NFC South: exclusive-rights free agents

Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff hasn’t had a lot of salary-cap room to work with this offseason, but that hasn’t stopped him from using creative ways to maximize every penny.

While recently re-signing veteran center Todd McClure and veteran long-snapper Joe Zelenka, Dimitroff took advantage of the veteran minimum salary benefit. That’s a rule that basically was put in so that veterans aren’t priced out of the league. Zelenka’s a 12-year veteran and McClure has been in the NFL for 13 seasons. At that level of experience, the minimum salary is $925,000.

That’s the salary Zelenka and McClure will receive this season, but the benefit allows their base salary to count only $540,000 against the salary cap. McClure got a $65,000 signing bonus, so his cap figure is $605,000, even though the total cash value of his one-year contract is $990,000. Zelenka didn’t get a signing bonus so his cap figure is $540,000.

The Falcons currently have $1.66 million in cap space.

Dimitroff isn’t the only NFC South general manager taking advantage of the benefit. The Carolina Panthers' Marty Hurney used it when he recently re-signed defensive end Antwan Applewhite. As a four-year veteran, Applewhite’s minimum salary is $700,000. That’s what he’ll get, but only $540,000 of his base salary counts toward the cap. Applewhite also has a $65,000 workout bonus, which bring his cap figure up to $605,000.

In other contract and cap news, Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Preston Parker has signed his exclusive-free-agent tender. He’s scheduled to make $540,000 this year. Running back LeGarrette Blount also is an exclusive-rights free agent, but has yet to sign his tender.

Update: The Bucs announced later on Wednesday that Blount has signed his tender and confirmed the Parker signing.
The Atlanta Falcons quietly continue to move through the process of getting ready for the start of free agency.

After placing the franchise tag on cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons are now dealing with some other players that were not under contract for 2012.

The team announced Tuesday morning that tight end Michael Palmer and running back Antone Smith have signed their exclusive-rights tenders.

Palmer, who joined the Falcons in 2010, isn’t known as a pass-catcher, and that’s not needed because Atlanta has Tony Gonzalez in that role. But Palmer has played an important role in the offense as a blocker.

Smith has spent the past two seasons with the Falcons, playing primarily on special teams. But he also has some ability as a running back, and he could get a chance to show more of that moving forward. The Falcons have made it clear they want to lighten the load of feature back Michael Turner.

They have Jacquizz Rodgers, who is likely to get more use as a speed back in his second season. But Smith could compete with Jason Snelling as part of the rotation.
We’ll conclude our division-wide look at potential free agents with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

All are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, unless otherwise noted:

Cornerback Ronde Barber, kicker Connor Barth, running back Earnest Graham, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, linebacker Geno Hayes, quarterback Josh Johnson, safety Sean Jones, offensive lineman James Lee, safety Corey Lynch, cornerback Elbert Mack, receiver Micheal Spurlock, offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah, running back LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights), receiver Preston Parker (exclusive rights), defensive end Michael Bennett (restricted) and offensive lineman Demar Dotson.

As soon as new coach Greg Schiano gets his staff hired, he and general manager Mark Dominik have to sit down, take a look at the list above and make what could be some difficult decisions. Let’s start with Barber’s future because that’s going to be a hot topic.

Barber played at a reasonably high level in 2011 and the Bucs could look to bring him back with another one-year contract. Of course, it’s also possible that Barber will decide to retire. It’s also possible Barber might want to continue playing, but a new coaching staff could decide to start fresh and give him the same treatment Derrick Brooks got in 2009 and let him walk. If that happens, don’t be surprised if Barber ends up in Washington, where former Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris is now coaching the secondary.

Barber’s status as a Tampa Bay icon makes him the most interesting person on the list of potential free agents. But the list contains plenty of others that will be interesting decisions. Barth and Zuttah seem the most likely to stay. But Schiano, his coaching staff and Dominik are going to have to take a long look at players like Hayes, Lynch and Lee to see if they fit the new system. Jones was a starter last season, but the Bucs may elect to go younger at safety. Graham also is an interesting situation. He can play running back and tailback and has been a dependable player for years. But he’s aging and coming off an injury that put an early end to his 2011 season.

On a side note, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth currently remains under contract for 2012. But Haynesworth, who was brought in after injuries wiped out the middle of the defensive line in the middle of last season, is scheduled to count $7.2 million toward the salary cap. The Bucs can release him without any cap implications. Haynesworth doesn't have a lot left in the tank and my early impression is that Schiano doesn't seem like the kind of coach that would want the baggage that comes with Haynesworth. Throw in the cap situation and it seems pretty obvious how this one will play out.

Saints: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
No NFC South team faces a more challenging period between now and the start of free agency than the New Orleans Saints.

They have to find a way to re-sign quarterback Drew Brees, and there are at least a couple other players that it’s essential the Saints retain. They’ve also got some important role players and will need to find ways to keep several of them despite a difficult salary-cap situation.

Let’s take a look at New Orleans’ potential free agents. They’re all unrestricted, unless noted otherwise:

Brees, defensive end Jeff Charleston, receiver Marques Colston, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin, tight end John Gilmore, tight end Tory Humphrey, kicker John Kasay, defensive end Turk McBride, offensive lineman Pat McQuistan, receiver Robert Meachem, guard Carl Nicks, cornerback Tracy Porter, receiver/return man Courtney Roby, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, cornerback Leigh Torrence, safety Jonathon Amaya (exclusive rights), receiver Adrian Arrington (exclusive rights), center Brian de la Puente (exclusive rights), offensive lineman Justin Drescher (exclusive rights), linebacker Jonathan Casillas (restricted), quarterback Chase Daniel (restricted) and linebacker Ramon Humber (restricted).

Whatever deal Brees signs, it’s likely he’ll take up somewhere around $15 million of the 2012 salary cap. But the Saints will have to continue to spend big money. It’s imperative they keep Nicks. He might be the best guard in the league and he’s Brees’ top protector. Keeping Colston also would seem to be a top priority because he’s one of Brees’ favorite targets.

Once the accounting is done on Brees, Nicks and Colston, the Saints will have to make some tough financial decisions. Porter and Meachem are important role players. But they could have market value elsewhere. The Saints might not be able to afford to keep them. That would hurt, but it might not be disastrous because the Saints have good depth at receiver and cornerback.

Panthers: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
Let’s continue our NFC South look ahead to free agency with the Carolina Panthers.

We'll take a look at Carolina’s potential free agents. They’re all unrestricted unless noted as restricted free agents or exclusive-rights free agents.

Quarterback Derek Anderson, linebacker/defensive lineman Antwan Applewhite, offensive lineman Mackenzy Bernadeau, linebacker Dan Connor, linebacker Omar Gaither, cornerback Cletis Gordon, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, long-snapper J.J. Jansen, receiver Legedu Naanee, linebacker Jordan Senn, tight end Jeremy Shockey, receiver Seyi Ajirotutu (exclusive rights), tight end Richie Brockel (exclusive rights), cornerback R.J. Stanford (exclusive rights), linebacker Thomas Williams (exclusive rights), linebacker Jason Phillips (restricted) and guard Geoff Schwartz (restricted).

There’s not a single guy on that list that the Panthers absolutely have to have back. That's good because the Panthers are going to be tight against the salary cap. But there are several players they’re likely to have interest in retaining at the right price. They liked what Senn and Applewhite showed in 2011. Shockey seemed to fit well in tandem with Greg Olsen and could return for a one-year contract. The offensive line is in pretty good shape, but the Panthers likely will keep either Schwartz or Hangartner as a starting guard.

Falcons: First look at free agency

January, 31, 2012
Since the NFC South doesn’t have a team in the Super Bowl, let’s start looking ahead to the 2012 offseason.

We’ll start by taking a look at each team and its potential free agents. We’ll start with the Atlanta Falcons. We’ll list all of their potential free agents. Each one listed is a potential unrestricted free agent, unless he’s noted as a restricted or exclusive-rights free agent. After I list the free agents, I’ll summarize what could be the most important moves as teams re-sign players between now and the start of free agency in mid-March.

Here are Atlanta’s potential free agents: Defensive end John Abraham, defensive end Kroy Biermann, offensive lineman Kirk Chambers, safety Thomas DeCoud, receiver Harry Douglas, cornerback Brent Grimes, cornerback Kelvin Hayden, tight end Reggie Kelly, linebacker Curtis Lofton, center Todd McClure, linebacker Mike Peterson, offensive lineman Brett Romberg, safety James Sanders, running back Jason Snelling, receiver Eric Weems, long-snapper Joe Zelenka, tight end Michael Palmer (exclusive rights), running back Antone Smith (exclusive rights) and defensive tackle Vance Walker (restricted).

Lofton and Grimes are the most significant names on that list. They’re key defensive starters, and they’re in their prime. Keeping Lofton, the quarterback of the defense, might be the top priority. There’s little doubt the Falcons want Grimes back. He’s developed into a very good cornerback, despite the fact that he’s undersized. But Grimes could get big money elsewhere. The Falcons already have a lot invested in cornerback Dunta Robinson, and might not be able to pay huge contracts to two cornerbacks.

Abraham, McClure and Peterson are nearing the end of their careers. Any of them could decide to retire. The Falcons also could decide to bring back any of them as a role player. Abraham still was the team’s best pass-rusher in 2011.

It’s likely the Falcons will have some interest in keeping Biermann, DeCoud, Douglas and Snelling. They’re still young, but they could get better offers elsewhere. Hayden and Sanders each are veterans that could test the market, but eventually return to give the Falcons depth.