Sixth 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 West 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: S Hamza Abdullah (5), CB Michael Adams (3), OL D'Anthony Batiste (4), DT Alan Branch (4), WR Steve Breaston (4), FB Nehemiah Broughton (3), C Ben Claxton (4), WR Early Doucet (3), DT Keilen Dykes (1), OG Alan Faneca (13), LB Curtis Gatewood (2), P Ben Graham (6), CB Marshay Green (1), RB Tim Hightower (3), DE Kenny Iwebema (3), CB A.J. Jefferson (1), OT Brandon Keith (3), WR Max Komar (1), OG Deuce Lutui (5), FB Reagan Maui'a (3), CB Trumaine McBride (3), LB Cyril Obiozor (1), TE Ben Patrick (4), NT Bryan Robinson (14), C Lyle Sendlein (4), TE Stephen Spach (4), LB Reggie Walker (2), CB Matt Ware (7), DT Gabe Watson (5), RB Jason Wright (6).
Analysis: After what turned out to be a very disappointing 2010 campaign for the Cardinals, there are no locks to be re-signed. Entering the season, WR Steve Breaston, a quality No. 2 wideout behind Larry Fitzgerald when healthy and possessing an excellent attitude, seemed to fill the bill in that regard. But that no longer appears to be the case, with the team having become increasingly concerned about the condition of Breaston's knees. O-line starters Sendlein and Lutui are better than 50-50 candidates to be re-signed. Lutui, the starting right guard, will not come cheap and is likely to test the market for the best possible deal available. Another starter on the line, Faneca, is a good bet to re-sign after showing the Cardinals enough at left guard to justify starting status for at least another season, but he could decide to retire. With 2010 No. 1 pick Dan Williams expected to start at nose tackle, the futures of Robinson, another retirement possibility, and Branch look murky. Provided the free-agent rules revert back to the way they were two seasons ago, Hightower is likely to receive a relatively high tender. The aging Graham could come back, but he is virtually guaranteed to face possibly heavy competition for the starting punting job. As big a contract issue as any for the Cardinals is Fitzgerald's hefty deal, which is set to expire after the 2011 season. The suspicion is Fitzgerald will not be a happy camper if the Cardinals fail to seriously investigate the free-agent market for a new starting quarterback - at whatever point they are allowed to do so.
San Francisco 49ers
Unsigned players: C David Baas (6), DE Demetric Evans (9), NT Aubrayo Franklin (8), FS Dashon Goldson (4), CB Will James (10), DE Travis LaBoy (6), OLB Manny Lawson (5), DE Ray McDonald (4), OT Chris Patrick (2), PK Jeff Reed (9), OT Barry Sims (12), QB Alex Smith (6), QB Troy Smith (4), LB Takeo Spikes (13), S C.J. Spillman (2), RB Brian Westbrook (9), OG Tony Wragge (6).
Analysis: While it's still likely the Niners will look into the free-agent market for a potential new starting quarterback, it suddenly appears as if Alex Smith, who was widely believed to be as good as gone next season, is genuinely being considered for the starting job under center by new head coach Jim Harbaugh. There are many daily team observers, however, who believe Alex Smith might believe he's better off with a change of scenery after falling out of favor with the Niners' fan base. As for fellow QB Troy Smith, the odds of him returning to the Bay Area are not looking that good. Not only does he lack the accuracy Harbaugh has indicated is a definite requirement at the QB position, but he was also previously deemed expendable in Baltimore by Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, Jim's brother. The best bets to be re-signed are Baas, who made a strong impression in 2010 replacing the injured Eric Heitmann; Goldson, who has underachieved but is still considered a potentially high-caliber playmaking safety; and Franklin, the team's franchise player last season as the starting nose tackle. Lawson, a former first-rounder, is expected to test the market pretty seriously and look for the best offer available. Fellow LBs Spikes and LaBoy, both of whom played well this past season, seem like better bets than Lawson to return, although there are some observers who believe Spikes could be sacrificed with the younger NaVorro Bowman waiting in the wings. Westbrook is expected to pursue other options pretty seriously in pursuit of more playing time. Reed, who kicked very well in place of the injured Joe Nedney after being obtained late last season, could give Nedney, who has had problems staying healthy the past few seasons, a run for his money.
Unsigned players: S Jordan Babineaux (7), DE Raheem Brock (9), DT Amon Gordon (5), QB Matt Hasselbeck (12), LB Will Herring (4), OLB Leroy Hill (6), CB Kelly Jennings (5), OT Sean Locklear (7), QB J.P. Losman (6), PK Olindo Mare (14), WR Ruvell Martin (5), LB Matt McCoy (6), DT Brandon Mebane (4), S Lawyer Milloy (15), OG-OT Chester Pitts (9), OL Tyler Polumbus (3), DE Jay Richardson (4), RB Michael Robinson (5), DT Junior Siavii (4), C Chris Spencer (6), WR Brandon Stokley (12), DT Craig Terrill (7), OL Ray Willis (6).
Analysis: Any free-agent discussion regarding the Seahawks must start with Hasselbeck, who by all accounts earned a reprieve after his stellar four-TD performance in Seattle's stunning wild-card upset of the defending Super Bowl-champion Saints. Daily team observers expect Hasselbeck to sign a new short-term deal sooner than later. Among the Seahawks' other possible free agents, the best bets to re-sign include Mebane, who was sorely missed this past season after suffering a prolonged calf injury; Mare, the team's franchise player in 2010; Brock, who really came on strong down the stretch; and Herring. The odds appear to be leaning toward both Spencer and Locklear, the right tackle, seriously testing the free-agent waters, with Spencer looking a little more likely than Locklear to be re-signed. Milloy and Babineaux look like keepers at the right price, although the 37-year-old Milloy might decide to think twice about continuing to play. Another keeper could be Robinson, who has real value as a lead blocker in the backfield. Robinson also can make a play in a pinch, in addition to being a key special-teamer. Hill, who was once considered a valuable core player, probably will be playing elsewhere next season. The team re-signed special-teams stud Leon Washington, who could become more involved in the offense moving forward.
St. Louis Rams
Unsigned players: DE C.J. Ah You (2), WR Danny Amendola (2), CB Quincy Butler (3), CB Chris Chamberlain (3), WR Mark Clayton (6), RB Kenneth Darby (3), CB Kevin Dockery (5), TE Daniel Fells (4), OT Renardo Foster (3), DT Gary Gibson (5), OG Adam Goldberg (7), LB Larry Grant (2), OG John Greco (3), DT Chris Hovan (11), DE Curtis Johnson (3), TE Darcy Johnson (4), CB Justin King (3), S Michael Lewis (9), 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 won't be afraid to spend money in free agency for the right kind of fits. But he's unlikely to break the bank considering that three players already on the payroll - QB Sam Bradford, DE Chris Long and OT Jason Smith - are making more than $10 million annually. Among the team's unsigned players with three or more years of experience, the most likely candidates for new deals figure to be Clayton, who quickly developed a strong chemistry with Bradford and was playing well before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week Five against the Lions, and Fells, who caught at least three passes in 10 of the team's 16 games and finished second among Rams receivers with 50 catches for 590 yards and a pair of scores. Other good bets to return at the right price are Vobora, a candidate for one of the starting OLB jobs; Gibson, a serviceable blue-collar D-tackle; and Goldberg, who still has value as a versatile utility man on the offensive line. Don't rule out the Rams re-signing FS O.J. Atogwe, who became a free agent after he was released when the team opted not to pay him an $8 million roster bonus. Atogwe, who has a combined 43 forced fumbles and interceptions since becoming a fulltime starter in 2006 - the most in the league over that span - quickly began testing the free-agent waters with visits on tap with a few teams following his release, but he has expressed a willingness to consider a restructured deal with the Rams.
Thursday morning: AFC South free-agent preview