Mountains of cash available to top NFL free agents

Defensive end Jeremy Mincey (left) will be one of the elites who cashes in once NFL free agency...

Defensive end Jeremy Mincey (left) will be one of the elites who cashes in once NFL free agency starts Tuesday. (JASON COHN/Reuters file photo)

JOHN KRYK, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:45 PM ET

At 4 p.m. EDT on Tuesday the bell rings, the gates fly open -- annnnd they're off.

The NFL's 2012 free-agent thoroughbreds start sprinting toward the mountains of cash.

And, yeah, there'll be a whole continental divide of green available for the best of the best.

By Thursday or Friday we'll know where many of the elite players have chosen to go. It'll be that fast.

This year's list of available free agents starts, of course, with Peyton Manning. But you knew that.

The premier players at the positions of most impact on both sides of the ball -- quarterback, wide receiver, defensive end and cornerback -- can expect the most interest. And command the most money.

How much? Here's a gauge.

If they have enough suitors, the elites at each position should be able to rake in even more -- yes, more -- per year than the recent franchise-tag recipients. Tagees in 2012 will make the average of the top five earners at their respective positions, specifically:

• quarterbacks, $14.4 million;

• running backs, $7.7 million;

• wideouts, $9.5 million;

• tight ends, $5.4 million;

• offensive linemen, $9.4 million;

• defensive ends, $10.6 million;

• defensive tackles, $8 million;

• linebackers, $8.9 million;

• cornerbacks, $10.3 million;

• and safeties, $6.2 million.

Cash mountains, indeed.

After most of the top-tier players sign by the weekend, teams lock up their cash and start playing possum.

"If an agent has not secured a deal for his player by Sunday, the teams gain all the leverage and prices drop," former front-office executive Michael Lombardi, now of the NFL Network, wrote on Monday.

Mario Williams doesn't have that worry. After Manning, he's the jewel of the 2012 free agency class.

The Houston Texans' defensive end was the No. 1 overall selection in the 2006 draft, and hasn't disappointed one bit. Williams has racked up 53 sacks in five seasons, and is only 27 years old. There is so much interest in him, he just might break the NFL record for highest salary by a defender, currently held by end Julius Peppers of the Chicago Bears -- $15.25 million.

Jeremy Mincey of the Jacksonville Jaguars is another defensive end who'll need a Brinks truck this week. Ditto for end John Abraham of Atlanta, but at his age (34) he likely won't get a long-term deal.

Three cornerbacks likely will have new homes (make that mansions) by the weekend -- Cortland Finnegan of Tennessee, Brandon Carr of K.C. and Carlos Rogers of San Francisco.

On offence, quarterbacks as a group usually garner the most interest, but there are several wideouts this year that teams are salivating over more.

Speedy Mike Wallace of Pittsburgh is the best of the bunch, probably, but he's also the only restricted free agent among all the elites.

The Steelers on Monday reportedly tendered Wallace what is called a qualifying offer. There are four kinds for restricted free agents, whose details, parameters and ramifications are explained over six pages of such brain-liquifying legalese in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that I now have Cookie Monster eyes. I think it means Pittsburgh likely would get a first-round draft pick to any team that signs him.

If so, Wallace is worth it. Wouldn't be an issue. Pittsburgh is taking a big gamble here.

Nothing reflects the fact that offence in the NFL is all about the passing game more than the plummeting importance of -- and free-agent interest in -- running backs. Not an impressive crop this year, either. Would you shell out $10 million a year for the Browns' Peyton Hillis? Exactly.

Which leads us back to the quarterbacks.

Matt Flynn had been the biggest name there until the Colts dumped Manning. In his two and only starts filling in for the injured Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, Flynn lit up the scoreboard -- throwing for a combined 734 yards and nine touchdowns against two playoff teams (New England in 2010, Detroit in 2011).

Can he do that every week? No. Can he do something close to that every week? Maybe. No one knows. Flynn is the biggest wildcard in free agency this year.

Still, he's going to make more than the $600,000 the Packers paid him last season.

A lot more.

One of those cash mountains might even have his name on it.

john.kryk@sunmedia.ca

@JohnKryk

blogs.canoe.ca/KrykSlants


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