Updated 11:35 a.m. ET, Friday, March 4, 2011
Fifth 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 AFC North 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: QB Marc Bulger (10), OLB Prescott Burgess (4), CB Chris Carr (6), OG-C Chris Chester (5), OG Oniel Cousins (3), TE Morgan Cox (1), DT Lamar Divens (3), LB Dannell Ellerbe (2), OT Jared Gaither (4), ILB Tavares Gooden (3), TE Kevin Houser (11), WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (10), OLB-DE Sergio Kindle (1), S Dawan Landry (5), RB Matt Lawrence (2), LB Jameel McClain (3), FB Le'Ron McClain (4), RB Jason McKie (8), OG Tony Moll (5), S Haruki Nakamura (3), DT Haloti Ngata (5, franchised), RB Jalen Parmele (3), OL Daniel Sanders (1), WR Marcus Smith (3), WR Donté Stallworth (8), DT Kelly Talavou (3), CB Fabian Washington (6), CB Cary Williams (2), CB Josh Wilson (4), OL Marshal Yanda (4), S Tom Zbikowski (3).
Analysis: With a talented roster and legitimate title aspirations, it wouldn't be surprising if the Ravens sought to bolster their personnel in free agency. As expected, the Ravens gave Ngata the franchise tag in February. They will work to sign him to a long-term deal. Should they accomplish that — especially if the salary cap returns — it could rank as their most important offseason moves. Chris Carr and Josh Wilson were the Ravens' starting cornerbacks at season's end, but with Domonique Foxworth returning after missing the 2010 campaign with a knee injury and Lardarius Webb capable of starting, it remains to be seen if the Ravens will bring back Carr and Wilson. Gaither missed last season with a back injury; he doesn't lack for talent, but will the Ravens bring him back or move on? Yanda played right tackle last season but he also can play guard; his versatility is an asset. He figures to be back. Houshmandzadeh and Stallworth didn't get a lot of opportunities a season ago and might look elsewhere for bigger roles. The Ravens have to decide whether to retain Kindle's rights for another season; the feeling here is that they will. Kindle missed the 2010 season with a head injury. Landry and McClain have been productive starters but could draw interest elsewhere. The same goes for Bulger, who could end up starting elsewhere.
Unsigned players: RB Cedric Benson (6), OT Kirk Chambers (6), C Kyle Cook (3), WR Quan Cosby (2), DE Jonathan Fanene (6), TE Clark Harris (2), OLB Brandon Johnson (5), MLB Dhani Jones (11), CB Johnathan Joseph (4), TE Reggie Kelly (12), RB Brian Leonard (4), OG Nate Livings (3), OG Evan Mathis (6), S Chinedum Ndukwe (4), S Tom Nelson (2), WR Terrell Owens (15), QB Jordan Palmer (3), RB Cedric Peerman (2), CB Keiwan Ratliff (7), OT Dennis Roland (3), LB Dan Skuta (2), S Marvin White (4), S Roy Williams (9), S Gibril Wilson (7).
Analysis: The Bengals generally are not big spenders in free agency and do not figure to alter their plans in 2011. Joseph could draw significant interest if he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He's one of the AFC's better cover cornerbacks and has come on nicely the past two seasons. If the price to retain him soars, it will be interesting to see how the Bengals react. Benson's value might be highest to the Bengals, and he might have few better opportunities in free agency from the standpoint of carries and role. Should he re-sign with the Bengals, he likely would remain the featured back, and with the Bengals likely to emphasize the run more this season, he wouldn't go lacking for work. Owens is unlikely to be back. Jones has been a productive starter for the Bengals, but the team might want to look at other options at middle 'backer. Fanene missed most of last season with knee injuries but has good size; he could draw interest from 3-4 and 4-3 teams. Johnson also could draw interest elsewhere, too. Cook has developed nicely.
Unsigned players: DT Titus Adams (1), RB Mike Bell (5), OLB Marcus Benard (2), ILB Titus Brown (1), LB Blake Costanzo (3), PK Phil Dawson (12, franchised), S Abram Elam (5), TE Greg Estandia (4), DE Jayme Mitchell (5), WR Evan Moore (3), S Sabby Piscitelli (4), DE Derreck Robinson (4), OLB Matt Roth (6), DT Brian Schaefering (1), TE Alex Smith (6), DE Robaire Smith (11), S Nick Sorensen (10), WR Chansi Stuckey (4), ILB Jason Trusnik (4), FB Lawrence Vickers (5), OL Floyd Womack (10), CB Eric Wright (4), OL Billy Yates (7).
Analysis: With scheme changes on offense and defense, the Browns have some clear needs to address on both sides of the ball in the offseason. They have been willing to spend for high-level talent in past years, and having missed the playoffs in 11-of-12 seasons since returning to NFL play, the chances of them making a splash in free agency cannot be discounted, considering their past and the ground they have to make up to catch Baltimore and Pittsburgh in their division. The Browns gave Dawson the franchise tag on Feb. 22; he has been a reliable performer throughout his 12 seasons in Cleveland, and with so many other clear needs, it made sense to tag him and focus their energy on other positions. Of their free agents, Roth and Wright could draw the most interest from other teams. Roth is a good pass rusher and solid run defender, and Wright, despite struggling in 2010, could intrigue teams looking for a starting-caliber cornerback. Vickers is a stout lead blocker; could he draw interest elsewhere?
Unsigned players: DE Eugene Bright (1), OL Dorian Brooks (1), OT Willie Colon (5), S Da'Mon Cromartie-Smith (1), QB Dennis Dixon (3), DE Nick Eason (8), DE Chris Ellis (3), OG Trai Essex (6), LB Keyaron Fox (7), CB William Gay (4), WR Tyler Grisham (1), DT Ra'Shon Harris (2), CB Tuff Harris (3), OL Tony Hills (3), NT Chris Hoke (10), OL Kyle Jolly (1), P Jeremy Kapinos (2), OG-C Doug Legursky (2), CB Anthony Madison (5), RB Mewelde Moore (7), S Ryan Mundy (2), OT Jonathan Scott (4), P Daniel Sepulveda (4), TE Matt Spaeth (4), PK Shaun Suisham (5), RB Frank Summers (2), CB Ike Taylor (8), OL Greg Warren (6), OLB LaMarr Woodley (4, franchised).
Analysis: The Steelers don't look to make big-ticket signings in free agency, but they will target veterans who fill a need, with their signing of FS Ryan Clark in 2006 a notable example. They gave the franchise tag to Woodley, an exceptional pass rusher and run defender, in February, and he signed the tender, keeping him with the team for at least another season, with both sides attempting to work out a long-term deal. Another key defensive starter, Taylor, would draw interest if he hits free agency. The Steelers will likely try hard to bring the eight-year veteran back. Hoke is a key member of the DL rotation; could he get an offer from a 3-4 team looking for someone to man the middle of their defensive line? Colon was the starting right tackle before suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss the 2010 season. If he returns, he might have to compete with Flozell Adams, who turns 36 in May. He also could get a look inside at guard. Scott played better after a tough start replacing the injured Max Starks at left tackle, and he enhanced his value with his play down the stretch. Gay can start in a pinch but is probably best at a reserve. Sepulveda has been very good when healthy but has had a history of serious knee injuries.
Later Wednesday: NFC West free-agent preview