1. Who will hit the biggest jackpot in free agency?
New England cornerback Asante Samuel was franchise-tagged by the Patriots last year, but unless there's an unlikely meeting of the minds in Foxboro, he'll be the most coveted name in free agency this year. Samuel has had back-to-back standout seasons and someone likely will give him $11 million a year, topping the eight-year, $80 million contract (including $22 million guaranteed) that last year's No. 1 free agent -- cornerback Nate Clements -- received from San Francisco. Samuel is a superior playmaker compared to Clements, and one of his most likely suitors remains Eric Mangini and the Jets.
2. Which team will land free-agent running back Michael Turner?
Known for rarely taking the field, LaDainian Tomlinson's backup is going to get plenty of play in this year's market. He's the best running back available, and there are a handful of teams -- Chicago, Atlanta, Houston and Oakland come to mind -- that figure to be in search of a lead rusher. The Bears make the most sense to successfully woo Turner. They've got an estimated $20 million of cap room, and Turner is a Chicago native who starred at Northern Illinois, along with current Bears running back Garrett Wolfe. Turner's 5.5-yards per rush career average is intriguing, as is his 4.4 speed and the relative lack of wear and tear he's accumulated in his four NFL seasons.
3. Can Chad Johnson talk his way out of Cincinnati?
It's not likely because of the impact that losing Johnson would have on the Bengals' salary cap. If Cincinnati either trades or releases their talkative receiver, it will have to absorb a 2008 cap hit of slightly more than $8 million. While the salary cap rises another $7 million this season to $116 million, that's still a sizable chunk of dead money that would ensue from Johnson's departure.
That's probably the No. 1 reason Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis has come out and shot down any notion Johnson will be on the trading block this offseason. Still, Johnson clearly hopes to follow in the recent footsteps of No. 1 receivers such as Terrell Owens and Randy Moss in prompting a trade, but odds are his uneasy marriage with the Bengals will continue this year unless complete insubordination is his exit strategy.
4. Do the Donovan McNabb-to-Baltimore trade rumors ring true?
We think not. Eagles president Joe Banner and head coach Andy Reid have repeatedly said McNabb will be their guy again in '08 -- No. 5's 10th season in Philly -- and with his strong finish to last season, we're convinced that they're not just spouting the company line. Would the Eagles listen if somebody decides to pick up the phone and inquire as to what it would take? Why not?
But Baltimore, even having hired longtime Eagles assistant John Harbaugh as head coach, seems unlikely to be in position to make Philadelphia an overwhelming offer. For one, the Ravens are thought to be just $5 to $6 million under the salary cap and already face a major expenditure if they hope to retain linebacker Terrell Suggs. McNabb would probably want a new contract as part of any deal. Secondly, Baltimore is thought much more willing to draft a young passer with its No. 8 pick, rather than sending it (and more) to Philly in trade just to upgrade from a 35-year-old quarterback in Steve McNair to a 31-year-old in McNabb.
5. Which team might have the biggest franchise-tag mess on its hands?
The Chiefs obviously must apply their franchise tag to league sacks leader Jared Allen (15½) if they can't strike a long-term deal with him before the Feb. 29 start of free agency. But that could be a very short-sighted proposition, because Allen has made noise about never signing a long-term contract with Kansas City if one doesn't happen this offseason.
Franchising Allen will cost the Chiefs just under $9 million this year, but potentially losing the ability to wrap him up for the foreseeable future would be devastating to the rebuilding program that is just now getting underway in earnest in Kansas City. Allen is one of the game's premier pass rushers and he's the cornerstone of a Chiefs defense that has a chance to be pretty good in the coming years.
6. Who else appears to be headed for a franchise tag in the next two weeks?
Besides Allen, the names you hear most around the league include Baltimore linebacker Terrell Suggs, Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant, Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby, Carolina offensive tackle Jordan Gross, Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark and, if the Patriots can't make a deal work any other way, you can add receiver Randy Moss to that list. On Thursday, the first day clubs could franchise players, the Eagles slapped their tag on tight end L.J. Smith, assuring him of at least a one-year contract worth $4.52 million in '08.
7. Will the Dolphins be the latest to switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense?
Weren't we just trying to figure this same question out in Pittsburgh after the Steelers hired Mike Tomlin as head coach last January? With Miami's new head coach Tony Sparano having come from Dallas and worked with Dolphins defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni there, obviously there's a comfort zone with the 3-4 formation that Bill Parcells transitioned the Cowboys to during his tenure and that Wade Phillips kept in place.
But Sparano says the Dolphins will play what their personnel dictates they can play, and that evaluation process is still ongoing. Most teams that switch to a 3-4 need a couple years of personnel acquisition under their belts before they can fully implement that system, like San Francisco's recent experience. That means Miami will likely be more 4-3 than 3-4 in '08, but will begin the process of accumulating players who fit the 3-4 from this day forward.
8. Anything new under the sun this NFL offseason?
The league tinkered with its format on draft weekend, and we'll get to see the changes put into effect when this year's pick-a-thon arrives April 26-27. For starters, only the first two rounds will be conducted on Saturday, with the draft starting three hours later, at 3 p.m. -- all the better to nudge the first two high-profile rounds into a prime-time finish for TV. Round 3 is now part of Sunday's schedule.
In a further attempt to streamline things, the NFL cut the time that teams have to make a first-round selection, from 15 to 10 minutes, and from 10 to seven minutes in the second round. That ensures that we'll never again have to suffer through a record six-hour and eight-minute first round, as we did in '07.
9. Is there reason to worry about Derek Anderson in Cleveland?
The Browns starting quarterback is taking part in the first Pro Bowl of his career this week, as an injury replacement for Tom Brady. That's the good news. The less than good news is that after a couple weeks of negotiations, Cleveland still hasn't reached a contract agreement with Anderson, who can become a restricted free agent on Feb. 29. Though the Browns say there are no storm clouds gathering, the two sides have yet to even agree on the length of a deal.
Cleveland, with an eye on its Brady Quinn investment, ideally wants something in the two- to three-year range. Anderson is reportedly seeking a six or seven-year commitment, somewhere between the six-year, $48 million deal that Houston gave Matt Schaub last year, and the six-year, $67.5 million contract that Tony Romo signed in Dallas last season.
While the Browns can still negotiate with Anderson after he reaches restricted free agency, and will tender him at a first- and third-round compensation level, it'll be intriguing to see if a QB-needy team like Baltimore or Chicago might make a bid for him if he reaches the market.
10. Where is Lance Briggs the best fit in free agency?
The Bears outside linebacker is likely to draw plenty of interest, but one team to keep an eye on is San Francisco, which is rumored to have investigated dealing for Briggs before last season's trading deadline. The 49ers have Manny Lawson and Tully Banta-Cain as their starting outside linebackers in their 3-4, but Lawson is recovering from season-ending knee surgery and Banta-Cain did not have the impact San Francisco was hoping for when it signed him as a '07 free agent.
Briggs is one of the premier free agents available this year, and San Francisco might seek an upgrade at inside linebacker, where veteran Derek Smith continued to experience vision problems last season. Briggs is a native of Sacramento, and the idea of pairing him in the same linebacking unit with NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Patrick Willis, who plays inside, might make the 49ers open their free-agency coffers once more.
11. Which team has some heavy lifting to do cap-wise this month?
The Cardinals won't be a big player next month in free agency, largely because they've got so many more pressing issues on their roster at the moment. The most important task will be negotiating a restructured contract with Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who is in line to be paid a whopping $16.5 million in '08, thanks to incentives he reached last year.
Arizona has to reduce that to a more cap-friendly number in order to address other matters, such as: either signing linebacker Karlos Dansby to a long-term deal or franchising him at about $8 million this year; making a decision on whether running back Edgerrin James has to be released because he's too expensive with his $6.75 million cap charge for '08 and re-signing productive linebacker Calvin Pace before he's eligible for free agency on Feb. 29. Receiver Bryant Johnson, a '03 first-round pick, may have to be a cap casualty if the Cardinals can't free up enough resources with their other moves.
12. In a shallow free-agent quarterback market, who could be in demand?
Washington's Todd Collins may be 36 and coming off his first chance to start some games in about 10 years, but given how many teams needed to play two and even three quarterbacks last season, he'll get some serious interest if the Redskins don't re-sign him this month.
Collins went 3-1 as a starter in place of the injured Jason Campbell, and starred in relief in a fourth win as Washington won its last four games to make the NFC playoff field. Collins threw for five touchdowns and no interceptions in those four games, with a 106.4 passer rating. The Redskins would love to keep him around as their backup behind Campbell -- who's coming off season-ending knee surgery -- but Collins may seek a chance to compete for a starting job elsewhere.
In addition, Washington is projected to be a league-worst $21 million over the salary cap and might not be able to compete for Collins if the bidding goes higher than it expects.