GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 1: Matt Flynn #10 of the Green Bay Packers drops back during a preseason game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field on September 1, 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Boehm/Getty Images)
The season over, NFL teams can start planning for the 2012 season. Free agency begins on March 13. Which free agents will see the biggest demand for their services this spring?
Sure, the games are all over now, but the NFL is not simply going to move aside for MLB spring training and whatever other activities that might get you out underneath the spring sunshine. April's NFL Draft has quickly become the offseason's premier event, the last big hurrah before they send fans away until late July.
Just as exciting, albeit more random, is the league's offseason matinee: free agency.
Readers familiar with my weekly mock drafts know my standard line about making predictions. Taking a look into the future is even tougher with free agents. Rumors and obfuscation abounds, as teams and agents bring the media into the negotiating game.
Free agent classes also get winnowed down as teams start applying the franchise tag and re-signing their own players. One look at this year's list of free agents reveals that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees is ticketed for unrestricted free agency. But he won't get that far. The Saints will either franchise him or get a deal done before it comes to that. Ditto the Ravens and Ray Rice. Wes Welker isn't going anywhere either. For that reason, this particular list of free agents does not include those players, even though they would stand apart from their fellow free agents.
Also not included on this list are the players who will be free agents when their teams cuts them. Peyton Manning is the most obvious example. The free agent lists here will be updated as that happens. Free agency starts on March 13. Teams can negotiate with their own free agents prior to that.
The top free agents on the market include...
1. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers
Flynn is kind of like this year's Kevin Kolb, except an unrestricted free agent. Flynn's 470-yard performance in Week 17 did nothing to change the perception that he's ready for his own NFL team, something he isn't going to get backing up incumbent league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Flynn would work best in an offense already possessing a few skill players and a decent offensive line. With former Packers OC Joe Philbin now the head coach in Miami, the Dolphins are the early favorites.
Possible destinations: Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns.
2. Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans
Williams was supposed to struggle when Wade Phillips moved him to outside linebacker. He did not. In five starts before a torn pectoral muscle put him on IR, Williams had five sacks. The Texans can't really afford to keep him, and their defense was still top notch without him in 2011. He'll be prized by teams running a 4-3 defense. Buffalo is making the switch to a 4-3 in 2012, they have cap space and struggled to get to opposing quarterbacks last year.
3. Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
It's hard to see the Chiefs letting Carr slip away, unless they heard something on one of those supposedly bugged phone calls. He'll be 26 when the season starts and was one of the league's best corners last year. Even without Carr on the market, this free agent class will likely have to other top corners in Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan.
4. Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans Saints
Re-signing Drew Brees is going to prevent the Saints from keeping all their pending free agents, including Nicks and Marques Colston. Lately teams have spent big for guards in free agency, and Nicks will be worth every penny of whatever gargantuan deal he receives.
5. Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers
Right now, it sounds as though San Diego will forego giving Jackson the franchise tag a second season in a row. They are open to a deal, but have many needs to fill. Jackson's been trying to get out of San Diego for two seasons. Plenty of teams will be wooing him in March.
6. Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City cannot afford to let Bowe get away, so he could get the franchise tag. However, the Chiefs will also have to spend some money on Brandon Carr and plug holes on their offensive line. For a similar price, it makes more sense to apply the tag to Bowe than Carr.
7. Paul Soliai, DT, Miami Dolphins
Nose tackles are always in demand with so many team using the 3-4 defense. Outside of Dontari Poe, the 2012 NFL Draft is short of ready-made starters at the position, making it a good market for Soliai. Miami franchised him last season, but not be able to hang on this year as they look for pass rushing help and try to sign a quarterback.
Possible destinations: Houston Texans, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers
8. Robert Mathis, DE, Indianapolis Colts
The Colts would be foolish to let Mathis slip away, but new regimes mean older, pricier free agents often hit the street as they rebuild. Teams wanting a pass rusher will barely notice that Mathis is 31 after looking at his 9.5 sacks in 2011.
Possible destinations: Indianapolis Colts, Chicago Bears, New Orleans Saints, Seattle Seahawks
9. David Hawthorne, LB, Seattle Seahawks
If Curtis Lofton or D'Qwell Jackson are allowed to hit the market, both would rank higher than Hawthorne, by a tick or two. Neither Lofton or Jackson are likely to make it that far. The Seahawks, however, sound as though they might look for faster and cheaper options. Hawthorne would appeal to either base defense given his ability as a run stopper. Philadelphia would be a perfect match.
Possible destinations: Arizona Cardinals, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers
10. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers
He looks like a candidate for the franchise tag, but with 14 drops last season, the Packers might be able to find a replacement in the first two rounds of the draft at a much cheaper rate. If he doesn't get the tag, Finley could make oodles on the open market. Denver could really use a weapon at tight end since they seem committed to Tim Tebow in 2012.
Possible destinations: Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos, New York Giants