Editor's Note: This file has been updated to reflect all cuts and signings through March 11.
With the 2012 season officially in the books, attention now turns to team plans for 2013. For NFL front offices, however, that process started long ago.
As early as Thanksgiving, general managers begin evaluating their projected rosters for the following season, studying the draft and free-agent classes to see how they can best augment their talent. By the time the Super Bowl rolls around, they already have a list of key offseason targets, particularly for free agency, which opens March 12.
Although the draft provides the nucleus of your starters in today's NFL, the majority of your roster still comes from free agency and the pro-scouting process. That said, there is almost always a risk in signing a free agent. That a player even reaches free agency is a warning sign on some level. If his team thought he was a truly valuable commodity, how come it hasn't already locked him up? But that can't -- and won't -- deter teams as they round out their rosters.
I'm certain that you'll see multiple lists ranking this year's free-agent class from No. 1 right on down the line. While I understand why those lists exist, it is not how a real NFL GM approaches free agency. There are several elements that make a comprehensive ranking moot. For starters, players have different values in different systems. A team that plays a lot of Cover 2 might not emphasize a cornerback the same as a blitz-heavy team such as the New York Jets. Dwight Freeney might be a great pickup for a team utilizing a Wide-9 scheme, although he makes less sense as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 set. And while Andy Levitre is a great player, how much does a team want to pay a guard? With all these variables unique to each team, there's no universal value for a player.
As a GM, when I approached free agency, I utilized a tier system based on how I valued players. It involved several classes, which you'll see below:
A Players: Worth paying big, starter-caliber money.
B Players: Guys I would sign but only if the value made sense.
Special Veterans: Players who may be past their prime, but who offer specific qualities -- including character and leadership -- that can help your team win.
C Players: Guys I'd sign for low-salary, short-term (one or two years) value, with low bonuses.
Within each of those groups, there are further considerations, particularly injuries, age and character. The concern with injury is obvious, as that player might never recapture his previous level of performance or even see the field. Age is a concern for anyone older than 26 because a five-year contract would take the player past age 30, a precipice after which players usually decline rapidly. This is a concern for some positions more than others, however, and must account for how much a player has been used to that point. An every-down running back at age 26 might have less tread on his tires than a 28-year-old who has seen limited carries to this point.
Based on the information we have as of March 11 and using my tier system, what follows is a 35,000-foot view of the free-agent landscape based on player performance, positional scarcity and the overall market for certain players. In short, these names are my best available free agents for 2013.
Where applicable, I've indicated any concerns I have due to age, injury or character. They are grouped first by tier, then by position. Appearing higher within a certain tier does not mean a player is more valuable than those below him.
Note: This file will not be updated as players sign.
INJURY CONCERN =
AGE CONCERN =
Statistics are inclusive of postseason where applicable.
Tier A: Offense | Defense | Special Teams
Tier B: Offense (notables) | Defense (notables) | Special Teams
Remaining B's | Special Vets | Tier C
2012 TEAM: St. Louis
For running backs, seven seasons is about the time when tread runs out on their tires. Jackson has been in the league for nine, but I think he's the best back no one really celebrates. His age and service time are a concern but he's a warrior and a guy you want on your team. If the price is right, a contender could get him for two to three years and feel pretty good about it. I think he could be a Corey Dillon-like find but without the baggage. He's a true blue guy.
2012 TEAM: New England
He will be 32 at the start of the 2013 season and is a big age concern. How much money do you want invested in a player who is small, is not very fast and excels in New England's offense but doesn't have a lot of years in front of him? That's the question teams face with Welker. The Patriots didn't sign him long term, which should be an indicator of his value. Will they franchise him at $12 million? I don't know. Will he command more on the open market? I don't know. You can't deny he's a good player. It's his value that remains a question.
2012 TEAM: Pittsburgh
Wallace is a good route runner, has good instincts and typically has good hands, but he's small and you worry about injury. Inconsistency in the past also is a concern. Pittsburgh didn't reach a deal with him, which will make some teams wary, but this league is always looking for WRs with speed who can take the top off a defense -- and he can do that.