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Top 50 – 2012 NFL Free Agents

Contributing writer Tim Culver

After 2011’s abbreviated market, this year’s free agency period will surely provide more than a few dramatic pursuits. In our updated list we’ve made a number of significant changes, not only in ranking, but also in appearance. Below you’ll find our rankings along with quick player information and commentary.

Many lists you’ll find remove players likely to receive a franchise tag or long-term contract with their existing team. Here you’ll find everyone scheduled to be available, restricted or not, likely to re-sign or not, and we’ll simply update as players are either picked up or locked down. You’ve asked for limited subjectivity and we’ve heard you.

 

Player
Team
Pos
Analysis
1. Peyton Manning                                         
 QB
How do you rank one of the greatest QBs of all time anything other than #1?  You don’t.  He’s our no-doubt #1 until signed.  Makes a mediocre team an immediate contender… if healthy.
2. Mario Williams 
 DE
Our top non-QB available.  He’s young, dominant, and proven in any system.  Someone will pay big bills, and they should.  Players of this caliber and age hit the market very rarely.
3. Mike Wallace (Restricted)
 WR
He comes at an increased price of 1st round tender, which is hardly crippling.  Him or an unknown in a positionally weak draft?  Someone should bite.
4. Carl Nicks
 G
Likely the top guard in the league.  Another, like Mario Williams, who should never have made it to market.  Hugely valuable player available here.
5. Marques Colston
 WR
A top option, but at a deep position.  Colston will pace the market if the Saints can’t retain him.  Whether he’s a product of the system remains to be seen.
6. Jeremy Mincey   
 DE
Perhaps the Jaguars best kept secret.  He will be a steal if they can’t keep him.  Very possibly the best value in our top-10.
7. Alex Smith  
 QB
Unlikely to leave SF?  Sure.  That said, he’s a known commodity, and one who will only improve.  That said, the one thing he doesn’t need is another system change.
8. Lardarius Webb (Restricted)  
 CB
Probably will not hit the market.  If somehow he does, expect him to compete with Finnegan as a top option.
9. Stephen Tulloch 
 ILB
With the Browns having locked down D’Qwell Jackson, Tulloch is clearly the top ILB with an expiring contract.  Coming off a wildly cheap contract, Tulloch is about to get paid.
10. Cortland Finnegan 
 CB
Franchising Michael Griffin likely cost the Titans their top CB.  Nasty? Yes.  Possibly a bit overrated?  Yes.
11. Brandon Carr 
 CB
The Chiefs likely downgraded when they signed Stanford Routt.  Carr will be neck and neck with Finnegan as the best CB available, so it’s fitting they find themselves here in our list.
12. Vincent Jackson  
 WR
There’s finally going to be a resolution.  He’ll be back in San Diego at a discount, or paid elsewhere.  As with Colston, it will be very interesting to see how he performs if he sneaks away from the Chargers.
13. David Hawthorne  
 ILB
He ranks behind Tulloch at the postion due his considerable risk of injury. If healthy, he’s on of the league’s best ILBs.
14. Evan Mathis  
 G
Great in the run and pass game.  Age and injury potential distance him significantly from Nicks.
15. Erin Henderson  
 ILB
Young, and a huge upside to go with it.  An undervalued young star in the making.
16. Jared Gaither
 OT
Flash-in-the-pan or set-it-and-forget-it LT?  Teams will pay to have a shot at the latter, but don’t be surprised if they end up with the former.
17. Manny Lawson
 OLB
This high?  He’s in a weak free agent class for his position and he’s deadly against the run.
18. Paul Soliai
 DT
He will anchor your defense for years. Easily the top NT available. 
19. Dan Conner
 ILB
Not likely to return just to sit behind Jon Beason.  Another team will start him and watch him grow.
20. Chris Meyers   
 C
This high ranking is based on his value for a zone-blocking team such as the Texans.  
21. Matt Flynn    
 QB
Signing Flynn will prove to an inspired or horrendous move, there’s no middle ground here.  His ranking is based on nothing more than teams’ evaluations: speculation and perceived market value.
22. Curtis Lofton  
 ILB
More proven than Connor, but less likely to become available.  Nevertheless, a young and very solid player.
23. Ben Grubbs  
 G
Slightly weaker against the run than Mathis, but less of an injury concern.  Could be a great value in this market.
24. BenJarvis Green-Ellis  
 RB
We love that he doesn’t fumble.  So to will the teams who woo him.
25. Mike Tolbert  
 RB
In contrast to Green-Ellis, fumbles are what knocks him down this list.  Tolbert is fast, strong, and has great hands.  Likely has the best numbers of any back coming available, but that also means he’s got the most mileage.
26. Brodrick Bunkley  
 DT
He won’t rack up sacks, but eats up the run.  Younger than a number of similar players on the market.
27. Willian Middleton
 CB
Higher than you’ll find him elsewhere, we’re aware.  Talent.  Upside.  Underrated and a gem.  Someone will land him after passing or missing on Carr or Finnegan and will love that they did so.  
28. Mario Manningham  
 WR
There’s a healthy dose of hype here, but someone will pay him for it.  He’s all upside and he’ll get his shot.
29. Brandon Lloyd
 WR
Aging but proven, he’d be a value under the first tier available.  He’s likely to follow McDaniels, who will squeeze a few more years of #1 production out of him.
30. Jarrett Johnson
 OLB
He’s our third OLB despite strong play because of his age.  Yes, historically he’s been underrated, but that doesn’t mean he can keep it up at this age and position.
31. Jason Jones
 DT
We’re projecting his value as a DT.  Ignore the anomoly of 2011, when he struggled as an end.  Very strong as a tackle and very young.
32. Tim Jennings
 CB
His size hurts him. Very strong player, but benefits from playing with the Bears. His performance could drop off in another system.
33. Robert Meachem
 WR
Often lives in the shadow of Colston, but at a deep position this market, he may be a value pick-up.
34. Peyton Hillis
 RB
Historically the best performing back in his class, how long and how hard will he play?  Is he committed or isn’t he?
35. Michael Bush
 RB
Overvalued.  Looks like he’s got twice the miles than he actually does.  Someone will take a shot, but will he deliver?
36. Mark Anderson
 DE
Our ranking reflects his value in his current system.  If he leaves the Patriots, can another team expect him to perform at such a high level?  This one comes with a “one-team wonder” tag.
37. LaRon Landry
 S
Easily the top available S this year with Tyvon Branch and Michael Griffin locked up.  If it weren’t for his injury risk, he’d find himself much further up this list.
38. Pierre Garcon
 WR
Drops are the tradeoff for his young speed.  Improved his value by putting up big numbers with Painter and Orvlovsky.
39. Michael Bennett (restricted)
 DE
Would have been a top option, but the 1st round tender likely prices out most suitors.  Color him a Buc unless someone gets a crazy idea.
40. Carlos Rogers
 CB
Another top CB coming available if not retained by the 49ers.  Ranks just outside our top options due to his age.
41. Red Bryant
 DT
Run stopper who slots into 3-4 and 4-3.  That said, there’s a number of those available in this market, so his value may be impacted.
42. Richard Marshall
 CB
He’ll be a value signing outside the top 3 or 4 CBs on the market.  Can play safety also, which makes him a very useful defensive piece.
43. Antonio Dixon
 DT
Another strong run-stopper.  He’ll excel outside of the Eagle scheme, and we’re valuing that potential here.
44. Terrell Thomas
 CB
The Giants will fight to keep him around.  Coming off a torn-ACL, but will likely play a full year.
45. Jason Campbell
 QB
Too high?  He lost his position due to injury, not performance.  There are more than a few teams in need. #1A guy who will challenge your younger future QB and prove a valuable backup if needed.
46. Desmond Bryant
 DT
Young and versatile player.  Yet another run stopper that fits into any defense.  The depth at this position will make him a great signing for a team, but will also cost him on the bottom line.
47. William Gay
 CB
Has had an inconsistent career thus far.  Plenty of upside and undervalued at a position that is deep in this market.
48. Laurent Robinson
 WR
Now that’s how you perform in a contract year.  Cowboys will look to retain him.  Always an injury risk, however, so caveat emptor.
49. Kendall Langford
 DT
Probably won’t get away from the Dolphins.  He’s a DT who will pressure the QB and that’s both a useful commodity and one that’s rare in this market.
50. Philip Wheeler
 DT
Very strong player, but one who plays a very limited role.  He’s young, and the Colts will try and keep him around to develop.

Lest this appear as yet another speculative list of favorites, allow us to make quick note on our methodology: we aim to make this list as objective as can be, so statistical evaluation is the driving force in our rankings.

We’ve started with numerical grades, based on information provided by Pro Football Focus, (scaling 0-100) for each player’s performance over the past two years, weighting 2011 over 2010. From there, we use a positional multiplier (based on 2012 franchise tag values), an age multiplier (based on various statistical studies that evaluate peak age and relative rate of decline across various positions), and a third multiplier for which we take into account exceptional performance in either direction (Pro-bowler, being named Peyton, being names Albert, & c.), prior draft position, or being a known injury or character risk. Naturally, this third multiplier is where a bit subjectivity can enter, but free agency is a speculative business, so we’ve submitted there while doing our best to provide accurate valuations. As an end result, we’re proud to submit this list as one of the least subjective top-50 lists you’ll find.

A detailed observer will quickly note that Matt Flynn ranks highly on our list, despite low draft value and virtually no known performance data. In cases such as these, we’ve done our best to qualitatively value the interest and place him accurately in our rankings. Currently, his is the only case warranting inclusion.