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NFL 2013: Free agency's biggest stars hardly are franchise makers

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The secret meetings and late-night flights on private jets might still be a part of this year's NFL marketplace.

Ah, but for glam, glitz and pure mega wattage, no one will come close to reprising the free agency frenzy that caught the country's attention last year when Peyton Manning was wooed and wowed from coast to coast before finally settling on Denver.

Most of the big names in this year's class of free agents aren't even BIG names. They're not even BIG stars. Certainly not in Manning's class.

Sure, Ed Reed is coming off helping a Super Bowl season with Baltimore, Wes Welker catches 100 passes every year, and Dashon Goldson is an All-Pro.

But this crop is more about aging defensive players like Charles Woodson, Brian Urlacher and Ronde Barber. And then are some solid but hardly unforgettable receivers and running backs: Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace, Reggie Bush and Michael Turner.

When full free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. EDT, with all 32 teams under the $123 million salary cap, the bidding wars might be furious for a while. Or perhaps not, considering the dangers of signing players beyond their peak years to rich deals that can financially hamstring teams in the future. The stakes are high.

"We did this study to try to determine what the hit rate was," says Bill Polian, who built the Bills, Panthers and Colts into Super Bowl teams and now is analyst for ESPN and SiriusXM. "It ends up in our study being about what it was for the draft, right around 50 per cent, slightly above that.

"You then get into the qualitative judgment or subjective judgment of 'at what cost?' So player A, who cost you $12 million a year, is he a success if he starts or is he a success if he helps you get to the playoffs?"

The number of free agents who helped their teams get to the playoffs last season is impressive. From the Super Bowl rosters alone are Baltimore safety Reed, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and LB-DE Paul Kruger; 49ers safety Goldson, DT Isaac Sopoaga, TE Delanie Walker and WR Randy Moss.

And you can throw in Welker, Turner, Sam Baker, Dan Koppen, Andre Smith and Fred Davis.

Both backfields are loaded with candidates without contracts. Joining Reed, Goldson, Woodson and Barber among defensive backs available are Aqib Talib, Brent Grimes, Kenny Phillips, LaRon Landry and brother Dawan Landry, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Keenan Lewis, and Quentin Jammer.

Tailbacks and fullbacks include Bush, Turner, Steven Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Felton, Shonn Greene and Rashard Mendenhall.

Polian warns about one position being a risk in the draft: wide receiver. But he says in free agency, that's not necessarily the case.

So spending big bucks on Welker, Wallace, Jennings, or taking a gamble on Moss, Deion Branch or Julian Edelman might pay off.

Of high interest is how longtime stars with their current teams fare on the marketplace. Urlacher is 34, Reed is 35, Woodson is 36 and Barber is 37.

Do owners and general managers take a chance that each of those perennial Pro Bowlers have enough left to bring more than experience and leadership to their teams?

"There are clubs, we were one of them, that said if a guy's 27 years of age or above, we're probably not going to go for a long-term deal at big money," Polian says. "But if you feel you're one quality receiver away and the physical exam turns out to be OK, you might do it. Again, that is what makes free agency interesting."

What also made the grab bag of extra interest was a three-day window allowing teams to talk to representatives of unrestricted free agents. The idea was to eliminate tampering.

"I think it's fair to say that everybody will be interested to see how it works out, what the results of it are," Polian said. "I wouldn't say everybody was enthusiastic about it. We all had some reservation.

"But, on balance, I think it's fair to say that we felt that it was something that would at least bring some organization to what had been a very chaotic process. Agents can talk to clubs, they can go back to the old club with what one would assume would be a bona fide offer or some parameters. They can gauge who is interested and who is not interested."

Beginning Tuesday, NFL fans' interest surely will rise, even if no footballs are being thrown or kicked.

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