FA Preview: Top 12 Free Agents

Noteworthy is that 87 of those 438 free agents (19.9 percent) have played at least 10 seasons. Assuming Peyton Manning is signed by Tuesday afternoon, who (other than Houston's Mario Williams) makes NFL insider Howard Balzer's list?

It's almost here. Not only is the start of the NFL league year and another round of free-agent frenzy a day away, but it is the first "normal" offseason since 2009.

Two years ago, as the league entered the final year of the collective bargaining agreement, the result was an uncapped year that also changed unrestricted free agency from four years to six.

That kept a multitude of players off the market, and created a large pool of free agents that was pushing 30 years old.

Last year, well, no need to rehash the more than four-month lockout, and then the chaos that ensued when an agreement was finally reached at the end of July.

Hundreds of players were signed in the first week, yet many weren't allowed to begin practice in training camp for a week.

Fortunately with last summer now a distant memory, free agency begins with a flat salary cap, numerous veterans being released so teams can be cap-compliant, and a flooded market of around 438 unrestricted free agents plus those that have been or will be released.

Noteworthy is that 87 of those 438 free agents (19.9 percent) have played at least 10 seasons.

The philosophy of many teams is to pursue players coming off their first contract that have four or five years experience. It can be dangerous to sign players pushing or already 30 years old or those that are coming off injuries.

Buyer beware is always the rallying cry, but many teams get caught up in the chase and can't help themselves. The crop does have numerous good players, but not a lot of clear difference-makers.

We're operating on the premise that quarterback Peyton Manning, who'd be the top free agent target if he remains undecided by Tuesday night, will be off the board by the time the league year begins at 4 p.m. ET.

Herewith then is a guide to the best available free agents, with an emphasis on still-ascending players.

1. Mario Williams, Houston defensive end/linebacker (six seasons, turned 27 on Jan. 31): Williams made the switch to linebacker in the Texans' 3-4 defense last season, but checkbooks will be wide open for 4-3 teams seeking a pass rusher. Look for the Falcons to make a pre-emptive strike. He could be signed within the first 24 hours.

2. Brandon Carr, Kansas City cornerback (four seasons, 26 on May 19): Cortland Finnegan has the name, but Carr has the game and is two years younger. The Chiefs claim they still wanted to re-sign him after overpaying former Oakland cornerback Stanford Routt, but it looks like Carr will hit the market and be gone quickly.

3. Vincent Jackson, San Diego wide receiver (seven seasons, turned 29 on Jan. 14): Jackson has avoided off-field issues the last couple years, and while he is a year away from 30, there is no better big-play receiver on the market. Still, teams have to be careful because this will be his first big-money long-term contract.

4. Red Bryant, Seattle defensive end (four seasons, 28 on April 18): The only negative is that he's not a top pass rusher. Bryant is an end that plays the run well, and can move inside in passing situations.

5. Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis wide receiver (four seasons, 28 on Aug. 8): Some will say this is too high, but with the right team, he will be explosive. Consider that as bad as the Colts' offense was last season, Garcon caught 70 passes for a 13.5-yard average and six touchdowns.

6. Carl Nicks, New Orleans guard (four seasons, 27 on May 14): There are teams wary of paying big money for a guard, but Nicks is worth it. He will solidify the interior of the line of whatever team gets him.

7. David Hawthorne, Seattle middle linebacker (four seasons, 27 on May 14): Led the Seahawks with 115 tackles and pushed Lofa Tatupu off the roster. There are several excellent middle linebackers available, but Hawthorne is at the top of the list by a thread.

8. Ben Grubbs, Baltimore guard (five seasons, turned 28 on March 10): He is expecting a big payday and will get it. It will be intriguing to see whether Nicks or Grubbs is the first to sign.

9. Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville defensive end (four seasons, turned 28 on Dec. 14): Hasn't made a lot of headlines, but Mincey can play. He had 8.0 sacks for the Jaguars last season, 101 tackles and six passes defensed. Mincey will improve the team that signs him.

10. Curtis Lofton, Atlanta middle linebacker (four seasons, 26 on June 2): The Falcons signed Tatupu to a two-year deal either because they didn't want to pay the freight for Lofton or because they are marshalling their forces for Williams. The market will set the value for middle men like Lofton and Hawthorne, none of whom will make anyone forget Ray Lewis.

11. Tracy Porter, New Orleans cornerback (four seasons, 26 on Aug. 11): Like Carr, he doesn't have a lot of tread on his tires, and will help make a secondary better. One question is whether he might be involved in the Saints' bounty investigation.

12. Chris Myers, Houston center (seven seasons, 31 on Sept. 15): Age isn't as much of a factor with offensive linemen and Myers will do well anchoring any team's line as he has done for the Texans.

Agree or disagree?: Discuss hot Packers topics in our, free forums. Leave publisher Bill Huber a question in the subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum.

Packer Report Top Stories