Top 25 'money' free agents
A look at potential free agents with a lot riding on the last few games
Updated: December 14, 2012, 2:28 PM ET
By Chris Sprow | ESPN Insider
NFL free agency has historically been a great example of lemon economics. Don't think citrus -- think used cars. The basic theory says that if the original owner would even allow the player (or car) to be purchased, it greatly diminishes the product. It's an information disconnect, and the original owner knows more. The eyes squint and the brow furrows after a look under the hood: "So -- why don't you want it?"
Same with the NFL, historically. Players have such a short shelf life because of injuries that to even get to free agency at all carries a stench. We know Mario Williams has had a great career, but surely Houston knew something the market didn't. In this league, it's always been that, if you like a player, you wrap him up. A change of system could be akin to dumping the new sports car for a minivan as the family changes, but everyone seems to agree: The original owner got the best years of the car, just as the Texans got the best years of Williams. Free agency is one part money, two parts hope.
At least, that used to be the case. Things might be shifting. The salary-cap reality after the last CBA should allow a few more players teams truly don't want to lose to hit free agency. And we're going to see dividends. You can knock Williams, but what about Vincent Jackson? What about Brandon Carr?
Below I've listed not a ranking of the top free agents but rather, a list of players who have perhaps the most on the line down the stretch in terms of their future market values; I've also added some possible fits for them. (So don't mistake this for a "top free agents" list. And the team fits for each player are possibilities, not predictions.)
1. Joe Flacco | QB | Current team: Baltimore Ravens
He has started 77 of 77 possible NFL games, carries a 53-24 record as a starter, has a 98-55 career TD-INT ratio and won't turn 28 until January. So how is Flacco going to become an unrestricted free agent at a position where even the Romo-coaster won't be subjected to such an indignity? How high his ceiling extends is clearly a question, and the rest of the regular season will dictate dollars. Baltimore dumped offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and has the worst defense of Flacco's tenure. It all points to: "It's on you, Joe."
Fit: Most would be shocked if he were anywhere but Baltimore next season.
2. Mike Wallace | WR | Current team: Pittsburgh Steelers
[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMike Wallace needs to impress in the remainder of the season to increase his market value.
He'll be an unrestricted free agent, and Wallace needs to finish strong. He's in the midst of his worst NFL season in terms of efficiency, has been the third-best WR on his own team a season after he was openly considered maybe the best in the game and has admitted he can "lose focus" at times. Not exactly the best selling points for his free-agency brochure. Wallace needs to treat the end of this season like an audition.
Fit: Mark Sanchez loses excuses if his numbers stay flat with Wallace around in 2013.
3. Ryan Clady | OT | Current team: Denver Broncos
He has never missed a start 77 games into his NFL career and is among the top five left tackles in the game, and the QB he protects, Peyton Manning, gets the ball out so quickly that he's a joy to block for. So what does Clady have to play for? He's an unrestricted free agent and the top left tackle available, which means he could be headed for about $50 million in guarantees if he's fully healthy. In a league of players paranoid about health, Clady could be excused for playing in bubble wrap.
Fit: Denver should make it work, but Arizona should offer stadium naming rights.
4. Greg Jennings | WR | Current team: Green Bay Packers
At 29, Jennings has never caught fewer than 45 passes in a season. So far in 2012, he has just 17 catches and has been sidelined for most of the season with an abdominal injury. With James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb already around -- not to mention Jermichael Finley -- Green Bay likely won't beat out big offers for Jennings. But he needs to get back on the field and show something to draw interest. Now that he's practicing in full pads, we're about to gauge his market.
Fit: Miami makes a lot of sense, but keep an eye on Detroit, which suddenly has legit questions about who will be No. 2 behind Calvin Johnson. Jennings grew up a Lions fan in Michigan.
5. Wes Welker | WR | Current team: New England Patriots
You could argue that teammate Sebastian Vollmer has more cash to play for (and likely will land the bigger deal), and you could argue that Welker is a creation of the system, an extended handoff for Tom Brady. But that the New England offense lost Rob Gronkowski and hasn't skipped a beat is a credit to Welker, who will reach 120-plus catches this season for the third time in his career. And, as an unrestricted free agent, he might be ready to prove he's more than a system creation.
Fit: Clearly, it's New England, but Welker would be really interesting in Denver, Dallas or even Washington.
6. Cliff Avril | DE | Current team: Detroit Lions
He reportedly turned down three years and $30 million to accept the franchise tender of $10.6 and play for a bigger deal, but Avril needs to finish really strong if he wants big money. He has 9.5 sacks, but he benefits from great play elsewhere on the Detroit D-line, and he has just 18 hurries this season, per Pro Football Focus.
Fit: Even with Jason Babin, Jacksonville could use another 4-3 DE and could afford Avril.
7. Aqib Talib | CB | Current team: New England Patriots
He has a ton of talent and a history of off-field problems, but if Talib can finish strong for the Patriots, not only does he create a market for himself with New England but he could draw interest from all over the league. This is a guy who is quite literally playing for a job as an unrestricted free agent at age 26.
Fit: Even less total money might be more appealing if the offer is from the Patriots.
8. Jairus Byrd | S | Current team: Buffalo Bills
He's not a star, but maybe he should be. Byrd has a Pro Bowl under his belt, as well as a season when he led the NFL in interceptions. Plus, Pro Football Focus has him rated as the top cover safety in the NFL. He'll be an unrestricted free agent in a market that's short on impact at the safety position. Byrd also will have a history of good health; if he finishes this season, he'll have played in 48 consecutive games. If he stays healthy, he'll be in line for a huge deal.
Fit: Dallas could desperately use a safety who covers this well. But so could Detroit, New Orleans, the Jets and maybe even Pittsburgh.
9. Danny Amendola | WR | Current team: St. Louis Rams
Dangerously close to attaining the "fragile" label, Amendola could be back for the last few weeks, and he will want to be able to walk into unrestricted free agency with full health. He caught 85 passes in 2010 and profiles as an unbearded Wes Welker. If Amendola can stay healthy, St. Louis has every reason to keep him around. But, as lemon economics teaches us, if the Rams don't make a big push to retain him, it'll be instructive for the market as a whole. The last few games matter.
Fit: St. Louis is a great fit, but what if he becomes a cheaper replacement for Welker in New England?
[+] EnlargeSebastian Vollmer
Icon SMISebastian Vollmer has played well this season and could get major money -- from the Pats or others.
10. Sebastian Vollmer | OT | Current team: New England Patriots
The Patriots have their future at left tackle in Nate Solder and might not be willing to go big on a deal to keep Vollmer, a right tackle who missed the bulk of 2011 to injury. But if he finishes strong -- and New England opts to devote free-agency resources elsewhere -- Vollmer could get big money after what has been a very good season.
Fits: Indy, Chicago, Arizona and Dallas should all pick up the phone.
The next 10
11. Randy Starks | DT | Current team: Miami Dolphins
You don't find many good defensive tackles available in free agency, but Starks qualifies, and he has missed just one start since Week 1 in 2009. Carolina would be a good fit.
12. Michael Bennett | DE | Current team: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
He has 9.0 sacks, and cracking double digits could get this unrestricted free agent some extra scratch. New Orleans would be a good system fit.
13. Dashon Goldson | S | Current team: San Francisco 49ers
How much can the Niners spend to keep this defense together? They might let Goldson go, and the 2011 Pro Bowl participant will get looks. Carolina should call.
14. Reggie Bush | RB | Current team: Miami Dolphins
This isn't a ranking of best free agents, but Bush belongs here because, if he can stay healthy for a few more games, it'll be the difference between multiple bids versus just hoping to land somewhere. Almost any offense can use a player with his diversity of skills, and he's underrated as an inside runner. How about a change-of-pace complement to Trent Richardson in Cleveland?
15. Victor Cruz | WR | Current team: New York Giants
He's a restricted free agent, and the Giants won't let him go anywhere. But how he finishes, and his end-of-season health status, could help determine in what manner the Giants compensate him going forward.
16. Branden Albert | OT | Current team: Kansas City Chiefs
He's no star, but he might be the third- or fourth-best tackle on the market, and he's been healthy throughout his career, although recent back issues have slowed him down. A strong finish without questions about his back will improve his market.
AP Photo/AJ MastDwayne Bowe won't play this week, and his market value is very much up in the air.
17. Dwayne Bowe | WR | Current team: Kansas City Chiefs
He's way down on this list because he likely won't be back in the lineup this season. He has a lot on the line, however, because the play of Jon Baldwin could help determine how much K.C. is willing to offer to keep him around.
18. Jake Long | OT | Current team: Miami Dolphins
He might be headed for injured reserve, which is a shame because it could mean the end of his tenure in Miami. The development of rookie Jonathan Martin could make the perennial Pro Bowler expendable. If he's fully healthy, his phone will be ringing.
19. Steven Jackson | RB | Current team: St. Louis Rams
If he finishes the season healthy, there could be a market for Jackson and the Rams could bring him back. If he gets hurt, he might have to move on. How about working in with Doug Martin in Tampa when LeGarrette Blount moves on?
20. Chris Houston | CB | Current team: Detroit Lions
He might be the best available corner on the market, and the Lions could choose to franchise him, given the state of their secondary. But if they want to franchise elsewhere, if Houston can finish well (and healthy), he'll have a robust market.
21. Andy Levitre | G | Current team: Buffalo Bills
22. Henry Melton | DT | Current team: Chicago Bears
23. Brian Hartline | WR | Current team: Miami Dolphins
24. Erin Henderson | LB | Current team: Minnesota Vikings
25. Jermon Bushrod | OT |Current team: New Orleans Saints
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.