NFC South: restricted free agents
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.
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.
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.
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.
But we haven’t done much on restricted free agents. So let’s run through the list of NFC South restricted free agents now. Restricted free agents are players with fewer than four years of service who received qualifying offers before the lockout. Teams have the right of first refusal if a restricted free agent receives an offer from another team. Depending on the tender, they also can receive compensation if a player leaves as a restricted free agent.
Atlanta has two -- cornerback Brent Grimes and receiver Eric Weems. If Grimes leaves, the Falcons get a first-round draft pick. If Weems leaves, they get a second-round choice.
Carolina’s restricted free agents are receiver David Clowney, long-snapper J.J. Jansen and linebacker Jordan Senn. If Clowney leaves, the Panthers would get a fifth-round draft pick. There would be no compensation for Jansen or Senn.
New Orleans has only one restricted free agent. That’s guard Carl Nicks and he would bring a first-round pick as compensation.
Tampa Bay has six restricted free agents. Kicker Connor Barth and tackle James Lee would bring second-round draft picks if they leave. Defensive tackle Frank Okam would bring a fifth-round pick and safety Corey Lynch would bring a sixth-round pick. Cornerback Elbert Mack and receiver Micheal Spurlock come only with the right of first refusal.
According to this report, a new labor agreement (it’s not done yet and we're still in a lockout) would allow any players with four accrued seasons to become unrestricted free agents if they don’t have a contract for this season. That’s significant because Edwards, who has been playing for the Minnesota Vikings, has five accrued seasons.
There has been some uncertainty about whether guys with four or five accrued seasons would be unrestricted free agents or if they might end up as restricted free agents. If this holds up, Edwards instantly jumps to the top of just about any list of free-agent defensive ends you’re going to see available when the lockout ends.
It’s been obvious since the Falcons jumped up in the draft to get Julio Jones that they’re in a “win-now’’ mode. If the scouting department and coaches feel as strongly about Edwards as many fans do, owner Arthur Blank will be waiting with his check book.
Let’s take a look around the division to see how this would impact some potential free agents.
Buccaneers: If four seasons turns players free, guard Davin Joseph and defensive end Stylez G. White would be added to a list of unrestricted free agents that already was going to include linebacker Barrett Ruud and running back Cadillac Williams.
Falcons: It might be time to break up the offensive line. Under these rules, guards Harvey Dahl and Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo would be unrestricted. The Falcons began preparing for this in 2010, when they drafted two offensive linemen.
Panthers: This news might impact the Panthers most of all when it comes to the guys they currently have. Running back DeAngelo Williams, defensive end Charles Johnson (another possible candidate for the Falcons), linebacker James Anderson and cornerback Richard Marshall all would be unrestricted free agents. I expect the Panthers to make strong plays to keep Williams, Johnson and Anderson, but any of those three could command big money on the open market.
Saints: Safety Roman Harper, tight end David Thomas and tackle Jermon Bushrod were the guys there was uncertainty about and they’d be unrestricted in this setting. The good news is guard Carl Nicks has only three seasons and would be a restricted free agent.
We can safely assume that players with at least six accrued seasons will be unrestricted free agents in any scenario. Players with four or five seasons could be unrestricted or restricted free agents, depending on the terms of a potential new deal and if they received qualifying tenders prior to the start of the lockout.
Players with three seasons will be restricted free agents unless they did not receive a qualifying offer. With some help from ESPN Stats & Information, let’s take a look at the notable potential free agents from NFC South team. We’ll list the players, followed by their number of accrued seasons.
Buccaneers: RB Cadillac Williams 6; LB Barrett Ruud 6; G Davin Joseph 5; DE Stylez G. White 4.
Falcons: LB Mike Peterson 12; T Tyson Clabo 5; G Harvey Dahl 5; G Justin Blalock 4; CB Brent Grimes 3.
Panthers: LB Thomas Davis 6; RB DeAngelo Williams 5; LB James Anderson 5; CB Richard Marshall 5; QB Matt Moore 4; TE Dante Rosario 4; DE Charles Johnson 4.
Saints: S Darren Sharper 14; FB Heath Evans 10; RB LaDell Betts 9; RB Julius Jones 7; TE David Thomas 5; S Roman Harper 5; T Jermon Bushrod 4; G Carl Nicks 3.
Much like the franchise tag, teams are claiming restricted tags still can be used. The union has said franchise tags can’t be used; it’s likely the view is the same on restricted tags.
With the current labor uncertainty, it’s not even clear who would qualify for restricted tags or how the system would work. A new labor agreement would clarify if players would need four or five years of service to be eligible for unrestricted free agency and anything less would make them restricted free agents when their contracts expire.
Under past agreements, there have been different levels of restricted free agents, based on pay and what compensation the team would receive if a player levels.
This may be a moot point because there can be no free agency if an agreement isn’t reached by the end of the day March 3. At that point, owners are expected to invoke a lockout and there can be no free agency. The rules for restricted free agents also could change significantly under a new agreement.
But, in the meantime, you could see some NFC South teams claim some of their players are restricted free agents. Possibilities include Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and Charles Johnson and New Orleans’ Carl Nicks.
That comes before tonight’s deadline for other teams to make offers to restricted free agents. This is pretty much just a formality. Once the window closes tonight on potential offers from other teams, restricted free agents don’t really have much choice other than to sign their tenders -- unless they want to try a holdout without a lot of negotiating power.
A lot of people thought it would be hard for teams not to dip into that pool. Turns out most teams haven’t even gotten their toes wet. So far, the only restricted free agent to leave a team by an offer sheet was New Orleans running back Mike Bell and the Saints had hit him with the lowest tender, which means they get nothing in return. A handful of restricted free agents have changed teams through trade, but none have involved the NFC South.
If you’re curious about who the restricted free agents around the division are, here’s a list that we ran back at the start of free agency. A lot of fans were panicking because guys like New Orleans’ Jahri Evans, Carolina's DeAngelo Williams and Tampa Bay’s Barrett Ruud were somewhat exposed.
Well, you can stop worrying. They’re still with their teams and the deadline for other teams to make offers to restricted free agents is Thursday.
When it comes to adding unrestricted free agents, the four NFC South teams have combined to sign … drum roll please … exactly one player. That’s Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson.
And, just to be clear here, we’re only talking about true unrestricted free agents -- not the guys that were cut or not offered restricted tenders elsewhere. Carolina and Tampa Bay have made some of those moves.
Anyway, the one unrestricted free-agent signing means the NFC South has been the least active division in the NFL. AFC South colleague Paul Kuharsky’s got the chart to prove it right here.
- The Saints have started the process of making tenders to some of their 18 restricted free agents. The latest to receive a tender is offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, according to Mike Triplett. He’s been given a second-round tender worth $1.68 million.
- Darin Gantt points out the Panthers are more likely to use that $20 million they saved by not franchising Julius Peppers on long-term contracts for players such as linebackers Thomas Davis and Jon Beason, center Ryan Kalil and running back DeAngelo Williams than they are on making a big splash in free agency. That may not be what Carolina fans want to hear, but it’s the truth.
- Rick Stroud ponders some veteran quarterbacks the Bucs might consider to play behind Josh Freeman. They’re almost certain to let Byron Leftwich walk. The names Stroud throws out of guys who could be available include Marc Bulger and Chad Pennington. Bulger and offensive coordinator Greg Olson were together in St. Louis.
- D. Orlando Ledbetter has the list of Falcons scheduled to become restricted free agents. He also has the breakdown of the tender levels for restricted free agents.
However, fans want to start talking free agency and throwing around names. With that in mind, The Sporting News has about the best list of free agents (potential, of course) I’ve seen.
Take a look and see who you think might fit with your team. But, just remember, this list can change dramatically between now and March.
Another quiet day in the NFC South so far, but that could always change this afternoon as teams get ready for the start of free agency. Speaking of that, I've been getting a lot of people asking for lists of free agents.
I did team-by-team breakdowns back in January but decided to run the lists for all four NFC South teams here just to refresh everybody. Keep in mind, these are the guys who are prospective free agents at the end of the month and things could always change with teams re-signing their own players or using the franchise tag.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Michael Boley, defensive end Chauncey Davis, cornerback Domonique Foxworth, tackle Wayne Gandy, linebacker Tony Gilbert, defensive tackle Grady Jackson, defensive tackle Jason Jefferson, punter Michael Koenen, safety Lawyer Milloy, tight end Justin Peelle and linebacker Coy Wire.
Unrestricted free agents: Linebacker Donte' Curry, tackle Jordan Gross, offensive lineman Geoff Hangartner, return man Mark Jones, long-snapper Jason Kyle, tackle Frank Omiyale, defensive end Julius Peppers, linebacker Adam Seward and defensive tackle Darwin Walker.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Unrestricted free agents: Cornerback Aaron Glenn, quarterback Joey Harrington, receiver Devery Henderson, defensive tackle Antwan Lake, guard Matt Lehr, running back Aaron Stecker, tackle Jon Stinchcomb and linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Unrestricted free agents: Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, cornerback Phillip Buchanon, defensive end Kevin Carter, receiver Michael Clayton, quarterback Jeff Garcia, receiver Cortez Hankton, defensive tackle Jovan Haye, safety Jermaine Phillips, defensive tackle Ryan Sims and tight end Jerramy Stevens.
Restricted free agent: Tackle Donald Penn.