Fifth of an eight-part series
The players listed in each team report below are not signed for the 2011 season. Because of the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement between NFL players and owners, it is not yet known how many accrued years of service will be necessary to qualify for free agency and, thus, what type of free agent a player would be. After a player's name, we show his years of NFL service (including 2010), which will determine his free-agent type. It is likely that any player with six years or more of NFL experience will qualify for unrestricted free agency in 2011. However, it is possible that five years, or even four (as was the case in 2009 and before), will be enough to become unrestricted. Players with three years of experience are likely to continue to be restricted free agents, as well as those players with more experience but who fall short of the new CBA cutoff for unrestricted free agency.
Potential FAs: OG Justin Blalock (4), PK Matt Bryant (9), OT Tyson Clabo (6), OG Harvey Dahl (4), WR Brian Finneran (10), CB Brent Grimes (3), DT Thomas Johnson (3), P Michael Koenen (6), DT Trey Lewis (3), OLB Stephen Nicholas (4), RB Jerious Norwood (5), OLB Mike Peterson (12), RB Jason Snelling (4), OT Will Svitek (5), WR Eric Weems (3), CB Brian Williams (9), OLB Coy Wire (9).
Analysis: Owner Arthur Blank has proven he will pay for star free agents if GM Thomas Dimitroff makes the case that they're worthy of the price. They've poured big money into deals for RB Michael Turner and CB Dunta Robinson in two of the three offseasons Dimitroff has been at the helm. Atlanta isn't looking for vast roster turnover, though. The starters on the right side of the line — Dahl and Clabo — were both tendered at the first-round level in the offseason, and there's a good chance both will be back next season. They would be fairly cheap and they do their jobs well, despite not having great talent. Blalock is expected to be tendered, as is Svitek. Finneran is a valued veteran who could come back on another one-year deal if the team is convinced he still can contribute. Snelling was tendered at the second-round level in the offseason after he did a nice job filling in for Turner when Turner was injured, and the Falcons like his versatility. He should return. The injury-plagued Norwood may have to explore other options, however. He has great speed but is on injured reserve with a torn right ACL, and Atlanta may be ready to move on. Williams and Peterson are also likely in their final season with the club. The kicking tandem of Bryant and Koenen would be welcomed back for another season.
Potential FAs: OLB James Anderson (5), WR David Clowney (3), OLB Thomas Davis (6), LB Abdul Hodge (5), S Marcus Hudson (5), LS J.J. Jansen (3), DE Charles Johnson (4), C Ryan Kalil (4), TE Jeff King (5), DT Derek Landri (4), PK Rhys Lloyd (4), CB Richard Marshall (5), QB Matt Moore (4), C Chris Morris (5), TE Dante Rosario (4), QB Brian St. Pierre (8), OLB Jordan Senn (3), RB DeAngelo Williams (5), OLB Jamar Williams (5), CB C.J. Wilson (4).
Analysis: With owner Jerry Richardson looking to avoid additional expenses in advance of what could be a lengthy labor dispute, the Panthers didn't strongly pursue free agents in the offseason, and they haven't yet extended the contracts of their own key players who will hit free agency next year. Carolina could be more active when a new CBA is reached. The team might strike to keep DeAngelo Williams from departing without any compensation. If the Panthers can't agree to a long-term deal with him, Williams could get the franchise tag. It's a safe bet that Kalil, one of the better centers in the league, will receive the highest tender possible, and Johnson also could be tendered at a high level. We're told Carolina is interested in re-signing Davis, even though he tore an ACL twice in the span of about seven months and hasn't played in a game since Week Seven of the 2009 season. The Panthers kept him on the PUP list this year and they believe he will be effective when he heals. Anderson is having a career year and could draw interest from others. He'll be back if the Panthers can get him at their price. Marshall was unhappy the team didn't offer him a long-term deal in the offseason, tendering him instead, and he'll likely jump at the chance to go elsewhere. Moore, who is on injured reserve, probably won't be back.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Potential FAs: DT Remi Ayodele (4), RB Ladell Betts (9), OT Jermon Bushrod (4), DE Jeff Charleston (4), OLB Danny Clark (11), OLB Jo-Lonn Dunbar (3), FB Heath Evans (10), C Jonathan Goodwin (9), DE Tony Hargrove (6), S Roman Harper (5), PK Garrett Hartley (3), TE Tory Humphrey (4), ILB Marvin Mitchell (4), WR Lance Moore (5), OG Carl Nicks (3), S Pierson Prioleau (12), S Chris Reis (4), WR Courtney Roby (5), OLB Scott Shanle (8), S Darren Sharper (14), OT Zach Strief (5), TE David Thomas (5), RB Pierre Thomas (4), CB Leigh Torrence (5), ILB Anthony Waters (4), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (8), CB Usama Young (4).
Analysis: The Saints had their hands tied during the peak of free agency last offseason because of the uncapped year's "final eight" rules, but the team found itself in that situation because GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton had made wise personnel decisions that resulted in success on the field. They likely will take the same approach of building through the draft while adding a few pieces through free agency in 2011. One position they'll need to address is running back, where depth has been tested by injuries. Pierre Thomas' relationship with Payton appears to have been strained over his ankle injury, and some are wondering if that will affect contract negotiations in the offseason. Thomas was tendered at the second-round level after playing a key role in the run to the Super Bowl. Sharper is the team's other high-profile free agent. The 14th-year veteran returned in Week Seven after missing the first six games while recovering from knee surgery. If he decides he wants to keep playing, there's a chance he could sign another one-year deal with the Saints, but they are comfortable with Malcolm Jenkins starting at free safety. Harper, Moore and Nicks are among the core players the Saints are expected to push to re-sign. New Orleans has a potential replacement for Goodwin, who made the Pro Bowl in '09, in rookie fifth-round pick Matt Tennant. Goodwin could get a chance to explore other options.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Potential FAs: CB Ronde Barber (14), PK Connor Barth (3), OLB Quincy Black (4), DE Tim Crowder (4), TE John Gilmore (9), OLB Adam Hayward (4), S Tanard Jackson (4), OG Davin Joseph (5), ILB Niko Koutouvides (7), OT James Lee (3), S Corey Lynch (3), CB Elbert Mack (3), S Sabby Piscitelli (4), ILB Barrett Ruud (6), WR Micheal Spurlock (3), WR Maurice Stovall (5), OT Jeremy Trueblood (5), DE Stylez G. White (4), RB Cadillac Williams (6).
Analysis: Tampa Bay focused on rebuilding through the draft and didn't spend much in free agency last offseason, but with a solid collection of young talent in place, GM Mark Dominik could go after a high-priced free agent or two if ownership is convinced that the Buccaneers are only a few pieces away from being a contender. Then again, it would be no surprise if Dominik took the same low-key approach to free agency that he did this year, while keeping some core players in place. Joseph is considered one of the better guards in the league and he'll be looking for a long-term commitment from the Bucs. He could be expensive, but Dominik likely will do what it takes to keep him. Word is Ruud is interested in staying with the Bucs, but he has been unhappy that they weren't willing to commit to him long-term in the past two offseasons and he could explore options with other clubs. Tampa Bay would like him back at the right price. The Bucs are grooming rookie Myron Lewis to take Barber's spot, and he could consider retirement. White is considered the team's best pass rusher off the edge, but the Bucs will be looking to replace him with a high draft pick. Jackson, who is serving an indefinite suspension for a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy, is a great fit in the Tampa Bay's defense. Dominik may move on without him if Jackson doesn't prove that his personal issues are behind him.