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Contract Killers: Which pending free agents hurt their cause in 2011?

Peyton Hillis

Cleveland running back Peyton Hillis ran for 597 yards and scored just three touchdowns in 2011. (Getty Images)

When NFL free agency begins on March 13, the race will be on for the elite players on the market. Players like Mario Williams, Vincent Jackson and Marques Colston likely will cash in with monster deals.

But what about the less fortunate soon-to-be free agents?

There are plenty of players about to test the waters who did not perform up to snuff in 2011, which will no doubt come back to haunt them as they go searching new contracts.

So, who did the most damage during the 2011 season to his current free-agent prospects? Here are just a few of the candidates:

Rex Grossman, QB, Redskins: The 2011 season was Rex Grossman's shot to prove that he was more than just a second-fiddle QB, one only capable of winning when he's playing behind a sensational defense.

Well, so much for that. The Redskins' struggles were not all Grossman's fault, but he finished just 5-8 as the starter, with a whopping 25 turnovers (20 interceptions, five fumbles lost). He also took 25 sacks, compared to 16 touchdown passes.

If nothing else, he had a chance to solidify a spot in Washington so he could serve as the reliable veteran while the franchise groomed a young QB. Instead, Grossman will be crossing his fingers that the Redskins -- or anyone -- will give him a shot to win a backup role.

Chad Henne, QB, Dolphins: Henne was in a similar boat to Grossman. After struggling as a starter for Miami in 2009 and '10, he nevertheless was handed the reins to the Dolphins' offense again last season. He started the year 0-3, then suffered a season-ending injury in his fourth game (also a loss).

He'll hit the free-agent market coming off surgery on his non-throwing shoulder and with a 31-to-37 lifetime TD-INT ratio.

Peyton Hillis, RB, Browns: What a difference a year makes. Hillis emerged as an NFL star in 2010, accumulating more than 1,500 total yards and landing a spot on the cover of the "Madden" video game franchise.

This past season, though, was a complete 180. Hillis struggled to stay on the field -- he played in just 10 games -- and left the Browns questioning his commitment. He'll definitely get a shot somewhere, but his price tag has no doubt dropped in the past 365 days.

Cedric Benson, RB, Bengals: On the surface, Benson's numbers the past three seasons look pretty solid. He has averaged 1,173 yards rushing since 2009 and carried the ball nearly 900 times in that span. The problem is that he's nothing more than an average back these days, a fact evidenced by his 3.9 yards-per-carry average and even more so by his 2.1 yards-after-contact number.

Eddie Royal, WR, Broncos: Yes, some of Royal's drop-off in 2011 had to do with Tim Tebow playing quarterback for Denver. But, man, what a drop-off it was. Royal made 40 fewer catches than he did in 2010, when he had 59 grabs, and found the end zone just once last season.

Every single one of his numbers was subpar: Completions on just 42.2 of the passes thrown his way; an 8.2 yards-per-catch average; a season-long play of 26 yards; less than 70 yards after the catch all season. Given that Royal's only 25, some team will find a spot for him. But he definitely missed out on an opportunity to cash in as a free agent.

Braylon Edwards, WR, 49ers: Edwards seemed like such a safe, smart play for San Francisco, which snatched him up for one year at just $1 million. Edwards could not even repay that investment, catching 15 passes and zero touchdowns over nine games. The 49ers got so fed up with him, in fact, that they waived him in late December as he dealt with shoulder and knee injuries.

Worse yet, no one thought to pick him up on the cheap then -- which makes you wonder if anyone will pay up for the 28-year-old Edwards come March.

Barry Richardson, T, Chiefs: NFL teams are constantly searching for young talent at the offensive tackle position, something that should have worked in the favor of the 25-year-old Richardson, whose rookie contract is up.

Unfortunately for him, there's not a huge market for overmatched young tackles, and that's what Richardson has shown himself to be. He did start all 16 games for Kansas City for the second straight season, but that says more about K.C.'s lack of line depth than Richardson's ability. Over the 2011 season, Richardson was flagged for nine penalties, gave up eight sacks and allowed an astronomical 36 quarterback pressures. Any team relying on him to be more than a backup going forward is asking for trouble.

Anthony Spencer, DE/OLB, Cowboys (UPDATE: Franchised by Cowboys): There's one way, and one way only, that Spencer can cash in a big paycheck after a mediocre fifth season in the NFL -- and that's if the Cowboys opt to use the franchise tag on him.

It's a move Dallas is reportedly considering, even if it's borderline lunacy to fork over $8.8 million for the former first-round pick, who has 17 sacks over the past three seasons but has yet to take the leap to the next level while playing opposite DeMarcus Ware.

If Dallas lets Spencer walk, he won't make anything near that franchise tag price.

Barrett Ruud, LB, Titans: Ruud was a tackling machine for several seasons in Tampa Bay, averaging 139.25 takedowns from 2007 to '10. He did not find the same level of success on a one-year deal in Tennessee.

Ruud made 57 tackles in nine games but was often a weak link on Tennessee's defense. He then finished the year on injured reserve because of a groin injury and underwent shoulder surgery in January. Somehow, he has to convince a team to give him a job despite his physical issues and sagging play.

Tracy Porter, CB, Saints: Porter will be just 26 when the 2012 season opens and he already has 43 career starts under his belt. There is little doubt that Porter will find a home, probably in rapid fashion, once free agency begins.

The 2011 season was a down year for Porter, however, as he came up with just one interception and frequently gave up big plays. Some of that had to do with Gregg Williams' unusual defensive scheme in New Orleans -- not to mention a pass rush that struggled -- but teams have to have their doubts that Porter can step in and be a shutdown man-on-man cornerback.

Jim Leonhard, S, Jets: Leonhard is on this list almost through no fault of his own, but rather to highlight how damaging an ill-timed injury can be. When he's on the field, Leonhard is one of the more consistent safeties in the NFL -- he was a terrific addition to the Ravens in 2008, then helped upgrade New York's secondary beginning in 2009.

The problem is that, for the second year in a row Leonhard ended the season on the sidelines. He suffered a freak shin injury in practice late in the 2010 campaign, then tore his patellar tendon making his lone interception of the 2011 season in Week 13.

It sounds as if the Jets are ready to move on. Can Leonhard, who will turn 30 in October and is coming off major leg injuries each of the past two seasons, find another home?

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