To see just how far we’ve come with NFL free agency in the 20 years since its inception, consider this:
When former Eagles defensive end Reggie White was the top unrestricted free agent in 1993, he spent 37 days being courted by seven teams before finally signing a four-year, $17-million contract with the Packers. And last year? The top free agent on the open market was another defensive end — Mario Williams of the Texans — and he visited just one team and spent two nights in Buffalo before signing a six-year, $96-million deal with the Bills.
These days, all it takes is a phone call and a pile of money — and sometimes an occasional visit — to get the deal done. That will again be the case for the Class of 2013 free agents as they begin to find new homes once the signing period begins Tuesday at 1 p.m. PDT.
The money will be flowing early and often for the top free agents, as second- and third-tier players will have to wait their turn in the financial pecking order.
Here’s a look at the top unrestricted free agents (not including players designated with the franchise tag or restricted free agents such as New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz):
Cliff Avril, DL, Lions
Avril has a combined 29 sacks the last three seasons. Looking for a huge payday in free agency, and could command a huge salary because of his pass-rush ability. He might draw interest from the Browns and Colts.
Sean Smith, CB, Dolphins
An ascending player at 25, already one of the league’s highly regarded cover corners. The Chiefs and Eagles, among others, could be interested.
Dashon Goldson, S, 49ers
Goldson turned down a five-year, $25-million deal with the 49ers last year in hopes of striking it rich in 2013. Now is his chance. The hard-hitting safety has been linked to the Eagles.
Mike Wallace, WR, Steelers
Had an off year in 2012, but still is one of the fastest downfield receivers in the game. The Vikings and Dolphins might make a play.
Jake Long, T, Dolphins
Miami placed the franchise tag on DT Randy Starks instead of Long, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft who has battled injuries the past two years. He is a premier pass blocker when healthy. The Bears need a left tackle badly, but Long might end up pricing himself out of the reach of most teams.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
The best third-down receiver in the game was franchised last year by the Patriots, but now gets a chance to test the waters of unrestricted free agency. Then again, maybe he won’t have to; he might end up re-signing with New England to continue as one of Tom Brady’s favorite targets.
Dannell Ellerbe, LB, Ravens
Ellerbe — not Ray Lewis —was the team’s best inside linebacker last year. He doesn’t want to leave Baltimore, and the Ravens want to re-sign him, but only if the price is right.
Glover Quin, S, Texans
A mainstay of Houston’s dramatically improved pass defense. The Texans are intent on re-signing him.
Andy Levitre, G, Bills
The Bears and Titans might be in the mix for Levitre, an unheralded but accomplished inside presence.
Aqib Talib, CB, Patriots
The Pats took a chance trading for the Buccaneers’ cornerback, and he played well last season. The Pats weren’t the same against Baltimore when Talib was hurt in the AFC Championship Game.
Sebastian Vollmer, T, Patriots
Very reliable run and pass blocker and a physical specimen at 6-8, 315.
Brent Grimes, CB, Falcons
Coming off an Achilles injury, which might limit his options in free agency. One of the best corners in the league before last year’s injury.
Andre Smith, T, Bengals
In his prime at age 26, but has always battled weight problems and is looking for huge money, which could scare off suitors.
Paul Kruger, DE/LB, Ravens
Kruger was Baltimore’s best pass rusher in the playoffs. The Browns are interested if the Ravens don’t re-sign him.
Greg Jennings, WR, Packers
A highly productive receiver for Aaron Rodgers, he wants to hit it big in free agency. But the market might not be as active as the soon-to-be 30-year-old receiver would like. He has had injury issues the past two years.
Honorable mention: Jermon Bushrod, T, Saints. Charles Woodson, CB/S, Packers. Reggie Bush, RB, Dolphins. Michael Bennett, DE, Buccaneers. Louis Delmas, S, Lions. Phil Loadholt, T, Vikings. Ed Reed, S, Ravens. Sam Baker, T, Falcons. Cary Williams, CB, Ravens. Dwight Freeney, DE, Colts. John Abraham, Osi Umenyiora, Giants. DE, Falcons, LaRon Landry, S, Jets. Ahmad Bradshaw, RB, Giants. Rey Maualuga, LB, Bengals. Dustin Keller, TE, Jets. Martellus Bennett, TE, Giants. Kenny Phillips, S, Giants. Steven Jackson, RB, Rams.