The 2012 NFL free agency period will be starting on Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. ET. The moment the clock strikes 4 p.m., players without a contract will be eligible to talk with and sign with any team. The NFL draft is the best way to build your team, but sometimes those players need to develop and you don't get an instant impact. Free agency allows you to bring in veteran players who have proven themselves in the league.
Some teams will go crazy in free agency, but as the 2011 Eagles learned, you don't really win anything for winning the offseason. Other teams, like the Packers and Steelers, will largely avoid free agency and keep their attention focused on the NFL draft.
There are plenty of questions as we enter the 2012 NFL free agency period. Who are the hot commodities on the market? Which teams have the most money to spend? Which teams are in salary cap hell? We break down those questions in our free agency preview.
The big money will be flowing early
It happens every year. The clock strikes midnight, signaling the start of free agency and big money deals are done within hours of the start of free agency. Generally, agents have a good idea of the market surrounding their players because they've been talking to teams for a few weeks now to gauge the market. Technically, that's tampering, but everyone does it so the league generally looks the other way. So, many of these big deals will be done quickly.
Free agency starts at 4 p.m. ET this year, so by 7 p.m. or so I wouldn't be surprised to see several huge contracts rolling in. Teams get desperate at the start of free agency, thinking they won't get their guy, so that's usually when players are overpaid.
Who's going to strike it rich this year?
Mario Williams, for one. The former No. 1 overall pick is coming off a season in which injury limited him to just five games, but he looked terrific with five sacks in those five games. Williams is going to be paid in a major way and deservedly so. Julius Peppers' contract with the Bears maxed out at $91.5 million. Williams could hit triple digits wherever he signs.
Another player getting rich this week will be Matt Flynn, the Green Bay Packers backup quarterback. To give an example of how desperate this league is for quarterbacks, consider Flynn. He has started two career games -- and looked pretty darn good in both of them -- and he's probably going to sign a new contract that will pay him $10 million per year on average. He's probably looking at a deal similar to the one Kevin Kolb got, around $60 million for six years. Sam Bradford got $50+ million without even playing a game as the No. 1 pick. At least Flynn has played in two games.
Which teams have the most money to spend?
The Bengals are in great shape and lead the way with $49.9 million to spend. They'll be trying to bring back a number of their own guys, as well. The Broncos have just over $44 million available, which means they have the space to sign Peyton Manning (and his friends) if need be. The Bucs are next with $42.7 million in available cap space, and it has been reported they plan to be aggressive. The Jaguars have just over $40 million in cap space, and the Chiefs have the fifth most space with $32.5 million.
Who is in the most cap trouble?
The Cardinals, as of last Sunday, were $16.4 million over the cap. They'll release a number of players to create more cap space. One of those guys will be OT Levi Brown, whose release will clear over $14 million off the books. They might have to clear space for a certain quarterback.
The Lions, Raiders, Panthers, Texans and Giants are all over the salary cap, as of last check. The Raiders, in particular, are in some trouble as they've already had to release a few good players, like Stanford Routt, Chris Johnson and Kevin Boss in cost-cutting moves. More will likely be coming, including Kamerion Wimbley. You could field a decent team in 2012 with all the free agents the Raiders will have to let go.
High spending teams won't be spending as much as we thought
The Redskins and Cowboys have traditionally been two of the higher spending teams in free agency, but that probably won't be happening this year. Each team was hit with the loss of salary cap space due to the way they structured their contracts in the uncapped season. This means the Cowboys, who had just under $5 million to spend, will lose $10 million in cap space in the next two seasons. The Redskins got the worst end of it -- they'll lose $36 million in cap space over the next two seasons.
The Redskins had over $30 million in cap space to begin with this year, so while this will absolutely hurt them, they still have the space to make some moves. Unfortunately, this may take them out of the running for one of the top receivers, like Vincent Jackson.
Offensive tackle, cornerback markets are weak
Looking for a good offensive tackle in free agency? I think the NFL draft would be a better bet. This year's crop of offensive tackle free agents isn't very good. Jared Gaither is near the top of the list, and he was cut by the Chiefs in the middle of last season. Levi Brown hasn't been great as the Cards former No. 5 overall pick, but he'll draw some interest in a weak class. Eric Winston, the Texans surprise cut on Monday night, will also draw interest. In all, though, the offensive tackle class isn't very good this year.
Same goes for the cornerback market. It's fairly weak due to a few players getting the franchise tag. Brandon Carr and Cortland Finnegan are two of the top players at their position, and they should draw some heavy interest from teams looking for cornerbacks.
A few starting quarterbacks on the market
It's unusual to see good quarterbacks hit the market. It's a premium position, so teams tend to hang onto their quarterbacks. This year, though, we'll see at least two future starting quarterbacks on the market, if not more.
The first one is obvious: Peyton Manning. The Colts cut him two weeks ago, and he's been taking his free agent visits. Someone is going to instantly become a Super Bowl contender when he signs.
Flynn, the Packers quarterback, will also find a starting job someplace. There's usually a guy like him every couple of years -- the backup quarterback with potential that hits free agency. He falls into the category of Kevin Kolb and Matt Cassel.
And then there are a group of other low-end starters/high-end backups that will be available, like Kyle Orton and Jason Campbell. Either of those guys could end up being a starter next season.