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Top 30 free agents: Insider's guide to best players on the market


Coveted Texans pass rusher Mario Williams is 'this year's Julius Peppers.' (Getty Images)  
Coveted Texans pass rusher Mario Williams is 'this year's Julius Peppers.' (Getty Images)  

When I ran the unrestricted free agency portion of the pro personnel department for the Jets, I kept free-agent boards that resembled draft boards. There was a board stacked by position and another board by the top 100 available that day.

Unrestricted free agency was an ever-changing personnel board, due to signings and terminations. The college draft board was a finite group of players that were going to come off the board all in one shot. Free-agency boards are active for months.

There is still a week to get free agents signed by their current teams, and I expect a few of the 30 players listed below to be retained by their club before free agency starts. After reviewing the Robert Mathis deal, it was such a good deal for the player that a number of players would sign a deal like that without hitting free agency.

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Also, keep in mind there will be a decent number of quality players released by the end of the week for salary cap purposes. Four teams are still over the salary cap: the Raiders, Giants, Panthers and Lions, and they must be in compliance at the start of free agency. Also, six other teams have fewer than $9 million in cap space and I anticipate some contract adjustments.

The point is the list is going to change, but for now here are the players I would target. They are talented and should come off the free agent board fairly quickly. Franchise-tagged players and late signings at certain positions like running back will enhance the slotting of remaining players in free agency. Keep in mind, need is a driving force in free agency so players will be viewed differently by different teams.

Each week, as players come off this list and new players are added to free agency, I will update the list.

1. Mario Williams, Houston DE/OLB: The Texans couldn't franchise tag him at $22 million but make no mistake about it, Williams is the premier player in free agency and he fits in every scheme. He is this year's Julius Peppers.

2. Red Bryant, Seattle DE: When he crossed paths with Pete Carroll's defense, his career exploded. Teams that have done their homework have him way up the free-agent board.

3. Carl Nicks, New Orleans OG: The Saints got in a bind with a franchise tag for Drew Brees and the deal they did with Jahri Evans, otherwise Nicks would have been locked up.

4. Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh WR (Restricted): Now that the compensation for a restricted free agent has been lowered to just a first-round pick, some team near the bottom of Round 1 should take a shot at the 26-year-old Pro Bowl player.

5. Matt Flynn, Green Bay QB: If your team needs a quarterback and isn't at the top of Round 1 in the draft, he may be the best option.

6. Mike Tolbert, San Diego RB: Three running backs were taken off the free-agent board with tags and a contract. Tolbert can do a lot of things, and some think given the chance, could blossom the way Michael Turner did when he left San Diego.

7. Vincent Jackson, San Diego WR: He will be 29 this year and that is a small issue as it relates to a long-term deal, but he is a big target.

8. Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee CB: Finnegan is a tenacious, competitive corner who would be a fit in St. Louis or Detroit.

9. Brandon Carr, Kansas City CB: The Chiefs signed Stanford Routt and that made Carr available. Hopefully he understands signability is important, and there are other options in free agency and the draft.

10. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit ILB: I'm sure the Lions would love to have him back, but there should be interest from teams like Philadelphia and the Giants.

11. Curtis Lofton, Atlanta ILB: Someone labeled him a two-down linebacker and that's supposedly a bad thing. Well, he's a fine two-down linebacker who ensures you get to third downs. He also has as many pass breakups in the same amount of games as D'Qwell Jackson has, plus he has forced seven fumbles.

12. Chris Myers, Houston OC: He will be 31 this season but he's a plug-in starter at center and should play at a high level for a four-year deal.

13.Ben Grubbs, Baltimore OG: It looks like a good year for guards in the draft, and there are a few guards in free agency who will compete against Grubbs for a deal.

Jason Jones is a rare and valuable commodity. (US Presswire)  
Jason Jones is a rare and valuable commodity. (US Presswire)  
14. Jason Jones, Tennessee DT: Active inside players who are 26 years old are hard to find. Jones could start for most teams in the NFL.

15. Evan Mathis, Philadelphia OG: His career came alive in Philly and he's on the radar screen of a few teams to include returning to the Eagles.

16. Scott Wells, Green Bay OC: Unless the Packers plan on signing Chris Myers -- which really isn't their style -- Wells needs to return to Green Bay. The Packers don't have a lot of cap space at $6.5 million, when you consider the league average for space is $18.9 million, and a team could put a nice deal together for him.

17. Adam Snyder, San Francisco OG: Surprised he's on the list? Offensive line coaches around the league believe when he stepped in at guard for Chilo Rachal, the 49ers line got significantly better right away. He will not cost nearly as much as Nicks or Grubbs and could be a solid bargain.

18. Jared Gaither, San Diego OT: Gaither is free at the right time with a shallow class of left tackles in the draft and a weak list in free agency.

19. Brandon Lloyd, St. Louis WR: Lloyd is a very athletic receiver who makes the acrobatic catch. He should have the Rams very interested in re-signing him.

20. Marques Colston, New Orleans WR: There is medical risk with Colston, but if the doctors say he's good, a team will get a big productive player who works the inside seam routes as well as anyone.

21. BenJarvus Green-Ellis, New England RB: The 27-year-old running back doesn't have a lot of wear and tear, plus he has 24 rushing touchdowns in the last two years as well as 1,675 yards rushing.

22. Tracy Porter, New Orleans CB: Before I overpay some of the corners listed above like Finnegan and Carr, it might be wise to check out Porter.

23. Michael Bush, Oakland RB: A team looking for a big back like the Steelers might be with Mendenhall out, have to consider this guy. The Raiders are in cap jail and can't afford to keep him.

24. Robert Meachem, New Orleans WR: Meachem is a vertical threat receiver who has developed better hands in the past year or so. He may be a product of Brees and company, but a tall player with speed is someone a team like the Patriots might like at the right price.

25. Antonio Garay, San Diego NT: A rugged 3-4 nose tackle who does the dirty work inside. He has a medical history but has remained healthy since arriving in San Diego.

26. Mario Manningham, Giants WR: He's the Giants' No. 3 wide receiver but could easily be a No. 2 for other teams. It wouldn't surprise me if he followed coach Mike Sullivan (former Giants quarterbacks coach) to Tampa Bay.

27. Pierre Garcon, Indianapolis WR: Peyton Manning trained the 26-year-old wideout well. He understands route running, timing and he has a good pair of hands. He would be a nice complement in Houston opposite Andre Johnson. The Texans know him well after watching him catch 29 passes in the past six games against them.

28. Terrell Thomas, Giants CB: I talked to Thomas recently and he assured me his recovery from knee surgery is going well. Sounded like he wanted to return to the Giants but other teams are very aware of how good he is. I expect him to take a few visits to team doctors around the league.

29. Kyle Orton, Kansas City QB: It is hard to find a capable QB who can compete to start but also come off the bench and give a team a legitimate chance to win.

30. Laurent Robinson, Dallas WR: The Cowboys want him back and he probably wants to go back but he was productive enough that there will be interest outside of Dallas.

Pat Kirwan has been around the league since 1972, serving in a variety of roles. He was a scout for the Cardinals and Buccaneers, a coach for the Jets as well as the team's Director of Player Administration where he negotiated contracts and managed the team's salary cap. He is the author of Take Your Eye Off the Ball: How to Watch Football by Knowing Where to Look, and the host of Sirius NFL Radio's Moving the Chains.

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