NFL Free Agency 2011: Which Teams Would Be Hit Hardest If Free Agency Occurs?
The NFL and representatives from the recently disbanded NFL player’s association entered court-ordered mediation on Thursday as they await Judge Sarah Nelson’s ruling on an injunction that could end the NFL’s player lockout and return the league to business.
Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board is responding to a complaint from the owners and determining the validity of the union’s decertification.
To the consumers, this could mean any of three things.
The NLRB could rule that the NFLPA’s decertification was, indeed, a sham which would then, quite probably, turn back time and return the NFLPA and the NFL to negotiations until the amount of time stipulated for negotiations (six months from the date the previous CBA expires) runs out and the NFLPA files an antitrust lawsuit anyway. (Highly unlikely since the NLRB is a pro-labor organization.)
If the NLRB doesn't in favor of the owners, the NFL and the player’s representatives could come to a new agreement and the season could start as normal. (Also unlikely considering the uninspiring events in March coupled with the player’s hope for an injunction that would put them back to work anyway.)
If negotiations fail again, Judge Nelson could rule in favor of the players and the season could start under last year’s (cap-free, I might add) agreement. Free agency would begin and, at least until the NFL’s appeal, the season would be continue as normal.
If and when free agency happens, which teams’ seasons are most at risk?
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The Indianapolis Colts did the smart thing before the lockout by placing an exclusive rights franchise tag on quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning, however, is one of the primary players named in the lawsuit against the NFL and declined to enter into any type of negotiation and is, wisely, waiting to see what sort of agreement will come out of litigation.
His intentions could be due to him being a plaintiff in the case and not wanting to stand against his fellow players, or he simply wants to make sure he gets the most he can.
A new agreement can bring on new salary caps, new minimums, new franchise tag rules, or no tag at all.
If the tag rules change or dissolve, Manning will have the opportunity to play the market.
Everyone expects Manning to put Jim Irsay’s money where his mouth is and to garner a deal that will put Tom Brady’s four-year, $72 million contract to shame. Some time on the open market would only make that more likely.
Then, if the Colts lose Peyton Manning, other hallmark free agents such as running back Joseph Addai, strong safety Melvin Bullitt, and left tackle Charlie Johnson would be likely to jump ship as well.
The dynasty that has been the Colts of the last decade would crumble.
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Starting quarterback Carson Palmer has made his opinion on playing for the Bengals’ franchise any longer abundantly clear over the past few months, threatening to retire if the Bengals don’t trade him. So when free agency kicks off, Cincy has the option of parting ways with Palmer amicably or otherwise—assuming Palmer is good to his word.
If they weren’t already planning to leave without Palmer’s departure, the other stars in the Bengals’ run-down offense would surely be looking for other offers.
Running back Cedric Benson is especially marketable, having rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his last two seasons.
Wide Receiver Terrell Owens' play has diminished slightly from his days with the 49ers, Eagles and Cowboys, but he still manages, at 37 years old, to produce solid numbers that many receiver-starved NFL teams must be drooling at. And, if he doesn’t get an offer, why not just retire and retain what’s left of his legacy?
Plus, on the free agent block is veteran middle linebacker Dhani Jones, who leads the team in tackles each year and whose talents and veteran leadership could benefit many other teams for a few more years.
Let’s also not forget that Chad Ochocinco is “playing” Major League Soccer currently.
New York Giants
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The New York Giants opted not to place franchise tags on any players last February because none of the impending free agents had contracts dramatic enough to warrant a tag.
That does not mean that there are not a number of significant players on the Giants’ squad entering free agency whenever free agency occurs.
These include running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who led the team in rushing yards last season, and wide receiver Steve Smith, who led the team in receiving yards only a year ago. Plus, there’s tight end Kevin Boss and five-year veteran defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka.
The Giants have placed tenders on many of these and others but, in the event of a new CBA, this New York team stands to lose many of its main playmakers from the past few years.
New York Jets
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East Rutherford’s other tenants, the New York Jets, are another team with many cornerstone players up for grabs.
Most of their wide receiver depth is up for free agency, including playmakers Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes.
Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold as well as veteran defensive lineman Shaun Ellis are other noteworthy potential Jet free agents.
The Jets have placed the highest tender on cornerback Antonio Cromartie and will be happy to retain him. They are also reportedly looking towards Tennessee free agent Randy Moss to help pick up slack from any receivers who sign contracts elsewhere.
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The Minnesota Vikings have long been that team that is just a quarterback away from the Super Bowl. They almost had it two years ago when they signed legend Brett Favre out of retirement. Favre has since re-re-retired, leaving the Vikings looking to the draft and free agency for another viable quarterback option.
The quarterback situation looks to get worse before it gets better; Patrick Ramsey is a free agent this year and is not expected to be re-signed. This leaves rookies Rhett Bomar and Joe Webb as the only options pending some offseason solution.
This doesn’t bode well for their other free agents as star wide receiver Sidney Rice may hit the market when it opens.
If Rice flees to a team with more immediate, or merely sustainable postseason hope, Minnesota will be lucky to still have Percy Harvin, but the offense will lose a lot of its heat. We saw it last year when Rice missed all but six games recovering from hip surgery and the Vikings only won six games on the season.
The Vikings also have defensive end Ray Edwards to worry about. Edwards is spending his lockout free time in the boxing ring.
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Both of the Miami Dolphins’ leading running backs (not to mention their fullback, Lousake Polite) are up for free agency this offseason and no one would be surprised if they left Miami’s backfield barren in favor of greener pastures.
Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown were both productive behind a continually shifting offensive line and should find teams willing to give them a chance in the backfield. And why shouldn’t they go? Most pundits agree that Miami will be taking Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram in the first round.
San Diego Chargers
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The Chargers are not too far removed from playoff contention, but won’t likely be looking to 2011 for postseason success. Six of San Diego’s nine linebackers are free agents this year (restricted and otherwise) and nearly half the current defensive line remains unsigned through the lockout.
The Chargers also need to replace running back Darren Sproles if he finds an option in free agency and hope that franchise tagged Vincent Jackson will improve on last year’s injury-laden numbers.
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The Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback concerns may become a non-issue in the coming months as two of the team’s leading receivers (behind Larry Fitzgerald) hit free agency. Both Early Doucet (tendered) and Steve Breaston stand to go and behind them are two nearly untested rookies.
Maybe Andre Roberts, Stephen Williams and Max Hall can learn the trials of the NFL together?
Arizona can only hope that veteran guard Alan Faneca doesn’t opt to retire and add more holes to an already thin offensive line.
It doesn’t help the offense to know that two of the roster’s three tight ends, Ben Patrick and Stephen Spach, might head elsewhere, leaving Jim Dray the only option.
Neither TE received tenders, nor did cornerbacks Michael Adams and Trumaine McBride, leaving two rookies behind Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
Just who did Arizona opt to try to retain?
This squad is looking more and more rookie-based. They’ll need to find a lot of veteran options to bring some leadership and direction into 2011.
San Francisco 49ers
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The 49ers are another NFC West team with quarterback woes. Troy Smith and Alex Smith split time last season and neither were able to gain any measurable amount of consistency.
This year, both QBs hit free agency and the Niners have offered just a one year contract to Alex and nothing at all to Troy. If both Smiths sign offers elsewhere, San Francisco will be left with veteran backup David Carr, who threw for just 407 yards over the past three seasons.
The 49ers also stand to lose a hefty chunk of their defense, including linebackers Takeo Spikes and Manny Lawson as well as defensive end Ray McDonald and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin. Any of these players (especially Franklin) are likely to garner tempting offers from other teams.
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The Seattle Seahawks failed to re-sign veteran quarterback Matt Hasselbeck before the lockout and now it is widely believed that Hasselbeck intends to take his talents elsewhere in 2011.
Hasselbeck can bring much needed experience and leadership to a faltering team (see: nearly any team in the NFC West and Minnesota) or serve as a formidable backup option on a more established roster (if the veteran is willing).
Hasselbeck’s departure would leave Seattle reliant on Charlie Whitehurst, who failed to impress in 2010. Third string quarterback J.P. Losman is also a free agent.
Seattle opted not to employ their franchise tag on kicker Olindo Mare last February as they have done in years past, so he enters the market as an unrestricted free agent.
Also up for grabs are center Chris Spencer, standout slot receiver Brandon Stokley, veteran strong safety Lawyer Milloy, and defensive lineman Brandon Mebane.
Plus, while it won’t upset most to lose tackles Sean Locklear and Tyler Polumbus, their departure would only create more holes for Seattle to focus on in this shrinking offseason.
Most of Seattle’s free agents are regular starters or saw significant field time last season.
Seattle, it seems, stands to fair the worst when the lockout is finally lifted.