8. Tight End
I have tight end ranked relatively low, but I think it's a quietly strong group. Especially when you include Texans fullback/H-back James Casey, 28, who demonstrates Hernandezian movement skills in pass routes but played out of position as a lead blocker in Gary Kubiak's offense. Casey needs to get out of Houston and find a chance to start. He can get open and has great hands.
Fred Davis, 27, is a field stretcher and underrated blocker if his Achilles' checks out. Dustin Keller, 28, has been held hostage statistically by putrid Jets offenses and needs to leave New York to maximize his god-given ability. Jared Cook, 25, is a freak of nature talent. Martellus Bennett, 25, is a terrific blocker and flashed taking his receiving game to a top-ten level when healthy in 2012.
Other free agent tight ends include backup types Delanie Walker, 28, Brandon Myers, 27, Dallas Clark, 33, Ben Watson 32, and Anthony Fasano, 28.
9. Outside Linebacker
This is where free agency begins to really thin out. The top get would be longtime Jaguars outside linebacker Daryl Smith, who can play strong side, weak side, or even man the middle. Smith, however, is going on age 31 and struggled in his only two 2012 appearances after returning from recurring groin problems.
Aside from Smith, Erin Henderson, 26, and Philip Wheeler, 28, the best 4-3 outside linebacker free agents all have injury concerns. Thomas Howard, 29, is coming off a torn ACL. Gerald McRath, 26, ruptured his patellar tendon. Justin Durant, 27, has a scary concussion history. Leroy Hill, 30, is facing a suspension. Jonathan Casillas, 25, is brimming with talent but has never stayed healthy.
Ultimately, 4-3 outside linebacker offers only stopgap solutions in free agency.
10. Running Back
Steven Jackson will be the cream of the 2013 free-agent running back crop if he declines his $7 million player option. Jackson has until March 12 -- the first day of free agency -- to decide. It's been expected that S-Jax will indeed decline the option, though it's always possible Jackson and his agent will determine they wouldn't pull in more money on the open market. I'd probably set Jackson's chances of returning to St. Louis at 55:45. If he doesn't, expect Atlanta and Green Bay to be among the contenders that pursue him. At age 29, Jackson has plenty left in the tank.
There's a steep falloff behind him.
Reggie Bush, 27, is best suited for a complementary, third-down type role in a pass-first offense, ideally playing in a dome. The pass-happy Lions make a lot of sense as a suitor, assuming Bush's price tag is reasonable. Rashard Mendenhall, 25, has talent to be an NFL feature back, but his health has been unreliable the past two seasons and Mendenhall is maddeningly inconsistent on inside runs, too often bouncing outside. Released by the Giants, 26-year-old Ahmad Bradshaw suffers from chronic foot injuries and is much too brittle for any team to count on as a starter. He'll be viewed as a potential committee back or strict backup by clubs in the market for running backs. Cedric Benson, 30, is coming off a Lisfranc fracture. Bernard Scott, 29, returns from a torn ACL.
Shonn Greene, 27, Felix Jones, 25, Peyton Hillis, 27, Danny Woodhead, 28, and Cedric Peerman, 26, are other notable free-agent running back names. They are all backups or role players at best.
11. Offensive Guard
Another thin free-agent position, guard offers five or six NFL starters with two or three who might command big money should they hit the market. Athletic Andy Levitre, 26, has never missed a start in four seasons with Buffalo and was a top-ten guard in 2012 per Pro Football Focus' ratings. The Bills need to make re-signing Levitre a priority.
Donald Thomas, 27, can play all three interior line positions and held up well in seven 2012 starts. Brandon Moore, 32, is limited to right guard but is still blocking at a high level. Louis Vasquez, 25, is well regarded around the NFL and after Levitre may be the likeliest guard to receive a lucrative, long-term deal. Lance Louis, 27, Geoff Schwartz, 26, and Chad Rinehart, 27, are young guards with potential.
Jerome Felton, 26 brings little to the table as a ball carrier or receiver, but he was the NFL's premier lead blocker in 2012 and deserved first-team All-Pro recognition over Baltimore's Vonta Leach. Fullbacks historically have short shelf lives and ought to max out their market whenever possible. If Felton and his agent are smart, they will prioritize testing free agency unless the Vikings blow their socks off with a contract offer before March 12.
Greg Jones, 31, is the only other fullback who might generate serious free-agent interest. Jones is getting up there in age, but he's still a pile-driving run blocker and also excels in blitz pickup.
13. Inside Linebacker
I haven't studied up much yet on this year's draft-eligible inside linebacker class. But if it isn't stocked with talent, your team is in trouble if it needs a starter inside. Rey Maualuga, 26, is a poor starter and he's among the best free agency can offer. Brian Urlacher's 34-year-old knees are shot. Tim Dobbins, 30, is a major liability in coverage. Dannell Ellerbe, 27, is a candidate to get overpaid on the heels of his team's Super Bowl win.
Perhaps the one free agent inside linebacker worth the longest look for needy teams is Brad Jones, a 26-year-old converted pass rusher who more than adequately replaced D.J. Smith for the Packers in 2012. Jones started ten games and outplayed A.J. Hawk. Teams still figure to be wary of Jones because his experience inside is so limited.
There isn't a free-agent center who'll be viewed as a surefire starter. Todd McClure, 36, Brad Meester, 35, and Dan Koppen, 33, are all nearing retirement. And they're the best there is in this year's center class.
With Flacco a virtual lock to return to Baltimore, quarterback is another position that lacks a single bankable starter. Matt Moore, 28, comes the closest after losing the Dolphins' starting job to Ryan Tannehill last summer. Moore will probably wind up in a camp battle on a quarterback-desperate team like the Jets, Cardinals, Jaguars, or Bills.
Tarvaris Jackson, 29, Jason Campbell, 31, Josh Johnson, 26, Byron Leftwich, 33, Brady Quinn, 28, and Rex Grossman, 32, are all low-end NFL backups. Chase Daniel, 26, and Brian Hoyer, 27, have major arm strength limitations. David Garrard, 34, never did latch on with a team in 2012 and it's unclear if he envisions football in his future. Vince Young, 29, may be done in the league.