According to the NFL calendar, the 2007 free agent signing period doesn't begin for more than three months. According to league personnel directors, free agency never sleeps, and neither do some members of scouting departments charged with evaluating the upcoming class of available veterans.
Some teams, their general managers told ESPN.com this week, already have compiled multiple reports on potential free agents for the 2007 market. And with the salary cap scheduled to rise to an all-time high $109 million, and several franchises with more than $30 million in available spending room, the 2007 market once again figures to be an active one.
Even if the unrestricted class isn't a particularly impressive one, as has been the case the last few years.
Noted one pro personnel director from an AFC franchise: "Every year, it seems like, we [complain] about how bad the free agent class is, in terms of quality and quantity. And every year, no matter how much we gripe, we fall all over each other throwing money at these guys. [Next] year won't be any different. So if you're going to do it, you might as well be as informed as possible. So, yeah, we're working on it."
Assessing how any free agent class will look is always a tricky undertaking, since many players will be taken off the market with contract extensions before the signing period begins, and others will be cast into free agency because of ponderous contracts or shrinking production. There are also franchise and transition tags to deal with. In 2007, for instance, it's hard to believe that players like defensive ends Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis) and Patrick Kerney (Atlanta), or tight end Tony Gonzalez (Kansas City) will make it to the unrestricted market.
So here's a look at some of the free agents who figure to have a realistic chance of being available, and who are likely to attract attention, starting with the best:
" CB Nate Clements (Buffalo): Some critics feel the former Ohio State star and 2001 first-rounder has been saving himself for free agency -- and the big payday he figures to pull in -- for the last two seasons, when his play has tailed off. But he has prototype size, runs well, and everyone is always looking for quality corners. After snatching 18 interceptions his first four years, Clements has just three pickoffs the past 1˝ seasons. Clements is playing in 2006 on the one-year franchise qualifying offer, and the Bills have an agreement they won't use the marker to retain him beyond this year.
" QB Chris Simms (Tampa Bay): Sure, he's made only 15 career starts, had never thrown more than 10 touchdown passes in a season, seemed to regress early in the year, and is in the midst of rehabilitating from the splenectomy that prematurely ended his 2006 campaign. But damaged goods or not, some team is going to scrutinize the video from his 2005 season and figure that, at age 26, a healthy Simms can be its starter for a long time.
" WLB Cato June (Indianapolis): Since 2003, the Colts have allowed three quality linebackers -- Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington and David Thornton -- to depart in free agency. A former college safety who has grown into one of the NFL's top weakside 'backers over the last three years, June probably is the next one out the door. June averaged 106 tackles and posted six interceptions in his first two years as a starter, and could finish 2006 with more than 150 tackles. The rare edge defender who actually plays better in reverse than moving forward, he is one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers. With the proliferation of Cover 2 defenses, he'll have a nice market.
" WLB Lance Briggs (Chicago): The 2005 Pro Bowl performer is probably a better pure athlete than June, and does a lot of the same things well. Doesn't have as many interceptions, but he gets his hands on the ball a lot, as evidenced by 18 passes defensed in 2004 and 2005, a period in which he also averaged 116.5 tackles. He's a very versatile defender who sometimes gets lost in the shadow of Brian Urlacher, but he's got 80 tackles, one sack, one interception and six passes defensed this season. The Bears made a run at signing him to a contract extension this spring, but negotiations fell apart. Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo probably will take one more shot at completing a new deal, but the consensus is Briggs will be elsewhere in 2007.
" DE Charles Grant (New Orleans): An enigmatic player who totaled 20˝ sacks in 2003 and 2004, and then fell off to just 2˝ quarterback takedowns in 2005. He has resurrected himself a bit, with four sacks this season, and the Saints have floated the idea of a contract extension, but won't likely overpay to keep him. But some team will throw big money his way if he gets on the market. The 2002 first-rounder plays the run pretty well, can still be an explosive defender when motivated, and has an undeniable nasty streak. The only downside is, he's got a lazy streak, too.
" DT Robaire Smith (Tennessee): Released by the Houston Texans just before the start of the season, he signed just a one-year deal with the Titans, and figures to be back on the market in the spring. Miscast as a 3-4 end in Houston, the former Michigan State standout is more a 4-3 tackle, and that's how most teams will assess him now. Smith combines quickness and strength, is very versatile, and can be a disruptive force in stretches of games.
" OT Leonard Davis (Arizona): The second overall choice in the 2001 draft, Davis has never played up to that status, and maybe he never will. The key will be for some team to divine what his best position is, and to leave him there. Davis has played right guard, right tackle and, more recently, left tackle. No matter where he aligned, he should have been a cornerstone for a rebuilding line, but that hasn't been the case, and the Cardinals have made zero effort to sign him to an extension. Still, he's 366 pounds, only 28 years old, and has a résumé that includes 85 starts.
" SLB Adalius Thomas (Baltimore): Wind him up and he plays here, there and everywhere. At least in the Baltimore defense where, at various times, he has played all the linebacker positions, defensive end, safety and even cornerback. Not bad for a guy who, until three years ago, was just regarded as a great athlete and special teams ace. The seven-year veteran is a hybrid-type player who is effective in a 4-3 or a 3-4, and provides a defensive coordinator plenty of imagination. Thomas has 54 tackles and eight sacks so far this season, his third straight year with at least eight sacks, and everyone in the league knows about him now. The only conundrum for the team that signs him is the same one with which Ravens officials have struggled: He's 29 years old and some feel he might only have about three productive seasons left, so there is some question about how big a paycheck to write him.
" OG Kris Dielman (San Diego): After starting no games his first two seasons, Dielman moved into the Chargers' lineup in 2005, in part because of injuries, and was a revelation. He has quickly developed into a terrific in-line blocker, a guy who can maul defenders, and his protection skills have improved, too. A blue-collar, self-made player, the kind of guy who won't allow money to alter his work ethic.
" OG Eric Steinbach (Cincinnati): He's been a starter at left guard since his 2003 rookie season, and is a tough, durable blocker. Steinbach has missed only one game in three-plus seasons. Strong as an in-line presence, he's also a better athlete than some people think, and is an excellent technician. There are a few teams that suspect he might be able to play tackle. They'd be wise to go back and survey the video of the times he's moved outside, because they'll quickly realize it's a flawed notion. Steinbach is a guard, plain and simple, and a very good one. Cincinnati wants to retain him, but has paid out handsomely this year to sign fellow linemen Levi Jones, Willie Anderson and Bobbie Williams to extensions, and feels Steinbach will have a huge price tag it can't afford on top of those deals.
" CB Asante Samuel (New England): He's not real big, not particularly fast, and has never had more than three interceptions in a season. But the four-year veteran, who has been inconsistent at times in 2006, still has a lot of tools and plays a premium position. He'll be just 26 years old at the start of free agency, so Samuel has a lot of good football left. He's played in high-pressure games, is technically solid, and of course, well-coached. The suspicion is that he's more valuable to the Patriots than anyone else in the league. But if he gets on the market, he'll generate interest.
" DE Justin Smith (Cincinnati): The six-year veteran was certainly over-drafted in 2001, when he was the fourth player selected overall, and he'll never play up to that kind of billing. But Smith, hardly the kind of explosive, upfield right end that the computer would spit out if you asked for the perfect model, is still a very solid player. The key question: How much should a team invest in a guy who plays the run tough, but averages only about eight sacks a year? Smith's 8˝ sacks in his rookie season still stand as his career high. He's got 6˝ sacks through 10 games this season, but three of those came in the opener. A good, not great end, with only modest athletic skills. But a defender who lines up every week and knows how to play the game.
" WR Drew Bennett (Tennessee): Injuries in 2005 dramatically cut his production from the previous year, but the former college quarterback still averaged 69 catches, 993 yards and 7˝ touchdowns in a two-year stretch, with 26 catches for 20-plus yards and nine of 40 yards or more. Bennett has struggled some with his consistency this season, dropping balls he normally would catch, but he's still a quality receiver. The lanky wideout should be a solid No. 2 receiver for someone.
" FS Deon Grant (Jacksonville): For a long time, the seven-year veteran toted around the label of not being tough enough. He's outplayed that knock during his tenure with the Jaguars. Still, it's tough to define at times just what Grant is, because he's not the ballhawking-type free safety you expect, but neither is he an in-the-box defender. Grant has 18 interceptions in six-plus seasons now, and hasn't had more than three since 2001. He does, however, get his hands on the ball, as manifested in his 48 passes defensed.
" WR Kevin Curtis (St. Louis): After a breakout 2005 season, in which he registered 60 catches for 801 yards and six touchdowns, with four catches of 40-plus yards, as the Rams' No. 3 wide receiver, Curtis has all but disappeared this season under a new coach and playing in a new system. For a wideout with his kind of speed, it's amazing he is averaging just 9.9 yards per catch. Teams need to go back and study the tapes from 2005, or even from the latter part of the 2004 campaign, to gauge his big-play ability. The guy can flat-out run. Two caveats: Curtis, who has started only 11 career games, might always be best-suited to the No. 3 role. And despite the fact he's only a four-year veteran, Curtis will be 29 years old when training camp opens in the summer. If he loses a step speedwise, his game will diminish, and so will his value.
" RB Ahman Green (Green Bay): The nine-year veteran is in the midst of a tremendous rebound season, one that not even his staunchest supporters could have predicted, given that a serious quadriceps injury limited him to five appearances in 2005. Going into last season, Green had posted five consecutive years of 1,000-plus yards, and was the Packers' workhorse in the running game and a solid receiver. He's got 155 rushes for 644 yards and three touchdowns in 2006 and doesn't seem to have lost much. But he hasn't played a full 16-game season in four years, and will turn 30 a few weeks before the start of free agency.
" TE Daniel Graham (New England): The former first-round pick (2002) has suffered through injuries at various junctures of his career, but given the resurgence of the tight end position around the league, he is going to be a player in demand. Graham is a very good blocker at the point of attack, and can seal off the edge, and he's a physical receiver, one who can run over people in the secondary when he gets rolling. He had 68 combined receptions in 2003 and 2004, but his numbers have fallen off as the Patriots have focused more on getting the ball to their other tight end, Benjamin Watson.
" DE Bryan Thomas (New York Jets): Regarded as a disappointment for much of his career, the 2002 first-rounder had just 6˝ sacks in his first four seasons. But the switch to a 3-4 front has really benefited him, and Thomas has emerged as an edge player who can make a difference. He's already got a career-high 54 tackles, has played the run better than ever, and posted three sacks.
" SS Michael Lewis (Philadelphia): A starter since midway through his 2002 rookie year, and a former Pro Bowl defender, Lewis has fallen into disfavor with the Philadelphia staff this season, and lately has been relegated to playing linebacker in nickel and dime situations. It's hard to believe, though, that Lewis' game has regressed that much. He's got obvious shortcomings in coverage, and surrendered a lot of big plays early in the year, which cost him his starting job. But Lewis is a good tackler, a pretty aware defender, and a guy who usually averages around 100 tackles.
" DE/DT Cory Redding (Detroit): Might be the most anonymous player on this list, in part because he plays in a city that has become an NFL hinterland, but an interesting defender who can provide a team snaps at end or tackle. Redding has some quickness and he uses his hands pretty well. This season, he has 31 tackles and 4˝ sacks. If he plays regularly for someone, he could average 50 tackles and about 7-8 sacks. He won't break the bank, but teams need players like him, and he'll provide nice return on investment.
" DT Michael Myers (Denver): Basically a throw-in to the 2005 trade that sent tailback Reuben Droughns to Cleveland and brought the Broncos defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, but has played like anything but a spare part. An active, one-gap type lineman, but can play the two-gap style when necessary. Quicker than a lot of 300-pounders, but probably not as disruptive as some teams might want. He's never registered more than 3˝ sacks in a season, but still provides some inside push. He won't get rich in free agency, because he is 30 years old and has some limitations, and his best bet might be to re-sign in Denver. A pretty interesting defender, though, at the right price.
" QB Damon Huard (Kansas City): The Chiefs will certainly attempt to retain Huard, who essentially salvaged their 2006 season, posting a 5-3 record as the starter after Trent Green was sidelined by a severe head injury in the opener. But given the shaky quarterback situations in a lot of NFL precincts, and the possibility he might be able to go somewhere and actually compete for a starting job, no one could blame Huard if he was tempted by the perception of greener grass elsewhere. Entering this season, Huard had just six starts in nine years and only one since 1999. But in eight-plus games, he has completed 146 of 241 passes for 1,824 yards, with 11 touchdown passes, just one interception and a passer rating of 97.6.
" Some sleepers: DE Dewayne White (Tampa Bay), CB Roderick Hood (Philadelphia), FS Ken Hamlin (Seattle), LB Matt Wilhelm (San Diego), OG Cosey Coleman (Cleveland), OT Tony Pashos (Baltimore), TE Eric Johnson (San Francisco), CB Travis Fisher (St. Louis), FB Justin Griffith (Atlanta), RB Ladell Betts (Washington), OG Vince Manuwai (Jacksonville), LB Kawika Mitchell (Kansas City), FS Kevin Kaesviharn (Cincinnati), CB David Macklin (Arizona).
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.