Crumpler, who led the Falcons in receiving in two of the past three seasons, is the top tight end available on the open market, and is seeking a deal that will average around $4 million per year. Teams have raised concerns about his recent injury history, but if the talented playmaker passes a physical, he will likely secure a deal before free agency starts on Feb. 29.
Also, don't expect the Panthers to make a serious play for the tight end. Though Crumpler seems like a logical fit and would open the field up for Steve Smith, the Panthers are not one of the teams scheduled to visit with him over the weekend. The Panthers were one of the first teams to contact him after his release, but the discussions didn't develop into contract negotiations.
• Despite being the top guard available on the market, Alan Faneca may have a difficult time finding a team willing to meet his salary demands. The seven-time Pro Bowl lineman is rumored to be seeking a deal that surpasses Steve Hutchinson's deal (seven years, $49 million) from two years ago. While several teams would love to add Faneca to their lineup, his age (31) will deter teams from committing to a high-priced, long-term deal.
League officials expect Faneca to sign a deal that is four to five years in length, with average salaries near the $7 million range. Also, there is a rumor floating in league circles that the Eagles will emerge as a dark horse candidate to make a strong play. Supposedly, the Eagles are interested in having Faneca line up at guard, with two-time Pro Bowl guard Shawn Andrews moving to right tackle as a replacement for Jon Runyan.
• Justin Smith is the biggest beneficiary of teams using the franchise tag to lock up free agent pass rushers. With top rushers Jared Allen and Terrell Suggs off the market, Smith becomes the most coveted pass rusher available. Although Smith only recorded two sacks last season, the seven-year veteran has 43.5 career sacks and is only challenged by Antwan Odom (12.5 career sacks) as the top available pass rusher. League officials expect Smith to command a deal that averages around $8 million a year.
The Patriots' interest in former Pro Bowl linebacker Zach Thomas makes sense considering Bill Belichick's history with veteran linebackers. Belichick prefers having experienced linebackers, and he gives each veteran a clearly defined role in the game plan.
While the addition of Thomas would provide insurance against the potential retirement of Tedy Bruschi and/or Junior Seau, it would also give Belichick the flexibility to return to a hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense that the Pats have used successfully. Although Thomas is clearly a better fit as a middle linebacker in the 4-3, his experience the past two seasons as an inside linebacker in Dom Capers' 3-4 also makes him an attractive option. With Capers now on board as the Patriots' secondary coach, the defensive staff would have great insight on how to best deploy Thomas.
• One of the surprising recipients of the franchise tag was Packers' defensive tackle Corey Williams. The fourth-year veteran is not a household name, but has amassed back-to-back seven-sack seasons while logging 20 starts the past two years. Several teams --including the Titans -- had targeted Williams as a top priority during free agency, and the Packers wisely avoided a potential bidding war. Though the move is expensive (franchise number for defensive tackles is $6.36 million), it helps the Packers keep one of the NFL's best young defensive lines intact for another season.
• Two free agent receivers who are quietly generating interest are D.J. Hackett and Drew Carter. Hackett is viewed a solid No. 2 receiver with the potential to develop into a 55-60 catch guy. He possesses good size, and is a dependable receiver over the middle. Though scouts raised concerns about his durability (Hackett has missed parts of the past three seasons with various injuries), his potential to step as a starter in a west coast offense makes him a highly desirable option.
Carter is coveted by teams in search of a speedster capable of stretching the field. The four-year veteran has outstanding straight-line speed, and has proven to be a capable vertical threat in limited action (nine career starts). While Carter's failure to play like a "big" receiver is frustrating, scouts are enticed by his ability to make plays down the field (three receptions over 40 yards last season). Look for Hackett and Carter quickly sign with teams looking for undervalued receivers
• The Cardinals' decision to franchise Karlos Dansby, and Larry Fitzgerald's enormous cap number could lead to a major overhaul by the Cardinals during the off season. Dansby's franchise tag is worth $8.05 million and Fitzgerald's current cap number ($16.5 million) means that over $24.5 million of the Cardinals' salary cap space tied up between the two players. And that will force the Cardinals to make some tough decisions regarding Bryant Johnson, Edgerrin James and Calvin Pace in the coming weeks. Unless Rod Graves is able reach an agreement with Fitzgerald on a cap friendly extension, league officials expect the Cardinals to part ways with Johnson and James while focusing their efforts on re-signing the emerging Pace. The decision to jettison two offensive stars would be difficult, but keeping Pace would allow the Cardinals to keep together the nucleus of a vastly improved defense.