Although the 2013 NFL Free Agency period is one month away and the market will be thinned at the top by franchise tags and contract extensions, this is a good time to survey the prospective field. The NFL Scouting Combine kicks off in less than two weeks, and it is in Indianapolis that free-agency scuttlebutt commences as player representatives meet face-to-face with team officials.
This is a free agency position ranking. As it stands, I believe cornerback to be the deepest, most talented group of players with expiring contracts. I think quarterback is the weakest, for an obvious reason: NFL teams simply don't let franchise signal callers hit the open market. Offensive tackle and defensive end look very strong. Inside linebacker and center are bereft of quality starters.
On the back page is my Free Agent Top 40 for the 2013 offseason. I did not include Joe Flacco or Ryan Clady, because neither of them is going anywhere. Tony Gonzalez's contract is up, but his future is murky at best and he is not included, either.
Restricted Free Agents are not considered here because they so rarely change teams.
This position is loaded with quality NFL starters, and the prohibitive $10.67 million cornerback franchise number ensures it will stay that way. Aqib Talib, 27, Brent Grimes, 29, Sean Smith, 25, Chris Houston, 28, Derek Cox, 26, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, 26, all have experience as No. 1 corners, and of them only Grimes will be 30 years old when the 2013 season starts.
Super Bowl champ Cary Williams, 28, is believed to be looking to break the bank and may have trouble landing the lucrative deal he desires. E.J. Biggers, 25, Antoine Cason, 26, Keenan Lewis, 26, and Mike Jenkins, 27, could be more affordable targets with their best football ahead of them. Bradley Fletcher, 26, and Greg Toler, 28, are potential diamonds in the rough. Darius Butler, 26, Brice McCain, 26, Kyle Arrington, 26, and D.J. Moore, 25, can cover the slot on passing downs. Pacman Jones, 29, is coming off a quietly solid season as Cincinnati's nickel back. Jerraud Powers, 25, and Tracy Porter, 26, are intriguing "rehab" projects after injury-affected years.
Obviously past their primes, Sheldon Brown, 33, Quentin Jammer, 33, Terence Newman, 34, and Rashean Mathis, 32, each may have a year or two left as solid starting cornerbacks in the league. Brown, Jammer, and Mathis could potentially extend their careers by converting to safety.
Although former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin has not panned out as a cover corner, he is still only 27 and led the NFL in 2012 punt return average while bringing back two punts to the house.
2. Offensive Tackle
If cornerback is the gold standard in 2013 free agency, offensive tackle isn't far behind. Even with Clady off the board, Andre Smith, 26, Branden Albert, 28, Jake Long, 27, Sebastian Vollmer, 28, Will Beatty, 27, Gosder Cherilus, 28, Phil Loadholt, 27, Jermon Bushrod, 28, and Sam Baker, 27, all have extensive, successful track records as strong NFL starters and will be paid accordingly.
Since the positions are valued differently inside the NFL, offensive tackles can be halved into left and right. Left tackles are the highest paid O-Line position. Right tackles are viewed as inferior, although the league's best running teams unfailingly field high-impact tackle play on the right side.
Albert, Long, Beatty, Bushrod, Baker, and Bryant McKinnie, 33, are the best left tackles free agency has to offer. Smith, Vollmer, Cherilus, and Loadholt are difference makers on the right side. Vollmer is especially intriguing because he possesses athleticism and length to play both tackle spots, and made five starts on Tom Brady's blindside as a rookie in 2009. If Vollmer hits free agency -- and the Patriots will probably make sure that he does not -- it's conceivable that interested teams would view him as a left tackle, setting up Vollmer for a monster pay day.
3. Defensive End
This year's free-agent defensive end class isn't quite as talent rich as the big names atop the list might indicate. But it's a reasonably solid group with, by my count, at least seven capable NFL starters.
Cliff Avril, 26, has 29 sacks and nine forced fumbles over the past three seasons. He's "scheme versatile," capable of fitting 3-4 defenses at outside linebacker and 4-3s as a hand-in-the-dirt end. Avril is the clear prize of this year's defensive end class. Michael Johnson, 26, isn't far off after a breakout, 11.5-sack season. Always oozing talent, Johnson has long faced questions about his motor, however, and it's red-flaggy that he put together a career year in a contract season. It makes him an ideal franchise-tag candidate for the Bengals. So perhaps he won't hit the market.
Versatile Michael Bennett, 27, is No. 3 in the defensive end rankings and can rush the passer from both tackle and left end. Bennett was a key contributor on Tampa's league-best run defense in 2012. Osi Umenyiora, 31, Dwight Freeney, 32, and Israel Idonije, 32, all have good football left but are past their primes. Matt Shaughnessy, 26, once looked like a future star in Oakland, but lost his passing-down role to early-season street free-agent pickup Andre Carter because Shaughnessy couldn't generate any pressure. He still may be the best value signing in this group.
Wallace Gilberry, 28, Mike DeVito, 28, Darryl Tapp, 28, William Hayes, 27, Lawrence Jackson, 27, and Jonathan Fanene, 30, are all role players but give the position some free-agent depth.