The lockout delayed the start of free agency this offseason, meaning we had months to debate where the best players on the market would land. In a sense, the compressed schedule made things more exciting, because free agency was underway just days after the undrafted rookies found their new teams and was still going strong as teams began training camp. For some players, having the draft precede free agency diminished the market for their services (which is why we saw so many vets take one-year "prove it" deals). On the other hand, things went quite well for some of their peers:
• Cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha signed a contract commensurate with the hype surrounding his pursuit: a five-year, $60 million pact with $25 million guaranteed.
• Defensive end Ray Edwards avoided having to continue his professional boxing career by cashing in to the tune of $30 million over five years, with $15 million guaranteed.
Meanwhile, there were a number of huge deals for teams re-signing their own stud players:
• The Carolina Panthers extended defensive end Charles Johnson (six years, $76 million with $32 million guaranteed) and running back DeAngelo Williams (five years, $43 million with $21 million guaranteed).
In a recent article, ESPN's Chris Sprow examined which quarterbacks around the league could be next offseason's Kevin Kolb, the backup QB on the trading block that teams believe can be their franchise savior. Our resident draft guru, Mel Kiper Jr., has already published his first Big Board for the 2012 draft, examining which players we'll be talking about leading up to next April's event. To complete the trifecta, let's take a look at the players that will fill the third category: the hot commodities on the free agent market in 2012.
To help organize the list, let's consider three different types of impending 2012 free agents:
1. Those playing out the string in 2011 as a tryout for a new deal, possibly in a new city (the cliché here would be that these players are "in a contract year").
2. Those trying to build up some leverage against their current team to get an extension before the end of the season, though they may ultimately sign elsewhere.
3. The players that are likely to sign a new deal with their incumbent team prior to hitting the open market, and whose signing with a different franchise would be truly shocking.
Time to prove it
Kyle Orton, QB, Denver Broncos
Orton has extended his lead in the race to win the starting job in Denver over Tim Tebow as the preseason has advanced, after the team failed to negotiate a trade that would've also likely included a new long-term contract. Orton would have easily eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing benchmark in 2010 had injuries and the previous coaching staff's decision-making not gotten in the way. He'll be just 29 years old next March and will be attractive to teams searching for a mentor for the QB that they'll be drafting in April.
Vince Young, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
After Young's very public flameout with the Tennessee Titans, he landed in a great location to showcase his abilities. Andy Reid has always done a fine job developing QBs, and given Michael Vick's playing style, there's a strong chance Young will see the field; by season's end, he may even get a start or two under his belt. The Texas product will turn 29 next spring, so he's not a young buck anymore, but if he can prove that he's put his mental shortcomings behind him during his one-season tryout in Philly, there will be an enhanced market for his services next offseason.