Updated 12:35 p.m. ET, Thursday, March 3, 2011
Seventh 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 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: DE Mark Anderson (5), LB Kevin Bentley (9), OG Mike Brisiel (3), DT Tim Bulman (4), OT Rashad Butler (5), DT Shaun Cody (6), OLB Zach Diles (4), RB Arian Foster (2), DE Jarvis Green (9), WR Jacoby Jones (4), FB Vonta Leach (7), QB Matt Leinart (5), DT Damione Lewis (10), CB Karl Paymah (6), S Bernard Pollard (5), OG Kasey Studdard (4), P Matt Turk (15).
Analysis: The Texans begin their 10th season of play still seeking their first-ever postseason berth. If they are to sign a top-level free agent from outside the organization, it will be on defense, not offense. Houston has the AFC's top wideout (Andre Johnson), one of its better quarterbacks (Matt Schaub) and one of the league's emerging star runners (Arian Foster). They are transitioning from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4, which could necessitate some personnel changes in the front seven. Also, their pass defense was the NFL's worst a season ago. Leinart, who could have a chance to compete for a starting role with another team, is not going to start in Houston and could have a better opportunity elsewhere. That said, the team would like to bring him back. Jones, who could catch another team's eye, has yet to reach his vast potential. He's in the prime of his career, and the Texans would likely welcome his return. Leach comes off his first Pro Bowl berth; the Texans figure to try and re-sign him. Pollard struggled somewhat last season and the Texans did not tender him as a restricted free agent (according to the Houston Chronicle) so it appears unlikely he'll be back. Diles, a former starter, also wasn't tendered and is unlikely to return. Cody could be back to compete at nose tackle.
Unsigned players: RB Joseph Addai (5), S Al Afalava (2), S Melvin Bullitt (4), DE Keyunta Dawson (4), OG Kyle DeVan (2), DT Eric Foster (3), CB Aaron Francisco (6), OLB Tyjuan Hagler (6), S Ken Hamlin (8), RB Mike Hart (3), DT Antonio Johnson (4), OL Charlie Johnson (5), QB Peyton Manning (13, franchised), DT Daniel Muir (4), RB Dominic Rhodes (9), CB Mike Richardson (4), RB Gijon Robinson (3), TE Tom Santi (3), OLB Clint Session (4), S Jamie Silva (3), OT Michael Toudouze (2), PK Adam Vinatieri (15).
Analysis: Colts president Bill Polian called tagging Manning "a matter of course" as the two sides continue to negotiate what will be the richest contract in NFL history. It will be interesting to see what financial constraints Manning's new deal places on the Colts, as the team has several other big decisions to make this offseason. Heading the list for the second consecutive year is fixing the offensive line and running game. Somewhat out of character, Polian mentioned during the season the possibility of luring in a high-priced free agent or two to shore up the blocking up front. But as far as locking up their own, the club would like to re-sign Charlie Johnson and move him inside to replace DeVan at one of the guard spots. Manning has been outspoken about Addai's numerous contributions to the offense, and the club is hopeful to bring the versatile Addai back despite an injury-filled season. The club will face difficult decisions with a pair of fan favorites, Rhodes and Hart. On defense, re-signing Bullitt following the release of Bob Sanders is of the utmost importance, as is locking up Session, the physical weak-side 'backer. The Colts also would like to re-sign Francisco, who was a key contributor following injuries to Sanders and Bullitt last season, and Silva, a special-teams standout. Of the four potential free agent D-linemen, Johnson and Muir are priorities, as they are most critical to the Colts' run defense. The Colts will make every effort to reward Vinatieri for his outstanding 2010 campaign.
Unsigned players: QB Todd Bouman (12), CB Tyron Brackenridge (3), DT Nate Collins (1), S Sean Considine (6), DT Leger Douzable (2), OLB Justin Durant (4), QB Trent Edwards (4), S Courtney Greene (2), WR Jason Hill (4), WR Nate Hughes (2), CB David Jones (4), TE Marcedes Lewis (5, franchised), CB William Middleton (2), MLB Kirk Morrison (6), P Adam Podlesh (4), DE Zach Potter (1), WR Mike Sims-Walker (4), DE Bryan Smith (3).
Analysis: While GM Gene Smith is a big believer in building his club through the draft, the acquisitions last offseason of DE Aaron Kampman and special-teams stud Kassim Osgood showed the Jaguars will plug holes in free agency if the price is right. It's not surprising, then, that former Colts SS Bob Sanders' first visit was to Jacksonville, as the safety position is one of the team's most glaring needs and Sanders' best option could be an incentive-laden deal with very little in guaranteed money. The Jaguars placed the franchise tag on Lewis, who is coming off a breakout season. The club has expressed a desire to keep him long term, but with not enough progress being made and the deadline to use the tag rapidly approaching, the Jaguars could ill afford to let Lewis hit the open market with his stock at an all-time high. Other potential free agents whom the Jaguars will attempt to keep include Hill, who flashed late in the season in limited opportunities; Douzable, who made solid contributions while spelling starting DTs Terrance Knighton and Tyson Alualu, and Podlesh. With QBs David Garrard and Luke McCown (re-signed Feb. 28) under contract and with Smith expected to draft a signalcaller, bringing back Edwards or Bouman is not a priority. The Jaguars are expected to bid farewell to former starters Durant, Morrison and Sims-Walker after lackluster 2010 seasons.
Unsigned players: LB Colin Allred (3), DE Jason Babin (7), LB Patrick Bailey (3), DE Dave Ball (6), QB Kerry Collins (16), DE Marques Douglas (10), DE Jacob Ford (4), FB Ahmard Hall (5), OG Leroy Harris (4), CB Roderick Hood (8), P Brett Kern (3), WR Randy Moss (13), S Donnie Nickey (8), OL Michael Otto (3), TE Bo Scaife (6), LB Tim Shaw (3), QB Chris Simms (8), OLB David Thornton (9), MLB Stephen Tulloch (5), OLB Jamie Winborn (9).
Analysis: Talk about a team in transition. The Titans have a new head coach and new offensive and defensive coordinators. Such change usually means a personnel shakeup is coming, so expect some changes in Tennessee. However, don't expect the Titans to go overboard in free agency. The club has preferred to build via the draft, and it will continue to operate off that blueprint. Babin, who recorded a career-high 12.5 sacks a season ago, could draw strong interest elsewhere, and with the Titans having a host of other options at the position — and with DL coach Jim Washburn, who helped Babin turn his career around, now in Philadelphia — it's unclear whether Babin will return. Ball, who also had a fine season, figures to be less expensive to re-sign and could be more likely to be back. Moss caught just six passes in eight games with Tennessee (with zero TDs), and he seems likely to look for other opportunities. Could Tulloch, who racked up a career-best 160 tackles in 2010, draw interest elsewhere? Second-year pro Rennie Curran could step in if Tulloch departs. Harris has shown promise, and the Titans likely will want to keep him for 2011 and beyond. Collins could return as a backup or a short-term starter if the Titans look to groom a younger passer, but his return isn't assured. If Simms is back, it likely would be as a backup.
Later Thursday: NFC East free-agent preview