With all signs continuing to point to a labor agreement coming soon, free agency can’t be far behind.
It’s going to be a very condensed and rapid process, so let’s start getting ready. Let’s take a look at the top free agents in the NFC South -- and we’re going on the assumption any player without a current contract and with four accrued seasons will be an unrestricted free agent.
1. Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. Johnson is likely to be one of the most coveted free agents. He’s coming off a breakthrough season in which he had 11.5 sacks, and there always is a premium on good pass-rushers. Atlanta might try to bring Johnson, who is from Georgia, home. But the Panthers let Julius Peppers walk away. I don’t think they’re going to let the same thing happen with his replacement without putting up a strong fight.
2. DeAngelo Williams, running back, Panthers. His name gets thrown out by Miami and Denver fans, and Williams is the kind of back that could help any team. Carolina also has Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson, but Williams is the most complete running back the Panthers have. Stewart’s had durability issues since college. It would be disastrous if Williams left and Stewart got hurt early in the season.
3. Davin Joseph, guard, Buccaneers. Along with left tackle Donald Penn, Joseph is the anchor of this offensive line. The Bucs have all sorts of salary-cap money, and their first move should be locking up Joseph for the long term.
4. James Anderson, linebacker, Panthers. Scouts and coaches will tell you this guy is on the rise. He’s quick and athletic and, if you combine him with Jon Beason, Thomas Davis and Dan Connor, Carolina has a very strong group of linebackers.
5. Roman Harper, safety, Saints. I still say this guy is one of the more underrated players in the NFC South. He might not be great in deep coverage, but that’s not the primary job of a strong safety. Harper plays the run very well and is adequate in short and medium coverage. With him, the Saints have a very strong secondary. Without him, there suddenly is a hole.
6. Tyson Clabo, tackle, Falcons. Clabo and guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock all can be free agents. None is a star, but Clabo is probably the best of the bunch. The right tackle made his first Pro Bowl last season and has started every game since coach Mike Smith arrived in Atlanta. The Falcons might let a lineman or two walk, but keeping Clabo seems to be the priority.
7. Lance Moore, wide receiver, Saints. He’s one of several strong performers in a receiving corps that relies on strength in numbers. Could Moore be featured more elsewhere? Perhaps. But not every team throws as often as the Saints. Plus, Moore is a favorite of Drew Brees and we know how much influence the quarterback has in New Orleans.
8. Jonathan Goodwin, center, Saints. Yeah, he’s 32 and that’s a concern. But Goodwin played at a high level last season and hasn’t missed a game in the past two seasons. He's worthy of a decent contract, even if it's just for the short term. New Orleans takes a different approach to the offensive line than most teams, who build around the tackles. The Saints place a premium on the interior and they have two outstanding young guards in Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks. If you take Goodwin out of the middle, Evans and Nicks might not be quite so dominant.
9. Barrett Ruud, linebacker, Buccaneers. A solid all-around player, but the one knock on him is that he doesn’t make splash plays. Part of the reason for that might be that Tampa Bay hasn’t had a very good defensive line in front of him the past couple of years. Although Ruud has asked for a contract extension in the past, the Bucs have been hesitant to give him one. It might be time for the Bucs to step up or else they’ll risk being in a situation in which they haven’t had a normal offseason to prepare the guy who will call their defensive signals.
10. Matt Bryant, kicker, Falcons. It looks like a mere formality that the Falcons will let punter Michael Koenen leave via free agency. You don’t want to be going with a new punter and a new place-kicker when you’re a team that believes you have a shot at the Super Bowl. Bryant’s an experienced guy who has made some clutch kicks throughout his career.
Honorable mention: There were a few close calls on some bigger names, so let’s at least mention them. For reasons that included age, injury history or talent level, these guys didn’t quite make it. New Orleans’ Darren Sharper and Scott Shanle, Atlanta’s Dahl, Blalock, Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas, Carolina’s Richard Marshall, and Tampa Bay’s Cadillac Williams.