Seventh 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: S Hamza Abdullah (6), CB Michael Adams (3), OT D'Anthony Batiste (5), DT Alan Branch (4), WR Steve Breaston (4), FB Nehemiah Broughton (4), C Ben Claxton (4), WR Early Doucet (3), OG Alan Faneca (13), P Ben Graham (6), RB Tim Hightower (3), DE Kenny Iwebema (3), OT Brandon Keith (3), OG Deuce Lutui (5), FB Reagan Maui'a (3), CB Trumaine McBride (4), TE Ben Patrick (4), DT Bryan Robinson (14), C Lyle Sendlein (4), TE Stephen Spach (5), CB Matt Ware (7), DT Gabe Watson (5), RB Jason Wright (7).
Analysis: It would appear there are three players on the Cardinals' lengthy free-agent list whom the team will make a concerted effort to re-sign — Breaston, Lutui and Sendlein. Breaston, who offers a badly needed explosive dimension when healthy, is by far the top priority. He is the main reason the Cardinals believed they could afford to allow Anquan Boldin to leave the desert, and his importance is magnified by the possibility of star WR Larry Fitzgerald following in Boldin's footsteps after his contract expires at the end of the 2011 season. Lutui and Sendlein are solid linemen in their prime on a line with its share of aging players. Faneca fits the latter description, but he has held up a lot better than many league observers predicted he would. If Faneca wants to keep playing after this season, the Cardinals probably will try to bring him back for the short term. Despite his problems holding on to the ball, Hightower is also a likely keeper. Graham is a very reliable directional punter, but when there's a need for long-distance punts, he often falls short. With Graham also getting up in years, the team might consider an upgrade. It has become quite apparent that the Cardinals need major help at quarterback, and a quality veteran like Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck might have some appeal. Rest assured, Fitzgerald will be watching very closely to see what the Cardinals do under center. The team also might scour the free-agent market for help at tight end.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
Potential FAs: CB Chris Chamberlain (3), WR Mark Clayton (6), RB Kenneth Darby (3), CB Kevin Dockery (5), TE Daniel Fells (4), DT Gary Gibson (5), OG Adam Goldberg (7), OG John Greco (3), DT Chris Hovan (11), CB Justin King (3), WR Laurent Robinson (4), DT Clifton Ryan (4), TE Derek Schouman (4), OG Mark Setterstrom (5), OLB David Vobora (3).
Analysis: New Rams owner Stan Kroenke has made it clear that it's important to him for his team to be competitive. But while the Rams have their share of major needs — particularly at the WR position — don't expect them to go hog-wild in free agency for a high-profile pass catcher such as Vincent Jackson, with three players already on the roster making more than $10 million per year (QB Sam Bradford, DE Chris Long and OT Jason Smith). Clayton, who played so well before his season-ending knee injury, will warrant serious consideration as a keeper, but he is far from a slam dunk to be re-signed. Goldberg and Gibson are solid grinders and good fits in the Rams' system who can likely be re-signed at a reasonable price. Besides wide receiver, other needs that could be emphasized in free agency are a sideline-to-sideline weak-side linebacker, another decent pass rusher to go with Long and James Hall and a change-of-pace running back to spell Steven Jackson. The Rams will also have to make a decision on S O.J. Atogwe, who is believed to have a chance to hit the market if his contract is voided after this season. Atogwe is a proven playmaker with good leadership abilities.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
Potential FAs: C David Baas (6), DE Demetric Evans (9), DT Aubrayo Franklin (8), S Dashon Goldson (4), CB Will James (10), DE Travis LaBoy (6), OLB Manny Lawson (5), DE Ray McDonald (4), OT Barry Sims (12), QB Alex Smith (6), QB Troy Smith (4), ILB Takeo Spikes (13), RB Brian Westbrook (9), OG Tony Wragge (6).
Analysis: Having intensified their commitment to the draft, the Niners likely won't be major players in free agency, although it's possible a high-profile move or two could be made if the organization feels major pressure from its fan base. The biggest free-agent story line will be what the team decides to do at quarterback with the Smith boys — a decision that currently remains very much up in the air. None of the team's potential free agents is considered a lock to be re-signed, with the possible exception of Baas, who has earned rave reviews at center since replacing the injured Eric Heitmann. Franklin had been considered a priority, but not so much anymore considering the decline in his play. The team will think long and hard about re-signing both Lawson, who has come on strong as of late, and Goldson, who hasn't come close to being the playmaker they expected him to be this season but is still the best safety on the roster. Spikes, who still has a lot to offer, is an interesting case. If Mike Singletary remains the head coach, the odds of Spikes sticking around dwindle, since Singletary envisions rookie NaVorro Bowman becoming the starting inside linebacker alongside Patrick Willis sooner than later.
Potential FAs: S Jordan Babineaux (7), OT Allen Barbre (4), DE Raheem Brock (9), OG Ben Hamilton (10), QB Matt Hasselbeck (12), OLB David Hawthorne (3), OLB Will Herring (4), OLB Leroy Hill (6), CB Kelly Jennings (5), OT Sean Locklear (7), QB J.P. Losman (7), CB Roy Lewis (3), PK Olindo Mare (15), WR Ruvell Martin (6), OLB Matt McCoy (6), DT Brandon Mebane (4), S Lawyer Milloy (15), WR Ben Obomanu (5), DT Frank Okam (3), OT Chester Pitts (9), OT Tyler Polumbus (3), DE Jay Richardson (4), RB Michael Robinson (5), DT Junior Siavii (4), C Chris Spencer (6), WR Isaiah Stanback (4), WR Brandon Stokley (12), DT Craig Terrill (7), RB Leon Washington (5), C Chris White (5), WR Mike Williams (4), OT Ray Willis (6).
Analysis: The Seahawks' free-agent focus figures to be much more on second-tier singles hitters than high-profile home-run hitters. The one exception could be the QB position should the team decide that age and injury issues preclude them from re-signing Hasselbeck. With serious roots in the Pacific Northwest, Hasselbeck has made it clear he would prefer to remain a Seahawk, but that depends on how well he plays the rest of the season, in addition to how well his often-battered body holds up the last six games. The best bets as re-signing priorities are Hawthorne, who has proven to be a quality linebacker both inside and outside; Mebane, whose recent absence because of injury dramatically hindered the run defense; Washington, a special-teams stud who eventually is expected to become much more of a factor in the offense; and Williams, who has come back from the NFL graveyard to become the big, physical receiver Carroll covets in his USC-style blueprint. As is the case with Hasselbeck, the futures of O-line starters Spencer and Locklear in Seattle probably hinge on how well they play the rest of the season.