Exactly four weeks remain before the start of the NFL’s 2013 league year, and with it the opening bell on the free agent market. We are now fully into the pre-FA period in which teams release players to make room under the next year’s salary cap and/or get to work re-signing some of their own potential free agents before they hit the market.
That means the list of potential free agents as it looks today is going to change in a pretty significant way before March 12. The Bills, for instance, added LB Nick Barnett and S George Wilson to the list of available players on Tuesday, and the Vikings made it clear they are hoping to keep T Phil Loadholt off of it. Still, it’s worth taking a look at how the potential list of free agents for the four NFC South teams compare to each other.
The lists below aren’t necessarily exhaustive (and, again, they are likely to change before March 12), but they do attempt to identify all of the key players who could hit free agency. Where applicable, notable restricted free agents are also mentioned, though RFAs only change teams infrequently:
Potential UFAs: T Sam Baker, FB Mike Cox, CB Dominique Franks, CB Brent Grimes, S Chris Hope, TE Tony Gonzalez, C Todd McClure, S William Moore, CB Christopher Owens, LB Mike Peterson, G Garrett Reynolds, DT Vance Walker.
The Falcons key issues in regard to their own free agents appear to be in the secondary and along the offensive line. Last year, Grimes was the team’s top priority in free agency, as evidenced by the franchise tag that kept him around; however, there doesn’t seem to be an indication that he will get the tag again this year after spending most of 2012 on I.R. with an Achilles injury. The Falcons developed a lot of defensive back depth in the wake of the injuries to Grimes and several other starters, but much of that depth now needs to be re-signed, as the list above indicates.
The Hall of Fame-bound Gonzalez is technically on the list but isn’t really a free agency concern. Rather, Gonzalez will surely play 2013 in Atlanta IF he chooses to delay his retirement for one more year. Falcons brass is trying hard to get him to do so, though his comments during the 2012 season seemed to indicate that was a long shot.
Baker and McClure were both full-season starters on Atlanta’s O-Line, but Baker is much younger and should obviously be the priority of the two. He may not be considered an elite-level left tackle at this point, but that is a difficult position to replace. It would seem likely that Baker and Moore, a 2012 Pro Bowler, would be the team’s top targets in the next four weeks, though Walker also appears to be a player on the rise.
Notable RFAs: CB Robert McClain, TE Michael Palmer.
McClain was one of those young DBs who emerged in 2012 when injuries created opportunities. Palmer caught just six passes last year but might be more important if Gonzalez does indeed retire. Both are almost sure to get the qualifying tender offers.
Potential UFAs: QB Derek Anderson, TE Gary Barnidge, DT Dwan Edwards, TE Ben Hartsock, CB Captain Munnerlyn, WR Louis Murphy, LB Jason Phillips, S Sherrod Martin.
That’s a pretty short list for the Panthers, and it includes only two players who started even half of Carolina’s games last year: Edwards and Munnerlyn. On the other hand, that’s true partly because Carolina previously extended a lot of their players and now may have some salary cap issues to clear up before March 12. That could make it a little tougher to retain Munnerlyn, by far the younger of those two defenders, though he has stated that he would like to return. The Panthers might be more motivated to bring Munnerlyn back on a reasonable deal if their cap situation forces them to cut CB Chris Gamble, as many expect it will.
Barnidge and Hartsock did combine to start 10 games, but Greg Olsen is the clear #1 at that position for Carolina. Murphy started five games but caught just 25 passes in his first year with the team after three in Oakland. Martin is a former starter but he lost most of his playing time in 2012 to Haruki Nakamura. Anderson is obviously the backup to starting QB Cam Newton, and the team also has Jimmy Clausen.
Notable RFAs: DT Andre Neblett.
New Orleans Saints
Potential UFAs: T Jermon Bushrod, LB Jonathan Casillas, DT Sedrick Ellis, WR Devery Henderson, CB Elbert Mack, G Eric Olsen, WR Courtney Roby, LB Scott Shanle.
Another relatively short list, though this one has some important names on it. Most notably, there is Bushrod, who started all 16 games at left tackle for the Saints and had a strong season at the peak age of 28. The Saints lost Carl Nicks to the Buccaneers last year but replaced him pretty quickly with Ben Grubbs, the former Raven. It is not an easy task, however, to replace one’s starting left tackle, and the Saints have a cap situation very similar to that of the Panthers.
Ellis was a full-season starter on the other side of the line but has perhaps not developed into the star that his draft position (#7 overall in 2008) would have suggested. In addition, the Saints have hired Rob Ryan as their new defensive coordinator, so one may wonder how well Ellis and fellow DT starter Brodrick Bunkley fit into Ryan’s 3-4 scheme. Henderson started 10 games but had only 22 catches, and Roby had only one grab. The Saints never seem to have difficulty finding new receivers for Drew Brees to target.
Notable RFAs: C Brian De La Puente, RB Chris Ivory.
De La Puente emerged rather suddenly from journeyman status to starter in 2011 when Saints center Olin Kruetz got hurt and then retired. De La Puente is definitely under the radar, but he started all 16 games in 2012 and played quite well for a highly productive Saints offense. There is almost no chance New Orleans will lose him. RB Chris Ivory might be interested in another opportunity after getting just 40 carries last year. He has a career 5.1 yards-per-carry mark and has had some very good games when he’s had the chance, but the Saints have kept a very deep and varied backfield during his three-year tenure.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Potential UFAs: CB Ronde Barber, DE Michael Bennett, CB E.J. Biggers, TE Dallas Clark, LS Andrew Economos, CB Brandon McDonald DT Roy Miller, WR/KR Roscoe Parrish, WR Sammie Stroughter, T Jeremy Trueblood.
We won’t comment here on the relative merits of those players on the Bucs’ UFA list. However, it’s simple to note that five of those 10 men were at least part-time starters in 2012: Barber, Bennett, Biggers, Clark and Miller. In addition, Economos is not technically a starter but he has been the team’s long-snapper, and a good one, for most of the last seven seasons.
Barber’s situation is identical to that of Gonzalez in Atlanta – he may or may not retire but he is almost certain not to go to a new team. Clark, the long-time Colt who had 47 catches and four touchdowns last season, is a pending free agent again after playing 2012 on a one-year deal with the Buccaneers. Bennett and Miller are headed towards their first opportunities at unrestricted free agency if they do not re-sign with Tampa Bay first.
Notable RFAs: RB LeGarrette Blount, LB Jacob Cutrera, DE Daniel Te’o-Nesheim.
Blount saw his role in the offense significantly reduced in 2012 with the arrival of Doug Martin, but he remains the team’s main depth as a primary ballcarrier. Cutrera is an asset on special teams. Te’o-Nesheim, a former first-round pick in Philadelphia, took over as the right defensive end starter after Adrian Clayborn went down and performed above the expectations of many.
Overall, Atlanta appears to have the most work to do in the pre-free agency period among the four NFC South teams, though they have quite a few options, especially in the secondary. Carolina’s list is short but it could actually grow before March 12 if some cap-related moves are made. The Saints’ potential list is also not lengthy but it does include their starting left tackle, a position that is usually treated as a priority. The Bucs’ list is not much longer than that of Carolina or New Orleans, but it includes a handful of established starters.