Point/Counterpoint: Who will be the most coveted player on the NFL’s free agency market this year?

A little less than a year ago, the Buccaneers made the biggest single-day free agency splash in franchise history, immediately snapping the most coveted wide receiver (Vincent Jackson) AND the most coveted offensive lineman (Carl Nicks) off the market, as well as starting-caliber cornerback Eric Wright.  Either Jackson or Nicks might also have been at the top of the overall list of available free agents, though Mario Williams would have been a prime candidate for that spot, too.  Depending upon depth chart needs and specific preferences, some teams might have started their rankings with Brandon Carr, Cortland Finnegan or Matt Flynn.

The Bucs got their men on March 14, while the Bills swiped Williams away from the Texans on the 15th.  Carr went from the Chiefs to the Cowboys on the 14th, the same day Finnegan left the Titans and rejoined Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.  Flynn actually waited until the 18th to pick the Seahawks after leaving Green Bay.  Every year, the players in the most demand seem to make their decisions in the opening hours of free agency, and this time around their agents will have a three-day lead-in period to start negotiations with possible suitors.

Will Tampa once again be the destination for one or more of the top free agents in 2013?  That remains to be seen, though the Bucs definitely have salary cap space to work with if they choose to do so.  That, however, is not the question I present to you, Andrew.

In fact, don’t worry at all about which teams may be wooing the top free agents this year.  Instead of the ‘where,’ let’s debate the ‘who.’  Specifically, who is this year’s Mario Williams or Carl Nicks?  Who is going to have the most passionate suitors, and who is going to ink the biggest deal?

While we’re not worrying about what teams may come calling, let’s do keep the players’ current teams in mind.  Every year, the list of potential free agents looks a lot more appealing in January than it does in March.  Obviously, many teams do their best to re-sign their core players before free agency begins, especially the young ones who are just coming off their initial four or five-year NFL contracts.  That’s an important consideration.  For instance, you could choose Joe Flacco if you like, but I would counter that I strongly believe, one way or another, the Ravens will find a way to keep him around.

In the same vein, you can choose a pending restricted free agent if you like, but I wouldn’t recommend it.  The best players on that list almost never change teams.  So, keeping the likelihood of actually availability on March 12 in mind, answer me this:

Who will be the most coveted player on the NFL’s free agent market this year?

Andrew Norton: This is a tough one. There are some excellent players on the list at nearly every position, but we don’t really see that one player standing out above the rest.

But the question isn’t which player will get the most media attention. It isn’t which player will go on to affect his new team the most. The question is which player will be the most sought-after.

So, discounting Joe Flacco, Jairus Byrd and Ryan Clady, who I believe will all be sticking with their teams, I’m going to say that safety Dashon Goldson will be the most coveted.

There is a big-named group of defensive backs up for free agency this year, but I think that Goldson will be the most attractive of all of them. Safety is a big need for plenty of clubs, and when a young Pro Bowler known for wreaking havoc and making big plays is in the mix, he’s going to get plenty of phone calls.

He was seeking a deal a year ago, and was given the franchise tag, and again he is asking for a long-term deal. And rightfully so. He ended the season as a first-team All-Pro, first on his team in interceptions, third in passes broken up, and fifth with 109 tackles. Not bad considering the other men who lined up for the Niners.

He wants the money and security of a long-term contract, and Harbaugh has publicly said that he needs to be rewarded.  But San Fran has limited cap space available and other deserving players to look at like TE Delanie Walker, up-and-comer NG Ricky Jean Francois, WR Randy Moss and their best special teams player, Tramaine Brock.

It is certainly in the 49ers best interest to get him back, but I just don’t know. After being on the national stage in the Super Bowl and with all of his 2012 accolades, if the 49ers don’t make that deal with him, or slap another tag on him, Goldson will be looked at by plenty of clubs.

Scott Smith: I agree, this is a tough one.  And I also agree that Goldson will be a highly-coveted player if he hits the market (apparently, I think the chances of that are lower than you do).  I’m not really going to knock your pick, but I do want to say this: I think you need to consider relative positional value.  We’re talking about the number one most coveted player on the entire market this spring, and I have a hard time envisioning that being a safety.  In general, positions such as offensive tackle, cornerback, defensive end, defensive tackle and, of course, quarterback, are considered more valuable than safety.  If there’s a top-notch free agency option at one of those spots, I think he’s going to rank a little higher than Goldson.

(That said, there are exceptions.  Ed Reed is hitting the market this year as a 34-year-old.  If he was 27, or maybe even 30, he would be at the top of my list and it wouldn’t even be close.  Perhaps you can tell – I’m a HUGE Ed Reed fan.)

So, then, I guess the question I have to pose to myself is: Is there a top-notch prospect at a more valuable position in the market?  If Flacco or Clady remains unsigned on March 12 we’ll have an easy answer to that question; like you, however, I think they’ll be off the board by then.  The other quarterbacks are more back-up types, and I don’t think you can put Branden Albert, Sebastian Vollmer or Jake Long in quite the same category as Clady (though they should have a good amount of value).  The cornerback pool is relatively deep, but Brent Grimes is probably the top option and his 2012 injury has to give one pause.

Ah, but then we have the defensive line.  I see one extremely intriguing option at both end and tackle.  That would be Dallas’ Anthony Spencer (yes, a linebacker in their 3-4, but probably capable of playing 4-3 end, too) and Chicago’s Henry Melton.  It’s a tough choice for me between those two, but I’m going to go with Melton.  He’s three years younger (26) than Spencer, he’s coming off what could be the first of many Pro Bowl trips and he seems like a safer bet to repeat his 2012 performance for the next four years.

That’s no knock on Spencer.  Players who can get to the quarterback, whether they be 3-4 linebackers or 4-3 ends, are always going to have a ton of suitors.  He should break the bank rather easily this spring.  I’m just going with what I think is the sure thing in Melton, who fits a very specific and much-coveted mold.  He’s a three-technique type of tackle, not huge but strong and very quick, that Warren Sapp type for which every 4-3 team is perpetually searching.  And his next four or five years are likely to be the best of his career, baring injuries.  The biggest problem with my selection is that there is obviously a decent chance the Bears will find a way to lock him up before March 12.

I have to admit I was also intrigued by several receivers, most notably Dwayne Bowe, Mike Wallace and Wes Welker.  That’s three different types of pass-catchers, all of whom could help an offense immediately.  However, I think the sheer depth of that position in free agency (potentially) makes it hard to justify putting any one of them at the top.  Miss out on those three and you can still go after Greg Jennings, Brian Hartline, Danny Amendola and a handful of others.

In the end, though, Melton’s my man.  I hope he’s available.

Andrew Norton: Well, just like your criticism of my choice, I have to say the same of yours, that I think after his performance in 2012, and all the work he has put in, Chicago has to make a big push to keep him. He won’t be cheap, but after showing his potential and all the work that he has put in, they do have some wiggle room in their cap.

I doubt they hold on to LB Brian Urlacher, and the only other real starter that is on the free agency list is Israel Idonije, also a DT. With a new defensive system in place after letting go of Lovie Smith, the only question is if Melton fits into their new system. But I have to think that the Bears will certainly try to make it work.

You also brought up a great point in that a lot of the real marquee positions either have no one that truly stands out, or a surplus of talent. Like you I agree that there will be a ton of receiver talk because of the names on the list, but there are so many great names that you can’t just put one at the top. The same can be said for cornerback, as you also pointed out. I don’t know how I feel about this whole “agreeing with you” thing.

That said, I do think there is one more player that I should mention who could be coveted by a number of teams. He fits all our criteria for the list: valuable position, not a lot of other big-name free agents at his position to fight with, and likely to not be kept by his former team. That man is Reggie Bush.

Now, hear me out. There are a lot of teams that could use a number one back right now, and even more that are struggling for a solid second running back to take the weight off their number one guy, which to me makes this a position of need for a lot of NFL teams. As far as other free agent running backs, we have Ahmad Bradshaw, who has dealt with a gamut of injuries and still isn’t healthy after another foot surgery. And after Reggie Bush on the list, the next best RBs are Shonn Greene, Cedric Benson and Felix Jones.

I feel that Reggie Bush is an extremely underrated and underappreciated player. And his stats might shock you. In his two years with Miami, he has 2,072 rushing yards, just 18 fewer than his five years with New Orleans. Add in his reception yardage and he has 2,660 yards from scrimmage in a two-year time span. Even more importantly, he has only missed one game in that frame and touched the ball 521 times, answering the questions about his durability.

So, if my first pick doesn’t hit the market, I’m going to say that a lot of teams will be courting Reggie Bush.

Scott Smith: I acknowledge that the Bears keeping Melton is a significant worry.  We obviously can’t predict exactly which players will be struck off the list before March 12, so we’re doing our best guessing here.  That’s why we both stayed away from Flacco, Clady and Byrd, even though any one of the three would be a solid choice for the top spot.  I’m guessing the other way on Melton – that he hits the market – but since you bring it up, I’ll take a second choice, just like you did.

But first, about that second choice of yours.  I’m thinking Bush fits the bill only if you define “most-coveted” in a way different than what I intended.  I was trying to identify this year’s Mario Williams or Reggie White, that one guy who is going to be considered the best “get” and is going to get the biggest payday.  The truth is, there may have been only a few teams interested in Williams last year, giving what he would cost, but those few wanted him badly enough to pay up.

Now, one could also define “most-coveted” as the player who would be appealing to the highest number of teams.  In that regard, you may have a point.  Considering that Bush would indeed fit well into just about any backfield committee, I’ll grant that he could land in a whole lot of places if the price is right.  I do NOT however, think any team will break the bank for him.  By now, everybody front office personnel men to casual fans knows this: You don’t pay big for aging running backs.

Bush is actually not as old as one might think – he turns 28 a few days before free agency begins – and he might have less mileage than some other eighth-year backs (though not in recent seasons, as you pointed out).  But 28 for most running backs is getting close to the edge of the cliff.  I think he’ll be a good player for the next couple years, but he’s not the guy I’m putting at the top of my free agency list if I’m an NFL G.M.

As for my second choice, I guess it’s obvious since I had difficulty choosing between two players above.  I’ll go with Dallas pass-rusher Anthony Spencer.  The good thing about this choice is that there seems to be a very real chance that Spencer will hit the market.  The issue is already being openly discussed in Dallas.  The franchise tag carries a brutal price tag for a defensive end or a 3-4 rush linebacker, and the Cowboys already have one of the worst cap situations in the league.  The Cowboys may want to keep Spencer as much as the Bears want to keep Melton, but it just may not be possible.

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