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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Top 50 free agents: Former top pick Williams is top player on open market

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Williams just turned 27 and has 53 sacks in 5 1/2 seasons. (US Presswire)  
Williams just turned 27 and has 53 sacks in 5 1/2 seasons. (US Presswire)  

My rule when ranking NFL free agents: Nobody age 30 or over in the top 10 -- unless you are a quarterback.

You can be 30 and a star, and you won't be atop my list. I just can't see the rationale in spending big money on a 30-or-older player when it's almost a certainty that the player won't be playing at a high level for the duration of the contract.

The target age is 26 or 27.

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Those players are reaching their primes. Their best football is to come. And, most importantly, they should play well to the end of their free-agent contracts.

It's bang for the buck.

As you scan my list of the top 50 free agents for 2012, you also won't see players that I fully expect to see get the franchise tag. That means players like New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, Chicago running back Matt Forte and Arizona defensive end Calais Campbell. There will be other players who get the franchise tag, but for now we'll just leave out those three.

One player I don't expect to get the tag is Houston defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams. If the Texans were to tag him, his franchise number would be $22 million. That's way too much for a cap-strapped team.

The Texans played without him for much of the season in 2011 and made the playoffs with emerging outside rushers in Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. I would expect Williams would check out the market before re-signing with the Texans.

If he hits the market, I would expect him to become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. Williams just turned 27 in January and he has 53 career sacks in 5 1/2 seasons.

He's the No. 1 guy for this season -- even if/when when Peyton Manning hits the market, unless Manning can prove he can throw with the same zip.

One more thing: No backs in the top 10. I just wouldn't pay any of them --- no matter who they are. The value isn't there in a passing league.

1. Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans: The Texans used him as a 3-4 rush outside linebacker last year, but I think his best spot is as a 4-3 end.

In a passing league, a young, premium corner like Carr will attract top dollar. (US Presswire)  
In a passing league, a young, premium corner like Carr will attract top dollar. (US Presswire)  
2. Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City Chiefs: How often do good man-cover players in their primes hit the market? This kid is about to get paid. He is this high because he plays a premium position well. He turns 26 in May.

3. Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans Saints: I consider him to be the best guard in the NFL. He is a nasty player who can block for the run or the pass. He turns 27 in May.

4. Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions: He has 19 1/2 sacks the past two seasons, including 11 last season. He has developed into a top pass rusher. He turns 26 in April, which makes him even more valuable.

5. DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia Eagles: The ability should get him a huge contract. But the attitude might cut that down some. Even so, this kid is a game-changer. Those guys don't hit the market all the time. He turns 26 in December.

6. Jermichael Finley, TE, Green Bay Packers: He didn't quite have the season many expected in 2011 (55 catches), but he is still a heck of an athlete who can do a ton of things for a tight end. He turns 25 in March.

7. Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers want him back, but at what cost? The indication is that the team won't tag him. He turned 29 in January.

8. Brent Grimes, CB, Atlanta Falcons: He is a feisty corner who can play man or zone. He is small, but he has great athletic ability. The Falcons missed him late when he was injured. He turns 29 in August.

9. Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs want him back in the worst way, but at what price? He is their top target in the passing game, but do they tag him? He turns 28 in September.

10. Red Bryant, DT, Seattle Seahawks: He had eight starts in his first three seasons, but started 16 in 2011 and was a force on the Seattle defense. He is a perfect 3-4 end, which is where he played last season. He is this year's Ray McDonald. He turns 28 in April.

The Ravens could slap the franchise tag on Ray Rice, who still has plenty of mileage left at 25. (US Presswire)  
The Ravens could slap the franchise tag on Ray Rice, who still has plenty of mileage left at 25. (US Presswire)  
11. Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens: He is a big part of what the Ravens do, and there is a chance he could get franchised. But that's not a definite. He just turned 25 in January.

12. Robert Mathis, DE, Indianapolis Colts: He is coming off his best season but turns 31 this month and is older than some teams would like for free agents. He has improved against the run and could easily make the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 rush 'backer.

13. Steve Johnson, WR, Buffalo Bills: There has already been some outrageous numbers bandied about for Johnson. The Bills want him back, but the price could get high. He is a franchise tag possibility. He turns 26 in July.

14. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans: He just turned 28 this month and will be a hot commodity on the open market. It doesn't appear he's coming back to Tennessee. The Lions would seem to be a team that will make a push.

15. Carlos Rogers, CB, San Francisco 49ers: He is the player who will benefit most from signing a one-year deal. He will cash in big after a good 2011 season for the 49ers. He isn't young, turning 31 in July.

16. Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans Saints: The question with Colston is whether he would be as good in another system. I say yes, but he isn't a burner. He turns 29 in June.

17. Tyvon Branch, S, Oakland Raiders: Branch led the Raiders in tackles and should have been in the Pro Bowl. He has improved in coverage as well. He turns 26 in December.

18. Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots: He led the league in catches, but is he a No. 1 receiver in any other system? The other issue is age. He turns 31 in June.

19. Dashon Goldson, S, San Francisco 49ers: He is coming off his most complete season. He has always been a good run defender, but improved against the pass this season with six picks. He seemed leaner and faster. He turns 28 in September.

Tracy Porter might prove to be too costly for the Saints. (US Presswire)  
Tracy Porter might prove to be too costly for the Saints. (US Presswire)  
20. Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans Saints: He is a good, solid starting corner, and those guys get paid. The Saints probably won't be able to keep him. He turns 26 in August.

21. Jeremy Mincey, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars: This is a try-hard player who did some good things against some good tackles last season. He isn't a speed player, but he is a solid 10-sack, good-run player. He turns 29 in December.

22. Chris Myers. C, Houston Texans: He was one of the better centers in the NFL last season, a perfect player for their cutback schemes. He turns 31 in September.

23. Jared Gaither, T, San Diego Chargers: The Chargers added him late when Marcus McNeil went down and he played well down the stretch. He has ability, which he showed when he was a starter for the Ravens before back troubles slowed his career. He turns 26 in March.

24. Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Denver Broncos: He is coming off his best season, the timing of it coming perfectly in the final year of his deal. He turns 29 in November.

25. Anthony Spencer, OLB, Dallas Cowboys: In a league desperate for pass-rush help, he will get action on the market, even though his six-sack total was a disappointment last season. He just turned 28 in January.

26. Curtis Lofton LB, Atlanta Falcons: He's a plug linebacker who had a tendency to get lost in pass coverage at times. He's good against the run but with it being a passing league, is the value there? He turns 26 in June.

27. Aaron Ross, CB, New York Giants: He's been a decent starting corner for two Super Bowl teams. That means something. He's a good second corner. He turns 30 in September.

28. John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons: He had 9 1/2 sacks for the Falcons in 2011 and played better late when he was entirely healthy. But he turns 34 in May. He will be hard-pressed to get a big contract because of that.

29. Ben Grubbs, G, Baltimore Ravens: He missed six games with a toe injury this season, but started 48 straight from 2008-10. He is the other guard on the Ravens line to Marshall Yanda, but he's still a good player. He turns 28 in March.

30. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco: He seems like he's been around forever, but he's only 27 and turns 28 in May. He is coming off his best season with 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions. The 49ers want him back, but there's no way they franchise tag him.

31. Reggie Wayne, WR, Indianapolis Colts: The question with Wayne is how many more years he has left to give. He can still be good for three or so, but how do you structure the contract? He turns 34 in November.

32. Demetrius Bell, T, Buffalo Bills: After starting 16 games in 2010, he had just six starts in 2011 because of knee issues. He turns 28 in May, which means his best football is in front of him.

33. D'Qwell Jackson, ILB, Cleveland Browns: After missing all of 2010 with a torn pectoral, he bounced back to start all 16 games last season and played at a Pro Bowl level. He turns 29 in September.

34. Pierre Garcon, WR, Indianapolis Colts: He caught a career-high 70 passes last season without good quarterback play. He can fly, which will make him attractive to other teams. He turns 26 in August.

35. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers: How good is he? Does anybody really know? Is he Rob Johnson or Matt Schaub? The team that signs him better hope he's the latter. He turns 27 in June.

36. Scott Wells, C, Green Bay Packers: He is the anchor of the Green Bay line and played well this season. He is a tough guy who battles. He just turned 31 in January.

37. Stephen Tulloch, MLB, Detroit Lions: On a one-year deal, he had 111 tackles and two picks for the Lions. He just turned 27, so age isn't an issue. He's a steady player.

38. Jason Jones, DT-DE, Tennessee Titans: He has flashed at times in his four seasons with the Titans, but he should be doing more. Has played both inside and outside for the Titans. He turns 26 in May, so he has time to become a really good player.

39. Sione Pouha, NT, New York Jets: He's had more than 50 tackles each of the past two seasons on the nose for the Jets. That's impressive. But he just turned 33, which is a concern.

40. Dwight Lowery, D, Jacksonville Jaguars: This former corner made a nice home at free safety for the Jaguars last season. He played above the level of expectations. The Jaguars want him back, but in a league where safety talent is at a minimum this former Jets player will get a nice deal. He just turned 26 in January.

41. Evan Mathis, G, Philadelphia Eagles: Mathis signed a one-year deal with the Eagles and played well. That could earn him a nice multiyear contract. He turns 31 in November.

42. Marshawn Lynch, RB, Seattle Seahawks: He has rejuvenated his career in Seattle after being a disappointment in Buffalo in his last two seasons. He ran for 1,204 yards last season for the Seahawks and he only turns 26 in March.

43. Reggie Nelson, S, Cincinnati Bengals: He was a disappointment in Jacksonville, but has turned his career around with the Bengals. He's a rangy safety who has improved his tackling. He turns 29 in September.

44. Jarrett Johnson, OLB, Baltimore Ravens: He's one of the underrated players on the Ravens defense. He isn't as flashy as some, but he gets the job done. He does turn 31 in August.

45. Robert Meachem, WR, New Orleans Saints: He's never caught more than 45 passes in a season but has the speed teams love. He does have 20 touchdown catches in the past three seasons. He turns 28 in September.

46. Michael Griffin, S, Tennessee Titans: His play has tailed off some this past season, but he's only 27. When he's at his best, he is a good, solid player. He's never been as good as his reputation.

47. Jerome Simpson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals: He is a receiver who can fly. That would make him a hot commodity, but he has a legal issue hanging over his head. He just turned 26 earlier this month.

48. Paul Soliai, DT, Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins franchised him last year and he played for that tag. It won't happen again. But he is a solid player who will get play on the market. He turns 29 in December.

49. Mario Manningham, WR, New York Giants: The Super Bowl hero is a good player, but is he a No. 2 receiver. And how much will he cost? Did the Super Bowl make the price come up? He turns 26 in May.

50. Pat Sims DT, Cincinnati Bengals: He has started 23 games in four seasons for the Bengals. He is mostly an anchor inside against the run. He won't bring a lot of pass rush. He turns 27 in November.


Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.
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