Manning is not the only free-agency story

Mario Williams, the Houston defensive end , is probably the most attractive free agent after Peyton Manning.
Mario Williams, the Houston defensive end , is probably the most attractive free agent after Peyton Manning.
Posted: March 11, 2012

Peyton Manning has a head start.

On Tuesday the rest of the NFL's free agents leap into the marketplace as the league's signing and trading window opens.

The biggest story of the off-season will be where Manning chooses to resume his career. He is a rare sure-fire Hall of Fame quarterback out on the open market. The next-biggest story might be how healthy he is once he arrives in his new city.

But Manning isn't the only significant target in what will be the first "normal" free agency in two years, after labor strife limited the shopping period in 2010 and made 2011 into a whirlwind of signings just as training camps opened.

After Manning, defensive end Mario Williams, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks, and quarterback Matt Flynn are the biggest names available, each playing a position that can help fuel or stop the NFL's pass-first offenses.

Cortland Finnegan and Brandon Carr highlight a modest group of free-agent cornerbacks. Just as passers and pass rushers are attractive, so are cover men who can contain high-octane receivers.

The linebacker crop - which is certainly of significant interest to Eagles fans and might be of interest to the team's decision-makers - is headlined by Stephen Tulloch and rounded out by Curtis Lofton, Jarret Johnson, Eric Henderson, and London Fletcher.

Williams is probably the most attractive target after Manning, and could quickly land a huge payday. A former No. 1 overall draft pick in Houston, he had 431/2 sacks between 2007 and 2010 and opened 2011 with five in five games before tearing a pectoral muscle and ending his season.

He is only 27. Players that young and proven don't often reach free agency.

Jackson, 29, is a 6-foot-5 target who caught nine touchdowns last season and is looking for a significant payday after several years of acrimonious contract dealings in San Diego.

Flynn might be a consolation prize for teams searching for a quarterback.

He has just two career starts in four seasons with the Packers, but he has thrown for nine touchdowns and is only 26. He is unproven, but only one team can get Manning, and only one other can trade up to land Robert Griffin III, who is expected to be the second pick in April's draft. Someone will take a shot at him despite his limited body of work.

The big names may sign quickly once free agency officially opens at 4 p.m. Tuesday, but the overall pace is not expected to come near the rush that left BlackBerries smoking last summer.

With training camps and free agency opening simultaneously last July, teams or players that stalled risked being left behind by a fast-moving current of activity. This year there is less pressure to act fast.

"You have time to kind of develop that kind of A, B, and C grouping of what you want," said agent J.R. Rickert. Last off-season, if Plan A caught a snag, "you very quickly got to B and C."

If the Manning saga drags on, the teams pursuing him could be paralyzed by waiting, unsure if they will have their quarterback and what their salary-cap situations are, said South Florida-based agent David Canter.

The new collective bargaining agreement could fuel some big spending, he added.

Starting in 2013, teams' average annual spending must meet a raised "salary floor," meaning some will have to add payroll. Savvy teams and agents could structure deals that push money into that season.

"Teams willing to get creative with agents, who are willing to dance a little bit, there's going to be that opportunity for those teams to get more than one superstar," Canter said.

Some agents are also eyeing the NFL's new television contracts, which begin in 2014 and will bring a spike in revenue and player pay. Players willing to bet on themselves might look for short-term deals, hoping for a second chance to cash in again soon.

Contact Jonathan Tamari at 215-854-5214, or follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari.

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