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The Best Available NFL Free Agents

Mar 4, 2010 – 1:00 PM
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Chris Harry

Chris Harry %BloggerTitle%

Julius PeppersIt wasn't that long ago that thoughts of the first NFL season since 1993 without a salary cap conjured images of a Sotheby's-like auction of Pro Bowlers with Daniel Snyder and Jerry Jones diving in with blank checks.

Now, back to reality.

When the 2010 free agency flag drops Friday at 12:01 a.m., the proceedings are expected to go off much like they have in recent years, with some teams making immediate moves and others waiting for the market to settle.

And then there's a third option.

"I sense that we are a lot more focused, seemingly, this year on draft preparation," Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said last week at the NFL combine.

The difference (or indifference, in some cases) this year is that 212 players that would have been unrestricted free agents had the league and the players union agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement instead will be home as restricted free agents, stewing over the millions that might have been.


There are fewer truly free free agents out there.

Still, like any other offseason of the past 16, there are good players to be had. Teams that want to spend will have a chance to upgrade, though clubs that reached the divisional round of the playoffs will have restrictions that get tighter for the four teams that advanced to their conference championship games.

Check out FanHouse's free agency A-list, which relative to past years (with apologies to the marquee names at the top) reads more like a B-list.


TOP 25 UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS


1. Julius Peppers (UFA/Carolina), DE: Though Peppers is only 30 and has carded double-digit sacks in six of his eight seasons, the Panthers could not afford to bring back one of the NFL's premier pass rushers; a second straight "franchise" tag would have cost them a one-year deal of more than $20 million in 2010. He's the big-ticket guy this offseason, with New England, Philadelphia, Chicago and even Washington (the master of offseason Lombardi trophies) being mentioned as possible landing places. Don't look for the kind of $100 million fantasyland money Albert Haynesworth, last year's big fish, got from the Redskins ... probably. Update: Signed with Chicago

2. Karlos Dansby (UFA/Arizona), LB:
He led the Cardinals in tackles the last two seasons and was the hero of that epic wild card overtime victory against Green Bay. Dansby, though, is not expected to return to the desert (franchising him would cost the Cards $11.61 million this season). Dansby said last month that Miami, New York Giants, San Diego and Washington were on his radar, but Chicago might be, too. Dansby reportedly wants $30 million guaranteed.

3. Thomas Jones (To be released/New York Jets), RB: Five straight 1,000-yard seasons, including career-highs of 331 carries, 1,402 yards and 14 TDs in 2009. He's 31, but the mileage on his tires is fairly low because the former first-round pick (seventh overall by Arizona in 2000) wasn't a featured back until his fifth season (and third team, the Bears).

Aaron Kampman4. Aaron Kampman (UFA/Green Bay), DE:
Kampman's season-ending knee injury came amid his most frustrating season in years (and did not keep the Packers from finishing with the No. 2 defense in the NFL, either). Kampman combined for 43 1/2 sacks as a defensive end the previous four seasons, but just 3 1/2 in nine games in '09 after moving to outside linebacker in Green Bay's new 3-4 front. He's an end. Someone will sign him as one. Probably one of the teams that loses the Peppers sweepstakes.

5. Gary Brackett (UFA/Indianapolis), MLB: He's the prototypical Tampa-2 middle linebacker. Brackett, just 5-foot-11, 229 pounds, has been a fixture in the middle of the Colts defense since seizing the starting spot in 2005 -- using his speed to cover ground against the run and covering tight ends down the deep middle. Indy has no one groomed to take Brackett's place inside. The Colts do not want to lose him. Update: Re-signed with Colts

6. Dunta Robinson (UFA/Houston), CB:
The former top-10 pick had no interceptions last season, but he'll still be the top corner on the market after playing under the franchise tag in '09. The Texans aren't going to ante up the $11.9 million to keep him around, which means they also won't have to deal with his antics. Robinson, unhappy about being tagged last year, boycotted offseason workouts and held out of training camp and preseason. That said, the Texans are about to take on a huge void in their secondary. Update: Signed with Atlanta

7. Antrel Rolle (Released/Arizona), FS: Already expected to lose Dansby, the Cards are gambling and releasing Rolle, rather than pay him the $12 million number he's due in '10. With Kurt Warner retired, and Chike Okeafor and Mike Gandy free agents, Arizona will lose about $30 million off its payroll, so the Cards have money to give chase. Rolle, though, is thought to be looking east (Miami or the New York Giants, perhaps?).

8. Chester Taylor (UFA/Minnesota), RB:
His value went up when San Diego decided Thursday to tie up the next-best situational back, diminutive Darren Sproles, with a the highest tender. Taylor left his spot as a change-of-pace back in Baltimore to be a featured guy with the Vikings in '06 ... then they drafted Adrian Peterson in '07. Though Minnesota would like him back, don't expect Taylor to be happy being "All Day's" caddy again. He was a 1,200-yard rusher that first year as a Viking. Someone (like Detroit or San Diego) might give him a chance to be that guy again. Update: Signed with Chicago

9. Darren Sharper (UFA/New Orleans), FS: After leading the NFL in interceptions -- and helping lead the Saints to their first world championship -- Sharper now is tied for sixth in NFL history with 63 interceptions. His age (34) will be used against him in negotiations, but his agent can counter with those nine interceptions (three went for touchdowns) and the fact he held an average secondary together en route to a Super Bowl title. Someone will pay him. Probably should be the Saints.

10. Antonio Bryant (UFA/Tampa Bay), WR: The Buccaneers tagged him with a $9.88 million franchise designation in '09 and announced last week they're looking to get younger at the receiver position (they need to get better, too, but that's another matter). Other teams looking to get "younger" (or better) at wideout -- Chicago, Miami and Carolina come to mind -- may want to chase Bryant, who's only 28 and just two years ago put up career numbers: 83 catches, 1,248 yards, seven TDs. A knee injury and rookie quarterback impacted those digits in '09.

11. Leigh Bodden (UFA/New England), CB: He may not have the first-round pedigree of Robinson, but Bodden is a good, solid cover guy and reliable tackling corner who has started for three different teams (and intercepted 12 passes) over the last three seasons. He's about to make it four out of four; and at a less expensive price tag than Robinson.
12. Chad Clifton (UFA/Green Bay), OT: He's been a pillar at left tackle for the Packers, missing just six games over the last seven seasons -- bouncing back from a career-threatening blindside hit by Warren Sapp in 2002 -- and locking down the backside of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers along the way. Clifton is 33 and did miss four games early last season, but teams looking for a quick fix on the left side will be interested.

13. Kevin Walter (UFA/Houston), WR:
Caught 178 passes over the last three seasons in that blossoming Texans offense, including career-bests of 15 yards per receptions and eight TDs just two seasons ago. He may be flying under the radar, but Walter will make a fine No. 3 (maybe even No. 2) guy for somebody.

14. Benjamin Watson (UFA/New England), TE: With the Patriots, Watson got about as many opportunities to make plays as a tight end in a pure spread offense might expect. He could go elsewhere and be a serious target, especially in the red zone.

15. Neil Rackers (UFA/Arizona), PK: It's possible the Cardinals could lose Dansby and Rolle and Rackers, a trio that contributed mightily to the best back-to-back seasons in franchise history. Fans will remember the wild card field goal Rackers, 33, missed in overtime, but his suitors will look at his 91 percent marksmanship the last two seasons.

16.
Jason Taylor (UFA/Miami), DE: Taylor is the NFL's active career sacks leader with 127 1/2 and had seven for the Dolphins in '09. He'll be 36 when the season starts, and teams will remember how his play was less than inspiring (3 1/2 sacks, plus a nagging injury as a Redskin in '08) the one year he left South Beach.

17. Ryan Clark (UFA, Pittsburgh), FS: It might be a case where Clark is an ideal fit for the Steelers (especially alongside Troy Polamalu) more so than some other teams, but the guy was a very good player in Washington who the Redskins let go in '06 in favor of signing Adam Archuleta to a $30 million free agent contract. Some teams, like the Steelers, prefer steady to splash.

18. Derrick Mason (UFA/Baltimore), WR: His receptions have decreased over the last three years (103 to 80 to 73), but his yards per catch have increased (10.6 to 13.0 to 14.1) and he's been over 1,000 yards each season for a team that relies on defense and running game. Mason will be 37 next season, but obviously he can still play and be productive.


19. Joey Porter (Released/Miami), OLB: Porter has been credited with just 88 total tackles the last two seasons, but 26 1/2 of them have been sacks. That's 30 percent. Of course, with Porter, you get twice that percent in attitude, which is one of the reasons -- regardless of what they're saying at Dolphins headquarters -- why the club will release him. With all the 3-4 teams out there, Porter (even with his 'tude) will get some run.

20. Tully Banta-Cain (UFA/New England), LB: After jumping from San Francisco (where he had a half a sack in '08), Banta-Cain had 10 sacks for the a Patriots defense that finished with just 31 for the season. Bill Belichick wants him back, but how badly? Update: Re-signed with New England

21. Bobbie Williams (UFA/Cincinnati), OG: Since signing with the Bengals as a free agent in '04, Williams has missed just three games in six seasons, and none over the last three. Guards don't make for sexy acquisitions, but a team looking to plug a hole up front and beef up the running game should look at this guy.

22. Scott Fujita (UFA/New Orleans), LB: He's been in the the Saints defense since following coach Sean Payton from Dallas in 2006. Fujita has been one of the defense's top tacklers the past four seasons and one of the club's most popular players. It'll be tough for him to walk away from that Super Bowl culture.

23. LaDainian Tomlinson (Released/San Diego), RB. Yes, there's still a place in the league for its No. 8 all-time rushing leader (12,490 yards), as long as the former Chargers icon is willing to be a complimentary back; and be paid like one.

24. Terrell Owens (UFA/Buffalo), WR:
Speaking of attitude ... well ... purchase at your own risk, people. Anyone who signs Owens, 36, will know exactly what they're getting (and should know where they're heading ... nowhere).

25. Brian Westbrook (Released/Philadelphia), RB: One of the toughest, most versatile and respected players in the league the last few years, Westbrook is only 30, but he's an all-purpose guy who had knee surgery last offseason and suffered not one, but two concussions last fall. That's a red flag for a running back.

Honorable mention: RB Ladell Betts (released/Washington), CB Phillip Buchanon (released/Detroit), LB Keith Bulluck (Tennessee), WR Nate Burleson (Seattle), WR Laveranues Coles (released/Cincinnati), TE Alge Crumpler (Tennessee), LB Larry Foote (Detroit), OT Mike Gandy (Arizona), DE Charles Grant (released/New Orleans), OL Rex Hadnot (Cleveland), WR Torry Holt (released/Jacksonville), DT Tank Johnson (Cincinnati), DE Leonard Little (St. Louis), C/OG Kevin Mawae (Tennessee), DE Chike Okeafor (Arizona), DE Adewale Ogunleye (Chicago), RB Willie Parker (Pittsburgh), OT Tony Pashos (San Francisco), QB Chad Pennington (Miami), LB Antonio Pierce (released/NY Giants), CB Lito Sheppard (released/NY Jets), WR/KR Antwaan Randle El (released/Washington), DT Fred Robbins (NY Giants), DE Kyle Vanden Bosch (Tennessee), DT Jamal Williams (released/San Diego).

FIVE RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS WHO MAY BE IN PLAY

Forget about Elvis Dumervil, Miles Austin, Vincent Jackson or Shawne Merriman. Their respective teams attached first- and third-round tenders to the those players, which makes for an awfully big asking price. But here are five guys -- with more on the way before Thursday's deadline -- who just might generate some RFA interest. Note: when a player doesn't get the high 1st- and 3rd-round tender it often is a signal from clubs that they're interested in talking trade.

1. Brandon Marshall (Denver/1st-round tender), WR: If the Broncos really didn't want to lose their superstar (and super-petulant) wideout, they would have executed the high tender. Marshall is definitely trade bait and a guy with three straight 100-reception seasons will draw interest.

2. Jason Campbell (Washington/1st-round tender), QB: Campbell is a dropback quarterback has been miscast in a West Coast offense the last two years -- and will be again under new coach Mike Shanahan. It's been speculated that Minnesota, selecting 29th, might part with that first-rounder to cover themselves in case a certain 40-year-old opts not to come back. Note: Vikings incumbent backup Tarvaris Jackson got a third-round tender.

3) Jared Gaither (Baltimore Ravens/1st-round tender), OT: Yes, the draft is deep at the tackle position, but if a team selecting later in Round 1 -- after the picks of the litter are gone -- Gaither is a proven commodity who has started for two straight seasons on a playoff team.

4. Willie Colon (Pittsburgh/1st-round tender), OT:
See Gaither, Jared (plus, this guy has a Super Bowl ring).

5. Troy Smith (Baltimore/5th-round tender), QB: The former Heisman Trophy winner got only a fifth-rounder compensation price, making him as close to free as a 25-year-old RFA quarterback can get. Then again, both his two career starts were in 2007 (pre-Joe Flacco) and he's thrown just 13 passes the last two seasons.
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