The Scouting Combine is all the rage right now, but it's just a steppingstone toward the late-April NFL draft. While forty times and vertical leaps are great fun, an NFL steppingstone that will impact draft results to a much greater extent than the Underwear Olympics is free agency. And it kicks off in just two weeks.
Here is my ranking of this year's top-50 NFL Free Agents, with guesses on where each player will land, and for roughly how much.
1. Quarterback Joe Flacco -- The Ravens want it. Flacco wants it. And the amount of money is no longer a topic of debate. Flacco will average $20 million on his forthcoming extension, leaving only length and structure to be negotiated. A tag will be wielded if it comes to that, but look for Ozzie Newsome to wrap this thing up within the week, allowing the Ravens' offseason to move forward.
Free Agent Forecast: Ravens on a seven-year, $140 million contract.
2. Left tackle Ryan Clady -- VP of Football Operations John Elway has made it clear Clady isn't going anywhere. He'll be slapped with the franchise tag, and the Broncos will explore something more long term when Clady proves he's fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgery.
Free Agent Forecast: Broncos via the franchise tag.
3. Defensive end Cliff Avril -- Avril projects to break the bank in free agency because he's the top natural pass rusher available, just about to turn 27, and offers scheme versatility. He'll appeal to 4-3 and 3-4 clubs alike. With 39.5 sacks, 13 pass breakups, and 16 forced fumbles over the past five seasons, Avril disrupts offenses in a variety of ways. Indy is flush with salary cap space, and Avril's versatility-athleticism combo would be put to great use in Chuck Pagano's hybrid defense.
Free Agent Forecast: Colts on a five-year, $64 million contract.
4. Cornerback Aqib Talib -- The Patriots are rolling the dice a bit with Talib, but they could emerge looking awfully smart. They'll let him hit the market, gambling that corner-needy teams will instead focus on players with cleaner off-field histories at free agency's deepest position. Expect Talib to be disappointed with offers elsewhere and ultimately re-up in Foxboro at a team-friendly rate.
Free Agent Forecast: Patriots on a four-year, $30 million contract.
5. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger -- Kruger's free agency buzz was red hot just ahead of and following Super Bowl 47, but it's come back to Earth the past few weeks. While Kruger is a good player and will command a pretty penny, he's a complementary as opposed to franchise pass rusher. He's Brian Robison, and he's going to get paid like Jared Allen. In Cleveland, Kruger could still complete a formidable rush 'backer duo with Jabaal Sheard in Ray Horton's new 3-4 defense.
Free Agent Forecast: Browns on a five-year, $60 million contract.
6. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe -- All signs out of Indianapolis point to Bowe getting a second straight franchise tag. Teams such as the Bills and Vikings would love to get their hands on a receiver like Bowe, but it's not happening. Look for the Chiefs to let Branden Albert walk, tag Bowe, and target a long-term extension worth roughly $11 million annually down the road. Alex Smith is going to be Kansas City’s quarterback, and an offensive tackle figures to be the No. 1 pick.
Free Agent Forecast: Chiefs via the franchise tag.
7. Wide receiver Mike Wallace -- Both the Miami Herald and South Florida Sun-Sentinel have reported that Wallace tops GM Jeff Ireland's free-agent wish list. "60 Minutes" would give Ryan Tannehill a playmaker on the perimeter capable of both catching bombs and attracting frequent double coverage. Signing Wallace could open up Miami's offense underneath.
Free Agent Forecast: Dolphins on a four-year, $50 million contract.
8. Safety Jairus Byrd -- Adept in center-field coverage and a hawk on the ball, Byrd has developed into perhaps the premier free safety in football, forcing 28 turnovers through four NFL seasons. The Bills could use the franchise tag as a steppingstone in long-term contract talks. Soon, Byrd will join Eric Berry, Troy Polamalu, and Eric Weddle as one of the NFL's highest paid safeties.
Free Agent Forecast: Bills via the franchise tag.
9. Defensive tackle Henry Melton -- The surest way to torpedo an opposing passing game is to attack it with interior pressure. Melton does that like a rolling ball of butcher knives from his three-technique tackle position, registering 13 sacks over the past two seasons and getting better every year. The 2013 franchise number for interior defensive linemen costs a reasonable $8.306 million.
Free Agent Forecast: Bears via the franchise tag.
10. Safety Dashon Goldson -- If Byrd is the top ballhawk in the game, Goldson might be the premier pure cover safety. Toward the end of the season, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio cost the Niners some leverage by publicly acknowledging Goldson was "right up there" with Ed Reed. Goldson wanted Eric Weddle money last offseason. He may get more after a career-best year.
Free Agent Forecast: 49ers on a five-year, $42 million contract.
11. Outside linebacker Anthony Spencer -- Sporting the Cowboys' franchise tag in 2012, Spencer delivered career bests in tackles (95) and sacks (11). Despite changing its defensive alignment from 3-4 to 4-3, Dallas has made no bones about wanting Spencer back. They could clear enough space to make it happen by signing Tony Romo to an extension, which they already plan to do.
Free Agent Forecast: Cowboys on a four-year, $44 million contract.
12. Tight end Tony Gonzalez -- Gonzalez seemed dead set on retirement late in the 2012 season, but ESPN's Ed Werder has since reported the future Hall of Famer is "wavering" and may return for one more Super Bowl run. Although he is 37 years old, Gonzo has plenty of good football left, coming off a 93-reception season. Expect the allure of a championship to bring Gonzalez back.
Free Agent Forecast: Falcons on a one-year, $7 million contract.
13. Defensive tackle Desmond Bryant -- Flying under the radar only because he played on a bad team, Bryant has highly impressive game tape and possesses scheme versatility at 6-foot-6, 300. With nine sacks, two forced fumbles, and productive starts at both tackle and end the past two seasons, 27-year-old Bryant was this year's sleeper for a white-hot market before last week's arrest. Pete Carroll's forgiving Seahawks aren't afraid to take chances on players, and they were looking for an interior pass rusher like this when they signed Jason Jones last spring.
Free Agent Forecast: Seahawks on a five-year, $25 million contract.
14. Left tackle Branden Albert -- At the Scouting Combine, coach Andy Reid greased the skids for Albert's departure by calling a 2012 back issue that only cost him three games "a fairly significant injury." Significant or not, the comments were telling. Bears GM Phil Emery's team is needy at tackle, and Albert was drafted by the Chiefs in Emery’s first year as Kansas City's college scouting director.
Free Agent Forecast: Bears on a five-year, $37 million contract.
15. Offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer -- Primarily a right tackle in New England, 28-year-old Vollmer's value is enhanced by his capability of adequately protecting the blind side. Lean and athletic at 6-foot-8, 315, Vollmer would be coveted on the market even after arthroscopic knee surgery. The Pats are unlikely to let him get there, prioritizing Vollmer over Talib and Wes Welker.
Free Agent Forecast: Patriots on a five-year, $36 million contract.
16. Defensive end Michael Johnson -- In a breakout contract year, Johnson amassed 11.5 sacks -- the same amount he totaled across his first three seasons in the league. The fact that Johnson was an underachiever before 2012 suggests the Bengals would be savvy to keep him in another contract year. They could do so with the franchise tag, worth $10.98 million at defensive end.
Free Agent Forecast: Bengals via the franchise tag.
17. Wide receiver Wes Welker -- Although they eventually leaned on him due to Aaron Hernandez and Julian Edelman's injuries, the Pats opened last season essentially phasing Welker out of their offense. It's probably a sign of things to come. Welker is 32 and not under consideration for New England's franchise tag. The Patriots simply don't value him as highly as it seems like they should.
Free Agent Forecast: Bears on a three-year, $27 million contract.
18. Running back Steven Jackson -- Jackson will void his $7 million player option for 2013, but the Rams still view him as a key component in their offense. The expectation here is that S-Jax signs a deal to finish his career in St. Louis. If he doesn't, the Falcons, Packers, Steelers, and Broncos would be sensible suitors. Jackson would surely look at playoff-contending teams first.
Free Agent Forecast: Rams on a three-year, $17.5 million contract.
19. Cornerback Sean Smith -- The Miami Herald is South Florida's most plugged-in paper and vehemently insists Smith won't be franchise tagged. Look for Smith to hit the market targeting $8 million per year. In Jacksonville, new coach Gus Bradley is in pursuit of big, physical corners.
Free Agent Forecast: Jaguars on a four-year, $32 million contract.
20. Right tackle Andre Smith -- Smith would be an interesting case in free agency. He has a worrisome history of weight issues, but played like the best right tackle in football last season. While the Bengals don't always pony up for free agents, they realize Smith is critical in their offense. They may let him reach the market initially, then re-sign him if bidding is lukewarm.
Free Agent Forecast: Bengals on a six-year, $39 million contract.