— When team owners elected to opt out of the collective bargaining agreement, they also opted to make the 2010 free agency period one of the least significant since the advent of free agency.
It’s true there is no cap on the amount of money teams can spend on players. But it’s also true there is no minimum that teams are required to spend, as has been the case in the past. And more than 200 players who normally would have been unrestricted free agents — including more than 70 starters — will be restricted now.
What’s more, the teams that finished in the “final eight” of the postseason will be limited in terms of how much they can spend on other teams’ players.
That being said, some teams still are likely to make big splashes. And others may be targets for raids. Here are the ten teams that could be hurt most in free agency (in alphabetical order).
The Cardinals make this list mostly because of one player: linebacker Karlos Dansby. He should be one of the best free agents on the market at any position, and it appears likely that he will have a new team next year.
The Cardinals already have lost Kurt Warner to retirement. They also could lose safety Antrel Rolle if they decide not to pay him a $4 million roster bonus. Receiver Steve Breaston is a restricted free agent who could garner interest. And left tackle Mike Gandy also could leave as an unrestricted free agent.
That’s a lot of talent potentially walking out the door.
Heading up the Ravens’ unrestricted free agent list are leading receiver Derrick Mason and defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan.
But the Ravens have a number of restricted free agents with value. Among them are receiver Mark Clayton, offensive tackle Jared Gaither, safety Dawan Landry, running back Le’Ron McClain and cornerback Fabian Washington.
Julius Peppers figures to be the king of free agency, and it looks like there is a very good chance he will leave the only team he’s played for. He will be very difficult to replace. The Panthers also have to handle restricted free agent Thomas Davis carefully or could risk losing him.
This team should be very thankful that players with four to five years of experience are restricted free agents this year instead of unrestricted, as they have been in the past. In all, 10 starters are eligible for some form of free agency, including unrestricteds Aaron Kampman, Ryan Pickett, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.
Restricted free agents who could draw offers include safeties Nick Collins and Atari Bigby, return man Will Blackmon, and offensive lineman Daryn Colledge.
If not for the CBA opt out, linebacker DeMeco Ryans and tight end Owen Daniels — two outstanding young players — would have been unrestricted. As it is, they are restricted.
Even without Daniels and Ryans being unrestricted, the Texans still could lose significant talent from their unrestricted pool. Among their unrestricteds are cornerback Dunta Robinson (who figures to be hit with a franchise tag for the second-straight year), offensive lineman Chester Pitts and receiver Kevin Walters.
Patriots fans better hope the paper and packaging industry isn’t feeling the effects of the economy, because Patriots owner and paper magnate Robert Kraft likely is going to need a lot of cabbage to keep his team intact.
Defensive tackle Vince Wilfork is the big ticket item, and he probably will be franchised. But he isn’t the only item. Also on the unrestricted list are cornerback Leigh Bodden, tight end Benjamin Watson, guard Stephen Neal, and outside linebackers Tully Banta-Cain and Derrick Burgess. What’s more, guard Logan Mankins is a restricted free agent.
If re-signing those players isn’t enough of a problem, the Patriots also have to extend the contract of Tom Brady, who is entering the last year of his deal.
The Saints don’t have many unrestricted free agents, but they do have a number of restricteds, and could be a target because of their success. It’s likely they will apply the franchise tag to free safety Darren Sharper. The only other unrestricted of note is linebacker Scott Fujita.
Their restricted group includes guard Jahri Evans, offensive tackles Jammal Brown and Jermon Bushrod, running back Pierre Thomas and special teams ace Courtney Roby.
Keeping nose tackle Casey Hampton is the highest priority, and it might take a franchise tag to accomplish that mission. The Steelers also have other unrestricted free agents to concern themselves with, including safety Ryan Clark, running back Willie Parker and kicker Jeff Reed.
No team benefited more from the labor situation. Restricted free agents who could have been unrestricted are linebacker Shawne Merriman, offensive tackle Marcus McNeill, running back Darren Sproles and wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd.
As it is, the only unrestricted free agent who really would hurt the team by leaving is special teams specialist Kassim Osgood.
The Titans defense lost unrestricted free agent Albert Haynesworth last year, and this year could lose unrestricted free agents Keith Bulluck and Kyle Vanden Bosch. On offense, center Kevin Mawae also is fair game for any team.
Among the Titans restricted free agents is defensive tackle Tony Brown, who replaced Haynesworth last year.
Q: Now that the Bears have made key changes in the coaching department, what more needs to be done to ensure they get back to the playoffs?
— Evan, Franklin, Ind.
A: Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think the Bears are far away from being a playoff team.
The whole key to the team is Jay Cutler. If Mike Martz can get Cutler playing anywhere near his potential, the Bears are going to be a playoff team. An outstanding quarterback can lift an entire team, and Cutler has the capacity to be outstanding.
But if Cutler is less than outstanding but still decent, the Bears still can be a playoff team if they can improve in their running game and their pass rush.
Q: Although I can admire his loyalty to his O-line how long will Ben Roethlisberger be able to take the pounding he receives from their inability to protect him?
— John, Lewistown, Penn.
A: The good news for Roethlisberger is he’s big and he’s mobile — so he can both take a sack and avoid one. But if any quarterback is hit enough, it’s eventually going to alter performance. It’s just human nature.
So if the Steelers can’t do anything to improve the personnel responsible for protecting Roethlisberger, they should probably look at some potential scheme tweaks or at least an emphasis on different play calls. It would not be wise to allow your franchise player to be sacked 50 times in two straight seasons.
Q: Why are there no start to finish Atlanta Falcons in the Hall of Fame? Players like Tommy Nobis, Jeff Van Note, Mike Kenn, or Steve Bartkowski.
— Robert Anthony, Greenville, S.C.
A: I’m not sure I have a good answer for you Robert, other than to say it’s very, very difficult to get into the hall of fame.
Every year, there are very qualified candidates who don’t get in. There always are more than seven worthy candidates, in my opinion. It truly is an elite group. And down the road there could be hope for some of the players you mentioned, particularly Nobis, Van Note and Kenn. It doesn’t help any of them that they played mostly on bad teams.
Q: I was wondering what are the chances the Patriots will sign Donte Stallworth and Julius Peppers?
— Rick, Severn, Md.
A: I would think not very good.
Teams are going to be very cautious about Stallworth, given his history both off the field and on. He is not a difference maker, and when you have the kind of baggage Stallworth has, you need to be a difference maker if you want to stay in the league. He’ll latch on with someone, I know. But it’s buyer beware.
As for Peppers, he’s probably going to have a lot of teams interested in him. He’s probably going to be paid more than he could possibly be worth. To sign Peppers, the Patriots would either have to change their defensive scheme to a four man front or play Peppers at a new position.