One big, passionate pro football constituent group thrilled the lockout looks to be nearing its end: fantasy football owners. With the regular season likely to start on time, drafts can be planned and preparation can begin in earnest.
However, fantasy owners constructing their draft boards still face one major dose of uncertainty — where will the top skill-position free agents land, and how will their stock be affected?
As a fantasy football and free agency wonk, I've given this very topic considerable thought. Here's my position-by-position look at the key free agents at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end, as well as notable players under contract who could be on the move.
With rules governing free agency yet to be disclosed, and the prospect of surprise cuts or trades to come once the league year begins, this list is subject to change. In any event, owners need to consider the fantasy implications of the flurry of transactions that promises to mark the beginning of the 2011 league year.
(Note: All rankings are from PFW's latest draft board and are by position.)
No surefire fantasy starting signalcallers are expected to move in free agency, but some serviceable backups will hit the market. Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck (No. 31) can still be a decent spot play for owners in bigger leagues if he plays like he did in the postseason. If he secures a starting job in 2011, whether in Seattle or elsewhere, he merits late-round consideration.
49ers QB Alex Smith (No. 32) will have his supporters with Jim Harbaugh taking over as San Francisco's head coach and Smith likely to re-sign as the starter. Smith is only 27, and he has a talented supporting cast in San Francisco. He might be worth one more look, especially if owners are thinking about stashing a third quarterback.
Ravens QB Mark Bulger (No. 35) is draftable as a reserve if he secures a starting job.
Others: Broncos QB Kyle Orton (No. 18), Bengals QB Carson Palmer (No. 19) and Eagles QB Kevin Kolb (No. 25) have been mentioned as potential trade candidates. Orton has shown he can post good numbers in a pass-happy offense and proved a quick study in Denver's offense. Palmer wants out of Cincinnati, but whether he gets his wish remains to be seen. Owners drafting relatively early can't consider him until very late in drafts, if at all, until there is more clarity on his status.
Kolb is less proven than Orton and Palmer, though he did play well in starts at San Francisco and vs. Atlanta last season. The Kolb-to-Arizona rumors have circulated all offseason, and the Cardinals' glaring need at quarterback, coupled with the presence of blue-chip WR Larry Fitzgerald, makes this pairing intriguing. However, Kolb could be overdrafted on promise.
Redskins QB Donovan McNabb (No. 24) and Titans QB Vince Young (No. 29) are potential cuts. Each could be a late-rounder if they garner starting jobs elsewhere.
Giants RB Ahmad Bradshaw (No. 15) is a solid No. 2 back if he re-signs with New York and continues to get the bulk of the carries. Bradshaw's fumbling is problematic, however. If it costs him touches, fantasy owners who select him early will be less than thrilled. Drafting a third back not long after taking Bradshaw or selecting his backup might be prudent.
Panthers RB DeAngelo Williams (No. 18) could be moved up draft boards if he departs Carolina and becomes a featured back elsewhere.
Bengals RB Cedric Benson (No. 23) faces two separate yet-to-be-resolved criminal cases, which will surely cause some owners to be wary. Should he re-sign with Cincinnati, he is likely to get most of the carries. If the Bengals don't bring him back, his value will plummet. Uncertainty hurts his stock.
Colts RB Joseph Addai (No. 28) has scored seven TDs or more in four of five seasons with Indianapolis, so if he's back, he's definitely worth considering as a top backup.
Dolphins RB Ronnie Brown (No. 33) is a little intriguing — injuries short-circuited two of his promising seasons. If he is a key part of an offense, he could be surprisingly productive.
Raiders RB Michael Bush (No. 42) is the sleeper of this group. He has played well in a supporting role (376 career carries in three seasons) and would be worth a much longer look if he began to get more work.
Others: Ravens RB Willis McGahee (No. 50) and Saints RB Reggie Bush (No. 52) are potential salary-cap cuts who could be drafted as reserves. McGahee could have a little more value, as he will get more short-yardage work than Bush, who's best in space.
This could be a very deep position if Chargers WR Vincent Jackson (No. 10) loses the franchise tag and Vikings WR Sidney Rice (No. 22) is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Both have produced like every-week fantasy starters at their best.
Jets WR Santonio Holmes (No. 23) could be targeted by clubs looking for a go-to receiver. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP is a demonstrated difference maker. Redskins WR Santana Moss (No. 29) caught a career-high 93 passes a season ago. The Giants' Steve Smith (No. 30) is a very good possession receiver, but he is coming off microfracture surgery on his knee.
Chargers WR Malcom Floyd (No. 40) will see his stock rise if Jackson departs or if he signs as another team's go-to receiver. However, if he is only a complementary target with a new team, he isn't as desirable, especially if his new quarterback isn't as accomplished as Philip Rivers.
If Holmes departs and Jets WR Braylon Edwards (No. 43) re-signs, Edwards will likely be New York's go-to wideout. Edwards averaged 17.1 yards a catch and hauled in seven TDs for a Jets offense not known for its explosive passing game.
Cardinals WR Steve Breaston (No. 44) has flashed some playmaking ability and could hold some appeal to clubs looking for a complementary wideout.
Packers WR James Jones (No. 52), Jaguars WR Mike Sims-Walker (No. 54) and Texans WR Jacoby Jones (No. 57) can all be described thusly: intriguing, but inconsistent.
Panthers WR Steve Smith (No. 38) and Bengals WR Chad Ochocinco (No. 41) could benefit from fresh starts elsewhere, and they may get those chances.
The Raiders' Zach Miller (No. 15) is the most highly regarded tight end who could hit free agency. Oakland is expected to try to re-sign him. Considering he has caught at least 56 passes in each of the last three seasons, and considering the Raiders' sometimes-shaky QB play, his value could increase if he signs elsewhere.
Giants TE Kevin Boss (No. 22) has caught at least five TDs in each of the last three seasons for a solid New York offense. He's a decent backup option in bigger leagues, and his value would be highest if he re-signs.
Titans TE Bo Scaife (No. 34) is likely to sign elsewhere. He has never been a major scoring threat but does have three seasons of 45 catches or more to his credit.