This article is the first part in a three-part series covering the NFL free agency situation. This post will look at quarterbacks and running backs, the second will look at receivers and tight ends, and the third will look at defenders.
Based on their skills and the roles they’re capable of obtaining, the players are listed in a vaguely descending order of their fantasy potential.
1. Drew Brees (NO)
It could take some clever cap maneuvers to get everything to fit neatly with all of Marques Colston, Carl Nicks and Robert Meachem hitting free agency at the same time, but Brees is an absolute lock to remain in New Orleans. As long as he’s there, he’s a top-three fantasy quarterback option. Nothing to see here.
2. Matt Flynn (GB)
It remains to be seen whether the Packers will let Flynn walk into free agency – the franchise tag could be an option now that Jermichael Finley signed a two-year deal with the team – but Flynn will be on another team for the 2012 season, probably in a starting role. With his offensive coordinator from Green Bay (Joe Philbin) taking over as Miami’s head coach, there’s your pick for the most obvious Flynn destination, depending on what happens with Peyton Manning. Even if Miami goes with Manning instead, the teams that lose out on the Robert Griffin sweepstakes may prefer to take a chance on Flynn for a third or fourth-round pick rather than spend a first-round pick on Ryan Tannehill or Brandon Weeden. Cleveland, Washington, Denver and Seattle all should take a close look at Flynn, while Kansas City and Oakland are two darkhorse candidates who would be smart to realize their current starters will never cut it.
3. Alex Smith (SF)
Smith had a great season in 2011, but the throwback, ball-control offense in San Francisco keeps his fantasy utility at a minimum.
4. Kyle Orton (KC)
He’s better than Rex Grossman, John Beck and Tarvaris Jackson and arguably as good as the likes of Carson Palmer, Matt Cassel and Kevin Kolb, but Orton is still fighting an uphill battle as he tries to find another starting role. His problem is that his potential has been exhausted and everyone knows it. Even if he’s better than a given player at this particular moment, teams will have little trouble convincing themselves that the prospect they’re grooming to start will be the better player in a year or even a few months.
5. Jason Campbell (OAK)
Campbell finds himself in the same boat as Orton. Based on immediate merit alone, he should be a starter in the NFL. But since he’s a below average starter, he seems likely to emerge from the offseason as a high-priced backup instead. Campbell has a strong arm and is a standout athlete for a quarterback, but he just doesn’t make enough plays to excite teams.
6. Chad Henne (MIA)
Other than a strange surge of rushing production in 2011, Henne has shown basically no growth as a quarterback since he entered the league in 2008, and there can't really be a team out there that expects that to change.
7. David Garrard (JAC)
Garrard had a nice run as a starter, but his age (34) and back injury issues will leave him nothing but backup opportunities in 2012.
8. Vince Young (PHI)
Young joined the Eagles on a one-year deal hoping to rehabilitate his value as a free agent, but he tanked it instead, throwing four touchdowns compared to nine interceptions.
9. Josh Johnson (TB)
The Buccaneers seem to really like Johnson as a backup to Josh Freeman, so a return to Tampa Bay would not surprise. It’s not as if he’ll find a lot of money or a starting opportunity anywhere.
10. Dennis Dixon (PIT)
Dixon’s athleticism and running ability make him someone capable of decent fantasy production as a spot start against a weak defense, but he’ll need to be higher than third on a depth chart to have that opportunity.
1. Arian Foster (RESTRICTED) (HOU)
There’s no doubt at this point that Foster is the real deal, and health permitting, he’s here to stay as an elite fantasy option. Despite missing three games and witnessing his backup (Ben Tate) accumulate 942 yards on the ground in 2011, Foster still totaled 1,841 yards and 12 touchdowns from scrimmage. Houston will do whatever is necessary to keep Foster around, including the franchise tag.
2. Ray Rice (BAL)
Rice reportedly is demanding a contract similar to that signed by Adrian Peterson in September (seven years, $96 million), a negotiation approach that will with 100 percent certainty get him franchise-tagged. He’s an excellent running back and understandably is trying to get a big chunk of cash now since running backs don’t last long, but that demand isn’t reasonable. Coming off a 2,068-yard, 15-touchdown season in 2011, there’s no doubt that Baltimore are dependent on Rice and will make sure he sticks around one way or another.
3. Matt Forte (CHI)
Forte had a career year in 2011, and he was rewarded with a season-ending MCL sprain in December. His total of 1,487 yards from scrimmage in 12 games has his value at an all-time high, but Chicago's reluctance to pay him before that surge in production makes it appear unlikely that a long-term deal will be agreed to. The Bears would therefore seem likely to use the franchise tag on Forte.
4. Marshawn Lynch (SEA)
A career of mediocrity gave way to a beastly Lynch in a contract year last season, the textbook scenario for franchise tag utilization. The franchise tag would be the best-case scenario for Lynch’s owners, too, as it would force a second-straight contract year.
5. Michael Bush (OAK)
Finally, someone on the list who might actually change teams. The Raiders will presumably try to keep Bush around since Darren McFadden is such an injury risk, but there may be enough demand for Bush in free agency to price him out of Oakland’s range. Since he has been on the bench or splitting carries for most of his career, Bush has limited wear-and-tear and heads into free agency in a situation similar to that of Michael Turner when he left San Diego.
6. Peyton Hillis (CLE)
Hillis' value fell off a cliff after a 2011 season plagued with injury issues and contract drama, but he’s still better than Montario Hardesty in an offense that is unlikely to have a good enough quarterback to go heavy on the passing game.
7. Isaac Redman (RESTRICTED) (PIT)
Redman is primed for a big role for at least the first couple months of the 2012 season as Rashard Mendenhall recovers from a January ACL tear. He’s the only Pittsburgh back who isn’t one dimensional, so the Steelers will keep him around and give him plenty of work. He ran for 726 yards (4.5 YPC) and three touchdowns over the last two years.
8. Mike Tolbert (SD)
Tolbert is a standout passing-down back, but his consecutive seasons with a 4.0 rushing average illustrate his limitations. Although he didn't see double-digit carries after November, Tolbert did score four touchdowns in the final five weeks of last year, so it appears best for his fantasy prospects to remain in San Diego, limited as they might be.
9. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (NE)
The Law Firm doesn’t fumble, but beyond that he doesn’t seem to offer much as an NFL running back. His familiarity with the Patriots, though, could allow him to reprise his role as the uneventful thumper and goal-line back in New England, as long as he remembers that he’s not worth a significant contract.
10. Evan Royster (RESTRICTED) (WAS)
Royster was cut prior to the start of the regular season, but the Penn State product was impressive when he was added to the roster in late November, running for 245 yards (6.3 YPC) over the last two weeks of the year. Washington will bring him back to split the workload with Roy Helu and perhaps Tim Hightower, both of whom have injury concerns.
11. Kahlil Bell (RESTRICTED) (CHI)
Bell was impressive subbing for Matt Forte last year, showing the ability to carry the load if Forte should be unavailable again. For that reason, the Bears are unlikely to let him get away.
12. Justin Forsett (SEA)
Forsett's workload disappeared in 2011 and he ran for just 145 yards while averaging 3.2 yards per carry. His 2010 (523 yards, 4.4 YPC) and 2009 (619 yards, 5.4 YPC) seasons, though, indicate that Forsett is capable of producing for some team in a change-of-pace role.
13. Tim Hightower (WAS)
Mike Shanahan likes to win football games, but his primary objective in life is to destroy the spirits of people who own his players in fantasy football. For that reason, it looks like the Redskins will attempt to re-sign Hightower, perhaps to have him serve as a passing-down specialist and deprive Roy Helu’s owners of the immense pass-catching upside possessed by the former Nebraska runner.
14. Jackie Battle (KC)
Battle is entirely unremarkable as a runner, but he does at least have the brute strength necessary to push piles and hold attempted tacklers accountable, which could lead some team to give him a look as a change-of-pace option to complement a smaller, shiftier runner. He won’t find a starting role, though.
15. Ryan Grant (GB)
Grant looked explosive in the last month or so of the season, but he still was stiff and showed minimal change-of-direction abilities. He can take what’s right ahead of him and turn up the field fairly well, but Grant isn’t sudden enough with his lateral movements to earn anything more than a backup role.
16. Kevin Smith (DET)
Smith looked better than ever when he returned to the Lions in November, but injury issues quickly sank the ship. After looking smooth and explosive in his first four games back, Smith went on to average just 3.3 yards per carry over his next three games. Detroit could bring him back in a reserve role, but it might not be smart to have such an injury prone runner behind Jahvid Best, whose long-term outlook is bleak due to concussion issues, and Mikel Leshoure, who’s recovering from a torn Achilles’ tendon.
17. Cedric Benson (CIN)
It’s rather easy to find a running back who’s capable of averaging 3.9 yards per carry without repeatedly getting into trouble off the field, so there’s no good reason on paper for the Bengals to keep Benson around any longer. Some other team, though, will presumably offer Benson a backup role.
18. Steve Slaton (MIA)
It seems impossible for Slaton to fallen as far as he has, but here we are. He has just 177 rushing yards in the last two years, and it’s not especially easy to see him making much of a comeback. Still, you have to figure he’ll be on a roster this year.
19. Derrick Ward (HOU)
Ward struggled with injuries in 2011 and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry, but he averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored four touchdowns on just 50 rushes in 2010. He might not be able to do better than a third runner role, though.
20. LaDainian Tomlinson (NYJ)
This could be the end for Tomlinson. He ran for just 280 yards (3.7 YPC) in 2011 and just doesn’t seem to have anything left. Some time might give him a look as a third-down back, but that’s all.