I blame President Obama for failing to create enough jobs in the NFL. With training camp on the horizon, many former starters find themselves out of work. Why are these players no longer in demand? Fault injuries, age discrimination, bloated salaries and toxic attitudes. Athletes can’t stay in their prime forever. What these guys really need is a hug.
Here is a list of the ten best remaining NFL free agents. In the right environment, these players have a reasonable chance to reclaim their past glory. But they come with question marks.
1) Cedric Benson, RB, 29 years old
Benson resuscitated his career in Cincinnati after a disastrous stint with Chicago. The fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft is a downhill runner who has gained over 1,000 yards rushing in his last three seasons. God-given talent aside, Benson has failed to average four yards per carry in the past two years, and his dependability off the field is always a question.
Benson has relatively low mileage on his legs, and deserves a starting gig for his tough running, but he would play most effectively in a platoon role to hide his weaknesses in passing situations. New England, which struck gold with another Bengal, could feature Benson in a three-back committee with Joseph Addai and Danny Woodhead. Benson may find the most playing time in Washington, where Roy Helu and Evan Royster have unproven track records.
2) Marcus McNeill, OT, 28 years old
McNeill is a two-time Pro Bowler and an elite left tackle, but his body continues to betray him. He is plagued by chronic back problems, and contracted spinal stenosis. When McNeill is healthy, he is a dominant blocker versus the run and the pass, and avoids penalties. But his health has deteriorated to the point where San Diego waived the tackle two seasons into a six year, $49 million extension.
Reliable blockers are welcome on any NFL roster, so McNeill will continue to receive interest. But it appears his days playing football are numbered, so he should sign with a Super Bowl contender. Atlanta may give McNeill a call, because Sam Baker’s play has regressed significantly. He will provide depth and leadership if Baker holds onto his job.
3) Andre Carter, DE, 33 years old
Carter is a strong pass rusher and an underrated run stopper. His versatility is a plus, having played outside linebacker in 3-4 base defenses. In 2011, Carter collected 10 sacks with New England before he tore his left quadriceps tendon. Their thrifty management will not re-sign him until he is ready to play.
Carter’s best choice moving forward is to return to New England, but if/when the team decides to be cheap, no one should blame him for looking elsewhere. Coach Rex Ryan would love to have Carter in New York, where 3-4 outside linebackers Bryan Thomas (Achilles tear) and Calvin Pace (poor play) leave more to be desired.
4) E.J. Henderson, MLB, 31 years old
While the market for slow, aging middle linebackers is perennially feeble, Henderson is not the prototypical defensive linchpin. After learning the ropes as a rookie from Greg Biekert, the Maryland native orchestrated the Vikings defense for eight seasons, and recorded over 100 tackles four times. A big hitter, Henderson’s career came to a crossroads when he shattered his femur colliding into a teammate in 2009. Team personnel feared the injury would lead to early retirement, but Henderson applied himself through rehabilitation to regain most of his athleticism. Minnesota released the linebacker as they began their rebuilding process.
Henderson is clearly limited at this stage in his career, but he can still contribute by defending the run. Oakland may show interest with the future of Rolando McClain up in the air. Henderson could also serve as a mentor for the young defense in Tampa Bay.
5) Eric Steinbach, OG, 31 years old
Steinbach is a Pro Bowl-caliber left guard who wants to get paid like one. In 2007, he provided Cincinnati no favors when he left to join Cleveland for a seven year, $49.5 million deal. While Steinbach has been paired with star left tackles Levi Jones and Joe Thomas for his entire professional career, his mobility, durability and work ethic separate his performance from average NFL linemen.
Steinbach missed the 2011 campaign due to back surgery, and Cleveland released the guard after he refused to take a pay cut. The Browns are interested in re-signing him to an incentive-laden deal, but any team with cash to spend will attract Steinbach’s attention.
6) Aubrayo Franklin, DT, 31 years old
One year ago, Franklin was considered a top ten nose tackle in the NFL. He signed a one year contract to play in New Orleans, but struggled to adapt playing in a 4-3 defense. The result was his worst performance as a starter in his career. The Saints declined to bring back Franklin on a similar deal.
Franklin needs to play in a 3-4 defense, where his ability to clog rushing lanes can be maximized. His pass rushing ability is nonexistent. If Franklin is willing to play for less money than he is accustomed to, he may find a home in Houston. Incumbent nose tackle Shaun Cody is expendable, and his presence should make Brian Cushing’s life easier.
7) Braylon Edwards, WR, 29 years old
What a tumultuous fall for Edwards. The former third overall draft pick reached his statistical peak in 2007, when he recorded 80 catches for 1,289 yards and 16 touchdowns. Ever since, Edwards has been plagued by mental lapses and nagging injuries, and fell out of favor with the coaching staffs in Cleveland and New York. He signed with San Francisco for the 2011 season, but knee and shoulder injuries made him ineffective. The 49ers cut Edwards during the regular season.
Edwards should be in his physical prime, so maybe what he needs is luck and an opportunity. Cincinnati and St. Louis have shown interest in the receiver. Both teams have stable quarterback situations, and are starving for pass catchers.
8) Jeff Faine, C, 31 years old
Faine is one of those rare centers drafted in the first round. General managers assume they are really good, and they usually are. Unfortunately for Faine, he never developed into a NFL star, but at least he made money. In 2008, Faine signed a six year, $37.5 million contract with Tampa Bay. He was reliable and a vocal leader before injuries began to affect his play. The team released him in March.
If the former Buccaneer is looking for a starting job, his options are limited. The league is plush with up-and-coming centers in what perhaps is a new golden age. His best shot is a job in Tennessee, where the team is looking to replace Eugene Amano. Faine’s track record suggests that he could unseat Amano in training camp.
9) Drew Coleman, CB, 29 years old
The top cornerback on the street is Coleman, who was surprisingly released by Jacksonville following the NFL draft. The Texas native is undersized at 5’9”, but has a nose for the ball and excellent athleticism. Over the past two years, Coleman has accumulated three interceptions, six sacks and eight forced fumbles(!) playing in the slot. Every team could use this man.
If Coleman desires to be a difference maker, he will find ample snaps in the NFC North. Detroit and Minnesota have gaping holes in their young secondaries, and facing Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler twice a year will make safeties nauseous. Coleman’s playmaking abilities are welcome, and his playoff experience is a plus.
10) Matt McBriar, P, 33 years old
Good punters are a defense’s best friend. McBriar has two Pro Bowl selections and gaudy numbers to boot, but Dallas kicked him to the curb when his October nerve injury failed to heal. February surgery alleviated the problem, but McBriar is in a tough market.
Homeless punters tend to wait for an inexperienced peer to falter, so don’t expect McBriar to sign until the end of the preseason. Realistic possibilities include Saint Louis, Houston and Jacksonville, but don’t count out Dallas to come begging at his doorstep.