NFL Free Agents Teams Should Let Walk

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IMarch 4, 2013

NFL Free Agents Teams Should Let Walk

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    It’s that interesting time of the year in the National Football League.

    By mid-afternoon on March 4, teams will have to decide if they want to slap the franchise tag on a veteran to ensure his return to the team. For some clubs, there are obvious choices. For others, they stand the chance of keeping one exceptional player but losing another if they can’t get the latter re-signed.

    In most instances, teams have been preparing to possibly lose some of their other talent because they happen to be deep in a certain area.

    Most importantly here, why would an NFL team let a good player “walk”? Let’s not assume that it’s because he hasn't played well.

    It may just be the fact that a prospective buyer wants to pay the free agent the kind of money that would set his original team’s salary cap awry, and clubs may not be willing to pay him that kind of money at this stage or any other stage of his career.

    Here’s a list of prominent and potential unrestricted free agents who could hit the market on March 12. It’s perhaps circumstance and not performance that will make it tough for these players to return to their original clubs.

    We've listed the following players strictly by the alphabetical order of their current teams.

Paul Kruger, OLB, Baltimore Ravens

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    With quarterback Joe Flacco apparently wrapped up, according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens have other business to attend to.

    During a year in which the Ravens defense was anything but super throughout the 2012 season, Kruger did his share in a year where stalwarts Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis each missed enormous chunks of the season.

    The four-year veteran and former second-round draft choice totaled 42 tackles, knocked down six passes and amassed a team-high 9.0 sacks during the regular season.

    Come the postseason, Kruger was at it again, leading the Ravens with 4.5 sacks during their four-game championship run, including a pair in the Super Bowl XLVII win over the San Francisco 49ers.

    With Lewis now retired, you have to figure the Ravens will put an emphasis on making sure potential free-agent inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe doesn’t go anywhere. And with Terrell Suggs hopefully healthy and rookie Courtney Upshaw seeing his share of starts last year, Kruger could be a high-priced backup.

    The feeling here is that some team, especially one making the transition to the 3-4 defense, may make it very tough for the Ravens to retain the standout pass-rusher.

Josh Cribbs, WR/KR, Cleveland Browns

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    Only four players in NFL history have returned more combined kicks for touchdowns than Cleveland Browns specialist Josh Cribbs.

    Last season, the Pro Bowl return artist showed few signs of slowing down in terms of taking back kicks, finishing second in the NFL with 457 yards on punt returns and ranking in the top five in the league in kickoff return average (27.4).

    But the rest of Cribbs’ numbers last season were hardly worth noting. Despite playing in all 16 games, he caught just seven passes for 63 yards. More significantly, he fumbled six times and lost three, a career high.

    Cribbs now enters his ninth NFL season, and the Browns are once again under new leadership. It will be interesting to see what role, if any, head coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner have for the veteran.

    If another team decides it is some special teams help away from a championship run, don’t be surprised if Cribbs gets an offer that makes it tough to return to Cleveland.

Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions

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    This situation will be very intriguing and all depends on what kind of numbers the player demands.

    This past year, the Detroit Lions used the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril. In the latest difficult season for Detroit, the five-year pro totaled 9.5 sacks during the team’s 4-12 campaign.

    During his career, Avril has totaled 39.5 sacks and 16 forced fumbles in 73 games. But if he sticks around in the Motor City, it could be a much different supporting cast.

    This offseason, the Lions have already released veteran defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, while Avril and defensive tackle Corey Williams could be unrestricted free agents on March 12.

    Detroit used a first-round pick in 2011 on defensive tackle Nick Fairley, and he and Ndamukong Suh handle the inside. As we know, sacks make for an attractive bargaining tool, and the ability to get to the passer is highly regarded in this quarterback-driven league.

    Will the Lions break the bank to bring back Avril when some other team may indeed pay big to secure his services? A “no” followed by a “yes” seems somewhat inevitable.

Greg Jennings, WR, Green Bay Packers

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    Over the last two regular seasons—a total of 31 games—Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has thrown an astounding 84 touchdown passes compared to just 14 interceptions.

    As for those 84 scores, Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings has pulled in 13 of those touchdowns, and that total comes in just 21 games.

    And there’s the rub. After not missing a game from 2008 to '10 and totaling at least 1,100 yards receiving each season, injuries limited Jennings to 13 games in 2011 and just eight contests a season ago.

    The Green Bay wideout’s career resume is impressive. In seven seasons, Jennings has totaled 425 receptions for 6,537 yards and 53 scores.

    He appears to have plenty of football left in him, enough that another team in the league would love to take advantage of it. As well, while it’s not necessarily ideal, Rodgers has obviously gotten a little acclimated to being without one of his top targets.

    There’s always a chance the Packers could franchise Jennings. But it would be somewhat surprising if they signed the wide receiver to a long-term, big-ticket contract—something more than one team around the league may be willing to do.

Connor Barwin, OLB, Houston Texans

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    If the Houston Texans are to win a Super Bowl someday soon, their defense must once again look like the unit that was so impressive during the first half of 2012.

    But as Gary Kubiak’s team found out last season, having depth can’t be underestimated. Injuries were one factor for the team’s drop-off on the defensive side of the ball.

    It’s more than likely that coordinator Wade Phillips’ unit in 2013 will feature Brooks Reed and Whitney Mercilus, the Texans’ first-round draft choice in 2012, as the starting outside linebackers.

    Where does that leave prospective unrestricted free agent Connor Barwin? Could the team’s sack leader in 2011 (11.5) actually be on the outside looking in with Houston in 2012?

    Stop me if you’ve heard this before. There’s always a need for pass-rushers in a passing league. And since there’s the likelihood Barwin will be receiving numerous offers, despite the fact that the linebacker’s sack total dropped to 3.0 in 2012, it’s doubtful that his original team will make a huge effort to keep him…

    Unless it’s at a discounted price.

Sean Smith, CB, Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins finished 7-9 in 2012, the fourth consecutive season the franchise has been below .500

    But one of the numerous positives that came from head coach Joe Philbin’s first season on the job was the play of a defensive unit that bent but didn’t break a lot. Miami finished 21st in the NFL in total yards allowed last season, but only six teams in the league surrendered fewer points.

    The Dolphins also finished 27th in passing yards allowed in 2012 despite a pass rush that produced 42 sacks.

    So what does that mean to four-year cornerback Sean Smith?

    The former second-round pick from Utah put together some solid numbers in 2012, totaling 59 tackles (53 of the solo variety), a team-high 12 passes defensed and a pair of interceptions. He also forced three fumbles, the first three of his four-year career.

    Speaking of those four seasons, there may be some other numbers that don’t exactly add up. Smith has played in 63 of 64 games since entering the league in 2009 and has started all 16 contests three times in four years. But while Smith has knocked down a respectable 40 passes, he has totaled only five career interceptions.

    Last year, the Dolphins dealt former first-round cornerback Vontae Davis to the Indianapolis Colts. It will be interesting to watch if they wind up cutting ties with Smith, meaning a once up-and-coming tandem in Miami would be no more. But thus is the nature of today’s league and those ever-changing coaching staffs.

Julian Edelman, WR, New England Patriots

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    The New England Patriots have some decisions to make when it comes to their pass-catching corps.

    No, we’re not talking about tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

    As many know, veteran Wes Welker, he of an NFL-high 672 receptions over the last six seasons, is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, as are on-again and off-again Patriots Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth.

    And then there’s Julian Edelman.

    At times, Edelman has done a very good Welker impression, opening some eyes as a rookie in 2009 when the veteran wideout missed two games. Last season, Edelman totaled a career-high three touchdown catches on 21 receptions. Edelman also returned a punt for a score, the third straight season in which he took a punt back for a touchdown.

    Now, would another team make a substantial offer to Edelman thinking he could fill the Welker role for it? A sure-handed receiver with the ability to return punts is a nice player to have in this era of getting as much bang for the buck as possible.

    You get the sense that Edelman may get the opportunity to start somewhere else or at least be a bigger part of a team’s offense. And it would be hard to believe that the Pats would match any huge offer.

Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t make a habit of letting their better players get away.

    They also don’t make a habit of overpaying at any one position—one reason they are one of the steadiest organizations in the NFL.

    Wide receiver Mike Wallace has certainly made his presence felt in four seasons in the NFL. The former third-round pick from Mississippi has totaled 235 catches for 4,042 yards and 32 scores, averaging an impressive 17.2 yards per reception.

    Wallace had a Pro Bowl season in 2011 when he caught 72 passes for 1,193 yards (eight touchdowns), and the speedy deep threat averaged 16.6 yards per catch. Last season, Wallace again scored eight times, but he managed just 64 receptions, averaged a disappointing 13.1 yards per grab and had his share of drops.

    It is possible the Steelers could slap the franchise tag on Wallace, who was a restricted free agent last season and held out very late in the summer before finally signing his tender.

    However, it’s highly likely that Wallace will get several offers he’ll have a tough time refusing and the Steelers will likely want no part of—especially considering Mike Tomlin’s team has Antonio Brown in the fold, while restricted free agent Emmanuel Sanders should return.

Danny Amendola, WR, St. Louis Rams

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    For St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola, it may be a case of supply and demand.

    Last season, Amendola led the Rams with 63 receptions for 666 yards and three scores (in 11 games). It marked the second time in three years that the sure-handed wideout led the club in catches, sandwiching a 2011 campaign in which he was lost for the season on opening weekend.

    But these days, the Rams are in possession of a lot of young receivers that they have added via the draft the last two years. In 2011, St. Louis grabbed Austin Pettis in the third round, and last April, wideouts Brian Quick and Chris Givens came via the second and fourth rounds, respectively.

    Amendola is not the only Rams veteran receiver that could be a free agent in just over a week, as both Brandon Gibson and the suddenly well-traveled Steve Smith will watch their contracts expire. But Amendola is the standout here given his rapport with quarterback Sam Bradford.

    Still, it would be surprising to see the organization break the bank for any of these wide receivers, having reshaped this unit the last two Aprils.

    It’s certainly possible that another club could bring Amendola in to help an offense looking for a sure-handed pass-catcher (perhaps one with a young quarterback?).

Michael Bennett, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    They say timing is everything. For Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett, the bucks may not be coming from the Bucs.

    In 2012, Bennett saw it all come together. The former undrafted free agent (originally signed by the Seattle Seahawks) played and started 16 games for the first time in his four-year career. He totaled a career-high 41 tackles, as well as career bests with 9.0 sacks, tops on the club, and three forced fumbles.

    In his first three seasons with the Buccaneers, Bennett played in a total of 34 games with 12 starts and managed only a half-dozen sacks, four of those in 2011.

    But we know that the team also has defensive end Da’Quan Bowers waiting in the wings, and while he did manage to rack up three sacks, he was limited to only 10 games in 2012.

    Given the fact that the Bucs defense was first in the league in rushing defense, combined with the fact that Bennett came up with a solid sack total, and teams starving for a pass-rusher could make it rough on the Bucs in their attempts to retain his services.