Which Free Agent Should Each NFL Team Prioritize Re-Signing?
Now that the confetti has dropped, a parade has been completed and season-ending press conferences have been conducted, it is time to fully move into the offseason.
While the 2012 NFL season was amazing, we are only a month away from the start of the new league year. Players will be released, contracts restructured and trades made. This doesn't change priorities for teams as they prepare for the spring.
Continuity is extremely important as it relates to success in the NFL. Decisions will have to be made by all 32 teams as it relates to their free agents heading into March.
Which impending free agent does each team need to re-sign?
LaRod Stephens-Howling, Running Back
With Beanie Wells likely moving on from the desert and Ryan Williams only having five career games under his belt in two seasons, the Arizona Cardinals will have to find a minimum of two solid running backs.
Why not retain Stephens-Howling? He put up nearly 500 total yards of offense on 128 touches and should fit the bill as a complementary type of guy.
As it is, Arizona will have to either rely on Williams to be its starting running back, go out and sign a marginal veteran or draft one in a weak running back class. It makes more sense to retain this youngster and go from there.
William Moore, Safety
The Atlanta Falcons have a lot of decisions to make when the new league year begins next month. Brent Grimes, Sam Baker and Moore are all going to be free agents. Meanwhile, the likes of Dunta Robinson and John Abraham will most likely have to settle on renegotiated contracts or face the prospect of being released.
For a team that won 13 games during the regular season, Atlanta is in flux right now.
An argument could be made for any of these free agents. Baker performed much better in 2012 than in any previous season with the Falcons and is an important cog along Atlanta's offensive line. Despite missing all but one game this past season, Grimes is a true No. 1 cornerback in the NFL.
With that in mind, the Falcons would be well-served retaining Moore. He is a solid in-the-box safety who doesn't struggle covering from the back end of the defense. And Moore and Thomas DeCoud probably complement one another better than any other safety tandem in the NFL.
It is important the Falcons keep that continuity in the back end, no matter what happens at the cornerback position.
Joe Flacco, Quarterback
You don't let a quarterback who is coming off the best postseason in the history of the NFL walk, no matter what the cost in the long run.
An argument could be made that Flacco, who was terribly inconsistent prior to the Ravens' Super Bowl run, got hot at the right time. After all, there were many (myself included) who questioned his ability to be a franchise guy just a few short months ago.
That argument is pointless right now.
The ultimate goal a franchise has for its quarterback is to be a winner. Flacco has proven this over and over again in his first five NFL seasons. He now has a Super Bowl MVP award to bring with him into negotiations.
Joe Linta, who represents Flacco, went on record to say his client should be the highest-paid quarterback in the NFL (via CNBC). While we may disagree with that assessment, and it was probably a negotiating ploy, it is hard to argue against Flacco becoming one of the five highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL.
Andy Levitre, Guard
Needless to say, the Buffalo Bills had a disappointing 2012 season. There were some who had them making a surprise trip to the playoffs, but we all know that wasn't to be the case.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is no longer the long-term solution in upstate New York, while Fred Jackson's age and injury concerns leave serious doubts about his return in 2013.
Two things that Buffalo did extremely well in 2012 was protect Fitzpatrick and open up solid running lanes on the ground.
The Bills averaged 139 yards on the ground and five yards per attempt (via Pro Football Reference). Both numbers were among the best in the entire NFL. In addition, Fitzpatrick only went to the ground 30 times throughout the entire season.
Levitre was a primary reason for that.
He is, by all accounts, the top interior lineman in this free-agent class and must be retained. With Cordy Glenn playing primarily at left tackle, Buffalo doesn't have the depth or talent at guard to overcome this loss.
Expect general manager Buddy Nix to make him a priority in the offseason.
Captain Munnerlyn, Cornerback
Not that Munnerlyn should be a real high priority for the cash-starved Carolina Panthers, but their likely release of fellow cornerback Chris Gamble might make Munnerlyn a priority.
Outside of those two cover guys, Carolina has talented youngster Josh Norman and not much else on the roster.
At the very least, Munnerlyn can be brought back on the cheap and pushed into a nickel role.
Henry Melton, Defensive Tackle
Some may question my unwillingness to go with Brian Urlacher here, but it's pretty simple. The future Hall of Fame linebacker has lost a lot over the last couple seasons and just isn't the same player he was in his prime. Accordingly, the Chicago Bears are going to have to start planning for the future at that position.
Melton, who is eight years younger than Urlacher, graded out as one of the best 4-3 defensive tackles in the NFL this past season. He recorded six sacks and two forced fumbles on the way to collecting his first Pro Bowl berth.
The strength of Chicago's defense is its front seven with Julius Peppers, Corey Wootton, Israel Idonije, Shea McClellin and Melton. Why not attempt to keep that core together and build with it?
This is why Melton, not Urlacher, needs to be a priority for general manager Phil Emery.
Andre Smith, Offensive Tackle
Smith finally showed up in shape and ready to go this past season, and the results were overwhelming. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2009 draft started all 16 games and was one of the Cincinnati Bengals' most consistent tackles.
While Andy Dalton did go down 46 times in 2012, most of the blame cannot be placed on Smith, who was assigned to protect his right side. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith did not allow a single pressure in the Bengals' final two games of the regular season. In addition, he was stellar in the run game throughout the entire year.
Cincinnati has plenty of cap room to either franchise or sign Smith to a lucrative long-term contract.
Expect the team to retain this talented young tackle.
Benjamin Watson, Tight End
Watson has caught over 150 passes in three seasons with the Cleveland Browns. It may not seem like a lot, but their recent quarterback situation indicates he's doing something right.
Whether it is Brandon Weeden, Colt McCoy or another quarterback under center in 2013, Cleveland would be well-served to retain Watson.
He gives the offense a dimension in the passing game and can be a solid force between the hashes, leaving Josh Gordon to do his thing on the outside and down the field.
It doesn't hurt that Watson will come relatively cheap considering the tight end market is somewhat strong this offseason.
Anthony Spencer, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
The primary question here is whether Spencer will be able to transition to defensive end in the Dallas Cowboys' new 4-3 scheme under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. If so, they need to make sure he continues to play with DeMarcus Ware as a solid pass-rushing tandem.
At 6'3" and 261 lbs, there is no reason to believe Spencer cannot play with his hands down at the line. In fact, he has played a hybrid pass-rusher for Dallas since coming into the league in 2007.
Spencer recorded a career-high 95 tackles and 11 sacks for the Cowboys this past season. That production indicates he will be in for a relatively big payday. Considering that Dallas currently stands $18.2 million over the cap, it will have to cut the fat somewhere else on the roster (via ESPN).
Ryan Clady, Offensive Tackle
This pretty much goes without saying: Clady is one of the best blindside protectors in the entire National Football League. He is tasked with protecting an aging Peyton Manning with the Denver Broncos.
ESPN's Bill Williamson has indicated that Denver will use the franchise tag if it is unable to come to an agreement with Clady. Again, this isn't surprising considering his importance to the team. Not only has Clady been among the best pass-protecting offensive tackles in the NFL, he hasn't missed a single game in five NFL seasons.
Clady suffered an injury in Denver's final regular-season game, but did play against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs. He is expected to be ready for training camp, so that won't play much of a role in contract negotiations.
Cliff Avril, Defensive End
Things are getting relatively bleak when it comes to the Detroit Lions defense. Aging veterans lost steps last season, while youngsters just didn't step up and fill the void. While Detroit did finish in the middle of the pack on defense in 2012, it really is missing difference-makers on that side of the ball.
Ndamukong Suh (8) and Avril (9.5) recorded over half of the Lions' sacks this past season (via Pro Football Reference). Take the latter away and Detroit will be in huge trouble when it comes to pressuring the quarterback.
The Lions are $1.1 million over the cap and have multiple free agents on the defensive side of the ball. Louis Delmas and Chris Houston come to mind first.
General manager Martin Mayhew will have to do work if the Lions are going to be able to retain all three and add a couple solid starters elsewhere.
On that note, it isn't clear-cut Avril will return for a sixth season in the Motor City.
Green Bay Packers
Sam Shields, Cornerback (Restricted)
Casey Hayward jumped onto the scene for the Green Bay Packers as a rookie in 2012. He recorded 21 passes defended and six interceptions while appearing in all 16 games (seven starts). It goes without saying that the next logical step for Hayward is to become Green Bay's starting right cornerback opposite Tramon Williams.
This leaves Shields, who recorded 10 passes defended and three interceptions in 2012, as nothing more than a nickel guy for Green Bay.
Of course, the market will dictate whether or not Shields will return to the Packers this upcoming season. If he is able to get starter money elsewhere, the three-year veteran will probably move on.
As it is, Green Bay needs to either retain his services or find another cornerback to pencil in behind Williams and Hayward.
Shaun Cody, Defensive Tackle
Cody is one of the most underrated defenders in the entire National Football League. He anchors a front seven with the Houston Texans that ranked No. 7 against the run last season. This comes on the heels of the Texans ranking fourth against the run in 2011.
Houston does have Earl Mitchell and Terrell McClain on the roster as interior defensive linemen, but neither figures to be consistent enough to start for an entire season.
We already know how important net tackles are in a 3-4 defensive scheme. This can't be lost on head coach Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Wade Phillips.
Look for Houston to do whatever it can to retain the services of this vet.
Winston Justice, Offensive Tackle
Back in October, Pro Football Focus had Justice as the best pass-protecting offensive tackle in the entire NFL. While the former first-round pick didn't continue that elite performance throughout the remainder of the season, he was an above-average offensive tackle for Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts.
As you already know, keeping stability in front of a young quarterback is huge for his success and ability to progress as a player. This seems to indicate that Justice should be the Colts' top priority when the new league year starts.
Greg Jones, Fullback
Jones is one of the top blocking fullbacks in the NFL. While his position is on the verge of extinction for most NFL teams, Maurice Jones-Drew relies heavily on his ability to open up holes between the hashes. Losing a player of this ability would have an adverse impact on the success of the Jacksonville Jaguars' run game.
It's also important to note that the fullback position is among the lowest paid in the league. It wouldn't cost Jacksonville too much to retain this stellar football player.
Look for it to happen.
Kansas City Chiefs
Dwayne Bowe, Wide Receiver
This all depends on who the Kansas City Chiefs bring in to be their quarterback. They'll have to do somewhat of a sales job as it relates to Bowe, who has indicated multiple times that he wants out of Kansas City.
Other reports seem to suggest that Bowe wants to retire a Chief (via NFL.com).
I know, this is all very confusing.
Look at it through Bowe's perspective for a second. Why would he want to return with Matt Cassel at quarterback? Bowe hasn't had a solid starting quarterback to throw him the ball yet in his career, but he's still caught 415 passes for over 5,700 yards and 39 touchdowns in six NFL seasons.
That's mighty fine production for someone without a quality quarterback. Imagine what he would do with someone capable under center.
As I indicated before, Kansas City will have to show Bowe it means business if it is able to retain him for the 2013 season and beyond. As the only consistent receiver on Kansas City's roster, it would be a huge blow for the team if Bowe were to leave in the offseason.
Brian Hartline, Wide Receiver, Miami Dolphins
He did so without being an off-the-field distraction or causing issues in the locker room. Yes, that's a backhanded knock on Marshall.
The point here is that Hartline is a darn good receiver for young Ryan Tannehill and needs to be retained for 2013 and beyond. He is a solid possession guy who enables the quarterback to look at him as a second or third read. This is a huge benefit for such an inexperienced signal-caller.
Is Hartline a true No. 1 wide receiver on a good offense? No. He is, however, a solid complement and should get paid like one.
Phil Loadholt, Offensive Tackle
This huge offensive tackle is a perfect complement to Matt Kalil along the Minnesota Vikings offensive line. He was one of the primary reasons that Adrian Peterson was able to rip apart opposing run defenses in 2012.
Pro Football Focus ranks Minnesota's offensive line No. 9 in the NFL, thanks in no small part to Loadholt:
They kept their quarterback upright, and in Sullivan and Phil Loadholt they have two of the most punishing run blockers in the league at their positions.
It is also important to note that the Vikings are serious about retaining their starting right tackle.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune believes Loadholt is the most likely free agent to be locked up prior to the start of free agency next month. That doesn't surprise me considering his stellar performance last season.
New England Patriots
Sebastian Vollmer, Offensive Tackle
The New England Patriots have made an emphasis on not overpaying their pending free agents. We have seen this a lot in the past, and it seems to work for one of the consistently good franchises in the NFL.
It might be time that New England bucks that trend this offseason.
When it comes down to evaluating performance from an offensive tackle in the NFL, it is important to look past individual game performance and check his entire body of work. Pro Football Focus had Vollmer as the 22nd-ranked pass-protecting offensive tackle in the league last season (h/t the Boston Globe).
While that isn't elite production, it does indicate he is among the top half of the NFL in that category. Besides, it's hard to believe an inexperienced player like Marcus Cannon can come in and contribute on a whim in protection of Tom Brady.
New Orleans Saints
Brian De La Puente, Center (Restricted)
The New Orleans Saints need to focus on rebuilding an historically bad defense, but they are not going to do that by retaining any of their free agents on that side of the ball. Instead, the Saints will have to look at external options.
As a restricted free agent, the Saints should be able to retain this underrated center, who took over midway through the 2011 season. De La Puenta is solid in run blocking and above average in pass protection.
Look for this to get done in relatively short order.
New York Giants
Victor Cruz, Wide Receiver (Restricted)
With the bevy of roster moves made by the New York Giants on Wednesday, it's hard to imagine exactly where they are going to go moving forward. It could be stated that by releasing Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Boley and Chris Canty, New York is attempting to create room in order to re-sign Cruz.
I wouldn't go that far.
They'll have to make decisions on David Diehl, Terrell Thomas and Justin Tuck, among others, in order to become viable players in the free-agent market.
As it relates to Cruz, he is still a restricted free agent. Unless a team wants to yield a top pick to New York in March, it appears this talented youngster will be returning to the Giants for 2013.
This doesn't mean they shouldn't make Cruz a priority. Going year by year isn't a sustainable solution. With the NFL set to expand the salary cap in 2015, these two sides could easily agree to a long-term extension without impacting the Giants' salary-cap situation in the meantime.
I say, do it.
After all, Cruz has put up over 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
New York Jets
LaRon Landry, Safety
While I don't believe Landry was worthy of a Pro Bowl nod in 2012, he did have his best season as a pro. The first-year New York Jets safety recorded 90 tackles, four forced fumbles, eight passes defended and two interceptions.
This past season represented the first time Landry played all 16 games since he was a member of the Washington Redskins in 2008. And at just 28, he has a lot left in the tank.
If you take a look at who the Jets have on the depth chart after Landry, it's easy to see he should be a priority this offseason. Neither Josh Bush nor Jaiquawn Jarrett are viable options at free safety, and Eric Smith lacks the coverage ability.
It all comes down to New York's salary-cap situation. As of right now, it is $19.4 million over the cap. That's not a whole lot considering the Jets have a lot of work to do in order to be considered contenders in the AFC East.
Philip Wheeler, Linebacker
Wheeler struggled a great deal in his first four NFL seasons, all with the Indianapolis Colts. The primary reason for those struggles had to do with the scheme that Indianapolis ran.
The former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech jumped onto the scene with the Oakland Raiders this past season. He tallied over 100 tackles, three sacks and six passes defended, playing the strong-side linebacker position.
Oakland has a ton of holes on the defensive side of the ball and isn't in an enviable salary-cap position. In fact, Tommy Kelly and Michael Huff may be cut later this month.
With that in mind, it makes absolutely no sense to let Wheeler walk. He fits the Raiders' scheme to a T and is still relatively young at the age of 28.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Cornerback
When the Philadelphia Eagles acquired this former Pro Bowl cornerback in the Kevin Kolb trade prior to the start of the '11 season, many jumped all over their secondary. Some even concluded that the trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie could be the best in the NFL.
We obviously know that didn't happen.
What went wrong with Rodgers-Cromartie? I'm not sure I have an answer to that.
He didn't lose that man-coverage ability overnight. The veteran still has the technique and athletic ability to be a solid starter in the NFL.
Philadelphia should find a way to rid itself of Asomugha while going with Rodgers-Cromartie and Brandon Boykin as starters in 2013.
Mike Wallace, Wide Receiver
Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert isn't one to cater to players who demand too much money and cause issues for the organization. We have seen this repeated over and over again.
Are you comfortable with Pittsburgh going into the 2013 season with Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders as the starting wide receivers? If so, Wallace can walk. If not, Pittsburgh needs to find a way to retain him.
The talented young receiver may not enter free agency with the market as strong as he first anticipated. He struggled with consistency (six games with three catches or less) and failed to hit the 1,000-yard plateau.
If the market isn't strong for Wallace, he could easily come crawling back to the Steelers with his tail between his legs. If that were to happen, I am pretty sure Colbert wouldn't have an issue bringing him back for '13.
Will that happen?
San Diego Chargers
Antoine Cason, Cornerback
Am I wrong to assume Quentin Jammer is as good as gone in Southern California? The former first-round pick has struggled a great deal the last two seasons and just doesn't possess the big-play ability that San Diego is looking for in the secondary.
Let's assume this is the case for a second. The Chargers cannot possibly go into 2013 without either of their two starting cornerbacks.
While Cason isn't a great cover guy by any stretch of the imagination, he does produce like a solid No. 2 cornerback. And that is how the market is going to unfold for him.
San Francisco 49ers
Ricky Jean-Francois, Defensive Line
The defending NFC champion really doesn't have a lot to worry about as it relates to retaining its own free agents. Some may conclude that the San Francisco 49ers should do everything possible to retain Dashon Goldson, but I just don't see it that way.
Goldson is too similar to starting strong safety Donte Whitner in that he struggles to cover over the top, but can lay the wood in the box. In short, San Francisco needs to find itself a free safety who can cover on a consistent basis.
In addition, Isaac Sopoaga is set to become a free agent in March. The strong defensive tackle has been an important cog in one of the best run defenses in the NFL, but he might demand a bit too much money.
Enter into the equation Jean-Francois, who played an important role in San Francisco's defensive-line rotation. While he might not be a full-time starter in the NFL, the Louisiana State product is solid against the run.
I fully expect San Francisco to draft a couple players along the defensive line and go with a much deeper rotation next season. If that is the case, Jean-Francois should be a part of it.
Alan Branch, Defensive Tackle
The Seattle Seahawks have one of the deepest and most talented defensive fronts in the NFL. Red Bryant, Brandon Mebane, Jason Jones, Bruce Irvin, Chris Clemons and Branch comprise a unit that can dominate offensive lines on a consistent basis.
That being said, Clemons is coming off a torn ACL in the playoffs, and Jones really never lived up to expectations.
In order for Seattle to maintain its depth at all defensive line positions, it will have to retain Branch or go out there and draft a guy.
Branch, who struggled a great deal in his first four seasons with the Arizona Cardinals, has been one of the most underrated interior linemen in the NFL since joining Seattle prior to 2011. He is as stout as they come against the run. He should continue to be a force as the Seahawks' three-tech defensive tackle.
Expect general manager John Schneider to make him a priority this offseason.
St. Louis Rams
Danny Amendola, Wide Receiver
Honestly, I couldn't care less that the St. Louis Rams picked up Titus Young off waivers from the Detroit Lions. I highly doubt he makes it to training camp with his current attitude.
Let's say Young surprises a great deal of people and has an attitude adjustment. This doesn't mean Amendola is expendable.
The scrappy wide receiver reminds me a great deal of Wes Welker. He is a possession guy who can go out there and make plays for Sam Bradford when the quarterback is in a bind. You cannot say the same thing for Brandon Gibson.
While I do like the young combo of Chris Givens and Brian Quick, it appears St. Louis has to go out and do everything possible to retain Amendola.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Michael Bennett, Defensive End
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded a league-low 23 sacks in 2011. This lack of pressure was one of the primary reasons their defense struggled a great deal that year.
Fast forward a season, and Tampa Bay still only recorded 27 sacks in 2012. That really isn't going to get it done.
The interesting thing here is that Bennett recorded nine of those sacks. Needless to say, Tampa Bay just cannot afford to lose his production in 2013. Instead, it will have to do everything possible to retain the talented defensive end, as well as add another player or two.
Addition by subtraction is not a philosophy that will work here.
Jared Cook, Tight End
The physical ability of Jared Cook is quite impressive. He creates mismatches with linebackers and safeties in coverage, can catch the ball down the field and possesses good hands.
The issue here is that Cook just wasn't utilized a great deal by the Tennessee Titans in 2012. He was targeted 10 less times than the year before, but caught the same percentage of passes as he did in 2011.
In order for Jake Locker to become a solid starting quarterback in the NFL, he needs a reliable tight end between the hashes. While Cook isn't consistent on a weekly basis, he does provide that threat.
Fred Davis, Tight End
Imagine how good Robert Griffin III would have been if he had Davis to throw the ball to all season as a rookie. As I have stated numerous times in the past, having a solid tight end in the passing game will do wonders for a young quarterback.
Remember, Davis is one year removed from compiling nearly 800 yards in just 12 games with the likes of Rex Grossman and John Beck throwing him the ball.
He needs to be the Washington Redskins' top priority entering the offseason.