2011 NFL Free Agency: Bernard Pollard and 16 Other Players Who Deserve More Buzz
With another NFL season approaching and the lockout (hopefully) coming down the home stretch, fans are anticipating an actual offseason, complete with free agency and all the hustle and bustle that goes with it.
While we anxiously wait for the lockout's last flame to be extinguished, let's take a look at 17 players who deserve more attention amid endless free agency speculation.
One of those players is Houston Texan Bernard Pollard, who is not oft-mentioned outside of the Texans realm despite fantastic numbers and solid (albeit inconsistent) overall play for the league's worst pass defense.
Each of these players has legitimate potential to be a force for any team that decides to reach out with an offer. However, they may be overshadowed or underrated.
Including Pollard, here are 17 free agents-to-be who deserve to be mentioned among the greats of this coming free agency cycle.
Kevin Burnett, ILB, San Diego Chargers
Kevin Burnett racked up 95 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles and two picks in San Diego's 3-4 defense last season. That's pretty impressive, if you ask me.
Still, you don't hear his name much when free agency talks come up.
The Chargers had the No. 1 ranked defense last season (although their 9-7 season didn't show it), and Burnett was one of the big reasons why. Despite the loss of Shawne Merriman, the San Diego was in good hands at linebacker with the 6'3", 240-pounder leading the way.
I have to imagine any team with a 3-4 defense that needs help at inside linebacker would be thrilled to land a guy like Burnett in free agency.
Aside from Stephen Tulloch and Paul Posluszny, Burnett might be the best free agent inside linebacker in the league. He certainly deserves to be mentioned among the top.
Kendric Burney, CB, Undrafted Rookie
North Carolina's Kendric Burney was one of the nation's top cornerback prospects in 2010, until North Carolina's mass exodus of star players stemming from NCAA infractions cut his season in half.
Burney was suspended for six games of the 2010 season for receiving benefits from someone deemed an agent by the NCAA.
When he returned, the 5'9", 180 pounder recorded 30 tackles and two interceptions. While those might not be gaudy numbers even for half a season, the stats don't do his talent justice.
Burney had a stellar junior year, recording 52 tackles, a sack and five interceptions for a total of 200 yards and two touchdowns. Despite not being drafted for a reason I can't fathom, Burney has early-round talent.
If players like Jimmy Smith, Brandon Harris and Aaron Williams can make impacts as rookies, Burney most certainly can and will.
As a probable bargain, he should be at the top of the list for anybody looking to fill depth needs at cornerback. The Tar Heel should be regarded as a steal, and his hype should increase.
Michael Bush, RB, Oakland Raiders
Despite McFadden overshadowing him, however, Bush quietly put together a decent season with 158 carries for 655 yards and eight touchdowns.
With only four years of experience, Bush has been lightly used and should have a lot of gas left in the tank. Any team looking for running back help would potentially get a starter in the Louisville product.
Despite signs of greatness, Bush is neither highly regarded nor oft-mentioned in free agency talks.
The 6'1", 245 pounder could be a fantastic buy-low option, and if he finally gets a starting gig, chances are he'll bust his way out from under the radar.
Doug Free, OT, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas gave Doug Free the job of protecting Tony Romo's blind side in 2010. While the Cowboys had a very disappointing season and Romo ended up injured, it's hard to pin any of that on their left tackle.
Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com says Free "played exceptionally well as Dallas' left tackle" and will "command a huge contract this offseason."
However, you hear a lot more about guys like Matt Light, Jammal Brown and Tyson Clabo. Dallas would do itself well to hold on to Free, but regardless of who he ends up with, he deserves more recognition.
Thomas Howard, OLB, Oakland Raiders
Thomas Howard started his NFL career with a bang, racking up 110 tackles in his first season with the Raiders. He followed that up the next season with 95 tackles and six interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns.
But since 2008, Howard has been underutilized in Oakland's defense and would do himself well to sign elsewhere this offseason.
The 6'3", 240-pounder could start for a lot of teams in the NFL, yet you almost never hear his name among top free agents. He could be yet another bargain if he is not retained by the Raiders.
Howard's skill rivals a lot of the league's top linebackers, and if he gets back into a starting situation, he could prove that once again.
Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers
Despite the pathetic season Carolina had, the play of then-fourth-year defensive end Charles Johnson had many Panthers fans saying, "Julius who?"
Johnson had 62 tackles and 11.5 sacks, establishing himself as a breakout star and one of the league's better pass rushers.
However, the 6'2", 275-pounder is mentioned much less often than players like Ray Edwards, Mathias Kiwanuka, Jason Babin and Shaun Ellis when it comes to free agency.
Johnson is a great player who should continue to produce like a top defensive end regardless of where he goes. His stock should go up.
Johnathan Joseph, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
But with the elite Nnamdi Asomugha commanding all the free agency attention, Joseph has gone all but unnoticed.
In addition to Asomugha, players like Champ Bailey and Antonio Cromartie have generated more buzz than Joseph, who might be better than both of them. Not only does he have the talent, but he's also still young and should have a lot of prime years left.
Joseph has expressed interesting staying with the Bengals, but I'm sure other teams will be gunning for him. Regardless, he deserves to be mentioned as often as any.
Zach Miller, TE, Oakland Raiders
Zach Miller might be one of the most underrated tight ends in the NFL, let alone among free agents.
Miller has not recorded gaudy stats throughout his career, but he has been one of the most consistent and reliable weapons on an Oakland Raiders team that, frankly, has been pretty bad over the past few years.
His 60 receptions for 685 yards and five touchdowns in 2010 were decent, and if the 6'5", 255 pounder were to get into a better offensive system, he could be one of the NFL's most productive tight ends. And since the Raiders seem like they're on the way up, he could end up producing big even in Oakland.
Either way, Zach Miller is a very talented tight end and deserves more hype.
Lance Moore, WR, New Orleans Saints
Lance Moore had a breakout season with the Saints in 2008, catching 79 passes for 928 yards and 10 touchdowns. After an injury-riddled 2009, Moore rebounded for 763 yards and eight touchdowns.
Despite his good productivity, players like James Jones and Santana Moss are much more prominent names in free agent discussions.
Jones may have more potential and Moss had better statistics last season, but Moore might be more reliable than either of them.
As long as he stays healthy, he will be a consistent producer and should generate more hype.
Kirk Morrison, ILB, Jacksonville Jaguars
Kirk Morrison was a solid starter for the Oakland Raiders before they drafted Alabama's Rolando McClain, prompting them to trade Morrison to the Jaguars.
Morrison had a somewhat average season in 2010, but had at least 116 tackles in all five seasons before that.
The 6'2", 240-pounder is another solid player who is overshadowed by guys like Tulloch and Posluszny, but he should get more hype, because he could start for most teams in the league.
Any team looking for linebacker help on the inside would be wise to look in Morrison's direction.
Bernard Pollard, SS, Houston Texans
While many people think the Houston Texans should let Bernard Pollard go, I'm of the opinion they would be wise to retain him.
Because of his play in the passing game, which was poor at times in 2010, Pollard could be willing to take a lesser contract amount. However, he has proven himself to be fantastic in run support, and his 111 tackles and four forced fumbles are a testament to that.
Not only were his numbers great last season, but it's worth mentioning that Pollard played in the NFL's worst secondary. With little help in the passing game, it's very possible he looked worse in coverage than he really is.
Since the Texans doing their best to stock their secondary with talent, Pollard would likely have more help this coming season if he stays with the team.
If not, however, someone else will benefit from his abilities. Either way, Pollard should be considered one of free agency's better safeties.
Barrett Ruud, ILB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Barrett Ruud has been a consistent force for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 2007.
Although he had a moderately down year in 2010 by his standards, Ruud has never been considered as good as he really is, nor is he this offseason.
Ruud still racked up 118 tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles for the Bucs in 2010, and arguably had better years in all three of his previous seasons. Despite his consistent strong play, Ruud is not regarded by most as a top inside linebacker.
2011 might be Ruud's first year with a team other than Tampa Bay, but the Bucs would be smart to resign him.
Wherever Ruud goes, he will more than likely earn a starting spot and should be getting more buzz.
Gerald Sensabaugh, SS, Dallas Cowboys
The Dallas Cowboys had one of the NFL's worst secondaries in 2010, but one of the bright spots was safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
A solid player all around, Sensabaugh logged 71 tackles and five interceptions on the season.
In a similar situation to Bernard Pollard, Sensabaugh could conceivably play even better if he had more support around him. The 6'1", 210 pounder does not get a lot of attention, however, despite being one of the better players in this year's free agent cycle.
Sensabaugh could be an upgrade for several teams this year, but Dallas should hang on to him if they don't want to have an even worse secondary in 2011.
Steve Smith, WR, New York Giants
New York's Steve Smith broke out in 2009 with 107 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdowns as a slot receiver.
However, after playing only nine games in 2010 because of an injury, Smith dropped under the radar.
If Smith and the Giants don't agree on a contract, the 5'11", 195-pounder will be a reliable starter for someone else provided he can stay healthy. Still, guys like Braylon Edwards, James Jones, Santana Moss and former fellow Giant Plaxico Burress are much more popular names.
I wouldn't be surprised if Smith surpassed all four of them in the coming season, so the buzz surrounding him should become more prominent.
Eric Weddle, FS, San Diego Chargers
Eric Weddle's production dropped off slightly after his breakout 127-tackle campaign in 2008, but he's still been one of the league's top free safeties since that season.
His 96 tackles and two picks are nothing to laugh at, and Weddle should be rewarded with a big contract. However, he's not a name you hear very often.
Whether that's because most people assume he'll be resigned by the Chargers or what, I don't know. But no matter the reason, Weddle is not talked about near enough. In fact, Walter Cherepinsky of WalterFootball.com believes that "excluding Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu, Weddle might be the best safety in the NFL."
Wherever he ends up, he'll be extremely beneficial to the pass defense. Teams with safety needs should take a very long look at what it would take to sign him.
Eric Weems, WR/KR/PR, Atlanta Falcons
Eric Weems was a special teams dominator for the Falcons in 2010, returning one kickoff and one punt for touchdowns while averaging 27.5 and 12.8 yards, respectively, on kickoffs and punts.
Merely a reserve wideout, Weems' abilities as a returner make him an intriguing free agent option. He is one of the best at what he does.
However, Weems is not a big name that comes up in free agency.
If Atlanta holds on to him, they'll have a very dangerous return game once again. If they don't retain him, someone else will reap the rewards.
Donte Whitner, SS, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo's Donte Whitner played the first full season of his career in 2010, and his his 140 tackles, forced fumble and interception were some of the most impressive in the league at the position.
Whitner showed himself to be a big producer when able to play through a whole season.
Despite the gaudy numbers though, Whitner is not a guy you hear about much in free agency. Guys like Quintin Mikell and Michael Huff get a lot more attention even though Whitner might be just as good.
It would be ideal for the Bills to hold on to him, as they need all the help they can get. Regardless, Whitner deserves more buzz.