As NFL fans anxiously await the end of the lockout, we now take a look at five NFL teams that must retain their best free agents for 2011—or risk having a letdown season.
While there are many organizations who need help through free agency, these five teams should try particularly hard to retain certain players who have starred for them in years past and could end up being sorely missed.
The teams are ranked based on how many players should be retained, the potential impact of each of those players and whether or not there are other players on the market who can be adequate and realistic replacements.
With that on the table, it's time to find out which teams' seasons are riding the most on re-signing their current free agents once the lockout is lifted.
Sources: WalterFootball.com, ESPN.com
The Houston Texans took a big step back in 2010 after steadily moving up over the previous few seasons. Their 6-10 record almost got head coach Gary Kubiak fired.
However, there's reason to be optimistic this season.
Texans running back Arian Foster had a breakout 2010, rushing for 1,616 yards and 16 touchdowns. With Foster, quarterback Matt Schaub and wide receiver Andre Johnson, Houston should have one of the best offenses in the league.
However, there are a few players they need to retain this offseason if they want to ensure success—which will only be defined by a playoff berth.
Fullback Vonta Leach was one of the big reasons for Foster's surprise Pro-Bowl season. Leach is one of the best run-blockers in the NFL and is also a great red-zone option for a team that has struggled to score inside the 20 in past years.
Receiver/returner Jacoby Jones has been a special teams force for the Texans for several years, but has disappointed on offense. He seemed to begin turning the corner at the end of last season, though, and could be a dangerous option across from Johnson this coming year.
Safety Bernard Pollard may not fit the style Wade Phillips wants in his secondary, but the fact remains he's tremendous against the run and would likely perform much better against the pass if he had some help.
While Houston does have other very realistic options to replace Pollard, Leach's impact will not be easily matched if he is let go. In his case, the money might be worth it. And while Jones is also replaceable, he might be the Texans' best option in terms of value.
They took a big step forward by re-signing Owen Daniels, one of the league's best tight ends when healthy. But if they want to ensure the playoffs this year, these three guys should be retained if possible. If they have to choose, however, Leach would be a no-brainer.
No matter what, Gary Kubiak's job will be riding on it.
The New York Giants have been one of the better teams in the NFL over the past few years under head coach Tom Coughlin. Despite a 10-6 record, however, the Giants missed the playoffs and Coughlin will enter 2011 on the hot seat.
New York has a few free agents who have been big performers for them in recent seasons, and they should do their best to retain them if they want to get past the Philadelphia Eagles and into the playoffs this season.
Running back Ahmad Bradshaw broke out for 1,235 yards and eight touchdowns on 276 carries in 2010, establishing himself as the Giants' top running back. While he did have fumbling issues, there isn't a guy in free agency other than DeAngelo Williams who has the pure talent Bradshaw possesses.
Slot receiver Steve Smith exploded onto the scene in 2009 with 107 catches for 1,220 yards and seven touchdown receptions, but was set back by injuries in 2010. The young receiver is a fantastic complement to emerging star Hakeem Nicks, and quarterback Eli Manning needs Smith if the offense is to keep humming along.
Tight end Kevin Boss has been a consistent blocker and red-zone option for the Giants since 2008, and being one of the more underrated players in the NFL, he may be one of the best values on the market.
Defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka started 2010 off with a bang, recording four sacks in the first three games before going down with an injury. Kiwanuka could start for anyone in the league, as well as alongside Justin Tuck and Osi Umenyora, arguably the league's best corps of defensive ends.
Defensive tackle Barry Cofield had a fantastic year in 2010, notching 54 tackles and four sacks, as well as a forced fumble. Cofield anchors one of the top defensive lines in the NFL.
All five of these players are dynamic talents, and the Giants should do their best to retain all of them. But since that's not realistic, their top priorities should be Bradshaw, Smith and Kiwanuka.
If they can't keep the majority of these guys, their 2011 season could be in jeopardy despite one of the NFL's best 2011 draft classes.
Ryan has formed the defense into one of the league's most feared units, and the offense has slowly progressed into a methodical and efficient machine known to come up big in the clutch.
However, the 2011 offseason will be crucial in the Jets' bid for a deep postseason run, in large part due to their many important players set to become free agents.
Receiver Santonio Holmes was suspended for the first five games of the season, but bounced back to be quarterback Mark Sanchez's top weapon, catching 52 passes for 746 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games. Holmes is one of the top receivers in the country, and the Jets have to hold on to him at all costs.
Braylon Edwards was a very solid complementary receiver to Holmes in 2010 despite having a history of drops. Edwards and Holmes would form one of the league's best receiver duos if Edwards is retained, but in the likely event that only one of the two can be kept, the Jets will go with Holmes without question.
The Jets had one of the most dangerous return games in the NFL with Brad Smith, who returned two kicks for touchdowns and averaged an astounding 28.6 yards per return. Smith also averaged 7.9 yards on 38 carries as New York's Wildcat quarterback. Smith is the ultimate Swiss army knife and must be re-signed.
Defensive backs Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool were two big contributors for the Jets defense in 2010. At least one of these two should be retained as well.
In addition to linebacker David Harris, who was franchised, as many of these players as possible should be re-signed for the 2011 season.
If not, the Jets could take a step back.
Still, the Falcons are young and talented, and with players like Matt Ryan, Roddy White, Michael Turner, Julio Jones, Curtis Lofton, John Abrahams and many more, the Falcons look like a Super Bowl-caliber team yet again.
For 2011 to be that special year, however, the Falcons have some players they have to bring back.
As good as all the skill position players I just mentioned are, they'll be largely ineffective if Atlanta doesn't re-sign its two top guards and top right tackle, who all happen to be free agents this offseason.
Guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl, along with tackle Tyson Clabo, are all solid linemen who will have a huge roles in the success of both the running game featuring Turner and the passing game led by Ryan, White and Jones.
In addition to the majority of their offensive line, the Falcons need to retain linebacker Stephen Nicholas and kicker Matt Bryant.
Nicholas was given the starting reins on the strong side partway into 2010, and responded with 78 tackles and an interception. Retaining Nicholas would allow the Falcons to let aging veteran Mike Peterson walk and move Sean Witherspoon to the weak side. Nicholas, Witherspoon and Lofton would potentially form one of the league's better linebacker trios.
Bryant may be just a kicker, but he was one of the best. In Atlanta's tough division, many games may come down to the wire, and Bryant's reliable leg could be the difference between a Super Bowl and an early playoff exit.
Signing these players will be important to Atlanta's success in 2011.
The Oakland Raiders have one of the more talented teams in the league, but have inexplicably struggled since 2003.
However, after an 8-8 season in 2010, things are beginning to look up for this franchise. Running back Darren McFadden finally lived up to his billing last season, and both the offense and defense have promising potential.
But a lot of the Raiders' best players are free agents this year, and to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they must retain the majority of them.
Let's start with the most familiar name in all of free agency: Nnamdi Asomugha.
The star cornerback is being courted by many teams, but the Raiders simply have to retain him or their secondary will take a big hit. Asomugha is easily the most irreplaceable player in this year's free-agent pool, and the Raiders must make it their No. 1 priority to sign him to a giant new contract.
Staying within the secondary, safety Michael Huff must also be retained. Huff recorded 94 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2010, establishing himself as one of the best safeties in the NFL. There are few players as good as he is in this year's pool, and most of them will be either older or more expensive. Oakland's best bet is keeping Huff.
Tight end Zach Miller could be the most underrated tight end in the NFL. Miller was Oakland's leading receiver in 2010, and outside of the young but promising Jacoby Ford and Louis Murphy, Miller could be Oakland's top receiving threat yet again. Owen Daniels was the only player on the table in Miller's league, and he was re-signed by the Texans. Miller has to be re-signed.
Running back Michael Bush was one of Oakland's unsung heroes in 2010. He provided a strong second option to relieve the injury-prone McFadden and also served as the team's power back, scoring eight touchdowns to McFadden's seven, despite receiving fewer carries. In the event of a McFadden injury, Bush would be a major luxury for the Raiders. Bush may be seen as disposable by some, but McFadden might be much less effective without his backup taking some of the load.
Based on the importance of these four players, the Raiders must retain all of them if they are serious about making the playoffs.