Following are whispers we've been hearing from around the league:
• You can add Texans RB Steve Slaton, who apparently has been made expendable in Houston considering Arian Foster's emergence, to the free-agent/trade possibilities being rumored to fill a badly needed backup role behind Rams workhorse RB Steven Jackson. Slaton had a strong rookie campaign in 2009 but ended up on injured reserve last year. Of all the RB prospects that have popped up on the rumor mill (Darren Sproles, Reggie Bush, Cadillac Williams, Slaton), team insiders tell us the name continuing to generate the most positive buzz is that of Sproles, who would appear to offer a particularly appealing change of pace to Jackson. "He has the name recognition and added value on special teams," one insider said of Sproles, who played his college ball at Kansas State. "I don't see 'Cadillac' coming here. I think for him to leave Tampa Bay, it would have to be for a starting role."
• A Steelers daily team observer tells PFW that third-year CB Keenan Lewis is on the roster bubble after the club drafted a pair of cornerbacks in April. Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009, has struggled to make an impact in two NFL seasons, appearing in 13 games, all as a reserve.
• With a potentially deep group of their own unrestricted free agents to try and re-sign along with a couple of clear needs to address once the work stoppage ends — adding pass-rush help and maybe a backup quarterback, too — the Ravens' re-signings of PK Billy Cundiff and P Sam Koch before the lockout were key moves, a daily team observer tells PFW. Cundiff, who won PFW's Golden Toe Award as the NFL's top specialist, led the NFL in touchbacks and connected on 26-of-29 field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, Koch ranked second in the AFC with a 39.2-yard net punting average.
• The Bengals are a team to watch once NFL business resumes, with QB Carson Palmer threatening retirement and WR Chad Ochocinco speculated to be a potential cut. One of the story lines to keep an eye on, we hear, is whether the club works to give some of its promising younger players contract extensions, with CB Leon Hall an obvious candidate for a long-term deal. The Bengals' other starting cornerback, Johnathan Joseph, could be an unrestricted free agent; if that happens, he could find himself in demand.
• Lions QB Matthew Stafford's talent is obvious, but his intangibles are impressive, too, teammate Drew Stanton told PFW. "Some of his best attributes don't entail football," Stanton said of Stafford, noting how hard he works.
• Our sources in Seattle would be surprised if the Seahawks don't re-sign free-agent LB Will Herring, who could have some real value on the open market. "He is just so valuable to the team," one team insider said. "He's a core special-teamer and can start at all three (LB) positions." A hard worker who is well-respected by his teammates, Herring forced a couple of key turnovers late in the 2010 season, including a critical fourth-down interception in the Seahawks' playoff-clinching victory against the Rams in Week 17.
• Don't be surprised if the Cardinals conduct a serious free-agent search for a durable, physical inside linebacker — a position that appears pretty thin at the moment. "It makes a lot of sense that they would do that," one team insider said. "If they could find a guy similar to (current starting ILB and former free agent) Paris Lenon, they should do it." We hear an X-factor at the position is sixth-round rookie Quan Sturdivant, who the team thinks has a shot at becoming a real playmaker.
• With a salary cap of about $120 million likely to be part of the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Falcons might not have the cap flexibility to re-sign all the players they would like to keep. One of the tougher decisions for the team will be how to proceed with RB Jason Snelling. If another team offers him high-end backup money when he hits the open market, the Falcons will have to decide whether to match it, top it or spend resources on other areas of need and consider moving forward with Jacquizz Rodgers and Gartrell Johnson as the top complements to Michael Turner.
• The Bears could lose the core of their special-teams unit in free agency. Danieal Manning, a highly productive kickoff returner, and their top six special-teams tacklers from last season, including ace Corey Graham, are unrestricted free agents. Special teams has been a strength for the Bears under Lovie Smith and coordinator Dave Toub, but the potential departures of those players and a condensed offseason are concerns.
• A recent analysis by Football Outsiders had two AFC East teams high on their list of teams that utilize empty backfields. The Bills led the league running 15.1 percent of their plays with an empty backfield while the Patriots were third, running the formation 9.9 percent of the time. To no one's surprise, New England's spread attack with Tom Brady found success more often than the Bills. Despite weapons for Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Bills rarely capitalized with an empty set, but it wasn't necessarily the fault of a weak offensive line. Looking at quarterbacks' stats with at least four wide receivers (does not distinguish between four WRs and a back in the backfield or five WRs and an empty backfield), Fitzpatrick was sacked 12 times, Brady 13. But precision is where the difference lies. In these formations, Brady completed 64.3 percent of his passes while Fitzpatrick completed just 56.9 percent. The Bills clearly have confidence in Fitzpatrick and he has the talent at wideout and running back, but he'll need to improve his accuracy in the spread.
• Jets WR-KR Brad Smith stood out above the rest of the league last season in the "Wildcat." According to Pro Football Focus, he gained 7.1 yards per carry out of the formation. Smith, who is a free agent, said his ability to play the "Wildcat" is an asset to suitors. "The more you can do, the better. I believe I can make plays. That's what I offer to teams," he told PFW.
• With unsigned players with four years of service likely to be eligible for unrestricted free agency once a new labor agreement is in place, the Colts will have no less than four defensive linemen who could hit the open market — DTs Daniel Muir, Antonio Johnson and Eric Foster and DE Keyunta Dawson. Although Johnson was instrumental in the improvement of the run defense late last season, his health has been a concern. Foster and Dawson, both of whom are situational players — Foster plays mainly on passing downs and Dawson will occasionally spell DEs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in obvious running situations — could be allowed to test the waters. We hear that of the four linemen, Muir, despite not playing as well last season as he did in 2009, is the most likely to be re-signed.
• Texans OT Rashad Butler, an unrestricted free agent who played well when starter Duane Brown served his four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs last season, could prove difficult to replace if he receives a more attractive offer elsewhere. We hear the club would have to bring in a veteran to fill the void left by the departure of the dependable Butler.
• In order to give them more versatility up front, look for the Raiders to try and re-sign OT Khalif Barnes when free agency begins. Barnes played all 16 games for Oakland last season and was a full-time starter earlier in his career with the Jaguars. With a line that isn't too experienced, having a veteran player like Barnes to fill in at a variety of positions is something the team will need.
• Though not their greatest need, the Chargers do need to add a quarterback or two to their roster behind Philip Rivers. Right now, the depth chart is bare behind No. 17. The team's backup for the past five years, Billy Volek, is a strong candidate to return, though there is some chatter he'd like to go elsewhere to compete for a starting job. San Diego management could be willing to pay a little more than it would like to keep Volek with the Bolts, however, as the Chargers want somebody who is comfortable with the offense that the coaching staff won't need to devote too much time to when the lockout ends.
• Depending on their salary-cap situation, the Chiefs could make a run at free-agent WR Steve Breaston when the league year begins. Kansas City needs a slot receiver to play with starters Dwayne Bowe and Jonathan Baldwin, a role in which Breaston has thrived. He also is very familiar with Chiefs head coach Todd Haley, who was Breaston's offensive coordinator at Arizona in 2007 and '08.