1. The rumblings out of San Francisco are that the 49ers will pursue a veteran wide receiver this offseason to replenish a group that was relying heavily on rookie 6th round pick Kyle Williams by season’s end. The team’s decision to wait for the second tier of signings in free agency allowed them to sign former Jet Braylon Edwards to a discounted one-year deal worth $1-million plus bonuses seemed like an astute decision at the time but Edwards bombed out in San Francisco due to injuries and ineffectiveness, catching just 15 passes and failing to find the end zone in nine games before finally being released. Josh Morgan, whose season ended with a fractured right leg, and Ted Ginn Jr. are unrestricted free agents at season’s end and the team would like to re-sign them but both players are better suited to supporting roles, as is Williams. Although former 1st round pick Michael Crabtree enjoyed his best season with 72 receptions for 874 yards and four touchdowns (including 61 receptions for 742 yards and all four of his touchdowns over his final 11 games), the 49ers may have concluded that Crabtree will never be a bonafide number one wide receiver and that his lack of chemistry with quarterback Alex Smith is evidence of that.
2. In Green Bay, the Packers will be faced with a number of difficult decisions this offseason due to the combination of their salary cap situation and the pending free agency of a number of key players as well as backup quarterback Matt Flynn. While the Packers would clearly prefer to avoid losing Flynn without compensation, they are in a bind because they need to maintain the franchise tag designation in order to ensure Jermichael Finley’s return at tight end. Finley’s negotiating position is clearly enhanced knowing that Flynn will leave as a free agent unless Finley is signed prior to the deadline for using the franchise tag. In addition, using the franchise tag on Flynn would cost the team $14-million against the cap, forcing the team to release several players to get under the cap and restricting their ability to sign players such as running back Ryan Grant and center Scott Wells. Look for general manager Ted Thompson to end up using the franchise tag on Finley, a talented but somewhat enigmatic player who Thompson is likely reluctant to sign to a long-term deal based on his performance this past season, and allow Grant to leave unless he accepts a major salary reduction in 2012. Other cap casualties could include left tackle Chad Clifton, wide receiver Donald Driver, safety Nick Collins and cornerback Charles Woodson.
3. The Saints face a similar dilemma with quarterback Drew Brees, wide receiver Marques Colston and guard Carl Nicks all eligible for unrestricted free agency. Clearly, Brees will receive the franchise tag if he doesn’t sign a long-term deal but the quarterback also recognizes that he stands to benefit both on and off the field if he avoids being tagged. With the tag likely to be in the $14.5-million range, Brees figures to earn more on a yearly basis if he signs long term as well as securing roughly $50 million guaranteed in addition to allowing the team to use the franchise tag on Colston or Nicks. Of those two, Nicks is most likely to be with a new team in 2012. Having signed fellow guard Jahri Evans to a seven-year, $57 million deal in 2010 and with Nicks worthy of a similar deal, the team may well decide against allocating over $15-million in cap space per year to their starting guards.
4. Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson figures to be one of the most sought after free agents at his position unless he is signed to a long-term contract or receives Buffalo’s franchise tag. Johnson has been a revelation for the Bills, with the former 7th round pick becoming the first player in team history to top 1,000 receiving yards in consecutive seasons and just the third player with 70 receptions in two straight seasons. However, given Johnson’s off the field comments and on-field issues and controversies, the Bills seem reluctant to lock him up long term. With the franchise tag for wide receivers down to $9.4-million from $11.4-million in 2011, look for the Bills to end up franchising Johnson and using the 2012 season to gauge whether he warrants a long term commitment.
5. Another elite AFC East wide receiver is scheduled for unrestricted free agency this season in the Patriots Wes Welker. Unlike Johnson, there is virtually no chance of New England allowing Welker to hit the open market. Although the Patriots and Welker’s representatives have been unable to come to an agreement throughout the season, there is no denying his importance in the Patriots passing game on short and intermediate routes. However, Welker will turn 31 prior to the start of the 2012 season and the combination of his age and size are likely causing the Patriots to hedge on giving him a contract of more than three or four years in length. If the two sides fail to come to an agreement, look for Welker to receive the franchise tag and return to New England, a scenario that he seems to think is likely given his recent comments about expecting to be back with the team in 2012.
6. The off-season is obviously a period where comments from league officials are just as likely to be misleading, as they are to be informative and where each piece of information is likely to be overanalyzed. This week’s news that Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald was planning on having dinner with Colts quarterback Peyton Manning falls into the latter category. Just because two players are having dinner is hardly cause for jumping to the assumption that they are going to be teammates in 2012.
7. Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli and new head coach Romeo Crennel told fans this week that the team would bring in competition for incumbent starting quarterback Matt Cassel for the 2012 season. That revelation was a far cry from Crennel’s assertion when he took that job that Cassel was the team’s starter. What gave rise to the change in thinking is irrelevant and the comments seem to indicate that Kyle Orton being re-signed is much more of a possibility than was thought after Crennel was made head coach. Since Orton is unlikely to be handed a starting position by another team, it won’t be a surprise if he agrees to come back to Kansas City with the hope of unseating Cassel.