Hot items hitting the open market

NFL free agency – 2006 style – finally is here, and the bidding free-for-all officially can begin. Of course, it already has as some top veterans already have inked new contracts with new teams just hours after the free-agency period began at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Here's a short list with analysis of the hottest players available – and, yes, the 49ers are represented – along with a look at players who already had their names on new deals by the time some were waking up Saturday morning.

QB Drew Brees, Chargers, unrestricted FA: After a dismal start to his career, Brees burst on to the scene in 2004 with 3,159 passing yards, 27 touchdowns and a trip to the Pro Bowl. He followed that up with a similar performance in 2005, though his touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped off a bit. Despite his strong performances over the past two years, San Diego has decided to go with Phillip Rivers as their new starting quarterback, thus allowing Brees to become a free agent. Needless to say, he's become the top free agent in this year's market and is receiving a great deal of attention from teams such as the Dolphins that are in dire need of a quarterback.

QB Daunte Culpepper, Vikings, likely to be traded or released: A porous offensive line, dilapidated running game, and no Randy Moss made for a difficult 2005 season for Culpepper. Throughout his entire NFL career he had rarely faced a defense whose primary objective wasn't containing Moss and stopping the deep ball. With No.84 no longer stretching the field, however, there was a lot more pressure put on Daunte to carry the offense. He wound up literally breaking under the pressure. Rumor has it that the Vikings have been shopping Culpepper around the league for a possible trade and Culpepper has openly reciprocated those feelings. Right now his relationship with the Vikings new coaching staff is turbulent, to say the least, and at this point a trade looks eminent. The Raiders and Dolphins appear to be the front-runners for the injured quarterback.

QB Brian Griese, Buccaneers, unrestricted FA: Griese has displayed the ability to be an effective starting quarterback in the NFL, and his was revatilized under the offensive mindset of head coach Jon Gruden in Tampa Bay, where Griese would like to return if a viable deal can be worked out. Negotiations are ongoing for a new deal with the Bucs, but Griese wants a fair contract and an opportunity to regain his starting position. Now that free agency has begun, Griese could be a very interesting player on the open market due to his moderate salary requirements and ability to step in as a quality starter.

QB Kerry Collins, Raiders, unrestricted FA: Collins was dumped before Friday night's deadline to get under the salary cap, saving the Raiders more than $9 million against their 2006 cap. He possesses a big arm and as a vertical-game quarterback who was prone to turnovers and poor decisions during his time in Oakland. Collins should receive some interest on the open market because of his track record and could be starting quality for several teams, though some may be looking at him now as a veteran backup.

RB Edgerrin James, Colts, unrestricted FA: With all of the firepower in the Colts arsenal, James is often overshadowed by Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison. He is also overlooked at times because he doesn't carry the ball in a conventional manner as most of his touches come on screens and draw plays. With that being said, James has rushed for more than 1,500 yards four times in his career and is without question one of the most dangerous and versatile backs in the league, even with the wear and tear he already has accumulated in his career. He wants to play in Florida and could land in Jacksonville though it would not shock us if he ended up in Denver.

RB Jamal Lewis, Ravens, unrestricted FA: Lewis is a recent NFL Offensive Player of The Year and is only the fifth back in NFL history to ever reach the 2,000-yard rushing mark in a season. His past two seasons, however, have been marred by injury and inconsistency. But much of that can lie at the feet of the deplorable Baltimore offense as a whole. With the ineptness of Kyle Boller at quarterback, teams have simply stacked the line of scrimmage in order to stop Lewis and therefore stop the Ravens offense. Not even Barry Sanders could succeed under those circumstances, and the Ravens are giving up on Lewis much too early. Boller is the one who should be shown the door. Lewis won't have any trouble finding a new home or a new team to rumble for.

RB Michael Bennett, Vikings, unrestricted FA: Coming into the league it was thought that Bennett would be the NFL's next great home-run threat in the ground game. His best season came in his second year in the league when he rushed for 1,296 yards but since then he has been devastated by injuries.

RB Moe Williams, Vikings, unrestricted FA: Over the past three years Williams has been the Vikings' most dependable back. Part of that has to do with how well rounded he is s a player. With the ability to run, block, catch Williams can remain on the field regardless of the play call. He isn't flashy but he offers is consistency and can stabilize any team's backfield as the No. 2 back.

RB Najeh Davenport, Packers, unrestricted FA: At 250 pounds, Davenport is a large and powerful downhill runner and the only knock on him is that he's had a hard time staying healthy. Now that the Packers have Sam Gado, however, they'll likely allow Davenport to test the free-agent waters. If he doesn't return to the Packers a team like Pittsburgh or Kansas City could the perfect place for him to resume his role as a backup.

FB William Henderson, Packers, unrestricted FA: Henderson is one of the top fullbacks in the league who not only functions as a marvelous blocker but is an underrated ball carrier as well. Any team lucky enough to acquire his services will also impressed with the level of leadership he brings to their locker room.

FB Tony Richardson, Chiefs, unrestricted FA: Richardson has been the battering ram for the Kansas City Chiefs for the past 11 years and was a key component to the success of Marcus Allen, Priest Holmes, and Larry Johnson. As valuable as he is to the Chiefs in short yardage and goal line he has carried an astronomical salary, if he re-signs as a Chief it will have to be for a lot less money than he's used to. Though we've learned that he and the Chiefs are working on a new deal.

FB Mack Strong, Seahawks, unrestricted FA: Strong is the classic "jack of all trades" fullback that flourishes in the West Coast Offense. Whether you are talking about blocking, running, or receiving Strong can do it all. This 12-year veteran should still garner some serious looks during free agency after his stellar pro-bowl season in 2005.

WR Terrell Owens, Eagles, headed for release: There is little question that Owens won't be on the Eagles roster next season, but is there anyone else out there who is willing to deal with the off-field antics of the former 49ers star? Normally he'd be a great fit for the Raiders but with Randy Moss already in the silver and black Al Davis has decided one problem child is enough. Even with the Raiders out of the picture there is a good chance that Owens will still wind up in the AFC West. Right now the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs are considered to be the top two candidates for his services, though reports linking him to the Dallas Cowboys continue to gain steam.

WR Brandon Lloyd, 49ers, restricted FA, could be traded: Even though the 49ers tendered Lloyd at the high one-year offer of $1.6 million with a first-round draft pick as compensation, he is drawing considerable interest around the league because of the weak crop of receivers available on the open market. Several sources have confirmed that a deal already is in the works with the Washington Redskins that will send multiple draft picks to San Francisco for the rights to Lloyd. If the price is right, the 49ers appear set to let the volatile, acrobatic talent leave, despite their own problems at the WR position.

WR Eric Moulds, Bills, unrestricted FA: Moulds is coming off of one of the worst seasons in his career at the same time the Bills are looking to unload his hefty salary. His subpar 816-yard season can't fall completely on his shoulders however when you take into consideration the poor quarterback play of J.P. Losman and Kelly Holcomb. Moulds still has enough left in the tank to be a solid contributor for three or four more years and teams shouldn't pass on him solely because of his age.

C Kevin Mawae, Jets, unrestricted FA: Though Mawae's play has tailed off the past couple of years he's still better than two-thirds of the centers in the league. This polished technician will be a welcome addition to any team needing to strengthen the interior of their offensive line. He is planning on talking to the Miami Dolphins on Saturday.

C LeCharles Bentley, SIGNED WITH BROWNS: Cleveland wanted to get physical this offseason along the offensive line, and a major step was taken with the signing of Bentley, the top center available in free agency. Bentley moves well for a man of 315 pounds, can maul the opposition, can get to the second line of defense, and has displayed the agility to adjust on the fly. One of the top players available overall in free agency, Bentley can play center or guard at the highest level.

OT Jon Runyan, Eagles, unrestricted FA: Having played for 10 straight seasons without missing a single game Runyan is one of the great iron men in the league. He'll bring a great deal of experience and toughness to any team he plays for and should be at the top of most teams lists in free agency. He could land in Minnesota where he'd be reunited with former offensive coordinator Brad Childress who took over as head coach back in January.

C Mike Flanigan, Packers, unrestricted FA: Flanigan is the final remnant of a Packers offensive line that had the finest run blocking interior linemen in the league. Now that Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera have parted for greener pastures however Flanigan has been left to save the sinking ship. If the 11-year vet decides he has had enough and wants a change of scenery there will be no shortage of takers for a player with his skills.

OG Toniu Fonoti, Vikings, unrestricted FA: Fonoti is a gargantuan player built for power football between the tackles but at 350 pounds he often has issues controlling his weight. If he can manage to use a little self-control and stay in shape during the off-season he'll be able to name his price as a free agent.

OT Kyle Kosier, SINGED WITH COWBOYS: The former 49ers is an improving, versatile talent. He can play the guard or tackle positions, showing sufficient quickness to get to the second level of defense and shed off the corner. Lacks overall strength to be physical, but is aggressive and follows through the play. While not as physical as you would like, Kosier is very agile and should be a solid fit with the Cowboys.

OT Kevin Schaffer, SIGNED WITH BROWNS: Shaffer is a young and improving talent that will fit nicely into the Browns reshaped offensive line. Not overly big, Shaffer uses his hands and feet well to get into position. Has shown some minor inconsistency against quicker ends off the corner, but has worked diligently to improve his awareness. With a need at the left tackle position, the Browns have solidified the weakness with the signing of Shaffer.

DE Darren Howard, Saints, unrestricted FA: After being designated as the Saints franchise player for the past two years, Howard finally has the opportunity to test he market as a free agent. Unfortunately he only produced 3.5 sacks in 12 games last season and those are awfully poor numbers for a pass rush specialist. The Chiefs are very interested in the former Kansas State defensive end and could bring him in for a visit next week.

DE Trevor Pryce, Broncons, unrestricted FA: Once upon a time, Trevor Pryce was one considered one of the best defensive ends in the game but over the past three years his play has drastically declined. It could be that he just needs a change of scenery to turn his game around and at 30 years old he should still have plenty of gas in the tank. The mere possibility of Pryce returning to his old form is well worth the gamble of a mid level or incentive based contract. He has met with the Cleveland Browns and could visit other teams if he does not work out a deal with them.

DE Anthony Weaver, SIGNED BY TEXANS: Weaver made significant strides during the 2005 season. Point of attack play improved, and has shown the ability to get into the backfield. Plays the run reasonably well and will be expected to make plays in the Houston defensive scheme. Pass rush skills improving as he learns to play off blocks. Houston needed quickness and athleticism at the end position, and Weaver could be a solid starter for the Texans.

DT Kendrick Clancy, SIGNED WITH CARDINALS: Clancy came into his own during the 2005 season with the Giants. Plays the run well and displayed improved strength and quickness. Plays extremely hard and does not quit. Is not a factor rushing the passer, but has learned how to take up space and slide off blocks. A nice face-lift for the Cardinals run defense.

DT Chris Hovan, SIGNED WITH BUCCANEERS: Hovan turned his career around in Tampa Bay after being jettisoned from Minnesota. Still shows the ability to shoot the gap and run-stopping ability improved once moving onto Tampa Bay. Did not disappear in games in 2005, as he had done in Minnesota. While not a top-quality defensive tackle, Hovan is better than average in the Buccaneers scheme.

DT Rocky Bernard, Seahawks, unrestricted FA: Bernard was a relatively unknown player until 2005 when he consistently turned in dominant performances on the interior of the defensive line and recorded 8.5 sacks. He was a key cog in the improved Seattle defense and played a major role in their ability to reach the Super Bowl. If the Seahawks don't throw big money his way someone else will but you hope he isn't one these players that turns out to be a one hit wonder that gave it all they had in a contract year.

DT Sam Adams, Bills, unrestricted FA: Adams play fell off drastically in 2005 and a lot of that had to do with Pat Williams no longer playing next to him. At one point Adams was even benched and all this did was create more animosity between he and the coaching staff. Another player who has drawn the interest of the Miami Dolphins. Right now a few teams might be looking at him as a potential two gap run stuffer but they'd be foolish to offer him more than a one year deal for the league minimum. Why would anyone want a run stuffer who anchored one of the worst run defenses in the league?

DT Grady Jackson, Packers, unrestricted FA: Jackson is a massive two gap player that will solidify any teams run defense with his 350lb frame. He isn't a sack artist or light on his feet but he can eat up space in the running lane as well as anyone in the league.

DT Maake Kemoeatu, SIGNED BY PANTHERS: Big, run-stuffing defensive tackle is physical at the point of attack and will certainly improve an already good Carolina defensive line. Kemoeatu was highly sought due to his ability to manhandle blockers and make plays. This is a very good signing for the Panthers. Kemoeatu is an ascending nose tackle that's been a work in progress over the past four seasons. With 2005 being his first season as a full-time starter, the 6-foot-5, 350-pound tackle turned in the best season of his four-year career with 40 tackles. Kemoeatu has a surprisingly high motor for a player his size and at 27 years old he also has a ton of upside.

CB Ty Law, Jets, unrestricted FA: Law was one of last season's most highly-pursued free agents and in the end Herm Edwards was Law's most compelling salesman. He ended up signing with the New York Jets only to be cut seven months later. Oddly enough he was one of few bright spots of a dismal Jets season as he proved that he's still one of the NFL's best defensive backs. As it turns out, Edwards is back in the market for a cornerback again only this time it's with the Kansas City Chiefs. Law has explicitly stated he would like to play for Edwards again but the Chiefs don't have the cap room to outbid other teams for his services. Still his name is being linked to the Chiefs.

CB Charles Woodson, Raiders, unrestricted FA: After suffering a broken fibula in an early game against the Bills last season Woodson has spent the last few months on the shelf. His recent leg injury coupled with the fact that he hasn't played a complete season since 2001 will raise a red flag hurt his market value a bit when it comes to free agency.

CB Corey Chavous, SIGNED BY RAMS: Chavous remained a quality defensive back in the 2005 season and has shown little slippage. Still displays the ability to cover ground, doesn't make mental mistakes, and supports well against the run. Not overly quick nor fast, depends on his experience to be in position. A true upgrade for a questionable St. Louis defense.

SS Lawyer Milloy, Bills, unrestricted FA: Milloy has been the fearless leader of the Bills secondary since the Patriots let him go upon acquiring Rodney Harrison. Milloy is a crafty veteran that can ball hawk as well as he head hunts this offseason.

LB LaVar Arrington, Redskins, unrestricted FA: Arrington's days as a malcontent on the Redskins finally came to an end earlier in the week when he agreed to pay back four million dollars of his signing bonus in order to be released from his contract. Although he was maligned in Washington, Arrington is still considered one of the most talented pass-rushing linebackers in the league. It won't take long for this former Pro-bowler and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year to find his way on another NFL roster. The Cleveland Browns have made him their top offseason priority and should expect him in town on Saturday for a visit.

LB Julian Peterson, 49ers, unrestricted FA: Last offseason, the 49ers used their franchise tag on Peterson for the second year in a row. This time around, however, they've allowed him to test the free-agent waters as they feel he's lost a step since rupturing his Achilles tendon in 2004. Regardless of whether or not he's lost a step, Peterson is still one of the top-tier linebackers in the league. Anyone in need of a leader and playermaker should give him a serious look.

LB Will Witherspoon, Panthers, unrestricted FA: Witherspoon is an ascending young linebacker with exceptional speed and good nose for the ball. Ever since he joined the Panthers as a rookie he has been their starting weak side linebacker averaging 88.5 tackles a season. His ability is slightly reminiscent of Ian Gold in his prime though isn't quite the hitter that Gold is.

LB Jamie Sharper, Seahawks, unrestricted FA: The 31-year-old Sharper was a major signing for Seahawks in 2005 but he only made it to the halfway point of the season before suffering an injury that forced him on IR. Although he's a little older, Sharper can still play at a very high level and this one time difference maker will be well worth the low priced contract he'll demand.

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