NFC South: unrestricted free agents

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.

NFC South players not signed for 2012

December, 22, 2011
A lot can change between now and the start of free agency and I sure don’t see any way the New Orleans Saints let quarterback/King Drew Brees walk away. I also think there’s a pretty good chance tight end Tony Gonzalez can return to the Atlanta Falcons if he chooses. Same for cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and maybe even Jeremy Shockey with the Carolina Panthers.

But all we know about those guys at the moment is they’re not under contract for 2012. We’ll do much more on free agency as it gets closer but I’ve got the complete list of every NFC South player presently not under contract for 2012.

I’ll list them by team here and we’ll only go with the guys who have at least four years of service and can become unrestricted free agents. We’ll deal with restricted and exclusive-rights free agents at another time.

Atlanta Falcons: Tony Gonzalez, tight end; Reggie Kelly, tight end; Todd McClure, center; Mike Peterson, linebacker; John Abraham, defensive end; Joe Zelenka, long-snapper; Chris Redman, quarterback; Kirk Chambers, offensive line; Kelvin Hayden, cornerback; Brett Romberg, offensive line; James Sanders, safety; Jason Snelling, running back; Kroy Biermann, defensive end; Thomas DeCoud, safety; Harry Douglas, receiver; Brent Grimes, cornerback; Curtis Lofton, linebacker; Eric Weems, receiver.

Carolina Panthers: Jeremy Shockey, tight end; Reggie Wells, offensive line; Derek Anderson, quarterback; Geoff Hangartner, center/guard; Omar Gaither, linebacker; Cletis Gordon, cornerback; Legedu Naanee, receiver; Antwan Applewhite, linebacker; Mackenzy Beranadeau, offensive line; Dan Connor, linebacker; J.J. Jansen, long-snapper; Jerome Felton, fullback; Jordan Senn, linebacker.

New Orleans Saints: John Kasay, kicker; Drew Brees, quarterback; Shaun Rogers, defensive tackle; John Gilmore, tight end; Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle; Marques Colston, receiver; Pat McQuistan, offensive line; Courtney Roby, receiver; Leigh Torrence, cornerback; Jeff Charleston, defensive end; Turk McBride, defensive end; Robert Meachem, receiver; Jo-Lonn Dunbar, linebacker; Carl Nicks, guard; Tracy Porter, cornerback.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronde Barber, cornerback; Earnest Graham, running back; Sean Jones, safety; Connor Barth, kicker; Geno Hayes, linebacker; Josh Johnson, quarterback; James Lee, offensive line; Corey Lynch, safety; Elbert Mack, cornerback; Frank Okam, defensive tackle; Micheal Spurlock, receiver; Jeremy Zuttah, offensive line.
We’ve talked about potential unrestricted free agents at length and you can see the official list of all of them by clicking here.

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.

NFC South top 10 free agents

July, 20, 2011
With all signs continuing to point to a labor agreement coming soon, free agency can’t be far behind.

[+] EnlargeCharles Johnson
Bob Donnan/US PresswirePanthers defensive end Charles Johnson, left, had 11.5 sacks last season.
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.
Atlanta Falcons fans, your top two free-agent defensive ends might not be on the market.

Although there had been early reports that any players with four accrued seasons and not under contract for 2011 could become unrestricted free agents under a new labor agreement, that might not be the case. Reports are now surfacing that NFL owners are now pushing for a right-of-first-refusal clause for 2011 in a new agreement. They want the clause to apply to three fourth- or fifth-year players per team.

If that happens, the Falcons could be out of luck in pursuing Carolina’s Charles Johnson or Minnesota’s Ray Edwards. The Panthers and Vikings simply could match any offers and keep their players.

If only players with six or more accrued seasons truly can be unrestricted free agents, the pool at defensive end thins out considerably. Tennessee’s Jason Babin would probably be the top defensive end in that scenario and he is coming off a season in which he recorded 12.5 sacks. But Babin is 31, only two years younger than Atlanta’s top defensive end, John Abraham.

If owners get their way, some current NFC South players could be limited in their potential to move because they have either four or five seasons. Among those players, are Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams and James Anderson, Tampa Bay’s Davin Joseph, Atlanta’s Tyson Clabo, Harvey Dahl, Justin Blalock and Stephen Nicholas, and New Orleans’ Roman Harper.
We already have talked quite a bit about players from the NFC South who are expected to become unrestricted free agents. We’re going on the assumption that players not under contract who have at least four accrued seasons can become unrestricted free agents.

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.

NFC South, Ricky Williams, Gibril Wilson, Gerald Sensabaugh, T.J.Houshmandzadeh, Braylon Edwards, Santonio Holmes, Terrell Owens, Steve Smith, Lawyer Milloy, Ronnie Brown, Phillip Buchanon, Jammal Brown, Billy Volek, Jason Taylor, unrestricted free agents, Mark Clayton, Chris Hovan, Rex Grossman, Tyler Thigpen, Randy Moss, Kris Jenkins, ESPN Stats & Information, Chris Houston, Alex Smith, Brandon McGowan, Danieal Manning, Bruce Gradkowski, Michael Lewis, Fred Taylor, Steve Breaston, Roy Williams, Nnamdi Asomugha, Trevor Pryce, Santana Moss, Tavaris Jackson, Pat Williams, Kellen Clemens, Julian Peterson, Donte Stallworth, Kerry Collins, Brodie Croyle, Cedric Benson, Clinton Portis, Zach Miller, Brian Westbrook, Damien Woody, Troy Smith, Marc Bulger, Kevin Faulk, Ray Edwards, Sidney Rice, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Mathias Kiwanuka, Patrick Ramsey, Aaron Francisco, Joseph Addai, Darren Sproles, Matt Leinart, Tony Richardson, Ike Taylor, Josh Wilson, Matt Hasselbeck, Atari Bigby, Cullen Jenkins, Jason Babin, Marcus Spears, Jonathan Joseph, Paul Posluszny, Matt Light, Trent Edwards, Mewelde Moore, Sammy Morris, Dominic Rhodes, Kevin Smith, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jerom Harrison, Brandon Jackson, Laurence Maroney, LeRon McClain, Malcolm Floyd, James Jones, Mike Sims-Walker, Brad Smith, Desmond Clark, Donald Lee, Randy McMichael, Kevin Boss, Owen Daniels, Daniel Fells, Ben Patrick, Matt Spaeth, David Baas, Robert Gallery, Adam Goldberg, Kyle Kosier, Olin Kreutz, Sean Locklear, Casey Rabach, Chris Spencer, Langston Walker, Casey Wiegmann, Floyd Womack, Chris Chester, Jeromey Clary, Daryn Colledge, Willie Colon, Jared Gaither, Charlie Johnson, Deuce Lutui, Samson Satele, Lyle Sendlein, Marshal Yanda, Aubrayo Franklin, Tommis Harris, Chris Hoke, Bryan Robinson, Gerard Warren, Alan Branch, Barry Cofield, John McCargo, Brandon Mebane, Raheem Brock, Andre Carter, Shaun Ellis, Travis LaBoy, Akin Ayodele, Keith Bulluck, Kevin Burnett, Dhani Jones, Kirk Morrison, Takeo Spikes, Mike Vrabel, Stewart Bradley, Bobby Carpenter, Manny Lawson, Ernie Sims, Stephen Tulloch, Chris Carr, Drayton Florence, Ellis Hobbs, Carlos Rogers, Lito Sheppard, Fabian Washington, Drew Coleman, Demitri Patterson, Eric Wright, Ken Hamlin, Quintin Mikell, Brodney Pool, Melvin Bullitt, Abram Elam, Dashon Goldson, Michael Huff, Dawan Landry, Bernard Pollard, Eric Weedle, Donte Whitner

Around the NFC South

June, 22, 2011
Time for a morning look at headlines from around the NFC South.

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes about how potential free-agent losses could force the Falcons to rebuild their offensive line. He also has a complete list of Atlanta’s free agents, if the new deal makes players with expiring contracts and a minimum of four seasons unrestricted free agents.

Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann says New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees is the “preeminent leader right now, anywhere, around the league." Theismann also said the Saints should keep running back Reggie Bush and compared him to Marshall Faulk.

Here’s a list of most of the Panthers who would be free agents if the new labor deal is structured as expected.

Jeff Duncan has the list of Saints who can become free agents.

Stephen Holder has the list of Tampa Bay’s potential free agents.
If you’re one of those Atlanta fans who believes all the Falcons need to do to win a Super Bowl is add defensive end Ray Edwards, one potential hurdle might be out of the way.

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 still don’t know the exact structure of any potential labor agreement. But with talks continuing and cautious optimism from both sides, it’s time to at least begin looking ahead to the start of free agency.

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.
Assuming the lockout gets lifted before there is a labor agreement -- and that seems a likely scenario at the moment, the free-agency period will open under the same rules that were in place in 2010.

Lots of you have been asking for months about guys who may or may not be unrestricted free agents. I’ve been hesitant to answer that one because so many guys were in uncertain territory. But, if free agency does open under the 2010 rules, a lot of young stars, such as Carolina running back DeAngelo Williams, will remain with the Panthers as a restricted free agent.

Without guys like Williams, the list of potential unrestricted free agents doesn’t look nearly as tantalizing. Here’s a good list of potential unrestricted free agents at each position.

I’m scanning it and not really seeing many big names from NFC South teams who can test the open market. There’s Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams, who developed into a nice niche player as a third-down back last season. The Bucs would like him back and it might be difficult for Williams to find more money or a bigger role elsewhere.

There’s Tampa Bay middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. I’m thinking he’ll get some interest on the open market because he’s a quality player. Ruud’s been looking for a long-term contract extension for a couple years and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. If he gets a chance to run out the door, I think he might take it.

New Orleans outside linebacker Scott Shanle also is on the list, but I doubt he’ll test the free-agent market. I think Shanle is one of those guys the Saints talked to before the lockout about a new deal. The Saints did this with the agents for several players and I think they were being pro-active to make sure they keep guys they want.

There also are guys like Atlanta cornerback Brian Williams and New Orleans safety Darren Sharper. I think those veteran guys will be allowed to test the market. They’re the kind of guys you can still sign in July, maybe even August, if there’s a sudden need for veteran depth on your team.

NFC South last in signing UFAs

March, 15, 2010
Since the opening of free agency March 5, there has been a lot of activity in the NFC South. But most the action is players leaving the division.

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.

Let's start pondering free agents

February, 10, 2010
It’s too early to have a rock-solid list of guys who will be free agents in March. Teams still can re-sign their own players and there’s uncertainty about who will be restricted and unrestricted free agents because of the uncertainty surrounding the NFL’s labor agreement -- or lack of a labor agreement.

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.