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Free-agency contingency plans: What teams will do to replace UFAs

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    Texans CB Dunta Robinson

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By Eric Edholm

The free-agency bonanza (tongue firmly in cheek) begins at midnight tonight.

Everyone knows by now the dearth of quality unrestricted free agents available. But there are a few talented players who are set to hit the market.

In most people's eyes, the top three free agents likely to hit the market and join new teams are DE Julius Peppers, LB Karlos Dansby and CB Dunta Robinson. We don't know yet which teams they'll sign with. But what we do know is that their soon-to-be-former teams will have to replace them.

Here's a quick look at some possible solutions for each:

Panthers replacing Peppers

Peppers is a big loss, his inconsistency aside. He gave opponents a player to key in on and set their blocking protections towards. Often, Peppers was held in check but opened up opportunities for others to make plays. Other times, he busted through blockers and had games that made your jaw drop.

Part of the solution clearly is going to come from within. And drafting Everette Brown last year (trading this year's first-rounder to get him) appears smart now. Brown for this year's 17th pick with a redshirt-type of year in tow? I think the Panthers will make that deal every day again. Brown can help, though I am not sure he can be a Dwight Freeney type of rusher, even though that's the body type he has. I think he'll need some help.

One body might come through the draft. One could come with a lower-rung free agent. I like Adewale Ogunleye in free agency, but he's mostly a right end. You could sign Ogunleye and move Charles Johnson over, or flip flop him, but I am not sure that makes the most sense. Plus, Ogunleye might want to know he's going to start.

But what about the Rams' James Hall? He seems to fit the mold of tough end the Panthers like, and he can kick into tackle on third downs, which they often do with their guys. Hall could be a 1½-down player and keep Brown fresh at 35-45 plays a game. It's a thought. Sure, Hall is on the backside of his career at 33, but the Panthers are feeling the pressure to win now.

As for a rookie, keep an eye on a few players. Northwestern's Corey Wootton could slide down because of injuries and fit that run-stopping DE need. USC's Everson Griffin makes some sense, too, but he might be better at left end. Hall Davis from Louisiana-Lafayette also looks intriguing, with the versatility to move around, and he's close to being the athlete Peppers is. Seriously.

Cardinals replacing Dansby

Losing Dansby might not be as damaging as people think. He's a good, versatile player who fits the Cardinals' scheme well and can be a playmaker. But his reputation exceeds his value in my opinion, with a few big games cementing his reputation as a player. Dansby long was known as a player who only showed up on game days, and he also has been accused to playing soft early in the season.

That said, his replacement almost certainly isn't on the roster right now. Don't tell me Ali Highsmith, Mark Washington or Reggie Walker is ready to take the lead here. And Cody Brown, last year's second-rounder who spent his rookie season on I.R., is more of a fit outside. Dansby is a 4-3 "under" outside linebacker and kicks inside over the three-technique in three-man fronts. So you'll need that versatility (or a few players) to match that.

Here's what GM Rod Graves said about potentially losing Dansby at the Combine: "We hope to replace him with equal quality or better, and whether we have that opportunity to do that this year or not, we will have to see. The main thing is we are a football team that I think is positioned correctly to withstand transition, whether we lose Karlos Dansby or Kurt Warner …"

Brown could help. So could a draft pick. With the 26th pick, they might have to go a different direction, perhaps offensive tackle or safety. If they do take a LB in Round One, Missouri's Sean Weatherspoon might be a very good fit. But with their second-rounder, No. 56, the Cardinals could find a nice player waiting for them, too. Some nice fits with ILB-OLB versatility who might (stress: might) be there include: TCU's Daryl Washngton or Florida's Brandon Spikes, maybe Penn State's Sean Lee. I think all those guys would be good fits. Among free-agent solutions, the team could look at Saints OLB Scott Fujita (though he'd be a better fit in the Cards' "Predator" pass-rushing role if Chike Okeafor leaves) or Cheifs LB Derrick Johnson, a restricted free agent who played in Clancy Pendergast's similar system in Kansas City last season but lost his starting spot before playing well in the final few games.

Update (3:33 p.m. EST): The Chiefs placed a first-round tender on Derrick Johnson, which makes him signing elsewhere more unlikely. Or less likely. However you prefer to look at it.

Texans replacing Robinson

Most people feel that Robinson will seek employment elsewhere, given that he's regarded as the best corner on the market and likely to get a bigger offer with another team. The Texans wanted to keep him, but not at what it would have cost them, either franchising him a second time or trying to work out a long-term deal. Those talks went nowhere, which gives you some idea what they think of a player who never has made a Pro Bowl and had zero interceptions and only nine passes defended in 16 starts last season.

Glover Quin was a great find in Round Four last season and figures to start at left corner. Brice McCain saw some action in subpackages and was decent; he's also a similar sized player to Robinson, though  I don't think they're ready to hand him a starting gig yet. Jacques Reeves is what he always has been: A competitive player other teams like to pick on. He's best (being kind here) as a nickel. Could Fred Bennett regain his mojo after two so-so seasons? Maybe but not highly likely, just don't completely forget about him. And there's always Antwaun Molden, the perennial tease. Both he and Bennett are young and have good size, but they can't be asked to step in. Translation: Another draft pick likely cometh.

GM Rick Smith was asked about the CB situation in Indy. Predictably, he played up the in-house guys. "Anytime you lose a player like Dunta, who plays at the level that he plays, you've got to think about how you replace that," Smith said. "I do think we've got some young players on our football team that perform well. I think Glover Quin did an excellent job for us last year. You've heard Gary (Kubiak) say that had it not been for Brian Cushing and his impact, that a lot of people would have been talking a lot more about his contribution and what Quin did for us. Then Brice McCain got some quality reps, we've still got Jacques Reeves on the roster and Jacques started for us, so he's got experience. Fred Bennett has been a starter for us. So we're not depleted at the position, but you still are looking for impact players whenever you lose a player of his caliber."

The Texans have all their draft picks in the early going. They pick 20th in Round One. It could be a running back such as C.J. Spiller (though I doubt he goes that far down) or Ryan Mathews or a defensive tackle such as Jared Odrick or Dan Williams. As for what corners might be available, I can tell you Joe Haden, despite his poor 40 time, likely won't fall there, and Boise State's Kyle Wilson is starting to get some major noise in Round One. Other guys in that range: Patrick Robinson, Devin McCourty and Perrish Cox, but these guys might not scream out "first-rounder" to a lot of folks. Instead, you could see the team wait until Day Two (that's Rounds Two and Three now) to pluck a guy and still could have a decent lot of CBs to choose from. Alabama's Kareem Jackson is a fast riser who makes sense in Round Two.

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