The Vikings might be in the bargain business when free agency hits, but there could be several very good players available this year at positions of need because of the depth charts and spending of their current teams. Len Pasquarelli looks at a half-dozen quality starters, some Pro Bowl types, that could be become free agents because of the money spent by their current teams.
Free agency is about tradeoffs. Comparisons of talent levels, needs, age, roster compatibility, and, hardly least of all, money.
Put it all together and teams may lose good players simply because they are overstocked at that position.
The contracts of some players, and the investments that a franchise has made in a certain unit, often preclude a team from retaining a free-agent player at the same position. The pending free agent market, which commences next month, doubtless includes some veterans that teams will not be able to afford because of huge contracts already awarded players at the same positions.
Teams might not be so much blocked by existing contracts from pursuing some of their own free agents, but they could be hindered.
Here are a few potential examples:
DE Cliff Avril, Detroit (four years): The quick, upfield pass rusher registered 11 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2011, and is one of the emerging players for the resurgent Lions, and becoming one of the best frontline edge players in the NFL. He signed the one-year, restricted tender of $2.61 million for '11, and has said that he wants to stay in Detroit, but would frown on the franchise tag. Fellow end Kyle Vanden Bosch has a base salary of $5 million for 2012, and a cap charge of about $7.7 million, and Detroit also has big money invested in tackle Ndamukong Suh ($12.7 million cap), and made tackle Nick Fairley a first-rounder last year (cap charge of $2.25 million). It's hard to invest so much in one unit.
WR Plaxico Burress, New York Jets (10 years): Having resurrected his career in 2011, and rehabilitated his image somewhat, there's probably no way that Burress won't take advantage of free agency. Not after playing on a one-year contract for about $3 million in 2011. But the $15.25 million in guaranteed salary that the Jets owe malcontent wideout Santonio Holmes for 2012-2013 all but assures that Burress won't be re-signing with the Jets. After his incarceration-related hiatus from the game, Burress had 45 catches for 612 yards in 2011. Not earth-shattering numbers, for sure, but he was once again a force in the "red zone," with seven of his eight touchdowns inside of 20 yards, and that will help make him attractive.
LB Dan Connor, Carolina (four years): Certainly the former third-round pick (2008) standout from Penn State doesn't have the same kind of name value or recognition as some of the other players, but he is a guy in whom other franchises have been interested for the last couple seasons. In fact, his name has been raised in trade rumors in the past, and now he can be acquired as a free agent. He started a career-best 11 games in 2011, replacing the injured Jon Beason (left ankle), and posting 75 tackles. Over the last two seasons, Connor has 19 starts and, while the market for 4-3 middle linebackers hasn't been great of late, he is a solid player who can probably be obtained for a palatable price. The Panthers really like him, but Beason is likely to return, and his six-year, $51.34 million contract awarded last summer could block Carolina from keeping Connor around.
CB Brent Grimes, Atlanta (four years): In 2010, the Falcons signed cornerback Dunta Robinson to a six-year, $57 million contract, and he is scheduled to earn $6 million in base salary next season, with a cap charge of $7.75 million. Problem is, Grimes, a onetime undrafted free agent, is the better player. He had only one interception in 2011, after posting 11 pickoffs total the previous two years, but his absence for four games while injured hurt the secondary. He signed a one-year tender for $2.61 million in 2011, and will cost the Falcons a lot more than that to keep, but can they afford to pay big money for another cornerback? Atlanta faces some tough decisions on defense, with end John Abraham and middle linebacker Curtis Lofton, but a team has to have corners the way the game is played now, and Grimes has eclipsed the highly-paid Robinson as the franchise's best.
LB Jarret Johnson, Baltimore (nine years): It's probably not just the six-year, $62.5 million contract of fellow linebacker Terrell Suggs that might keep the Ravens from retaining the steady Johnson, but that's probably a detriment. Other elements might include age (30), the fact Johnson isn't used much as a rusher, and that youngster Paul Kruger registered 5.5 sacks as a situational rusher in his third season, will be cheaper, and is expected to have his role expand in 2012. Johnson, who has started all 16 games in each of the past five seasons, is finishing a five-year, $21.7 million deal and might not land that kind of money anywhere in the league. Still, he's a steady, no-frills, run-stuffing defender, who had only four sacks the past two years after getting 11 the previous two.
OG Carl Nicks, New Orleans (four years): If the Saints can get quarterback Drew Brees signed before free agency begins, they might use the franchise designation to keep Nicks around. But with right guard Jahri Evans already signed to a record seven-year, $56.7 million deal - his base salary for 2012 is $3 million, and his cap charge $4.7 million, and then the numbers really spiral upward - can the Saints afford another monster contract for their left guard? Nicks, 26, is a two-time Pro Bowl blocker, provides toughness for New Orleans, and some feel that he has moved slightly ahead of Evans at the position.
WR Laurent Robinson, Dallas (five years): The journeyman receiver, signed by Dallas last year after San Diego released him at the end of camp, emerged as one of the premier No. 3 wideouts in the league. Now it's time to make some money, after playing for only $685,000 a year ago. Dallas has big bucks tied up in Miles Austin and Dez Bryant, although the numbers for each don't get really ponderous until 2013, so they might not be able to afford Robinson, who has said he would like to stay with the team, but probably will test free agency. Who can blame him? With his fourth NFL franchise last season, he caught 54 passes for 858 yards, and scored 11 touchdowns. So many offenses rely now on three wide receivers that, unless other clubs regard last season as a fluke, Robinson will be in demand.