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Friday, 1 March 2013

Free Agent Files: 5 of the Best

With the combine done and dusted and the deadline for franchise tags approaching it's time to open up our off-season work with a look at some of the best and most intriguing names that could be on the open market when free agency opens up later this month.

As the title suggests I'm going to be looking at 5 players who could be in line for big pay days and leave big holes should they decide to head off to pastures new. Starting with the biggest of them all...

Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens

Flacco is easily the most interesting player of this year's free agency. During the regular season it was difficult to see any other outcome than Flacco playing the 2013 season under the franchise tag. Despite his pre-season declaration that he was "elite" (which has fast become the most debated term in football) his regular season play was underwhelming. The break out that many pundits forecast never came as once again the Ravens offense was stale and predictable, and while he continued to prove calm under late-game pressure, he wasn't setting the world on fire with his performances. He didn't complete more than 60% of his passes for the 2nd year running, and while the interceptions were limited once again, so were the touchdowns and yardage.

But then the playoffs came around, and Flacco suddenly turned into a world beater (with some help from an improved O-Line and a rejuvenated Anquan Boldin). It was one of the best post-seasons from a Quarterback ever and has now thrown up the idea of a contract similar in size to the 5 year, $100 million contract Drew Brees signed last summer.

Normally such a contract for the reigning Super Bowl MVP who plays the most important position and is just 28 would seem like a good deal, but Flacco has yet to show he can shoulder the Ravens offense on his own and carry them through a regular season. And on a team that is already hard pushed for cap space such contract demands could seriously hamper the Ravens efforts to resign other key pieces of their Super Bowl winning side such as Darnell Ellerbe, Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Anquan Boldin.

It would be foolish for the Ravens to allow Flacco to test the open market given the lack of options QB-needy teams have in the draft this season. I expect the Ravens will use their exclusive tag on him to prevent other teams butting into their negotiations and try to get a long term deal done. But this contract could end up hurting the Ravens roster elsewhere.

Sebastian Vollmer, RT, New England Patriots

Since joining the New England Patriots Sebastian Vollmer has excelled at both left and right tackle, but has played the last few years on the right side and become one of the best in the league there. One of the issues with Vollmer though is his ability to stay on the field. A plethora of ailments have cost him 12 games in the last 2 years alone. None of his injuries by themselves are worrying. There's been no ruptured ACL or torn tricep but the amount of time he's spent on the trainers table rather than on the field, as well as being labelled a Right Tackle, will limit his earning potential in his up coming negotiations.

Having watched every game he's played since being drafted by New England I'm convinced he could move over to left tackle without much of an issue. His pass protection is fantastic, it's because he is also a great run blocker that he stayed on the right side of New England's line after Matt Light's retirement.

His departure would leave a big hole in New England's line which lacks quality depth at tackle. I think the Patriots are likely to use the franchise tag on him and play hardball all spring and summer. They've proven able to fill holes in their line expertly before thanks to the great work of long time line coach Dante Scarnecchia, but losing someone of Vollmer's quality on the edge, when you have to protect a statue like Tom Brady, is not an ideal situation.

With Wes Welker hitting free agency again and Aqib Talib able to hit the free market the Patriots have a lot of options for where to use their franchise tag. However the extension Brady recently signed opens up a lot of cap space, making it more likely that 2 of their 3 big name free agents could remain in Foxboro.

A key reason I think Vollmer will get the franchise tag is the dearth of quality tackles available this off-season after Taylor Lewan and Jake Matthews decided to stay in school. There will be plenty of suitors for Vollmer's services, from San Diego and Arizona out west to Chicago and Philadelphia. Given Talib's injury and character issues it's Vollmer, of all the available Pats, who should be first in line for a big payday.

Jairus Byrd, S, Buffalo Bills

You might not realise it because really, who watches Buffalo? But Jairus Byrd has become on of the best safeties in the NFL, and he's really the only star the Bills possess in the back 7 of their defense. The problem the Bills have in trying to keep him is that the huge contract handed out to Mario Williams, along with money tied up in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus meant the Bills spent $61.3 million last season on a defense that was shambolic.

That's a huge amount of money already invested in defense, and if Byrd's presence, at just $1 million in 2012, couldn't prevent them finishing 26th in points allowed how does signing him to something similar to Eric Weddle's 5 year, $40 million contract (signed in 2011) help?

Another key consideration in Byrd's case is where else the Bills might spend their money. Guard Andy Levitre is also a free agent, but with the franchise tag cost of an offensive linemen $3 million more than a safety it would make more sense to tag Byrd and negotiate a deal with Levitre which wouldn't be nearly as expensive as a new deal for Byrd.

If Byrd is allowed to dip his toes into the free market however, there are plenty of teams with iffy secondaries who would welcome him with open arms, not to mention all 3 of Buffalo's divisional rivals which could use an upgrade at the safety position. 

Brian Urlacher, MLB, Chicago Bears 

Chiacgo loves it's defense, and no one has defined that better in the last 13 years than Brian Urlacher. The middle linebacker is a nailed on hall of famer, but he will be 35 when the 2013 season starts and has suffered a lot of major injuries recently. He spent the entire 2012 season nursing a PCL injury, an arthritic back and several other ailments which slowed his play visibly. Urlacher struggled to get to the edges on plays, and even more so moving around in coverage.

It seems assured that his time in Chicago is done and that both parties have accepted that, but Urlacher still believes he can play at a high level. The issue is that veteran 4-3 middle linebackers have struggled to find work once they hit the free agent market. Stephen Tulloch was unattached for a long time, Lofa Tatupu spent a year out of the game after failing to get any suitors when he left Seattle and both were younger than Urlacher, albeit not as talented.

If Urlacher can have a good off-season of recuperation and recover some of his old speed that made him so good in the tampa-2 system of Lovie Smith then he'll be an excellent acquisition for almost any team, but whether a team will be willing to give Urlacher the years and dollars he might be after, especially given the fact that 4-3 middle linebacker tends to be more of a cost-saving position, is a big question.

As for the Bears, Urlacher's absence will leave a massive hole in their defense and put pressure on Lance Briggs to take over as the general in the middle of the field. If they can't replace Urlacher's presence then we may have seen the end of the Bears as a defensive force for now.

Mike Wallace, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Last off-season Mike Wallace wanted the world from Pittsburgh, and held out to try and get it. But the Steelers wouldn't budge and Wallace was back for week 1 in Denver.

The 2012 season wasn't the advert Wallace wanted it to be. Just 836 yards on 64 catches, a paltry 13.1 yards a catch that was by far the lowest of his career and nothing close to what all those teams watching him would want from a deep threat wide receiver. There are reasons of course, once more Ben Roethlisberger was injured for parts of the season, the terrible offensive line gave very little chance for Wallace to fly past the coverage before whoever was under centre was in trouble.

But even taking all that into consideration it was a terrible season for Wallace, with more drops than are good for an impending free agent wide receiver. The bad 2012 season will end up costing him millions on his free agent contract, but at 26 there are still peak years where a team could use his elite speed. You look at a team like Miami who are thin at receiver and have a GM who needs to start getting wins and quickly or San Diego who have struggled to produce on offense without a deep threat receiver. There are plenty of other places that Wallace to end up as well, and with Pittsburgh's cap issues it's very unlikely that he'll stay in the Steel City.


The deadline for teams to place franchise tags on their players is March 4, so we'll have a clear picture of the free agent class shortly, and will be back again to suggest who could be going where. With names like Jake Long, Greg Jennings and Dwayne Bowe likely to be available as well as a good crop of veterans this will be a very active and interesting off-season.

- Toby Durant (@TDonSport)
- The Pulling Linemen

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