Every summer, I do a Top 100 Players list, where I give you my take on the players in order of importance in the NFL. For the first time, I’ve put together a Top 50 free agents list.
As is the case with my Top 100 list, this isn’t a list of the biggest names or the guys who’ll command the top dollar come March 12.
It’s the 50 players I’d be zeroing in on this week if I were a general manager of an NFL team with cap space. Age matters, the future matters.
This list, however, doesn’t include players who’ve already been re-signed or given the franchise tag.
Let’s dig in.
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: Jackson has had 1,000 rushing yards every season since 2005 — an accomplishment worth noting. What’s he have left? I actually think quite a bit. The market for aging running backs is not exactly simmering and there’s something to the theory that a running back hits the wall when he turns 30. If he’s willing to take less money than he’s been making to play for a contender, I think Steven Jackson has a few good, solid years left. Will he rush for 1,000 yards? Maybe not. But he’s still the rare back that opposing defensive backs do not want to engage with one on one in the open field. A great leader, teammate, and community ambassador — Jackson would be welcomed on my squad.
27. Louis Delmas, Safety, Detroit Lions: You hate to give any money to a guy who’s been sidelined with injuries for much of the last two seasons, but Delmas may be worth a little extra coin. Still just 25, he has all the potential in the world to be one of the top five strong safeties in the game. When healthy — I know, that’s a big when — he’s an impact player.
28. Keenan Lewis, Cornerback, Pittsburgh Steelers: Don’t kid yourself, the 26-year-old Lewis was the best cover corner for the Steelers a season ago. On an aging defense, he was one of the few highlights. He’ll get decent coin to be a second or third corner in another NFL city and will challenge to be the top guy.
29. Delanie Walker, Tight End, San Francisco 49ers: Described to me as a "human chess piece," Walker is as versatile an offensive player as there is in the NFL. Fullback, tight end, wide receiver — the 6-0, 240 pound utility man could play any of those positions and play them well. After an incredibly productive NFL playoff run this season, Walker opened the eyes of a lot of folks around the league. The 49ers would love to have him back; they probably won’t be able to pay him enough.
30. Martellus Bennett, Tight End, New York Giants: Marty B! I was with the self-nicknamed “Black Unicorn” at Tuesday night’s Fox Sports 1 launch event and he’s not sure where he’s going to end up next season — he just wants to play football. Bennett, amazingly enough, is still only 25-years old. Though it feels like he’s been in the league forever, he’s just hitting his stride. The former basketball player had a career year with the Giants in 2012, proving he could be a starting tight end in this league. Stuck behind Jason Witten in Dallas for the first four years of his career, Bennett emerged in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. He could see a nice payday come March 12.
31. Brian Hoyer, Quarterback, Arizona Cardinals (RFA): I reported earlier this week that there’s significant interest in Hoyer on the free-agent market and I believe he’ll see multiple offers over the following few days. Now that Joe Flacco’s signed, the remaining names on the free agent quarterback list is abysmal. The QB draft class isn’t in the same league as last year at the position, either. fInsert Hoyer — a guy who started just one game in 2012 and only was on an NFL active 53-man roster for five. But he’s got a lively arm, has good size, and can step into a new situation and compete for the starting job. Hoyer’s a guy to watch this month.
32. Gosder Cherilus, Offensive Tackle, Detroit Lions: Lions fans may roll their eyes at the mention of Cherilus, but he’s a solid right tackle who can play either side of the line if needed. There’s a value in that; especially if he’s a veteran leader who’s respected in the locker room. Cherilus is still only 28-years-old and has a lot of good football ahead of him.
33. Sammie Lee Hill, Defensive Tackle, Detroit Lions: When you’re in a defensive line rotation with Nick Fairley, Willy Young, Cory Williams, and Ndamukong Suh in front of you, it’s difficult to showcase your skills. Hill only had 15 tackles last season and didn’t record a sack. Just 27, he’s played with some of the game’s best and could be ready to emerge. He showed flashes in 2011 but took a step back in 2012. I like him. You can never have enough good, young run stuffing defensive tackles. He’s one of them.
34. Adam Jones, Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals: I’ve gone back and watched a lot of the Bengals’ game tapes and must say — Adam Jones had a fantastic 2012 campaign. Long ago dismissed by most NFL teams and fan bases, Jones has resurrected his career and had his best NFL season since his rookie year in ’12. Whether that’s Jones, himself, stepping up to the plate when other corners were injured or the product of Mike Zimmer and Marvin Lewis’ coaching is not for me to determine. I do know that the cornerback formerly known as “Pac Man” had a big comeback year in 2012 and kept his name out of the police blotter. He’s a very intriguing free agent and is still just 29-years-old.
35. Greg Toler, Cornerback, Arizona Cardinals: Surprised to see Toler this high up on the list? He’s a tough, physical corner who can cover and play multiple positions in the defensive backfield. He’s still recovering from a torn ACL so there are concerns there. With solid corner play at a premium in this league, don’t be surprised if a few teams bid for his services this week. He’s 6-0, 190 pounds and still just 27-years-old.
36. Dwight Freeney, Defensive End, Indianapolis Colts: An offensive coach told me last month that Freeney was one of the more buzzed about players in Indianapolis at the Combine. He’ll find a home. Is he an every-down guy anymore? Probably not. But he can still get to the quarterback. There’s always a value in that.
37. Bradley Fletcher, Cornerback, St. Louis Rams: You watch film of the 2012 Rams and there are moments where Fletcher impresses you more than both Cortland Finnegan and Janoris Jenkins. A free agent, he’s had a lot of work on his knees. But he’s still just 26-years-old, he can cover number one receivers, and he’s a good teammate.
38. Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis Rams: When healthy, Amendola’s up there with Victor Cruz and Wes Welker as one of the top slot receivers in the NFL. He’s a tough kid, but he’s always battling injuries. In the right situation — maybe New England if Welker goes elsewhere — he can be a star. He just needs to stay on the field.
39. Ed Reed, Safety, Baltimore Ravens: He turns 35 this year and his best days are long behind him. But Ed Reed is still Ed Reed. A team looking for arguably the greatest ball-hawking safety to ever play the game will get their man for the right price. He’s still got 2-3 years left in him and after the Super Bowl run in 2013, he seemed revitalized. The best part about Ed Reed? He’s entering free agency and his agent is … himself.
40. Brian Hartline, WR, Miami Dolphins: All indications point to Hartline re-signing with the Dolphins, as Alex Marvez reported on Monday. Hartline had 74 catches for 1,083 yards and a touchdown in 2012 and proved he can be a reliable NFL receiver. Is he a number one guy? The jury’s still out. But he’s a valued piece to the Miami offense and a guy Ryan Tannehill obviously relies on. He’s also just 26-years-old and just hitting his stride.
41. Connor Barwin, Linebacker, Houston Texans: If Barwin was a free agent in March of 2012, he would have gotten big money. He had a breakout 2011 campaign. He had every opportunity to make a leap in 2012, but didn’t. With DeMeco Ryans in Philadelphia, Mario Williams in Buffalo, and Brian Cushing sidelined with an injury—there were high hopes that Barwin would be the pass rushing menace off the edge. He wasn’t. Was that a one-year aberration or the player a team will be getting? He fits best in a 3-4, has put up sack numbers before, and is still just 26-years-old.
42. Reggie Bush, Running Back, Miami Dolphins: Bush hasn’t had the career we all hoped he would have when he was taken second overall by the New Orleans Saints in the 2006 NFL Draft, but he’s been a very effective league player nevertheless. As the Dolphins chief tailback the last two seasons, he showed he can be the “bellcow” if needed, isn’t afraid of running between the tackles, and can still be a factor in the receiving game. He might not have the lightning quickness he once had, but he’s still a gamebreaker. Put him on an offense with some talent around him and there’s no reason Reggie Bush can’t be a Darren Sproles-like force out of the backfield. Ironic comparison, I know. Sproles, of course, replaced Bush in New Orleans.
43. Brian Urlacher, Linebacker, Chicago Bears: Urlacher’s no spring chicken, but he isn’t hanging up the cleats just yet. Need a middle linebacker who’ll be the most respected voice in the locker room and can still give you three downs a drive? Urlacher could be the guy. He’s already hinted to the fact he’d take a “hometown discount” to stay with the Bears. Just how big will that discount be? I can’t imagine him in another uniform, but it’s certainly possible.
44. Ricky Jean-Francois, Defensive Tackle, San Francisco 49ers: So he wasn’t exactly Justin Smith when Smith went down with an injury towards the end of the year. But who is? Jean-Francois is a young, capable DT who played in all 16 games for the 49ers and recorded 22 tackles. He’s gotten better every year and is one of those 3-4 guys that works in multiple spots on the line.
45. Ahmad Bradshaw, Running Back, New York Giants: Steven Jackson, Reggie Bush, and Michael Turner may get more money this offseason, but Ahmad Bradshaw’s a two-time Super Bowl champion who consistently plays through pain and picks up big yards when needed. Oh, and he’s still only 26-years-old. I asked Tom Coughlin if it was a difficult decision to let go of the five-year veteran last month and he said it was one of the hardest things he’d done as a Giants coach. The Giants players loved having Bradshaw in their backfield, because they knew no matter what injury he was suffering, he’d be out there on Sunday. A workhorse back that has big game experience, the former Giant could be a nice — somewhat affordable — pickup this spring.
46. Daryl Smith, Linebacker, Jacksonville Jaguars: Without much fanfare, Smith was one of the most productive linebackers in the sport from 2009-2011. In that span, he started all 48 games the Jaguars played. The nine-year veteran, however, played in just two games due to a groin injury. Few teams will be lining up for a 31-year-old linebacker who clearly didn’t have the best year a season ago, but Smith can still be a reliable difference maker on a defense. A veteran voice who’s played the captain role on both good Jaguars teams and bad, he could be a nice, affordable pick up.
47. Sam Baker, Offensive Tackle, Atlanta Falcons: Baker’s battled injuries, but at 27-years-old, still has plenty of good football left. I’ve watched some Falcons film of last season and though the fans railed against him for much of the year, he was actually pretty solid. At the right price, he’ll be back in Atlanta. If not, he could be starting at left tackle somewhere else in 2013.
48. Cary Williams, Cornerback, Baltimore Ravens: Williams wants to be paid like a number one cornerback. That might happen. Slotted into the starting lineup after Lardarius Webb went down with a season-ending injury, Williams stepped up and played a leading role on a Super Bowl champion defense. Is he a number one guy? I’m not sure. But yes, he could be paid like it.
49. LaRon Landry, Safety, New York Jets: The former Redskins top 10 draft pick is still one of the hardest hitting safeties in the game. He had some very good moments in 2012. On the year, he had 76 tackles, 24 assists, two INTs, one TD, eight passes defensed, and four forced fumbles. He’s still a thumper, but he’s not an ace in pass coverage.
50. Dustin Keller, Tight End, New York Jets: Now 28-years-old and coming off a season shortened by injury, the market might not be as hot for Dustin Keller as it would have been a few years back. He only had 28 catches a season ago in a lost year for the former first round pick. When healthy, he’s still a valuable player who can give secondary fits. More of a receiver than a blocker, he fits the mold of today’s modern era tight end.
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