The good news for the Cowboys is that they signed their crucial free agents to contract extensions either before the season — tight end Jason Witten and safety Roy Williams — or during the season — linebacker Bradie James.
Of the seven unrestricted free agents who are set to come free in March, tackle Marc Colombo, center Andre Gurode, kicker Martin Gramatica and defensive end Kenyon Coleman are mostly likely to be offered deals to return.
Colombo and Gurode should be mainstays on the offensive line for years to come so they are the priorities. Gramatica showed enough as a replacement for Mike Vanderjagt that the Cowboys want him back. However, they are not going to break the bank on a kicker again.
Coleman will be brought back at the right price.
Of the restricted free agents, the Cowboys can't afford to lose punter Mat McBriar and wide receiver Patrick Crayton.
No one will get the franchise tag.
NEW YORK GIANTS
The Giants are in good shape as far as potential free agent losses, as outgoing GM Ernie Accorsi made it a point to lock up most of the key players on offense and defense last season. The only big unrestricted free agents are C Shaun O'Hara and K Jay Feely.
The Giants like both players, and both players have said they'd like to come back. The team should have no problem re-signing Feely, a reliable and physical kicker who won't ask for an exorbitant sum. But O'Hara may be a problem.
He's a good center, but not great. Yet, he's one of the best centers on the open market and could command a big number. The Giants probably will be unwilling to pay him his price, especially considering backup G/C Rich Seubert proved he can handle the position during O'Hara's injury absence this year. Unless O'Hara is willing to play for the Giants' offer, they'll gladly let him go and hand the job over to the gritty Seubert.
SS Gibril Wilson is a restricted free agent who undoubtedly will be offered the draft-position tender and be kept as a starter.
Starting LB Brandon Short, backup TE Visanthe Shiancoe, backup CB Frank Walker and backup G Grey Ruegamer are also unrestricted. Short said he'd like to be back, and it's unlikely he'll have a big market after an up-and-down year. Shiancoe is needed, but Walker and Ruegamer are probably gone.
Don't expect anyone to get a franchise tag, since the Giants are loathe to use the designation. Besides, if they're not willing to spend a lot of money on O'Hara, there's nobody else worth those kinds of numbers.
The only starters who are free agents are guard Derrick Dockery, linebacker Warrick Holdman and strong safety Vernon Fox.
The Redskins want to re-sign Dockery, who had his best year in 2006 and fits in well with the rest of a solid offensive line. However, recent history suggests that when Washington doesn't get a holdover signed before the end of the season, he's gone (linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot in 2004 are the prime examples).
Holdman has been just a guy during his two years as a Redskin. His replacement on the weak side, last's year second-rounder, Rocky McIntosh is already on the roster so he'll be allowed to test the market at 31.
Fox, 27, was a stopgap starter after Archuleta went belly-up and 35-year-old replacement Troy Vincent got hurt. Fox is a very good special teams player, but he shouldn't play regularly on defense. He's grateful to the Redskins for giving him a chance to start and figures to re-sign, barring an unforeseen better shot to play elsewhere.
Furrey and DT Cory Redding are the Lions' top priorities for re-signing.
Furrey arrived last winter as a virtual unknown and finished second in the NFL in receptions with 98 for 1,086 yards and six touchdowns, five catches behind league-leader Andre Johnson. Redding moved from left defensive end to defensive tackle after injuries to starters Shaun Rogers and Shaun Cody, and he responded with a team-high eight sacks.
The Lions have initiated talks with Furrey but were unable to get him signed before the final game of the season. Redding has been vague on whether he wants to test free agency, and it has been suggested, but not by Lions officials, that the team might use the franchise tag to keep him.
Other unrestricted free agents include FS Terrence Holt, FB Cory Schlesinger, S Jon McGraw, OG Rick DeMulling, WR Corey Bradford, CB Jamar Fletcher, DT Tyoka Jackson and RB Arlen Harris. Aside from Furrey and Redding, Holt is the only full-time starter slated for free agency.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
The team is interested in bringing back Ahman Green and has been in talks with the running back's agent. Green held up for the entire season after suffering a ruptured thigh early in the 2005 season. He reached the 1,000-yard benchmark on the ground for a franchise-record sixth time in the last seven years. Green is seeking a multiyear contract after cashing in some with the one-year, incentive-laden deal he signed last offseason.
The other impending unrestricted free agents are TEs David Martin and Donald Lee, DT Kenderick Allen, LS Rob Davis, LBs Ben Taylor and Tracy White and journeyman QB Todd Bouman.
DE/DT Cullen Jenkins figures to be an attractive commodity as a restricted free agent after he played like gangbusters as a late-season insertion in the starting lineup in place of RDE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Since Jenkins was signed as an undrafted free agent by Green Bay in 2003, the Packers likely will have to sign him to at least the middle tender and force a suitor to put up a first-round draft pick as compensation.
MLB Napoleon Harris and WR Travis Taylor will be unrestricted free agents, and neither figures to be back. Harris rebounded after a subpar 2006, but the Vikings have made major investments in Ben Leber and E.J. Henderson, and first-round pick Chad Greenway will return next season after sitting out this year because of a knee injury. It's likely Harris will get a nice payday elsewhere. Taylor led the Vikings with 57 catches, but a complete overhaul at receiver wouldn't be surprising.
Other unrestricted free agents include DT Ross Kolodziej, WR Bethel Johnson, G Jason Whittle and S Tank Williams. DE Darrion Scott will be a restricted free agent, and the Vikings already have approached him about a new contract.
The two biggest names heading in to free agency are DE Patrick Kerney and QB Matt Schaub.
As they have previously done with some other key players, team management is trying to re-sign the unrestricted Kerney.
As for Schaub, he is a restricted free agent and has some teams drooling, but Atlanta could ask for first-and-third round picks as compensation for him. With Michael Vick in front of him, Schaub is certain to leave one way or another.
Other pending free agents are outside linebacker DeMorrio Williams, wide receiver Ashley Lelie, and punter Michael Koenen. While all are solid contributors, none seem worthy of being designated with a franchise tag.
The Panthers have no candidates that could possibly be named the franchise player. The team has no free agents who they must absolutely re-sign.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
The Bucs don't have any real must-sign free agents after locking up QB Chris Simms. QB Tim Rattay will be a free agent and he is not a must-sign, but he proved his case in the final three weeks of the season.
DE Dewayne White is probably the Bucs' most valuable unrestricted free agent, but he probably will look around.
LT Leonard Davis, the second pick overall in the 2001 draft, is to become an unrestricted free agent. The team passed on the opportunity to extend the 6-foot-6, 365-pound behemoth when it had plenty of room under the salary cap, dissuaded by his underachieving. He never played commensurate with his draft position. Six years into his career he still is not a Pro Bowler. His best seasons were early in his career, when he played right guard. His play improved during the second half of this season as the running game came along and a few wins accompanied it. The team has a tough call here. Investing a ton of money in a long-term commitment to Davis is risky. It also would cost a small fortune to replace him. He could be tagged, but if the team thinks that highly of him, it should have extended him when it had a chance for less than it would be required to shell out if it tags him.
He made more than $9 million in 2006.
Davis, on whether he'll be at a new address next season: "It wouldn't surprise me."
ST. LOUIS RAMS
During the season, the Rams tied up two potential free agents with the signing of DE Leonard Little and LB Pisa Tinoisamoa. The most notable unrestricted free agent will be WR Kevin Curtis. The Rams would like him back, but they probably won't pay top money to do that. Curtis recently hired agent Tom Condon to represent him in contract talks.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
The biggest name on the 49ers' list of potential free agents is DL Bryant Young, who is likely to return for at least another season. The 49ers want him back, and Young said he only would play for the 49ers if he does not retire. TE Eric Johnson and DT Anthony Adams have started for the 49ers in the past but have settled into reserve roles. The 49ers would like Johnson to return, but it is unclear if Adams fits into their plans. The team signed S Mark Roman last week to a three-year extension to prevent him from becoming a free agent. The 49ers will not use their franchise tag on any of their free agents.