Top free agents: Defensive backs
1. Nnamdi Asomugha: CB, Oakland
The former first-round draft pick and three-time Pro Bowler could be the highest-paid defender in the NFL despite having zero interceptions and only six pass breakups last season.
Potential landing spots: Baltimore, Detroit, Houston, Tampa Bay
Every team in the league would love to land a premiere defender like Asomugha, but I see three teams as the front-runners and one possible dark horse.
Baltimore’s defense is just one shut-down corner away from returning to dominating form, and by adding Asomugha opposite first-round draft pick, Jimmy Smith, they could find themselves with two this offseason.
Houston’s defense allowed the most passing yards in the league last season, giving up 278 per game. The Texans have solved 2/3 of their problems by hiring experienced defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips, and by using their first two draft picks on players that can flat out pressure the quarterback in J.J. Watt and Brooks Reed.
Landing Asomugha would complete the equation. Having to face Drew Brees and Matt Ryan twice a year is reason enough for the Buccaneers to be interested, but the off-field issues of Aqib Talib make it even more justifiable. Detroit is the dark horse in the race, but may find that Asomugha carries too big of a price tag.
2. Johnathan Joseph: CB, Cincinnati
Joseph battled an ankle injury last season that resulted in missing four games, but he still finished with three interceptions and 37 tackles.
Potential landing spots: Carolina, Cincinnati, Philadelphia
Carolina would be interested only if it believes it will lose Richard Marshall, and Joseph might not be thrilled to jump into a complete rebuilding situation.
Cincinnati will try its best to keep the tandem of Joseph and Leon Hall together for many years, and will make him and Cedric Benson top priorities once the free-agency period begins.
The Bengals can definitely afford to do so, as they have more than $50 million to spend on free agents if they choose. Outside of the Bengals, Philadelphia offers a great situation for Joseph and he would obviously help a defense that gave up 24 points per game last season.
3. Antonio Cromartie: CB, New York Jets
When you play opposite the best cover corner in the NFL, you are going to get challenged frequently. Cromartie stood up to that challenge and more, as he often shared coverage responsibilities of the opponent’s No. 1 receiver as Revis battled a hamstring injury. He finished 2010 with three interceptions and an impressive 17 passes broken up.
Potential landing spots: New York Jets
There has been speculation that the Jets would be interested in pursuing Asomugha, but I feel they would be best served by re-signing Cromartie and using the additional money on retaining Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes.
4. Brent Grimes: CB, Atlanta
Originally signed as an undrafted free agent, Grimes may be looking for a big pay day after his breakout season in 2010. His five interceptions and league-high 23 pass breakups led to his first Pro Bowl selection. Grimes will need to prove he isn’t just a one-year wonder, but his six interceptions in 2009 gave him a leg to stand on.
Potential landing spots: Atlanta
Grimes and Co. got torched in the postseason by Aaron Rodgers, who went 31 for 36 for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-21 Packers victory, but don’t let that cloud your judgment. Grimes will be a priority for the Falcons, who'll need to piece together another surprise defense after focusing heavily on the offensive side of the ball in the NFL draft. Retaining Grimes opposite Dunta Robinson is a priority.
5. Roman Harper: S, New Orleans
Harper is the first safety to appear on this list, and for good cause. He is a strong, physical player who plays tough in run support with 98 tackles and six forced fumbles, while being a main fixture for a Saints secondary that was fourth-best against the pass.
Potential landing spots: New Orleans
With Malcolm Jenkins being the only other safety under contract on the Saints’ roster, look for New Orleans to make re-signing Harper a top priority. He previously suggested he won't offer a “hometown discount” to the Saints, but he will be in black and gold when the dust settles.
6. Eric Weddle: S, San Diego
Weddle doesn’t get the national recognition he deserves, but he's a blue-collar player who averaged better than 100 tackles per season over the past three. He finished 2010 with 10 passes defensed and two interceptions.
Potential landing spots: Cleveland, Dallas, Indianapolis, San Diego
The Browns did well by using their first two picks in the NFL Draft to shore up the defensive line with Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, then adding a much-needed threat at wide receiver with Greg Little in the third round.
With Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown manning the cornerback positions, Weddle would be an instant upgrade at strong safety playing next to T.J. Ward.
Weddle’s run support could make a dramatic impact on a defense that gave up 130 rushing yards per game, putting them at 27th in the league.
Dallas could also use an upgrade at the safety position, but Weddle may not be flashy enough to leave a lasting impression on Jerry Jones. Indianapolis makes for an interesting scenario. After releasing the oft-injured Bob Sanders, who in turn was signed by San Diego in March, the Colts could wind up signing Weddle in return.
The Colts would get the benefit of a steady and reliable weekly output from Weddle, but would not get the game-changing plays they received from Bob Sanders when he was healthy. Finally, San Diego is still in the running to retain Weddle after placing a first-round tender on him.
7. Carlos Rogers: CB, Washington
Rogers was responsible for 12 pass breakups, two interceptions and one forced fumble in just 12 games, but he was also an integral component to a defensive secondary that gave up 262 passing yards per game (31st in the league).
Potential landing spots: Dallas, Houston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh
Dallas, Houston, and Philadelphia would all be interested if none land their first choices in Asomugha or Joseph. Pittsburgh enters the picture only if they lose impending free agent Ike Taylor. With it almost a certainty that Rogers will leave Washington, his situation will be interesting and potentially long lasting as teams will try and attract the names higher on this list before legitimately pursuing Rogers.
8. Brandon Carr: CB, Kansas City
The Chiefs' fifth-round selection of the 2008 NFL draft has been somewhat of a surprise, as he has started every game of his professional career, including 48 regular-season games and one playoff game.
Potential landing spots: Kansas City
Carr hasn’t had the statistical impact of his counterpart, Brandon Flowers, but he has been a tough and steady competitor for an improving team. The Chiefs gave up 388 total yards per game in 2009 and improved that number to 350 yards per game in 2010. That may not seem like a significant improvement, but that was good for a jump from 30th in the NFL to 12th in just one season. Javier Arenas may eventually challenge him for playing time, but Carr has played his way into another contract in Kansas City.
9. Michael Huff: S, Oakland
While Huff has steadily improved since being drafted seventh overall in the 2006 NFL draft, he has yet to grow comfortable in Oakland’s single-high safety defensive scheme. He finished 2010, his best season as a pro, with 94 tackles, seven passes defensed, and three interceptions. Most impressively, he also had four sacks, which betters any single season total of Charles Woodson, perhaps the best blitzing defensive back in the entire NFL.
Potential landing spots: Dallas, Oakland
Oakland is still in the running to retain Huff, but Dallas seems to make a lot of sense.
Huff grew up in Irving, Texas and won the Thorpe Award while playing college ball for the Longhorns, making him a very sexy pick for Jerry Jones.
Although he is more of a gamble, he would bring some of the same functionally to the Cowboys as I earlier described with Eric Weddle.
As for the Raiders, they are all but guaranteed to lose Asomugha and will have to rely heavily on the untested Stanford Routt and rookie draft picks Chimdi Chekwa and DeMarcus Van Dyke at the corner positions. Losing Huff could make an already unstable defensive secondary even worse.
10. Ike Taylor: CB, Pittsburgh
Taylor is the oldest in this group, but he still has the size and speed to be an impact corner. He fits in well with the physicality the Steelers are known to play with, and has even recorded as many as 91 tackles in a season. In 2010, he finished with 11 breakups and two interceptions, to go with his 66 tackles and one forced fumble.
Potential landing spots: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Washington
Pittsburgh will be paying fair market value for a cornerback one way or the other, so it may find it most sufficient to just retain the player it's already comfortable with in Taylor. We have already discussed the situations for both Pittsburgh and Washington.
San Francisco could be the sleeper team to make a play on Taylor. He could fit in nicely opposite Nate Clements as the 49ers mold 2011 third-round draft pick, Chris Culliver.
The combination of Clements and Taylor would make it tough for opposing receivers to get off press coverage on either side of the field, allowing the front seven to get creative with blitz packages and really pressure the quarterback.
ON THE BUBBLE:
Quintin Mikell: S, Philadelphia
Atari Bigby: S, Green Bay
Dawan Landry: S, Baltimore