NFL Nation: 2011 free-agency breakdown

NFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:33
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC North team:

Chicago Bears
  1. Assemble a starting offensive line: As we've noted many times, the Bears have held off any public discussion about their five linemen pending the results of free agency. Well, we're here. It's time for the dominoes to start falling. The first will be whether center Olin Kreutz re-signs. It's generally expected, but nothing is guaranteed. Then, the Bears need to decide whether to pursue any starting-caliber guards or tackles. You would think they'll seek at least one new starter. Will they raid the Atlanta Falcons' glut of linemen? Might they take a flyer on Robert Gallery? We'll know soon enough.
  2. Establish a strongside linebacker: The position has largely been held by Pisa Tinoisamoa and Nick Roach over the past two years, but both have expiring contracts. It makes sense to re-sign at least one given the lack of offseason work for a presumptive new starter, and Roach is the younger of the two. If the Bears have another player on the roster they've targeted for this job, it's not readily apparent. While they're at it, the Bears should seek depth at defensive tackle following the release of Tommie Harris. They did draft Stephen Paea, but the Bears might pursue Seattle Seahawks free agent Brandon Mebane as well.
  3. Sift through receivers: From a media perspective, at least, there has been more offseason talk than ever suggesting the Bears will/should/might/ pursue a free-agent receiver. This year's class is deep, from Sidney Rice to Santonio Holmes to Randy Moss, and a number of other veterans could be available via trade. Coach Lovie Smith has said he wouldn't mind a receiver bigger than his current trio of sub 6-footers, and Devin Hester has lobbied publicly to sign Santana Moss. I think the increased discussion is largely a product of lockout boredom, but it wouldn't hurt the Bears to add depth so that Hester can be used more efficiently.
Top five free agents: Center Olin Kreutz, safety Danieal Manning, punter Brad Maynard, linebacker Nick Roach, linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa.

Detroit Lions
  1. Sign a starting cornerback: The Lions' top cornerbacks under contract are Alphonso Smith and Nate Vasher. Chris Houston, who started 15 games last season, is a free agent, so it's possible the Lions will bring Houston back. Or they could seek an outside upgrade, be it Nnamdi Asomugha or Ike Taylor or Johnathan Joseph. Lions Fever would spike if they can land Asomugha, but they would have to use most of their salary-cap space to do it. For several reasons, the odds are against it.
  2. Sort out the linebacker position: DeAndre Levy is the only linebacker assured a 2011 starting job, but even Levy can't be totally sure if he will play outside or in the middle. That answer will come only after the Lions sift through the available free agents. They could pursue one with a background in the middle, perhaps Stephen Tulloch. Or they could seek an outside linebacker to replace the released Julian Peterson. One of their outside positions is likely to be decided by a training camp competition among incumbents.
  3. Evaluate right tackles: Early indications have been that Gosder Cherilus has made progress from microfracture surgery on his knee. If there is any question, however, the Lions might want to bolster their depth. Corey Hilliard did a decent job as Cherilus' replacement late last season. But keeping quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy is at a premium this season. Do the Lions want to face the possibility of opening the year with a backup plan at right tackle?
Top five free agents: Linebacker Bobby Carpenter, cornerback Chris Houston, linebacker Landon Johnson, quarterback Drew Stanton, safety John Wendling.

Green Bay Packers
  1. Stay the course: It's been well-documented that general manager Ted Thompson hasn't participated much in free agency over the past few years, and it's hard to imagine him changing tack dramatically this summer. Thompson's most important decisions will be deciding which of his pending free agents to re-sign and which ones he should allow to depart.
  2. Re-sign place-kicker Mason Crosby: Thompson gave Crosby a second-round tender in February in the event Crosby wound up as a restricted free agent. That move suggested Crosby is in the Packers' future plans and makes re-signing him one of the first orders of business now that he is an unrestricted free agent. Crosby has had some difficulties over the years, but kicking in Green Bay is difficult given the weather and he has made some important adjustments. Concerns about his kickoffs should be minimized by the NFL's decision to move them up 5 yards.
  3. Think twice: The Packers appear set to let defensive end Cullen Jenkins depart. They can do so knowing they have a number of intriguing young players to compete for that job, from Mike Neal to C.J. Wilson to Jarius Wynn. But another player the Packers might lose, Daryn Colledge, doesn't have an obvious replacement. Would the Packers shift T.J. Lang from backup tackle to guard? Would first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod, their projected left tackle of the future, get a crash course on step down? It's something to think about and, given the lack of an offseason, might spur further discussion about re-signing Colledge.
Top five free agents: Guard Daryn Colledge, place-kicker Mason Crosby, defensive end Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running backs John Kuhn/Brandon Jackson.

Minnesota Vikings
  1. Address receivers: Are the Vikings about to bid farewell to receiver Sidney Rice, a 24-year-old who is one year removed from an 83-catch Pro Bowl season? There is nothing they can do to stop it at this point, and Rice seems intent on at least testing his value on the open market. The Vikings spent most of last season searching for a suitable replacement when Rice was injured, and that job will intensify this summer. They have added an additional pass-catching threat in rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph. But if they lose Rice, the Vikings must either sign or trade for an established veteran to join Percy Harvin and Bernard Berrian (if he makes the team).
  2. Find a kicker: The Vikings made no known effort before the lockout to re-sign veteran Ryan Longwell, who has converted 43 of 46 kicks over the past two seasons. It's possible they'll make their move now. But they did not draft a kicker, and if Longwell signs elsewhere, the Vikings will have to scour the always-murky free-agent market. I'm guessing they already have a plan on this issue, but we haven't smoked it out yet.
  3. Establish QB depth: We all know that rookie Christian Ponder eventually will assume the starting job. But are the Vikings comfortable with Joe Webb and Rhett Bomar as their only alternatives should Ponder need some development time? I'm not sure about that. I also wonder if making Webb the No. 2 quarterback would limit his opportunities to contribute in other ways, perhaps as a receiver or a kick returner. For that reason, it would make sense for the Vikings to seek a quarterback with more experience to pair with Ponder.
Top five free agents: Defensive end Ray Edwards, linebacker Ben Leber, place-kicker Ryan Longwell, receiver Sidney Rice, nose tackle Pat Williams.

NFC South free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:32
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC South team:

Atlanta Falcons

1. Sign a pass-rushing defensive end: This move has been telegraphed since the draft, when the Falcons jumped up to add an explosive offensive player in wide receiver Julio Jones rather than a pass-rusher. It’s no secret the Falcons want to add an edge rusher who can complement John Abraham in the short term and replace him in the long term. The Falcons showed last year when they signed cornerback Dunta Robinson that they’re not afraid to spend big money in free agency. They’re poised to do it again, and Minnesota’s Ray Edwards and Carolina’s Charles Johnson are two pass-rushers just entering their prime who will be on the market. The Falcons can offer big money and the chance to be the last piece of a Super Bowl puzzle. That should be attractive.

2. Figure out what the offensive line will look like: The Falcons have three starters on the offensive line who are likely to be free agents, and they’ll allow one or two of them to walk. That’s not as scary as it may sound, because none of those free agents is dominant, and the Falcons have stockpiled some promising linemen in the last few drafts. But center Todd McClure is near the end of his career, and left tackle Sam Baker is still a question mark. That means the Falcons can’t afford to let all their free-agent linemen walk. They need to maintain some continuity on the line to make sure quarterback Matt Ryan stays upright. Keeping right tackle Tyson Clabo is the major priority.

3. Re-sign kicker Matt Bryant: The veteran has revitalized his career since coming to Atlanta. He’s come through consistently in the clutch. The Falcons are a team on the verge of great things, and they don’t need to suddenly go young or cheap at kicker. They need a veteran who can help them win some big games.

Top five free agents: Bryant, LB Mike Peterson, T Tyson Clabo, G Harvey Dahl and G Justin Blalock.

Carolina Panthers

1. Re-sign DeAngelo Williams: The running back is sure to be a hot commodity on the open market, but the Panthers can’t afford to let him get away. Yes, Jonathan Stewart looked very good at times last season, and Mike Goodson made the most of his playing time after Williams was injured. But the Panthers don't want to put too much pressure on a young starting quarterback, whether it's Cam Newton or Jimmy Clausen. They need to have two or three strong running backs, and Williams is the most versatile member of the backfield.

2. Make a decision on Steve Smith: Other than the drafting of Newton, speculation about Smith’s future has been the dominant story out of Carolina this offseason. There have been conflicting reports about whether the veteran wide receiver wants to be traded from the only team he’s ever played for. The speculation was a moot point because no trades could be made during the lockout. Now, Smith and the Panthers will have to show their hand. If he truly wants out, the Panthers will try to trade Smith. But they’re not simply going to give him away. Even if he’s unhappy, Smith still might be the best player on the roster. The Panthers aren’t letting him go without getting a good draft pick or a decent player in return.

3. Sign a veteran quarterback: New coach Ron Rivera has said several times that he wants to add a veteran quarterback to serve as a mentor to Newton and Clausen. Heck, he might even need that veteran to start the first few games of the season so Newton and Clausen can catch up on all the missed offseason work. The Panthers want someone who can help the development of the two young quarterbacks. Someone like Marc Bulger or Jake Delhomme could fit, if either is willing to accept a backup role.

Top five free agents: Williams, DE Charles Johnson, LB James Anderson, LB Thomas Davis and CB Richard Marshall.

New Orleans Saints

1. Decide what to do with Reggie Bush. The running back/return man is scheduled to make almost $12 million and count $16 million against the cap. That’s not going to happen, but the Saints have indicated they’d like to keep Bush if they can work out a contract extension that would spread money around. The Saints drafted running back Mark Ingram in the first round, but Bush still could play plenty of roles with this team. Sean Payton has been creative with the ways he’s used Bush, who has been productive when healthy. Last year’s injury problems at running back showed the Saints can’t have enough depth at the position.

2. Make some key secondary decisions. Safeties Darren Sharper and Roman Harper are both potential unrestricted free agents, so the Saints have to make some choices. Sharper’s past his prime and is a free safety. That position now belongs to Malcolm Jenkins. Harper has been the starting strong safety and has been solid. Harper shouldn’t command huge money on the open market, and the Saints would be wise to re-sign him. If they do, they should have one of the league’s better secondaries.

3. Shore up the outside linebacker spots. Scott Shanle is an unrestricted free agent and may or may not return. The other position is up for grabs. Martez Wilson was drafted in the third round, and the Saints have a few other promising prospects at outside linebacker. But this is a veteran team with a realistic chance to contend for the Super Bowl, so it might be wise to go out and get a proven veteran and let the young linebackers develop behind him.

Top five free agents: Sharper, Harper, WR Lance Moore, FB Heath Evans and TE David Thomas.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

1. Re-sign Davin Joseph. The guard is very much in his prime and is strong as a run blocker and pass blocker. Along with Donald Penn, he’s the anchor of an offensive line that may be working in some young players. Quarterback Josh Freeman is the franchise in Tampa Bay, and the Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep him protected.

2. Decide on a defensive leader. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud is an unrestricted free agent and may bolt if a decent offer comes from elsewhere. Ruud’s been asking for a new contract for about two years, and the Bucs haven’t given it to him. They drafted Mason Foster in the third round and are high on his potential. But this is a very young defense, and putting a rookie at middle linebacker could be a risky move. Buffalo’s Paul Posluszny is a free agent, and there are reports that Green Bay could be looking to trade or release Nick Barnett. Either of those guys could come in and be an immediate leader on this defense.

3. Spend some money. The Bucs have had one of the league’s lowest payrolls in recent years. Still, they’ve made progress in a youth movement that won’t be abandoned. It might be time to start locking up some young players to longer deals. It might also be time to go out and get just a few free agents to keep the youth movement headed in the right direction.

Top five free agents: G Davin Joseph, LB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams, DE Stylez G. White and Maurice Stovall.

NFC East free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:32
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC East team:

Dallas Cowboys

1. Re-sign left tackle Doug Free. He is coming off his first season as starting left tackle, but Free handled the move well and is viewed as the starting left tackle of the Cowboys' future. More importantly, with rookie Tyron Smith slated to start at right tackle and probably not yet ready to play on the left side, Free is the Cowboys' left tackle of the present. If he were to go elsewhere, the Cowboys would be scrambling to find a tackle, and it could mess with all of the other plans they need to make and execute before training camp begins. Expect Free to draw lots of interest, and his price tag to be higher than the Cowboys probably were hoping.

2. Fill holes in the secondary. The plan seems to be to move Alan Ball back to cornerback, so while you'll hear the Cowboys connected to free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, they're more likely to focus on bringing in a safety or two. There's a chance they re-sign their own guy, Gerald Sensabaugh, and then go get a free agent such as Eric Weddle, Michael Huff or Quintin Mikell. But if Sensabaugh were to leave, Dallas would be in the difficult position of having to sign two safeties.

3. Find defensive ends. With Stephen Bowen and Jason Hatcher set to be free agents, the Cowboys need a couple of starters at defensive end, too. They could bring both guys back, but it's not as if the defensive line was a position of strength for Dallas in 2010, so they'll probably at least look elsewhere. The Packers' Cullen Jenkins would be a nice fit, though there will be competition for him from within the division, as you'll see below in the Redskins' section.

Top five free agents: OT Free, G Kyle Kosier, DE Bowen, DE Hatcher, S Sensabaugh

New York Giants

1. Figure out which of their own guys to keep. With Ahmad Bradshaw, Barry Cofield, Mathias Kiwanuka, Steve Smith and Kevin Boss all set to potentially go free, the Giants have to prioritize and figure out which guys they're keeping. The top priority is probably going to be Bradshaw, an emerging star at running back, and it appears they'll let Cofield walk while trying to bring back Boss. They think the injury situations with Kiwanuka and Smith will help keep those guys' prices reasonable. But before the Giants hit the market, they'll need to get their own free-agent house in order.

2. Get at least one linebacker. The Giants have ignored this position over the past couple of years, and they seem to believe Jonathan Goff can handle the middle linebacker spot. They'd probably be better off moving him back outside and exploring the middle linebacker market, which includes Stephen Tulloch, Barrett Ruud and Paul Posluszny. But if they're set on keeping Goff in the middle, perhaps someone such as Manny Lawson or Nick Barnett could be a fit. It's one thing not to prioritize a position, but it's another to ignore it completely, and the Giants have been doing that with linebacker, to their detriment.

3. Some offensive line insurance. There were lots of injuries along the line in New York last season, and although it didn't kill them, it was a potential sign of things to come. The Giants hope Will Beatty will soon be ready to take over at left tackle for a declining David Diehl, but they must watch out for the health of Shaun O'Hara at center. And if they have to cut Shawn Andrews to sign some other guys, they'll need to replace him with a tackle who can provide depth.

Top five free agents: RB Bradshaw, DE/LB Kiwanuka, TE Boss, DT Cofield, WR Smith

Philadelphia Eagles

1. Settle the Kevin Kolb situation. If they can get the great deal for him that most believe they can (i.e., a first-round pick plus), the Eagles will deal Kolb and look for a reliable backup quarterback who can play if and when Michael Vick gets hurt. If they can't get good value for Kolb, they'll probably keep him to serve as said reliable backup. A trade is most likely, but whatever happens, the Eagles will probably settle this soon after the league year begins.

2. Sign a cornerback. The starting spot opposite Asante Samuel is open, and no one on the current roster appears able to fill it. That's why you've heard, and will continue to hear, the Eagles connected with Asomugha. Philadelphia must rank among his most likely destinations at this point. If they don't get him, they'll look down the list at guys such as Johnathan Joseph, Ike Taylor and Antonio Cromartie. And there's a chance they could get a cornerback for Kolb. But they'll get one somewhere.

3. Re-sign Stewart Bradley. Sure, they could let Bradley go and play Jamar Chaney at middle linebacker. Chaney looked, at least, capable in that spot last season and may be the Eagles' future at the position. But if Bradley leaves, the Eagles' problems will be about more than just the alignment of the linebackers. They'll actually be short on bodies and will need to play the free-agent field to find a replacement. Bradley's had injury problems, but when healthy, he's the Eagles' best linebacker and could be a key cog in whatever new defensive alignment Juan Castillo and Jim Washburn are cooking up.

Top five free agents: LB Bradley, S Mikell, G Nick Cole, RB Jerome Harrison, CB Ellis Hobbs

Washington Redskins

1. Fill out the defensive line. Whether they add a free-agent nose tackle such as Aubrayo Franklin or look at defensive end options like Jenkins, the Redskins must figure who their starting defensive linemen are. They like their linebacking corps, and although they also need a cornerback, they love their safeties with Oshiomogho Atogwe in the fold next to LaRon Landry. But their good, young outside linebackers will need big, space-eating ends in front of them to open up lanes to the passer. And they'll also need to get some sort of pass rush from the line, whether it's from the nose or the ends.

2. Re-sign Santana Moss. The Redskins are making noise about pursuing a big-time wideout such as Santonio Holmes or Sidney Rice. But the reality is that it's going to be tough to convince receivers to sign in Washington while they're not viewed as a contender and the quarterback situation remains so cloudy. Moss likes it in Washington. The Redskins like him. And he's a nice guy to have around to help out young receivers Anthony Armstrong and Leonard Hankerson -- not to mention inexperienced quarterback John Beck.

3. Resolve the Donovan McNabb and Albert Haynesworth situations. They don't want either player on the team anymore, but the question is how to get rid of them. They might be able to dump McNabb for a late-round draft pick, but if they can't, they'll probably just cut him and let him find his next job on his own. Haynesworth has trade value in a league where many 4-3 teams are looking for interior defensive line help. Don't expect the Redskins to cut Haynesworth, because they don't want to do him any favors and they don't want him free to sign with former Tennessee D-line coach Washburn in Philadelphia. If they can't get value for him, don't be surprised if Haynesworth remains on the team all season and has a hard time getting into games.

Top five free agents: WR Moss, OT Jammal Brown, CB Carlos Rogers, LB Rocky McIntosh, QB Rex Grossman

NFC West free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:31
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each NFC West team:

Arizona Cardinals

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: You've heard all the potential names by now. Kevin Kolb, Kyle Orton, Carson Palmer, Marc Bulger and Matt Hasselbeck all could be available. The same goes for Donovan McNabb, but the Cardinals aren't interested in him. How much interest they have in the others remains less clear. They liked Bulger as an option last offseason, but the timing wasn't right. Kolb reportedly stands atop their wish list now, although price is a consideration. One way or another, the Cardinals will go into the 2011 season with fresh veteran blood at the position.

2. Firm up the offensive line: Left guard Alan Faneca retired. Center Lyle Sendlein and right guard Deuce Lutui have expiring contracts. Brandon Keith showed promise at right tackle, but he's coming off knee surgery. A better quarterback would help take pressure off the line, but Arizona isn't going to find another Kurt Warner. The team has loaded up at running back, adding second-round choice Ryan Williams to an already crowded backfield. The Cardinals need to re-sign Sendlein. Letting Lutui depart would put them in the market for veteran help. I've looked through the free-agent lists for guards already familiar to the Cardinals. Pittsburgh's Trai Essex, a starter in 21 games over the past two seasons, played for Arizona's Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm with the Steelers.

3. Work toward a deal with Larry Fitzgerald: Ideally, the Cardinals would have landed their next quarterback in March, then spent the offseason working toward extending Fitzgerald's contract beyond the 2011 season. Fitzgerald is an NFL rarity. He's in line to sign three massive contracts during the course of his career. He signed the first one as the third player chosen in the 2004 draft. That deal ultimately became untenable for the Cardinals, giving Fitzgerald the leverage to get $40 million over four seasons, plus assurances Arizona would not name him its franchise player once the deal ended. Fitzgerald, still only 27, will cash in at least one more time.

Top five free agents: Sendlein, Lutui, receiver Steve Breaston, defensive lineman Alan Branch, defensive lineman Gabe Watson.

St. Louis Rams

1. Upgrade the run defense: The Rams could use another defensive tackle to take their promising defensive front to another level. Adding Fred Robbins in free agency last offseason was a good start. Barry Cofield (New York Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle Seahawks) are scheduled to become free agents this offseason. Cofield played for Steve Spagnuolo and would transition to the Rams' system easily. The Rams could use an in-the-box safety, something they addressed later in the draft. They need to find one and possibly two starting outside linebackers. Chase Blackburn projects more as a backup, but he was also with Spagnuolo on the Giants. Blackburn has played all three linebacker positions. Minnesota's Ben Leber would make sense as well. Paul Ferraro, the Rams' linebackers coach, was with the Vikings previously.

2. Help out Steven Jackson: Adding a third-down back such as Darren Sproles would lighten the load for Jackson, who has played through several injuries in recent seasons. Jackson has 654 rushing attempts over the past two seasons despite missing one game and playing for a team that has often trailed its opponents. Only Chris Johnson (674) has more carries during that span. Sproles isn't the only viable potential option. Jason Snelling, DeAngelo Williams and Reggie Bush also could become available. Upgrading at right guard would also help out Jackson.

3. Figure out the situation at receiver. It's questionable whether the Rams will find any clear upgrades at receiver in free agency. That could lead them to stand pat at the position. They have quantity, but not enough high-end quality. Adding more quantity wouldn't solve much. Plaxico Burress gets mentioned as an option for his ties to Spagnuolo, but he's been out of the game and might not offer much. The Rams thought about claiming Randy Moss off waivers last season. Moss could make more sense for the Rams now that Josh McDaniels is offensive coordinator. He worked well with Moss in New England. Sidney Rice could also have appeal.

Top five free agents: receiver Mark Clayton, guard Adam Goldberg, defensive tackle Clifton Ryan and tight end Daniel Fells.

Seattle Seahawks

1. Sign or acquire a quarterback: Bringing back Hasselbeck remains an option. The team expressed interest in Kolb last offseason. The team could also add a lower-profile veteran to the mix -- perhaps a Matt Leinart type -- for an open competition with Charlie Whitehurst. That would not excite Seattle fans, of course. Getting a young quarterback to build around would be ideal, but the Seahawks are adamant they will not force the situation in the absence of viable options. They weren't going to do it in the draft, when they passed over Andy Dalton for tackle James Carpenter. They probably aren't going to do it in free agency, either.

2. Solidify the offensive line: Tom Cable's addition as assistant head coach/offensive line puts the Seahawks in position to court Oakland Raiders guard Robert Gallery in free agency. Gallery has said he's not returning to the Raiders. Seattle has drafted its starting tackles, starting center and starting right guard in the past few seasons. Max Unger and Russell Okung need better luck with injuries. Okung would also benefit from an experienced presence next to him at left guard. Gallery qualifies as such and he would fit the zone system Cable wants to run. Green Bay's Daryn Colledge could be available, too. He has ties to Seahawks general manager John Schneider. Former Seattle starters Chris Spencer, Sean Locklear, Chester Pitts and Ray Willis might not return.

3. Plug holes on defense. Mebane appears headed for free agency. The Seahawks want him back, but how badly? Mebane could fit better in a purer 4-3 defense. He also might command more money elsewhere. Injuries along the defensive front could also affect the Seahawks' needs. Red Bryant is coming off season-ending knee surgery. Injuries affected Colin Cole and Chris Clemons last season as well. Cornerback is another area to monitor once free agency opens. Does Marcus Trufant still fit at his relatively high price? The Cincinnati Bengals' Johnathan Joseph and other free-agent corners could appeal.

Top five free agents: Hasselbeck, Mebane, Locklear, linebacker Will Herring, defensive end Raheem Brock.

San Francisco 49ers

1. Re-sign Alex Smith: Smith and the 49ers renewed their vows informally this offseason. The official ceremony should come when free agency opens and Smith signs with the team. Smith's name continues to show up on free-agent lists in the interim, but there's no chance he'll sign elsewhere. He's given his word to the 49ers. The team, in turn, has entrusted him with its playbook. Smith even took the lead in teaching what he knew of the offense to teammates. Re-signing Smith takes pressure off rookie quarterback Colin Kaepernick. With a new coaching staff, a young prospect in Kaepernick and no access to players during a lockout, this wasn't the year for San Francisco to make a bold play for a veteran passer from another team.

2. Make a decision on Aubrayo Franklin. The 49ers' plans on defense remain a bit mysterious. Coordinator Vic Fangio did not distribute playbooks to players. The team's needs could change based on whether Franklin, a solid nose tackle, leaves in free agency. Franklin's status as a franchise player last season raised the stakes for a new contract. What does Fangio think of him? What specifically does Fangio want from his defensive linemen? How much will Fangio change to suit the 49ers' personnel? How much new personnel might he want? General manager Trent Baalke said the 49ers will not be aggressive in free agency. The team has shown restraint on that front in recent seasons. Losing Franklin would hurt.

3. Figure out the secondary: The pass defense was problematic last season. Personnel changes in the secondary are on the way. Veteran cornerback Nate Clements stands to earn more than $7 million in base salary in 2011. That price appears prohibitive. The team could release Clements or find a way to keep him at a lower rate. Free safety Dashon Goldson does not have a contract for 2011. How much is he worth? Baltimore's Chris Carr is one free-agent cornerback with ties to the 49ers' staff. He and Fangio were together in Baltimore.

Top five free agents: Smith, Franklin, outside linebacker Manny Lawson, center David Baas, linebacker Takeo Spikes.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC South team:

Houston Texans

1. Finally fix the secondary: Not only was the Texans’ secondary awful in coverage last season, but it also needs some stabilizing veteran leadership on the back end of this revamped defense. A safety like Eric Weddle could help cure both issues. There are quite a few safeties in this crop of free agents who would be clear upgrades for Houston. Of course, we have to discuss Nnamdi Asomugha -- and the Texans should certainly be right in the thick of those negotiations. If they can’t land Asomugha, the Texans could pursue Johnathan Joseph or Ike Taylor, who could help fix some leaks.

2. Work the cap: Houston is pretty tight up against the cap as it stands right now. But the team has serious needs on defense -- particularly in the secondary. In order to get the help they need, the Texans might have to restructure a few contracts or let a current player or two go.

3. Lock up Vonta Leach: This offense pretty much has it all. Wideout Andre Johnson makes everyone around him better in just so many ways. And the running game was exceptional last season. But Leach is a key component in that running game. And no fullback opens holes like this guy. Houston should bring him back and dedicate the rest of its free-agent moves to the defense.

Top five free agents: Leach, WR Jacoby Jones, S Bernard Pollard, DE Mark Anderson and QB Matt Leinart.

Indianapolis Colts

1. Get Peyton Manning’s extension done: Manning has been franchised and had surgery again on his neck recently. But there is little doubt who the face of this franchise is. Getting him locked up long term is something that Indianapolis just needs to get done.

2. Get a starting safety signed: Melvin Bullitt is a free agent. He is a solid player, and bringing him back makes a lot of sense. Outside of Antoine Bethea, who is vastly underrated, Indy has very little at this position. The Colts need to get a starter under contract. Also on defense, bringing back linebacker Clint Session, who is a superb fit in this scheme, and adding defensive tackle help also should be priorities if they can fit it under the cap.

3. Add running back help: This could come in the form of bringing back the reliable Joseph Addai. Well, he is reliable when he is healthy. And Addai has a great grasp of the Colts’ offense. I am very high on 2011 draft pick Delone Carter and maybe the light goes on for Donald Brown. But the Colts do need someone in their backfield who can pass protect and can be trusted. In this capacity, Addai seems to be worth more to the Colts than to any other team.

Top five free agents: Manning (franchised), Session, Addai, Bullitt and OT Charlie Johnson.

Jacksonville Jaguars

1. Address holes at linebacker: Linebackers Justin Durant and Kirk Morrison are up for free agency. I would suggest bringing one of those two back and then finding an upgrade from a coverage standpoint at a starting linebacker position to go along with the steady Daryl Smith. James Anderson would be an excellent target, and if healthy, so would another Panther -- Thomas Davis.

2. Address holes at safety: Jacksonville featured one of the worst secondaries in football last season. The Jags tried many bodies at safety, but it yielded minimal results. This is a very strong free-agent safety class, and the Jaguars need to add a starter or two they can count on week after week.

3. Spend! The Jaguars have quite a bit of money to spend in free agency, and under the new rules, they will have to spend. This free-agency period is like none we have ever seen and the action could be fast and furious. Jacksonville needs to stay the course and make wise financial decisions as it tries to add players who can mostly upgrade a hurting defense.

Top free agents: Marcedes Lewis (franchised), WR Mike Sims-Walker, Durant and Morrison.

Tennessee Titans

1. Revamp the Interior offensive line: Although they didn’t play great in 2010, I have faith in the Titans’ offensive tackles. But the interior of the line is a train wreck. That won’t do with a rookie quarterback behind center and in an offense that will be extremely run-heavy. Chris Johnson had little room to run last season. That needs to change. Marshal Yanda and Harvey Dahl would be great targets here.

2. Add a veteran quarterback: Needless to say, the Titans cannot enter the season with just the quarterbacks they currently have on their roster. They must bring in a veteran with some experience. Donovan McNabb would be high on my list. Matt Hasselbeck might also fit the bill.

3. Fortify every level of the defense: Presently, Tennessee is very young at linebacker, just adequate at safety and could lose three of its defensive ends. Making matters more difficult, the team is also installing a different version of the 4-3 defense. The Titans do have some money to spend in free agency. It would be wise if they used those funds on young free-agent talent, as it appears this team is now rebuilding from the ground up. Every level of the defense could use reinforcement.

Top five free agents: DE Jason Babin, LB Stephen Tulloch, WR Randy Moss, DE Dave Ball and DE Jacob Ford.
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC West team:

Denver Broncos

1.Trade Kyle Orton or name him the starter: The Broncos need to make a decision at quarterback quickly. There will be some teams in need of a veteran quarterback and the Broncos will surely field calls about Orton. If they get a decent offer in return (second or third-round pick) I could see Denver trading him and going with second-year quarterback Tim Tebow. If Orton is not traded early in the new league year, we’d have to assume Denver is going to give him the opportunity to hold off Tebow.

2. Sign a defensive tackle: The Broncos have long had a major hole at this position. It needs to upgrade its defense, which was ranked 32nd in the NFL last season. It begins at this position, which Denver bypassed in the draft. Potential free-agent targets include Seattle’s Brandon Mebane and San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin,although he is a better fit for 3-4 teams.

3. Sign a running back: New Denver coach John Fox recently said signing a running back is the team’s top free-agent priority. I think the above-mentioned projects are more pressing, but there’s no doubt Denver needs help at the position. It needs a veteran to pair with third-year running back Knowshon Moreno. We could see the Broncos trying to reunite Fox with former Carolina back DeAngelo Williams.

Top free agents: Tackle Ryan Harris and defensive tackle Marcus Thomas.

Kansas City Chiefs

1. Sign a nose tackle: The Chiefs have a few needs and more than $30 million in salary-cap money to play with. They can get to work. The team could use a stout anchor for the 3-4 defense. The Chiefs tried to sign Shaun Rogers prior to the lockout and they want a veteran. Franklin could be the answer.

2. Sign an offensive tackle: If the Chiefs get an upgrade at tackle, they should have a very strong line. They could sign a right tackle (a position they considered in the draft) or they can sign a left tackle and move Branden Albert to right tackle. Possible names to consider include Matt Light (who has New England ties to Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli and quarterback Matt Cassel) or New Orleans' Jermon Bushrod or a right tackle like Tyson Clabo or San Diego’s Jeromey Clary.

3. Sign a receiver: The Chiefs are a dangerous offensive team. But they could use a slot receiver to do along with No. 1 receiver Dwayne Bowe and first-round pick Jon Baldwin. A name to keep an eye on is the Cardinals’ Steve Breaston. He played for Kansas City coach Todd Haley in Arizona.

Top free agent: Center Casey Wiegmann.

Oakland Raiders

1. Re-sign tight end Zach Miller: Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha is the best free agent in the NFL. But it will be difficult for Oakland to keep him. The Raiders must do what it takes to sign Miller. He is one of the game’s best young tight ends and he is arguably the team’s most important offensive player. He is the team’s most reliable receiving target. The Raiders love Miller and tried to sign him to a long-term deal prior to the lockout. Signing him before he hits the market will be and should be the team’s top priority.

2. Sign a couple offensive linemen: The Raiders’ offensive line is in flux. It has some interesting young players, but it needs to find a way to add some veterans somewhere -- despite the team’s salary-cap limitations.

3. Figure out secondary: If Asomugha and safety Michael Huff leave, the Raiders will need to get their youngsters up to speed quickly or try to find a veteran experience. I think we’ll see a mixture of both if Asomugha and Huff both leave as expected.

Top free agents: Asomugha, Huff, Miller and guard Robert Gallery.

San Diego Chargers

1. Re-sign safety Eric Weddle: The safety is a playmaker who will be very popular on the open market. The Chargers don't want him to get there. The Chargers have the salary-cap room to keep their top in-house options, and Weddle is at the top of the list. There is no reason for the Chargers to lose him and I think this key part of the NFL’s No. 1 ranked defense will remain with the Chargers.

2. Figure out receiver situation: Top receiver Vincent Jackson will be franchised. No. 2 receiver Malcom Floyd is unrestricted and he could get a big offer elsewhere. Backup Legedu Naanee is also expected to leave. The Chargers could use a veteran receiver. I doubt they will spend big money on the top names available, but they could look for a bargain or swing a trade for a veteran like Carolina’s Steve Smith.

3. Figure out inside linebacker situation: The Chargers could lose inside linebackers Stephen Cooper, Kevin Burnett and Brandon Siler. They would like to keep Burnett. Still, I could see the Chargers trying to find another inside linebacker to compete to star. They could also look for an edge rusher at outside linebacker.

Top free agents: Floyd, Weddle, Clary, Burnett, quarterback Billy Volek, receiver Legedu Naanee, linebacker Stephen Cooper, linebacker Brandon Siler and running back Darren Sproles.

AFC North free-agency breakdown

July, 25, 2011
7/25/11
3:29
PM ET
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC North team:

Baltimore Ravens

1. Sign guard Marshal Yanda: The Ravens are already struggling on the offensive line, and losing Yanda at right guard would be a big blow. Baltimore doesn't have quality backups behind Yanda, and the right tackle spot is wide open as well. Yanda will not come cheap. He is versatile and played guard and tackle for the Ravens, which will help his stock on the open market.

2. Find a pass-rusher: Baltimore has many strengths on defense, but rushing the passer isn't one of them. The Ravens registered just 27 sacks last regular season. Pass-rushing help most likely will be needed at outside linebacker in Baltimore’s hybrid defense. The problem is that teams do not let go of players who can get to the quarterback, so it’s a very thin crop this year. If the Ravens can just get a player who can add six-to-eight sacks to the pile to help Pro Bowl linebacker/defensive end Terrell Suggs, that would help tremendously.

3. Extend defensive lineman Haloti Ngata's contract: Make no mistake, this is the top priority for the Ravens this summer. But the reason this is listed third is that the Ravens put the franchise tag on Ngata before the lockout, which buys them time to get to these negotiations once a fast and furious free agency is complete. Hundreds of players without contracts will be signed in a matter of days. So the Ravens need to focus on those players first before they are left behind. Ngata will get his money before the regular season -- and plenty of it.

Top five free agents: G Marshal Yanda, S Dawan Landry, OT Jared Gaither, CB Josh Wilson, FB Le'Ron McClain

Cincinnati Bengals

1. Determine the futures of RB Cedric Benson and CB Johnathan Joseph: The Bengals have two important starters set to hit the open market in Benson and Joseph. Benson was expected to be a big part of the Cincinnati's new West Coast offense until his recent arrest for alleged assault put his future with the team in question. First year offensive coordinator Jay Gruden wants to implement a power running game, which fits Benson's style. But if Benson is facing a suspension to start the season, it would make more sense for Cincinnati to spend money on a player who can help them for all 16 games. With Joseph, the Bengals didn't seem interested in paying the cornerback market value, which can range between $8-$10 million per season. The new collective bargaining agreement may include mandatory spending to the salary cap, which will force Cincinnati to spend big in free agency. If that's the case, Joseph becomes a much better possibility to return.

2. Find a veteran quarterback: Franchise quarterback Carson Palmer said he's not returning. So the Bengals must find a veteran free agent at the position. Cincinnati would be skating on very thin ice if it went into the season with rookie Andy Dalton as starting QB and Jordan Palmer and Dan LeFevour as backups. The trio has zero NFL starts. Don't expect the Bengals to search for an expensive, big-name starter. Most likely the team will get a career backup with some starting experience to support Dalton. A couple of names to consider are Bruce Gradkowski and Jim Sorgi.

3. Make roster cuts: The Bengals have plenty of cap room, so they don't have to slash salaries right away. But there are several players on the chopping block whose production no longer matches their big contracts. Receiver Chad Ochocinco, 33, is making $6.5 million and is coming off his second poor season in three years. The Bengals are also getting younger at the position and drafted A.J. Green as his replacement. Defensive linemen Robert Geathers and Antwan Odom have high salaries in 2011, but have been plagued by injuries and poor production. Look for Cincinnati to cut at least one of these players, because second-year defensive end Carlos Dunlap looks poised to take over a starting role permanently.

Top five free agents: CB Joseph, RB Benson, LB Dhani Jones, WR Terrell Owens (injured), RB/FB Brian Leonard

Cleveland Browns

1. Sign a defensive end: The Browns will have a very young defensive line, probably including rookie starters Phil Taylor, a first-round pick, and Jabaal Sheard, a second-rounder. Therefore, it's important that Cleveland adds experience up front to relieve some of the pressure. Two very good free agents who can help are Ray Edwards and Charles Johnson. Both have starting experience and ability to get to the quarterback.

2. Find a starting safety: The Browns have two good, young pieces in the secondary in cornerback Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward. But they're missing another safety to help fill out the back end. Abram Elam, a favorite of former Browns head coach Eric Mangini, has been average. Now that Pat Shurmur has taken over, don't expect Elam to return. Fortunately for Cleveland, safety is one of the deeper positions in free agency. Quality candidates include Quintin Mikell, Donte Whitner and Eric Weddle.

3. Cut QB Jake Delhomme: The Browns are on the hook for $5.4 million if they keep Delhomme this season. Cleveland likes his leadership in the locker room, but he's too expensive for a third-string quarterback. The Browns made their choice for backup quarterback before the lockout when they signed Seneca Wallace to a three-year extension. Wallace knows the West Coast offense better than anyone on the team, and the Browns believed that knowledge was more valuable behind second-year quarterback Colt McCoy.

Top five free agents: FB Lawrence Vickers, LB Matt Roth, S Elam, CB Eric Wright, DL Robaire Smith

Pittsburgh Steelers

1. Make roster cuts: The Steelers are expected to be well over the cap when the final numbers are determined. So their first priority will be to free up space to sign free agents and draft picks. Some solutions could include cutting veteran tackle Flozell Adams ($5 million) and receiver Antwaan Randle El ($2 million). Restructuring the contract of defensive end Aaron Smith is another possibility. The Steelers must free up money first before they make other tough calls.

2. Sign a starting corner: This could mean re-signing Ike Taylor or signing a player from outside the organization (Carlos Rogers or Richard Marshall). But it's important for the Steelers to land a starting-caliber corner in free agency. Pittsburgh's secondary struggled against good quarterbacks last season. Teams will continue to attack Pittsburgh through the air until the team proves it can slow multiple-receiver sets. To do this, the Steelers must have at least three solid corners. Bryant McFadden is the only corner under contract with starting experience.

3. Sign a kicker: No one cares about kickers until you need one in an important spot. The Steelers are in the market for a kicker after cutting Jeff Reed last season. Shaun Suisham filled in last season and did a decent job, but he's also a free agent. Kicking in Heinz Field can be tough, especially late in the season when inclement weather and soggy field conditions play major roles. Pittsburgh must make sure its new kicker can handle it.

Top five free agents: CB Taylor, OL Willie Colon, CB William Gay, RB Mewelde Moore, DL Chris Hoke
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

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