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Free-agent aces in the hole

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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By Dan Arkush

Feeling a little free-agent angst?

That’s certainly the case for the editors like yours truly presently entrusted with writing team reports for Pro Football Weekly's annual preview magazine — a major challenge with the status of the league's potential free agents currently in limbo because of the lockout.

Nobody has a clue as to when the free-agent market might begin. Plus, there are many players with either four or five years of accrued service whose free-agent status remains more than a bit muddled. Will they be restricted — which would result in compensation in varying degrees for their current teams should they sign elsewhere? Or will they be totally unrestricted?

With a new labor agreement continuing to seem like a pipe dream, the best guess among league observers is that, whenever free agency does begin, the free-agent rules will be the same as last season, with players between three and five years of service — a group that includes quality players such as Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams, Vikings WR Sidney Rice and Jets CB Antonio Cromartie, to name a few — considered restricted, and players with six years or more of accrued service considered unrestricted.

It is that latter group of established veterans with at least six years of service that takes center stage in the following All-UFA team — a hopefully temporary diversion for those of you looking for a non-draft-related fix:

Quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck (Seahawks)

With star signalcallers Peyton Manning and Michael Vick having been franchised, Hasselbeck shapes up as the top UFA under center. Following the 2010 season, the 12-year veteran looked like a lock to be re-signed by the Seahawks after coming alive in the playoffs with a 7-1 TD-interception ratio and arguably his best performance ever in Seattle’s stunning wild-card upset of the defending Super Bowl champion Saints. Recently, though, the pendulum seems to have shifted, with Hasselbeck now expected to at least test the free-agent waters. Teams like the division-rival 49ers and Cardinals could be viewing Hasselbeck as the perfect “bridge” starter who, in the best-case scenario, could reinvent himself the way Kurt Warner did in his twilight years in Arizona.

Running backs: Cedric Benson (Bengals) and Ronnie Brown (Dolphins)

Benson has become a solid but unspectacular power back in Cincinnati, racking up back-to-back 1,000-yard campaigns. While the Bengals are expected to seriously consider bringing Benson back, Brown’s future with the Dolphins looks a lot hazier after a lackluster 2010 campaign coming off his second surgical procedure in three seasons. But Brown still managed to at least make his presence felt in every game last season, gaining 976 total yards (734 rushing and 242 receiving), and he just might be a very creative, versatile weapon for a new team.

Wide receivers: Santana Moss (Redskins) and Mark Clayton (Rams)

The crop of free-agent pass catchers available loses a lot of luster without Vincent Jackson, who has been franchised by the Chargers, and players such as Rice and the Jets’ Santonio Holmes falling in the range of 3-5 years of accrued service. Moss, who excelled after being moved into the slot with a career-high 93 receptions last season, looks like the best of the rest. Clayton, who made an immediate impact for the Rams after being obtained in a trade with the Ravens shortly before last season started, is not far behind, but it’s worth noting that his re-signing is widely considered to be the Rams’ first order of business once free agency begins. 

Tight end: Bo Scaife (Titans)

Scaife had earned the team's franchise tag in 2009 before falling out of favor with the coaching staff and being inactive in two of the final three weeks in ’10, putting a serious crimp in his relationship with the Titans. He is a reliable possession receiver who lacks speed but could provide a lift in the right environment. And he'll be motivated to prove the Titans were wrong in giving up on him.

Offensive tackles: Matt Light (Patriots) and Jammal Brown (Redskins)

Light, who struggled early last season but came on strong to earn a Pro Bowl berth as New England’s starting left tackle, is a good bet to be re-signed to a short-term deal by the defending AFC East champs. Brown, a two-time Pro Bowler in New Orleans, was a bit gimpy coming off a hip injury last season, but he was playing well enough at season’s end for head coach Mike Shanahan to seriously consider bringing him back in 2011.

Offensive guards: Robert Gallery (Raiders) and Alan Faneca (Cardinals) — The pickings at this position lessened considerably after the Patriots franchised three-time Pro Bowler Logan Mankins. Gallery, a former first-round pick, was Oakland’s best lineman, and he is not expected to return to the Raiders with his sights set on a much bigger paycheck than Al Davis appears to be willing to offer. Gallery could fit in well in Seattle, where he would be reunited with former Raiders head coach Tom Cable, the Seahawks’ new assistant head coach/offensive line. Faneca, a nine-time Pro Bowler, showed that he could still get it done for the Cardinals last season at age 34. But he is seriously considering retirement, and if he does decide to continue playing, the odds are strong the Cardinals will give him a short-term contract extension.

Center: Olin Kreutz (Bears)

Kreutz was a tough call, with a few other decent starting centers in the mix such as the Saints’ Jonathan Goodwin, the Redskins’ Casey Rabach and the 49ers’ David Baas. But this 13-year veteran brought stability last season to a volatile Bears offensive line and remains a savvy and dependable player who is guaranteed to go all out on every snap.

Defensive ends: Cullen Jenkins (Packers) and Jason Babin (Titans)

As is the case with this year’s rookie crop, the UFA quality on the edges is probably better than at any other position, with players such as the Patriots’ Gerard Warren, the Cowboys’ Marcus Spears and the Seahawks’ Raheem Brock also possibly available. But Jenkins and Babin stand out after combining for 19½ sacks. When healthy, Jenkins (seven sacks in 11 games) is widely considered one of the league’s best inside pass rushers, and he has skills well-suited for both the 3-4 and the 4-3 schemes. Babin is guaranteed to have his share of suitors after registering a surprising 12½ sacks in a breakout campaign. 

Defensive tackles: Aubrayo Franklin (49ers) and Anthony Adams (Bears)

Franklin and Adams win out over the Steelers’ Chris Hoke and the Vikings’ Pat Williams as a 3-4 nose and a 4-3 D-tackle, respectively, on our imaginary UFA defensive front. A former franchise player, Franklin was not nearly as good as he was two years ago as a key cog in San Francisco’s sturdy run defense. However, he was playing better at the end of the season. Adams always has been underrated and is a player our Bears sources believe is more likely to re-sign than vacate the premises.

Middle linebacker: Barrett Ruud (Buccaneers)

Ruud is a no-brainer. He’s Tampa Bay’s leading tackler each of the past four seasons and was disappointed the team did not offer him a long-term deal last offseason when he was restricted. He could be a very productive fit on a number of teams.

Outside linebackers: Ben Leber (Vikings) and Matt Roth (Browns)

Leber is a decent two-down weak-side ’backer who is better as a pass rusher than in coverage. Roth is a decent pass rusher (3½ sacks last season) and solid run defender who could attract some real interest on the open market. Also keep an eye on the Panthers’ Thomas Davis, who was a quality ’backer before a pair of torn ACLs in a seven-month span took their toll. He did not play in 2010. Same goes for the 49ers’ Travis LaBoy, who signed for the veteran’s minimum last season and proved well worth the investment, registering five sacks while becoming arguably the most productive ’backer in the team's OLB rotation.

Cornerbacks: Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders) and Ike Taylor (Steelers)

Asomugha, whose contract stipulated that he could not receive the franchise tag, is an elite shutdown Pro Bowl starter who could be the best free agent available. The Eagles, among other teams, are reportedly very interested in one of the league’s classiest corners. As for Taylor, despite his occasional lapses in coverage and technique, the Steelers are expected to re-sign a player who also has had some very good moments.

Safeties: Roman Harper (Saints) and Quintin Mikell (Eagles)

Harper was having a helluva season until stinking up the field against the Seahawks in the Saints' wild-card loss. Mikell is a hard-hitting strong safety who played much better last season after a subpar 2009 campaign.

Placekicker: Adam Vinatieri (Colts)

Emerging from a very solid crop of veteran UFA kickers — even with the Eagles’ David Akers and the Browns’ Phil Dawson getting transition and franchise tags, respectively — Vinatieri had an outstanding 2010 season, finishing third in the league in scoring with 129 points while connecting on 26-of-28 field-goal attempts.

Punter: Brad Maynard (Bears)

A trusty veteran who has managed to handle the often-quirky kicking conditions at Soldier Field very effectively, the 37-year-old Maynard probably will be competing for a starting job with Richmond McGee should he stay in the Windy City, according to team insiders.

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