NFL Free Agency: One Unsigned Player Every Team Should Consider Re-Signing
The unofficial slogan of the 2011 NFL preseason—"Football is Back" or "Back to Football" or whichever variation you prefer—also calls attention to another summer milestone: Free agency is over.
Well, not completely.
With NFL training camps wrapping up, preseason games underway and the regular season approaching fast, the majority of teams are finished signing new players and are instead focused on cutting the expendable players they do have while tinkering with depth charts.
For the most part, any pro football player who doesn't have a job as of today probably won't be able to call himself a pro football player this season.
Still, some unsigned free agents have reasons to be optimistic that they'll find work soon. Unexpected roster holes still pop up here and there, and given that familiarity with a certain team's system and locker room helps, some teams will look toward their former players to fill those gaps.
For every one of the 32 NFL teams, here is one unsigned free agent they should consider re-signing either now or later this season.
49ers: Troy Smith, QB
The quarterback situation in San Fran is the opposite of solid. And whoever lines up under center—be it Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick or current third-stringer Jeremiah Masoli—will have to be able to scramble out of trouble behind the team's shaky offensive line.
Smith didn't put up great numbers in his six starts for the Niners last season, throwing for 1,176 yards and five touchdowns versus four interceptions. But he does have more experience avoiding an NFL pass rush than Masoli (and Kaepernick for that matter), and no one should be surprised if this team needs to dust off its third-string QB at some point this season.
Jets: Tony Richardson, FB
The Jets decided to move on from the 39-year-old Richardson and give the starting fullback job to 24-year-old battering ram John Conner.
But if the New York offense continues to struggle scoring in the red zone and doesn't move the ball down the field like they want, Richardson could be back. He's a better pass-catching option, a powerful and experienced blocker and everybody on every team he plays for loves having him around.
Eagles: Leonard Weaver, FB
Weaver's left knee and left foot are recovering from major surgeries, so it's doubtful he'll even play this season. But he is such a popular teammate and respected leader in Philadelphia's locker room, I wouldn't be surprised if he's brought back to serve some kind of assistant coaching role until it's determined whether he can play again.
Rams: Kenneth Darby, RB
Steven Jackson needs a backup, and the Rams need a change-of-pace RB to show defenses a different look. Jerious Norwood and Cadillac Williams were signed for that reason, and both have the pure talent to be No. 1 running backs if circumstances were different.
But the reason Norwood and Cadillac were available at used-car prices is their history of injuries. Norwood played just two games last season, while Williams hasn't been the same since injuries sidelined him for most of the '07 and '08 seasons.
Darby hasn't been great at staying healthy, but he's had a few shining moments for the Rams and would be an option if one of their current RB's went down.
Lions: Kevin Smith, RB
With rookie RB Mikel Leshoure out for the season with an Achilles injury, Detroit may re-consider Kevin Smith, their 2008 draft pick who has the skills to be a solid running back, but has had some injury issues.
The Lions need some depth behind Jahvid Best, and Smith could challenge Jerome Harrison and Maurice Morris for their spots.
Chiefs: Chris Chambers, WR
Some thought it was a reach when Kansas City drafted WR Jonathan Baldwin in the first round, and the fact that Baldwin injured his wrist during a locker-room fight with RB Thomas Jones doesn't help the rookie's standing on the depth chart or among his teammates.
Chambers caught 22 passes for 213 yards last season and was released by the Chiefs this summer, but could be re-signed if the team doesn't find what they're looking for with their new receivers, Baldwin and oft-injured free-agent signee Steve Breaston.
Panthers: David Clowney, WR
Providing franchise QB Cam Newton with as many offensive weapons as possible should be a high priority for the Panthers, and Clowney has the speed to be a downfield playmaker.
Last season, Clowney only caught six passes in his stint with Carolina, but he did average 17.7 yards per reception.
Second-year WR David Gettis, a projected starter, tore his ACL in training camp. That could open a door for Clowney to return.
Ravens: T.J. Houshmandzadeh, WR
Lee Evans, after coming over in a trade with Buffalo, might in fact be the missing piece to Baltimore's passing attack. But there's got to be a reason the Bills were willing to give away their best deep-threat receiver for a fourth-round draft pick.
At 33 years old, Houshmandzadeh isn't anybody's deep threat, but he's a somewhat dependable possession receiver who is familiar with QB Joe Flacco and the Ravens offense.
Titans: Randy Moss, WR
No, I'm not trying to wish Moss out of retirement. If he says he's done, I'll believe him.
But that doesn't mean other teams won't try to talk to Moss about a comeback, or at least think about him when they need to bolster their receiving corps this season.
Moss didn't do much for the Titans in his half-season cameo, and seemed like he'd rather be shoe-shopping with his girl than playing for that team. He might be a little more more enthusiastic about the opportunity after he's been away from football for a while and sees that Tennessee has a proven NFL quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck.
It's unlikely, I'll admit, but if the Titans don't get what they need from their receivers, they could place a call to the superstar who briefly called Tennessee home.
Bengals: Terrell Owens, WR
Again, it's unlikely. But do the Bengals have a better receiver than T.O.? No.
Rookie A.J. Green might be a star in the making, but Owens is a star now. He racked up 72 catches for 983 yards and nine TD's for Cincinnati last season, and would make rookie QB Andy Dalton's life a lot easier.
The off-field distractions and bad reputation are always a risk, but from a pure football standpoint, re-signing T.O. when his surgically repaired knee heals makes all the sense in the world for a Bengals team that needs all the help it can get.
Cowboys: Leonard Davis, OG
Part of the Cowboys' process of upgrading its O-line this summer was to release Davis, who started every Dallas game for the past four years and made the Pro Bowl in three of those seasons. Not sure what that's about.
The Cowboys are now expected to start 32-year-old Kyle Kosier (shifting from left to right) at one guard spot, and career backup Montrae Holland at the other.
At some point, maybe when RB Felix Jones can't find anywhere to run, or when QB Tony Romo is trying to avoid pressure up the middle, the 'Boys will re-consider bringing back Davis, a 360-pound monster—if another team hasn't already picked him up.
Cardinals: Alan Faneca, OG
All the Cardinals have to do is look around their division to realize the importance of protecting the quarterback.
Two weeks into the preseason, Tarvaris Jackson can't get an unmolested moment to throw the ball in Seattle. Colin Kaepernick hasn't yet been handed the keys in San Francisco because his O-line hasn't proven they can keep him (or any other QB) out of the hospital. And in St. Louis, everybody knows the Rams season is over as soon as Sam Bradford gets a significant injury.
So considering that Arizona just handed new quarterback Kevin Kolb a $63 million contract, any move they can make to enhance his protection is one they'll at least consider. And if nine-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca decided he wants to come out of retirement, Arizona would be intrigued by the veteran savvy and interior toughness he'd bring to their work-in-progress line.
Steelers: Max Starks, OT
Starks is in a similar position to Bryant McKinnie—he pretty much lost his job because he got too big. Reported to be pushing 400 pounds at the time Pittsburgh parted ways, Starks was a starter for the team when he was healthy, and could regain a significant role if he drops some weight.
Raiders: Langston Walker, OT
Oakland has talent at the skill positions, but their offensive line needs some work. Walker started 15 games at right tackle last season, and could compete for his job again should the team re-sign him. The 32-year-old was rumored to be retiring, but he's said he's not done yet.
Giants: Rich Seubert, OL
The Giants released Seubert because he's coming off knee surgery and was due to make a good chunk of money, not because he's a bad player.
If and when Seubert gets healthy and ready to play, New York would be open to bringing him back at a lower price tag.
Broncos: Jamal Williams, DT
Denver's entire defense needed to get younger, so you can see why 35-year-old Williams hasn't been re-signed.
They also need to get better, meaning they should keep an eye on Williams, a three-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro.
Newcomer DT Ty Warren is already injured and likely out for the year, and fellow newcomer DT Brodrick Bunkley only came to Denver after a trade sending him to Cleveland fell apart because of his health.
Vikings: Pat Williams, DT
It's not like the Vikings want Williams to leave, but the 38-year-old's head is reportedly somewhere between taking a break from football and retiring.
Should he come back, Williams would team with longtime partner-in-grime Kevin Williams to give Minnesota their trusty old brick wall of a defensive front.
Chargers: Travis Johnson, DE
Johnson was a solid reserve on San Diego's No. 1-ranked defense last season. With a pair of youngsters penciled in to back up starting defensive ends Luis Castillo and Jacques Cesaire, Johnson's experience could make him an option as the depth chart shakes out.
Buccaneers: Stylez G. White, DE
Tampa Bay used their first two draft picks on defensive ends, and White got in trouble with coach Raheem Morris last season for his practice habits. But he is a talented player and the best unsigned free agent who played for the Bucs last season.
Plus, there is still a little uncertainty that rookie DE Da'Quan Bowers will stay healthy, so White may want to stay by the phone.
Bills: Akin Ayodele, LB
Ayodele started 10 games for the Bills last season and made 106 tackles. He's a solid, if not spectacular, inside linebacker who can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3, and help out a Buffalo defense that needs solid players wherever they can find them.
Right now, Nick Barnett and Andra Davis are manning the starting ILB spots for Buffalo, but those two played in a combined 10 games last season due to injuries.
Should those issues pop up again, Ayodele would be a good pickup.
Patriots: Tully Banta-Cain, LB
Surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle would likely keep Banta-Cain out of action early in the season, but when he's healthy, the Patriots will give their former starter a look. He's made 15 sacks over the past two seasons, and at 31 years old, he still has some game left in the tank.
It seems like every guy who used to play for the Pats always wants to go back, and Banta-Cain is no different.
Browns: Eric Barton, LB
Rushing the passer was an offseason focus for the Browns, but stopping the run also counts for a team that finished 27th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed last season.
Barton is 33 years old and accustomed to playing ILB in a 3-4, but could be brought back to Cleveland's new 4-3 scheme for depth behind oft-injured MLB D'Qwell Jackson.
Texans: Kevin Bentley, LB
Bentley started eight games at middle linebacker for Houston last season when DeMeco Ryans was injured. The team's switch to a 3-4 defense may not fit his natural strengths, but he's a good player who could adjust to an ILB role and help a Texans team that needs defensive help everywhere.
Packers: Brandon Chillar, LB
Chillar tore his hamstring during the lockout, allowing the Packers to void his contract without injury protection. Between the hamstring and a series of shoulder injuries, Chillar might have been cut even without the lockout.
Green Bay could consider re-signing the inside linebacker for depth behind A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop, but the defending Super Bowl champs honestly don't have too many holes on the roster.
Dolphins: Channing Crowder, LB
If you read what his ex-teammates are saying, Crowder's sudden retirement this summer is about as solid as the "retirement" of your average rapper or pro boxer. In other words, he'll be back.
He's only 27 years old, and while controversial, one of the emotional linchpins of the Dolphins defense.
Jaguars: Kirk Morrison, LB
Jacksonville's top free-agent signing, former Buffalo's standout Paul Posluszny, will take Morrison's starting MLB job. But if the popular and talented Morrison doesn't find another team soon, the Jaguars should consider bringing him back.
Maybe it won't be on the first unit, but Jacksonville certainly can find a spot for a player of Morrison's ability. He had 89 tackles last season, and was routinely good for 120-130 tackles in his previous stint with the Raiders.
Seahawks: Lofa Tatupu, LB
Although he's coming off two knee surgeries, Tatupu was the heart and soul of Seattle's defense for six years before the team released him when he didn't want to take a pay cut.
With the regular season approaching, Tatupu hasn't been picked up yet and is probably finding the market not as kind as he anticipated. He might be willing to take that pay cut and return to Seattle.
Bears: Pisa Tinoisamoa, LB
When he was able to play, Tinoisamoa was a productive 4-3 OLB for the Bears. He just wasn't able to play that often, missing 18 out of 32 games in his two seasons with the team.
Coming off the third knee surgery of his career, he would have to prove he can stay on the field before the Bears give him another shot.
Saints: Darren Sharper, FS
He's so old I heard he once got a pick-six on Otto Graham, but Sharper has been hanging around the league this long for a good reason.
New Orleans has their free safety of the future (and present) in Malcolm Jenkins, but Sharper could be a good mentor for the Saints' young DBs and still make plays in nickel situations.
Colts: Kelvin Hayden, CB
Hayden is like the Larry Brown of the 21st century. He became famous for some opportunistic moments in the Super Bowl—Hayden returned an interception for a touchdown during Indianapolis' championship win over Chicago—signed a big contract as a result ($43 million), and has unfortunately been a disappointment since then.
Hayden started 11 games last season, defending eight passes and intercepting two. He took both of those INT's back for touchdowns, but he also missed time with a neck injury. He also missed significant time in '09 and '08 with injuries.
The Colts let him go in free agency this summer, but if their pass defense struggles, they may want to bring him back into the fold.
Falcons: Brian Williams, CB
Atlanta's defense allowed opposing QBs to complete 65 percent of their passes last season, fourth-worst in the NFL, and was famously picked apart by Aaron Rodgers in their playoff loss to Green Bay.
Other than re-signing cornerback Brent Grimes, the Falcons didn't do anything to address its secondary in the offseason, and let nickel corner Brian Williams walk. Williams still doesn't have a team, so if they have problems again defending the pass this season—entirely possible with Jay Cutler, Michael Vick, Josh Freeman and Rodgers on the early schedule—Williams could find himself back in black.
Redskins: Shayne Graham, K
NFL kickers have less job security than contestants on "The Apprentice".
The offensively-challenged Redskins will be settling for a lot of field goals this season, and if current kicker Graham Cano is only making 68 percent of his FG's like he did last season—last place in the league among starting kickers—he could easily get axed at any point.
That would open the door for Graham, the veteran who went 12-for-12 on field goals for the Patriots last season. He was cut by the Redskins after missing two FG's in this year's preseason opener, but a bad week by Cano could find Graham right back in D.C.