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How early free-agent signings impact 2012 NFL Draft

The NFL draft has become the most important offseason event in American sports, but for a few days in March it takes a back seat to free agency in NFL circles.

But free agency and the draft are inexorably intertwined. When teams evaluate rosters after the season, they look for ways to improve through the young players about to enter the league and the veterans available in free agency. The relationship becomes more direct starting with the initial rush of free agency, as player movement has a strong effect on first-round draft strategies across the league.

The following free-agent signings -- as well as one blockbuster trade and the releasing of veterans into the market -- will have a huge impact on the evening of April 26, otherwise known as NFL Draft Thursday. And with franchise players like Peyton Manning and Mario Williams still looking for homes, this is only the beginning.

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Miami Dolphins trade WR Brandon Marshall to Chicago Bears

The Bears were expected to address their receiver need in the first round of the draft until they pulled the trigger to get Marshall. The Bears gave up two third-round picks to reassemble the Cutler-to-Marshall connection that was so potent in Denver.

The way the Dolphins use their first-round pick may also change, as they now lack a playmaker outside. They could trade up to get in the mix for Justin Blackmon or trade down to target Michael Floyd if they don't quite value him as a top-10 pick. This decision depends on how they fare in negotiations with free-agent quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Matt Flynn; signing one of them means they won't use the eighth pick to enter the Ryan Tannehill sweepstakes.

Many analysts thought Tampa Bay would snag cornerback Morris Claiborne with the fifth overall pick, but signing Wright alleviates the need at that position -- especially if 37-year-old Ronde Barber decides to return for 2012. The Bucs are in a great position to trade down from the fifth spot with a team looking to move ahead of St. Louis to select top receiver prospect Justin Blackmon. If they stay put, Claiborne is still a possibility, but running back Trent Richardson could be paired with LeGarrette Blount to make a strong one-two punch in the backfield.

It was no surprise that the Cowboys cut ties with Newman to save millions in cap space after he struggled the past two seasons. They could look at Dre Kirkpatrick (Alabama) or Stephon Gilmore (South Carolina) at the 14 spot if they're unable to land former Kansas City Chiefs CB Brandon Carr.

The Cardinals were not expected to hang onto Brown (and his $17 million 2012 cap hit). And with right tackle RT Brandon Keith a free agent, Arizona may need to replace both starting tackles. Cordy Glenn (Georgia), Mike Adams (Ohio State) and Jonathan Martin (Stanford) are all potential selections at No. 13 to help protect whoever is the team's quarterback (Kevin Kolb is also a potential cap casualty at the moment).

Mincey had more sacks in 2011 (eight) than he did in his first three seasons with the Jaguars combined (seven), so general manager Gene Smith decided to step up and pay his starting defensive end, despite bidding from the Bears and others. Teams can never have too many pass rushers, but signing Mincey may steer Smith away from using his seventh overall selection on a defensive end like Melvin Ingram. The Jags' deep need for a receiver to help out 2011 first-round quarterback Blaine Gabbert makes them a likely player in the trade market for top pass-catching prospect Justin Blackmon.

The team released Wharton, who was due a $5.7 million base salary in 2012, and re-signed right guard Geoff Hangartner Tuesday. It's possible the Panthers could fill Wharton's left guard spot with another veteran free agent like former Rams center Jason Brown, who could easily make the switch. If that doesn't happen, Carolina could be a landing spot for Stanford guard David DeCastro. That's right, an interior lineman could go as high as the ninth overall selection. He ranks in most team's top 10 overall players in this draft class because of his intelligence, toughness and mobility, so it wouldn't really be a reach.

Even though Bryant tips the scales at 6-foot-4, 323 pounds, the Seahawks used him as a strong-side defensive end in Pete Carroll's four-man front the past two seasons. Re-signing him could eliminate the need for Seattle to look at defensive ends with the 12th overall selection. However, leading sacker Chris Clemons turns 31 in October, so GM John Schneider may not ignore that spot if he deems a pass rusher good value.

San Diego Chargers lose WR Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay, but sign WR Robert Meachem

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers could not have been happy to lose a Pro Bowl target in Jackson on Tuesday, but it was expected the receiver would not return to San Diego after his spats with general manager A.J. Smith. Bringing in Meachem, however, lessened the blow. The former first-round pick from Tennessee did not have exceptional production in New Orleans' system (averaging just 567 receiving yards a season), but should be featured more prominently with Rivers. The team may try to find receiver depth later in the draft, but the acquisition of Meachem could allow Smith to focus on finding a pass rusher with the 18th overall selection.

New Rams head coach Jeff Fisher will be reunited with Finnegan, who was a seventh-round pick of the Titans in 2006. Teams can never have too many cornerbacks, but this probably ends the Rams' interest in former LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne at the top of the draft. In fact, this deal could help push the Rams toward joining the Jaguars and Browns in the fight for Blackmon.

Houston Texans release OT Eric Winston

In a pure salary cap move, the Texans released their starting right tackle. (He was scheduled to have a $5.5 million base salary in 2012.) Could this mean they'll be looking for help there at No. 26? If so, they'll have a lot of company.

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Cleveland saved about $2 million by cutting their starting right tackle. Unless the Vikings unexpectedly decide to pass on top tackle prospect Matt Kalil at No. 3, look for the Browns to consider adding a tackle via their second first-round pick (No. 22) to bookend Pro Bowler Joe Thomas. They may be a suitor for suddenly available Eric Winston to fill that spot, but so that'd be a battle with several other teams.

Locking up cornerback Carlos Rogers in a long-term deal Tuesday lessened the team's need to pick up a cornerback with the 30th overall selection. They may now focus on receiver at that spot. Even though the team signed veteran wideout Randy Moss to a one-year deal, the team is clearly not satisfied with its receiving corps. The Niners are reportedly talking with Brandon Lloyd, who was drafted by San Francisco in 2003, but was traded to Washington after wearing out his welcome. Signing Lloyd could take receiver off the table in the late first, as well, allowing the team to take the best player available instead of plugging a hole in the roster.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @ChadReuter

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