Once the NFL opens for business after the lockout is lifted, we could see a record number of players hit the open market — that’s if the new CBA allows players with four, five and six years of accrued service to become unrestricted free agents.
If the 2009 rules are in effect, not 2010’s, there would be approximately 130 players affected, according to the Sports Xchange, which means the unrestricted free-agent pool would be much deeper than usual.
Here’s a look at the top-15 players projected unrestricted free agents from the offensive side of the ball with at least four years of service:
Possible Suitors: Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins
Analysis: Williams is arguably the top free agent from the offensive side of the ball. However, some possible suitors filled their need at running back during this year’s draft. Still, the first-round pick of the Panthers out of the 2006 draft should receive plenty of attention in free agency if it’s deemed that he’s unrestricted.
The Panthers have younger backs such as Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson who are more than capable of handling the load if Williams doesn’t return for his sixth season with the team, which seems rather likely.
The Bengals, if they don’t re-sign Cedric Benson, will be in the market for a starting running back. Williams could handle a starting role for at least two to three more seasons.
While the Broncos have decent depth at the position, they don’t really have a running back who’s capable of handling a lot of carries. Head coach John Fox is a power running game proponent, so it’s expected that he’ll look to add a back capable of handling a lot of carries.
The Dolphins need to add at least one veteran capable of handling a lot of work because of head coach Tony Sparano’s power rushing philosophy, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they pursued Williams. This way, they wouldn’t have to rely on second-round pick Daniel Thomas to handle most of the work so early in his career. And most teams believe in a two-man backfield.
2) Santonio Holmes/Wide Receiver/New York Jets
Possible Suitors: New York Jets
Analysis: The Jets have said they want to re-sign him and Holmes is on record that he wants to come back. A source who knows Holmes well told FOXSports.com that the wide receiver “is absolutely looking forward to playing the rest of his career in a Jets uniform.”
3) Ahmad Bradshaw/Running Back/New York Giants
Possible Suitors: Miami Dolphins, New York Giants
Analysis: The talented Bradshaw will be an unrestricted free agent if the 2009 rules are in effect. If he winds up being an unrestricted free agent, there should be at least one team that steps up and makes a significant offer to sign him.
The Giants really have nowhere to turn if Bradshaw leaves in free agency, so they need to do whatever they can to re-sign him. Brandon Jacobs has been solid at times, but is wildly inconsistent.
The Dolphins are looking for speed at the running back position, so Bradshaw could fill that role and more. Bradshaw and rookie Daniel Thomas would make a great one-two speed and power duo.
Possible Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers, Seattle Seahawks
Analysis: The Steelers would like to re-sign Colon, who would be an unrestricted free agent under the 2009 rules, but he’ll likely receive a much better deal elsewhere once free agency starts. The Steelers might have selected Marcus Gilbert in the second round with the belief that he’ll eventually play right tackle, which would be a sign that they prepared for Colon’s possible departure. It should be noted that while Colon missed all of last season due to a torn Achilles’ tendon, he started running in November and is ready to play.
The Bills could pursue Colon to help alleviate their troublesome right tackle position. The Bills did re-sign veteran offensive lineman Mansfield Wrotto, but Colon would be an upgrade over him.
While Colon has played right tackle exclusively for the Steelers, he played guard in college. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bears were interested in him to play right or left guard or right tackle.
As noted above, Colon did play guard earlier in his career, and the Vikings could be looking for an upgrade at right guard over Anthony Herrera.
The Seahawks said they will give Stacy Andrews a chance to start at guard, but there’s an opening at the other guard spot. And Andrews is no sure thing.
5) Lance Moore/Wide Receiver/New Orleans Saints
Possible Suitors: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins
Analysis: Moore, who has five years of service, would be a restricted free agent under the 2010 free-agency rules. While the Saints want to re-sign him, Moore should receive significant interest elsewhere once free agency starts if he’s unrestricted.
The Bears need to add at least one veteran wide receiver, so Moore would make sense to pursue. He would be a nice fit for offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s scheme.
The Browns could use a sure-handed wide receiver like Moore. He could quickly become one of Colt McCoy’s favorite targets. It doesn’t hurt that Moore hails from Columbus, Ohio.
If the Giants lose Steve Smith in free agency, signing a similar player like Moore would make some sense. However, third-round pick Jerrel Jernigan, whose style of play is similar to Smith’s, might have been selected because the Giants felt they could lose Smith.
The Seahawks really could use the sure-handed Moore in their offense. They really don’t have a proven player such as Moore on their roster.
As for the Redskins, Moore would fit in well with Washington’s timing-based West Coast offensive scheme. Plus, they have major depth problems at wide receiver.
6) Zach Miller/Tight End/Oakland Raiders
Possible Suitors: Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders
Analysis: Unfortunately for the talented Miller, the draft took place before free agency, and most teams filled their need at the tight end position.
If the Raiders are unsuccessful in re-signing him, the Buffalo Bills, who are in desperate need of improvement at tight end, could make a push to sign him. The Bills were hoping to get something significant from 2009 fourth-round pick Shawn Nelson, but he has just 20 receptions in his two years of play.
7) Braylon Edwards/Wide Receiver/New York Jets
Possible Suitors: New York Jets, Washington Redskins
Analysis: Edwards will probably be playing elsewhere this season since the team is expected to re-sign Santonio Holmes to a big contract.
The Redskins, who are hurting at wide receiver, really could use Edwards’ size and playmaking ability on offense.
8) Sidney Rice/Wide Receiver/Minnesota Vikings
Possible Suitors: Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins
Analysis: Had Rice not had hip surgery last summer, he could have commanded a huge contract on the open market. Then again, the Vikings would have probably re-signed Rice last year had he not gotten hurt.
The Redskins will need to sign at least two veteran wide receivers especially if Santana Moss doesn’t re-sign.
9) Steve Smith/Wide Receiver/New York Giants
Possible Suitors: Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Giants
Analysis: Had Smith not been coming back from a serious knee injury, the Giants might have re-signed him prior to the March 4 transaction deadline. Even so, he should receive a decent amount of interest in free agency because of his solid skill set.
Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz would probably like to have a wide receiver like Smith, who is a terrific route runner and has great hands. The Bears clearly need to add at least one veteran to the mix.
The Browns are a receiver poor team, so Smith could make an impact right away if he’s healthy. He could give quarterback Colt McCoy a very reliable target for many years to come.
The Chiefs could use a slot receiver such as Smith to work underneath routes. While second-year wide receiver Dexter McCluster has speed to burn, it remains to be seen how the coaches will use him since he was injured for most of last season.
10) Matt Hasselbeck/Quarterback/Seattle Seahawks
Possible Suitors: Seattle Seahawks, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins
Analysis: If the Seahawks are unable to re-sign Hasselbeck, they could get in the Kevin Kolb sweepstakes or try to trade for veteran Kyle Orton, who would likely cost a lot less to acquire.
It’s been reported that Hasselbeck has a relationship with Titans offensive coordinator Chris Palmer that goes back more than 20 years, so that team could pursue signing the veteran quarterback should they not re-sign Kerry Collins. But Hasselbeck wants to play at least a few more seasons, and the Titans might try to get Jake Locker, their first-round pick out of this year’s draft, playing time this season.
The Redskins run a West Coast offensive scheme, which happens to be the scheme Hasselbeck has played in during his entire 12-year career. It’s almost hard to believe that John Beck, who turns 30 in August, is the favorite to start at this point behind center since he hasn’t started a game since his rookie season in 2007.
Possible Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins
Analysis: Considering the Redskins traded for Brown last year, it would be a bit surprising if they didn’t make an attempt to re-sign him. However, he would like to play left tackle, but Trent Williams is firmly entrenched at that position.
The Cardinals, who need help at right tackle, could pursue Brown. However, the Cardinals could choose to give Brandon Keith, who started nine games last season before getting hurt, a shot at the job.
The Falcons could pursue Brown if they don’t re-sign starting right tackle Tyson Clabo. While Brown prefers to play on the left side, there aren’t many starting left tackle jobs open around the NFL.
The Bills need to get better play from both tackle spots, so Brown could be on their radar. While 2008 seventh-round pick left tackle Demetrius Bell showed some improvement last season, he needs to be more consistent.
The Bears likely will be in the market for a tackle, it just comes down to what side they’re looking to for help.
The Chiefs’ interest in Brown or any other free-agent tackle would come down to their confidence in Barry Richardson.
12) Sean Locklear/Offensive Tackle/Seattle Seahawks
Possible Suitors: Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins
Analysis: With the selection of James Carpenter in the first round, that will end Locklear’s seven-year tenure with the Seattle Seahawks.
Locklear is capable of playing on either side of the offensive line, but is probably better off on the right. And right tackle is the position which remains open for the Cardinals.
If the Falcons don’t re-sign Tyson Clabo, the right tackle job would be open. While Locklear could come right in and start, 2009 fifth-round pick Garrett Reynolds could get a shot at the job if Clabo isn’t back for his seventh season with the team.
The right tackle position was a big issue for the Bills last season, so Locklear could help solidify it for the next few seasons.
The Bears could sign Locklear to play on the right side. If they did, first-round pick Gabe Carimi could start at left tackle. However, some personnel sources believe Carimi is better off for the long-term playing on the right side.
Barry Richardson started 16 games last season for the Chiefs, but Locklear could be an upgrade for the team at right tackle.
The right tackle job for the Redskins is open since Jammal Brown is unsigned. The team could choose to try fifth-year pro Stephon Heyer at right tackle, but some personnel sources believe he would be better off as a swing offensive lineman (top backup at guard and both tackle spots).
13) Matt Light/Offensive Tackle/New England Patriots
Possible Suitors: Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears
Analysis: With the selection of Nate Solder in the first round, the Patriots have essentially shut the door on the possibility of Light re-signing.
The Ravens need to solidify the left tackle position, and they could do so at least for the next few seasons with Light. If they signed him, Michael Oher could stay on the right side, where he could be more comfortable.
The Bills must do a better job in pass protection, so signing a veteran like Light could go a long way toward doing that.
The Bears had the worst offensive line in the NFL last season. If they signed Light, first-round pick Gabe Carimi could play on the right side.
Analysis: The Ravens want him back as Joe Flacco’s backup, but Bulger should be able to find a starting job elsewhere.
The Cardinals, if they don’t land Kevin Kolb in a trade, will need to look elsewhere for a starter for at least the next few seasons. Bulger’s skill set would be a good fit for their offensive scheme.
The Panthers will need a veteran to start at least this season while the coaches get first-round pick Cam Newton ready to play.
The Dolphins will sign a veteran to compete for the starting job against Chad Henne. Bulger has played in offensive schemes similar to Miami’s throughout his career.
The Vikings plan to sign a veteran, but they also plan to get Christian Ponder up to speed on the offensive scheme rather quickly, which means he could be ready to play early on. It’s not out of the question that the Vikings target a veteran for a short-term deal, possibly for one season.
15) Joseph Addai/Running Back/Indianapolis Colts
Possible Suitors: Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Analysis: Addai has five years of accrued service, so he would be an unrestricted free agent under the 2009 rules.
Addai has proven during his first five years of play that he’s probably better off in a two-back system, not as the main back. But that’s not a knock on his talent; he’s versatile enough to handle a variety of roles.
If the Bengals don’t re-sign Cedric Benson, Addai could wind up being on their radar. But the Bengals are more of a power running team, so Addai might not be as good of a fit as some of the other veteran backs scheduled to become free agents.
The Colts selected powerback Delone Carter in the fourth round of this year’s draft, so they could very well be moving on from Addai.
The Dolphins must add another veteran capable of handling at least 8-10 touches/game, so Addai would fit that profile quite well. In fact, he could handle at least the third-down role right this season for the Dolphins while sharing the ball with rookie Daniel Thomas.
The Rams badly need a backup to take some of the load off of veteran running back Steven Jackson. They also need to develop his successor. However, Addai is actually a little older than Jackson. At the very least, Addai, if he is unable to find a bigger role with another team, could sign a short-term deal with the Rams to be Jackson’s backup.
The Buccaneers, with Carnell “Cadillac” Williams unsigned, need to add depth at running back. Addai would be a perfect complement to second-year back LeGarrette Blount.
Notes: While they are technically free agents, Peyton Manning, Logan Mankins and Vincent Jackson received the franchise tag, making it highly unlikely that any team would be willing to sign them. Manning reportedly received the “exclusive” franchise tag, which means no other team but the Indianapolis Colts can negotiate with him.