Greg Schiano's arrival as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' new head coach will impact how the team evaluates and ranks players at the NFL Scouting Combine later this month, as discussed on Sunday on Buccaneers.com. Of course, it will also significantly inform how the team tackles the league's free agency period, which starts two weeks later.
Schiano is still in the process of putting together his coaching staff and learning everything he can about the roster he has inherited. As such, it's a bit early to speculate on how the Buccaneers will handle their own list of pending free agents. However, the other three teams in the NFC South are heading into the new season with little or no turnover in coaching or management and, when combined, a list of potential free agents that could dominate the market.
The Atlanta Falcons have a rather lengthy list of players with expiring contracts, many of them starters and key performers. The Carolina Panthers are on the other end of that spectrum, having taken care of some of their most pressing free agency issues a year ago. The New Orleans Saints are somewhere in the middle, but their medium-sized list has the most prominent core of impact players.
Combined, the potential free agents of the Falcons, Panthers and Saints include what could be considered the best available players at at least five positions: quarterback Drew Brees, guard Carl Nicks, wide receiver Marques Colston, linebacker Curtis Lofton and cornerback Brent Grimes. One can argue the rankings, and certainly be skeptical about whether all of those players will actually hit the open market, but there's little doubt that the NFL's most consistently competitive division will be busy before and during this year's free agency period.
The Buccaneers' own free agency situation deserves and will get further scrutiny in the weeks to come. In the meantime, let's take a quick look at the issues facing Tampa Bay's three division foes as March edges closer.
Key Potential Unrestricted Free Agents: LB Curtis Lofton, CB Brent Grimes, S Thomas DeCoud, S James Sanders, DE John Abraham, DE Kroy Biermann, C Todd McClure, TE Tony Gonzalez, LB Mike Peterson, WR Harry Douglas, WR/KR Eric Weems, RB Jason Snelling, QB Chris Redman.
Even with such proven performers as Gonzalez and Abraham on the list, it's likely that Grimes and Lofton are the top concerns here, given their relative age. Gonzalez and Abraham, as well as McClure, were all starters for a playoff team in 2011, but all three are likely nearing retirement. Players in that situation, with remaining value moving forward but not many years left in the game, quite often re-sign with their existing teams for short deals. Cornerback Ronde Barber, who signed a one-year deal with the Buccaneers a year ago after speculation that he might retire, is a good example.
However, Lofton is only 25 and Grimes is 28 and both have obviously become cornerstones in the Falcons' defense. Atlanta is expected to have a decent amount of cap space once the 2012 league year officially begins, and it would be surprising if Lofton and Grimes were not the team's first two targets for re-signing. Lofton has been a starter in the middle for Atlanta since he arrived as a second-round draft pick in 2008, and he has proven both durable and productive. He has yet to miss a game and has given Atlanta about 130 tackles, two forced fumbles, one interception and one sack per season. Buccaneer fans are certainly familiar with Grimes, who stung them for a pair of game-changing interceptions in their two meetings with Atlanta in 2010. He had just one interception in 2011 but totaled 11 in 2009-10 combined.
DeCoud is another starter on the Atlanta defense who needs a new contract, and also another member of the Falcons' 2008 draft class. That group also included Douglass and Biermann with later picks, and the ability of all four of those draftees to carve out important roles is partially why the team's pending free agent class has so many prominent names. DeCoud is coming off a career-best four-interception season but both he and Sanders, a part-time starter the last three years, are free agents. The Falcons may have to choose between them, or they could dip into what appears to be a fairly deep pool of free agent safeties this year.
Like the Saints (see below), the Falcons have two wide receivers both hitting free agency at the same time, though both are reserves behind entrenched starters Roddy White and Julio Jones. Both Douglas and Weems hold value for the Falcons, but in different ways. Douglas has improved his catch and yardage totals each of the last two years after missing 2009 due to injury, and last season he was a productive third receiver with 39 receptions for 498 yards. Weems hasn't figured much into the passing game in his four seasons in Atlanta but is one of the league's more dangerous punt and kickoff return men, and has been to the Pro Bowl. It might be difficult for the Falcons to get both of them back, particularly if they go hard after the likes of Grimes, Lofton, Gonzalez and Abraham.
Redman and Snelling look like the kind of players that one sees on free agent lists around the league, guys who probably have more value to their existing team than wherever else they might go. Every team in the NFC South will be deciding what to do with its backup quarterback during free agency this year, although the Saints at least have more control with Chase Daniel, who is an exclusive rights free agent. Like Josh Johnson in Tampa and Derek Anderson in Carolina, Redman is unrestricted; however, he has stuck around in Atlanta for the last four years and probably feels comfortable there. He is not likely to get consideration as a starter elsewhere in the league, nor is Snelling.
Key Potential Unrestricted Free Agents: LB Dan Connor, TE Jeremy Shockey, WR Legedu Naanee, DE Antwan Applewhite, G Geoff Hangartner, G Mackenzy Bernadeau, LB Omar Gaither, LB Jordan Senn, QB Derek Anderson.
Again, this is about as slim of a list as an NFL team can hope for in the free agency era, and it's another reason for optimism for the up-an-coming Panthers as they head into their second year under Head Coach Ron Rivera. Hangartner and Shockey are the only full-time starters in the bunch from 2011, though Naanee did make a career-high 10 starts last year. Shockey started 13 games in his first season with the Panthers, but fellow 2011 newcomer Greg Olson also started 13 games (obviously Carolina used a lot of two-TE sets) and had more catches, yards and touchdowns than Shockey.
Given that Carolina's offense was massively improved in 2011 after a dismal 2010 season, it would make sense that the team would want to keep as many components in place as possible. Obviously, the main difference between those two seasons was the arrival of rookie quarterback Cam Newton, who finished his debut campaign in the Pro Bowl. Still, if Newton found success throwing to the likes of Olson and Shockey, there's no reason to break that group up. Hangartner has started the past three seasons, is still only 29 and can play several interior positions, so one would expect the Panthers to want him back, too, at the right price.
Naanee was a surprisingly effective performer in the Panthers' offense, too, in his first season in Carolina, nearly doubling his previous career high with 44 catches. He and reserve defensive end-slash-linebacker Antwan Applewhite both followed Rivera over to Charlotte from San Diego, and both gave quality returns on assuming contracts. The Panthers have some potentially rising receivers with the likes of Brandon LaFell and Armanti Edwards, but Naanee certainly adds nice depth to the position.
The Panthers are in this relatively easy free agency position because they had to make some tougher decisions a year ago. Most notably, the team retained both defensive end Charles Johnson and running back DeAngelo Williams, two players who would have been very attractive to a number of other teams. The Panthers also brought back linebacker James Anderson and got contract extensions done for linebackers Jon Beason and Thomas Davis.
All of that makes Dan Connor the most intriguing name on Carolina's list. Connor started 11 games for the Panthers this past year, largely because Beason and Davis both landed on injured reserve early in the season. However, Beason and Davis are presumptive starters upon their return and the Panthers will have a deep linebacking corps. One would obviously expect that Connor will at least look around to see if there is an opportunity elsewhere for him to be a full-time starter. Assuming there is, he is likely to get a more lucrative offer from another team than he would from the Panthers to return as a reserve.
New Orleans Saints
Key Potential Unrestricted Free Agents: QB Drew Brees, G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, WR Robert Meachem, CB Tracy Porter, LB Jo-Lonn Dunbar, DT Aubrayo Franklin, DT Shaun Rogers.
Raise your hand if you think Drew Brees will be starting for any team other than the Saints next year. NFL writers all over the country can hear that and never break stride on their keyboards as they make the same prediction: Brees and the Saints will find a way to get a deal done.
Obviously, Brees is in line for a hefty contract after breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing yardage record…and that 2011 season was very much in keeping with what he has accomplished in all six of his seasons in New Orleans. Still, Brees has publicly commented that he expects to be back with the Saints, so the usual obstacles on such big contracts will almost certainly be worked out.
In any other year, either Nicks or Colston would seem like no-brainers to return as well. It certainly would not be surprising to see both players re-sign and remain a part of the league's most consistently productive offense. That's some heavy lifting that Saints management will have to take care of, however, so either Nicks or Colston could slip away. Of the two, Nicks is likely to be the higher priority, as he was perhaps the best guard in the NFL last year and the offensive line was a massive strength for the Saints. Colston is a hugely talented receiver and popular in New Orleans, but Brees has shown that he can get production out of a lot of different receivers. The cupboard would not be bare in New Orleans if Colston failed to return.
And if the Saints do manage to keep all three of those players, will they *also *manage to hold on to Meachem, yet another promising performer in Brees' stable? Meachem, a first-round pick in 2008, has never been the Saints' number-one receiver, but he has always been a legitimate deep threat. He owns a stellar career average of 16.1 yards per catch (no lower than 14.5 in any season) and has scored 23 touchdowns among his 141 grabs. Another team may decide that, on a team with less overall receiving depth, Meachem has the skills to be a number-one receiver. That option might also be appealing to Meachem himself, though he knows he'll always have opportunities if he stays with Brees.
New Orleans' potential free agents on the defensive side seem like less of a concern, overall. CB Tracy Porter looked poised to emerge as a star after his incredible performance in the 2009 playoffs as the Saints rolled to their first Super Bowl title. However, he has just two interceptions over the past two seasons and has missed time due to injury. There are mixed opinions about Porter's potential at this point, but late in 2011 he seemed to be overtaken for playing time by 2010 first-round pick Patrick Robinson.
The Saints do have a significant change in staffing that could affect their interest in Porter, and in Franklin and Rogers. Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams has left for the St. Louis Rams and has been replaced by former Rams Head Coach Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo doesn't have too many free agency issues facing him this year, but he might believe he can get more out of Franklin and Rogers, neither of whom made much of an impact in 2011. A decision is also needed on Dunbar, a former reserve who got his most extensive opportunity to play this past season and was relatively impressive.