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Top 30 free agents: Huge new name tops the best players available

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Peyton Manning hitting the market shuffles every free-agent board. (AP)  
Peyton Manning hitting the market shuffles every free-agent board. (AP)  

I spent the better part of last week in Naples, Fla., with NFL people in town for the completion of committee meetings, and it provided some very good insight as to the direction free agency is headed this year. There is genuine concern about the lack of growth in the salary cap as it pertains to protecting your own players and recruiting others.

When I ran the unrestricted free-agency part of the pro personnel department for the Jets, I kept free agent boards that resembled the 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 because of signings and terminations. The college draft board was a finite group of players who were going to come off the board all in one shot. Free-agency boards are active for months and updated daily.

There is still a week to get free agents signed by the home teams, and I expect a few of the 30 players listed to be retained by their club before free agency starts. After reviewing the Robert Mathis deal, a number of players would sign a deal like that without hitting free agency. Also keep I mind there were at least 15 quality veterans released since last week, led by Peyton Manning.

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The four teams over the salary cap a week ago -- Oakland, N.Y. Giants, Carolina and Detroit -- are a part of the group of teams dumping players to get under the cap and be in compliance at the start of free agency. Six other teams have fewer than $9 million in cap space, and I expect some contract adjustments with at least another dozen veterans being shown the door by Tuesday. The point is the list is going to change but for now here are the players I would target. With each big contract signed, expect veterans to be dropped from a roster. If Peyton Manning signs with the Cardinals, they must release players to fit his contract under the salary cap.

Each week, as players come off this list and new players are added to free agency as well as those who didn't make the first top 30, I will update the list. In the week since the first top 30 list came out, a number of quality free agents have been added to the market and a few very good players have taken deals with their home club.

Updated info appears in italics.

1. Peyton Manning, Indianapolis QB: He may be the greatest quarterback to ever hit free agency if he's healthy. Expect him to be on a team as free agency opens. His top Colts receivers are also available, and he could bring a plug-in offense with him if need be.

2. 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. There have been some concern about his torn pectoral muscle that has a few teams concerned, but as I wrote two weeks ago for CBSSports.com, the Texans can get him re-signed if they want to.

3. 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.

4. 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. One GM told me as fine a player as Carl is, he has concern about his potential to cross the 400-pound mark and wonders if a big contract could trigger conditioning issues.

5. 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. I can't find a club with a late first-round pick to sound serious about going after Wallace. Maybe it's the $8 million of salary cap space that the Steelers have cleared since the first top 30 list.

6. 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. One quarterback coach told me to look closely at the Detroit game before thinking Matt is the answer. I looked at the game and he's good enough, but stacking him up against Ryan Tannehill is the question for Cleveland, Miami and Seattle.

7. 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 for a football team and some think given the chance could blossom the way Michael Turner did when he left San Diego. One GM told me he still likes Tolbert more than the recently released Brandon Jacobs.

8. 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. From what I can determine, a team like Washington sees DeSean Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and Stevie Johnson off the market as well as age or injury issues involving Reggie Wayne and Marques Colston, which really gives Vincent Jackson a chance to cash in in D.C.

9. Cortland Finnegan, Tennessee CB: Finnegan is a tenacious competitive corner who would be a fit in St. Louis or Detroit. With two first-round and two second-round picks, the Rams may not feel the need to overpay Finnegan.

10. Eric Winston, Houston OT: Winston could wind up getting interest from Baltimore, Buffalo, Cleveland, Kansas City, New York Jets, New York Giants, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Washington. He's a fine run blocker and capable pass blocker. One personnel man said "the team sounds like they are making room to go after Manning." A coach said "the five holding calls and the eight sacks given up might have played into it but I would still like him on my team."

11. 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.

12. Stephen Tulloch, Detroit ILB: I'm sure the Lions would love to have him back but there should be interest from teams like the Eagles and Giants. When I brought up Tulloch and Curtis Lofton to one defensive coach last week, he said he liked Erin Henderson from the Vikings as well. Henderson is a 6-3 245-pound undrafted player who had 11 starts last year and is believed to be capable at Mike or Will.

Curtis Lofton is a two-down linebacker? Not necessarily. (US Presswire)  
Curtis Lofton is a two-down linebacker? Not necessarily. (US Presswire)  
13. 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.

14. 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.

15. 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. I asked a long-time NFL offensive line coach to stack the guards in free agency, and he had Evan Mathis above Ben Grubbs and Adam Snyder, just about even with Grubbs.

16. 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. A contract negotiator for a club said earlier this week "Jones is going to make more money that he anticipated if he waits until Red Bryant's deal is signed."

17. Alex Smith, San Francisco QB: He wasn't on the top 30 list last week because I thought the deal would be done by now, but there are issues with the length of the deal. He wants five years and the club is offering three. A team that loses out on Manning and also realizes that RG3 is off the market might get interested. He's an upgrade in Seattle.

18. 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. Evan might have been a best-kept secret a week ago but he is rising up pro boards now that the line coaches have had time to study his 2011 season.

19. Scott Wells, Green Bay C: 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.

20. 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.

21. 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. Sounds like he's a lock to re-sign.

22. Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis WR: Peyton is moving, and Reggie will follow. Wayne has 286 receptions and 20 touchdowns in the past three seasons. Even at 34, he could be a 75-90 reception guy this year with Peyton.

23. Brandon Lloyd, St Louis WR: Lloyd is a very athletic receiver who makes the acrobatic catch. He should have the Rams very interested in resigning him. Lloyd is campaigning to sign with New England.

24. Marques Colston, New Orleans WR: There is medical risk with Colston, but if the doctors say he's good to go a team will get a big productive player who works the inside seam routes as good as anyone. He may really benefit from the Colts receivers who follow Peyton wherever he goes and leave a bigger piece of the market for him.

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

26. 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.

27. 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. When Ray Rice and Matt Forte were tagged, as well as Marshawn Lynch and Arian Foster doing deals, it opened the door a week ago for Bush, but now add Brandon Jacobs and Joseph Addai to the running back pool. Keep an eye on Cincinnati as well as Pittsburgh.

28. Robert Meachem, New Orleans WR: Meacham is a vertical threat wide 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.

29. 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. Garay will pay close attention to the deal the Jets do with Sione Pouha.

30. Mario Manningham, NY 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 former Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan to Tampa Bay. Don't count out Washington as a potential place for Manningham to wind up.

The addition of Manning, Alex Smith and Reggie Wayne to the top 30 also means Pierre Garcon, Terrell Thomas, Kyle Orton and Laurent Robinson are dropped to the waiting list. Among those on the launch pad to make the top 30 as players get re-signed are Dallas Clark, Erin Henderson, Melvin Bullitt, Brandon Jacobs, Jake Scott, Corey Redding, Mark Anderson, Jason Campbell and Demetrius Bell.


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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