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 between now and then 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 three 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.
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 Feb. 4 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.
As teams make additional cuts, there likely will be new names added to the mix before March 12. For now, we're working with the players normally scheduled to reach unrestricted free agency. 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.