NFL Free Agency Speculation: James Jones and 10 Backups Ready to Start

Aaron DodgeAnalyst IJune 16, 2011

NFL Free Agency Speculation: James Jones and 10 Backups Ready to Start

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    James Jones' future in Green Bay depends completely on the fate of four-year players once free agency is initiated.

    If it were up to Jones, he'd be on his way out, despite the team's Super Bowl win.

    "I know we have something great here. This team can win some championships for the next couple years," said Jones. "But, at the same time, I do want to be a starter. I don't know if that'll ever happen here with Donald (Driver) playing until he's 40."

    If he becomes an unrestricted free agent, Jones will command much attention on the open market. The 27-year-old has progressed steadily in the Packers offense in his three years, catching a combined 10 touchdowns for 1,119 yards over the last two years.

    One of the biggest knocks on Jones has been his butterfingers in clutch situations in Green Bay, but his issue with dropping passes has been far overstated.

    In 2010, Jones did drop six passes, but he ranked behind players like Reggie Wayne, Miles Austin, Wes Welker and even his teammate Driver who all dropped more passes.

Corey Graham- Cornerback

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    Corey Graham is one of only five players to reach the NFL from the University of New Hampshire since 2000. 

    The UNH Wildcats compete in the second tier of Division I, the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA.

    The Chicago Bears selected Graham in the fifth round of the 2007 NFL Draft when the defensive back was only 21 years old.

    He's had an tumultuous career to this point to say the least. Graham only saw the field on the special teams unit in his rookie season but was pressed into the starting lineup in 2008 when injuries ravaged the Bears' secondary.

    In 16 games, Graham made nine starts compiling 91 total tackles, eight passes defended, one interception and a forced fumble.

    Since then, he's been relegated back to special teams, but instead of disappearing into obscurity, Graham developed into a real special teams ace. He led the Bears with 25 special teams tackles last season but only got on the field for three defensive plays.

    It's no wonder the 25-year-old is now seeking a new home in free agency.

    "I don't want to be known as just a special teams player," he said. "I want to go somewhere to get a chance to compete."

Darren Sproles- Running Back

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    Darren Sproles is in a similar, albeit much more well known, boat as Corey Graham.

    The 27-year-old has long been a special teams star for the San Diego Chargers but has been completely underutilized on offense.

    Aside from the 2006 season which he spent on the injured reserve, Sproles has put up 1,000 or more yards in the kick return game every season since being drafted in 2005. His explosiveness and value in the return game are extraordinary, but Sproles has excelled on offense as well. 

    In his 204 rushing attempts since earning a semi-prominent role in 2008, Sproles has averaged 4.3 yards a carry. His biggest contributions have come in the passing game where Sproles has caught 133 passes for 1,359 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last three years.

    Sproles certainly doesn't have the size or strength necessary to be a lead back or a between the tackles type of guy who you can continuously feed it too, but he's been far undervalued playing for the Chargers to this point.

    As an unrestricted free agent, Sproles will likely be able to pick from multiple options in free agency, and it'll be interesting to see what type of role he gets with his new team.

Michael Bush- Running Back

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    Michael Bush may be one of the most underrated players available this year.

    The 27-year-old was a fourth-round pick by the Oakland Raiders in 2007, but his late selection doesn't tell the whole story.

    A year earlier Bush was projected to be one of the top 10 players taken overall after he racked up 1,143 yards on 205 attempts, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and netting 23 rushing touchdowns as a junior.

    Instead of declaring for the NFL draft, he returned for his senior season only to then sustain a catastrophic leg injury which forced to miss the majority of the year.

    The broken tibia required the insertion of a steel rod and a second operation was later deemed necessary to facilitate the healing process. Bush ended up falling to the Raiders and sitting out the entire 2007 season on the physically unable to perform list.

    Since then Bush has been quietly producing a fine stat line, even in Oakland.

    He's averaged 4.4 yards a carry on 376 attempts which has been good enough for 1,665 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bush has even chipped in on the passing game catching 54 balls for 461 yards in three seasons.

    When given the rock in Oakland, Bush has shown flashes of brilliance.

    He led to the Raiders to a victory with 177 yards on 27 carries with two touchdowns in the final game of the 2008 season which denied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a playoff spot.

    Whoever lands him has a massive breakout candidate on their roster.

Le'Ron McClain- Running Back

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    Le'Ron McClain certainly doesn't possess the prototypical size or shape for an NFL running back, but his ability to move the chains is undeniable.

    The 260-pound, 26-year-old has endured a painfully slow start to his career. Selected in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL draft, McClain began his career as a fullback for the Baltimore Ravens.

    His ceiling as a runner began to be questioned during his 2008 Pro Bowl season which saw the big man bust out for 902 yards on 232 carries and 10 touchdowns. He returned to the obscurity of fullback in 2009 only carrying the ball 46 times. He did notch his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod though, this time at his original position.

    McClain saw even fewer carries in 2010, and with his rookie contract expiring, the unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team, and you can bet he's looking for a an opportunity to tote the ball.

    "When you feel like you can give a lot more and have proven you can do a lot more and all you're doing is blocking, it's a little frustrating at times when they're telling you, 'All you got to do is go block this guy,'" he said.

Ahmad Bradshaw- Running Back

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    The shape and size argument was often used against Ahmad Bradshaw, who stands at just 5'9'', at least until he earned 11 starts in 2010.

    The 25-year-old put up 1,235 yards on 276 carries, and he finished with eight touchdowns. The speedy and elusive back also nabbed 47 balls out of the backfield to further bolster his resume.

    Bradshaw proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he can handle the starting responsibilities in 2010, highlighted by his career high in carries. Prior to last season Bradshaw had only rushed the ball 253 times in his three years in the league.

    If his production in the last year of his contract wasn't a big enough sign that he would pursue a monster contract elsewhere, his hiring of super agent Drew Rosenhaus should do the trick.

    Bradshaw's ankle is healthy after a February scope, and his chances of landing a big deal are even healthier.

Tarvaris Jackson- Quarterback

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    Many are ready to close the book on the Tarvaris Jackson story, while others have already done it.

    The 28-year-old has been in the league for five seasons now and hasn't done much, even I'll admit to that. His stats don't impress much at all when taken out of context, but that's been the issue with much of the analysis on his potential going forward.

    The only considerable amount of consistent playing time which Jackson has seen came in 2007, his second season in the league. Jackson was thrown into the starting lineup, making 12 starts. He led the team to an 8-4 record, but his performances didn't look good enough on paper to keep the job.

    He was able to make five starts in 2008 while making appearances in a total of nine games. In 148 attempts, Jackson posted a 59.1 completion percentage and posted a 9:2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.

    Jackson's opportunity to take advantage of his progression officially ended when the Vikings signed Brett Favre who started the majority of the games through 2010.

    I'm just not sold on this guy's potential being shot, and I believe he's worth a look by a team in need of a quarterback who could apply pressure to their incumbent.

Troy Smith- Quarterback

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    Troy Smith had long lobbied for a chance to start during his time as the backup quarterback in Baltimore.

    The former Heisman winner got that chance in 2010 with the San Francisco 49ers and had a decent season.

    Smith threw for 356 yards in the Niners' Week 10 win over the Rams, and he was only intercepted four times in six games. He did struggle with fumbles and sacks last season, but it would be a mistake to write off a developmental prospect like this after less than one season of play.

    Smith is still just 26 years old, and he deserves another shot at a starting gig in this league.

Marc Bulger- Quarterback

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    Marc Bulger's career in St. Louis fizzled out in 2009 despite an extremely strong start.

    The 34-year-old took over as the backup for the Ravens in 2010 and according to the Baltimore coaching staff Bulger has handled the Raven's offense flawlessly in practice.

    "They would love to keep him in Baltimore as the backup," reported Jason La Canfora of the NFL Network. "They think someone will sign him to a two-year contract and let him compete to start or be a bridge quarterback and a pretty good one at that."

    La Canfora added, "They told me when he's on the field and running the offense, the ball often doesn't hit the ground."

    The Ravens coaching staff has nothing to gain by talking up an unrestricted free agent and a quarterback-needy team will have nothing to lose in giving Bulger one more shot.

Jacoby Jones- Wide Receiver

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    Late bloomer may be the best way to describe Jacoby Jones.

    Prior to the 2010 season, Jones had only pulled in 45 career receptions for 667 yards in three seasons. He was a blip on the radar in 2009 after he caught six touchdown passes with 27 receptions and 437 yards.

    Jones set career bests in receptions, yards and starts in 2010. The 26-year-old caught 51 passes to the tune of 562 yards with three touchdowns. Most impressive were his stats after giving up return game responsibilities so he could focus more on receiving.

    Jones posted 26 catches for 320 yards and two touchdowns over the final six games of the season in his singular role.

    He's proven to be pretty valuable in the Houston Texans' offense recently, and now that he's a free agent, he'll be looking to cash in on his production.

Lance Moore- Wide Receiver

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    The Saints extended a second-round restricted free agent tender to Lance Moore, but as a fifth year player, he's likely to be designated as an unrestricted free agent.

    The 27-year-old has stated on Twitter on multiple occasions that his preference is to return to New Orleans this season, but he also acknowledges that he may be playing elsewhere. If he chooses to leave, his services will be welcomed in many NFL cities. 

    2009 was more or less a lost season, but his combined stats from 2008 and 2010 are terrific.

    Moore combined for 145 receptions, 1,691 yards and 18 touchdowns in the Drew Brees led offense. He's the perfect target for quarterbacks and a great target for teams looking for a down field threat.