2012 NFL free agency primer: the quarterbacks

The biggest storyline of free agency, one that will send ripples throughout the rest of the 2012 offseason, is the fate of Peyton Manning, who could be released by the Indianapolis Colts, the franchise that Manning quarterbacked to a Super Bowl title in 2006. Manning, who turns 36 later this month, has reportedly undergone four medical procedures on his neck since he last played in an NFL game back in the 2010 season.

But future Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks don’t hit the market very often, so he will be in great demand assuming Manning is healthy enough to play and is able to throw a football at or near the level he did before the injury.

Manning headlines a free agent quarterback class that could include Drew Brees, Matt Flynn and Alex Smith.

Signing a quarterback is one of the Ravens’ top offseason priorities. Of course, by that I mean they would like to lock down Joe Flacco before he plays out the final year of his current deal. The team has started talks with his agent, Joe Linta, and while negotiations aren’t expected to become contentious, it could take a while for both sides to hammer out an extension because of Flacco’s unique resume through his first four NFL seasons.

Here is a look at five of the top free agent quarterbacks on the market and where they could wind up in 2012.

1. Peyton Manning: If his arm checks out OK, every Super Bowl contender and wannabe pretender in need of an upper-echelon quarterback will probably be interested in Manning, who could be a package deal with wide receiver Reggie Wayne, his former go-to guy. Wayne, 33, is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent.

Potential suitors: Washington Redskins, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks, more.

2. Drew Brees: The Pro Bowl quarterback is scheduled to become a free agent. However, it is pretty much a lock that the New Orleans Saints will slap the franchise tag on Brees if they can’t sign him to a new contract.

Potential suitors: New Orleans Saints (this will be a long, long list should the Saints let him hit the market).

3. Matt Flynn: Flynn, who backed up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, is expected to parlay a pair of strong starts the past two seasons into a lucrative contract elsewhere. The Packers could place the franchise tag on Flynn and trade him to the team of their choice, but it appears they will opt against it and let him hit the market.

Potential suitors: Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins (whoever misses out on Manning).

4. Alex Smith: The San Francisco 49ers, who lost in the NFC championship game to the New York Giants, are reportedly trying to re-sign the former No. 1 overall pick. If not, the franchise tag could come into play here.

Potential suitors: San Francisco 49ers (if not, would one of their NFC West rivals show interest in Smith?).

5. Kyle Orton: After starting the season with the Denver Broncos and losing his starting job to Tim Tebow, Orton finished out the season with the Kansas City Chiefs. Orton is probably one of the top 32 quarterbacks in the league, but if he’s your starter, that’s not a good thing. He would make an ideal backup, but he will likely want a chance to start. He could get it in K.C., where they are looking for competition for Matt Cassel.

Potential suitors: Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Cleveland Browns.

Other notable free agents (2011 team in parenthesis): Jason Campbell (Oakland Raiders), Donovan McNabb (Minnesota Vikings), Vince Young (Philadelphia Eagles), David Garrard (did not play), Chad Henne (Miami Dolphins), Rex Grossman (Washington Redskins), Chad Pennington (did not play), Kyle Boller (Raiders).