It may already be week 17, but the NFL season is still far from over.
Even still, it’s never too early for teams to begin taking a look at the free agent pool for next year.
It’s obvious that one glaring hole on many depth charts is at the quarterback position, where many teams would give just about any amount of money to get a consistent performer at unarguably the most important position on the team.
Matt Cassel of the New England Patriots is the class of the free agent quarterback pool (assuming Andy Reid doesn’t finally cut ties with Donovan McNabb). Kerry Collins of the Tennessee Titans rounds out the group of talented free agent quarterbacks. A lot of teams are in the market for a highly consistent quarterback, which both Collins and Cassel have proven to be. The Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers (I don’t think the Packers are sold on Rodgers right now), San Francisco 49ers, and quite possibly the New York Jets should all be in the market for a franchise quarterback.
Siging Matt Cassel could be a perfect scenario for the Jets.
The Vikings could figure prominently into the quarterback equation; Tarvaris Jackson has been mostly ineffective so far, and Gus Frerotte isn’t getting any younger or healthier. Cassel’s scrambling tendencies may be slowed down in this system, though, since so many teams will be stacking the box for Adrian Peterson; Minnesota clearly lacks the offensive firepower to run the spread quite like New England. Thus, Collins might be the better fit at quarterback (albeit a temporary fix) due to his experience this past season in the run-first scheme of the Tennessee Titans.
Still, the Lions desperately need attention in so many key areas, and for a team that needs to re-build what better way than to start with your franchise quarterback, a guy you know has experience and can win games with his talent. Cassel would be the more likely fit in Detroit; since the Lions will be rebuilding so heavily, they need to build with youth.
A couple of names jump out at me from the wide receivers free agent list. In my opinion, Marques Colston of the Saints is the class of the group, though T.J. Houshmanzadeh of the Bengals might have something to say about that. The group is rounded out by Jabar Gaffney and Devery Henderson, both of whom have proven themselves to be stand-out backup receivers which a lot of teams are in the market for in running the spread offense.
Running backs Brandon Jacobs of the New York Giants and Steven Jackson of the St. Louis Rams are both in the last year of their contracts. I would expect both teams to re-sign their stud halfbacks, but if they don’t there are plenty of teams that could benefit from the bull-dozing running style both of these men bring.
The Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks, and Cleveland Browns have all had significant trouble running the ball all season long. Plug either of these two maulers into one of those teams and it’s an immediate upgrade. Brandon Jacobs would be a perfect fit for the straight-ahead running style of the Denver Broncos, and Steven Jackson would perform well when being thrown to by Matt Hasselbeck out of the backfield.
More than a few teams are probably in the market for a number one option at wide receiver such as Houshmanzadeh or Colston. The Raiders should be in the market for a big-time wide receiver since they lack a consistent and reliable target for Jamarcus Russell to throw to. The Jaguars should be in the market for a big-time wide receiver after seeing the horrible drops all season long. A team that might creep into the picture is the New York Giants. It’s no secret that the Giants have sorely missed the threat of Plaxico Burress downfield. They lack that potency at wide receiver that drew coverage away from the running game, and could really use to fill the void in their depth chart.
The most interesting pool of players comes at the linebacker position, with players such as Channing Crowder of the Dolphins, Jonathan Vilma of the Saints, Bart Scott and Ray Lewis of the Ravens, Takeo Spikes of the 49ers, and Zach Thomas of the Cowboys all in the last year of their contract. If the past few years have been any indication, most of the teams will re-sign their linebackers (who are now literally like quarterbacks for the defense), but a few of these players may become free agents. I would expect Ray Lewis and Channing Crowder to re-sign with their teams. I hope for the Saints’ sake that they re-sign Vilma (he’s been one small glimmer of hope on a gawdawful defense this year), but he may demand too much money where the Saints already have a lot invested in their offense.
However, Takeo Spikes, Zach Thomas, and Bart Scott may not re-sign with their teams. The Patriots should be in the market for a linebacker. They may not feel the need for another one with Adalius Thomas returning from injury next season, though I’m sure they’re not counting on the return of Tedy Bruschi or Junior Seau; it will all depend on how satisfied they are or aren’t with the performance of Gary Guyton, the rookie linebacker out of Georgia Tech.
The Detroit Lions are pretty much in the market for a brand-new roster, so they could benefit from bringing in any one of these guys, even Zach Thomas if only as a temporary fix. Pair one of them with Ernie Sims and your linebacking group doesn’t look so bad anymore. One of their major problems all season was clean tackling; what better way to rebuild a defense than by getting a solid tackler. If Thomas doesn’t retire, he’d fit nicely in Detroit, and he’d bring veteran leadership to a group of what will mostly be younger guys (much like what Joey Porter has done in Miami this year).
One last player to really watch out for is Julius Peppers of the Carolina Panthers. He has proven this year that he is still one hell of a pass rusher, registering 13.5 sacks this season through week 16. The Panthers will probably want to keep him; another 10+ sack season could land him in Canton. However, a lot of teams could benefit from the imposing pass rush that Peppers brings to any defense; in fact, too many teams to list. If he’s not re-signed by the Panthers (and I can’t imagine a scenario where he isn’t re-signed), there may be a feeding frenzy over who gets the contract.
This year’s free agency will prove to be more exciting than others since so many big names enter the pool this season. It will be interesting to see how it all pans out, and ultimately who proves to be the winners and losers next season.