That’s right, our analysis team got together, and–after an astonishing three-hour meeting that featured many a put down, the occasional swear word, and an awful lot of eye rolling–we finally decided on our Top 50 and how valuable each of them are.
We’ve used some liberal criteria to determine that some players are not eligible for this list because they won’t be hitting free agency. That means turning a blind eye to restricted free agents Mike Wallace, Arian Foster, Michael Bennett and Lardarius Webb. It also means those players extremely likely to get tagged have been ignored; so, no Drew Brees, no Ray Rice or Matt Forte, and no Calais Campbell.
Other than that? Well, all free agents are fair game in our Top 50.
1. Mario Williams, DE/ OLB
There’s every possibility the Texans tag the first pick of the 2006 draft, but given how much it will cost to eventually re-sign him, they could just as easily stay to go with Brooks Reed and Connor Barwin who were part of an excellent defense last year. Williams would probably benefit from a switch back to the defensive end spot, though his start to life in the 3-4 suggests he could fit into either scheme.
2. Brent Grimes, CB
With Lardarius Webb a restricted free agent, Grimes jumps to the top of our cornerback rankings, and up to second on our list of available free agents. One of the best cornerbacks in the league, Grimes has been exceptional over the past two years–breaking up 28 passes and intercepting six more in that time frame.
3. John Abraham, DE
Abraham isn’t getting any younger, but then his production isn’t showing any signs of tailing off. You may not get many good years, but unless his play falls off a cliff you’ll still be getting a pass rusher who gets as much pressure as anyone. Has ranked among our top seven defensive ends in each of the last four years.
4. Carl Nicks, G
The Saints may have invested in the wrong guard given how much better Nicks has been than Jahri Evans over the past two years, but if they can’t re-sign the former Nebraska lineman, that haste could be to the benefit of wherever Nicks lands. The mauling guard has finished first (2009), first (2010) and second (2011) in our rankings the past three years.
5. Cortland Finnegan, CB
The Andre Johnson punching bag isn’t the most popular player in the league, and that kind of unpopularity can take away from what a good player he can be. This year, where he seemed less interested in antagonizing receivers, and more focused on shutting them down–may have been his finest year to date. Not just playing outside, but doing an excellent job in the slot, Finnegan may be the most versatile cornerback available.
6. Vincent Jackson, WR
In terms of pure talent, Jackson could go No. 1 overall. But there’s a cloud hanging over him that sees him never that far from a suspension, and the fact the last two years haven’t been as good as the two that proceeded it. Could very well be the biggest impact player available in free agency.
7. Evan Mathis, G
It’s one of the great mysteries of NFL scouting how a player like Mathis hasn’t been locked down before. One of the most technically sound and agile guards, Mathis may be 31 this year, but his low mileage makes him a safe investment. Only his limited body of work prevents him from going further.
8. Robert Mathis, DE
He may be a one-dimensional pass rusher who has always had Dwight Freeney opposite him, but in a league where getting to the QB matters so much, Mathis is incredibly valuable. Last year was something of a down year, and even then he still picked up 48 combined sacks, hits and hurries. Possible franchise tag candidate.
9. Chris Myers, C
Finding elite players at any position isn’t easy, so Myers should attract plenty of interest as an agile center who has got better year on year since starting. Our top-ranked center in 2011, Myers could prove a steal if someone can pry him away from Houston.
10. Cliff Avril, DE
The combination of Avrils’ age and speed sees his value shooting up to teams looking for a long-term stud. A talented pass rusher, Avril has yet to produce as consistently as some of the defensive ends above him on the list, so there is that question mark over him. Time very much on his side.
11. Brandon Carr, CB
Some view Carr as the top corner on the market. Others see him as purely a No. 2 type. This ranking should tell you where we think he fits. Capable of playing very well, his best games tend to come against the worst quarterbacks. That is always a worrying trend.
12. Matt Flynn, QB
This may seem a little high for Flynn, but such is his potential (and such is the value of quarterbacks) that if he ends up being what a team expects him to be, then he’s the top free agent out there. The Packers’ backup QB has looked good when presented an opportunity to do so, and looks to have as high a ceiling as (or higher than) Kevin Kolb. He could be the biggest decision a franchise makes this offseason.
13. Jermichael Finley, TE
One of our analysts wanted Finley a lot higher, citing him as being the type of mismatch that the NFL is becoming all about. Perhaps he will go on to be that player, but he’s not there yet so will have to settle for a spot outside the Top 10.
14. Stephen Tulloch, LB
It was a surprise to us that teams didn’t make a bigger effort to lock Tulloch down last year. They may all pay the price this year after his excellent year in Detroit likely increased his demands on what he was looking for last year.
15. Dwayne Bowe, WR
Bowe has the kind of top-end talent that scouts will rave about, even if he isn’t always the most consistent of receivers. Finished with our 11th-highest receiving grade this year, one season after finishing 13th.
16. Carlos Rogers, CB
The concern with Rogers is that as good as he was for the first half of the season, his play slipped in the second half. Factor that in with his ups and downs in years gone by and Rogers is something of a question mark. Still, his talent and versatility makes him a gamble plenty of cornerback-needy teams could make.
17. Jared Gaither, OT
After missing all of 2010, a false start penalty for Kansas City likely got the career of Gaither back on track, as the Chiefs cut him and he flourished at the end of the year in San Diego. The character and health concerns are there, but if you can look past that, you’re planting your eyes on a Top 5 left tackle.
18. Sione Pouha, DT
The only thing holding Pouha back is that you can scheme against him by simply getting the Jets in their sub package. He offers very little push in the passing game, but is so good in the run game that any team with a problem stopping the run (regardless of scheme) needs to make an offer to his agent. Second-highest number of defensive stops of all defensive tackles this year.
19. Marques Colston, WR
If you use Colston right and keep him healthy, he’s one of the biggest mismatches in the league at the receiver position. But he’s had an awful lot of surgeries over the past five years, and will need a team to realize he’s more than an outside receiver; last year he was ninth in receiving yards from the slot.
20. Brodrick Bunkley, DT
11.3% of all plays Bunkley was in run defense ended up with him making a defensive stop; the most of all DTs in the league. Outside of an injury-plagued 2010, Bunkley has always brought disruption when teams have run at him and there’s no reason to see that changing.
21. Jason Jones, DT
With Jones you almost have to completely discard his 2011 year where the Titans used him at defensive end. You go back to when he was used at DT and you’ve got a guy too quick for guards, making plays on every down. Put Jones back in the right scheme, and at the right spot, and you have one of the most explosive tackles in the league.
22. Brandon Lloyd, WR
Lloyd seems like he’s been around longer than his 30 years of age would suggest, but even then he’s got plenty of tread left on his tires. The big concern is whether he can maintain his last two years of play, where’s he emerged as one of the hardest-to-cover receivers in the league.
23. Scott Wells, C
The Packers’ center has been better every year, leading to his finishing fourth in our center rankings this year. Solid technically, Wells was consistent but never quite reached height of his opening week tour de force that earned such rave reviews. Still, quality centers are hard to come by and Wells is in that bracket.
24. David Hawthorne, LB
After his 2009 and 2010 seasons, this year was a tad disappointing for Hawthorne. That’s not to say he played badly, but injuries seemed to slow him. We’d fully expect a healthy Hawthorne to plug in to any defensive scheme and make a more than positive contribution. It’s why he’s earned a +45.7 grade from us over the past three years.
25. Ben Grubbs, G
The Ravens’ Grubbs is a Top 10 guard in a league low on talented guards, but his ceiling isn’t such that he’ll have the impact to dramatically improve an offensive line.
26. Erin Henderson, LB
After the year the younger Henderson had, there was a strong case to move him further up the list. But we’ve seen two-down linebackers struggle to justify a big price tag when moving to a three-down role, so we’re being a bit cautious with our fourth-ranked 4-3 OLB from 2011.
27. Marshawn Lynch, RB
When Lynch enters ‘Beast Mode’ there are few running backs as dominant. Concerns about a contract year seem somewhat unfounded. Lynch has always run the ball well when faith has been put in him. Turning 26 in two months, the former Bill is a better long term prospect than people give him credit for.
28. Alex Smith, QB
One good year doesn’t offset a career of disappointment. That’s what to remember with Smith who holds more value to the 49ers than he does to any other team. Still, the QB position is the most valuable of all, so any solid starter is going to have a market.
29. Tyvon Branch, S
Branch is better than his 2011 would suggest, with the Raiders being forced to use him a slot cornerback, and opting to send him on blitzes far too often. At his best, Branch is the kind of in-the-box safety who you can leave in man coverage–a very useful thing to have.
30. Jarret Johnson, LB
There isn’t a linebacker in the league who sets the edge like Johnson, who is a bigger part than many credit for how good the Ravens’ defense is. More of a two-down linebacker at this stage (he’s never been the most productive pass rusher in sub packages) Johnson has earned a +60.3 run defense grade over the past three years.
31. London Fletcher, LB
So it’s unlikely Fletcher makes a move to anywhere but Washington, but if you’re looking for an excellent linebacker on a short-term deal then why not make him an offer he can’t refuse. Not every free agent move needs to be with the future in mind.
32. David Garrard, QB
It’s easy to forget about Garrard, a player who took the year off to let his back heal up. His last couple of years in Jacksonville were largely uneventful, but better than people gave him credit for. An above average passer and a threat to run with the ball, he’s the most proven available QB.
33. Curtis Lofton, LB
The conversion of Lofton to an every-down linebacker has had its pros and its cons. On the plus side, we’ve seen him improve in coverage and become the quarterback of the defense. On the negative front, he’s failed to look like the impact run defender we saw as a rookie. A talented, but limited player.
34. Jeremy Mincey, DE
It wasn’t really until Aaron Kampmann went down in 2010 that Mincey really got an opportunity to prove himself. Since then, he’s been on quite the tear, with a strong finish to 2010 as a starter, and then a starting role in the excellent Jags defense in 2011. Our 12th-ranked defensive end from last year can handle a lot of snaps (973 last year) and still produce on every down, so he should command a healthy market.
35. D’Qwell Jackson, LB
There are some big concerns about Jackson, who missed nearly two years through injury. But as much as that, he’s a player who needs a defense built around him to take advantage of his tremendous ability to read and react to plays. Not a linebacker who does well when a lineman gets his hands on him.
36. Paul Soliai, DT
2011 didn’t quite match 2010 in terms of production for Soliai who saw less playing time as the Dolphins got more sub packages involved in their defense. A valuable run defender who has shown some burst to get up field, Soliai is at the right age (28) and could fit into any defensive front.
37. Stevie Johnson, WR
In going toe to toe with Darrelle Revis, Johnson showed something that should appeal to plenty of teams. There is something about his anti-clutch play, saving his worst moments for the most inopportune time.
38. Jason Campbell, QB
You wonder where the Raiders would be right now if Campbell hadn’t gone down injured. If nothing else, Campbell has shown an ability to be a game manager. Players not even capable of that have commanded quite the fee.
39. Anthony Spencer, OLB
The feeling amongst the PFF staff is that Spencer is a player on the decline. His 2009 seemed to suggest he was ready to break out, but compared to his edge-rushing peers, Spencer doesn’t have the kind of burst off the snap to be a team’s top threat. A capable No. 2? More than, but unless he can tap that 2009 form, that’s all he may ever be.
40. Desean Jackson, WR
The ultimate boom-or-bust. Jackson is the kind of deep threat that can change how a defense operates, and offers the kind of game-changing ability offensive coordinators fall in love with, but what else does he offer? His immaturity has been well documented and he’s not the kind of receiver that does a great job holding onto the ball, or running all the routes. A headache whether you employ him or try to defend him.
41. Andre Carter, DE
There are some big question marks with Carter coming off a season-ending injury and not getting any younger. But his production in New England, where he was comfortably the best player on their defense before injury, shows that if you get him in the right scheme (not a 3-4) he will make plays. Finished 11th in our defensive end rankings in 2011.
42. Demetrius Bell, T
An intriguing player, Bell struggled before 2011, but in six games looked every bit the franchise left tackle. Is that body of work enough for a team to take a chance on him? We think not, but the ceiling is high.
43. Reggie Wayne, WR
It could be argued that Wayne is losing a step after a disappointing 2011. But how much of that was down to playing with quarterbacks who struggled to make the most of his ability? The Colts’ WR is still an excellent route runner, but his age and last year impact on his value.
44. Peyton Hillis, RB
There are some big question marks about Hillis, who really only has one good year under his belt. That year, where he ranked second in our running back rankings, is an indication of the kind of every-down back he is, but you’re always worried about him being something of a one-season wonder.
45. Manny Lawson, OLB
Lawson played well in Cincinnati, but he now finds himself in an interesting position. An effective pass rusher, two teams have used Lawson as primarily a base-downs player. Given the lack of interest in him last year, has much happened in 2011 to change that?
46. Cedric Benson, RB
We’ve seen running backs wear down under a heavy load, so with 922 carries in the past three years and entering his age 30 season, Benson is something less than a sure thing. He isn’t done by any stretch, but averaging just 2.1 yards after contact (third-lowest of all running backs with 100 carries) hurts his value.
47. Kyle Orton, QB
You know what you’re going to get with Orton. Someone who will look good at times, terrible at others and lack the ability to push a team to the postseason and beyond. As a veteran backup he’s more than capable, and is a useful stopgap, but nothing more.
48. Robert Meachem, WR
This was supposed to be the year Meachem really stepped up. It didn’t quite work out that way, but you wonder how much that was down to his use by the Saints. The former first-rounder has never been given an opportunity to flourish as a No. 1 receiver, so a change of scenery could bring out the best of a player who has flashed top-level talent.
49. Stanford Routt, CB
The recently-cut Raider cornerback was always going to struggle to justify the contract the team gave him, and so it proved. He led the league in penalties (17) and touchdowns allowed (9) as he was tasked with filling the boots of Nnamdi Asomugha. He’s better than those numbers would suggest and could really benefit with a scheme that provides more help.
50. Tim Jennings, CB
Jennings is purely a Cover-2 corner, but these past two years have proved he can be an above average starter in that scheme. Being good enough to start for a team earns you a spot on this list … just.