The owners meeting in Chicago is done, and now, the whole shootin' match moves to Boston for further negotiations with the players. It's possible that both parties could sign off on a new collective bargaining agreement in the next couple of weeks. One of the most interesting wrinkles in the newest series of terms the owners have proposed is that the number of seasons for players to hit unrestricted free agency may go from six back to four in a nod to pre-2010 rules.
Previously, players in their fifth and sixth seasons (the ones who had four-year rookie deals and whose contracts had expired) were tagged with different tenders as a matter of course. Now, over 100 players who had been tendered (or were expected to be) under prior free agency rules could be in the open market. You can find the full list of players here, courtesy of Football Outsiders compadre Brian McIntyre, and here are my most interesting names on that list. Some were expected to switch teams anyway, and some could be new and crucial chips for teams looking to reload.
Johnathan Joseph, CB, Cincinnati Bengals
One of the few legitimate lockdown corners in the NFL, Joseph has teamed with Leon Hall to form what might be the league's best cornerback duo. Cincinnati placed a first- and third-round tender on Joseph before the lockout, and he would be a very attractive option for teams looking to seriously upgrade their secondaries without paying Nnamdi Asomugha money. Joseph's performances in Mike Zimmer's frequent Cover-1 and Cover-3 looks put him in a position to play tight coverage and off-man — such versatility is uncommon at his level..
Sidney Rice, WR, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings would be very wise to hold onto their best receiver with first-round pick Christian Ponder still waiting to get his feet wet in an NFL sense, but it's going to be tough. Rice may be dinged to a degree as an injury risk after last year's hip problem, but GM Rick Spielman has already said he'll do everything possible to have Rice as the center piece of Minnesota's passing offense in 2011 and beyond.
Davin Joseph, RG, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
One of the more underrated linemen in the game, Joseph had an off-year precipitated by a foot injury that put him on the shelf in November. But when he's healthy, Joseph is a beast — one of the best interior protectors in the game. He might not get Jahri Evans money, but teams will be circling. The Bucs may be outbid on this one.
Eric Weddle, S, San Diego Chargers
Put simply, Weddle has been the Chargers' best defender in each of the last two seasons — he's a special player who's just as good reading and blowing up a running play at the line of scrimmage as he is playing center field and helping with coverage. Given A.J. Smith's usual hardball attitude toward players who dare to demand market value for their talents, you can expect Weddle elsewhere under a four-year system unless the franchise tag is applied, and the acquisition of Bob Sanders may preclude Smith from even going that far.
Ray Edwards, DE, Minnesota Vikings
Edwards had already said that he doesn't see his future in Minnesota, and a reversion to four-year rules would just about cinch that outcome. Expect him to draw serious money after a breakout season in 2010, where he matched Jared Allen as a primary pass rusher.
Brandon Mebane, DT, Seattle Seahawks
Another underrated force — Mebane received just a third-round tender from the Seahawks and might be seen as overpriced to a front office looking to fit certain schemes. But for any team looking to anchor its front line in any 4-3 scheme, Mebane would be a rock-solid choice. He can soak up blockers and stop the run inside, and disrupt the quarterback when rushing between the guard and tackle.
Antonio Cromartie, CB, New York Jets
An inconsistent player, to be sure … on and off the field. But someone's going to take a shot on Cromartie's talent — opposing quarterbacks completed just 43 percent of their passes against him, according to STATS, Inc. The Jets were probably planning to let him walk anyway as 2010 rookie Kyle Wilson develops as a starter.
DeAngelo Williams, RB, Carolina Panthers
The first of a trio of Panthers on this list (yeesh — GM Marty Hurney may want to start drinking now) is one of the best power runners in the business, but it's believed that Jonathan Stewart is an equally effective option. Don't be surprised if the Denver Broncos, currently coached by John Fox, go hard after Fox's old lead back.
Charles Johnson, DE, Carolina Panthers
Now, here's a player Hurney can't do without. Johnson broke out in 2010, keeping a distressed fanbase from missing Julius Peppers too much, and establishing himself as a key member of a grievously underrated Carolina defense. Sack artists tend to get overpaid, but Hurney can't possibly let Johnson walk just a year after Peppers. According to Football Outsiders' numbers, Johnson was one of a handful of players to finish in the top 15 in quarterback sacks, hits, and hurries.
James Anderson, OLB, Carolina Panthers
Anderson is so under the radar that he doesn't even make the "most underrated" lists, but he makes ours. You won't find many defenders better at drawing a bead on a ballcarrier and picking up a crucial stop.
Other key players: Zach Miller, TE, Oakland Raiders; Jacob Ford, DE, Tennessee Titans; Santonio Holmes, WR, New York Jets; Jason Snelling, Atlanta Falcons; Paul Posluszny, Buffalo Bills