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Top NFL free agents: Where they will sign versus where they should

With the demise of the NFL's salary cap dramatically changing the landscape, free agency is such an unknown this year that one club executive told me this week the only thing he knows for sure is Washington will throw money around like it's playing Monopoly.

Thank goodness we can count on something in this uncapped year. Consistency of approach isn't something the Redskins usually get high marks for, but in terms of free agency spending, they're the only compass we have.

"The feeling we get is that nobody's going to be very active in free agency except for the Redskins,'' the club executive said. "We're hearing they have significant interest in Julius Peppers and Darren Sproles.''

So with that familiar March refrain -- "the Redskins want him'' -- we plunge into a free agency period that promises to be like none other. It begins at 12:01 a.m. Friday, but where it will lead, no one can be sure. Here's a preview of the 10 free-agent names to know, with our projection of where they will sign, and where they should sign. For the purposes of this list, no restricted free agents are considered, unless their teams failed to tender them. Let the bidding begin.

Where he will sign: Washington -- The Redskins are poised to come after the ex-Panthers franchise player with their go-to combination of Daniel Snyder's private jet and a Brink's truck, which seems to work every time. Washington has been signing the biggest available fish in free agency for so long now we really can't remember when the Redskins weren't the market setters.

The Bears have money to spend too, and with no picks in the first two rounds of the draft (see Jay Cutler and Gaines Adams trades), they're motivated to make something happen in free agency. The Eagles may not match dollars with Washington or Chicago, but if Peppers wants to play for a winner, Philly offers an opportunity the Redskins and Bears can't dangle or duplicate.

Where he should sign: New England -- If Peppers is serious about wanting to approach greatness and try his hand rushing the passer as a 3-4 outside linebacker, his best shot to realize those goals is with the Patriots. New England won't throw the biggest contract at Peppers, but Adalius Thomas aside, its biggest free-agent acquisitions usually prosper from the move to Foxboro.

Where he will sign: New York Giants -- With six years of NFL service under his belt, Dansby is one of the few big-name free agents who is perfectly situated for this year's unrestricted class. In New York he would be the centerpiece upgrade of a defense that is now led by new coordinator Perry Fewell, and would walk into the middle linebacker role vacated by Antonio Pierce's departure. Miami has need for an inside linebacker as well, and the lure of playing in a Bill Parcells-style defense could be strong. Expect Washington to be in the bidding, too, especially if the Redskins don't land Peppers.

Where he should sign: New York Giants -- As they move into their new Meadowlands stadium, the G-Men should be poised for a big bounce back on defense next season, with safety Kenny Phillips healthy and Fewell getting more out of that underachieving defensive line. Dansby would be a big part of the improvement and there's nothing like success in the NFL's largest media market to really kick-start the second half of one's career.

Where he will sign: Washington -- The Chargers came to the conclusion that as a situational back, Sproles wasn't worth the $7 million-plus price tag he was in line for if they tendered him as a restricted free agent. But Mike Shanahan covets him from his days competing against San Diego in the AFC West, and the Redskins have been known to overpay for skill players in free agency (Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd come to mind).

Where he should sign: Philadelphia -- The Eagles are reportedly interested, and if so, Sproles would fill the third-down back/return man role quite nicely. With no Brian Westbrook around to throw the ball to any more, the Eagles would let Sproles inherit the same role he enjoyed his greatest success with in San Diego. The Eagles have LeSean McCoy to carry the rushing load, and Sproles would add yet another electrifying young playmaker in Philly.

Where he will sign: Tampa Bay -- The Bucs clearly won't break the bank for the former Texans franchise player, but if Robinson's market turns out to be soft and the price tag is reasonable, the Bucs could target him and land a youthful (27) but experienced option (six-year veteran) to replace the aging Ronde Barber, who turns 35 in April. Other teams expected to shop in the cornerback market this offseason include the Falcons, Vikings, Titans and Packers.

Where he should sign: Tennessee -- The Titans have faced Robinson twice a year for six seasons now in the AFC South, and they probably know his work as well as anyone. Though his play hasn't lived up to his first-round billing for quite a while now, Robinson is still an athletic young corner, and not many of those make it to unrestricted free agency. In the past, Tennessee has shown a tendency to sign free agents away from a division opponent, thereby weakening a rival (Nick Harper and David Thornton were ex-Colts).

Where he will sign: Houston -- No team can offer as much opportunity in their backfield as the running back-needy Texans, and the chance to play in his home state would also be appealing to Tomlinson. L.T. said he wants to play on a Super Bowl contender and with an elite quarterback, and I could see him convincing himself that the high-powered Texans and Matt Schaub qualify on both counts. Other plausible suitors could include the Lions, Vikings (if Chester Taylor leaves), Eagles, Redskins, Bears, 49ers and Packers.

Where he should sign: Green Bay -- If finally getting a Super Bowl ring is the only reason LT's still playing these days, why not roll the dice with the on-the-rise Packers and quarterback Aaron Rodgers? Tomlinson could be Green Bay's second rushing option behind starter Ryan Grant for a year or two, and there are play-makers galore in that Packers passing game. Unless LT has zero interest in playing in cold weather, Green Bay is a team that nicely fits his dwindling timetable.

Where he will sign: New Orleans -- With a number of teams in need of safety help, Sharper will have options and offers to consider. But Sharper knows he's best-suited to playing the role of ball-hawking centerfielder in Gregg Williams' defense, and unless the Saints insult him with a hometown discount deal, I think he's smart enough to realize he's in a great situation with the defending champs. The Bears, Giants, Chiefs and Dolphins are potential bidders, but Sharper will give the Saints every opportunity to stay in the hunt.

Where he should sign: New Orleans -- Should the Cover-2 playing (or leaning) Bears and Giants come after Sharper hard, he would do well to remember how limited his production was in that play-it-safe scheme in Minnesota, rather than being freed up to make plays on the ball like he did last season in New Orleans. The Saints use Sharper perfectly, and that's something money can't buy. Why mess with the good thing Sharper found in New Orleans?

Where he will sign: Detroit -- The Lions have the greatest need and thus should be willing to pay the most. With Kevin Smith a question mark health-wise, Detroit has to address the position either this month in free agency or next month in the draft. Jones ran for 1,402 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, and his tough and reliable running style would help take some of the burden off Matthew Stafford's young shoulders. But Jones would fit in well in a lot of places, including San Diego, Houston, New England and Philadelphia.

Where he should sign: New England -- The Patriots picking the Jets' pocket for a veteran running back would certainly stoke their rivalry a little more, and New England could use a little hard-nosed running to pick up those tricky fourth-and-2's. We're not saying Jones would be another Corey Dillon-type home run, but he would give the Patriots more than Fred Taylor wound up producing.

Where he will sign: Seattle -- The Seahawks usually like to make at least one splash in free agency, and taking a player from their free-agent nemesis, the Vikings, counts double. While Seattle could still use the second of its two first-round picks (No. 14) on a running back like C.J. Spiller, signing the underrated Taylor would give them options in April. Of all the veteran backs in this market, Taylor is the most valuable commodity, because while he's very durable, he doesn't have anywhere near the level of wear and tear on him that most 30-year-old rushers do.

Where he should sign: Minnesota -- It'd be hard for Taylor to find grass that's any greener than what he already has with the Vikings. OK, even artificial turf. Minnesota knows he plays an important role behind Adrian Peterson, and given the fumbling problems that have plagued No. 28, Taylor should have even more leverage with the Vikings. San Diego would be another appealing option for a potential starting position if the Chargers come after him, but staying put in Minnesota and playing behind Peterson might add another three or four years to his career.

Where he will sign: Baltimore -- Yes, the Ravens have some limited interest in Terrell Owens. But they have even more interest in a player like Walter, the free-agent Texans pass-catcher who would fit very nicely into a No. 2 or 3-type role on their depth chart. He's a strong complementary type receiver and a nice fit with the recently signed Donte Stallworth, who's more of a vertical, stretch-the-field threat. Walter is big (6-foot-3), runs well and is only 28. Though he didn't catch many touchdowns with Houston, he's seen as a good red-zone target, which Baltimore craves.

Where he should sign: Houston -- The Texans want him back, and they should be willing to overpay a little to keep a player they like and who has produced. If you're Walter, don't you want see where things might be headed in Houston, which ended the season on a four-game roll to earn their first winning record in franchise history? The Texans know Walter's value as a steady No. 2 option behind Andre Johnson, and Houston should take some of the money it's saving on not re-signing Dunta Robinson and lock Walter up this month.

Where he will sign: Indianapolis -- Though the sides don't sound close to getting a deal done before Friday, Brackett is the team's free-agent priority and general manager Bill Polian has been clear about Indy's intention to stay competitive once the bidding starts. The Colts won't usually stretch to keep linebackers, but Brackett is a team leader and productive veteran, and there's a sense that owner Jim Irsay has no intention of letting him get away. It's logical to assume Brackett wants to see what the market brings, but he has given the Colts his assurance that he'll check with them before signing anything.

Where he should sign: Indianapolis -- If the Giants don't land Dansby, they could be coming after Brackett, and that's an option that would hold some appeal, especially since New York might convert to the Cover-2 defense that Brackett knows well from Indy. Miami is another club looking for an inside linebacker, and the Dolphins defense has intriguing potential. But with the Colts, Brackett is in a system that suits him, and he's on a perennial playoff and Super Bowl contender. Unless the money is vastly inferior, there's no good reason to leave Indianapolis.

Terrell Owens, receiver -- Not many potential landing spots for T.O., and Baltimore could be the only team we see as a maybe. Ignore the Cincy blather coming from Chad Ochocinco.

Brian Westbrook, running back -- The Browns, Vikings or Bears could make some sense in certain scenarios, but can Westbrook be certain to pass anyone's physical at this point?

Antrel Rolle, defensive back -- If Rolle doesn't re-sign a restructured deal with the Cardinals, a homecoming with Miami makes plenty of sense for the former Hurricane. The Bears, Vikings and Eagles could also be in the chase.

Leigh Bodden, cornerback -- The Patriots are still in the mix to keep Bodden, but plenty of teams with needs at cornerback (the Falcons, Vikings, Ravens, Titans and Eagles) are watching what unfolds.

Adalius Thomas, linebacker -- Once he gets released from New England, look for Thomas to resurface as a Jet, playing for his old Ravens defensive coordinator, Rex Ryan. He was a different player in Ryan's system.

Ryan Clark, safety -- I could see Ryan and the Steelers still getting something done, but if not, the Bears, Bucs, Chiefs, Eagles, and Browns are all teams that could be in the market for a safety at some point this offseason.

Chad Pennington, quarterback -- There's not much buzz about the quarterback market in free agency, but Pennington could land with a team like the Rams, Cardinals, Bucs, Lions or even the Jets in a mentoring/backup role. Maybe he's the bridge to a first-round quarterback in St. Louis, a role he has seen from both sides now.

Kevin Mawae, center -- It might take a while for his market to develop, but someone will have Mawae, who went to the Pro Bowl last season, in camp come July. Buffalo and Seattle have needs up and down their offensive line.

Antonio Bryant, receiver -- The Bucs seem to have all but closed the door on Bryant returning, and while it's hard to see anyone spending big on him, he could warrant a mid-level deal from receiver-needy teams such as Washington or Baltimore.

Aaron Kampman, defensive end/linebacker -- If Kampman leaves Green Bay, it'll be to a 4-3 team that intends to shift him back to defensive end, where he was one of the league's more underrated pass rushers. His knee rehabilitation complicates his status, but Chicago, Tennessee, Seattle, and Detroit all are 4-3 teams that could be interested.

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