As the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement hopes to conclude a new deal over the next seven to 10 days, the entire universe of NFL players anxiously awaits to learn who will become a new free agent on the market.
We don't yet know what powers or controls NFL owners will be granted to try to keep their top free agents in house, but it is safe to assume that this is one of the key sticking points as negotiations wind down.
During this down time, the plight of many potential free agents has been bandied about in the media. We are going to look at 24 of the top projected free agents and speculate what new teams they will be playing for in 2011.
We will also name 22 top free agents that we project to return to their old team from 2010. Please note that as of this writing, we don't know yet how the terms of the new CBA will impact or change the free agency status of all of the following players.
If you think a player is a top free agent, but their name does not appear on this slideshow, feel free to include his name and your projection on where you think he will play in 2011.
Out of the vast array of free agents expected to hit the open market, the following are 22 of the top free agents that I expect to re-sign with their old teams. There has been enough verbal communication in the media to suggest that there is mutual interest from both parties in seeking a reunion for this group of free agents.
Listed in alphabetical order:
Offense (13): Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Ahmad Bradshaw (New York Giants), Michael Bush (Oakland), Doug Free (Dallas), Santonio Holmes (New York Jets), Vincent Jackson (San Diego), Davin Joseph (Tampa Bay), Logan Mankins (New England), Peyton Manning (Indianapolis), Zack Miller (Oakland), Alex Smith (San Francisco), Steve Smith (New York Giants) and Marshal Yanda (Baltimore).
Defense (9): James Anderson (Carolina), Thomas Davis (Carolina), Brent Grimes (Atlanta), Tamba Hali (Kansas City), Roman Harper (New Orleans), Charles Johnson (Carolina), Paul Posluszny (Buffalo), Takeo Spikes (San Francisco) and Ike Taylor (Pittsburgh).
Potential employers: Seattle, Tennessee and Washington.
Where will he play in 2011? Think the answer is going to be Tennessee. Hasselbeck started out his career in Green Bay, and now with 10 straight seasons in Seattle, it is time for him to move on to other pastures as he hits the twilight of his career.
As per this article in the Seattle Times, Hasselbeck is well known within the Tennessee organization. The other factor involved here is the Kerry Collins retirement.
With no veteran on board to tutor Jake Locker, the Titans want to find the right veteran to usher Locker into the NFL. Consider Hasselbeck to be that "right veteran."
Potential employers: Minnesota, Seattle and St. Louis.
From the various teams that are going to be courting Sidney Rice, I suspect that he will land in St. Louis. He knows that they have an accurate quarterback in Sam Bradford.
It is arguably the weakest division in the NFL, so he has a chance to make an impact and improve the Rams' chances of reaching the playoffs. He won't have to deal with the harsh winters of the NFC North.
Best reason is that the Rams need a top-end receiver. Plus, when free agency hits, nobody knows who the Vikings starting quarterback will be. That is not an issue in St. Louis.
Potential employers: Washington, Green Bay, Dallas, Baltimore, Denver and Chicago.
Looks like the best bet for Cullen Jenkins is to become a Washington Redskin. The Redskins have a ton of money to spend. They are somehow way under the cap, which is somehow hard to fathom.
But the Redskins need some help along the defensive line, Jenkins has his ring, now he just needs a big payday.
Daniel Snyder can easily do that for him, and then some.
Potential employers: Baltimore, Minnesota, Cincinnati, Tennessee and Miami.
As late as the rookies are going to be getting their first real NFL coaching sometime in July, I just don't see how rookie quarterback Andy Dalton is going to be ready to go in Week One. Therefore, the Bengals will need to locate a veteran quarterback who has starting experience and can serve as a mentor to Dalton.
Enter Marc Bulger. He will supposedly have a running attack to back him up if the Bengals can re-sign Cedric Benson. They drafted A.J. Green, so if Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco depart, Bulger will still have a viable target to throw to, along with tight end Jermaine Gresham.
Potential employers: Carolina, Denver, Miami and Washington.
DeAngelo Williams looks like he will get his wish to test free agency. If that happens, I have a strong suspicion that he will be continuing to play for the same head coach, John Fox, just in a different city, for the Denver Broncos.
Williams will have a chance to take over as the first- and second-down back in Denver and benefit from Fox's desire to have a strong running game.
Potential employers: Atlanta, Buffalo and Cleveland.
When the Minnesota Vikings signed Brian Robison to a new deal, it signaled that Ray Edwards was not going to be a Viking any longer.
Many experts have been wondering aloud if Edwards is really that good, or was he simply a product of a defense that allowed him to shine since offensive linemen had to pay so much attention to the people that Edwards played next to?
If you happen to follow and believe the folks over at Pro Football Focus, you know they think highly of Edwards, to the point of calling him the third most productive edge pass rusher in 2010.
There are a number of teams that are hurting for a good pass rusher, but I foresee Edwards going to Atlanta. This could involve a sign-and-trade deal of some sort, as the Falcons have already mortgaged a good portion of their 2012 draft for Julio Jones.
Potential employers: New York Jets, Washington and Chicago.
Show me the money!! That appears to be the mantra for Braylon Edwards as we draw nearer to the start of free agency.
The Jets will be hard-pressed to sign Edwards if they are truly opening up the coffers to sign Santonio Holmes, so there is good reason to believe that Edwards will have a new home in 2011.
The Washington Redskins have big money available under the cap to bring in some expensive free agents, and upgrading their wide receivers is something that makes sense for all concerned.
Hopefully, Edwards will not be dropping the ball as much in Washington as he has previously. But if he does, he wouldn't necessarily be the first high-priced free agent who didn't work out in Washington.
Potential employers: Houston, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle and New York Jets.
From catching a Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass, to shooting yourself in the leg at a nightclub, to spending over a year in prison, life has sure been a series of ups and downs for Plaxico Burress.
He is still going to have to prove to NFL talent evaluators at some open workouts that he has the speed, hands and focus to be a top-end wide receiver in the league.
But assuming that he does come across with a solid workout, he will potentially have a number of suitors for his services, because Burress offers an interesting package of hands and size in the red zone that teams would like to have.
Joining Philadelphia and playing with Michael Vick appears to be the logical next stop for Burress. He can easily relate to Vick and have a strong support system there for what he has gone through.
Wouldn't it be ironic this year if he catches another Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass?
Potential employers: Tennessee, Philadelphia and Detroit.
Jason Babin is likely on the outs in Tennessee. So with that being the case, who is a good fit for him in the current market for a defensive lineman? It helps if he can find a team that he has a strong bond or relationship with, and the one that comes to mind would be the one in Philadelphia.
The defensive line coach in Philadelphia is Jim Washburn and the two of them have worked together, so this is a match that could make some sense.
For that matter, so would Albert Haynesworth, but he is not a free agent. So, it will be up to Babin's agent to get his client a new home, before the Redskins can work out any kind of a new deal to trade Haynesworth to the Eagles.
Can the Eagles and Redskins possibly do a deal together for two years in a row? Stranger things have happened.
Potential employers: Chicago, New York Jets, St, Louis and Houston
Terrell Owens has been as quiet recently as any time we can recall from the recent past. The only one talking is his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, who has been spinning the tale that Owens had his surgery months ago and will be ready to go when teams arrive in camps. Okay, Drew, where do we sign?
Despite all of the personality issues, and potential headaches, Owens continues to lead his team in receiving wherever he goes.
We have doubted his ability to return from injury as he has gotten older, but the performance he made in the Super Bowl with the Eagles should provide enough proof that he is tougher than you would think.
I right now am thinking the dark-horse winner in this race will be the Chicago Bears. Why? I can't give you many strong compelling reasons other than the Bears need a strong receiver.
Since Owens has never played there before, he hasn't burned any bridges in Chicago yet. Why not?
Potential employers: Atlanta and Buffalo.
The Falcons are starting to face some serious salary cap issues. They have a number of free agents on the books this season, and Tyson Clabo does not appear to be their top priority. So, with that being the case, which NFL team has been hurting for starting tackle talent for years?
Enter the Buffalo Bills. The left tackle spot is occupied by Demetrius Bell. Bell may be over his knee injury from 2009 to be a stronger left tackle, but the right tackle spot is up in the air.
You have a trio of suspects in Erik Pears, Ed Wang or rookie Chris Hairston. Clabo upgrades the Bills greatly at tackle, and the other guys now give you some added depth.
The new CBA will apparently force teams to spend more money to go above the minimum floor cap level. That extra expense will be ticketed for a starting free agent, and Clabo fits the bill quite nicely.
Potential employers: San Francisco, Washington and Kansas City.
Aubrayo Franklin is one of the many San Francisco 49ers who are set to become free agents once the league year is set in motion. Due to the quantity of free agents, the 49ers have to establish their priorities, and apparently Franklin is not of the top priorities for them to retain.
So, where will he land? The tea leaves appear to say that it will be in Washington, where he is one of their top priority free-agent targets. Franklin will help to beef up the Redskins' defensive line.
Potential employers: New York Jets, New England and Cincinnati.
Playing on three different teams last year, Moss made a spectacle of himself, and needs to rebound in 2011 with a better season.
If a playoff team like the New York Jets has an opening, and he has a chance to play for a team that has an opportunity to win it all, that would be a very strong option for him at this stage of his career.
While there was some speculation he could resurface with the Patriots, his best bet appears to be that the Jets aren't able to sign both of their high-priced free agent wide receivers, and then have an opening for Moss to fill.
That seems to make the most sense right now.
Potential employers: Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Minnesota, Chicago and Seattle.
Willie Colon has the sense that the Pittsburgh Steelers do not want him back with the team. His agent hasn't heard a peep from the team, so the writing appears to be on the wall for the veteran lineman to find a new home.
Of the various teams that are in need of a starter, the Chicago Bears appear to be a team that I think could have a use for Colon, as they have some issues now on their offensive line.
Potential employers: Tennessee, Detroit and New York Giants.
The Detroit Lions have the defensive line personnel set for a solid 2011 season. Now they just need help from the linebackers and secondary to raise the level of the overall defense.
Stephen Tulloch would be a good upgrade in their linebacking corps.
Tulloch is a solid tackler and is aggressive enough to plug the holes. The Lions really need help on their defense against the run, so Tulloch will make tremendous sense.
Potential employers: San Diego and Chicago.
The San Diego Chargers will be bringing back Vincent Jackson for at least one more year, so there is a distinct possibility that the Chargers would let Malcom Floyd go via free agency.
The Chicago Bears need to upgrade their wide receivers. We speculated earlier that the Bears could be interested in guys like Terrell Owens or Plaxico Burress, but those players may not have that much future left, while Floyd is only 29 years old and entering just his sixth NFL season.
From a future perspective, Floyd makes the most sense for the Bears to try to sign to a new deal.
Potential employers: Baltimore, Detroit and Buffalo.
It appears that Jared Gaither might have played his final season in Baltimore. The Ravens have other options at tackle now, so if Gaither gets too rich a deal out there in free agency, the Ravens may just let him walk.
We speculated earlier that the Bills would sign Tyson Clabo, so that means they would be out of the running on Gaither.
That leaves the Detroit Lions to pick up the slack, as they could use an upgrade on their offensive line as well. Detroit looks to add one more piece in their rebuilding efforts.
Potential employers: New York Jets, Detroit, Houston and Oakland.
The Houston Texans were thought to be on the verge of making a playoff run in 2010 before their secondary decided to do a disappearing act. Cromartie is a strong coverage guy, and that is something the Texans desperately need.
The Jets have more pressing needs at wide receiver than to open up the coffers for Cromartie, so look for him to have a new home in 2011. Cromartie will go a long way towards addressing the pass coverage problems in Houston.
Potential employers: Arizona and Kansas City.
The Kansas City Chiefs are looking to add one top receiver to add to their slot, which would complement Dwayne Bowe and rookie Jonathan Baldwin.
Arizona may have already found a successor to Breaston in receiver Andre Roberts, so that means Breaston can explore his market value when free agency begins.
Breaston to the Chiefs makes sense, so it will be interesting to see if that is where he lands.
Potential employers: New York Giants, Dallas, St. Louis and New Orleans.
Barry Cofield has been banged up with knee and shoulder surgeries over the past few years.
The Giants sent a message to Cofield that they were going to get younger on the defensive line when they drafted two young studs in Linval Joseph and Marvin Austin.
Those picks essentially told Cofield that it is time for him to find a new home.
Enter the St. Louis Rams. They have a need on the defensive line and there is already a strong relationship between Cofield and head coach Steve Spagnuolo.
This just seems to make too much sense, so look for Cofield to be playing in the NFC West in 2011.
Potential employers: Cincinnati, Seattle, Houston and Detroit.
While there is a chance that Joseph could return to the Bengals, the growing perception is that Joseph is really going to be in demand based on the current secondary needs going around in the NFL.
As strong a coverage guy as he is, there are a number of teams that will be bidding him up, making him too rich for the Bengals to retain. This is Mike Brown at the helm, so he will let Joseph walk.
The team that I see him going to would be the Detroit Lions. They need secondary help and with their defensive line prowess, Joseph could be the beneficiary of some hurried throws.
If Joseph does land in Detroit, look for him to have a very solid season with the Lions.
Potential employers: New England and Kansas City.
Matt Light is one of the best free agent offensive linemen in the upcoming free agent class. As such, his services will be in demand, and the price will not be cheap.
Although it would be hard for Patriots fans to fathom Light not being there, they need to brace for the possibility that he could be playing elsewhere in 2011.
It is not an accident that the Patriots drafted Nate Solder in the first round. They may not have intended to start Solder in 2011, but to groom him for when it was time for Light to retire. That was the ideal plan, but circumstances may dictate that they have to go to Plan B.
Not only that, but Light was guilty of some negative comments towards Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the off-season, so that is another factor in how this will all play out.
The Kansas City Chiefs may very well be interested in bringing Light over to the AFC West. General Manager Scott Pioli and head coach Todd Haley already know what kind of player Light is.
That seems to be sufficient grounds to try to make a deal happen.
Potential employers: Baltimore, Detroit and Houston.
Coming in to the 2011 season, the Baltimore Ravens have a very crowded secondary on their hands. They have Dominique Foxworth, Lardarius Webb and rookie Jimmy Smith. They also have two free agents in Josh Wilson and Chris Carr.
Due to the crowded conditions, it is safe to assume that the Ravens will let one of the pair of free agents walk. My best guess is that the Ravens will keep Josh Wilson, so that means Chris Carr will be looking for a new home.
When you think about teams in need of solid cover guys, the teams that leap to the forefront are the Detroit Lions and the Houston Texans.
Both of them would be a solid play for Carr, so for the sake of argument, we will pick the Houston Texans as his next employer.
Potential employers: New York Jets, Detroit, Washington, San Diego, Denver, Houston, Green Bay, Dallas, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Oakland.
It is no surprise that we are listing the most potentially interested teams for any free agent in the class to be reserved for the best player available in free agency (that was not hit with a franchise tag).
Such is the demand for Nnamdi Asomugha. As arguably, one of the best, if not the very best, cornerbacks in the NFL, in a pass-happy league, there is something reassuring to head coaches and defensive coordinators that you have someone like Asomugha patrolling your secondary.
Out of all the potential suitors that Asomugha has, it will require somebody that has ample cap size to be able to step up and pay him an annual salary in the $17 million-$19 million range.
One thing is certain, and that is Asomugha will conclude the free agency period as one very rich football player.
Where does he wind up going? I am going with the Philadelphia Eagles. If they succeed in signing Asomugha and Plaxico Burress, they could finally walk away with their first Vince Lombardi trophy.