On paper at least, the most attractive tailbacks in the unrestricted pool were Michael Bush (Oakland), Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), and perhaps Ryan Grant (Green Bay). Throw in two players who were released, the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs and Joseph Addai of Indianapolis.
But the three guys who seem to be getting the most attention early on might be surprising to some. They appear to be BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England, San Diego's Mike Tolbert and the relatively unknown Jackie Battle of Kansas City.
And two of the three could actually re-sign with their old clubs, which might leave some teams scrambling.
Tolbert is in serious negotiations with the Chargers, and while Green-Ellis has plenty of suitors and will likely go elsewhere, there is a chance, The Sports Xchange was told by reliable NFL sources, that it's conceivable he could return to the Patriots, who want him back. The attractions of Green-Ellis, beyond the fact he has never fumbled in 588 combined regular- and postseason "touches," is that the former undrafted free agent knows and accepts is role, has played for a winner, is a tough guy who can also catch the ball, and knows his market.
"A lot of these guys price themselves out (of the market)," one personnel director told The Sports Xchange. "If you see any of the (backs) left out there getting $4.5-$5 million a year -- and we're talking real money here -- they've done pretty well." Two years ago, Hillis was the toast of the league.
After a down season, marred by injuries on the field and inconsistency off it, he settled for a one-year, $3 million deal in Kansas City to be a backup to the recovering Jamaal Charles.
Said the personnel director, whose team will try to add either a low-budget back in free agency or draft one in the mid- to late rounds: "Sometimes your expectations meet reality, and 'boom.' You've got to get real. It's not exactly a runaway market for the backs right now."
But a couple of the higher-profile safeties will soon get into the mix, and Reggie Nelson of Cincinnati and Washington's LaRon Landry each could have new homes and (relatively) fat contracts in the next week or two.
Nelson essentially resurrected his career with the Bengals last season, after the former first-rounder was a disappointment during his Jacksonville tenure.
Landry is the probably the top safety in the unrestricted pool, and officials from a couple teams told The Sports Xchange this week that so many franchises have expressed an interest in him that, believe it or not, he's actually turned down requests for visits. The Jets will almost certainly try to land one of the two safeties.
So maybe we were onto something when suggesting a couple weeks ago that 4-3 middle 'backers of the run-stuffer variety were dubious investments, despite the extension recently awarded to D'Qwell Jackson of Cleveland. More possibly, it might have something to do with Lofton's purported desire for a $10 million-a-year contract.
Or just as likely, some teams are spooked by his knees.
Lofton, just 25, had surgeries on both knees last year and, while Atlanta officials tell anyone who will listen about what a good player, team leader and knowledgeable defender he is, they are also privately concerned about the degeneration in the joints.
That's despite Lofton having never missed a game, and just one start, in four years.
Atlanta would love to have Lofton back, but at a palatable price that protects the Falcons, given the condition of his knees. If the price tag gets too high, the Falcons will just move on with second-year pro Akeem Dent or the recently signed Lofa Tatupu in the middle.
Lofton has averaged 123.0 tackles since the Falcons chose him in the second round in 2008 but, as indicated in this space in the past, he isn't a great third-down player, even though Atlanta often keep him on the field in that situation.
Lofton can cut through the trash and compile impressive tackle numbers, but he's not viewed as a difference maker.
The big contracts for 4-3 linebackers such as Jackson and Jon Beason aside, we continue to contend it's questionable to throw money at a run-stuffer. Ironically, Tampa Bay and New Orleans – two franchises very familiar with Lofton from having played against him in the NFC South – continue to keep tabs on him.
The Bucs seem to have backed off some, but the Saints, who could lose Jonathan Vilma to a suspension or salary cap constraints, appear to have a real interest, and have tentatively scheduled a weekend visit that might be contingent on a late-week visit by Joe Mays of Denver.