NFL Free Agency: NFC Must-Keep Free Agents
After covering the AFC, I’m here to cover the NFC about each team’s most valuable free agent. Some teams will have more valuable players, but just about every team has at least one player that needs to be re-signed.
It will be the same format from last week covering each team in the conference. Some teams have three or four players that should be re-signed, while other teams may have just one player that needs to be re-signed.
Regardless if the player is a star or a role player, I’ll choose one player from each team that needs to be re-signed. The free agent class for this year has plenty of talent, especially on the defensive side of the ball. There are many options in free agency, but some teams need to make sure their star players remain on their roster.
The Redskins have been compared to the Indianapolis Colts in several ways. They were a surprise playoff team with a franchise rookie quarterback that is already a star in the league. Despite all the comparisons, there is another one. They don’t have any true free-agent priority that has to be signed.
Indianapolis didn’t have anyone major to re-sign, so I chose the most productive role player in Donnie Avery to re-sign. I’m going to go with a similar approach here and choose Lorenzo Alexander. Other than safety, it has become apparent that defensive depth at any position is very valuable.
It’s important to have a seven-man rotation on the defensive line, along with having depth at cornerback and linebacker. With the Redskins playing a 3-4, their linebackers are more valuable than half of the teams in the league. Alexander is a great utility player that has become a favorite in the locker room.
As durable as London Fletcher is, he is still aging and injuries could come up. Alexander is becoming a solid backup that shouldn’t be let go. Fred Davis was considered here, but he’s become too fragile and hasn’t lived up too expectations in Washington. They could use an upgrade at tight end.
New York Giants
Is it fair to assume that all of you know that restricted free agents are usually locks to return to their team? It’s nearly impossible for a restricted free agent to leave their team due to being tendered. So that eliminates Victor Cruz from being a priority. He’ll be back next season; don’t need to waste time discussing that.
The main priority for the Giants was already fulfilled on Wednesday. Will Beatty was re-signed to a long-term deal, which was a wise move by the Giants. It’s a proven fact how essential franchise left tackles are. Even though the market has loads of left tackles, most of them will be re-signed similar to Beatty.
Beatty was outstanding as a pass blocker last season and emerged for the Giants when they needed a left tackle desperately. David Diehl wasn’t enough to start at left tackle, which pushed Beatty into the starting lineup. He needs to cut down on the penalties; otherwise he should be a Pro Bowler for years to come.
They do have their fair share of restricted free agents in Stevie Brown, Andre Brown, and Cruz. They’ll be back for the Giants and should play pivotal roles next season. The Giants should work on long-term contracts for each player before the regular season, except Andre Brown since he’s coming off a torn ACL and will have to prove he’s still valuable as a power back.
There shouldn’t be any questions here for the Cowboys. After years of being inconsistent, Anthony Spencer put it all together in 2012. He eclipsed double-digits in sacks for the first time in his career, along with helping a Dallas defense that was hit severely by injuries.
I’ve never been high on Spencer because he tends to phase out of games and has the uncanny ability of causing unnecessary penalties. That changed this year and Spencer became a force helping DeMarcus Ware pressure quarterbacks on a consistent basis.
With Dallas switching to a 4-3 defense, they need to keep their star pass rusher. It will be tough to find a suitable replacement for Spencer that can stop the run and help take the load off Ware in pressuring the quarterback.
They have cap issues so it could become a tall order to re-sign him. Regardless of cap issues, they need to make a strong push to re-sign him in any way, shape, or form. He’s always had a high motor and never takes plays off. It was just his ability that lacked at times, but now he started to become a force that the Cowboys drafted him to be.
This is another team that doesn’t have a free agent that must be re-signed, so I have to pick the most productive player. He is coming off a disappointing season, but I think it involves more about being focused rather than skill. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie can be a top cover corner that can blanket receivers.
The issues with Rodgers-Cromartie are that he isn’t fully matured and can lose focus easily. It was apparent that he quit on the team at times last season. His tackling was abysmal and his attempts at tackling would get shredded by physical wide receivers. It led to many analysts questioning his heart.
He did make up for it with great coverage last season. While his teammate Nnamdi Asomugha was getting beat on a weekly basis, Rodgers-Cromartie played well for the most part. He had 17 passes defensed, which is an impressive stat for someone that didn’t exactly play with motivation every week.
It’s a sketchy situation, but they need to talk to him and try to get him to buy into the team’s rebuilding program. He is 26 years old and has his best football ahead of him. If they can get him focused, then there shouldn’t be any reason not to re-sign him because he’s proven that he can play at a high level.
Green Bay Packers
The Packers left me no choice but to choose a restricted free agent. I’ve tried to avoid it all costs, but it can’t be avoided. Jeff Saturday, Charles Woodson, Cedric Benson, and Ryan Grant are either retired or past their prime. Erik Walden is a liability and Brad Jones isn’t anything special.
Greg Jennings is a popular name, but it’s clear that Aaron Rodgers did just fine without Jennings for the majority of the year. He isn’t worth the big contract when the Packers have other needs to address. The player that the Packers need to either put a high tender on or give a long-term contract would have to be Sam Shields.
Despite missing 6 games with a high ankle sprain, Shields was the Packers best cornerback last year. Tramon Williams hasn’t been a shutdown corner since 2010 and now Shields has stepped up to be that guy.
He doesn’t allow many completions and his athleticism has helped him make several plays on passes. The one concern with Shields is that he’s yet to play a full season. That is why you may see the Packers tender him this year because they want to see if he can remain healthy before breaking the bank on him.
Minnesota doesn’t have many issues, but they have a huge free agent that has to be re-signed. Adrian Peterson had a record-breaking year, which attributed to great offensive line play. Phil Loadholt was one of the main causes for that and has started to become one of the best right tackles in the league.
He came into the league with a great build being 6’8 and 340 pounds. Just like most offensive lineman, he went through growing pains and was inconsistent for his first three years. Now he has put it together becoming a better pass blocker, after struggling with speed rushers over the years.
Even though right tackles aren’t as essential as left tackles, he won’t command a huge contract and there isn’t any real reason for him to leave. Minnesota was only one of the four teams in the league that had the same starting offensive line last year for all weeks. It’s obvious that the chemistry was there for them.
The one issue with Loadholt is that he still commits too many penalties. You can’t have eleven penalties in a season, if you want to be an elite tackle. If he can be more disciplined to go along with his powerful run blocking, then the Vikings should continue to have one of the better offensive lines in the league.
There aren’t many great interior lineman left that can pass rush. Henry Melton is in that group and is now going to be entering his prime. With the Bears defense starting to age, they need to have their young players step up and become playmakers.
Melton has become a playmaker with 13 sacks in the past two years, which is second only behind Geno Atkins for defensive tackles. He has started to command double teams more, which has given Julius Peppers more space to rush the quarterback.
The knock on Melton is that he’s only 295 pounds, which is considered light for a defensive tackle. He isn’t great at stuffing the run, but that can easily be fixed by putting a 325 or 330 pound tackle next to him. It’s not a big deal because he’s making up for it with his interior pass rush in a pass-first league.
Chicago doesn’t have many players to re-sign, so I’m sure they have all their attention towards giving Melton a long-term deal. Brian Urlacher has started to decline over the past few years, so he clearly won’t be commanding a major contract. Melton is a rising star and needs to be kept on a defense that has several players that are starting to decline.
Detroit’s defense was average at best last season and now faces a major challenge in free agency. They have two of their better young defensive players that could potentially leave. Even though Louis Delmas continues to get better, he has serious injury concerns and shouldn’t be the main priority.
He tends to phase out of games, but Cliff Avril has been very productive over the past three seasons. With 29 sacks over the past three seasons, you can’t find much better production than that. It’s clear that he gets help from the likes of Ndamukong Suh commanding double teams, but he still possess great talent.
There aren’t many defensive ends that have a better speed rush than Avril. He’s got a great first step and can explode past tackles. The bad reputation he gets is from taking plays off and being a liability against the run. Those traits can be fixable from coaching to better overall defensive play.
I’m surprised that he turned down a 3 year 30 million dollar deal last season. After having 11 sacks and forcing 6 fumbles in 2011, could you blame him? His numbers went slightly down in 2012, but I’d still break the bank on him. He’s got some issues, but you won’t find many young and talented pass rushers like him. Detroit has severe secondary issues and they wouldn’t want another issue by not re-signing Avril.
Atlanta has more questions this off-season than any other championship caliber team. They have key secondary players to re-sign, a rejuvenated left tackle, and have to convince a Hall Of Famer to return for one more run. Obviously Tony Gonzalez is a big name, but he is either going to retire or return to Falcons. I’d rather focus on someone that could go to another team.
A quality left tackle is always essential to a team’s success, but Atlanta is different. Sam Baker’s play greatly approved this year and should be re-signed, but it’s clear that the offense could still be elite without him. If you watched the Falcons this season, you would notice how important William Moore is.
Moore is such a dynamic safety that can cover so much space on the field. He is great in run support and started to develop into a star. When Moore was hurt for a month, the Falcons seemed to lack a physical edge without Moore flying around the field. He’s very physical and plays off well with teammate Thomas DeCoud.
The Falcons safety duo has a great flow with Moore being the enforcer and DeCoud taking the responsibility of deep coverage on passing routes. Moore had his issues with injures and isn’t a great cover safety, but he makes up for it with his superb tackling and great ball skills. Atlanta is in need of improving their front seven and doesn’t need another hole in their defense by not re-signing him.
New Orleans Saints
After all the problems that the franchise has been through in the past year, it has to be a sigh of relief that the Saints don’t have many free agent issues. The questions for New Orleans headed into free agency are obviously upgrading their defense, but they do have some questions on their offensive line.
They have two starters that are free agents, which makes it a toss-up on who should be more of a priority. I’ve leaned towards Brian De La Puente over Jermon Bushrod on who’s more essential to the Saints offensive line. Bushrod has never been great and was exposed over the past few years for his poor pass blocking.
With the Saints offense and how Drew Brees get passes away quickly, Bushrod isn’t as valuable as De La Puente. When you compare each player, De La Puente has shown that he could be one of the better centers in the league. He is a great run blocker, along with having great chemistry with Brees..
De La Puente shouldn’t be too expensive compared to Bushrod, since he hasn’t started as much in his career. A left tackle is usually more important than a center in most offenses, but it’s clear that New Orleans is different from most teams. Bushrod is expendable, while De La Puente is starting to become a star.
Carolina is another team that doesn’t have much to worry about when it comes to re-signing players. They won’t have to spend major money on re-signing anyone on their roster. They can focus on bringing new talent on both sides of the ball.
If there were anyone that should be re-signed, it would have to be Dwan Edwards. Even at 31 years old, he still has value as a starting defensive tackle and is coming off his most productive year.
His 6 sacks were a career high and he gave the Panthers something they haven’t had in years when it comes to an interior pass rush. Carolina has a very talented defensive line with edge rushers like Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy. If they keep Edwards, they should continue to collapse the pocket against opposing teams.
Carolina has to improve on both sides of the ball this free agency, but should once again come into this season with momentum. If they can get more weapons for Cam Newton and improve their secondary, they could be a wild card team in 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
After making numerous free-agent splashes this season, Tampa Bay is going to have to settle down this off-season. They are on the verge of being a victim of a free-agent splash if they don’t resign Michael Bennett.
Bennett is becoming one of the better defensive ends in the league. He’s always been a great run defender, but now he’s starting to become a better pass rusher. He had a breakout season last year and many teams will have interest in a player that can play three downs.
With the struggles of Tampa Bay’s secondary, they need to keep their pass rushers. A core of Bennett, Adrian Clayborn, and Da’Quan Bowers could give the Bucs a future dominant tandem within the next few years. Bennett is the most versatile out of all of them, so they need to do whatever they can to re-sign him.
There is also potential that a division rival could look to add Bennett, which could cause even more damage if Tampa Bay lets him go. Atlanta could very well make a move for Bennett. I’m not positive that he’ll remain on Tampa Bay due to money constraints, but he’s absolutely their main priority to re-sign.
San Francisco 49ers
I’ve always felt that he was overrated, but Dashon Goldson should be re-signed. Goldson is among the best tacklers at the safety position, along with being a playmaker that has made game changing plays in the past.
The issues with Goldson are that he’s still a liability in coverage. He tends to bite on pump fakes and takes bad angles at times. In the NFC West, his limitations are hidden because the quarterback play is average at best. The likes of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, and Matt Ryan made him look lost last season.
He’s still a talented safety and could use better support. He has more value as a starting safety compared to Donte Whitner. Whitner is even more of a liability in coverage and gets penalized too often. Goldson may be overrated, but Whitner is more of the problem.
Even though he’s popular in San Francisco, I didn’t give much consideration to Delanie Walker. He is versatile and can play many roles, but he’s a backup tight end at the end of the day. He did play a key role at times in the past few seasons, but he’s still just a backup tight end that is a great blocker with questionable hands.
He was a major disappointment in Arizona, but now Alan Branch has found his niche in Seattle. Branch had high expectations in Arizona by being their nose tackle, but he struggled with injuries and consistency.
Now he’s in Seattle and has developed into a starter. Seattle was tenth in the league at stopping the run with Branch playing a huge part in that. He takes up so much space, which allows players like Bobby Wagner able to make plays in the backfield. Wagner was very productive this year and owes a part of that to Branch.
He’s not a great pass rusher, but the edge rushers feed off of him. With Seattle playing in a hybrid system that needs their interior tackles to take up space, Branch did just that. He is a perfect fit for their scheme, so there shouldn’t be any reason on why he wouldn’t be re-signed.
Some teams may make a move towards him, but there is definitely a great morale in Seattle after their great season. Branch won’t ever be a star, but he’s solid and will always makes players better around him. Seattle doesn’t have many free agents to begin with, so expect Branch to be locked up quickly to a long-term deal.
St. Louis Rams
This is a very tough decision for the Rams to make with Danny Amendola. He has been their leading receiver in two of the past three years. When he’s healthy, he’s shown how reliable he is with his hands along with his ability to get open.
Now the decision becomes tough because Amendola has only played 16 games once in his career. He’s shown that he’s as injury prone as they come. I’ve seen how tough he is as a receiver, but there is no hiding the fact that he’s becoming brittle.
St. Louis is in a tough position, but they should re-sign him. Amendola has been consistent when healthy and can still be a difference maker. So whether they franchise him or give him a one-year deal to prove himself, he should be apart of the Rams next season. He hasn’t exactly been cooperative and is looking to test the market.
That doesn’t mean he’ll leave the Rams, but their hasn’t been a solution towards Amendola’s demands. If the contract is right, then the Rams should absolutely re-sign him. They need to continue to upgrade their receiver corps and keep Amendola away from being the complete focal point. He clearly can’t handle the role, but still has a great future in being one of the best slot receivers in the league.
Arizona is another team that doesn’t have many free-agency problems. Nobody will be commanding a major contract out of their free-agents They still have some key young players that should be re-signed and it starts with Greg Toler.
Toler still has ways to go, but he started to come along last season and showed some promise. Other than Patrick Peterson, Arizona doesn’t have many cornerbacks that can be relied on. Toler is mostly a nickel back at this point, but he could develop into a starter this season.
Toler is tall for a cornerback and can match up well with physical wide receivers. Arizona is going to focus on improving their front seven this season with their secondary playing well for most of the year.
Arizona will be going through some major changes this off-season especially trying to find a solution to their unstable quarterback situation. In a division that continues to get better, Arizona fans may want to get used to the cellar.
It’s pretty clear that the AFC has far more talent than NFC when it comes to free agents. The NFC side seems pretty weak based off comparing each division. With free agency starting in 11 days, I’ll be looking to see if every player that I mentioned gets re-signed.
They should be because they all play essential roles to their teams last year. Obviously money will play into it, but this is the time to take risks on players. I’m expecting less free agent splashes than most in recent years, but it should still have everyone on their edge of their seat as usual for the first few days.