Vonta Leach might be one of the true anomalies in the NFL right now — a Pro Bowl free-agent-to-be, still yet to turn 30. In this distorted labor situation, that alone will put you in some pretty exclusive company.
Teams and agents, operating under the awkward backdrop of an on-again, off-again, on-again lockout, still do not know when the 2011 league year will begin and what it will look like. Some clarity is expected when the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals makes a decision on whether or not to stay Judge Susan Nelson’s decision to enjoin the lockout. The possibility exists that the NFL will have to impose rules for the 2011 season at some point, and if it does, general managers expect those rules to look an awful lot like those used in the 2010 season. That included players needing six years of accrued seasons to become unrestricted free agents (rather than four, the norm during the past CBA).
“It has been kind of a weird year,” said Leach, 29, a seven-year vet. “By this time you usually already know where you’re going to be at, and you’re establishing a relationship with your new teammates if you’re not going to be with your current teammates. Right now you’re just in limbo about everything, but I’m ready to go ahead and get this over with no matter what the rules are.”
And if the 2010 rules remain in place, then Leach, Houston’s Pro Bowl fullback, will be among a very select handful of prime free agents in what could be the worst crop since this era of free agency began in the mid 1990s. It makes last year’s mundane market seem remarkable by comparison, as this class of roughly 220 players lacks sizzle at key spots like quarterback, offensive tackle, and anyone capable of mustering a consistent pass rush.
The potential lack of name recognition aside, here’s a look at seven other free-agents-to-be who could stand to do well on the open market.
Nnamdi Asomugha, corner
By far the top prize of this free-agent class and the only one of these 200-odd players who could rightly make a claim to being the very best in the world at his position. He’s without a doubt in the top two or three, if you want to put Darrelle Revis first. Asomugha is creeping up on 30, but is still in line for a massive payday that will exceed $15 million per season. Houston and Dallas are not shy about spending money, and both could use a corner. The Jets were a rumored suitor, but in this scenario still have Antonio Cromartie as a restricted free agent. Given his age, Asomugha makes the most sense for teams that are already playoff ready or just on the cusp.
Thomas Davis, linebacker
The Panthers love this linebacker, who has essentially missed two straight seasons because of injuries now. A 2005 first-round pick, Davis was emerging as a leader and a key figure in their defense. However, consecutive ACL tears have cast his future in doubt. He’s still just 28 — and that’s with two lost seasons. He fought as hard as he could to make it back last season and Carolina kept a roster spot open for him for a good part of the year hoping he would do so — a testament to how much general manager Marty Hurney thinks of his importance to the team. I would suspect he will garner a fair amount of interest and would be seen by many as the top linebacker available.
Darren Sproles, running back
A potential special teams game-changer and someone who, after being franchised in the past, might be a luxury the Chargers can no longer afford with Ryan Mathews and Mike Tolbert in the backfield, too. Might have been an intriguing possibility for the Falcons — who hit big on former Chargers running back Michael Turner in free agency a few years back — but their selection of Jacquizz Rodgers in the draft negates that. Too much talent for an innovative coordinator not to tap into as Norv Turner has for years in San Diego. Sproles was in line for a nice deal a year ago prior to being designated a restricted free agent under the uncapped year in 2010.
Marc Bulger, quarterback
You will find plenty of scouts who believe he is done. They feel years of heavy hits and concussions have rendered him less of a quarterback and decision-maker. They don’t see him getting through a season as a starter. But there are plenty in the Ravens organization — where he was a backup last year — that believe Bulger could end up being a free-agent steal for someone. He clearly fits Arizona’s system, as he and Kurt Warner have the same passing roots. Arizona chose to be too frugal with him a year ago, but I doubt that’s the case now. While some in Washington’s organization are high on Bulger, I doubt the Redskins would put together the kind of financial package the Cardinals would. Could Bulger re-establish himself in Arizona as Warner did a few years back?
Anthony Hargrove, defensive lineman
Personal demons behind him and tapped back into his athletic prowess, Hargrove could shine outside in a 4-3 scheme. New Orleans lacked depth at tackle, and so he played primarily on the interior, but other teams see him as a potential disrupter off the edge. He’d love to get the opportunity. Still just 27 years old, he’s an absolutely baby by the standards of this free-agent class.
Aubrayo Franklin, defensive tackle
If you are desperate for a true nose tackle — Washington, for instance, is — then this is your best (only?) real option. Age is not ideal, as he is 30, but he has played at a Pro Bowl level in the past and was franchised in 2009. Was a spare part early in his career, so a bit younger health-wise than some veterans of the trenches. He can be a difficult force to handle anchoring the defensive line.
Terrell Owens, receiver
Based on production alone, Owens was a steal for the Bengals in 2010. Even though it was a miserable season for them, Owens was very solid. He still drops too many balls and still puts his foot in his mouth (calling out Bengals owner Mike Brown after the season was silly and shortsighted). It could be another long wait for him this offseason, but I have to wonder if Seattle, which dabbled with the idea of signing him a year ago, might be his best option this time around. No matter where he goes, or when he lands, there will be no lack of intrigue surrounding it.
Overall, the defensive line, though without marquee names, is a strength here. The players mentioned above, plus ends Cullen Jenkins and Andre Carter (though I like him much more as a 4-3 outside linebacker), could help someone’s front seven without a doubt. Jenkins is a versatile player whose stock will be high coming off his superb effort in the playoffs helping the Packers to a Super Bowl title.
Oh, and this shallow market will be likely made even less fertile by, say, Mark Clayton — who was emerging as a deep threat for the Rams in 2010 before injury — possibly staying put. And I don’t think too many people envision Olin Kreutz anywhere but Chicago. The Panthers will certainly make a concerted effort to retain Davis, with management huge fans of his will, effort and desire, to say nothing of performance.