What he’s meant for the Patriots: He has proven Tom Brady’s favorite target since being acquired in a 2007 trade with Miami. Welker is on pace to become the first player in NFL history with five seasons of at least 100 catches. Why he may leave: Although he’s still considered the league’s best slot receiver, the Patriots have a history of not signing wideouts over the age of 30 to long-term contract extensions (Welker turns 32 in May). New England also has groomed Julian Edelman as Welker’s heir apparent. What’s next: Welker is playing under a one-year, $9.5 million contract after being tagged as New England’s franchise player when the two sides were unable to reach agreement on a long-term deal during the offseason. Using the franchise tag again is unlikely because it would be even more costly in 2013 and the NFL salary cap is projected to stay flat. While you never say never with a team that makes as many quirky personnel moves as the Patriots, both sides will need to budge quite a bit for Welker to return next season.
What a feeling
The holidays aren’t the only reason for sentimentality at this time of year. As the NFL season enters the home stretch, the time that some well-known players have spent with their respective teams is likely coming to an end because of contract status, age or a combination of both. Just remember: If it can happen to icons like Peyton Manning and Brett Favre, it can happen to anyone. Here’s a look at one player from each franchise who may very well be playing elsewhere in 2013, and the reasons why. — Alex Marvez
Seattle: Jason Jones, DE
What he’s meant for the Seahawks: Jones and quarterback Matt Flynn are the team’s two highest-paid backups. At least Jones plays off the bench in Seattle’s defensive line rotation. Why he may leave: Jones was signed to a one-year, $4.5 million contract in the offseason with the hopes he could bolster the team’s pass rush after notching 16 sacks in four seasons with Tennessee. He doesn’t have great numbers personally (2 1/2 sacks in nine games) and was forced to miss time with an ankle injury but head coach Pete Carroll recently told Seahawks reporters that, “Our pass rush is at our best when he’s out there.” What’s next: Jones had his most success playing in the “Wide-Nine” style of defense that Tennessee utilized during his time there. Although they don’t have any key players whose contracts are expiring, Seattle must evaluate how much Jones is worth if he is used only as a situational player. Jones, too, must decide whether he wants to look for a starting job elsewhere. “I like my teammates and I like everybody here,” Jones told the Bellingham (Wash.) Herald. “But that’s something for my agent to handle.”
Arizona: Kevin Kolb, QB
What he’s meant for the Cardinals: Kolb is 6-8 as a starter with one win in relief during his 1-1/2 seasons in Arizona. Kolb hasn’t played since Week 6 because of a rib injury playing behind an offensive line that allowed him to get sacked 27 times during a five-game stretch. Why he may leave: There’s good reason why the Cardinals pursued Peyton Manning during the 2012 offseason. Even when Kolb wasn’t getting crushed earlier this season, Arizona’s passing game was lousy. Kolb will return to practice this week and could once again return to the starting lineup after the ineffectiveness of backups John Skelton and Ryan Lindley. But unless he plays like Manning and Kurt Warner combined, Kolb won’t be collecting a $2 million roster bonus and $9 million base salary in 2013. What’s next: Kolb is a reminder of how Arizona failed to effectively replace Warner following his retirement in the 2010 offseason. The Cardinals traded a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Philadelphia during the offseason for Kolb and then signed him to a five-year, $63.5 million contract. What a waste. Finding a quarterback remains Arizona’s top priority entering 2013.
St. Louis: Steven Jackson, RB
What he’s meant for the Rams: Because he played for a team that didn’t finish above .500 during his first eight NFL seasons (and likely his ninth as well), Jackson is one of the NFL’s most underappreciated players. He rushed for 1,000-plus yards from 2005 to 2011 thanks to one of the league’s fiercest rushing styles. Why he may leave: With Jackson set to turn 30 next July, the Rams began looking for a replacement by drafting two rushers — Isaiah Pead (second round) and Daryl Richardson (seventh) — in last April’s draft. Richardson outplayed Pead and is splitting snaps with Jackson, who has three games with 20-plus carries, but also two with less than 10. What’s next: Set to make $7 million in 2013, Jackson is expected to opt out of that final year of his contract during the offseason. If he doesn’t, the Rams probably will cut him outright to save the cash and cap hit. Jackson could return under a new deal, but he should receive a better offer elsewhere as St. Louis continues its use youth movement under head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead.
San Francisco: Brandon Jacobs, RB
What he’s meant for the 49ers: Nothing more than an insurance policy since signing during the offseason. Why he may leave: Although he logged 1,000-plus carries during seven seasons with the New York Giants and was a solid contributor to the team’s two Super Bowl victories, Jacobs has played in just one game with just one carry in San Francisco during the regular season. After recovering from a preseason knee injury, Jacobs still couldn’t take carries away from starter Frank Gore and backup Kendall Hunter. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh didn’t even activate Jacobs to play against his former team when the Giants came to Candlestick Park in Week 6. What’s next: Although he’s 30 years old with some wear and tear, what is essentially becoming a year’s paid vacation at $1.7 million should do wonders for Jacobs’ body. There also will be no one angrier rushing the football in 2013 when he signs elsewhere as a free agent.
Tampa Bay: LeGarrette Blount, RB
What he’s meant for the Buccaneers: Claimed off waivers from Tennessee, Blount was a rookie steal for the Buccaneers in 2010. He plowed for 1,007 yards and six touchdowns to help Tampa Bay finish with a 10-6 record. Why he may leave: Blount slumped in 2011, and his fall from grace was accelerated when the more-demanding Greg Schiano replaced Raheem Morris as Bucs head coach during the offseason. Schiano was so unimpressed with Blount’s work ethic that he drafted Boise State’s Doug Martin in the first round of last April’s draft. Martin won the job and has become one of the NFL’s hottest running backs. Blount’s playing time has diminished to the point he hasn't even gotten a carry in the Bucs' past two games. What’s next: Blount is a potential offseason trade candidate — at best — to a team that would like to pair a big-bodied rusher with a fleeter complement. If this season didn’t serve as a wake-up call for Blount to change his approach to football, nothing will.
New Orleans: Will Smith, DE
What he’s meant for the Saints: A 2004 first-round draft pick, Smith didn’t need long before making a positive impact. He led the Saints in sacks from 2005 to 2007 and had a career-high 13 during the team’s Super Bowl-winning season of 2009. Why he may leave: Smith is still a good player and ranks second on the Saints in sacks with five. But will he be worth a $9 million salary — as well as a $1 million roster bonus — in 2013 at the age of 32, especially with New Orleans facing other cap issues? What’s next: The Saints have supported Smith through one suspension (StarCaps) and potentially another one (the bounty scandal). Smith may no longer be an elite end, but his strong relationship with the team could lead to a restructured contract that keeps him in the fold. However this turns out, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo needs an upgraded defensive line in 2013 to produce the same caliber of “NASCAR” pass rush from his Halcyon days with the New York Giants.
Carolina: Captain Munnerlyn, CB/PR
What he’s meant for the Panthers: Munnerlyn has returned two interceptions for touchdowns this season and started the past seven games in place of the injured Chris Gamble. Munnerlyn also handles Carolina’s punt returns. Why he may leave: The Panthers probably will have no salary-cap room to sign him or many of their other free agents (although it’s a relatively small class). Ex-Carolina general manager Marty Hurney poured so much money into a block of veterans in recent years that it actually would result in a cap charge or a nominal savings by releasing many of them. And if you do cut players like running back DeAngelo Williams or linebacker Jon Beason, who do you sign to replace them without cap space? What’s next: At 5 feet 8, Munnerlyn won’t be receiving starter’s money. But he should score a nice deal as a nickel cornerback and special-teams ace. With head coach Ron Rivera a goner, the best-case scenario for the Panthers would be hiring a replacement who believes he can get much more out of the current roster.
Atlanta: Michael Turner, RB
What he’s meant for the Falcons: The 2008 free-agent signing of Turner was one of general manager Thomas Dimitroff’s most brilliant moves. Turner carried a run-heavy offense for four seasons, giving quarterback Matt Ryan time to develop under center. Why he may leave: The Falcons are a pass-first offense now under Ryan and new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. Turner also has lost a step, as reflected by his 3.5-yard rushing average, the worst of his nine-year NFL career. What’s next: NFL running backs tend to fall of the cliff when reaching the age of 30. That appears to be the case with Turner. The Falcons would save $3 million off their 2013 cap by releasing him in the offseason. That money could be used toward a contract extension for Ryan, who will be entering the final year of his rookie deal.
Chicago: Brian Urlacher, MLB
What he’s meant for the Bears: For 13 seasons, Urlacher has followed in the footsteps of Hall of Fame linebackers Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka to earn what will someday be his own bust in Canton, Ohio. If he stays healthy, Urlacher will tie Walter Payton’s franchise record for most games started with the Bears (184) at season’s end. Why he may leave: Injuries have taken a heavy toll on Urlacher, who will be 35 entering next season. More than ever, Urlacher is forced to use his guile reading opposing offense to compensate for diminished speed. What’s next: Urlacher’s contract expires at the end of the season. If he wants to keep playing and a top-dollar contract isn’t his top priority, Urlacher could re-sign with the Bears to finish his storied career. Chicago, though, also has to evaluate just how much Urlacher has left before deciding whether it’s time to move on despite his legendary standing and the leadership he provides.
Detroit: Cliff Avril, DE
What he’s meant for the Lions: Since 1982, none of the leading Lions defenders has produced a higher sack average than Avril. He has 37 1/2 in 68 career games. At 26 years old, Avril also still has upside. Why he may leave: Avril was designated as the team’s franchise player and couldn’t reach agreement on a long-term deal entering the season. Using the tag again would cost the Lions at least $11 million against their 2013 salary cap. What’s next: The Lions must decide whether franchising or re-signing Avril to a multiyear extension is feasible with other top young defensive starters such as linebacker DeAndre Levy and safety Louis Delmas also set to become unrestricted free agents.
Minnesota: Michael Jenkins, WR
What he’s meant for the Vikings: Unfortunately for Minnesota, very little. Jenkins has produced one 100-yard game during his 1-1/2 seasons in the Twin Cities. Why he may leave: Jenkins never lived up to his first-round billing in seven seasons with Atlanta. It’s the same in Minnesota. The problem is compounded by the Vikings’ lack of deep threats to complement wide receiver Percy Harvin. There’s no way Minnesota will pay Jenkins the $2.4 million roster bonus he is due in the offseason. What’s next: At age 30, Jenkins is likely destined to a string of one-year contracts and backup roles with other teams before his NFL career comes to a close.
Green Bay: Greg Jennings, WR
What he’s meant for the Packers: Jennings has become one of the most prolific receivers in this franchise’s storied history. Since 2007, he leads all NFL players with 30 catches of 40-plus yards. Jennings also caught at least nine touchdown passes in four of his first six seasons in Green Bay. Why he may leave: This is an NFL case of supply and demand. The Packers have an ample supply of talented wideouts that include Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and James Jones. The demand elsewhere for Jennings in free agency next spring surely will exceed what Green Bay is willing to pay, especially considering that Packers cornerstones such as outside linebacker Clay Matthews and quarterback Aaron Rodgers are in line for new contracts. It also would be cost-prohibitive for the Packers to use a franchise tag on Jennings. What’s next: Of all the teams that could use his services, Miami makes the most sense. Jennings played under Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin when Philbin was Green Bay’s offensive coordinator. Miami also is in desperate need of a big-play receiver and will have the cap space available to land Jennings.
Washington: Santana Moss, WR
What he’s meant for the Redskins: The trade that brought Moss from the New York Jets in exchange for Laveranues Coles in 2005 was a great move by a franchise that didn’t make too many of them in the previous decade. Moss led Washington in receiving from 2005 to 2010. He also started 12 games last season. Why he may leave: Like the Dallas Cowboys, Washington is facing an $18 million salary cap penalty for infractions committed in 2010. Wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Josh Morgan were signed to contracts at starter’s money during the 2012 offseason and Leonard Hankerson is a promising second-year player. That should make Moss too great a luxury to carry at a $4.15 million salary in 2013. The Redskins would clear $2.15 million in cap space with his release. Trust me: Moss isn’t the only veteran Washington will likely be cutting ties with because of its salary-cap issues. What’s next: Although he’s 33 years old, Moss is having a good season with seven touchdown catches. He should land a short-term deal elsewhere if the Redskins let him go.
Eagles: Michael Vick, QB
What he’s meant for the Eagles: Vick didn’t just reinvent himself following a two-year prison stint when signing with Philadelphia in 2009. He also overcame long odds to win the starting job and lead the Eagles into the playoffs in 2010. Why he may leave: From the start of the 2011 season, Vick began a gradual slide that eventually put his starting job in jeopardy in 2012, even before being sidelined by a concussion in Week 10. There are other reasons for his ineffectiveness this season like an injury-ravaged offensive line. Vick, though, simply hasn’t performed like a quarterback worthy of a $15.5 million base salary in 2013. What’s next: Although embattled Eagles head coach Andy Reid has said Vick would start when healthy, rookie Nick Foles looks more like the future quarterback for Philadelphia. The most likely suitors for the 32-year-old Vick in the offseason will be teams looking for a top-flight backup or bridge starter until a youngster is ready to play.
Dallas: Anthony Spencer, OLB
What he’s meant for the Cowboys: Spencer is one of the top 3-4 linebackers when it comes to stopping the run. He averaged 65 tackles the previous three seasons after becoming a full-time starter and, despite missing two games with a pectoral injury, is on pace for a career-high 80-plus stops in 2012. Why he may leave: Whether because of skill limitations or his defensive role, Spencer hasn’t provided the pass rush expected from a first-round draft choice. Spencer's 6 1/2 sacks this year are his most in six NFL seasons — and that’s playing opposite a linebacker who draws regular double-teaming in DeMarcus Ware. Another factor: Using a franchise tag on Spencer for a second consecutive year would cost the Cowboys at least $10 million against the 2013 salary cap. That is probably exorbitant considering Dallas already is facing a $5 million cap penalty for violations committed during the 2010 season. What’s next: Spencer will be an even hotter free-agent commodity if he continues to play at the same high level for the rest of the season. The Cowboys hope that 2012 fourth-round draft pick Kyle Wilber can develop into a future starter.
New York Giants: Kenny Phillips, SS
What he’s meant for the Giants: Phillips was one of the most underrated contributors on New York’s 2011 championship squad. As injuries forced the Giants to shuffle their secondary, Phillips was a steadying presence with a career-high 11 passes defensed and four interceptions along with 72 tackles. His strong play continued with six tackles and two passes defensed in a Super Bowl XLVI win over New England. Why he may leave: His medical history and New York’s need to re-sign some of a slew of other starters headed toward free agency are working against Phillips. It was revealed that Phillips was already suffering from arthritis in his left knee at age 22 when undergoing season-ending surgery in 2009. Phillips, who had microfracture surgery to replace cartilage, has missed six games this season with a sprained right knee. Stevie Brown also has done a stellar job as Phillips’ replacement playing alongside free safety Antrel Rolle. What’s next: Phillips could become the second Giants first-round draft pick to leave in as many years. New York let cornerback Aaron Ross (Jacksonville) walk last season after five injury-marred seasons. The Giants are also expected to release cornerback Terrell Thomas (knee) before having to pay him a $6 million offseason option bonus. If not re-signed, Phillips will have ample suitors despite his prior injury issues.
Jacksonville: Terrance Knighton, DT
What he’s meant for the Jaguars: Knighton was one of the NFL’s most promising young defensive tackles in 2009 and 2010. He started every game and accumulated 79 tackles and 5 1/2 sacks. Knighton was impressive enough that the Jaguars thought he and 2010 first-round pick Tyson Alualu could become the second coming of John Henderson and Marcus Stroud. Why he may leave: “Pot Roast” began to cool off in 2011 as he battled weight problems. Even after getting in better shape this offseason, Knighton lost his starting job to C.J. Mosley in Week 5 and has made little impact on the league’s 31st-ranked defense. What’s next: Knighton once was headed toward a lucrative contract extension in Jacksonville. Now, the Jaguars are far more likely to let the underachieving Knighton leave in free agency in 2013.
Houston: Kevin Walter, WR
What he’s meant for the Texans: He has never reached 900 yards receiving in seven years with the Texans, but Walter’s true value isn’t found in his own individual statistics. Walter is one of the NFL’s best blocking wide receivers, which is reflected in Houston’s top-eight rushing ranking the past three seasons. Why he may leave: While Houston’s offense rarely designates him as a first or second option in the passing game, Walter doesn’t provide much punch as a pass-catcher. He’ll also be 32 next season with a $3.5 million base salary. Houston is trying to groom young wideouts Keshawn Martin, Lestar Jean and DeVier Posey for larger roles. What’s next: If his contract is an issue, Walter could agree to a restructured deal to stay with the Texans. His current contract runs through 2014.
Indianapolis: Dwight Freeney, OLB
What he’s meant for the Colts: No player in franchise history has more sacks than the 104 1/2 that Freeney has logged during his 11 seasons in Indianapolis. Freeney also is a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who ranked among the NFL’s top edge pass-rushers in his prime. Why he may leave: With the Colts changing defensive schemes from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the offseason, Freeney was shifted from end to outside linebacker. Indianapolis usually deploys four-man fronts when Freeney plays, but Robert Mathis has made a better transition to the new system. Freeney will be 33 years old entering next season, to boot. What’s next: When healthy, Freeney still displays juice to rush the passer as a nine-technique end aligned outside the tackle. He would be especially appealing for a team that runs the Tampa 2 defense deployed under the previous Colts regime.
Tennessee: Matt Hasselbeck, QB
What he’s meant for the Titans: Hasselbeck did exactly what the Titans had hoped when signing him as a free agent in 2011, starting all 16 games so rookie Jake Locker would have extra time to develop. Overall, Hasselbeck has an 11-10 starting record the past two seasons. Why he may leave: Hasselbeck’s mentoring services may no longer be needed by the Titans — especially with a $5.5 million base salary due in 2013 for a 37-year-old player who ideally wouldn’t start again unless Locker was injured. Locker, who missed five games earlier this season because of a dislocated left (non-throwing) shoulder, re-entered the starting lineup in Week 11 against Miami and will remain there unless hurt again. Third-year quarterback Rusty Smith also may be ready to assume the second-string role next year based upon his solid play during the 2012 preseason. Plus, Smith’s base salary is considerably less at $575,000. What’s next: Hasselbeck’s release isn’t a given as the Titans have carried two high-priced quarterbacks before when juggling Kerry Collins and Vince Young in 2009 and 2010. It would be interesting to see if Hasselbeck has offseason trade value from another team seeking a mentor/short-term fix while grooming a rookie a la the Titans and Locker.
Kansas City: Dwayne Bowe, WR
What he’s meant for the Chiefs: With 53 catches for 667 yards, Bowe is on pace to lead Kansas City in receptions for the fourth straight year. Bowe’s best season came in 2010 with a 72 grabs for a career-high 1,162 yards and 15 TDs. Why he may leave: Unable to secure a satisfactory long-term deal from the Chiefs during the offseason, Bowe showed his dismay with being named Kansas City’s franchise player by skipping training camp before reporting. Using the tag on Bowe again would cost the Chiefs more than $10 million in 2013. What’s next: Bowe recently told the Kansas City Star that his desire to stay with the Chiefs is a “no-brainer.” Considering the uncertain future of general manager Scott Pioli in Kansas City, there’s no way to know right now if the Chiefs’ brain trust will feel the same way in February. At 28 years old, Bowe would be among the NFL’s most attractive free-agent wideouts if not re-signed.
San Diego: Quentin Jammer, CB
What he’s meant for the Chargers: No cornerback has played more games for the franchise (167) than Jammer since his 2002 first-round selection. Although he has never reached a Pro Bowl, Jammer is a sound tackler who is also consistent in coverage. Why he may leave: The 33-year-old Jammer is a pending free agent. If the Chargers fire head coach Norv Turner and general manager A.J. Smith at season’s end for failing to make the playoffs again, the new regime could be looking to make over the roster with younger talent. Jammer also probably won’t be San Diego’s top offseason priority at cornerback with fellow starter Antoine Cason set to become a UFA, as well. What’s next: It’s wait-and-see for Jammer and plenty of other veterans on San Diego’s roster. Jammer is still playing at a high enough level that he should draw interest elsewhere as a starter for at least another season if he doesn’t return.
Oakland: Richard Seymour, DT
What he’s meant for the Raiders: After being acquired from New England for a first-round pick, Seymour averaged more than five sacks a season between 2009 and 2011 and earned Pro Bowl berths the past two seasons. Seymour also had respect from players in Oakland’s locker room for his past accomplishments with the Patriots and standing as one of the league’s best linemen. Why he may leave: Seymour is 33 years old and the abuse that comes with 12 NFL seasons has taken a heavy physical toll. Seymour reportedly has an arthritic knee and missed the past three games with a leg injury. Now that general manager Reggie McKenzie is running the show, Oakland is trying to build a younger roster that isn’t skewed toward high-priced veterans on the downsides of their careers like Seymour, who had only 15 tackles and three sacks on an awful defense this season before getting injured. What’s next: Late Raiders owner Al Davis rewarded Seymour with contracts totaling $42.4 million the past three seasons. There’s no way Seymour will command that type of cash when becoming a free agent in 2013 provided he even wants to keep playing.
Denver: Knowshon Moreno, RB
What he’s meant for the Broncos: Moreno is a reminder of just how badly ex-Denver head coach Josh McDaniels botched the 2009 draft. Even when not sidelined by injuries — an all-too-common occurrence during his first three NFL seasons — Moreno has slid so far down the depth chart that he has spent almost the entire season thus far as a healthy scratch on game days. Moreno and fellow first-round pick Robert Ayers, who is a backup defensive end, are the only two members remaining from their 10-member draft class. Why he may leave: As first reported by FOX Sports NFL insider Jay Glazer, starting running back Willis McGahee will miss the next six-to-eight weeks with a leg injury. That means it’s now-or-never for Moreno to prove himself while receiving snaps alongside fellow backups Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball — he started in Week 12 against the Chiefs and carried 20 times for 85 yards. If he doesn’t pan out, there’s no way the Broncos will pay Moreno the $1.7 million base salary he’s set to earn in 2013. What’s next: The Broncos would be wise to add a young running back during the offseason to complement the 31-year-old McGahee. Moreno could use a change of scenery. He has two career 100-yard rushing games to his credit and will turn just 26 years old next summer. That makes Moreno an intriguing target for a team seeking a bargain-basement backup with upside provided he can finally stay healthy for an extended stretch.
Baltimore: Ed Reed, FS
What he’s meant for the Ravens: Arguably the best safety of his generation, Reed’s ball-hawking skills have generated 60 interceptions and 11 forced fumbles in his 11 seasons in Baltimore. Why he may leave: Not only is he set to become an unrestricted free agent, the Ravens may have higher priorities than re-signing Reed despite his esteemed standing with the franchise. Baltimore will likely be tight against the salary cap and have younger starters like quarterback Joe Flacco, cornerback Cary Williams, and linebackers Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe also reaching UFA status in 2013. Reed probably wouldn’t come on the cheap just to stick with the Ravens, either. What’s next: Reed has discussed retiring in recent years because of the physical toll that football has taken on him. If he decides to continue playing and doesn’t re-sign with the Ravens, New England would be an intriguing destination just like it was with safety Rodney Harrison at the tail end of his NFL career. The Ravens don’t have a Reed replacement waiting in the wings, but hard-hitting Bernard Pollard is having a good season at strong safety.
Pittsburgh: Casey Hampton, NT
What he’s meant for the Steelers: The longest-tenured Steelers player, Hampton has adroitly manned the most physically demanding spot on Pittsburgh’s defense for 12 years. The Steelers have ranked in the top eight in run defense in 11 of those seasons. Why he may leave: Although he has started every game this season, appearing in 168 career regular-season games has taken a heavy physical toll on Hampton. He also will be 36 at the start of next season. What’s next: Even with age and injury concerns, Hampton could draw a market in free agency because there aren’t enough quality nose tackles for teams that play a 3-4 defense. The Steelers also appear to have Hampton’s heir apparent waiting in the wings in Steve McLendon. But don’t discount the possibility of Hampton returning on a one-year deal if he wants to keep playing. That speaks to Hampton being an underrated and beloved member of the NFL’s oldest defense.
Cleveland: Josh Cribbs, WR/KR
What he’s meant for the Browns: Since joining the team as an undrafted college free agent in 2005, Cribbs has become the most prolific kickoff returner in NFL history with eight touchdowns. Cribbs also has added three more scores on punt returns and served as a jack-of-all-trades on offense as a rusher, receiver and wildcat quarterback. Why he may leave: Cribbs recently told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that he feels “caged” by the limited role he’s playing this season. “There's something wrong when one of your best athletes doesn’t get the ball,” said Cribbs, who has notched only eight offensive touches (rushes/catches) in 2012. “I’m tired of people that don’t know how to use me. Get creative. Find ways.” Cribbs, though, hasn’t done himself any favors with his penchant for turnovers by losing two of five fumbles. What’s next: Changes to the NFL’s kickoff rules leading to more touchbacks have diminished Cribbs’ value. Comments like the ones Cribbs made also indicate he doesn’t expect to return in 2013.
Cincinnati: Michael Johnson, DE
What he’s meant for the Bengals: Once projected as a first-round draft choice in 2009, Johnson slipped into the third round because of concerns he would never fulfill his athletic potential. It took some time, but the 6-foot-7, 270-pound Johnson is finally doing that with the Bengals. He already has a career-high seven sacks in 10 starts. Such improvement comes at the right time for Johnson, who is in the final year of his rookie contract. Why he may leave: If the Bengals sign Johnson to a long-term extension, it will have a trickle-down effect on the contract status of an even more talented defensive lineman. Geno Atkins, who leads all NFL defensive tackles in sacks with nine, is a prime candidate for a new deal in the offseason because he is set to collect only $575,000 in the final year of his rookie contract in 2013. The Bengals may be able to re-sign starting end Robert Geathers at a cheaper price and/or promote backup Carlos Dunlap into the starting lineup. What’s next: Keeping the services of right tackle Andre Smith and middle linebacker Rey Maualuga through contract extensions or use of the franchise tag will likely be more pressing priorities than retaining Johnson at the rate he would command as an unrestricted free agent.
New York Jets: Tim Tebow, QB
What he’s meant for the Jets: Not anywhere near as much as anticipated entering the season. The Jets acquired Tebow from Denver to play a niche role on offense and special teams as well as serve as Mark Sanchez’s backup. The hype was far greater than the end result. Tebow has barely played. And when he has gone under center, the gimmick plays are usually being stuffed at the expense of Sanchez’s rhythm. Why he may leave: Tebow chose being traded to the Jets rather than Jacksonville because he thought New York would provide a better opportunity to get on the field at quarterback. It didn’t transpire that way. Through no fault of his own, Tebow will always be a lightning rod for controversy as long as he’s wearing a Jets jersey. Greg McElroy has shown enough promise that he could become a viable backup for Sanchez in 2013. What’s next: Team owner Woody Johnson said last month that he plans for Tebow to play out the final two years on his Jets contract. We’ll see if the franchise is singing the same tune in March. Tebow has done nothing to justify bringing him back at a $2.6 million salary in 2013 even if he would count roughly $1.5 million in “dead money” against the cap if released. Tebow, too, should be anxious to land with another team that will give him a chance for more playing time at quarterback. Unfortunately for him, that may be an extremely limited market because of his limitations as a passer and the media circus that accompanies him.
Miami: Reggie Bush, RB
What he’s meant for the Dolphins: The No. 2 overall selection in the 2006 draft, the injury-plagued Bush had slipped in New Orleans to the point that he only commanded a sixth-round pick from Miami in a 2011 trade. Bush rebounded in South Florida with the first 1,000-yard rushing campaign of his NFL career last season. While not as dynamic this season, Bush still leads all Dolphins running backs with 662 yards and five touchdowns. Why he may leave: Bush is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and the Dolphins used picks in each of the past two drafts on running backs Daniel Thomas (2011 second round) and Lamar Miller (2012 fourth round). Bush’s effectiveness earlier this season was limited by a knee injury and he was benched for two quarters in Week 10 against Tennessee after losing his second fumble in three games. Bush has gone six straight games without logging more than 14 carries. What’s next: At age 27, Bush will be attractive to a club looking for a multipurpose back who also can contribute on special teams. The Dolphins have ample cap space if they wanted to bid for Bush but trying to sign other potential UFAs like cornerback Sean Smith, left tackle Jake Long and wide receiver Brian Hartline should be a far more pressing priority.
Buffalo: Tarvaris Jackson, QB
What he’s meant for the Bills: Nothing. Jackson has yet to get activated for a game this season as a third-stringer after arriving in an August trade with Seattle. Why he may leave: Jackson has no future in Buffalo. The Bills acquired him because projected 2012 backup Vince Young played poorly enough to get released and there was little faith in Tyler Thigpen as a viable starter in case Ryan Fitzpatrick was injured. Fitzpatrick has stayed healthy and Jackson arrived too late in the preseason to beat out Thigpen for a second-string spot. What’s next: Jackson, who had his best statistical season as Seattle’s starting quarterback in 2011, should have value as a backup elsewhere and can leave via free agency in the offseason. Buffalo already has made noise about selecting a quarterback early in the 2013 draft, which would further hasten Jackson’s departure.