As a general rule, a team’s Super Bowl hopes are usually tied to the players who are in the fold as the Independence Day celebrations begin.
To put it another way: If a team is looking for major roster help in July, it's in trouble.
However, that does not mean that useful players still can't be added in the summer. Two years ago, OT Flozell Adams (Pittsburgh), QB Marc Bulger (Baltimore) and WR Terrell Owens (Cincinnati) were July signees. Adams started in Super Bowl XLV, and Owens led the Bengals in catches, receiving yards and TDs that season. (The 2011 free-agent period was unique in that it started in late July, so we’re excluding that from this discussion.)
As of this writing, nine UFAs ranked in PFW’s top 100 free agents of 2012 remain unsigned, excluding those who received the franchise tag.
The top-ranked available free agent is RB Cedric Benson, who was placed at No. 59 in PFW’s top 100 after rushing for 1,067 yards on 273 carries for Cincinnati a season ago.
As a part-time player, Benson could be an asset for numerous teams. I’d turn him loose late in games on worn-down defenses. The Raiders’ interest in Benson makes sense considering Darren McFadden’s durability concerns.
Here’s a brief position-by-position look at some of the better unsigned unrestricted free agents still available. The player’s 2011 team is in parentheses:
The UFA ranks at this vital position are fairly thin, but there are a handful of options. Donovan McNabb (Minnesota) was a starter-caliber player not that long ago, but he struggled last season. Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh) has flashed some potential, while Kyle Boller (Oakland), J.P. Losman (Miami) and Troy Smith (Pittsburgh) have some starting experience and could get a team through a game or two.
The days of Benson being a featured back by design are probably over, but as a role player and potential fill-in starter, he has value. The same can be said for Ryan Grant (No. 96 in PFW’s top 100), who remains unsigned after 559 rushing yards and 14 starts for Green Bay last season.
Beyond the top 100, Jackie Battle (Kansas City) and Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) are other backs who could be capable reserves, but the talent pool thinned slightly with the retirement on Tuesday of Derrick Ward (Houston). At fullback, Ahmard Hall (Tennessee) and Ovie Mughelli (Atlanta) are the top options. Mughelli is coming off a knee injury.
Plaxico Burress (N.Y. Jets) holds value as a red-zone threat. Does he get a look later in the summer? Braylon Edwards (San Francisco) was bothered by a knee injury a season ago, but he's only 29, and if healthy, he could merit a flier. Roy Williams (Chicago) caught 37 passes in nine starts in 2011 and could entice a WR-needy team at some point. Mark Clayton (St. Louis) appeared in only two games in 2011 but is now two seasons removed from his knee injury.
According to PFW Vikings correspondent Tom Pelissero of 1500ESPN.com in Minneapolis, Vishante Shiancoe (No. 76 in top 100, Minnesota) declined a one-year offer from Seattle earlier in the offseason. Shiancoe (36-409-3 in ’11) would be a nice addition to a club looking for a veteran tight end. I’d be surprised if he didn’t land somewhere. Jeremy Shockey (No. 86 in top 100, Carolina) would also be a reasonable addition to a TE-needy club.
Durability is the big concern with Marcus McNeill (No. 99 in top 100, San Diego), who has been a good left tackle in the past but comes off a 2011 season shortened by a neck injury. Kareem McKenzie (N.Y. Giants) is an experienced option at right tackle. OG Eric Steinbach (Cleveland) missed 2011 with a back injury.
If you’re looking for run-stuffers, DTs Aubrayo Franklin (No. 63 in top 100, New Orleans) and Howard Green (Green Bay) could hold appeal. DE Andre Carter (No. 74 in top 100, New England) notched 10 sacks in 2011 but comes off quadriceps surgery. It's possible he could be back with the Patriots when healthy.
MLB E.J. Henderson (No. 69 in top 100, Minnesota) is probably best suited as a two-down player at this stage, and injuries have taken their toll. Matt Roth (Jacksonville) could provide depth at outside linebacker for a 3-4 team or defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. He’s a decent pass rusher and fairly stout vs. the run, but Roth missed time with a concussion last season.
CB Andre’ Goodman (Denver) has started 56 games the past four seasons and could be a nice depth-bolstering signing. There are more options at safety, with Jim Leonhard (N.Y. Jets) and Chris Crocker (Cincinnati) atop the list if healthy, but Leonhard is coming off a knee injury, and Crocker had offseason knee surgery.
P Mat McBriar (No. 84 in top 100, Dallas) comes off knee surgery. PKs Ryan Longwell (Minnesota) and Dave Rayner (Buffalo) are both capable of kicking for club this season.