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Senior NFL Columnist

Top 30 free agents: New sheriff in town, a certain QB at No. 1


Move over, Mario Williams. You're not No. 1 anymore.

Not when there's a franchise quarterback out there.

Peyton Manning has kicked you down my list of the top-30 free agents. For weeks, Williams, the young, talented outside pass rusher for the Houston Texans, has topped my lists of free agents. But just as my latest list was popping up here at CBSSports.com, the Colts released Manning.

I have always been a quarterback guy. I have always believed Manning to be one of the all-time greats -- and I believe he will play to a high level again.

So he takes over as the No. 1 guy, moving Williams to No. 2 and Chiefs corner Brandon Carr to No. 3.

By the way: the first three offer a hint into what's important in this NFL -- a philosophy I've been preaching for years.

Get the quarterback if you don't have one. If you have one, get the pass rusher to knock the other guy's quarterback down. If you have those, get the guy to knock the other quarterback's passes down.

That's the NFL now: quarterback, pass rushers and corners.

And on this list, they are one, two and three.

1. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts: Yes, there are health issues in play. But I get the sense that he will again be playing at a high level. That means he is a franchise-changer again.

2. Mario Williams, DE, Houston Texans: How would you like to be his agent? He is going to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. End of story.

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3. Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City Chiefs: How often do good man-cover players in their prime hit the market? This kid is about to get paid. His is this high because he plays a premium position well. He turns 26 in May.

4. 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. Said he wants to go back to the Saints, but that seems unlikely.

5. Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers: With all the tags going to receivers, his stock has gone up. He just turned 29, which could turn off some teams.

6. 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. Watching tape on him is impressive. He plays hard.

7. Cortland Finnegan, CB, Tennessee Titans: He just turned 28 this month and will be a hot commodity on the open market with Brent Grimes tagged. The Lions would seem to be a team that will make a push.

8. Marques Colston, WR, New Orleans Saints: It will be tough for the Saints to keep him with the Drew Brees' cap number so big. They want him back, but he will be a hot commodity. He is a big target. He's had a lot of knee injuries.

9. Carlos Rogers, CB, San Francisco 49ers: He is the player who will benefit most from signing a one-year deal last season. His play tailed off late and his age (30) is a concern.

10. Tracy Porter, CB, New Orleans Saints: He is a good, solid starting corner, and with Grimes off the market and him turning 26 in August, he will get a nice deal.

11. Jeremy Mincey, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars -- This is a player who can give you eight to 10 sacks and be a good run player. The Jaguars want him back, but only if the price doesn't get crazy.

12. 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. There is talk the Packers could sign him. I say he stays.

13. 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.

14. 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 the league going to a passing league is the value there? He turns 26 in June.

15.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.

16.John Abraham, DE, Atlanta Falcons: He had 9½ sacks for the Falcons in 2011, but only one came in a division game. He will be 34 in May. That's a concern. Message: Buyer beware.

17. Ben Grubbs, G, Baltimore Ravens: He missed six games with a toe injury this season, but started 48 straight from 2008-10. For a team looking for a good, solid guard, he's the guy.

18. Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Denver Broncos: Was he playing for a contract last year? Some scouts think he was. But he played to a high level. Can he continue it? That's the million-dollar question.

19. Alex Smith, QB, San Francisco -- It's almost a given he's going back to San Francisco. He is coming off his best season with 17 touchdown passes and five interceptions.

20. 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.

21. 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.

22. Pierre Garcon, WR, Indianapolis Colts: He caught a career-high 70 passes last season without good quarterback play. But is he worth a big-money deal? Some scouts wonder about consistency.

23. Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers: After watching him on tape, I'm not sure he can be elite, but he can be a solid player. Money would be an issue if I were signing him.

24. Scott Wells, C, Green Bay Packers: e 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.

25. 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.

26. 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.

27. Sione Pouha, NT, New York Jets: He's had over 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.

28. 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.

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

30. Reggie Nelson, S, Cincinnati Bengals: He has rejuvenated his career with the Bengals. In a league where there is a shortage of safeties, he will get a decent deal. He can cover and has improved his tackling.

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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