- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Despite labor uncertainty, free agency will be frenzied this offseason whenever the NFL and NFLPA reach a new collective bargaining agreement.
Even though it appears free agency won't get started in its usual slot in early March, teams will eventually have to deal with the contracts of some high-profile players in the division.
Here are the AFC North blog's top 10 pending free agents:
Analysis: Dawson has been the face of Cleveland's special teams since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. He had another consistent year in 2010, making 23 of 28 field goals. But Dawson hinted several times that he may have played his last season in Cleveland. For starters, Dawson spent most of his career kicking for awful teams and wants to play in a winning organization. Cleveland is rebuilding once again under first-year head coach Pat Shurmur. Second, Dawson has been unhappy about his contract for quite some time and is finally a free agent. So look for him to explore other options.
Chances of returning: 25 percent
9. Lawrence Vickers, fullback, Browns
Analysis: Vickers is another underrated free agent for the Browns. He is one of the top fullbacks in the NFL, paving the way for several running backs to have big seasons in Cleveland. Tailback Peyton Hillis (1,177 rushing yards, 11 touchdowns in 2010) most recently benefited from Vickers' play. But after talking to Vickers at the end of the season, he also seemed unsure if he was coming back to Cleveland. There is a lot of change going on with the new coaching staff and new schemes, and it's unclear how important a power fullback will be in Shurmur's new West Coast system. Vickers will get plenty of interest from run-heavy teams. Cleveland was one of those clubs last season under former head coach Eric Mangini, but its run-to-pass ratio is expected to change dramatically, putting Vickers' future with Cleveland in doubt.
Chances of returning: 50 percent
8. Le'Ron McClain, fullback, Ravens
Analysis: McClain wanted more carries in Baltimore last season and didn't get them. This could signal his exit from the Ravens as a free agent. The Ravens simply had too many other players on offense who also needed the football, and McClain was left with just 28 rushing attempts for 85 yards. If rushing attempts are more important, leaving Baltimore is probably the best option for McClain. He led Baltimore in rushing in 2008, but his numbers have gone down dramatically since the emergence of starting running back Ray Rice, who will continue to be the go-to guy in 2011.
Chances of returning: 30 percent
7. Jared Gaither, offensive tackle, Ravens
Analysis: There has been some speculation that Gaither could sign a long-term extension and return to Baltimore, but I just don't see it. Too much went wrong between Gaither and the Ravens last season, so I believe both sides will just move on. Gaither was not happy about his contract last year, then showed up in the summer well below his playing weight. Gaither later injured his back and didn't play in a single game during the 2010 season. The Ravens reportedly had brief talks with agent Drew Rosenhaus to discuss Gaither and some other clients. Baltimore certainly needs offensive tackles, which is why I give Gaither's return a small chance, but it's still unlikely that he will remain with the Ravens.
Chances of returning: 20 percent
Analysis: T.O. came to Cincinnati just before training camp with much fanfare after Antonio Bryant's knee injury never healed properly. But his presence and numbers didn't help an inconsistent Bengals offense. Owens, at 37, showed he still has something left in the tank. He had some big games and recorded 72 receptions for 983 yards and nine touchdowns for Cincinnati. But those numbers didn't result in victories, as the Bengals fell to 4-12 after making the playoffs the season before. Cincinnati took its shot with Owens but is now rebuilding with younger receivers like Jerome Simpson, Jordan Shipley and Andre Caldwell. Don't expect Owens to return.
Chances of returning: 0 percent
5. Cedric Benson, running back, Bengals
Analysis: Benson was unhappy with his opportunities most of last season but still rushed for 1,111 yards and seven touchdowns. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year in Cincinnati and is a good fit in the physical AFC North. Benson said he wasn't returning if former offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski remained in Cincinnati. Jay Gruden recently replaced Bratkowski, and the move heavily increases Benson's chances of being a Bengal next season.
Chances of returning: 75 percent
4. Ike Taylor, cornerback, Steelers
Analysis: The Steelers have a definite need at cornerback, and that need could get even bigger if Taylor, the team's No. 1 cornerback, is not re-signed. Taylor is consistent and had another solid season for Pittsburgh, recording 66 tackles and two interceptions. But the biggest issue is Taylor's age (31). How many years should Pittsburgh commit to an aging cornerback with a contract extension? Look for the Steelers to make a push for Taylor. But the team will also look for depth at that position via the draft and possibly free agency.
Chances of returning: 70 percent
3. Johnathan Joseph, cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals
Analysis: Last summer the AFC North blog reported that the Bengals opened negotiations with Joseph. That shows the willingness by Cincinnati. But the fact that, months later, nothing has happened tells me the two sides can't agree on money and/or the length of the contract. Good cornerbacks are expensive. So I wouldn't be totally surprised if the Bengals let go of Joseph, who is 26 and entering his prime. A franchise tag for one year at cornerback would be extremely costly, as well. Also keep in mind that Adam Jones, who showed flashes last season before a neck injury ended his season, signed to a two-year deal and will be back in 2011. Jones is insurance in case Joseph leaves. Joseph will get plenty of interest if he hits the open market.
Chances of returning: 50 percent
Analysis: Woodley was arguably the NFL's best bargain in 2010. Including playoffs, he recorded 60 tackles, 13 sacks and was paid just $550,000 last season. Woodley will get the franchise tag before next week's deadline. Because of the 30 percent rule (teams can't increase a player's salary by more than 30 percent from year to year), the Steelers can't do much with Woodley in terms of a long-term deal until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached. I don't think it's a coincidence Pittsburgh stocked up on linebackers in last April's draft for insurance. But I still expect Woodley back in Pittsburgh next season.
Chances of returning: 80 percent
Analysis: The Ravens have already placed the franchise tag on Ngata with every intention of signing him to a long-term contract. Ngata, 27, is quickly developing into the NFL's most dominant defensive tackle. He made the Pro Bowl after recording 63 tackles and 5.5 sacks, and there were some games last season in which he was virtually unblockable by just one player. The Ravens have a reputation for retaining their stud draft picks, especially those on defense. Although nothing is 100-percent certain in the NFL, I can't foresee any scenario where Ngata won't be a Raven for the long term.
Chances of returning: 98 percent