardage total decline for the third straight year. His 36/409/3 line was easily his worst since arriving in Minnesota in 2007. Always a liability on running downs, Shiancoe is trending toward irrelevance on passing downs, as well, and has little chance of earning a starting job in 2012.

Availability: Rudolph’s rapid development makes it almost certain that Shiancoe will be allowed to walk in free agency, though there won’t be many obvious landing spots for a soon to be 32-year-old player with methodically declining numbers. Shiancoe will be of greater interest to pass-first clubs where he won’t be a liability in run blocking, though he would make sense as a veteran backup in Kansas City as Tony Moeaki works his way back from a torn ACL.

Prediction: Chiefs on a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

3. Martellus Bennett

Scouting Report: A perennial breakout candidate since entering the league as a second-round pick in 2008, Bennett underachieved for the fourth straight year in 2011, catching just 17 passes for a career-low 144 yards. Among others, Bennett found himself out-shined in the Cowboys’ passing game by September signing Laurent Robinson and special teamer Jesse Holley. Inconsistent, immature and never lauded for his hands, Bennett has only really ever excelled at run blocking.

Availability: Although a (slowly) declining Jason Witten will turn 30 in May, the wide expectation is that Bennett will hit the open market. Despite a frustrating four years in Dallas, it’s still possible Bennett’s impressive blocking and measurables (6’6, 267 pounds, 4.67 40 at the 2008 Combine) could earn him a multi-year deal. If nothing else, he should be in line for no shortage of one-year offers from teams who think the main thing he needs at the age of 25 is a change of scenery. In need of more athleticism in their receiver corps and shoring up their run game, the Jets could be a possibility.

Prediction: Jets on a two-year, $5 million contract.

4. Joel Dreessen

Scouting Report: One of fantasy football’s more well-known tight-end handcuffs thanks to Owen Daniels’ injury-prone ways, Dreessen managed to find the end zone an absurd six times in 2011 despite making just 28 catches. A thick 6-foot-4/245, Dreessen is a load of a blocker with usually reliable hands. Dreessen only really excels at blocking, but has no glaring weaknesses, and is a typical “glue” player who executes his assignments.

Availability: The Houston media expects Dreessen to stay put, though it could prove troublesome for the cap-strapped Texans if he draws more robust than anticipated interest on the open market. However, Dreessen’s age — he’ll turn 30 in July — should ensure no one goes overboard in attempting to lure him from the team that made him a sixth-round pick in 2005. That being said, the Texans would be wise to lock Dreessen up before the start of free agency if they’re serious about keeping him.

Prediction: Texans on a three-year, $6 million contract.

5. John Carlson

Scouting Report: A pure pass catcher, Carlson slumped to a 31/318/1 line in 2010 after averaging 53/601/6 his first two years in the league. He never got a chance to rebound last season after tearing his labrum in August — not that he would have bounced back in a Seahawks offense that calls on its tight ends to do little more than block. One of the worst blocking tight ends in the league, Carlson is of little use in systems like the one now being used by Pete Carroll in Seattle.

Availability: Carroll hinted in January the Seahawks would like Carlson back in 2012, but with big-money addition Zach Miller seeing his numbers plummet last season the way Carlson’s did in 2010, returning to the club that made him a second-round pick in 2008 won’t be Carlson’s Plan A. Although he missed just one game his first three years in the league, Carlson’s bum shoulder coupled with his one-dimensional game figures to limit him to one-year, incentive-laden offers. He’d be an ideal fit in a Giants offense that could be low on proven pass-catching tight ends in 2012 if Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum are both lost for the season.

Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $2.5 million contract.

6. Jacob Tamme

Scouting Report: A key cog in the Peyton Manning machine in 2010 after injury knocked Dallas Clark out in Week 6, Tamme plummeted back to earth in 2011 in the absence of Manning and return of Clark. A pure pass catcher who does little in the way of blocking, Tamme is best utilized in a backup role where he can also contribute on special teams.

Availability: Seeing as Tamme limped to a 19/177/1 line last season, speculation on his future has been sparse. He’ll still only be 27 in 2012, however, and will come exceedingly cheap. With the Colts likely to release Dallas Clark, they won’t let their only other proven pair of hands at the tight end position get away as they look to break in a rookie quarterback.

Prediction: Colts on a two-year, $2 million deal.

Other free agent tight ends: Scott Chandler, Kellen Davis, Daniel Fells, Bo Scaife, Leonard Pope, Randy McMichael, Alex Smith, Dante Rosario, Kris Wilson, Donald Lee, Reggie Kelly, Anthony Becht, Stephen Spach, John Gilmore, Justin Peelle, Billy Bajema, Tory Humphrey.


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Restricted Free Agent Tight Ends

1. Bear Pascoe

Scouting Report: A third-stringer originally slated to see time at fullback in 2011, Pascoe instead ended up playing over 500 snaps at tight end. He made precious few contributions, however, notching just 12 catches while again failing to turn into the fearsome blocker he was forecasted as when he was drafted out of Fresno State. If not for a Week 17 hurdle over hapless Cowboys CB Terence Newman and a four-catch Super Bowl performance, Pascoe would have remained anonymous.

Availability: Pascoe was a non-tender candidate until the Super Bowl, where both Jake Ballard and Travis Beckum suffered torn ACLs. Now the most experienced and able-bodied tight end to suit up for the G-Men in 2011, Pascoe should be back for a fourth season in the Big Apple despite his athletic limitations and stagnation as a blocker.

Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $1.26 million contract.

2. David Johnson

Scouting Report: Despite being a blocking specialist, Johnson managed to make at least one catch in 10 of 16 games in 2011. The problem? Eight times, he tallied exactly one catch. The result was a career best but still uninspiring line of 12/91/1. Johnson is a highly-average blocker who turns into a below-average one on running downs.

Availability: Although Johnson hasn’t excelled in any area since entering the league as a seventh-round pick in 2009, he also hasn’t struggled. Still just 24 years old, he figures to return to Pittsburgh with Heath Miller entering his age-30 campaign.

Prediction: Steelers on a three-year, $2.5 million contract.

3. Kory Sperry

Scouting Report: Signed off the practice squad in November 2010, Sperry ended up sticking with the Bolts through the end of 2011. Despite above-average athleticism and a reputation as a catch-first tight end, however, he made just five grabs for 104 yards during his 23-game stay on the active roster. Those numbers are made even less impressive by the fact that Antonio Gates was inactive nine times during that span. Worst of all, Sperry proved to be a liability as a blocker, especially in the running game.

Availability: Two months shy of his 27th birthday, Sperry has given little indication he’s ever going to break out, but if there’s one thing teams are always willing to take a chance on, it’s players with above-average athleticism. With San Diego’s tight end corps not getting any younger, the Bolts should give Sperry another shot.

Prediction: Chargers on a one-year, $1.927 million deal.

Other restricted free agent tight ends: Matthew Mulligan, Jeron Mastrud, Michael Palmer.

Release Candidates

1. Dallas Clark

Overview: Things went from bad to worse for Clark in 2011. One year after seeing a typically promising season cut short by an unusual wrist injury, Clark struggled through neck and leg ailments while watching his numbers fall off a cliff in the absence of Peyton Manning. Limited to 17 games the past two years, due a non-guaranteed $3.3 million salary in 2012 and five months shy of his 33rd birthday, all signs are pointing toward Clark being another victim of the Colts’ wholesale rebuild. Old, increasingly injury prone and without a track record of success without Manning under center, Clark will likely be limited to incentive-laden offers if/when he becomes a free agent. www.rapsports.com

Prediction: Released in early March.

2. Kellen Winslow

Overview: Although Winslow’s balky knees made it increasingly difficult for him to separate last season, they didn’t prevent him from posting a superficially solid line of 75/763/2. “Superficial” because while Winslow remained adept at swallowing up the ball and falling down, he did little else for a young team that came apart at the seams following a 3-1 start. Just five of Winslow’s 75 grabs went for 20 yards or longer, while he averaged a minuscule 3.2 yards after the catch. If not for his nine-catch, 132-yard outburst against the Packers’ historically bad pass defense in Week 11, Winslow would have finished with weekly averages of 4.4/42 instead of the 4.7/47.7 he ended up with. With all the guarantees from the six-year, $36.1 million contract he signed in 2009 paid, Winslow is a good bet to hit the open market.

Prediction: Released on the eve of free agency.

3. Chris Cooley

Overview: Once one of the NFL’s most durable pass catchers, Cooley suited up for fewer than eight games for the second time in three years in 2011, and wasn’t productive when he did manage to get onto the field. The eight catches for 65 yards Cooley posted in five games was roughly what dynamic young teammate Fred Davis averaged per week. Due an untenable $3.8 million heading into his age-30 season, Cooley is squarely on the chopping block as an unusually awash in cash Redskins team looks to get even further under the salary cap. For his part, Cooley has said he has “no doubt” he’ll be back in Washington, so it’s possible he’ll be amenable to returning at a bargain-basement salary.

Prediction: Stays with Redskins after pay cut.

4. Todd Heap

Overview: Heap was able to parlay a renaissance 2010 campaign into a two-year deal with the Cardinals last summer. But if 2010 was his renaissance, 2011 was his dark ages, as a curiously lingering hamstring injury limited him to just 10 games and career-lows nearly across the board. Heap’s scheduled 2012 salary of $2.15 million is reasonable for someone with his pedigree, but increasingly injury prone and on the wrong side of 30, he’ll at least be “asked” to take a pay cut. How much faith the Cardinals have in 2011 third-round pick Rob Housler could play a large part in Heap’s future.

Prediction: Released at final cuts.

5. Anthony Fasano

Overview: After averaging 34.6/440.3/4.3 his first three years in Miami, Fasano had his typical campaign in 2011, snagging 32 balls for 451 yards and five touchdowns. Perfectly acceptable numbers, but less so when they are a player’s absolute ceiling and he’s due $3.6 million the next season. New coach Joe Philbin figures to install a more open and tight-end friendly offense in Miami, but Fasano’s limited athleticism and speed make it highly unlikely he’d be able to take advantage of it. With GM Jeff Ireland on the record as wanting an “explosive young tight end,” Fasano is at least in line for a restructuring.

Prediction: Stays with Dolphins after pay cut.

6. Ben Watson

Overview: Coming off an out-of-nowhere career year in 2010, Watson regressed sharply in 2011, and was sent to injured reserve in Week 14 after suffering his third concussion of the season. After averaging 4.3 catches for 47.7 yards in 2010, Watson’s per-game averages plunged to 2.8/31.5 as he struggled to stay on the field and the Browns made a point of getting backup Evan Moore more involved. Watson’s current scheduled salary of $2.88 million is too much for a 31 year old on a team that needs to feature Moore more in 2012.

Prediction: Released on the eve of free agency.

Other release candidates: Matt Spaeth, Will Heller.
 

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Draft 2012: Combine Wrapup

The NFL Combine is a necessary tool for scouts to supplement the evaluation process with measurements, test times, medical checks, and interviews. I'd advise, however, to be wary of workout warriors whose measurables seem too enticing to pass up despite actual game tape showing less than quality play. Coaches often believe no challenge is too big and that outstanding athletes are pieces of clay to mold, when the truth is these players received college coaching and likely have been taught proper technique. They just have not implemented it.

I watch the Combine for two reasons: 1) To see if test numbers match a player's on-field skills and attributes. 2) To highlight players whose athleticism far out-tests my previous perception. For intriguing players, I allow myself the necessary amount of exposures until I determine whether he flashes that raw potential or not. If surprising measurables do not result in on-field production, I leave the grade as is. "Potential" and "upside" are buzz words this time of year that usually accompany a positive connotation, but as longtime University of Texas Head Football Coach Darrell Royal once said, "Potential means you ain't done it yet." There are rare cases of players "flipping the switch," but it is quite difficult to predict which ones will.

The NFL is not a track meet. If a player maximizes his tools to produce at a consistent level, I see no reason to doubt his on-field ability because he doesn't run particularly fast on a stopwatch. Players should not be upgraded or downgraded based solely on Combine results until more game film is watched.

Issues with the Combine

Speaking of stopwatches, this year's "official" 40 results struck a nerve. These times, distributed by National Football Scouting, are done electronically. They start with the player's initial hand movement and end when his torso crosses an invisible line. Maybe it was the noticeable variance from NFL Network's "unofficial" handheld times. What makes the electronic times "official?" NFL teams do not use them; they use 40 times collected by multiple scouts on separate stopwatches. Because electronic times start with first hand movement, some players' times suffered due to the inexperience of running in one motion from a three-point stance.

I find it hard to believe a single team clocked Baylor WR Kendall Wright at 4.61, his "official" time. In the coming weeks, I will time my own 40s from Combine replays and work to acquire actual times from NFL sources. For now, I will be using the unofficial stopwatch times.

My biggest complaint from the last four days is the growing lack of participation. These players are entering a competitive business in which confidence in their abilities is an absolute requirement in order to succeed. When a healthy player sits out any portion of the Combine, it shows either a lack of confidence or competitiveness, or that the player is hiding something. The truth will inevitably emerge.

Quarterbacks

Andrew Luck (6-4/234), Stanford - Luck's exceptional test results weren't shocking. We saw flashes of his top athletic ability at Stanford; a one-handed sideline catch and a 58-yard run featuring a jarring stiff arm to Cal S Sean Cattouse. While the 4.59 forty, 10'4" broad jump, and 36" vertical are on par with Cam Newton's 2011 Combine measurables, resist the temptation to compare the two. Luck will not have repeated red-zone running plays called for him by his NFL team, but his agility will allow him to buy time and move the defense while leaving the pocket like Aaron Rodgers or Tony Romo. Luck flashed those skills in college.

Robert Griffin (6-2/223), Baylor - A high-level hurdler, Griffin's athleticism transcends his position. A 4.38 forty, 39" vertical, and 10' broad jump show explosion in every part of his lower half. Griffin's 6'2" plus frame can no longer be questioned, but the Troy Smith-esque way he holds the football -- elbows out -- has led to a lower release and batted balls. The biggest question is whether Griffin's body can hold up with his play style. While RG3 is muscular, he took pounding hits at Baylor and missed significant playing time during his true sophomore season. NFL coaches instructed even a thickly-built runner like Cam Newton to avoid contact, so Griffin must adjust similarly. The workout numbers are off the charts, but I still do not consider him in Andrew Luck's "rare" category. Luck throws the football better and his feet move calmly when the pocket is closing. Griffin will not become an elite NFL quarterback because of his ability to run; it has to be with how he throws after sound footwork and decision making. The rest is a bonus. For a glimpse of Griffin's outstanding presence behind closed doors, check out this video.

Kirk Cousins (6-3/214), Michigan State - A three-year captain with 39 career starts, Cousins has plenty of game film for teams to evaluate. He stood out as the Combine's best thrower in passing drills, by all accounts, capitalizing on an opportunity with Luck, Griffin, Ryan Tannehill (foot), and Brock Osweiler (foot) sitting out. Cousins could be termed a safe thrower that fails to test deep sections of the field, but above all successful quarterbacks must make sound decisions -- an area of a passer's game that can only be seen on tape. If Christian Ponder can go in the high first round, it would not surprise me if Cousins sneaks into the top 40. It is tough to not be impressed by how Cousins carries himself in this video.
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Running Backs

Robert Turbin (5-10/222), Utah State - Though a bit top heavy, Turbin displayed a 222-pound powerhouse frame and turned in a surprisingly fast 4.44 forty. I have Turbin as a fringe top-ten running back in this year's class, and a two-down player only because of his total inability to pass protect. Due to Turbin's almost overly muscular upper half, I worry about his flexibility and ability to keep his feet. Turbin initiated a lot of contact in the WAC, but NFL hits are an entirely different animal. I also think he lacks one-step planting ability to change directions, as Turbin's poor 3-cone time (7.16, 16th among RBs) and short shuttle (4.31, 14th among RBs) confirmed. Still, Turbin's straight-line speed is certainly enticing for such a well-built runner.

Ronnie Hillman (5-9/200), San Diego State - I have never seen a player utilize the lateral jump cut as frequently as Hillman. Even playing in the Mountain West Conference, the move was consistently unsuccessful and resulted in an alarmingly high number of negative runs. Hillman's burst from a standstill is also not where it should be, which is why I was surprised by his 4.41 forty. I never once saw that speed on Hillman's game tape. Another fringe top-10 running back on my list, Hillman is worth an extra look before the draft but must overhaul his running style.

Doug Martin (5-9/223), Boise State - Martin is a first-round talent and a true three-down back. He compares to Jonathan Stewart on the field, and his test results speak to that notion: 4.47 forty, 28 bench-press reps (tied for best among running backs), 30" vertical, 4.16 20-yard shuttle, and 11.29 60-yard shuttle (second among backs). Above all stands Martin's 3-cone drill (6.79, second at the position), which translates to his on-field ability to change directions quickly from a standstill. Martin's bowling-ball frame helps with balance to break tackles, but do not make the mistake of stereotyping him as a power runner. Martin can wiggle.

Chris Rainey (5-8/180), Florida - Rainey dominated short-area quickness tests, leading all offensive players in the 3-cone (6.50), 20-yard shuttle (3.93), and 60-yard shuttle (11.06). Those three times now lead all running backs since 2006. We know Rainey is an athlete with agility in every area of his game, but where does he play in the NFL? Rainey obviously isn't a featurable runner and will need time to get comfortable at receiver. But with those times and how he separates from the pack in games, Rainey can be an instant contributor on returns.

Wide Receivers

Stephen Hill (6-4/215), Georgia Tech - With a 4.30 forty, 39.5" vertical, 11'1" broad jump, and 49 career receptions, Hill scares me as a potential "workout wonder." NFL teams will get a far better sense of his route running ability and understanding of coverages via in-house workouts and interviews, but I don't have that luxury. Hill ran three routes at Georgia Tech, lacking fluidity and footwork on simple out patterns. While Hill impressed catching the football in the Combine's Gauntlet drill, he's far from a finished product. I will keep a safe third-round grade on him, but teams could get a better sense of his ability. The early second round is a definite possibility.

Kendall Wright (5-10/196), Baylor - I put NFL Network's live video feed of Wright's top forty-yard dash on my own stopwatch, and got times of 4.42, 4.42, and 4.45. His 4.61 "official" was shocking. The way Wright handled his poor starts was still impressive, and he really showed his ability to cut on either his inside or outside foot in one step during pass routes. That kind of crisp footwork is close to unmatched in this receiver class and shows why Wright separates at every level of the field. He will remain my top wide receiver and is the draft's top playmaker.

Michael Floyd (6-3/220), Notre Dame - I was a big fan of Floyd's before the Combine, grading him equally with Justin Blackmon and slightly favoring Floyd because of his versatility to win at any receiver position. With that said, I in no way expected Floyd to run a 4.42. He certainly does not play at that speed, but on a day where Blackmon declined to run and Wright's "official" time was off, Floyd shined. He does exhibit downfield ability on the field.

Tight Ends

Dwayne Allen (6-3/255), Clemson - Allen's 4.84 forty may be disappointing to some, but he was never a vertical threat in the straight-line speed sense. Allen creates separation and wins with his footwork and crisp routes, changing directions quickly with a shifty motion. His 3-cone time of 7.12 seconds and 4.37 20-yard shuttle were both top-five tight end performances and demonstrate Allen's impressive short-area movement skills. What wasn't shown in Indianapolis is his quality blocking ability, where Allen is superior to Stanford's Coby Fleener. Sure, Allen's height is not typical of an in-line tight end, but he could fill either role for a team in the late first or second round with versatility to both block and play receiver in the slot.

Ladarius Green (6-6/238), Louisiana Lafayette - Green is closer to a receiver than a tight end, but has exhibited blocking effort and soft hands to warrant the defense's attention. A 4.48 forty is great, but Green lacks maturity in his movements. As an early third-day pick, Green will have time to grow but can certainly stretch the field and present mismatches with his height. He's my second-ranked "Joker" tight end behind Orson Charles, and will only improve as a route runner.

Offensive Linemen

Matt Kalil (6-7/306), USC - Kalil is the only player in this class that can sniff Andrew Luck's "rare" grade. I absolutely think Kalil is on the same level of Jake Long and Joe Thomas, and he answered questions about his strength (30 bench press reps) and ability to add weight in Indy. Kalil's veteran quality of using his length (34 1/2" arms) to maneuver pass rushers is tough to find in young prospects. Accompany that with balanced footwork and a growing frame and Kalil will be a top-ten left tackle in the NFL sooner than later. I have no doubts about his future.

Cordy Glenn (6-6/345), Georgia - A forty time of 4.96 for a 345-pound behemoth is quite a sight. It's amazing how well Glenn carries his weight, but even more impressive is his strength (31 reps) despite incredibly long arms (35 3/4"). I've mentioned that Glenn bends at the waist too often, but his athleticism makes up for it. Pre-combine, many considered Glenn just a guard prospect despite showing up as the best tackle at the Senior Bowl. This kind of versatility makes Glenn very reliable and valuable. He will go in the top-25 picks.

Mike Adams (6-7/323), Ohio State - My biggest issue all along with Adams has been his inconsistency, specifically his reaction timing and soft play style. His bench press number of a measly 19 reps backs up those concerns. Some may argue the low total was due to Adams' long arms (33 7/8"), but Cal WR Marvin Jones weighs 199 pounds with arms less than an inch shorter and put up 22 reps. I just don't know where Adams fits. His feet and reaction time are too slow for left tackle, and he lacks strength to match up with strong-side ends. I think Adams will be over-drafted as a tackle and have a career similar to Bears 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams.
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Defensive Linemen

Dontari Poe (6-4/346), Memphis - Poe is a freak of nature and turned in a workout for the ages. His results show 44 bench reps, a 4.87 forty with a 1.68 ten-yard split, 29.5" vertical, and an 8'8" broad jump. I entered the week with Poe as my third defensive tackle and top nose prospect, but the Haloti Ngata comparisons are reaching. I suppose I see it with the footwork and position versatility, but Poe does not have Ngata production. After starting almost every game in three seasons of C-USA competition, Poe had five sacks and 21.5 tackles for a loss. For a freak athlete, that is very poor. Maybe it is a technique or effort issue, but I cannot warrant giving higher than a late first-round grade considering how often Poe ends up on the ground. Poe will likely be drafted higher than that because it's so difficult to find a player of his size and athleticism. I like him, but maybe just not as much as others reacting to his workout only.

Michael Brockers (6-5/322), LSU - I wrote about Brockers in my Overrated Prospects piece two weeks ago, explaining that his lack of technique covered up his publicized athleticism and resulted in scant production. Since the college season, endless reports have suggested Brockers is a freak athlete that just needs to be refined, even comparing him to Jason Pierre-Paul. I bought into the athlete part, but never saw it on the field. After Brockers' workout it all makes sense; the idea that Brockers is an elite athlete was an absolute myth. He shows little explosion during games and in tests (5.33 forty, 1.77 ten-yard split, 19 bench press reps, 26.5" vertical, 7.46 3-cone, 4.81 shuttle). So now we are left with a player that possesses little to no technique or natural athletic ability, whose lone selling points are length and a thick lower body that produces a solid anchor versus the run. If Brockers is taken in the first 20 picks, he'll be the biggest reach in the 2012 draft.

Melvin Ingram (6-2/264), South Carolina - Somewhat quietly, Ingram had one of the best overall workouts of the 2012 Combine. I still contend his best position is 4-3 defensive end, but limiting Ingram to one position would be selling him short. He looked very fluid in his hips when drop-stepping, and many movements looked effortless. In my Combine preview, I singled out the 3-cone drill as a test that puts speed and power rushers on an equal playing field and seemingly best predicts career success. Ingram's 6.83 time is the third best since 2006. I find it tough to believe he gets past the 12th pick since his on-field success equals his stellar testing.

Nick Perry (6-3/271), USC - Perry has bulked up almost 20 pounds since declaring for the draft and carried it very well in Indy (4.50 forty, 1.56 ten-yard split, 38.5" vertical, 10'4" broad jump). There has been plenty of talk of Perry playing as a strong-side 3-4 outside 'backer, and at that size it would be amazing. However, I still see stiffness in his game in tight spaces and when bending around the edge. Perry's 3-cone (7.25 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.66 seconds) confirmed that stiffness, with neither time cracking the top-15 defensive linemen. Perry can be a solid top-20 pick as a 4-3 end, but he will struggle changing directions in space as a 3-4 OLB.

Linebackers

Mychal Kendricks (5-11/239), California - Kendricks made my Underrated Prospects feature a few weeks ago, and was easily the most impressive linebacker in Indianapolis. Some will question Kendricks because of his short stature, but he plays with an edge and ability to knife through blocks while delivering thumping hits at the line. Kendricks plays close to the same explosiveness of his 4.41 forty, 24 bench press reps, 39.5" vertical, 10'7" broad jump, and 4.19 short shuttle. I said in the article that Kendricks will be an instant starter after being selected on the second day. Now the only question is whether it is at weak-side or inside linebacker. Kendricks has quite a bit of Jon Beason to him.

Luke Kuechly (6-3/242), Boston College - Skeptics doubted Kuechly's athleticism entering the Combine, but he answered every question by landing in the top-five linebackers on almost every possible test (4.50 forty, 38" vertical, 10'3" broad jump, 6.92 3-cone, 4.12 20-yard shuttle, 11.43 60-yard shuttle). Kuechly makes quick decisions and is a missile at the second level. Part of me believes he can play both weak-side and inside linebacker, but how valuable is that to an NFL team? Lately, Patrick Willis and Jerod Mayo seem to be the only non-pass rushing linebackers that have produced to their top-12 draft status.

Vontaze Burfict (6-1/248), Arizona State - Burfict was another prospect listed in my Overrated piece. After running an embarrassing 5.09 forty, Burfict predictably took to the trainers table, ending his day. Burfict is the poster boy for how highlight-reel and YouTube "scouting" is a dangerous thing. He never improved in college, blamed coaches for his poor play during team interviews, and worst of all cannot read or react. Throughout this process I have had Burfict as my fifth inside linebacker with an early fourth-round grade. I think his best NFL position is 4-3 strong-side 'backer, where he has less responsibility and is allowed to make contact on every snap.

Defensive Backs

Stephon Gilmore (6-0/190), South Carolina - Gilmore was overshadowed by fellow SEC corners Morris Claiborne and Dre Kirkpatrick during his college career. However, Gilmore plays at a high level in his own right and is a natural on his outside island. He's best suited for a press scheme and stays in the receiver's hip after jamming at the line. Gilmore is balanced, but his reaction timing is not quite where it should be in off-coverage. After showing positive fluidity in his drops and running 4.40 in Indy, Gilmore's workouts back up his top-25 tape.

Josh Robinson (5-10/199), UCF - A surprise early entry into the draft, Robinson’s best traits are his ball-attacking attitude in midair by undercutting routes, fighting through a big-bodied receiver, and leaving his area to play lofted passes. Robinson frequently high points the ball better than the receivers he's covering, and showed that vertical leap at the combine (38.5”, second among CBs). He is effective after the interception with breakaway speed (4.29 forty) and explosive burst (11’1” broad jump, first among CBs). Robinson best projects in a zone scheme and thrives in underneath coverage. He shadows receivers well but is not a very physical player until the catch point. Robinson’s ability to fluidly switch from receivers that enter his zone and close quickly shows in tests (3.97 20-yard shuttle, 6.55 3-cone). Because of his scheme limitations, Robinson is a later second-day to early third-day prospect.
 

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NFL Free Agent Master List

The 2011 free agent class was the deepest, most talent-rich in league history. The 2012 class comes pretty close.

With transactions disallowed during last year's lockout, NFL teams and agents had significantly less time to broker long-term contracts. When the lockout was lifted in late July, negotiators had just over a month to strike agreements before the start of the season. A large chunk of talented players was forced to settle for one-year arrangements. Contract-year players who normally would've received multi-year deals played out their final seasons.

Unlike most other sites, Rotoworld has NFL Players Association access and can produce the most accurate free agent lists on the web. Chris Wesseling, Pat Daugherty, and myself will soon begin delving deeper into the 2012 free agent class, but this is a preliminary look at the inventory. The unsigned players are loosely ranked in the order we expect them to be valued on the open market.

2012 free agency opens on the afternoon of March 13.

* = likely will be franchise tagged.

Quarterbacks

Drew Brees *
Matt Flynn
Kyle Orton
Chad Henne
Alex Smith
Jason Campbell
David Garrard
Vince Young
Josh Johnson
Shaun Hill
Byron Leftwich
Sage Rosenfels
Brady Quinn
Drew Stanton
Donovan McNabb
Chad Pennington
Rex Grossman
Dennis Dixon
Chris Redman
Josh McCown
Charlie Whitehurst
Luke McCown
Charlie Batch
Jake Delhomme

Trent Edwards (Signed 1-year deal with PHI on 2/23)
J.P. Losman
Dan Orlovsky
Derek Anderson
A.J. Feeley
Caleb Hanie
David Carr
Kellen Clemens
Kyle Boller
Mark Brunell
Jeff Garcia
Running Backs

Ray Rice *
Matt Forte *
Michael Bush
Marshawn Lynch *
Peyton Hillis
Cedric Benson
Mike Tolbert
Kevin Smith
Jason Snelling
Justin Forsett
BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Tim Hightower
Steve Slaton
Cadillac Williams
LaDainian Tomlinson
Ronnie Brown
Ryan Grant
Jackie Battle
Sammy Morris
Mewelde Moore
Maurice Morris
Earnest Graham
Chester Taylor
Kevin Faulk
Tashard Choice
Derrick Ward
Thomas Jones
Jerious Norwood
LenDale White
Fullbacks

Le'Ron McClain
Jacob Hester
Michael Robinson
Spencer Larsen
Owen Schmitt
Ahmard Hall
Moran Norris
Wide Receivers

Vincent Jackson
Dwayne Bowe *
Wes Welker *
Brandon Lloyd
Marques Colston
DeSean Jackson *
Stevie Johnson
Reggie Wayne
Robert Meachem
Mario Manningham

Randy Moss
Pierre Garcon

Laurent Robinson

Braylon Edwards
Early Doucet
Ted Ginn
Plaxico Burress
Roscoe Parrish
Jerome Simpson
Jerricho Cotchery
Eddie Royal
Steve Smith (PHI)
Mark Clayton
Harry Douglas
Andre Caldwell
Josh Morgan
Donte' Stallworth
Legedu Naanee
Eric Weems
Terrell Owens
Deion Branch
Chaz Schilens
Devin Aromashodu
Mike Sims-Walker
Lavelle Hawkins (Signed 3-year deal on 2/10)

Hines Ward
Derek Hagan
Patrick Crayton
Donnie Avery
Domenik Hixon
Greg Camarillo
Devin Thomas
Ruvell Martin
Maurice Stovall
Anthony Gonzalez
Kevin Curtis
T.J. Houshmandzadeh
Matt Slater
Micheal Spurlock
Courtney Roby
Bernard Berrian
Roy Williams
Rashied Davis
David Anderson
Bryant Johnson
Jerheme Urban
Tight Ends

Jermichael Finley (Signed 2-year deal on 2/22)
Fred Davis *
Martellus Bennett
John Carlson
Jacob Tamme
Scott Chandler
Kellen Davis
Craig Stevens (Signed 4-year deal on 1/13)
Visanthe Shiancoe
Jeremy Shockey
Joel Dreessen
Daniel Fells
Bo Scaife
Leonard Pope
Randy McMichael
Alex Smith
Dante Rosario
Kris Wilson
Donald Lee
Reggie Kelly
Anthony Becht
Stephen Spach
John Gilmore
Justin Peelle
Billy Bajema
Offensive Linemen

Carl Nicks
Jared Gaither
Ben Grubbs
Evan Mathis

Demetrius Bell
Chris Myers
Jeff Backus
Kareem McKenzie

Anthony Collins
Jake Scott
Chilo Rachal
Samson Satele
Bobbie Williams
Max Starks
Scott Wells
Nick Hardwick
Matt Birk
Jeff Saturday
Mike Brisiel
Jeremy Zuttah
James Lee
Jacob Bell
Dan Connolly
Todd McClure
Sean Locklear
Deuce Lutui
Mike Pollak
Vernon Carey
Casey Wiegmann
Will Montgomery (Signed 4-year deal on 2/25)
Guy Whimper
Derrick Dockery
Ryan Diem
Andre Gurode
Leonard Davis
Mike McGlynn
Brandon Keith
Montrae Holland
Nate Livings
Mike Otto (Signed 2-year deal on 2/9)
Stephon Heyer
Mackenzy Bernadeau
Dennis Roland
Adam Snyder
King Dunlap
John Greco
Stacy Andrews
Tony Moll
Breno Giacomini (Signed 2-year deal on 2/10)
Barry Richardson
Dan Koppen
Mark LeVoir
Khalif Barnes
Trai Essex
Geoff Hangartner
Robert Turner
Adam Goldberg
Scott Mruczkowski
Russ Hochstein
Tony Wragge
Artis Hicks
Kirk Chambers
Pat McQuistan
Mike Gibson
Paul McQuistan
Jamey Richard
Oniel Cousins
Ryan O'Callaghan
Scott Kooistra
D'Anthony Batiste
Steve Vallos
Quinn Ojinnaka
Defensive Linemen

Calais Campbell *
Mario Williams
Robert Mathis
Sione Pouha
Jason Jones
Cliff Avril *
John Abraham
Paul Soliai
Mark Anderson
Kendall Langford
Jeremy Mincey
Brodrick Bunkley
Matt Roth
Andre Carter
Aubrayo Franklin
Red Bryant
Trevor Laws
Cory Redding
Israel Idonije
Jarvis Moss
Kroy Biermann
Tony Brown

Albert Haynesworth
Colin Cole
Marcus Thomas
Letroy Guion
Pat Sims
Antonio Garay
Derek Landri
Trevor Scott
Dave Ball
Dave Tollefson
Rocky Bernard
Shaun Rogers
Anthony Hargrove
Juqua Parker
Jamaal Anderson
Amobi Okoye
Adam Carriker
Wallace Gilberry
William Hayes

Marcus Benard
Andre Fluellen
Raheem Brock
Brandon McKinney
Jovan Haye
Tommie Harris
Howard Green
Frostee Rucker
Aaron Smith
Tim Bulman
Jason Hunter
Turk McBride
Kelly Gregg
Kedric Golston
Jimmy Kennedy
Eric Foster
Vonnie Holliday
Derrick Harvey

Anthony Adams
Eric Moore
Igor Olshansky
Gary Gibson
C.J. Mosley
Shaun Ellis
Jeff Charleston
Fred Evans
Tyler Brayton
Darrion Scott (Signed 2-year deal on 2/27)
Gerard Warren
Amon Gordon
Jonathan Fanene
Ronald Fields
Victor Adeyanju
Daniel Muir
Jimmy Wilkerson
Linebackers

Curtis Lofton
Dan Connor
D'Qwell Jackson (Signed 5-year deal on 2/27)
David Hawthorne
Anthony Spencer
Stephen Tulloch
London Fletcher
Joe Mays
Ahmad Brooks (Signed 6-year deal on 2/28)
Jarret Johnson
Philip Wheeler
Quentin Groves
Jameel McClain
Manny Lawson
Jo-Lonn Dunbar
Leroy Hill
E.J. Henderson
Barrett Ruud
Geno Hayes
Rocky McIntosh
Wesley Woodyard
Channing Crowder
Brandon Johnson
Jonathan Goff
Mario Haggan
Bryan Thomas

Ashlee Palmer
Ernie Sims
Kirk Morrison
Erin Henderson
Clark Haggans
Lofa Tatupu
Darryl Blackstock
Xavier Adibi
Bryan Kehl
Bobby Carpenter
Chase Blackburn
Bradie James
Reggie Torbor
Erik Walden
Chris Chamberlain
Gary Guyton
Blake Costanzo
Heath Farwell
David Vobora
Antwan Applewhite
Kevin Bentley
Keyaron Fox
Andra Davis
Ikaika Alama-Francis
Ricky Brown
Keith Brooking
Mike Peterson
Tracy White
Brady Poppinga
Marvin Mitchell
Tavares Gooden
Matt McCoy
Tim Shaw
Jordan Senn
Brendon Ayanbadejo
Patrick Bailey
Tim Dobbins
Ben Leber
Na'il Diggs
Omar Gaither
Isaiah Ekejiuba
Cornerbacks

Brent Grimes *
Cortland Finnegan
Brandon Carr

Stanford Routt (Signed 3-year deal with KC on 2/20)
Carlos Rogers
Terrell Thomas
Rashean Mathis
Aaron Ross
Eric Wright
Richard Marshall
Tracy Porter
Marcus Trufant
William Gay
Tim Jennings
Jason Allen
Kelvin Hayden
Kelly Jennings
Justin Tryon
Corey Graham
Pacman Jones
Zackary Bowman
Will Allen
Benny Sapp
Dimitri Patterson
Ronde Barber
Alan Ball
Phillip Buchanon
Patrick Lee

Jonathan Wilhite

Elbert Mack

Donald Strickland
Justin King
Michael Coe
David Jones
Reggie Corner
Roderick Hood
Travis Daniels
Cletis Gordon
Frank Walker
Will Blackmon
Brandon McDonald
Leigh Torrence
Safeties

Tyvon Branch
LaRon Landry
Dashon Goldson *
Michael Griffin
Dwight Lowery
Thomas DeCoud
Jim Leonhard
Brandon Meriweather
Reggie Smith
Sean Jones
Mike Adams
Chris Harris
Reggie Nelson
Brodney Pool
Husain Abdullah
Tom Zbikowski
Jordan Babineaux
Madieu Williams
James Sanders
Steve Gregory
Abram Elam
Deon Grant
Tyrell Johnson

Bryant McFadden
Dominique Barber
Jarrad Page
Craig Steltz
Erik Coleman
Bob Sanders
Haruki Nakamura
Anthony Smith
Jarrett Bush
Derrick Martin
Chris Hope
Craig Dahl
Atari Bigby
Corey Lynch
Gibril Wilson
Bryan Scott
Quintin Demps
Paul Oliver
Matt Giordano
Nathan Jones
James Ihedigbo
Courtney Greene
Hamza Abdullah
Antwaun Molden
Jon McGraw
Sean Considine
Sabby Piscitelli
Lito Sheppard
Randy Phillips
C.C. Brown
Kickers

Matt Prater
Neil Rackers
Jay Feely
Josh Scobee
Connor Barth
Phil Dawson
Rian Lindell (Signed 4-year deal on 2/3)
Dave Rayner
Mike Nugent
John Kasay
Nick Folk
Punters

Mat McBriar
Donnie Jones
Steve Weatherford
Dave Zastudil
Nick Harris
Daniel Sepulveda
Brad Maynard
Ben Graham
Top Restricted Free Agents

Mike Wallace
Arian Foster
Lardarius Webb
Aaron Maybin
Brian Hoyer
Desmond Bryant
Keenan Lewis
Michael Bennett
Antonio Dixon
Danny Amendola
DeAndre Levy
Geoff Schwartz

Phillip Merling
Greg Toler
Kory Lichtensteiger
Kahlil Bell
La'Rod Stephens-Howling
Marcel Reece
Steven Hauschka
William Middleton
Cary Williams
Chase Daniel
Lydon Murtha
Fernando Velasco
Corey Hilliard
Tony Fiammetta
Sammie Lee Hill
Larry Grant
Demar Dotson
Kory Sperry
C.J. Spillman (Signed 3-year deal on 2/24)
Doug Legursky
Ramon Foster
Rashad Johnson
Dannell Ellerbe
Lex Hilliard
Graham Gano
Vance Walker
Ryan Mundy
Chad Rinehart
C.J. Ah You
Jovan Belcher
David Johnson
Russell Allen
Reggie Walker
Jamon Meredith
Nick Hayden
Jason Phillips (Signed 1-year deal on 2/8)
Kraig Urbik
Byron Westbrook
Dan Skuta
Brandyn Dombrowski
Lorenzo Booker
Titus Brown
Bear Pascoe
Kregg Lumpkin
Roy Lewis
Thomas Williams
Leger Douzable
Ryan McBean
Matthew Mulligan
Chris Pressley
Jake O'Connell (Signed 1-year deal on 2/9)
Ryan Baker
Jamaal Westerman
Marquice Cole
Brock Bolen
Kenny Onatolu
Jacob Lacey
William Robinson
Patrick Turner (Signed 1-year deal on 2/7)
Brit Miller
 

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Dynasty Rankings: QBs

Welcome to Rotoworld's third annual pre-free agency Dynasty Rankings. The next six months are the prime season for Dynasty start-up drafts. These rankings will necessarily skew substantially younger than they would, say, in the bye-week crunch of early November when owners are scrambling for depth and sacrificing talented reserves for a shot at the championship banner. One of the major keys to success in start-up drafts is to anchor each position (QB, RB, WR, TE) with at least one young nucleus player who can be expected to produce at a high level for the next half-decade.



As we explained early last month in the Top-50 Keeper Ranks, the NFL's Robinhood coaches have been stealing fantasy value from running backs and distributing it among quarterbacks and tight ends of late. The trend toward pass-heavy offenses with tandem attacks in the backfield wasn't merely an aftershock from the lockout. The four highest NFL seasons in rushing yards per carry are 2011, 2010, 2009, and 2008 -- in that order. Much like positive reinforcement upon assigning specific roles for their cadre of injury susceptible running backs. With the ongoing innovation in play-calling as well as the NFL's illegal contact rules inhibiting pass defenders, quarterbacks are poised to remain in the fantasy spotlight for years to come.



As opposed to last season, there are only a handful of stud running backs under the age-26 first-round barrier for start-up leagues this time around. Staying power has taught us in the past that it was never a bad idea to go quarterback or wide receiver early in a Dynasty draft. It's an even better strategy this year with high-end running backs scarce after the fix half-dozen picks. Released on Twitter over the weekend, here are my top 12 overall Dynasty players:



1. Calvin Johnson, WR

2. LeSean McCoy, RB

3. Aaron Rodgers, QB

4. Cam Newton, QB

5. Arian Foster, RB

6. Ray Rice, RB

7. Rob Gronkowski, TE

8. Larry Fitzgerald, WR

9. Chris Johnson, RB

10. Ryan Mathews, RB

11. Julio Jones, WR

12. Maurice Jones-Drew, RB



On to the quarterbacks.



Note: Age is listed as Years_Months as of September of 2012. The final two columns indicate Rotoworld's rankings from February of 2011 and 2010 respectively. This is the first year that rookies have been included in the rankings prior to the NFL draft.



Tier One

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>1.</td><td>Aaron Rodgers </td><td>Packers </td><td>28_<sup>9</sup> </td><td>1</td><td>1</td></tr><tr><td>2.</td><td>Cam Newton</td><td>Panthers</td><td>23_<sup>4</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>3.</td><td>Drew Brees</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>33_<sup>8</sup></td><td>3</td><td>2</td></tr><tr><td>4.</td><td>Matthew Stafford</td><td>Lions </td><td>24_<sup>7</sup></td><td>16</td><td>15</td></tr></tbody></table>


I participated in DynastyLeagueFootball.com's industry start-up mock with a group of Dynasty analysts in early February. All four of the quarterbacks above went off the board in the first 10 picks of the draft. It was another three and a half rounds before Tom Brady was chosen as the fifth quarterback off the board, indicating a major gap between the top two tiers.



The best player in the NFL for the past year and a half, Rodgers tops the list for the third consecutive season. Although Brees is is close, no QB has a deeper collection of quality weapons to go with one of the league's most creative schemers and play-callers. ... Buoyed by an outstanding offensive coordinator of his own, Newton is coming off the most impressive rookie season in history. It's imperative that the Panthers find a successor to Steve Smith within the next two years. ... Brees' Saints have the top "Offensive Touchdowns-per-Play" rate of the past four years. Although he might lose safety blanket Marques Colston to free agency, mismatches Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles emerged as Brees' two most-targeted options in 2011. ... Stafford ranked third in the NFL in both passing yards and touchdowns in the best age-23 season since Dan Marino's magical 1984. As long as he stays healthy, Tier Two

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>5.</td><td>Robert Griffin III</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_<sup>7</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>6.</td><td>Andrew Luck</td><td>Rookie</td><td>23_<sup>0</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>7.</td><td>Tom Brady</td><td>Patriots</td><td>35_<sup>1</sup></td><td>5</td><td>7</td></tr><tr><td>8.</td><td>Michael Vick</td><td>Eagles</td><td>32_<sup>3</sup></td><td>6</td><td>24</td></tr><tr><td>9.</td><td>Eli Manning</td><td>Giants </td><td>31_<sup>8</sup></td><td>14</td><td>12</td></tr><tr><td>10.</td><td>Tony Romo</td><td>Cowboys</td><td>32_<sup>5</sup></td><td>7</td><td>6</td></tr><tr><td>11.</td><td>Matt Ryan</td><td>Falcons</td><td>27_<sup>4</sup></td><td>9</td><td>9</td></tr><tr><td>12.</td><td>Philip Rivers</td><td>Chargers</td><td>30_<sup>9</sup></td><td>2</td><td>4</td></tr><tr><td>13.</td><td>Ben Roethlisberger</td><td>Steelers</td><td>30_<sup>6</sup></td><td>8</td><td>5</td></tr></tbody></table>



I took to Twitter earlier this week for an informal poll atop tier two: should it be RGIII, Luck, or Brady at No. 5? Spare me the "haven't played a game arguments" for Griffin and Luck. That philosophy leads to egregious mistakes such as ranking Fast Willie Parker over Adrian Peterson, or placing Calvin Johnson below T.J. Houshmandzadeh in the offseason of 2007. Healthy skepticism is encouraged, but there's not a lazier protest than "hasn't played a game." Potential difference-makers must be ranked high right out of the starting gates. It's not just that trade value skyrockets after the first breakout game; it's that they get taken off the table in trade talks immediately thereafter. If you want an untouchable player, you must assign a high value before the rest of your leaguemates.



Before you bet, you count what's in the pot. I can buy the argument that Brady makes more sense for a contender because you can project two more top-three fantasy seasons, perhaps a third top-five season and a fourth top-10 season. Is that a safe assumption, though, or a dangerous one? Father Time is undefeated. Even the cream of the fantasy crop in their mid-to-late 30s have a hard time staying healthy before the grim reaper arrives in the blink of an eye (see Brett Favre and Rich Gannon, even Steve Young and Kurt Warner). Brady may have a cushioned floor afforded by Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, but it's a steep fall if you're projecting 16 games apiece for the next four seasons.



Luck and RGIII are the most impressive pair of rookies I've seen since Peterson and Johnson entered the league a half-decade ago. I'm not alone in that sentiment. ESPN.com analyst Ross Tucker "can't remember a year" when he was this sold on two quarterbacks in the same draft. ESPN's Trent Dilfer anointed Luck the "most complete football player" he's ever evaluated at any position coming out of college while long-time NFL executive Gil Brandt, the Wikipedia of football knowledge, insists Luck is more prepared for the NFL now than Peyton Manning was in 1998. Matt Williamson of ESPN's Scouts, Inc. labels Luck a "total freak" when noting that his unbelievable athletic ability for his size "isn't even close to his best QB trait."



In weighing Luck vs. Griffin, I'm not wild about the arguments that RGIII has the edge simply due to expected surrounding talent and rushing ability. Change happens too quickly in the NFL for rookie-year supporting cast to be a deciding factor. The same "rushing ability" argument was wielded by Michael Vick supporters ranking him above Peyton Manning back in 2002-2004. Manning won hands down, of course, with no help from his feet. The smart play in Dynasty formats is to come to a strong conviction on which player has better long-haul career. Supporting cast and rushing ability are secondary factors.



Don't think that I'm picking on RGIII, however. After pouring over his YouTube cut-ups earlier in the week, I walked away convinced the Redskins and Browns should pay whatever it takes to get the Rams' No. 2 pick. Rare athleticism aside, Griffin boasts great pocket awareness and movement (and will absolutely stand in to take a hit), anticipation, easy arm strength on a lightning-quick release, the ability and willingness to make stick throws, and accuracy. The difference between Vick and Griffin is that the latter projects to make his biggest impact in the passing game. Ex-Ravens coach Brian Billick gushingly referred to RGIII as the best dual-threat QB prospect in a long time, "far better" than Vick or Cam Newton as a passer. One Rotoworld writer believes the Heisman winner could become the "biggest athlete in America" if things break right.



A reasonable argument can be made for any of the trio atop the second tier. I have Brady as my No. 1 QB on a contending roster, and I'm still taking RGIII or Luck. Riverboat gamblers should swing for the fences on Griffin, though there's certainly nothing wrong with going the safer route on Luck.



The rest of the tier: The wild mood swings of fantasy owners leave Vick as a fine "buy" this offseason. He's primed for a bounce-back season. ... Coming off a career year, Eli's value should remain steady behind Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz. ... As has become his lot in life, Romo is once again underappreciated. Second only to Rodgers in passer rating, yards per attempt and passing touchdown percentage among active QBs, Romo completed 70 percent of his passes with a 16:2 TD-to-INT ratio and a 117.4 passer rating in the six games after his broken ribs healed last season. ... Ryan is coming off his best statistical season thanks to the emergence of Julio Jones as one of the most dangerous game-breakers in the NFL, but he has as much to prove in 2012 as any QB in the tier. ... Rivers may be too low on this list, but he failed to remain a reliable QB1 last season even with Vincent Jackson. Throw in a declining Tier Three

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>14.</td><td>Peyton Manning</td><td>Colts</td><td>36_<sup>6</sup></td><td>4</td><td>3</td></tr><tr><td>15.</td><td>Jake Locker</td><td>Titans</td><td>24_<sup>3</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>16.</td><td>Josh Freeman</td><td>Buccaneers</td><td>24_<sup>8</sup></td><td>12</td><td>20</td></tr><tr><td>17.</td><td>Sam Bradford</td><td>Rams</td><td>24_<sup>10</sup></td><td>11</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>18.</td><td>Matt Schaub</td><td>Texans</td><td>31_<sup>3</sup></td><td>13</td><td>8</td></tr><tr><td>19.</td><td>Tim Tebow</td><td>Broncos</td><td>25_<sup>1</sup></td><td>15</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>20.</td><td>Jay Cutler</td><td>Bears</td><td>29_<sup>5</sup></td><td>17</td><td>11</td></tr><tr><td>21.</td><td>Joe Flacco</td><td>Ravens </td><td>27_<sup>8</sup></td><td>10</td><td>10</td></tr></tbody></table>



It's fitting that Manning will end up as perhaps the most balleyhooed free agent in NFL history, as he joins Luck, RGIII, and Matt Flynn to form one of the most entertaining quarterback markets we've seen in recent memory. His arm strength is reportedly "way on the ascent" from where it was in December, and history suggests Manning could be back to 100 percent around NFL draft time. Although NFL insiders have preached caution, I fully expect a free agent blitz at midnight on March 13. Conventional wisdom has the aggressive Dolphins as the favorites. Don't be surprised, though, if Manning follows the lead of head coaching candidates over the past couple of years and uses Miami for leverage on a better deal elsewhere. Manning will be the calling the shots, not the other way around. I've been predicting Arizona since the beginning, and nothing I've seen would convince me otherwise on the eve of free agency.



Locker averaged 8.2 YPA in three rookie-year relief stints. With Kenny Britt returning, Jared Cook emerging late in the season, and Chris Johnson bouncing back to pre-holdout form, the Titans are a sneaky pick for a far more explosive offense the next couple of years. ... Freeman should get a minor boost from the addition of Mario Manningham (or someone of his ilk), but the biggest improvement must come from the quarterback himself. ... I can't believe the Rams won't even entertain the idea of drafting RGIII. With the caveat that Bradford's supporting cast has been a catastrophe, his touchdown rate through two seasons is embarrassingly low. The team's new brass must believe he can stay injury-free and gain effectiveness with better surrounding talent. I'm not quite as confident.



I've been high on Tebow's fantasy potential since he entered the league. In fact, he was actually ranked higher last offseason. His one saving grace as a passer the past two seasons is that no QB in the league takes more chances downfield. Tebow took more than double the shots downfield than Tom Brady did per attempt last year, and his average depth of throw was 3+ yards more than that of the elite NFL quarterbacks. I just can't imagine maintaing week-to-week confidence that Tebow will hold off his backup for the entire season in 2012. Hang on tight for the roller coaster ride. ... Cutler has settled in as an unremarkable QB2 option. ... I must be one of the few unflagging Flacco supporters left. He would be ranked significantly higher if the Ravens added a go-to receiver and ditched predictable schemer play-caller Cam Cameron.
<!--RW-->


Tier Four

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>22.</td><td>Christian Ponder</td><td>Vikings</td><td>24_<sup>7</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>23.</td><td>Andy Dalton</td><td>Bengals</td><td>24_<sup>11</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>24.</td><td>Matt Flynn</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_<sup>3</sup></td><td>33</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>25.</td><td>Mark Sanchez</td><td>Jets</td><td>25_<sup>10</sup></td><td>18</td><td>17</td></tr><tr><td>26.</td><td>Carson Palmer</td><td>Raiders</td><td>32_<sup>9</sup></td><td>19</td><td>21</td></tr><tr><td>27.</td><td>Ryan Tannehill</td><td>Rookie</td><td>24_<sup>2</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>


Dalton's late-season fade is a concern. I could see him outperforming Ponder as an NFL player over the next decade, only to have the more athletically gifted Ponder bypass him as a fantasy performer. At any rate, I think Ponder has the higher upside if things break right for both QBs. ... Flynn is the prototypical West Coast offense system quarterback. I'd place his ceiling at 90 percent of Matt Hasselbeck's career. ... Sanchez finished as the No. 10 fantasy QB in 2011, thanks to an unrepeatable six rushing scores. The Jets no longer maintain total faith in Sanchez as the Sanchize after a clear regression that had his coordinator on jailbreak alert by October. ... Palmer has a few interesting pieces in Oakland, but he's entering his mid-30s while replacing a bright offensive mind with a defensive head coach. ... Tannehill is purely a gamble on upside, as he's only played the position for a year and a half.



Tier Five

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>28.</td><td>Colin Kaepernick</td><td>49ers</td><td>24_<sup>10</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>29.</td><td>Blaine Gabbert</td><td>Jaguars</td><td>22_<sup>11</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>30.</td><td>Ryan Fitzpatrick</td><td>Bills</td><td>29_<sup>9</sup></td><td>30</td><td>48</td></tr><tr><td>31.</td><td>Alex Smith</td><td>49ers</td><td>28_<sup>4</sup></td><td>35</td><td>29</td></tr><tr><td>32.</td><td>Matt Cassel</td><td>Chiefs</td><td>30_<sup>4</sup></td><td>21</td><td>25</td></tr><tr><td>33.</td><td>Kevin Kolb</td><td>Cardinals</td><td>28_<sup>1</sup></td><td>22</td><td>27</td></tr><tr><td>34.</td><td>John Skelton</td><td>Cardinals</td><td>24_<sup>6</sup></td><td>49</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>35.</td><td>Ryan Mallett</td><td>Patriots</td><td>24_<sup>3</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>


Alex Smith answered a lot of doubts with the thrilling comeback victory over the Saints; he didn't answer mine. Smith spent the majority of that game bailing on pressure and arguably made just five quality throws throughout the game (all to Vernon Davis) before crumbling under pressure against the Giants in the NFC Championship game. At best, he's a game manager who can be spor-started as a QB2. At worst, he loses the job to Kaepernick when he reverts to pre-Harbaugh form by November or December. ... Gabbert not only plays scared in the pocket, he also finished at the bottom of all starting QBs with just 48.2 percent of his yardage coming before the catch. I wouldn't hope out much hope for a dramatic turnaround under new coach Mike Mularkey. ... Fitzpatrick and Cassel are placeholders, wasting valuable roster space during all but the bye weeks. ... Kolb is better than he showed in 2011, but he's a poor fit in Arizona and can't stay healthy. ... Mallett will likely have to wait one more year for a trade.



Tier Six

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>36.</td><td>Kirk Cousins</td><td>Rookie </td><td>24_<sup>1</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>37.</td><td>Brandon Weeden</td><td>Rookie</td><td>28_<sup>11</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>38.</td><td>Vince Young</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>29_<sup>4</sup></td><td>20</td><td>14</td></tr><tr><td>39.</td><td>Chad Henne</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_<sup>2</sup></td><td>28</td><td>16</td></tr><tr><td>40.</td><td>Joe Webb</td><td>Vikings</td><td>25_<sup>10</sup>
</td><td>47</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>41.</td><td>Kyle Orton</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>29_<sup>10</sup></td><td>23</td><td>26</td></tr><tr><td>42.</td><td>Brock Osweiler</td><td>Rookie</td><td>21_<sup>10</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>43.</td><td>Jason Campbell</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>30_<sup>9</sup></td><td>27</td><td>23</td></tr><tr><td>44.</td><td>Nick Foles</td><td>Rookie</td><td>23_<sup>8</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>45.</td><td>Tarvaris Jackson</td><td>Seahawks</td><td>29_<sup>5</sup></td><td>40</td><td>35</td></tr><tr><td>46.</td><td>Colt McCoy</td><td>Browns</td><td>26_<sup>0</sup></td><td>24</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>


The best of the rest among the rookie QBs. ... Cousins is coming off a fine Combine performance. ... Weeden is viewed as NFL-ready, but it's hard to escape the Chris Weinke comparisons. ... Osweiler is purely a project while Foles is a mid-round NFL pick. ... VY has the talent and past production, but NFL teams aren't going to be won over by his 2011 game tape. His best hope is the opportunity to compete for a starting job, and that's probably a longshot. ... Henne is gaining steam as the third veteran quarterback on the market behind Manning and Flynn. Don't get your hopes up on a fantasy impact. ... Flashing major fantasy potential in small doses last season, Webb is one of the most intruiging roster stashes among the NFL's backups. ... Orton belongs with Fitzpatrick and Cassel as placeholders, only he may be left without a place to hold this year. ... Ditto Campbell and T-Jack. ... McCoy is likely to be replaced by Flynn, RGIII, or a discarded veteran such as Kolb.



Tier Seven

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>47.</td><td>Terrelle Pryor</td><td>Raiders</td><td>23_<sup>3</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>48.</td><td>Brian Hoyer</td><td>Patriots</td><td>26_<sup>11</sup></td><td>57</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>49.</td><td>Tyrod Taylor</td><td>Ravens</td><td>23_<sup>1</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>50.</td><td>Dennis Dixon</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_<sup>8</sup></td><td>32</td><td>34</td></tr><tr><td>51.</td><td>Matt Hasselbeck</td><td>Titans</td><td>37_<sup>0</sup></td><td>29</td><td>30</td></tr><tr><td>52.</td><td>Josh Johnson</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_<sup>4</sup></td><td>34</td><td>40</td></tr><tr><td>53.</td><td>Matt Moore</td><td>Dolphins</td><td>28_<sup>1</sup></td><td>63</td><td>28</td></tr><tr><td>54.</td><td>T.J. Yates</td><td>Texans</td><td>25_<sup>4</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>55.</td><td>B.J. Coleman</td><td>Rookie</td><td>24_<sup>0</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>56.</td><td>Russell Wilson</td><td>Rookie</td><td>23_<sup>10</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>57.</td><td>Ryan Lindley</td><td>Rookie</td><td>23_<sup>3</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>


Pryor, Taylor, Dixon, and Johnson have the legs to hit the fantasy radar if the opportunity ever comes. ... Hasselbeck won't start for the Titans unless he clearly outplays Locker in training camp. ... Moore will be rewarded for saving Miami from a miserable season by being sent to the bench in favor of the next franchise QB hopeful. ... Yates held his own late in the season, but he's heading back to the bench behind Tier Eight

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>58.</td><td>Shaun Hill</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>32_<sup>8</sup></td><td>41</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>59.</td><td>Josh Portis</td><td>Seahawks</td><td>25_<sup>2</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>60.</td><td>David Garrard</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>34_<sup>7</sup></td><td>25</td><td>22</td></tr><tr><td>61.</td><td>Ricky Stanzi</td><td>Chiefs</td><td>25_<sup>0</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>62.</td><td>Drew Stanton</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>28_<sup>4</sup></td><td>45</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>63.</td><td>Chase Daniel</td><td>Saints</td><td>25_<sup>11</sup></td><td>61</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>64.</td><td>Seneca Wallace</td><td>Browns</td><td>32_<sup>1</sup></td><td>37</td><td>43</td></tr><tr><td>65.</td><td>Rex Grossman</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>32_<sup>1</sup></td><td>36</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>66.</td><td>Donovan McNabb</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>35_<sup>10</sup></td><td>26</td><td>13</td></tr><tr><td>67.</td><td>Mike Kafka</td><td>Eagles</td><td>25_<sup>2</sup></td><td>74</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>68.</td><td>Tyler Thigpen</td><td>Bills</td><td>28_<sup>5</sup></td><td>48</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>69.</td><td>Byron Leftwich</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>32_<sup>8</sup></td><td>64</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>70.</td><td>Matt Leinart</td><td>Texans</td><td>29_<sup>4</sup></td><td>51</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>71.</td><td>Graham Harrell</td><td>Packers</td><td>27_<sup>4</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>72.</td><td>Stephen McGee</td><td>Cowboys</td><td>27_<sup>0</sup></td><td>46</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>73.</td><td>Jimmy Clausen</td><td>Panthers</td><td>25_<sup>0</sup></td><td>38</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>74.</td><td>Charlie Whitehurst</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>30_<sup>1</sup></td><td>39</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>75.</td><td>Greg McElroy</td><td>Jets</td><td>24_<sup>4</sup></td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>



A borderline QB1 if Matthew Stafford goes down, Hill is one of the league's premier "handcuff" QBs -- provided he re-signs with the Lions. ... Seattle is high on Portis' potential, but he remains a long-term project. ... Garrard will have to take a backup job coming off back surgery at age 34. ... McNabb is headed down the same path even if he refuses to acknowledge it. He has a better chance of retiring than landing a starting gig. ... Daniel is a restricted free agent with interesting preseason numbers, but it's fair to wonder if he'd have even a prayer of succeeding outside of Sean Payton's offense. ... Wallace and Grossman are purely backups at this stage. ... Clause is a never-was. ... Ditto Whitehurst.
 

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Manning season picks up

Peyton Manning season began in January, and picked up steam during the Super Bowl. It feels like we’ve been living with this story for a while now.



The reality is that we’re just getting started.



Welcome to judgment week for Manning and the Colts. Manning’s $28 million option is due on Thursday, the 8<sup>th</sup>. Expect more media maneuvering in the days to come, and then expect Manning to get released and become a free agent. That’s when the real fun starts.



Manning will own the period between the minute he’s cut and when free agency officially starts on March 13. There will be players in other cities getting released, and long-term deals worked out. They will all be background noise compared to one of the game’s all-time greats finding a new team.



The recent YouTube video that surfaced of Manning throwing helped answer one of my biggest questions about this process. When can Manning sign?



I feared that he wouldn’t want to sign or teams wouldn’t pay full market value until everyone was sure Manning was going to play in 2012. It appears that Manning can show enough right now to get teams to jump on board. Here are the teams I believe are waiting for the moment to talk to Manning.



1. Miami: Manning may not “fit” coach Joe Philbin’s offense, but that doesn’t matter when the owner wants to sign Manning badly. There were unconfirmed rumors at the NFL Scouting Combine that Manning already was zeroed in on the Dolphins as his destination if the Colts cut him.



2. Arizona: The Cardinals deliberately left the door open to go after Manning during interviews at the Combine. They strongly appear to have interest. Kevin Kolb is due a large bonus on March 17, so the Cardinals have to make a deal happen quickly. Manning’s health makes that easier.



With Larry Fitzgerald, a strong running game, and a history of success with cerebral quarterbacks, Arizona may be the best fantasy football fit out there.



3. Seattle: The Seahawks have been my sleeper suitor for Manning all along. They have an aggressive front office, ownership that will get out of the way, and they can transform their attack for Manning. What they don’t have: A great receiver group.



4. Kansas City: It’s not just about Romeo Crennel’s comment at the Combine. The team has tons of salary cap and a strong foundation to win right now. Matt Cassel only costs $5 million this year, so the team could conceivably keep him as a backup if they got Manning to sign.



5. New York Jets: Like Arizona, they deliberately left the door open to go after Manning. It would be tricky to fit Manning in under their salary cap, but the ability to win now with the Jets could appeal to Manning. There are also a few nice weapons in place (Santonio Holmes, Dustin Keller).



6. Washington: The Redskins sound like a fit on paper, but the connection doesn’t hold up under examination. It wouldn’t be an attractive place for Manning to go, and Mike Shanahan seems more likely to build around a young quarterback.



I’ve talked to some folks that believe Manning will quickly sign (with Miami the strongest possibility) soon after he’s cut. My guess is that things won’t turn out that simple.



Manning’s agent Tom Condon is a master at creating leverage and the contract for Manning is going to be complicated, considering the health risks.



It’s judgment week for the Colts, but Staying put




Silva’s excellent free agent list takes a few big hits every day. None of this is a surprise.



NFL teams always keep the players they want, and the bountiful free agent lists of February look thinner come March. It would have been a bigger surprise if guys like Ray Rice, Matt Forte, Arian Foster, Fred Davis, Jermichael Finley, and Marshawn Lynch were able to change teams.



$18 million guaranteed for Lynch – if those numbers hold up – doesn’t make a lot of sense. You can always find a running back, and it’s only worth paying that kind of money to the truly special ones. Even those guys (Chris Johnson) often aren’t worth it.



Staying in Seattle was the best scenario for Lynch’s fantasy value. The Seahawks see him as a 300-carry back. They will want to get their money’s worth out of him over the next couple of years. Translation: They will run him into the ground.



Lynch catches the ball just enough not to hurt you. While Lynch may not be worth the real life money, he’ll be one of the safer RB2 picks in 2012 because he should get the ball so much. Even if his yards-per-carry average is low, Lynch can rack up yards.



There aren’t enough true “primary” backs. Right or wrong, that’s how the Seahawks view Lynch.



Finally …



1. Vincent Jackson has to be thrilled that DeSean Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Dwayne Bowe, and Wes Welker are off the market or expected to be off the market. Jackson will make a killing.



2. One of the buried nuggets of the weekend on Rotoworld: The Bucs don’t see Mike Williams as a true No. 1 receiver. I agree: At best, he’s a 1A. It’s not a good sign for his dynasty owners. Tampa could be a dark horse in the Vincent Jackson sweepstakes.



3. Staying in Buffalo was the best scenario for Stevie Johnson. He wouldn’t necessarily be a No. 1 receiver elsewhere. His skill set is unique, but Johnson doesn’t run by people. Chan Gailey runs a wideout-friendly offense, and should keep Stevie topping 1,000 yards and getting lots of red zone chances.



4. The bounty controversy shouldn’t have an impact on fantasy football. Maybe it depletes the Saints defense early in the season. That’s about it.
 

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Dynasty Rankings: RBs

We touched on the changing nature of the running back position in the introduction to last week's Quarterback rankings. Given the profundity of committee backfields, the short shelf-life of the position, and the success teams have had with undrafted (Arian Foster, Fred Jackson, Pierre Thomas) and mid-to-late round (Darren Sproles, Michael Turner, Ahmad Bradshaw) backs, the reigning philosophy in NFL war rooms is: barring an Adrian Peterson-level talent, never draft a running back early. It's hard to argue with the evidence. While the Giants, Packers, Saints, and Patriots have enjoyed playoff success with the late-round tandem approach, the NFL's leading rushers (Peterson, Maurice Jones-Drew, Steven Jackson, Chris Johnson, and Turner) have combined for just two postseason victories over the past five years. It's fitting that the last death throes of Turner's career signal the end of the volume runner.



Packers coach Mike McCarthy defined the backfield transformation last November, insisting he's not interested in a 1,700-yard back because "it takes a pounding" only to run on fumes come the "most critical time of the year." The Bengals provide the latest example. While prototype volume runner Cedric Benson rails in vein against the changing times, coordinator Jay Gruden is fully embracing the committee concept: "It's not a bad way to go. Keep guys fresh. They play longer, they're involved," explained Gruden. "If something happens to one, you know you've got a guy that can come in there and be productive. Where you're not relying heavily on one guy and if something happens to him, you’re like, 'Oh God, this guy doesn't have many reps.' I think it's important to have guys touch the ball, I believe, as a committee."



Take the Saints backfield as our paradigm in Dynasty circles. It's easy to second-guess the move to trade up for potential three-down back Mark Ingram in the first round. Reggie Bush was on the outs, Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory were both sidelined by severe foot/ankle injuries, and Darren Sproles was three months away from the free agent market. Despite missing six games, Ingram still led the backfield in carries only to finish behind both Sproles and Thomas in fantasy points per game. The lesson that should be ingrained in every fantasy owner's mind is that a back's receiving chops now rank with the ability to navigate the trenches up front.



Sign of the times? If fellow Alabama star Trent Richardson follows Ingram's lead as the lone first-round back, it will mark the first time since the 1970 merger that only one running back was selected in the first round in consecutive of years.



On to the rankings.



Note: Age is listed as Years_Months as of September of 2012. The final two columns indicate Rotoworld's rankings from February of 2011 and 2010 respectively. This is the first year that rookies have been included in the rankings prior to the NFL draft.



Tier One

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>1.</td><td>LeSean McCoy</td><td>Eagles</td><td>24_2</td><td>8</td><td>23</td></tr><tr><td>2.</td><td>Arian Foster</td><td>Texans</td><td>26_1</td><td>4</td><td>38</td></tr><tr><td>3.</td><td>Ray Rice</td><td>Ravens</td><td>25_8</td><td>5</td><td>4</td></tr></tbody></table>www.therx.ws

DLFMock: McCoy 1.03, Foster 1.04, Rice 1.01



The qualifications for tier one are youth, durability, demonstrated 16-game production, and versatility. Only three backs age 26 and under fit the bill heading into the 2012 season. McCoy has the slight edge due to his age and the explosive Eagles offense, which quietly finished in a virtual tie with the Packers as No. 3 in total yardage -- in a down season. ... Foster's five-year deal to stay in Gary Kubiak's perfectly suited zone-blocking scheme lends the stability to leapfrog Rice, who isn't without workload concerns.



Tier Two

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>4.</td><td>Chris Johnson</td><td>Titans</td><td>27_0</td><td>2</td><td>1</td></tr><tr><td>5.</td><td>Ryan Mathews</td><td>Chargers</td><td>25_4</td><td>14</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>6.</td><td>Maurice Jones-Drew</td><td>Jaguars</td><td>27_6</td><td>6</td><td>3</td></tr><tr><td>7.</td><td>Adrian Peterson</td><td>Vikings </td><td>27_6</td><td>1</td><td>2</td></tr><tr><td>8.</td><td>Darren McFadden</td><td>Raiders</td><td>25_1</td><td>10</td><td>25</td></tr><tr><td>9.</td><td>Matt Forte</td><td>Bears</td><td>26_9</td><td>11</td><td>15</td></tr><tr><td>10.</td><td>Jamaal Charles</td><td>Chiefs</td><td>25_9</td><td>3</td><td>9</td></tr></tbody></table>


DLFMock: Johnson 2.06, Mathews 2.07, Jones-Drew 1.07, Peterson 2.11, McFadden 3.06, Forte 1.11, Charles 2.08



As you can see, I'm chalking up CJpreK's fantasy-sabotaging 2011 season to Johnson's prediction that he will lead the league in rushing this season. ... Mathews finished seventh in fantasy points last season despite missing two games and parts of others due to nagging injuries and a fumbling problem. With free agent Mike Tolbert likely out of the picture, Mathews should pick up goal-line totes and receptions as a darkhorse candidate to top all backs in fantasy points in a true breakout season. ... MJD is one of my favorite players in the league, but he's about to enter the decline phase in a low-rent offense coming off the highest carry total of his career.



Fully acknowledging the risk associated with a back coming off ACL, MCL, and meniscus damage, I picked up Peterson with the 2.11 pick in the DLFMock. Wes Welker's career season two years removed from his own reconstructive surgery bodes well for one of the most talented and committed players in the league. I'm still swinging for the fences with Peterson. He's one of the exceptional players worthy of that risk. ... McFadden's missed games can drive a fantasy owner crazy, but I accept the premise that tailback injuries are widespread enough that players who score the most when they are in the lineup must be valued highly. The loss of Hue Jackson is counterbalanced by vulture Tier Three

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>11.</td><td>[URL="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=7462"]Trent Richardson
</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_2</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>12.</td><td>Jonathan Stewart</td><td>Panthers</td><td>25_6</td><td>7</td><td>5</td></tr><tr><td>13.</td><td>Darren Sproles</td><td>Saints</td><td>29_3</td><td>58</td><td>31</td></tr><tr><td>14.</td><td>Marshawn Lynch</td><td>Seahawks</td><td>26_5</td><td>30</td><td>26</td></tr><tr><td>15.</td><td>DeMarco Murray</td><td>Cowboys</td><td>24_7</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>16.</td><td>Beanie Wells</td><td>Cardinals</td><td>24_1</td><td>23</td><td>11</td></tr><tr><td>17.</td><td>Rashard Mendenhall</td><td>Steelers</td><td>25_3</td><td>9</td><td>10</td></tr><tr><td>18.</td><td>C.J. Spiller</td><td>Bills</td><td>25_1</td><td>25</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>19.</td><td>Mark Ingram</td><td>Saints</td><td>22_9</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>



[/URL]DLFMock: No. 3 Rookie 4.07, Stewart 3.02, Sproles 5.02, Lynch 4.01, Murray 3.12, Wells 5.07, Mendenhall 6.10, Spiller 4.04, Ingram 4.12



Described by one scout as the most complete player in the draft, Richardson has also been praised by NFL Network's Mike Mayock as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson due to his size-speed ratio, balance, vision, toughness, and quick feet. The pre-Combine knee scope couldn't have been more minor in nature. ... As you can see by Stewart's rankings the past two years, I've long been a believer in his top-five talent at the position. Only the superstar trio of McCoy, Peterson, and Jones-Drew earned a higher running grade from Pro Football Focus in 2011, and Stewart forced more missed tackles in the passing game than any other NFL back. The Panthers will be reluctant to pay two high-dollar backs with Stewart due to hit free agency next offseason, leaving DeAngelo Williams as the odd man out at the age-30 barrier.



The poster child for the new-age fantasy back, Sproles led the position in receptions (86), receiving yards (710), and receiving scores (7) while finishing 10th in standard-scoring points and fifth in PPR formats. With Marques Colston and Robert Meachem hitting the open market, Sproles' role isn't going to be reduced any time soon. ... Lynch's value gained stability with the four-year contract extension, but he's a prime candidate for a dropoff with a career YPC average just below 4.0 and an inflated touchdown total last season. ... Murray will enter the season as the lead back in Dallas, but he has to prove he can stay healthy and hold onto the reins for 16 games.



On rushing talent alone, Wells merits a higher ranking. Unfortunately, he falls into the dreaded "volume runner" category with little responsibilty in the passing attack and an inflated 2011 touchdown total of his own. ... Mendenhall will be back as the age-25 starter in a high-scoring offense by mid-season. ... Spiller is a reminder not to throw in the towel on elite running back talents, but his true fantasy impact may still be another two-to-three years away. The Bills plan to lock up respected team leader Tier Four

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>20.</td><td>[URL="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=7408"]Lamar Miller
</td><td>Rookie</td><td>21_5</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>21.</td><td>Steven Jackson</td><td>Rams</td><td>29_2</td><td>18</td><td>7</td></tr><tr><td>22.</td><td>Doug Martin</td><td>Rookie</td><td>23_8</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>23.</td><td>Jahvid Best</td><td>Lions</td><td>23_8</td><td>13</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>24.</td><td>Ahmad Bradshaw</td><td>Giants</td><td>26_6</td><td>17</td><td>29</td></tr><tr><td>25.</td><td>David Wilson</td><td>Rookie</td><td>21_3</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>26.</td><td>Roy Helu</td><td>Redskins</td><td>23_9</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>27.</td><td>Frank Gore</td><td>49ers</td><td>29_4</td><td>15</td><td>6</td></tr><tr><td>28.</td><td>Michael Bush</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>28_3</td><td>32</td><td>39</td></tr><tr><td>29.</td><td>Reggie Bush</td><td>Dolphins</td><td>27_6</td><td>45</td><td>28</td></tr></tbody></table>



[/URL]DLFMock: No. 5 Rookie 6.02, No. 6 Rookie 8.12, Jackson 6.08, Best 6.03, Bradshaw 4.10, Helu 6.09, No. 7 Rookie 9.01, Gore 6.12, M. Bush 8.08, R. Bush 8.09



Drawing comparisons to Clinton Portis, Miller earns the No. 2 spot among the rookie prospects. ... S-Jax is looking down the barrel of age 30, but there's hope for a short-term revival in Jeff Fisher's run-oriented offense. He's been a Hall of Fame talent stuck in a wasteland for his entire career. ... Martin and Wilson are neck-and-neck for No. 3 spot among the rookies. ... Best has a Sproles-like ceiling in Detroit's high-powered offense if he can follow Austin Collie's lead and alleviate the concussion concerns for a season. ... Bradshaw is a tandem back with chronic foot problems, not a perennial fantasy stud.



Any owner once bitten by Mike Shanahan's fickle backfield attacks, should be twice shy in giving Helu a high ranking. While there's plenty of potential, Helu offers very little long-term stability as a fantasy starter. ... Gore is ranked six spots below S-Jax due in part to the late-season fade, but mostly because he's no longer a major factor in the passing game. ... Michael Bush has gained his freedom just in time for the decline phase of his career. Ideally used as a complementary back, Bush failed to top 80 yards in his last six starts and managed to hit 3.50 YPC just once in the final month and a half. ... Tier Five

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>30.</td><td>[URL="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=6484"]Mikel Leshoure
</td><td>Lions</td><td>22_6</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>31.</td><td>Kendall Hunter</td><td>49ers</td><td>24_0</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>32.</td><td>Peyton Hillis</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_8</td><td>19</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>33.</td><td>Ben Tate</td><td>Texans</td><td>24_1</td><td>46</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>34.</td><td>Fred Jackson</td><td>Bills</td><td>31_7</td><td>28</td><td>30</td></tr><tr><td>35.</td><td>Stevan Ridley</td><td>Patriots</td><td>23_8</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>36.</td><td>DeAngelo Williams </td><td>Panthers</td><td>29_5</td><td>16</td><td>8</td></tr><tr><td>37.</td><td>Daniel Thomas</td><td>Dolphins</td><td>24_11</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>38.</td><td>Shonn Greene</td><td>Jets</td><td>27_1</td><td>24</td><td>18</td></tr><tr><td>39.</td><td>Pierre Thomas</td><td>Saints</td><td>27_9</td><td>27</td><td>19</td></tr><tr><td>40.</td><td>Felix Jones</td><td>Cowboys</td><td>25_4</td><td>20</td><td>14</td></tr><tr><td>41.</td><td>Shane Vereen</td><td>Patriots</td><td>23_6</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>42.</td><td>Michael Turner</td><td>Falcons</td><td>30_7</td><td>22</td><td>13</td></tr><tr><td>43.</td><td>LeGarrette Blount</td><td>Buccaneers</td><td>25_9</td><td>21</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>44.</td><td>Ryan Williams</td><td>Cardinals</td><td>22_5</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>45.</td><td>James Starks</td><td>Packers</td><td>26_7</td><td>34</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>46.</td><td>Isaiah Pead</td><td>Broncos</td><td>22_9</td><td>49</td><td>34</td></tr><tr><td>47.</td><td>Willis McGahee</td><td>Broncos</td><td>30_11</td><td>49</td><td>34</td></tr><tr><td>48.</td><td>Chris Polk</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_9</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>



[/URL]DLFMock: Leshoure 9.09, Hunter 8.02, Hillis 8.05, Tate 9.06, F. Jackson 9.04, Ridley 11.02, D. Williams 5.06, D. Thomas 8.07, Greene 11.05, P. Thomas 12.11, F. Jones 9.08, Vereen 11.03, Turner 9.07, Blount 7.05, R. Williams 8.04, Starks 13.12, McGahee 13.08



Have advancements in Achilles surgery finally reached the point where a skill-position player can expect to resume a productive career? We know of no NFL running back to successfully return from a ruptured Achilles, though Demaryius Thomas' late-season dominance provides more than just a sliver of hope for Leshoure owners. The Lions realize Jahvid Best's role must be scaled back substantially, perhaps leaving Leshoure as the committee leader. ... Hunter flashed game-breaking ability as a rookie change-up to Frank Gore. The question is whether he's more of a complementary piece or a poor man's Ray Rice. ... Increasingly injury-prone with a fumbling problem and dwindling per-carry average, Hillis is a three-down volume back who can't withstand a three-down volume workload. ... Just shy of reliable flex status, talented Tate is stuck behind Arian Foster for two more years. ... A first-half fantasy stud last season, F-Jax is now 31 years old and set to share the rock with Spiller.



Possessing three-down skills of his own, Ridley is the favorite to lead the Patriots backfield in touches if BenJarvus Green-Ellis exits via free agency. He may be the favorite regardless. ... DeAngelo Williams will spend his age-29 season playing second fiddle to a better player in Jonathan Stewart, and the Panthers may cut him loose in 2013. ... Thomas may need only a Reggie Bush injury to stake his claim to the starting job. ... Greene is a mediocre talent masquerading as a volume runner. Expect the Jets to find a backfield partner in the next couple of months. ... This stat sums up Pierre's game perfectly: He's never had a run of 50+ yards, yet still boasts a gaudy per-carry average of 4.8 yards -- on par with Adrian Peterson and Jonathan Stewart. ... Felix is one of only three backs to exceed Thomas' per-carry average, which is fitting since he's going to have a similar role going forward. ... Hamstring injuries killed Vereen's rookie season, but it wouldn't be a major upset if he ended up bypassing Ridley in the pecking order.



The patron saint of volume runners, Turner is line for a significantly reduced role after petering out down the stretch last season. At age 30, he's going to be a roster albatross without the consistently high carry totals. Ditto McGahee. ... Blount is a destitute man's Turner about to be saddled with a more talented committee partner. ... Williams has a long road back from patella tendon surgery, which derailed the careers of Cadillac Williams and Mark Clayton. ... Older than Tier Six

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>49.</td><td>[URL="http://fantasyfootball.usatoday.com/content/player.asp?sport=NFL&id=5009"]Mike Tolbert
</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_10</td><td>43</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>50.</td><td>Toby Gerhart</td><td>Vikings</td><td>25_6</td><td>42</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>51.</td><td>Bernard Scott</td><td>Bengals</td><td>28_7</td><td>40</td><td>47</td></tr><tr><td>52.</td><td>LaMichael James</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_11</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>53.</td><td>Bernard Pierce</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_4</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>54.</td><td>Kevin Smith</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>25_9</td><td>63</td><td>50</td></tr><tr><td>55.</td><td>Cedric Benson</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>29_9</td><td>31</td><td>17</td></tr><tr><td>56.</td><td>Donald Brown</td><td>Colts</td><td>25_4</td><td>39</td><td>20</td></tr><tr><td>57.</td><td>Taiwan Jones</td><td>Raiders</td><td>24_2</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>58.</td><td>Jacquizz Rodgers</td><td>Falcons</td><td>22_7</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>59.</td><td>Robert Turbin</td><td>Rookie</td><td>22_9</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>60.</td><td>BenJarvus Green-Ellis</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_2</td><td>26</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>61.</td><td>Tim Hightower</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_4</td><td>51</td><td>55</td></tr><tr><td>62.</td><td>Chris Ivory</td><td>Saints</td><td>24_6</td><td>33</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>63.</td><td>Dexter McCluster</td><td>Chiefs</td><td>24_1</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>64.</td><td>Delone Carter</td><td>Colts</td><td>25_3</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>65.</td><td>Montario Hardesty</td><td>Browns</td><td>25_7</td><td>43</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>



[/URL]DLFMock: Tolbert 10.01, Gerhart 13.02, Scott 19.12, K. Smith 14.12, Benson 19.01, D. Brown 12.06, T. Jones 21.07, J. Rodgers 9.10, Green-Ellis 13.04, Hightower 17.05, Ivory 20.05, McCluster 18.03, Carter 15.10, Hardesty 13.10



Expect Tolbert to be wearing a new uniform this year, though he remains a borderline flex option in Dynasty terms. ... Gerhart is a must-own for Adrian Peterson owners, and practically useless to everyone else. ... Scott's role is set to finally increase in his age-28 season; unforunately, it will come as a tandem back rather than a feature back. ... James draws lofty comparisons to Darren Sproles. No back is that dominant as a receiver. ... Playing the best ball of his career, when healthy, late last season, Kevin Smith is an intruiging roster stash. ... I'd wager that Benson will have to accept a backup job on the open market. ... Donald Brown finally showed glimpes of first-round talent last year, but he's a poor fit for the Colts' new physical attack on offense.



Taiwan and Jacquizz are change-of-pace backs. Rodgers is more skilled, Jones more explosive. ... Green-Ellis didn't have a run over 18 yards last season. His role will be scaled back no matter where he lands. ... Hightower is a committee back coming off of reconstructive surgery. ... Ivory is a talented but injury-prone runner stuck at No. 4 on the depth chart. ... McCluster has done nothing to justify his second-round selection two years ago. ... Though he's a mediocre talent with very little wiggle, Carter may be better suited than Brown to the Colts' Pittsburgh style rushing attack. ... Hardesty can't stay healthy -- or top 3.0 yards per carry.



Tier Seven

<table border="0"><tbody><tr><td>66.</td><td>Rashad Jennings</td><td>Jaguars</td><td>27_6</td><td>44</td><td>52</td></tr><tr><td>67.</td><td>Kahlil Bell</td><td>Bears</td><td>25_9</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>68.</td><td>Isaac Redman</td><td>Steelers</td><td>27_10</td><td>76</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>69.</td><td>Knowshon Moreno</td><td>Broncos</td><td>25_2</td><td>12</td><td>12</td></tr><tr><td>70.</td><td>Joseph Addai</td><td>Colts</td><td>29_4</td><td>38</td><td>22</td></tr><tr><td>71.</td><td>Jonathan Dwyer</td><td>Steelers</td><td>23_2</td><td>72</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>72.</td><td>Brandon Jacobs</td><td>Giants</td><td>30_2</td><td>50</td><td>32</td></tr><tr><td>73.</td><td>Dion Lewis</td><td>Eagles</td><td>22_0</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>74.</td><td>Ryan Grant</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>29_9</td><td>29</td><td>16</td></tr><tr><td>75.</td><td>Joe McKnight</td><td>Jets</td><td>24_5</td><td>61</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>76.</td><td>Bilal Powell</td><td>Jets</td><td>23_11</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>77.</td><td>Evan Royster</td><td>Redskins</td><td>24_10</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>78.</td><td>Mike Goodson</td><td>Panthers</td><td>25_4</td><td>48</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>79.</td><td>Alex Green</td><td>Packers</td><td>24_3</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>80.</td><td>Jason Snelling</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>28_9</td><td>59</td><td>57</td></tr><tr><td>81.</td><td>Justin Forsett</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_11</td><td>60</td><td>40</td></tr><tr><td>82.</td><td>Da'Rel Scott</td><td>Giants</td><td>24_4</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>83.</td><td>Danny Woodhead</td><td>Patriots</td><td>27_8</td><td>41</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>84.</td><td>Javon Ringer</td><td>Titans</td><td>25_7</td><td>71</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>85.</td><td>Steve Slaton</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_8</td><td>62</td><td>35</td></tr><tr><td>86.</td><td>Johnny White</td><td>Bills</td><td>24_7</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>87.</td><td>Cadillac Williams</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>30_5</td><td>74</td><td>49</td></tr><tr><td>88.</td><td>Anthon Allen</td><td>Ravens</td><td>24_1</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>89.</td><td>Ryan Torain</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>26_1</td><td>36</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>90.</td><td>Tashard Choice</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_10</td><td>35</td><td>33</td></tr><tr><td>91.</td><td>Ronnie Brown</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>30_9</td><td>37</td><td>21</td></tr><tr><td>92.</td><td>Chris Ogbonnaya</td><td>Browns</td><td>26_4</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>93.</td><td>Anthony Dixon</td><td>49ers</td><td>25_0</td><td>55</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>94.</td><td>Deji Karim</td><td>Jaguars</td><td>25_10</td><td>54</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>95.</td><td>Leon Washington</td><td>Seahawks</td><td>30_1</td><td>69</td><td>42</td></tr><tr><td>96.</td><td>Brandon Jackson</td><td>Browns</td><td>26_11</td><td>89</td><td>62</td></tr><tr><td>97.</td><td>Le'Ron McClain</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>27_9</td><td>77</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>98.</td><td>Marcel Reece</td><td>Raiders</td><td>27_3</td><td>73</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>99.</td><td>LaRod Stephens-Howling</td><td>Cardinals</td><td>25_5</td><td>90</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>100.</td><td>Marion Barber</td><td>Bears</td><td>29_3</td><td>52</td><td>24</td></tr><tr><td>101.</td><td>Lance Ball</td><td>Broncos</td><td>27_3</td><td>NR</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>102.</td><td>Derrick Ward</td><td>Texans</td><td>32_1</td><td>65</td><td>51</td></tr><tr><td>103.</td><td>LaDainian Tomlinson</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>33_3</td><td>53</td><td>44</td></tr><tr><td>104.</td><td>Maurice Morris</td><td>Free Agent</td><td>32_9</td><td>88</td><td>NR</td></tr><tr><td>105.</td><td>Danny Ware</td><td>Giants</td><td>27_7</td><td>80</td><td>NR</td></tr></tbody></table>


DLFMock: Jennings 14.02, K. Bell 22.12, Redman 12.09, Moreno 19.06, Addai 23.06, Dwyer 17.07, Jacobs 20.02, D. Lewis 19.10, R. Grant 20.10, McKnight 17.03, Powell 16.03, Royster 16.07, Goodson ND, A. Green 18.04, Snelling 21.12, Forsett 23.12, D. Scott 19.05, Woodhead ND, Ringer 19.08, Slaton ND, J. White ND, C. Williams ND, A. Allen ND, Torain ND, Choice ND, R. Brown ND, Ogbonnaya ND, Dixon ND, Karim ND, L. Washington ND, B. Jackson ND, McClain ND, Reece ND, Stephens-Howling ND, Barber ND, L. Ball ND, D. Ward ND, Tomlinson ND, M. Morris ND, Ware ND
 

hacheman@therx.com
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NFL Free Agent Bargain Bin

Free agency doesn't begin until next Tuesday, but the NFL Hot Stove is already hopping. Stay up to date on the latest market developments via our constantly updated NFL Free Agent Tracker, and Gregg Rosenthal's info-packed Daily Doses.

Mario Williams and Vincent Jackson garner the most media attention, and they will sign quickly after the market opens on March 13. But not all NFL teams have the kind of coin to compete for top-end players. Here's a look at ten free agents who may have to wait longer than Williams or Jackson for their markets to develop, but could prove the best bargains when all is said and done:

1. Defensive tackle Jason Jones, 25 years old.

Jones will easily command the biggest contract on this list, but his price tag likely would've been far more exorbitant had he been available in any previous year. As the Titans moved away from Jim Washburn's old "Wide-9" defensive line technique and toward a scheme emphasizing size in the front four, the 6-foot-5, 276-pound Jones was forced learn strong-side end during a lockout-shortened offseason after dominating at three-technique tackle in his first three seasons. Jones set career lows in sacks and tackles per game while taking an enormous step back in overall effectiveness. He was uncomfortable at the new position and has made that clear this offseason.

Though built angularly for an inside pass rusher, Jones is much more Darnell Dockett than Justin Tuck. He is a one-gap penetrator with an explosive lower half (4.67 forty, 10'3" broad jump) and his best football ahead of him. In Jones' last season as a full-time interior defender (2010), Pro Football Focus graded him as the league's No. 6 overall defensive tackle and No. 1 inside rusher. The Rams and Eagles are sensible landing spots for Jones because new St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher drafted Jones in Tennessee, and Washburn now oversees Philadelphia's defensive line.

Prediction: Rams on a four-year, $28 million contract.

2. Cornerback Terrell Thomas, 27 years old.

A long-armed corner-safety hybrid coming out of USC, Thomas emerged as the Giants' starting right cornerback in his second season, beating out former first-round pick Aaron Ross. Thomas displayed elite playmaking ability with 10 interceptions, five forced fumbles, a pair of sacks, and 34 breakups in 2009-2010. Unfortunately, Thomas tore his right ACL during the 2011 preseason and missed his entire contract year. He previously tore the same ACL as a college freshman.

The silver lining for Thomas is that he tore the ligament early enough in the 2011 season that he'll be a full-go by 2012 training camp. Thomas resumed running on January 18. While by no means a shutdown cover man, when healthy Thomas possesses every trait NFL teams seek in a No. 2 corner. He is an efficient tackler and has sufficient ball skills to capitalize when opponents attack him in coverage. The Giants have prioritized re-signing Thomas over incumbent starter and fellow free agent Ross, a sign that they are well aware of Thomas' superior skills. A short-term, prove-it deal makes sense in New York, although Thomas could fare far better if he hits the open market.

Prediction: Giants on a one-year, $4 million contract.

3. Wide receiver Robert Meachem, 27 years old.

The perception of Meachem is that he's a one-trick pony deep threat. A rotational receiver who couldn't overcome Devery Henderson for consistent playing time in New Orleans. Meachem can certainly take the top off a defense, holding a career yards-per-reception average of 16.1. He ran a 4.39 forty at 6-foot-2, 210 coming out of Tennessee. 35 of Meachem's 141 catches have gone for 20-plus yards, good for a 24.8 20-yard rate that compares favorably to fellow top free agents Mario Manningham (23.4), Marques Colston (19.2), Reggie Wayne (18.1), and Pierre Garcon (15.4). Meachem has also been part of a receiver-committee approach with the Saints. He played 55.6 percent of New Orleans' offensive snaps in 2009, 48.9 percent in 2010, and 65.5 in 2011.

Meachem may be capable of more than his past statistics and role illustrate, however. He was always the Saints' best blocking receiver, playing over Colston in all one-wideout sets, and has been charged with just 11 career drops by Pro Football Focus. The Boston Globe reported in February that pro scouts consider Meachem a superior free agent to Colston as a less scheme-dependent receiver who could produce at a higher rate in an offense that utilized him differently. Either Meachem is going to be a steal on the open market, or he will generate more interest than anyone expects.

Prediction: 49ers on a three-year, $13 million contract.

4. Offensive tackle Anthony Collins, 26 years old.

Collins was a surprise early entrant into the 2008 draft after protecting Kansas QB Todd Reesing's blind side as a junior. He had just four years of football experience after taking up the sport as a high school senior. Collins earned playing time as a fourth-round rookie, however, holding his own in six starts to close out the year. Collins spent most of the ensuing three seasons as Cincinnati's "swing" tackle behind LT Andrew Whitworth and RT Andre Smith. Though Collins has never played full time, he's racked up 18 starts, six at left tackle and a dozen on the right. Collins is 6-foot-5, 315, and athletic enough for a zone-blocking scheme. His best NFL position is right tackle.

This year's tackle market is incredibly thin, driving up the demand for Collins. Only Jared Gaither, Demetrius Bell, and likely Cardinals cap casualty Levi Brown project as surefire 2012 starters. Collins falls in line as the No. 4 tackle available. The Dolphins are desperate for a right tackle upgrade after Marc Colombo flopped in the role, and new defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle saw Collins practice on a daily basis in Cincinnati. He could put in a good word at a position of need.

Prediction: Dolphins on a four-year, $14 million contract.
<!--RW-->

5. Offensive guard Chilo Rachal, 26 years old.

The 39th overall pick in the 2008 draft, Rachal had the look of a long-term building block when he overtook Tony Wragge for a starting job as a rookie. Rachal seemed to shake off a sophomore slump by grading out as Pro Football Focus' No. 2 run-blocking guard behind only Carl Nicks in 2010. Rachal lost his footing and ultimately his job when Jim Harbaugh took over as 49ers coach in 2011, however. Benched by Harbaugh at halftime of Week 3, Rachal spent the rest of the year as a special teamer and jumbo-set option. Adam Snyder was Harbaugh's starter at right guard.

Rachal will appeal primarily to power-running teams because he's a 6-foot-5, 323-pound mauler who's been inconsistent in pass protection. Redskins O-Line coach Chris Foerster, Rachal's position coach in 2008 and 2009, may want to take another crack at a talented old pupil, however. If a zone-blocking team like Washington is willing to sacrifice a little athleticism at any offensive line position, it's right guard. Rachal should come pretty cheaply and has dominating potential. Incumbent RG Chris Chester could kick over to left guard after struggling mightily last season.

Prediction: Redskins on a one-year, $2.75 million contract.

6. Weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson, 25 years old.

As is often the case with undrafted free agents, Henderson made his early-career mark on kick and punt coverage, playing sparingly in Minnesota's base defense. Promoted into the starting lineup last season, Henderson broke out for career highs in tackles (70) and forced fumbles (2) while grading out as Pro Football Focus' No. 3 run-stopping 4-3 outside linebacker, behind only Von Miller and Jarret Johnson. Henderson was used strictly as a two-down player, but packs a wallop at 6-foot-3, 244 and ran respectable forty times of 4.73 and 4.74 coming out of Maryland. Henderson has extensive background with new Jets defensive line coach Karl Dunbar, a position coach in Minnesota for the last six seasons. The Jets need to replace inside 'backer Bart Scott.

Prediction: Jets on a three-year, $10.5 million contract.

7. Tight end Martellus Bennett, 25 years old.

The youngest player on this list, Bennett entered the NFL as an immature 21-year-old second-round pick. While he drew the ire of Cowboys officials more than once for questionable off-field decisions, Bennett has encountered no legal issues and still possesses plenty of upside. Bennett is 6-foot-7, 255 and ran a forty time in the 4.6s at the 2008 Combine. His production levels were never where Dallas wanted them to be, but Bennett has quietly emerged as one of the league's premier blocking tight ends. The Dolphins and Bengals have showed interest in Bennett at past trade deadlines. Miami may cut incumbent starter Anthony Fasano due to a $3.6 million salary.

Prediction: Dolphins on a two-year, $6 million contract.

8. Running back Justin Forsett, 26 years old.

Though purely a scatback at 5-foot-8, 198, Forsett has settled in as a highly efficient, versatile pro. Forsett's career 4.63 YPC average compares favorably to top-end free agent backs Peyton Hillis (4.22), Michael Bush (4.18), and BenJarvus Green-Ellis (4.05), and Forsett's receiving/pass protection combo makes him an ideal fit as a third-down specialist. Decreased opportunities in Seattle last season, largely due to Leon Washington's unearned bigger role, may result in diminished market value for Forsett. Still highly regarded by ex-Seahawks and current Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Knapp, Forsett is a strong fit for Oakland's new zone-blocking scheme. He could give Taiwan Jones veteran competition for the No. 2 back job behind Darren McFadden.

Prediction: Raiders on a two-year, $5 million contract.

9. Defensive end Marcus Benard, 26 years old.

Originally undrafted out of Jackson State, Benard flashed too much pass-rush ability in workouts for the Browns to leave him unprotected on their practice squad. Waived at Cleveland's final cuts in 2009, he was signed to the 53-man roster two months later. Despite playing sparingly, Benard racked up 11 combined sacks and 42 tackles during his first two seasons. After a slow start to the 2011 campaign following a team-requested offseason weight gain, Benard was unluckily involved in an October motorbike accident that ended his season. Benard was not tendered as a restricted free agent this winter and is free to sign with any team. At 6-foot-2, 256, Benard's best position can be 4-3 nickel end or 3-4 outside 'backer. He's got a natural gift for pressuring the passer, and has past coaching staff ties to the Bucs (DL coach Bryan Cox) and Cowboys (DC Rob Ryan).

Prediction: Buccaneers on a one-year, $1.5 million contract.

10. Wide receiver Eddie Royal, 25 years old.

Royal exploded onto the NFL scene as a rookie in 2008, ranking eighth in the league in receptions (91) as the flanker and slot maven in Mike Shanahan's offense. Miscast since as a Deion Branch-type outside wideout under Josh McDaniels, and dogged by injuries as a part-time player last year, Royal's market value has sunk to the point where he'll be cheap to sign. Though undersized by NFL standards at 5-foot-10, 188, Royal has incredibly quick feet and plenty of long speed (4.39 forty). He's a tailor-made slot receiver for offenses that frequently go three-wide. With Shanahan in Washington and 33-year-old Santana Moss on his last legs, Royal's old coach would be a logical pursuer. Particularly if the Skins miss out on the top end of this year's free agent receiver class.

Prediction: Redskins on a one-year, $2.5 million contract.

Restricted Free Agent Bonus:

11. Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, 26 years old.

Bryant is a restricted free agent and tenders have not been formally extended. If the cap-strapped Raiders deem the second-round tag ($1.927 million) too pricey for Bryant, expect a market to emerge for the former undrafted free agent. He could be signed away free of draft-pick forfeiture if tendered at the "original pick" level. And Oakland is not well positioned to match contract offers.

A Harvard alum, Bryant goes 6-foot-5, 290 and has gradually climbed the depth chart in Oakland. He is a versatile pass rusher capable of playing both defensive end spots as well as inside. Bryant racked up five sacks last season while starting ten games, and Pro Football Focus graded him as a top-20 defensive end in run defense. Bryant possesses the requisite size to fit a 3-4 defense as a five-technique end, and 4-3 teams as a swing-type lineman. He is a young player on the rise.

Prediction: Raiders on a one-year, $1.927 million contract.
 

hacheman@therx.com
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Who's in on Matt Flynn?
Matt Flynn belongs. In three extended NFL appearances, he’s looked like a competent starting quarterback all three times. Competent starting quarterbacks get paid a lot of money.

So how much money is Flynn worth? I went back to watch Flynn’s two career starts and his relief outing against the Lions from 2010. Here were the takeaways:

Better than Kolb

It’s hard not to compare Flynn to Kevin Kolb, the trendy backup ready to make bank at this point last offseason. I remember going back to watch Kolb’s outings and came away less impressed.

Flynn showed attributes that are difficult to teach, especially for a young quarterback. He didn’t look like a young quarterback. He went through his reads and saw the field well. He made safeties move with his eyes. He picked on the opponent’s weakest defenders. Most importantly, Flynn threw the ball well when the pocket collapsed.

Pocket presence might be the most important quarterback skill that is almost impossible to teach. Kolb doesn’t have it. (Blaine Gabbert really doesn’t have it.) Flynn connected on passes while getting hit, and showed the ability to improvise when necessary. He can throw on the move while running left and right.

Accuracy might be the most important quarterback skill overall. Flynn completed 65% of his throws in his three games. Many throws were short, but he knew when to get rid of the ball quickly. His misses were generally not by much or “good” misses. I chart an informal number called “bad passes” when I watch quarterbacks. Only 17% of his throws qualified as bad passes, which is a low number. (Trust me.)

It gets tricky to give a quarterback credit for intangibles but its hard not to be impressed with Flynn. Facing the streaking Patriots in Week 15 of 2010, with a lot on the line, Flynn acted like he had done it all before.

He got up laughing after taking a big hit in the fourth quarter of a close game. He threw an interception returned for a touchdown in the third quarter, which was largely the receiver’s fault. A lot of young quarterbacks go into a shell at that point.

Instead, Flynn’s very next throw was a pass into a tight window to the same receiver (Concerns

The overall numbers from Flynn are outrageous: 908 yards, 8.4 YPA, nine touchdowns, two interceptions, and two fumbles in just two and a half games.

Flynn was promising in his outings, but he wasn’t that good. His arm looks average for an NFL quarterback at best. His deep ball was underthrown a few times. The Patriots did a nice job blitzing him in 2010, and Flynn looked a lot more comfortable out of shotgun in 2011. He occasionally held on to the ball too long.


Add it all up, and I’d easily take Flynn over Kevin Kolb from a year ago. I give Flynn a better chance of developing into a difference-making quarterback than Possible destinations

1. Miami: Dolphins coach Joe Philbin is the only coach not on the Packers that knows if Flynn has what it takes. You can only draw so much from three games. Philbin has seen Flynn every day in practice for four years. If the Dolphins don’t go after Flynn, I’d usually consider that a red flag.


There is only one problem with that theory: Peyton Manning is available. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross is desperate for a big name to make his team a marquee franchise again and reports indicate Ross will push to sign Manning, whether Philbin is truly on board or not.

Miami is the best home possible for Flynn. He knows the system and they have better depth at wide receiver than they are given credit for. If the Dolphins sign Manning, that leaves the Browns and Seahawks as the expected contenders for Flynn.

2. Browns: This feels like the move Browns President Mike Holmgren wants to make. Flynn fits what Cleveland wants to accomplish offensely. The Browns appear antsy about giving up tons of draft picks for Robert Griffin III. Waiting for the draft allows for a risk that the Redskins (or a mystery team) outbid Cleveland for RGIII, and the Browns get stuck wasting another year with Colt McCoy.

My money is on Cleveland making it happen with Flynn.

3. Seahawks: Seattle has ties to Flynn through G.M. John Schneider. The Seahawks aren’t afraid to be aggressive going after quarterbacks. Will the Seahawks see Flynn as a big-enough upgrade on Tarvaris Jackson? I doubt they’ll be as aggressive as Cleveland.

It’s hard to see another fit for Flynn. If Miami doesn’t get involved, don’t be surprised if Flynn doesn’t get the contract (north of $9 million-per-year) that he desires.

<!--RW-->Monday’s scoreboard

Monday was the biggest NFL news day of the offseason, which was reflected in our posts and traffic. It’s only going to get crazier in the coming days, with free agency set to kick off a week from Tuesday. Let’s look at some winners and losers from a fantasy perspective.

Winners

1. Vincent Jackson: San Diego let him free. DeSean Jackson, Stevie Johnson, Wes Welker, and Dwayne Bowe are staying put, which will help Jackson make a ton of money on the open market. Chicago seems like the strongest candidate for Jackson. He would be a great fit for Jay Cutler’s deep ball.

Returning to San Diego might ultimately be best for Vincent Jackson’s fantasy value, but Chicago (or New England) could work.

2. Wes Welker: He’ll catch around 100 passes a year as long as he’s with Tom Brady. Any other scenario would have been trouble for his fantasy value.

3. Colts defense: Long-term, the Robert Mathis signing doesn’t make sense. That’s a lot of money for an aging pass rusher that has to learn a new scheme. For 2012, new Colts coach Chuck Pagano just kept a valuable weapon to play with.

4. I reported on Twitter via a league source that the Cowboys, Bucs, Bears, and Vikings are the favorites to land Finnegan. Dallas and Tampa look like the strongest two candidates. The Cowboys also have interest in Brandon Carr. St. Louis and Denver will also likely get involved, but it doesn’t look like they’ll extend enough financially.

5. Stevie Johnson: Beware the free agent receiver that changes teams. (Unless the receiver has truly exceptional skills. Johnson doesn’t qualify.)

6. Arian Foster: Say hello to your No. 1 overall pick in 2012 fantasy drafts. It is outstanding news for Foster’s keeper league owners that he’ll stay with the Texans throughout the prime of his career.

Losers

1. Ben Tate, Texans: See above. Tate is going to be one of the league’s most valuable backups, but he’ll still be a backup.

2. Marques Colston: It looks more and more that Colston will leave the Saints. One of the most consistent fantasy wideouts of his era, there’s simply no way Colston will find a better situation outside of Nola.

3. On Bounties

The Saints bounty scandal reminded me of a passage from The Best Game Ever by Mark Bowden.

Colts coach Weeb Ewbanks prized physical play. Other teams thought the Colts overstepped unwritten rules of playing, but Ewbank rewarded vicious hits with a self-policed scoring system.

49ers fullback Joe Perry was running a decoy pattern in 1954 nowhere near the ball when he was clubbed to the ground by a Colts tackle named Tom Finnin.

“Hey Finny, what the hell are you doing?” Perry complained.

Finnin shrugged.

“I get points for that,” he said.
 

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15 free agents to avoid

Silva did a great job breaking down some of the best free agent bargains. Now it’s my turn to do a mediocre job looking at some players that will get overpaid in free agency.



These are some buyer beware options in free agency.



1. Marques Colston, Saints wideout



The surgeries are well documented. I’m less worried about the injury risk because Colston has only missed ten career games, including three in the last three years.



I’m more concerned that you will have to pay for his past production and that production matches up with the game’s elite receivers since 2006. You aren’t likely to get anything close to that production unless you also have Drew Brees throwing Colston the ball.



Brees’ pinpoint accuracy and trust in Colston creates a lot of plays that aren’t there because Colston doesn’t get much separation. Ultimately, he’s a possession receiver.



2-3. Pierre Garcon and Mario Manningham, wide receivers



I’m listing these two together because they are in many ways the same guy. They can look like No. 1 receivers for stretches, but they make way too many mental errors and drop too many passes to invest big money on. Those mental errors are only going to pick up from Peyton and Eli Manning.



Garcon and Manningham are borderline No. 2/3 receivers that will get paid like No. 1 receivers.



4. Jared Gaither, Chargers tackle



Just look at the tackle list available. Gaither is the most talented player by far and he’s worth a gamble if the price was low. I doubt the price will be low.



Gaither’s back issues can’t be overlooked. He missed five games in 2009, all of 2010, and made a successful contract push with five terrific starts in San Diego. After five years in the league, you usually are what you are. Gaither is unreliable.



5. Demetrius Bell, Bills tackle



High demand and no product will create a free agent feeding frenzy at tackle. There just aren’t quality tackles available, so someone will overpay for Bell. You are better off looking in the bargain bin or just drafting and developing.



6. Jarrett Johnson, Ravens linebacker



Johnson has been one of the most underrated players in the league for a while. But you aren’t getting those years. You are getting a 10-year veteran that is ready to decline at age 31. Maybe you get a good year, but it will cost too much. He won’t look the same away from all the talent and the system in Baltimore.



7. Curtis Lofton, Falcons linebacker



Lofton is a fine two-down player, but teams can only pay so many players at star-level prices. I don’t want to pay huge bucks to a guy that doesn’t rush the passer or play effectively on passing downs. There are too many low cost inside linebackers out there, like Stephen Tulloch.



8-10. David Garrard, Brady Quinn, and Donovan McNabb, quarterbacks



These should be obvious. But this is a year with plenty of halfway decent “1A” options like Jason Campbell, Kyle Orton, and Josh Johnson.



11. Randy Moss, UStream star



Don’t fall for the excuses or the reports about his great workout. He was dumped by three teams in the span of one season, and then spent a year out of football. He’s 35 years old. That’s all I need to know.



Teams will hold on to talent as long as possible and Moss simply wasn’t that talented in the 2010 season. There is almost no historical precedent for a truly successful comeback at this point. You only want Moss if he can start.



(I could also throw Reggie Wayne into my “likely to be overpaid” pile, but I’m tired of picking on wideouts.)



12-13. Carlos Rogers and Marcus Trufant, cornerbacks



Beware the over-30 free agent cornerbacks. It’s only a matter of time before their level of play declines. Rogers is a nice candidate for a one-year deal, but my guess is that he’ll be able to get more.



14. Reggie Nelson, Bengals safety



Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer changed Nelson into a different player, but he still takes bad angles and isn’t a good tackler. It is telling that the Bengals aren’t extending financially to keep Nelson.



15. Cedric Benson, Bengals running back



Benson may actually have been a little underrated the last two years in Cincinnati, but that doesn’t matter now. He’s a 30-year-old back that doesn’t help on passing downs or special teams. Guys like him quickly fall from a 250-carry back to an en-player. Benson will get a job, but not the starting gig he wants.
 

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Peyton's ideal landing spot

Peyton Manning received a lot of thanks this week from journalists and admiring Colts fans.



I’d like to thank him for kick-starting free agency before free agency really started.



This is the latest start to free agency (by far) since I started at Rotoworld in 2003. The first week of March just doesn’t feel right without non-stop signings, cuts and posts.



Manning season will get us through to Monday, when teams will make their final cuts before free agency starts at 4 p.m. ET Tuesday. (We'll post a top-50 free agents before then.)



Yes, this start time to free agency is much differenct. Usually free agency started at midnight and the biggest couple of days came on the weekend. Now we’ll have wall-to-wall coverage here at Rotoworld throughout next week. By Friday evening, most of the biggest names will be signed.



In the meantime, we still have some players to speculate about. And what better way to kill time than making lists?



18 Value signings



Silva did a great job digging through the bargain bin earlier in the week. His column made it unnecessary to make my own value list, but I want to anyway. I'm not going to let Silva box me in a corner!



Quarterbacks



1. Jason Campbell: During most barren years, Campbell would be the most interesting free agent quarterback available. Now he’ll get ignored because of Peyton Manning and Matt Flynn.



There are a lot of teams Campbell could upgrade. He was playing at a high level in Oakland and could be better than the starter in Kansas City, New York (Jets), and Denver. He won’t cost much.



2. Josh Johnson: The 49ers don’t really need another quarterback, but it would be fun to see what Jim Harbaugh could do with his former college pupil.



3. Vince Young: He would make a lot of sense as Tim Tebow’s backup. Young has started 50 games with solid production. You aren’t going to find many better backups with higher ceilings. He may not hold up as a 16-game starter, but he's perfect in a reserve role.



4. Kyle Orton: He will likely cost half of what the Broncos paid him last year. He’s another quarterback that is better than 5-10 starters in the league.



Running backs



5. Mike Tolbert: He has the defined skill sets you want in a backup. He can catch passes, block, convert in short-yardage, and help on special teams. A glue guy player for a championship-level team.



6. Tim Hightower: He’s coming off a major injury, but Hightower would be worth signing on a low-cost two-year deal. He does a lot of things well.



Wideouts



7. Brandon Lloyd: It’s all relative. Compared to the other top 5-10 receivers available, Lloyd should easily provide the most bang for the buck.



8. Eddie Royal: I’m piggybacking Silva here, but the man is right. Royal would be perfect for a team like the Giants that could use a smart slot receiver.



Michael Clayton: I’m not giving up on that 2004 rookie year! (Okay, this one is a joke to see if you guys are paying attention.)



There are no great tight end options. John Carlson won’t be a value because he’ll get played plenty.



Offensive linemen



9. Evan Mathis, guard: PFF’s top-ranked guard last year. At worst, a quality starter.



10-12: Dan Koppen, Scott Wells, and Nick Hardwick, centers: Houston’s Chris Myers will cost a lot coming off a Pro Bowl year.



Good centers shouldn’t be this easy to find. It’s easy to forget Koppen was one of the game’s best before an early season-ending injury last year. Wells is coming off his best season. The Chargers will probably do what they can to keep Hardwick.



Defensive front seven



13. Red Bryant: A big man that can do a lot of things.



14. Kendall Langford: He’s been up and down as a Dolphin, but at times has flashed difference-making ability.



15. Stephen Tulloch: All this guy does is find the ball and stay on the field all three downs at linebacker for a very cheap price.



16. Larry Grant: The 49er inside linebacker is a restricted free agent, but you only need to give up a seventh-round pick for him. He showed he can make plays, but the 49ers have no room to pay him.



Defensive backs



17. Tracy Porter: He won’t come cheaply and there'ss an injury risk, but Porter is an above-average cover corner coming off a down season. It’s better to buy low.



18. Best fantasy landing spots for Manning




Early in the week, I predicted the favorites to land Peyton Manning. Now let’s attack it from a different angle. What potential spots provide the most fantasy value?



1. Kansas City: Imagine Manning, Dwayne Bowe, Jonathan Baldwin, Steve Breaston, and Jamaal Charles.



2. Arizona: I trust Ken Whisenhunt, Larry Fitzgerald, Beanie Wells, and the nice weather.



3. Washington: I trust Mike Shanahan to create yards, even if the talent on the outside isn’t there. It would shock me if Manning landed here, though.



4. New York Jets: Santonio Holmes and Keller would be a nice start.



5. Miami: There is depth at wide receiver, but no big playmakers and an offensive coach that may not fit Manning.



6. Denver: Manning can make any system work but I wonder if he’ll make sense with John Fox and two young starting wideouts.



7. Seattle: They wouldn’t be a run-first team any more.



8. The Field: I’ll be amazed if any other team signs Manning. For what it’s worth (not much), there really wasn’t much difference between the top and bottom of this list. Manning makes any offense his offense. He can make it work if healthy, even if he doesn’t recreate the 2004 Colts overnight.



On Mario



I went back to watch three Mario Williams games to see if it made any sense for the Texans to give him a big deal despite their 3-4 defense.



My sense is that he fits Wade Phillips’ scheme just fine. But he’s still not worth it for Houston.



Williams split snaps evenly with his hand down and standing up. He rarely dropped into coverage. (I counted four times in 2.5 games.) He is always on the line of scrimmage; so calling him a linebacker seems silly.



Williams is valuable because he can line up on either side of the defense and he often draws double teams. But in the games he played last year, Williams was no bigger difference-maker than J.J. Watt, Connor Barwin, or even Antonio Smith.



Charley Casserly’s prized pick beat Dallas Clark of the Colts for two sacks and Steelers rookie Marcus Gilbert for two more. (One of those Gilbert did a nice job but Big Ben ran into the sack.) Williams also disappeared against the Saints and for a long stretch against Pittsburgh. (Although Mario had a huge second half against the Steelers.) Williams can be attacked in the running game.



Seattle would be my prediction for where Williams ends up. It makes more sense for him to have his hand on the ground most plays. Houston is a team defense with a lot of working parts. They don’t need Williams. Williams stands out physically, but he’s just one key piece to the puzzle there. He doesn’t show up every game.



Williams has racked up sack totals over the years, but I’m not convinced he’s the every-down difference maker that he should be considering he’s likely to become the game’s highest paid defensive player. This isn’t Reggie White or even Julius Peppers in his prime.



He may not be a top-five defensive end.
 

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Let the QB carousel spin

The Cardinals organization still remembers 1993. A 37-year-old Joe Montana was available, coming off a season where he only took 21 snaps as Steve Young’s backup, largely because of Montana’s elbow injury.



Arizona thought they had Montana in their grasp, but he chose to sign in Kansas City instead. (Montana quietly went 19-10 in two years, including two playoff wins.)



Peyton Manning’s free agent visits will be remembered two decades from now too. We’ll look back and wonder how strange it was when Manning almost replaced Tebowmania in Denver or how he almost finished his career with Larry Fitzgerald.



When Tim Tebow connected with 1. Manning signing would mean a Tebow trade




Tim Tebow is not going to learn the quarterback position from one of the greatest to ever play the game. Mike Florio reported on PFT that Tebow would likely be traded if the Broncos sign Manning.



It would provide a clean break and some second-guessing in Denver if Manning hurts his neck again. But it’s a reminder that the team that signs Manning is going all in. The Cardinals will cut 2. Miami is in trouble



Dolphins owner Stephen Ross desperately wants to sign Manning, but the Dolphins appear to be running a distant third to Denver and Arizona in the Manning sweepstakes.



At this point, Manning may not take another official visit. He chose Denver and Arizona as his two visits because those were his two favorite possible locations. There is no other way to spin this from Miami’s perspective. Their dysfunctional ownership is likely to swing and miss at another big prize.



Kansas City and Seattle reportedly did everything possible to try to get Manning to visit, but he chose not to. Titans owner Bud Adams wants Manning; that doesn’t seem very likely either.



Situations like this are always fluid. But at this stage, it would be a major surprise if Manning doesn’t sign with the Broncos or Cardinals by the middle of this week.



3. A strong home for RG3



Manning got the attention, but Washington’s bold trade up to the No. 2 pick in April’s draft is the move that will change the NFL more over the next decade.




Manning is a short-term fix. Robert Griffin III has the ability to change the face of a franchise into the 2020’s. Griffin has to be a top-ten NFL quarterback to justify the steep price Washington gave up: three first round picks and a second rounder.



From a fantasy perspective, this was the best possible home for Griffin among limited options. Cleveland was the other strong suitor and they lack weapons and imagination. The Browns were reportedly willing to give up three first round picks to get Griffin. Mike Shanahan and Jeff Fisher’s close relationship may have closed the deal.



Mike Shanahan and Redskins G.M. Bruce Allen just bought some time. They can afford another sub-.500 season, as long as Griffin looks good. Shanahan excels at working with mobile quarterbacks. Griffin seems like a perfect fit to run the bootlegs and moving pockets that Shanahan prefers.



Shanahan’s offense is much different than the one at Baylor. But it’s a nice NFL fit for Griffin, who has the ability to throw accurately deep with pressure around him. Shanahan hasn’t won consistently in a long time, but he created plenty of yardage out of guys like Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, and even Rex Grossman. Jay Cutler’s most explosive days came with Shanahan.



There aren’t great weapons in Washington, but things would look a lot different if the team can land Vincent Jackson as hoped. Fred Davis is a dynamic playmaker at tight end, and Santana Moss remains a serviceable possession receiver. Add Jackson and Griffin would have enough tools around him to be a top-15 fantasy quarterback as a rookie.



RG3 won’t get as many rushing touchdowns as 4. Possible free agent pairings




I mentioned Vincent Jackson and the Redskins. With only one day left before free agency, here are a few other rumor mill pairings:



Vincent Jackson: The Bucs, Bears, and Redskins look like the strongest candidates.



Mario Williams: A surprising lack of information here. Florio reported there was a 50-50 chance Williams will stay in Houston. Dallas and Seattle are possibilities.



Kamerion Wimbley: The Bears and Cardinals have been mentioned.



Cortland Finnegan: The Bucs, Cowboys, Bears, and Vikings should all get involved.



LaRon Landry: The Jets, Bears, and Eagles could be in the mix, with the Jets as the

favorites. Notice how the Bears are in on everyone?



Curtis Lofton: He appears to be leaving Atlanta.



5. The most Jets move ever




The Jets couldn’t get Peyton Manning interested, so they gave Mark Sanchez a financial apology. This was the most Jets move ever: The contract was part public relations, part fluff, part cap savings, and shortsighted short-term gain for long-term pain.



The result of the deal: It will be nearly impossible to dump Sanchez before the 2013 season. That’s about it. His new contract guaranteed Sanchez more than $8 million for 2013 in addition to his 2012 money.



So the Jets decided to commit to Sanchez for two years instead of one year because Peyton Manning wouldn’t let them dump Sanchez this year. It doesn’t make sense.



If Sanchez and the Jets tank in 2012, they will have to eat that salary next year. I still think Sanchez can be a league average quarterback, but there are serious doubts whether he’ll ever develop into a top-10 player at the position. The Jets probably share those doubts. But they have a meddlesome owner that thinks leadership can be attained in a mostly phony contract.



6. How will quarterback carousel spin?



Robert Griffin III landed in Washington. Peyton Manning appears headed to Denver or Arizona. How will that effect the rest of the quarterback carousel?



It appears there will be a three-team derby for Matt Flynn: Miami, Cleveland, and Seattle could all show some level of interest. Miami has the strongest Flynn ties. Cleveland is pretty desperate after swinging and missing on Griffin. I’d bet on Miami being more desperate.



If Manning lands in Arizona, Kevin Kolb will get cut. Kolb could wind up landing in Cleveland or Seattle. That’s a weak consolation prize. That scenario also leaves Denver looking for Tim Tebow competition. Jason Campbell or Vince Young could make some sense.



If Manning lands in Denver, Tebow will be on the block. He doesn’t really make sense for Jacksonville. It’s anyone’s guess what teams would be interested.



Chad Henne looks likely to compete with Sanchez in New York. Finally …




Brandon Jacobs, Joseph Addai, and Dallas Clark have all been big fantasy names during their careers. After getting cut Friday, it is very unlikely they will ever matter much in fantasy leagues again.



Clark has the best chance of the group, if he winds up joining Peyton Manning somewhere.



I’ll be back Tuesday morning with the top-50 free agent list, complete with players that got dropped in final cuts on Monday.
 

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Fantasy football 2012 rankings

By Christopher Harris | ESPN.com

NFL free agency begins March 13, and in honor of that exciting date, I thought I'd give my first indication of my starting point for the 2012 fantasy football season. Clearly, this list will be out of date almost as soon as its pixels light up your display, because players will start moving, offenses will start looking better or worse and the landscape will change accordingly. If, for instance, Vincent Jackson re-signs with the San Diego Chargers, his fantasy fate will look far different than if he signs with the Jacksonville Jaguars. And all this is to say nothing of April's draft, which will fling the jigsaw puzzle into the sky once more. In addition, I reserve the right to change my mind on hard-to-rank players like Cam Newton and Rob Gronkowski, who some readers will instantly howl are "too low" at their respective positions. (If you know my work, you know I tend toward conservative estimates of amazing-season repeatability.) At this point it's all grist for the mill. Let the debates begin!
Fantasy Football Top 100

<inline1>
<table><thead><tr><th> Rank </th><th> Player </th><th> Pos. Rank </th><th> Comment </th></tr><tbody><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 1 </td><td align="left"> Arian Foster, HOU </td><td align="center"> RB1 </td><td align="left"> Big contract, two-year consistency puts him at the top. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 2 </td><td align="left"> Ray Rice, BAL </td><td align="center"> RB2 </td><td align="left"> Pretty nice now that he's the goal-line back, too. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 3 </td><td align="left"> LeSean McCoy, PHI </td><td align="center"> RB3 </td><td align="left"> Does Vick take some of the TDs back? </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 4 </td><td align="left"> Aaron Rodgers, GB </td><td align="center"> QB1 </td><td align="left"> Everything went ultra-perfect, and he still wasn't VBD's No. 1 in '11. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 5 </td><td align="left"> Calvin Johnson, DET </td><td align="center"> WR1 </td><td align="left"> No reason the Lions' aerial circus slows down now. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 6 </td><td align="left"> Maurice Jones-Drew, JAC </td><td align="center"> RB4 </td><td align="left"> Could he break down? Yep. So could every RB on the planet. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 7 </td><td align="left"> Matt Forte, CHI </td><td align="center"> RB5 </td><td align="left"> Watch out for a potential holdout. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 8 </td><td align="left"> Chris Johnson, TEN </td><td align="center"> RB6 </td><td align="left"> Underplayed story is weakness in TEN O-line, which must be addressed. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 9 </td><td align="left"> Tom Brady, NE </td><td align="center"> QB2 </td><td align="left"> In three of his past four healthy years, he has 36, 39 and 50 TD passes. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 10 </td><td align="left"> Andre Johnson, HOU </td><td align="center"> WR2 </td><td align="left"> Back to year-to-year injury worries? </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 11 </td><td align="left"> Ryan Mathews, SD </td><td align="center"> RB7 </td><td align="left"> Two injury-marred years, but the job should be his. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 12 </td><td align="left"> Drew Brees, NO </td><td align="center"> QB3 </td><td align="left"> The contract thing will get worked out, but he's losing weapons. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 13 </td><td align="left"> Larry Fitzgerald, ARI </td><td align="center"> WR3 </td><td align="left"> Unbelievable talent, and produced a great season with substandard QB play. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 14 </td><td align="left"> Matthew Stafford, DET </td><td align="center"> QB4 </td><td align="left"> Seems like a long time ago people were grousing about his injuries. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 15 </td><td align="left"> Wes Welker, NE </td><td align="center"> WR4 </td><td align="left"> Wipe away the ACL year and he's averaged 117 catches per year as a Patriot. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 16 </td><td align="left"> Greg Jennings, GB </td><td align="center"> WR5 </td><td align="left"> I still prefer him to Jordy Nelson, despite their '11 stat disparity. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 17 </td><td align="left"> Rob Gronkowski, NE </td><td align="center"> TE1 </td><td align="left"> I hate putting him even this high, but the dude has 28 TDs in two pro seasons. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 18 </td><td align="left"> Jamaal Charles, KC </td><td align="center"> RB8 </td><td align="left"> Coming off torn ACL, will likely be paired with a more competent big back. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 19 </td><td align="left"> Marshawn Lynch, SEA </td><td align="center"> RB9 </td><td align="left"> Was the end of '11 simply a contract run? </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 20 </td><td align="left"> DeMarco Murray, DAL </td><td align="center"> RB10 </td><td align="left"> Felix Jones is still in the mix, and Murray is an injury risk, but still. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 21 </td><td align="left"> Frank Gore, SF </td><td align="center"> RB11 </td><td align="left"> Role diminished in the second half of '11 with Kendall Hunter in the mix. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 22 </td><td align="left"> Darren McFadden, OAK </td><td align="center"> RB12 </td><td align="left"> So much ability, but red flags abound because of all the injuries. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 23 </td><td align="left"> Mike Wallace, PIT </td><td align="center"> WR6 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 24 </td><td align="left"> Jimmy Graham, NO </td><td align="center"> TE2 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 25 </td><td align="left"> Cam Newton, CAR </td><td align="center"> QB5 </td><td align="left"> I'll be doing tons of Cam analysis this summer, and reserve the right to change my mind. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 26 </td><td align="left"> Steven Jackson, STL </td><td align="center"> RB13 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 27 </td><td align="left"> A.J. Green, CIN </td><td align="center"> WR7 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 28 </td><td align="left"> Michael Vick, PHI </td><td align="center"> QB6 </td><td align="left"> The issue with Vick will always be whether he can play close to a full season. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 29 </td><td align="left"> Ahmad Bradshaw, NYG </td><td align="center"> RB14 </td><td align="left"> He shook off foot concerns, and should have a heavier load with Brandon Jacobs gone. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 30 </td><td align="left"> Hakeem Nicks, NYG </td><td align="center"> WR8 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 31 </td><td align="left"> Roddy White, ATL </td><td align="center"> WR9 </td><td align="left"> I love Roddy. But I love Julio, too. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 32 </td><td align="left"> Vincent Jackson, FA </td><td align="center"> WR10 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 33 </td><td align="left"> Julio Jones, ATL </td><td align="center"> WR11 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 34 </td><td align="left"> Fred Jackson, BUF </td><td align="center"> RB15 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 35 </td><td align="left"> Roy Helu, WAS </td><td align="center"> RB16 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 36 </td><td align="left"> Darren Sproles, NO </td><td align="center"> RB17 </td><td align="left"> If Colston and Meachem leave, Sproles' role only gets bigger. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 37 </td><td align="left"> Steve Smith, CAR </td><td align="center"> WR12 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 38 </td><td align="left"> Brandon Marshall, MIA </td><td align="center"> WR13 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 39 </td><td align="left"> Jordy Nelson, GB </td><td align="center"> WR14 </td><td align="left"> He's good, but I'm not chasing last year's TDs. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 40 </td><td align="left"> Dez Bryant, DAL </td><td align="center"> WR15 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 41 </td><td align="left"> Kenny Britt, TEN </td><td align="center"> WR16 </td><td align="left"> It's a leap of faith, but I still consider him borderline elite. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 42 </td><td align="left"> Michael Turner, ATL </td><td align="center"> RB18 </td><td align="left"> I know. He was the No. 5 RB in fantasy last year. But the cliff is coming. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 43 </td><td align="left"> Reggie Bush, MIA </td><td align="center"> RB19 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 44 </td><td align="left"> Dwayne Bowe, KC </td><td align="center"> WR17 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 45 </td><td align="left"> Miles Austin, DAL </td><td align="center"> WR18 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 46 </td><td align="left"> Eli Manning, NYG </td><td align="center"> QB7 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 47 </td><td align="left"> Marques Colston, FA </td><td align="center"> WR19 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 48 </td><td align="left"> Victor Cruz, NYG </td><td align="center"> WR20 </td><td align="left"> And he was the No. 4 WR. I'm simply scared of the one-year wonder factor. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 49 </td><td align="left"> Percy Harvin, MIN </td><td align="center"> WR21 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 50 </td><td align="left"> Jonathan Stewart, CAR </td><td align="center"> RB20 </td><td align="left"> This should be his final season toiling in the world's most frustrating platoon. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 51 </td><td align="left"> DeAngelo Williams, CAR </td><td align="center"> RB21 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 52 </td><td align="left"> Michael Bush, FA </td><td align="center"> RB22 </td><td align="left"> Obviously a lot depends on where he lands, but he figures to be a TD maker. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 53 </td><td align="left"> Tony Romo, DAL </td><td align="center"> QB8 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 54 </td><td align="left"> Adrian Peterson, MIN </td><td align="center"> RB23 </td><td align="left"> Opinions on AP will vary wildly until we get true August medical reports. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 55 </td><td align="left"> Philip Rivers, SD </td><td align="center"> QB9 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 56 </td><td align="left"> Jeremy Maclin, PHI </td><td align="center"> WR22 </td><td align="left"> He'd have been more attractive had DeSean Jackson left Philly. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 57 </td><td align="left"> Willis McGahee, DEN </td><td align="center"> RB24 </td><td align="left"> McGahee is grousing about his contract, which might not bode terribly well. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 58 </td><td align="left"> Steve Johnson, BUF </td><td align="center"> WR23 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 59 </td><td align="left"> Peyton Manning, FA </td><td align="center"> QB10 </td><td align="left"> Heaven only knows. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 60 </td><td align="left"> Trent Richardson, -- </td><td align="center"> RB25 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 61 </td><td align="left"> Jahvid Best, DET </td><td align="center"> RB26 </td><td align="left"> Listen, I know he's my binky. I don't trust Mikel Leshoure returning from a torn Achilles, though. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 62 </td><td align="left"> Antonio Brown, PIT </td><td align="center"> WR24 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 63 </td><td align="left"> Mark Ingram, NO </td><td align="center"> RB27 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 64 </td><td align="left"> Beanie Wells, ARI </td><td align="center"> RB28 </td><td align="left"> It's hard to trust those knees. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 65 </td><td align="left"> DeSean Jackson, PHI </td><td align="center"> WR25 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 66 </td><td align="left"> Shonn Greene, NYJ </td><td align="center"> RB29 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 67 </td><td align="left"> Antonio Gates, SD </td><td align="center"> TE3 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 68 </td><td align="left"> Peyton Hillis, FA </td><td align="center"> RB30 </td><td align="left"> He was always overvalued last season, but now he could be undervalued. He's 26. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 69 </td><td align="left"> Santonio Holmes, NYJ </td><td align="center"> WR26 </td><td align="left"> One gets the sense that if the Jets could jettison him, they would. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 70 </td><td align="left"> Jason Witten, DAL </td><td align="center"> TE4 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 71 </td><td align="left"> C.J. Spiller, BUF </td><td align="center"> RB31 </td><td align="left"> He had 21 carries in his first 10 games before Jackson's injury. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 72 </td><td align="left"> Lance Moore, NO </td><td align="center"> WR27 </td><td align="left"> He's not durable, but he might be the last man standing among Saints WRs. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 73 </td><td align="left"> Isaac Redman, PIT </td><td align="center"> RB32 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 74 </td><td align="left"> Brandon Lloyd, FA </td><td align="center"> WR28 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 75 </td><td align="left"> Tim Tebow, DEN </td><td align="center"> QB11 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 76 </td><td align="left"> Jermichael Finley, GB </td><td align="center"> TE5 </td><td align="left"> One of the few elite TEs who didn't fully participate in the "Year of the Tight End." </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 77 </td><td align="left"> Vernon Davis, SF </td><td align="center"> TE6 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 78 </td><td align="left"> Toby Gerhart, MIN </td><td align="center"> RB33 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 79 </td><td align="left"> Demaryius Thomas, DEN </td><td align="center"> WR29 </td><td align="left"> There's potential for him to be wildly overvalued. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 80 </td><td align="left"> Stevan Ridley, NE </td><td align="center"> RB34 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 81 </td><td align="left"> James Starks, GB </td><td align="center"> RB35 </td><td align="left"> I don't believe in Ryan Grant, but Green Bay doesn't run enough. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 82 </td><td align="left"> Ben Tate, HOU </td><td align="center"> RB36 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 83 </td><td align="left"> Ryan Williams, ARI </td><td align="center"> RB37 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 84 </td><td align="left"> Aaron Hernandez, NE </td><td align="center"> TE7 </td><td align="left"> Let's see what New England does at wideout. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 85 </td><td align="left"> 49ers defense, SF </td><td align="center"> DEF1 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 86 </td><td align="left"> Pierre Garcon, FA </td><td align="center"> WR30 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 87 </td><td align="left"> Matt Ryan, ATL </td><td align="center"> QB12 </td><td align="left"> I love his receivers, but he's yet to turn in an elite season. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 88 </td><td align="left"> Fred Davis, WAS </td><td align="center"> TE8 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 89 </td><td align="left"> Ravens defense, BAL </td><td align="center"> DEF2 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 90 </td><td align="left"> Donald Brown, IND </td><td align="center"> RB38 </td><td align="left"> Not a terrible sleeper; he averaged 4.8 yards per carry and Joseph Addai is gone. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 91 </td><td align="left"> Anquan Boldin, BAL </td><td align="center"> WR31 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 92 </td><td align="left"> Mike Williams, TB </td><td align="center"> WR32 </td><td align="left"> If he shows up in shape, he's got upside. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 93 </td><td align="left"> Pierre Thomas, NO </td><td align="center"> RB39 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 94 </td><td align="left"> Reggie Wayne, FA </td><td align="center"> WR33 </td><td align="left"> Maybe he's following Peyton, and thus maybe he's worth more than this. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 95 </td><td align="left"> Matt Schaub, HOU </td><td align="center"> QB13 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 96 </td><td align="left"> Bears defense, CHI </td><td align="center"> DEF3 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 97 </td><td align="left"> Montario Hardesty, CLE </td><td align="center"> RB40 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 98 </td><td align="left"> LeGarrette Blount, TB </td><td align="center"> RB41 </td><td align="left"></td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 99 </td><td align="left"> Denarius Moore, OAK </td><td align="center"> WR34 </td><td align="left"> I love his talent, but Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, Louis Murphy … and Carson Palmer. </td></tr><tr class="last"><td align="center"> 100 </td><td align="left"> BenJarvus Green-Ellis, FA </td><td align="center"> RB42 </td></tr></tbody></table></inline1>
 

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Top 75 Free Agents

Welcome to free agency 2012.



A record number of franchise tags thinned this year’s top-75 list considerably. Some key re-signings also took big names off the market. Not to worry This happens every season. Most guys make it to free agency because their teams don’t truly want them.



There are exceptions to that rule. And those exceptions will make a ridiculous amount of money in the next week. With final cuts now over, here are Rotoworld’s Top 75 free agents.



The excitement officially kicks off at 4:00 p.m. ET Tuesday. We’ll have you covered on our player news page all week.



The difference makers



1. Mario Williams, Texans DE/OLB: I made the case that Williams may not be one of the best five defensive ends in football. He will still get paid like the best.



2. Peyton Manning, Colts QB: If there’s even a 50% chance he’s the old Manning, he will be worth the risk. I’m also looking forward to when all the losers in the Manning derby have to cover their ass. New contracts for everyone!



3. Cortland Finnegan, Titans CB: Finnegan is the guy you hate to play against, but love having on your side.



4. Vincent Jackson, Chargers WR: A rare No. 1 receiver that has the tools to succeed in any scheme.



5. Quality starters




6. Brandon Carr, Chiefs CB: Above-average starting cornerback play does not come cheaply this time of year.



7. Paul Soliai, Dolphins NT: With Sione Pouha back in New York, Soliai is the only true run-stuffing linemen available.



8. Chris Myers, Texans C: You can make a strong case Myers was the best center in football last year.



9. Eric Winston, Texans T: There’s always one big surprise cut before free agency starts. Winston was the guy this year. He isn’t coming off his best year, but he’s a top-10 starting right tackle.



10. Matt Flynn, Packers QB: I’m buying the hype.



11. Ben Grubbs, Ravens G: Plug him into your starting lineup for the next 3-4 years.



12. Red Bryant, Seahawks DL: The more you watch him play, the more there is to like.



13. Brodrick Bunkley, Broncos DT: Based just on 2011 game tape, you could argue Bunkley belongs in the “difference maker” category.



14. Tracy Porter, Saints CB: Everyone seems to forget how strong Porter can perform at his best. Highly experienced, talented young cover guys are not easy to find.



15. Stephen Tulloch, Lions LB: I’ve been a big fan of Tulloch for a few years. He’s one of the most underrated, versatile inside linebackers in football and he’s shown he can perform on multiple teams.



16. Brandon Lloyd, Rams WR: He’s not a true No. 1 receiver. He wouldn’t have to be if he lands in New England.



17. Marques Colston, Saints WR: The heart of a champion with the knees of a 40-year-old. I’d worry about Colston away from Drew Brees. (UPDATE: Re-signed with Saints on five-year contract.)



18. Curtis Lofton, Falcons LB: A sure tackler with leadership ability, but not a huge difference maker for what he’ll cost.



19. Taking a shot

Some of these guys will cost too much for the risk.


20. Jason Jones, Titans DL: He’s the right age (26) and he’s flashed at various points in his career. He could be a great pickup in the right system.



21. LaRon Landry, Redskins S: All sorts of talent, but Landry is undisciplined and injury prone.



22. Mario Manningham, Giants WR: I almost wrote “Bucs WR” that connection has been mentioned so often. Manningham has a lot of talent but makes way too many mental errors.



23. John Abraham, Falcons DE: He’s a strong situational pass rusher that will probably get overpaid.



24. Kendall Langford, Dolphins DL: He's still young, versatile, and has shown flashes of being a difference maker.



25. Michael Bush, Raiders RB: He’s better served as a complementary player, but Bush can handle all three downs just fine.



26. Robert Meachem, Saints WR: Speed kills and no one questions Meachem’s big play ability. But do we really think most teams will get more out of him than Sean Payton and Drew Brees.



27. Jameel McClain, Ravens LB: He flashes serious ability and comes from a great system. McClain is one of my favorite sleepers.



28. Andre Carter, Patriots DE: Carter was playing at a Pro Bowl level before he got hurt late in the season.



29. Eric Wright, Lions CB: I heard from one team at the Combine that said they considered Wright the best right cornerback on the market. He’s streaky but can play at a very high level.



30. David Hawthorne, Seahawks LB: A cheaper version of Curtis Lofton.



31. Scott Wells, Packers C: Undersized quality starting center coming off his best season.



32. Solid contributors




33. Kyle Orton, Chiefs QB: The NFL’s Rodney Dangerfield is just looking for a little respect. And money. And playing time. And a razor.



34. Carlos Rogers, 49ers CB: Beware the over-30 cornerback coming off a career season.



35. Reggie Wayne, Colts WR: Just know you are paying for a possession receiver, not the Wayne of five years ago. Wayne is a lot closer to late-career Torry Holt than he is to Vincent Jackson.



36. Pierre Garcon, Colts WR: Leading candidate for the Jerry Porter Memorial Overpaid Wide Receiver in Free Agency Award. (UPDATE: Signed with Redskins.)



37. Mark Anderson, Patriots DE: He’s worth more to the Patriots than anyone else.



38. Nick Hardwick, Chargers C: There are a lot of quality centers available this offseason. (UPDATE: Re-signed with Chargers.)



39. Peyton Hillis, Browns RB: His stock is down so far by now that he may come at a nice value for a guy with a versatile skill set.



40. Jason Campbell, Raiders QB: He’s a solid NFL starting quarterback with some potential that his best days are ahead of him. That’s worth taking a gamble on.



41. Eddie Royal, Broncos WR: A poor man’s Percy Harvin. He’d look great back with Mike Shanahan in Washington.



42. Steve Hutchinson, Vikings G: He could be a nice one-year Brian Waters-like pickup for a contending team.



43. Josh Morgan, 49ers WR: Longtime Rotoworld man crush is getting a lot of attention league-wide as a potential starter.



44. Alex Smith, 49ers QB: Like Kurt Warner a few years back, no one believes Smith will leave town. Warner made a visit.



45. Jeremy Mincey, Jaguars DE: Leading candidate for the Ray Edwards Memorial Overpaid Defensive End in Free Agency award.



46. Laurent Robinson, Cowboys WR: He caught lightning in a bottle last year in Dallas. Expect him to return to big D.



47. Dan Koppen, Patriots C: See Nick Hardwick.



48. Mike Tolbert, Chargers RB: He’s everything you want out of a backup running back.



49. Demetrius Bell, Bills T: A toolsy player with starting experience that will likely get overpaid.



50. Dwight Lowery, Jaguars S: Jacksonville loved what he brought to their team last year.



51. Role players

Beware paying these guys too much.




52. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Patriots RB: At least you know he won’t fumble.



53. Dan Connor, Panthers LB: At worst, Connor can be a rotational linebacker for some team.



54. Aaron Ross, Giants CB: You are better off if he’s your third cornerback instead of a starter.



55. Frostee Rucker, Bengals DE: Put off-field questions behind him to become a fine rotational disruptive force.



56. Derek Landri, Eagles DT: Another guy that can give you quality snaps in a limited role.



57. Jarret Johnson, Ravens LB: Don’t pay for past production.



58. Richard Marshall, Arizona CB: Serviceable cornerbacks usually get overpaid in free agency.



59. Chad Henne, Dolphins QB: I’d take him over Mark Sanchez. The Jets may have that choice.



60. Anthony Collins, Bengals T: Silva was right. Collins is a potential diamond in the rough.



61. John Carlson, Seahawks TE: You could do worse if desperate for tight end help.



62. Erin Henderson, Vikings LB: He may have more upside than his well-known older brother.



63. Reggie Nelson, Bengals S: I don’t trust him away from Bengals coordinator Mike Zimmer.



64. Tim Hightower, Redskins RB: Does a lot of things well. Hightower played a lot of quality snaps before tearing his ACL last year.



65. London Fletcher, Redskins LB: A great locker presence that can still play in his mid-30’s.



66. James Hall, Rams DE: The definition of a solid veteran defensive end.



67. Tony Brown, Titans DE: It’s hard to keep all the Titans defensive linemen straight.



68. Ronald Bartell, Rams CB: Was overpaid by St. Louis, but he can still help a team.



69. Pat Sims, Bengals DT: A decent run-stopper.



70. Levi Brown, Cardinals T: Some team will think they can turn around the former top-five back. Don’t be that team. He’s one of the worst starters in football.



71. Jeff Backus, Lions T: He should return to the Lions.



72. Adam Carriker, Redskins DL: Turned his career around in Washington.



73. Braylon Edwards, 49ers WR: How the mighty have fallen.



74. Neil Rackers, Texans K: I needed a kicker for this list.



75. Andre Caldwell, Bengals WR: He could be a nice slot receiver in the right system.



75. (tie) Marcus Trufant, Seahawks CB: Beware the over-30 cornerback again.



Bigger names than games



Steve Smith, Eagles WR: He would make a lot of sense back with the Giants.



Dallas Clark, Colts TE: His best hope is to follow Peyton Manning wherever he goes.



Cedric Benson, Bengals RB: He should be a backup, but he won’t want to be one.



Plaxico Burress, Jets WR: Not an every down receiver.



Brandon Jacobs, Giants RB: Not worth the trouble.



Jerome Simpson, Bengals WR: They don’t give you bonus points for top play nominees.



Deion Branch, Patriots WR: Only valuable to the Patriots.
 

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