Fourth of an eight-part series
With the absence of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement threatening to delay the start of the 2011 free-agent signing period, PFW identifies the players whose contracts expire March 3 and analyzes the likely free-agent game plan for each of the NFC South teams.
The number of accrued seasons of service is shown in parentheses following each prospective free agent's name. The new CBA will dictate how many accrued seasons are required to qualify as an unrestricted free agent.
Unsigned players: OG Justin Blalock (4), PK Matt Bryant (8), OT Tyson Clabo (5), OG Harvey Dahl (5), WR Brian Finneran (11), CB Brent Grimes (3), DT Thomas Johnson (4), P Michael Koenen (6), OLB Stephen Nicholas (4), RB Jerious Norwood (5), OLB Mike Peterson (12), RB Jason Snelling (4), OT Will Svitek (5), DT Vance Walker (2), WR Eric Weems (3), CB Brian Williams (9), QB John Parker Wilson (2).
Analysis: While the Falcons emphasize building through the draft, they have paid a premium to land free agents like CB Dunta Robinson and RB Michael Turner in two of the past three offseasons. Owner Arthur Blank has shown he'll spend to land a big name. After a 13-3 season, however, the Falcons don't have many glaring holes to fill. GM Thomas Dimitroff has made it clear that he's looking for speed and explosiveness on both sides of the ball in an effort to help Atlanta become a stronger contender in the NFC. The Falcons have needs at wide receiver and defensive end, but the offensive line also could become a need. Dahl and Clabo have been the starters on the right side of the O-line for the past three seasons and could draw interest from other teams. Blalock, who has started all 62 games in which he has played since entering the league, is also looking for a new deal. Two Pro Bowlers from the 2010 season — Grimes and Weems — are due to become restricted free agents and are expected to be tendered. The Falcons would like to re-sign Turner's top backup, Snelling, and it's likely that specialists Bryant and Koenen will be back. Peterson and Nicholas made up the starting tandem at outside 'backer for much of last season, but Sean Weatherspoon, a first-round pick last year, is likely to take one of those starting spots. Peterson, who will turn 35 in June, will be back only on a short-term deal.
Unsigned players: S Gerald Alexander (4), OLB James Anderson (5), WR David Clowney (3), OG C.J. Davis (2), OLB Thomas Davis (6), OLB Nic Harris (2), DT Nick Hayden (2), MLB Abdul Hodge (5), S Marcus Hudson (5), OL J.J. Jansen (3), DE Charles Johnson (4), DT Ed Johnson (2), C Ryan Kalil (4, franchised), TE Jeff King (5), DT Derek Landri (4), PK Rhys Lloyd (4), CB Richard Marshall (5), WR Charles Martin (2), QB Matt Moore (4), OG Chris Morris (4), QB Keith Null (2), OT Rob Petitti (5), TE Dante Rosario (4), OLB Jordan Senn (3), QB Brian St. Pierre (7), RB DeAngelo Williams (5), OLB Jamar Williams (5), CB C.J. Wilson (4).
Analysis: Carolina placed the franchise tag on Kalil, which will keep him from becoming a free agent. He plans to sign the one-year tender, which includes a salary of about $10 million. The Panthers considered using the tag on Charles Johnson, who had 11½ sacks in 2010, and they would like to re-sign him, but he might get some intriguing offers from other clubs after his breakout year. DeAngelo Williams also will get to gauge his value on the open market. Carolina has solid depth in the backfield with Jonathan Stewart, Mike Goodson and Tyrell Sutton under contract next season, and Williams might find a better opportunity elsewhere, although the Panthers would have him back at the right price. Marshall, a solid starter for the past two seasons and a valuable backup before that, is expected to move on and continue his career elsewhere. Moore, last season's opening-day starter, is unlikely to be back in Carolina. He's coming off shoulder surgery and the Panthers are looking for a new quarterback to join Jimmy Clausen and Tony Pike. Thomas Davis should be available at a discount, as he's coming off an ACL tear. Anderson will be looking to cash in after the best year of his career; Carolina isn't expected to overpay to keep him.
New Orleans Saints
Unsigned players: 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), S Matt Giordano (6), C Jonathan Goodwin (9), RB Lynell Hamilton (2), DE Tony Hargrove (6), S Roman Harper (5), PK Garrett Hartley (3), LB Ramon Humber (2), TE Tory Humphrey (4), RB Julius Jones (7), MLB Kawika Mitchell (8), WR 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), CB Leigh Torrence (5), OLB Anthony Waters (3), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (8), RB DeShawn Wynn (4), CB Usama Young (4).
Analysis: With 27 players with four years or more of service due to hit free agency, there could be some significant roster changes in New Orleans. The process of shaping the roster for next season already has begun — the Saints recently released TE Jeremy Shockey, and there is speculation that RB Reggie Bush will be the next to go if he doesn't agree to a pay cut. Bush's contract calls for him to make about $11.8 million in 2011. Three starters from the offensive line — Bushrod, Goodwin and Nicks — have expiring contracts. Nicks, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season, is due to become a restricted free agent and the Saints probably will tender him at the highest level. The Saints would like to keep Bushrod and Goodwin. They have 2010 draft picks OT Charles Brown and C Matt Tennant on the roster if Bushrod and Goodwin depart, but would rather give the two young players more time to develop. New Orleans has decisions to make in the secondary, too. Sharper would like to keep playing, and it's possible that he'll sign another one-year deal with the Saints at a modest price. Harper was having what some considered a Pro Bowl-caliber season before his awful performance in New Orleans' playoff loss to Seattle. Re-signing him still will be a priority.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Unsigned players: PK Connor Barth (3), DE Michael Bennett (2), OLB Quincy Black (4), QB Rudy Carpenter (2), DE Tim Crowder (4), OL Demar Dotson (2), TE John Gilmore (9), OLB Adam Hayward (4), RB Kareem Huggins (1), OG Davin Joseph (5), MLB Niko Koutouvides (7), OT James Lee (3), S Corey Lynch (3), CB Elbert Mack (3), DT Frank Okam (3), MLB Barrett Ruud (6), WR Micheal Spurlock (3), WR Maurice Stovall (5), OT Jeremy Trueblood (5), DE Stylez White (4), RB Cadillac Williams (6).
Analysis: Protecting the new face of the franchise, QB Josh Freeman, is a top concern for GM Mark Dominik, and having Joseph back in the fold is a priority. Joseph, the starting right guard who was selected to the Pro Bowl at the end of the 2008 season, is coming off a broken foot, but it's expected that he'll get an offer from Tampa Bay if he becomes an unrestricted free agent. Another one of the team's core players in recent years, Ruud, also has an expiring contract. Ruud, who has led the team in tackles in each of the past four seasons, was disappointed that the Bucs didn't offer him a long-term deal last offseason when he was a restricted free agent. He would like a chance to explore his options on the open market. Black, who started alongside Ruud at linebacker, recently said the Bucs have not approached him about a contract extension. While Williams would be the second option in the backfield behind LeGarrette Blount, the Bucs would like to re-sign him. He'd like an opportunity to be a starter, but Williams would have a hard time finding a team willing to make him one. Defensive end is one of Tampa Bay's biggest needs, and the team doesn't view White as the answer to its pass-rush woes. He'll get a chance to go elsewhere, as will Trueblood, who lost his starting job last season. Barth, Lee and Spurlock are due to become restricted free agents and will each be tendered.
Wednesday morning: AFC North free-agent preview