1. Cliff Avril, Defensive End, Detroit Lions: Mario Williams signed a $100 million deal the first day of free agency a year ago. Avril won’t see close to those numbers, but I do think he’ll be the most sought after defensive free agent. Just 27, Avril rolled the dice Flacco-style by turning down a contract extension from Detroit last season. He didn’t win a Super Bowl, but he did rack up 9.5 sacks and has had eight or more sacks in each of the past three years. Young, accomplished pass rushers are hard to come by. Avril’s the brightest in this year’s free agent crop.
2. Victor Cruz, Wide Receiver, New York Giants (RFA): Cruz is a restricted free agent, which means the Giants not only get the option to match whichever team offers him a contract, but they’d receive that team’s first- or second-round pick, as well. Dynamic, 26, and a superstar both on and off the field, he’ll energize an offense and come ready to work. The Giants are in a bit of a pickle with their receivers. They love both Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, but both are set to be unrestricted free agents in 2014. They might not be able to keep both. If a team comes out swinging and offers the 2012 Pro Bowler a big deal, the Giants might not match it.
3. Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver, Pittsburgh Steelers: Wallace is the premier deep threat in the NFL. A bolt of lightning, he was misused in Todd Haley’s offense a season ago. Wallace got off to a slow start after a contract dispute and never found his footing, but still showed flashes of the brilliance he displayed during his time in Pittsburgh. The vertical passing game is as necessary now as it’s ever been. Wallace can change a game with one play. I know I’m probably a lot higher on this guy than most (including the Steelers brass), but I think he’s an elite wide receiver in an era when the deep passing game is as important as ever.
4. Michael Bennett, Defensive End, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Bennett had a strong 2012, but with Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers the preferred parties in Tampa Bay, the Bucs opted not to place the franchise tag on the 27-year-old pass rusher. Undrafted out of Texas A&M, Bennett played both inside and end with Tampa, filling in admirably for Gerald McCoy when he was out a few years back. The Buccaneers didn’t want to pay him top-five money. Understandable. He’ll be a nice addition somewhere next week.
5. Sebastian Vollmer, Offensive Tackle, New England Patriots: Shocked to see Vollmer up here, above Jake Long and Andre Smith on the list? Don’t be. The 28-year-old former second-team All-Pro is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. When healthy — and he should be back for 2013 — he’s a dominant, 6-8, 320-pound offensive tackle. Capable and reliable tackles of that size don’t grow on trees. Vollmer’s a great signing if the Patriots don’t pay up to keep him on the payroll.
6. Andre Smith, Offensive Tackle, Cincinnati Bengals: The 26-year-old former first-round pick finally put it all together in 2012. He was excellent, starting every game and becoming the anchor of a strong Bengals offensive line. Cincinnati was finally seeing dividends on its investment in Smith and now he’s a free agent. If you trust he can keep his head straight and keep his weight in order, he’s worth the money.
7. Aqib Talib, Cornerback, New England Patriots: Too high for a guy who can’t seem to stay on the field for a full 16-game slate? Talib showed just how good he can be in the Patriots' AFC Divisional Round victory against the Houston Texans. In a departure from their usual approach to covering receivers by "Left Cornerback, Right Cornerback," Bill Belichick had Talib shadow Andre Johnson. Talib showed he can be that kind of player. He has had his injuries (including the hammy that sidelined him during the AFC Championship Game) and he has had his issues off the field. He could be a ticking time bomb. He could also be your No. 1 corner. I’d roll the dice on him, opting for the latter. And guess what: He’s still only 27 years-old.
8. Glover Quin, Safety, Houston Texans: I’m a big fan of “GQ” and think he was the very best player in a star-studded Texans defensive backfield a season ago. Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson may get more buzz, but Quin had a Pro Bowl-caliber season at free safety. Strapped for cap space, the Texans opted to roll the dice and not place the franchise tag on Quin — a guy they like a lot. They’re hoping they can lock him up long-term for less than the $6.9 million a year he would have gotten if franchised. I’m not so sure about that.
9. Jared Cook, Tight End/Wide Receiver, Tennessee Titans: I’m all in on Cook, even if the Titans aren’t. After a long debate over whether he was a tight end or wide receiver and what he should be listed under per the franchise tag, Cook hits the free agent market as one of the more intriguing talents in the league. He’s built like a tight end, he’s used as a wide receiver, and he can both play a role in the underneath and deep game. Cook, who had 523 receiving yards last year and 759 in 2011, could be even better if he has a consistent quarterback throwing him the ball.
10. Sean Smith, Cornerback, Miami Dolphins: I’ve been a fan of Smith’s since he was coming out of Utah. A tall, rangy corner who’s defied those who immediately assumed he’d be best suited to play safety, he has been a quality corner for the Dolphins since the day he was drafted. He’s big enough to cover the Calvin Johnsons and Larry Fitzgeralds of the league and fast enough to keep up with some of the slot receivers. He’s going to get offers from multiple teams and the final price tag may surprise some. I’m a fan.
11. Jake Long, Offensive Tackle, Miami Dolphins: Though the Dolphins opted to put the franchise tag on Randy Starks instead of Long, don’t be fooled — there will be a big free agent marketplace for the former first overall pick. He’s coming back from an injury that may scare some away, but he’s still got some very good tape from 2012. When healthy, he’s still as good as there is out there. Remember, he’s still just 27.
12. William Moore, Safety, Atlanta Falcons: The four-year veteran has only 23 starts, but is a difference maker. In an age when a roaming safety who can both deliver the big hit and intercept a pass is valued and viewed as a priority, Moore is still just 27-years-old. Atlanta GM Thomas Dimitroff is losing a player on the rise if the Falcons can’t bring him back.
13. Brent Grimes, Cornerback, Atlanta Falcons: Grimes may not get as much media attention as his 2012 defensive backfield teammates William Moore and Dunta Robinson this month, but he could still end up being the most sought-after of the three with his next deal. A torn Achilles tendon suffered in Week 1 cost the 29-year-old cornerback his 2012 season. A six-year veteran, teams may be cautious of the injury and the age. In the short-term, if healthy—a big if—he could be the big get of the free agent period. A capable starter, a contender could plug him in right away and get a veteran presence.
14. Wes Welker, Wide Receiver, New England Patriots: I’m still high on Welker, too. Yes, he’s 32-years-old. Sure, he’s had some injuries in recent years. And I know it’s considered a given he’ll re-sign with the Patriots. But I look at the production, the numbers, and just how unique a guy he is. And I think a few teams would pay a pretty penny to have him in their slot. Welker is the very best at a position where all of his many “clones” — the Julian Edelmans and Danny Amendolas — seem to get injured or can’t stay on the field. He does it year in and year out and there’s been no sign of a demise. Tom Brady may be Welker’s biggest fan — regardless of what Brady's wife said after Super Bowl XLVI.
15. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback, Philadelphia Eagles: One of the many pieces that were brought in to make up the 2011 “Dream Team” Eagles, “DRC” has played below expectations in both of the last two seasons. The talent is there; the production simply wasn’t. Still viewed as a guy who can be a No. 2 or 3 corner, and still just 26 — Rodgers-Cromartie may get an awfully nice pay day.
16. Dennis Pitta, Tight End, Baltimore Ravens (RFA): Pitta’s coming off of his biggest year as a pro and is now a bona fide top 10 tight end. All indications are that the Ravens will re-sign him, but he could be a tempting option on the open market. He caught 61 passes in the regular season and had 14 receptions and 3 touchdowns in the postseason. Flacco’s best friend on the team, consider him all but sealed for a return to the Ravens.
17. Phillip Wheeler, Linebacker, Oakland Raiders: I’m higher on Wheeler than I am on either of the Ravens front-seven free agents — Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe. Still only 28, he’s got four years under his belt and is coming into his own. He put up career highs in sacks, tackles, tackles for loss and passes defended in 2013. He can get to the quarterback and defend the pass. Fast, too, there aren’t too many of those guys around.
18. Dashon Goldson, Safety, San Francisco 49ers: Goldson’s one of the most feared free safeties in the league. He and Donte Whitner are as imposing a 1-2 duo as any in the NFL. Is Whitner as effective without Goldson alongside of him? Is that D the same without Goldson playing the center field position? We may see. I’m a buyer on Goldson, still just 28.
19. Phil Loadholt, Offensive Tackle, Minnesota Vikings: Adrian Peterson deservedly got all the headlines and media spotlight during his 2,097 yard 2012 season, but the Vikings offensive line had a wonderful campaign, as well. Matt Kalil was everything Minnesota hoped he would have been when they selected him with the fourth overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Loadholt, a former second round pick in 2009, was excellent on the right side. Consistent, he’s started all 63 of the 63 games he’s played in, and at 345 pounds, is a road paver in the run game. Loadholt may not be as dazzling a name as Andre Smith or Jake Long, but he can make an offense better — both in the running and passing games. Just ask Adrian Peterson.
20. Greg Jennings, Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers: Jennings is already 29-years-old and there are questions as whether or not he’d be the same player with someone else other than Aaron Rodgers throwing him the ball. I believe he’s still a starting No. 1 or 2 in the NFL. Injuries have been an issue over the past two years, but shouldn’t deter a playoff contender looking for that reliable first or second wideout — say a Houston or a St. Louis — from giving their franchise quarterbacks a go-to guy. He’s still effective deep and underneath. I’m not “selling” Greg Jennings’ stock just yet.
21. Tony Gonzalez, Tight End, Atlanta Falcons: Tony’s likely not going anywhere other than Atlanta or his couch, but he is a free agent. He had arguably the best year of his career in 2012, catching 93 balls for 908 yards and scoring 8 touchdowns. A win away from the Super Bowl, he advanced further in the playoffs than he ever had before. The Falcons want him back and he’s deciding whether or not to return for a 17th season. I wonder if a team blew Atlanta out of the water with an offer if he’d give it consideration.
22. Andy Levitre, Offensive Guard, Buffalo Bills: I was a bit surprised the Bills used their franchise tag on safety Jairus Byrd over Levitre last week. Not as big a name as some of his teammates, Levitre’s been the rock of the Buffalo Bills offensive line for quite some time. Levitre has started every game in his four-year career and has given up just 12 sacks in those four seasons. At 26 with no red flags, Buffalo’s losing a good guy to build its line around if he leaves for greener pastures.
23. Desmond Bryant, Defensive Tackle, Oakland Raiders: His recent arrest and mugshot that went viral won’t help his public image, but it won’t hurt his value on the market as much as you might think. A versatile defensive tackle who can get to the quarterback, the 27-year-old Harvard graduate started 10 games and recorded five sacks a season ago. A team investing in Bryant is getting him on the upswing, silly mugshot and all.
24. Dannell Ellerbe, Linebacker, Baltimore Ravens: I’m not certain Ellerbe was as productive as he was because he was in Baltimore or if he made Baltimore better because of his production in 2012. Chicken and egg. Either way, he’s going to get paid this offseason. It’s all about timing and when it mattered most, Ellerbe stepped up to the plate and actually outplayed Ray Lewis at middle linebacker in 2012. At 26, he’s the perfect age if you’re looking to invest.
25. Paul Kruger, Defensive End, Baltimore Ravens: I know, I know. This is too low for a guy who could end up getting $10 million a year from a team in pursuit of a young pass rusher. Kruger’s a great kid with an awesome story of perseverance and stepped up when his number was called, I’m just not sure he’s an elite pass rusher worth elite money. He’ll get it somewhere, but I’d rather have Bennett or Avril.
26. Steven Jackson, Running Back, St. Louis Rams:
27. Louis Delmas, Safety, Detroit Lions:
28. Keenan Lewis, Cornerback, Pittsburgh Steelers:
29. Delanie Walker, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers:
30. Martellus Bennett, Tight End, New York Giants:
31. Brian Hoyer, Quarterback, Arizona Cardinals (RFA):
32. Gosder Cherilus, Offensive Tackle, Detroit Lions:
33. Sammie Lee Hill, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions:
34. Adam Jones, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals:
35. Greg Toler, Cornerback, Arizona Cardinals:
36. Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts:
37. Bradley Fletcher, Cornerback, St. Louis Rams:
38. Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis Rams:
39. Ed Reed, Safety, Baltimore Ravens:
40. Brian Hartline, WR, Miami Dolphins:
41. Connor Barwin, Linebacker, Houston Texans:
42. Reggie Bush, Running Back, Miami Dolphins:
43. Brian Urlacher, Linebacker, Chicago Bears:
44. Ricky Jean-Francois, Defensive Tackle, San Francisco 49ers:
45. Ahmad Bradshaw, Running Back, New York Giants:
46. Daryl Smith, Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars:
47. Sam Baker, Offensive Tackle, Atlanta Falcons:
48. Cary Williams, Cornerback, Baltimore Ravens:
49. LaRon Landry, Safety, New York Jets:
50. Dustin Keller, Tight End, New York Jets:
The Next 25: Osi Umenyiora, John Abraham, Chris Houston, Dunta Robinson, Kenny Phillips, Jermon Bushrod, Matt Moore, Louis Vasquez, Antoine Cason, Glenn Dorsey, Terrance Knigthon, Dwan Edwards, Kyle Arrington, Donnie Avery, Leodis McKelvin, Josh Cribbs, Jason Jones, Roy Miller, Richard Seymour, Bart Scott, Brandon Myers, Sen’Derrick Marks, Cullen Jenkins, Emmanuel Sanders (RFA), Charles Woodson
for bio on 2nd 25.