NFC South: Fred Taylor
With that in mind, and with some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at some of the more prominent potential free agents from the rest of the league.
QUARTERBACKS: Marc Bulger, Kerry Collins, Rex Grossman, Matt Hasselbeck, Patrick Ramsey, Alex Smith, Billy Volek, Kellen Clemens, Brodie Croyle, Trent Edwards, Bruce Gradkowski, Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Leinart, Troy Smith and Tyler Thigpen.
RUNNING BACKS: Cedric Benson, Ronnie Brown, Kevin Faulk, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Clinton Portis, Dominic Rhodes, Tony Richardson, Kevin Smith, Darren Sproles, Fred Taylor, Brian Westbrook, Ricky Williams, Joseph Addai, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerome Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney and LeRon McClain.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Mark Clayton, Braylon Edwards, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Randy Moss, Santana Moss, Terrell Owens, Donte’ Stallworth, Steve Breaston, Malcom Floyd, Santonio Holmes, James Jones, Sidney Rice, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith and Steve Smith (of the New York Giants, not the Steve Smith of Carolina).
TIGHT ENDS: Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Bo Scaife, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Zach Miller, Ben Patrick and Matt Spaeth.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: David Baas, Jammal Brown, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Matt Light, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Damien Woody, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Doug Free, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein and Marshal Yanda.
DEFENSIVE TACKLES: Aubrayo Franklin, Tommie Harris, Chris Hoke, Chris Hovan, Kris Jenkins, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Jamal Williams, Pat Williams, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo and Brandon Mebane.
DEFENSIVE ENDS: Jason Babin, Dave Ball, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Cullen Jenkins, Travis LaBoy, Trevor Pryce, Marcus Spears, Ray Edwards and Mathias Kiwanuka.
LINEBACKERS: Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Julian Peterson, Matt Roth, Takeo Spikes, Jason Taylor, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Paul Posluszny, Ernie Sims and Stephen Tulloch.
CORNERBACKS: Nnamdi Asomugha, Phillip Buchanon, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Ike Taylor, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Antonio Cromartie, Chris Houston, Johnathan Joseph, Dimitri Patterson, Josh Wilson and Eric Wright.
SAFETIES: Aaron Francisco, Ken Hamlin, Michael Lewis, Brandon McGowan, Quintin Mikell, Lawyer Milloy, Brodney Pool, Gerald Sensabaugh, Roy Williams, Gibril Wilson, Atari Bigby, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weddle and Donte Whitner.
The four-year deal averages $2.8 million per season. To give that some context, let’s go back and look at last year’s average-per-year amounts for all NFL running backs. Thomas’ new deal would rank No. 24 in the league, just behind Carolina’s Jonathan Stewart and slightly ahead of LaDainian Tomlinson and Fred Taylor.
The Saints didn’t give Thomas a signing bonus, but they structured the deal to include something similar. Thomas’ $640,000 base salary for this season is guaranteed, and he’ll also get a $2.7 million roster bonus. Unlike a lot of deals, this one isn’t back loaded. Thomas’ biggest salary-cap hit will come this year when his figure is $3.4 million.
In 2012, Thomas’ base salary will jump to $2.16 million and $860,000 of that is guaranteed. He also has a $100,00 workout bonus, and his cap figure will be $2.6 million.
In 2013, Thomas’ base salary will be $2.1 million. He’ll also have a $300,000 roster bonus and a $100,000 workout bonus. His cap figure will be $2.5 million.
In 2014, the base salary will be $2.5 million. Thomas has a $300,000 roster bonus and a $100,000 workout bonus. His cap figure will be $2.9 million.
The deal also includes escalators in each of the final three years that could boost Thomas’ base salaries.
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A team-by-team analysis of the division. The arrow indicates which direction each team is trending.
New Orleans Saints
Final Power Ranking: 5
Biggest surprise: Wide receiver Robert Meachem said in the preseason this would be the year he showed the world why the Saints took him in the first round in 2007. A lot of people rolled their eyes at that one because Meachem had been a big disappointment in his first two seasons. But the man came through on his word. Meachem turned into a big-time player for the Saints. He scored nine touchdowns, showed very good hands and made things happen after the catch. Most of all, Meachem earned the trust of quarterback Drew Brees. He’s only going to keep getting better.
Biggest disappointment: There weren’t many in a 13-3 season. But you have to be a little concerned about the way the defense played over the second half of the season. After starting so well under new coordinator Gregg Williams, the defense slowed in its turnover production, in stopping the running game and had trouble with some ordinary passing games. Maybe things will go back to the way they were as the Saints get everybody healthy during the bye week. But recent indications leave questions about how much Williams really improved this defense.
Biggest need: With Charles Grant getting older and injured for the playoffs, the spotlight starts to turn another defensive end: The Saints have a pretty good one in Will Smith. But they could use another consistent pass-rusher who would cover up any problems in the secondary.
Team MVP: Brees. You can make a strong case for him as the league MVP. Even though that honor probably will go to Peyton Manning, who grew up in New Orleans, most people in New Orleans will swear that Brees is the real MVP.
Best move not made: The Saints talked about signing Edgerrin James or drafting Beanie Wells. They did neither and that turned out to be a brilliant move. The Saints went with a combination of Pierre Thomas, Mike Bell and Reggie Bush, and coach Sean Payton made a strong commitment to the running game that paid off.
Final Power Ranking: 15
Biggest surprise: The schedule. The NFL handed the Falcons one of the league’s toughest schedules, including games against a bunch of teams coming off their byes. In some ways, it might have been payback for a light load in 2008, but it also seemed like the Falcons ran into a lot of teams when those teams were playing their best football of the season.
Biggest disappointment: The running game, which was so dominant in 2008’s playoff season, struggled with consistency most of the year. Just when it seemed as if Michael Turner was starting to get back to last year’s form, he got hurt and missed a lot of playing time down the stretch. The Falcons need to determine why Turner struggled and they have to address the reasons in the offseason. If Turner wasn’t in shape or wasn’t running well, it might be time to bring in an alternative. If the problem was with the offensive line, the Falcons need to go out and upgrade it.
Biggest need: A pass rush. Veteran John Abraham dropped off dramatically and no one else really stepped up. The Falcons need to get help for Abraham and an heir apparent. You could also say there are big needs in the secondary, but I don’t think they’re quite as dramatic. The old adage is that the best pass defense is a good pass rush. The Falcons need a better pass rush than they had this year.
Team MVP: Curtis Lofton. In his second season, and with some good guidance from veteran Mike Peterson, the second-year linebacker emerged as an on-field force and leader of a defense that got better as the season went on. Lofton became an every-down linebacker this year and anchored a run defense that allowed only one running back to run for 100 yards, and that was New England’s Fred Taylor in Week 3. Lofton didn’t make the Pro Bowl, but Atlanta’s coaches will tell you he played at that kind of level. If he keeps doing that, he’ll end up in the Pro Bowl when the Falcons become a playoff team.
Remember the rookies: A lot of people want to call general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s second draft a bust, especially since his first one was so great. But that’s not fair or accurate. The top two picks, defensive tackle Peria Jerry and safety William Moore, went down with season-ending injuries before they really had a chance to make an impact. In Jerry’s limited time, you could see he was going to be a difference-maker. He’ll have to make that difference a year later than expected.
Final Power Ranking: 18
Biggest surprise: Julius Peppers. After making noise about wanting out of Carolina in the offseason, Peppers wound up sticking around. Somewhat out of character, Peppers showed up on a pretty consistent basis and was dominant at times. Of course, it might be argued Peppers was only showing up so he could earn himself a big contract somewhere else. That might be the truth.
Biggest disappointment: I still haven’t figured out what happened to quarterback Jake Delhomme. No, he never was Peyton Manning or Tom Brady. But for a very long time, he did a nice job of managing games and being reliable for Carolina’s ball-control offense. But Delhomme started throwing interceptions in bunches for no apparent reason. His performance ended up looking even worse when backup Matt Moore came in and actually had some success. We still don’t know for sure if Moore is good enough to be Carolina’s starting quarterback, but it’s painfully obvious Delhomme isn’t that anymore.
Biggest need: A quarterback. Let’s be real honest here. Moore did some very good things and he could end up being the answer. But has he really shown enough for us to know that for certain? No, period. At very least, the Panthers have to bring in a quarterback capable of competing with Moore for the starting job. This team has too much talent and John Fox has too much on the line not to have another strong option at quarterback.
Team MVP: Linebacker Jon Beason. Peppers had some big games, but Beason was a steady force on a defense that ended up being the best in the NFC South. He had 142 tackles and made some big plays. Beason wasn’t too happy when he was snubbed by Pro Bowl voters. He’s got a good point –- and he’s got plenty of motivation now.
What the heck?: There wasn’t a more stunning move off the field in the NFC South than owner Jerry Richardson firing sons Mark and Jon just before the season started. The Richardson brothers had largely been running the day-to-day operations of this team for a long time. We probably will never know the full story, but it’s safe to say the Richardson brothers had a major clash and their father thought it was so divisive that the franchise would be better off without them.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Final Power Ranking: 30
Biggest surprise: Oh, man, where do I start? This team had all sorts of surprises and most of them weren’t good. I guess I’ll go with the firing of offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski about a week before the regular season started. It was followed by claims Jagodzinski wasn’t organized and that his playbook was basically a pamphlet. If all that’s true, how did Raheem Morris miss the warning signs as he did his homework?
Biggest disappointment: Again, there are plenty of possibilities. But I’m going with receiver Antonio Bryant. He had a huge season last year and the Bucs placed the franchise tag on him. It meant he didn’t get a long-term contract, but it also meant he made about $10 million a season. The basic message from the Bucs was, “go out and show us you can do it one more time and we’ll reward you’’. Instead of doing that, Bryant did little for much of the year and, then, had the nerve to point the blame at just about everyone but himself. Umm, that’s not how you get a long-term deal. Good luck in free agency.
Biggest need: A defensive tackle. Yeah, there are needs just about everywhere, but this one is easily the biggest. Sad part is, it was the biggest need last offseason and, other than drafting Roy Miller in the third round, the Bucs didn’t address this. It was an obvious problem in the final month of Jon Gruden’s last season and the Bucs somehow decided Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims were the answer. They can’t think that this time around.
Team MVP: Josh Freeman. The rookie quarterback played only about half a season, but he’s the reason Morris is keeping his job. Freeman made some rookie mistakes, but he also had some moments of brilliance. At those times, it made you wonder what this kid can do with some real wide receivers to throw to.
Let’s finish with something positive: Easy -– Sammie Stroughter. The Bucs took a shot on the wide receiver, who had some personal problems in college, in the seventh round. Stroughter turned out to be their best receiver and a pretty good return man. So no, not every move the Bucs made was a disaster.
Our next stop in the team-by-team mailbags is the New Orleans Saints.
Rum in N'awlins writes: Hey Pat, Just curious abut the Saints trading down in this draft. I can see the Lions trying to do what the Browns did a couple of drafts ago--take an OL at #1, then move up from #20 to take one of the 2 top QBs. With the Saints sitting @ #14 (and a possible chance at both QBs) and similar defensive talent probably available #20, think Detroit (5 picks in top 100) has any interest in trading up with the Saints?
Pat Yasinskas: I'm sure Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, who hold only four draft picks at the moment, will listen to any team that would give them more picks. Not saying it will definitely happen, because you have to make sure you're getting good value if you trade and you might be trading out of a spot where you can get a player you really want. But I think it makes a lot of sense for the Saints to at least consider any offer in which they would add some draft picks.
Shane, Larose, LA writes: Have you heard anything or do you have any opinion on any running backs that the Saints may be targeting to replace Deuce McAllister? Or do you think it's more likely they will look to the draft for a workhorse back?
Pat Yasinskas: I know there's a lot of speculation out there about Fred Taylor and Edgerrin James. But I don't think that's the way to go. The Saints parted with McAllister because he was near the end of his career. James and Taylor are in the same boat. I think it makes sense to go younger at this position, and it doesn't necessarily have to be a big name or high draft pick. Pierre Thomas has shown he can handle a pretty substantial workload and Reggie Bush still is going to factor in. I think what the Saints need is a big back, who can pick up first downs in short-yardage situations.
M Brown in Burlington writes: I heard a rumour that LT could end up with the Black & Gold in the Cajun City (especially after cutting McAllister). Any truth to him reuniting with Drew Brees?
Pat Yasinskas: Not sure that LaDainian Tomlinson even will be available, but I seriously doubt he'll end up with the Saints if the Chargers do make him available. The Saints don't have much cap room and it would be tough to fit him in without releasing half the roster. Also, the Saints don't have much to offer in a trade. I think they'll get another running back elsewhere.
Jay in Chicago, IL writes: Is there any chance Deuce could come back to the Saints either as a player at minimum salary, or in some coaching capacity if he doesn't get picked up elsewhere?
Pat Yasinskas: Never rule out anything in the NFL, but I think the possibility of playing at a minimum salary probably already was discussed with McAllister and it didn't happen. I think this was about much more than money. McAllister wants a chance to contribute and that obviously wasn't going to happen in New Orleans. I'm guessing he goes somewhere else and plays a year or two. As far as eventually becoming a coach, I would think that's a possibility. McAllister is held in high regard by the entire Saints organization. If he wants to pursue a career in coaching, I think the Saints certainly would consider that.
Ben in Metairie, LA writes: Hey Pat I know that the moves the Saints make in free agency will dictate what they do in the draft but do you think the saints will just take the best player available at the 14 or will they try and trade back to get some more picks? It just doesn't seem like there is much elite talent at that pick which they couldn't just get later in the 1st round.
Pat Yasinskas: As I said above, the Saints have to consider moving back, but that's easier said than done. If they have to stay put at No. 14, the name I'm hearing most is Illinois cornerback Vontae Davis, which certainly would fill a need. But I also could see the Saints targeting a linebacker or defensive tackle there.
The final stop on our team-by-team mailbag tour is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
MW in NY writes: Will the Bucs attempt to acquire Fred Taylor?
Pat Yasinskas: Wow, didn't take long after Taylor's release from Jacksonville to get Tampa Bay fans started on this path. Logical question (shared by many of you) based on Tampa Bay's way of doing things in recent years. The Bucs of Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen never were afraid to bring in a big-name veteran near the end of his career (perhaps the only one they didn't get was Brett Favre, and they tried like heck). But I'm sensing new general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris are going to take a different approach in this area. Part of the reason Allen and Gruden got fired was because they were always looking to patch things together quickly and it never really looked like they had a long-term plan. Yes, Dominik did work for Allen and he'll take the good parts from him (mainly salary-cap management). But Dominik also worked with Rich McKay, Tim Ruskell and Jerry Angelo at the start of his career and he probably picked up some ideas from them as well. I think Dominik and Morris are going to be very deliberate in their moves and try to build this team with a younger core that can stay in place for a while. There might be some veterans, including some high-profile free agents, brought in. But I think the days of signing guys at the end of their careers are over. Taylor was a great player, but is he much different than Warrick Dunn right now? I'm not even sure the Bucs will be keeping Dunn.
Jim Wright in Tampa writes: Should Bucs go after a QB in the 1st round of the draft; perhaps Josh Freeman of KSU; most likely Stafford and Sanchez will be gone by the time the Bucs draft in the 19th spot. Or would they do better to take a WR or DT or DE. Hopefully, McCown will do well but we may still a a QB for the future.
Pat Yasinskas: I think it's a little risky to think you can get a franchise quarterback with the 19th pick. The Bucs have high hopes for Luke McCown and that's why they re-signed him. But I still think it's entirely possible Tampa Bay could add a quarterback in the draft or as a free agent. But I think a team picking in the middle or late first round can get more value by drafting another position. I agree the Bucs could use help at wide receiver, defensive tackle or defensive end and a new coach and general manager might get more rapid results by drafting one of those positions. I think the Bucs will add another quarterback to the mix, but I don't think it will come in the first round of the draft. Maybe later in the draft or maybe in free agency.
Brian in parts unkown writes: Just wanted to know with all of the players that the Bucs have becoming free agents, which of those would you expect the to retain?
Pat Yasinskas: Just looking at the list of Tampa Bay's potential free agents, I'd say receiver Antonio Bryant, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and safety Jermaine Phillips are the top three priorities. I also think there's a chance receiver Michael Clayton could stay because his problems were with Gruden and not the new regime. We already know the Bucs aren't bringing back quarterback Jeff Garcia. I think defensive end Kevin Carter, defensive tackle Jovan Haye and tight end Jerramy Stevens also will be allowed to test free agency.
Jordan in Orlando writes: Has the bucs released any info about resigning WR Bryant?
Pat Yasinskas: The Bucs aren't going to release any information on Bryant unless they have him signed. They're in the negotiating process and I'm sure the Bucs want to keep Bryant. He also has a desire to stay in Tampa Bay after resurrecting his career there last year. Morris was on Gruden's staff and got a first-hand look at how Bryant turned his life around. In a lot of ways, that's an advantage because Bryant wouldn't have to prove himself to another head coach. But we're at the point in time where it comes down to business and money. I think the Bucs are working hard to keep Bryant and my guess is you'll see him re-sign with Tampa Bay. Also, I think even if Bryant re-signs, the Bucs could be a big player for another wide receiver in free agency.