To dream: NFC West free agency primer

April, 6, 2011
4/06/11
4:25
PM ET
Alex Smith and Matt HasselbeckGetty ImagesAlex Smith and Matt Hasselbeck are both eligible for free agency this offseason.
It is possible, even likely, that the NFL and its players will continue their staring contest through the 2011 draft -- even with a ruling from U.S. District Judge Susan Nelson.

The appeals process could take weeks or longer, during which time it's unlikely the league would open for business. We're probably doomed to status quo, in other words.

But if ESPN legal analyst Lester Munson is correct, Judge Nelson will most likely end the lockout, leading to an immediate appeal -- a scenario I think would lead, eventually, to the league opening for business under 2010 rules while the sides continued their battle in the courts.

Those 2010 rules set the bar high for free agency. Only players with six accrued seasons would qualify for the unrestricted market. Starters such as Arizona's Steve Breaston, San Francisco's Dashon Goldson and Seattle's Brandon Mebane would lose leverage and most likely return to their teams under relatively modest one-year deals.

The players listed in the chart -- those with at least six accrued seasons and no contracts for 2011 -- would be free to explore opportunities elsewhere.

Options and implications for this type of free agency in the NFC West:

Arizona Cardinals

Overview: The Cardinals suffered more personnel losses than they could weather last offseason. They would benefit from a return to 2010 rules, however, because the restrictions would keep multiple starters off the market. Their list of potential free agents with six-plus seasons features no front-line players. The Cardinals would be better off focusing on a new deal with Larry Fitzgerald, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Top priority: Finding a veteran quarterback. Derek Anderson isn't expected back. Marc Bulger's name is heard most frequently in connection with the Cardinals. He turned 34 this week and did not attempt a pass in a regular-season game while with Baltimore last season. Bulger struggled during his final seasons with the Rams, but the team was falling apart around him. He last finished an NFL season with more touchdowns than interceptions in 2006. The down year has surely helped him get healthy.

Players in flux: Breaston, starting guard Deuce Lutui and starting center Lyle Sendlein wouldn't have enough accrued seasons to become unrestricted under 2010 rules. The situation is particularly difficult for Breaston, who has battled through knee problems without getting a long-term deal.

Veteran variable: Starting left guard Alan Faneca has considered retirement. The Cardinals invested in veteran guard Rex Hadnot for depth last offseason. The team lacks young depth on the line, but if Lutui and Sendlein return, the Cardinals have some flexibility.

Name to keep in mind: Ike Taylor, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Cardinals are hoping Greg Toler can build upon an up-and-down 2010 season. Taylor would give the team options. He played under new Cardinals defensive coordinator Ray Horton.

St. Louis Rams

Overview: The Rams' most important players tend to be younger starters under contract for the long term (Chris Long, James Laurinaitis, Rodger Saffold, Sam Bradford, Jason Smith). Most of their top veterans are also under contract (Steven Jackson, Fred Robbins, James Hall). Free safety Oshiomogho Atogwe is out of the picture after signing with the Washington Redskins following his salary-related release.

Top priority: The Rams could use a veteran guard with some nastiness. The team has invested heavily in its line, but this group could use more of an edge. Bringing back receiver Mark Clayton should be another consideration even though Clayton is coming off a serious knee injury. The rapport Clayton had with Bradford was strong.

Players in flux: Defensive tackles Gary Gibson and Clifton Ryan would remain property of the Rams under 2010 rules, as would cornerback Kevin Dockery and receiver Laurent Robinson. Gibson was the only full-time starter of the group last season. The Rams are expected to seek an upgrade at that position even with Gibson coming back.

Veteran variable: Adam Goldberg started all 16 games on the offensive line last season. The Rams could stand to upgrade, but I see value in bringing back Goldberg as a backup. He can play every position on the line but center. Goldberg has also taken an interest in mentoring younger players. His value off the field is a consideration.

Name to keep in mind: Daniel Graham, TE, Denver Broncos. Graham could make sense for the Rams in free agency. He played under the Rams' new offensive coordinator, Josh McDaniels, and could help upgrade the run blocking. Seattle has connections to Graham as well.

San Francisco 49ers

Overview: The 49ers signed some of their better young players to long-term contracts well before labor pains became so severe. Vernon Davis, Patrick Willis and Joe Staley come to mind. The lockout has made it tougher for the 49ers' new coaches to get a feel for players. The 49ers like their talent overall and haven't been big players in free agency over the past couple of seasons. That isn't likely to change.

Top priority: Finding a starting quarterback trumps everything else. Alex Smith can become a free agent. Backups David Carr and Troy Smith are not expected back. The 49ers aren't expected to use the seventh overall choice to select or acquire a quarterback. Coach Jim Harbaugh prides himself in coaching up quarterbacks, but he needs quarterbacks to coach.

Players in flux: Goldson, outside linebacker Manny Lawson and defensive lineman Ray McDonald are among the 49ers players that would fall short of the six-season requirement for unrestricted free agency.

Veteran variable: Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin played last season under a one-year franchise deal. The price tag for re-franchising Franklin appears prohibitive. The 49ers took a wait-and-see approach with Franklin because they hadn't seen him perform at a high level over the long term. They'll need a new nose tackle if Franklin departs.

Name to keep in mind: The 49ers' staff is coming mostly from the college ranks, so there aren't obvious connections to players from other NFL rosters. I expect the 49ers to focus more on re-signing some of their own players, from Spikes to David Baas and beyond.

Seattle Seahawks

Overview: The Seahawks have a long list of players without contracts for 2011. That was mostly be design. The team would like to continue turning over its roster without investing too much in older players such as Matt Hasselbeck, Raheem Brock and Olindo Mare.

Top priority: Figuring out the quarterback situation. Hasselbeck is headed for free agency and could leave if another team gives him some of the longer-term assurances Seattle has resisted. The Seahawks have shown some interest in Philadelphia Eagles backup Kevin Kolb, a player they inquired about last offseason. They still have Charlie Whitehurst. They could draft a quarterback early.

Players in flux: Defensive tackle Mebane heads the list of Seattle players who would not reach free agency under the rules used in 2010. General manager John Schneider called Mebane a "steady pro" when asked about him at the combine. That sounded like faint praise and an indication the Seahawks are not yet prepared to pay top dollar for Mebane if, and when, he hits the market.

Veteran variable: The Seahawks have a few of them, including Mare and Brock. But let's focus on offensive linemen Sean Locklear and Chris Spencer. They combined for 31 starts, but neither appears to be a priority for re-signing. Stacy Andrews is a candidate to step in for Locklear at right tackle. Max Unger could replace Spencer. Coach Pete Carroll thinks the team has upgraded its young depth on the line.

Name to keep in mind: Robert Gallery, guard, Oakland Raiders. Tom Cable's addition as offensive line coach makes Seattle a logical destination for Gallery, who has declared his intention to leave the Raiders.

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