Most anticipate that, if the NFL and NFLPA agree to a new CBA with the courts playing no role in the outcome, the free-agency system will function similarly to how it did from 2006-2009, which means players with four or more accrued seasons would qualify.
So as we hopefully get closer to a labor settlement between these sides, there's no better time to evaluate this potential class of fourth-year free agents. They are obviously the youngest of the bunch, and their inclusion would add considerable depth to the overall free-agent class.
Debate: Free-agent frenzy
The wide receiver position is particularly intriguing, and given the host of big-name older receivers also set to hit the market (Randy Moss, Terrell Owens), there will be plenty of action for pass-catchers once the lockout ends. Free agency would also hit some teams harder than others, with the Ravens (G Marshal Yanda, T Jared Gaither, FB Le'Ron McClain), the Giants (WR Steve Smith, RB Ahmad Bradshaw and TE Kevin Boss) and Chargers (S Eric Weddle, WR Legedu Naanee) among the teams that would be most impacted if their fourth-year players were allowed to hit the open market.
With that in mind, here is a position-by-position look at fourth-year free agents:
No big-time starters here. No long-term solutions to anyone's needs. But there are some interesting options. Bruce Gradkowski has won some games for Tampa Bay and Oakland without much of a supporting cast. He is a gamer, and teammates love him. He has strong leadership skills and plays hurt. He has ties to Jay Gruden already, and the Bengals will need a veteran to add to rookie Andy Dalton should Carson Palmer go ahead and retire. The Lions reeled off a second-half run with Drew Stanton filling in and keeping him in Detroit, given Matthew Stafford's injury history, would be imperative. Tyler Thigpen could be intriguing for a team like the Eagles should they pull off the Kevin Kolb trade.
Ample options here. The Vikings want to keep Sidney Rice, but the price could easily get too high. Mike Sims-Walker seems destined for a departure from Jacksonville. Steve Smith of the New York Giants has out-performed his namesake in recent years, and the Giants have good depth at his position. Steve Breaston doesn't get talked about as much as some other receivers in Arizona in recent years, but he makes plays and is productive. Naanee cuts a nice figure at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds, and the Chargers already have a lot of money tied up in pass catchers like Vincent Jackson (franchise tag) and TE Antonio Gates. Malcom Floyd is also out of contract, giving the front office some tough choices to make. Jacoby Jones is a burner and has given the Texans a burst on special teams and sometimes in the vertical passing game.
Bradshaw would be the real catch here, and the Giants would certainly try to retain him, but could there be more carries elsewhere? And with the overall free-agent running back market soft (Darren Sproles, Joseph Addai, DeAngelo Williams being primary competition), someone might pry him away. Brandon Jackson provided some burst for the Packers but is not an every-down guy. The fullbacks will get action as well. McClain is a former Pro Bowl selection, but the Ravens have let such guys at that position walk in the past to invest money elsewhere (that's likely here, too). Fullback Brian Leonard has been highly valued by the Bengals, but they're going to have to spend on a starting running back, too (I expect them to make a strong pitch to retain Cedric Benson).
Unofficial list of free agents
Boss made people forget about Jeremy Shockey and has a good chemistry with Eli Manning. Zach Miller is an emerging talent with the Raiders, and though the sides worked toward an extension prior to the lockout they could not strike a deal. With Marcedes Lewis getting franchised, Miller would get plenty of attention on the open market and, like Nnamdi Asomugha and Robert Gallery, could be heading out of the Bay Area. Miller will be in line for a big pay day.
Jermon Bushrod went from tiny Towson University to becoming a starting tackle for the Super Bowl champion Saints in 2009. With not much tackle talent on the open market, the Saints want him back, and keeping their good, young offensive line in place is a priority. Gaither was a starting left tackle for Baltimore a few years back, and the offensive line was better with him on the left and Michael Oher on the right. But Baltimore drafted a tackle, has other offensive line issues, and Gaither and team clashed at times over the back injury that wiped out his entire 2010 season. I have a hard time seeing him back there. Doug Free got a chance to replace Flozell Adams in Dallas last season and helped out better than many expected. Free will get plenty of interest. The interior linemen are not as strong. Yanda is a force, and the Ravens have made re-signing him a priority, with the sides talking about a potential deal before the lockout (valuable versatile lineman Chris Chester is also a fifth-year free agent).
The overall prospects of landing a pass rusher are pretty bleak in this class, regardless of the age or experience of the player being factored in. Tamba Hali and LaMarr Woodley got franchised by the Chiefs and Steelers, respectively, and the Raiders re-signed Richard Seymour. However, Charles Johnson emerged from Julius Peppers' shadow last year in Carolina, and other teams noticed. Keeping Johnson will be a priority, but we'll see how high the market goes. Stylez G. White got a late start on his career; he's 31 despite just four seasons. He has to muster a pass rush and is a nice situational fit for some teams, if he doesn't end up back in Tampa. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane is coveted by several teams (Denver and Cleveland are among those who could make a bid), and his time in Seattle could be closing, though there is not much standout interior talent among fourth-year free agents.
Not even fourth-year free agents would make this class that strong. Clint Session is the biggest name of this group. The Colts were trying to get him re-signed prior to the lockout, and my suspicion is he ends up back in Indy when all is said and done.
Not a bumper crop (though older free agents like Jonathan Joseph, Ike Taylor and Asomugha make the overall class more than solid). Eric Wright has flashed potential in Cleveland but struggled with consistency. John Wilson has had nice moments in Seattle and Baltimore, but isn't a guaranteed starting guy. Weddle would demand top dollar, however, among safeties, and I'm not sure the Chargers will be willing to go as far as the market might dictate.