<
>

Five teams that might overpay free agents to fill needs

As teams re-sign an uncommon number of their own players and make liberal use of the franchise tag, the weakest free-agent class of the modern era will hit the market at 12:01 a.m. Friday.

"Keep the guys that you have instead of the unknown," said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' executive vice president of football operations. "People feel more comfortable doing that, especially the teams that are winning and don't feel that they have to have a big turnover. If you look at the teams that are coming off the playoffs, they usually change 12 to 15 guys on their team and you have six or seven draft picks. I think that's why people are signing their own, because of all the cap room that is out there."

The Redskins, and Cerrato, are one of those playoff teams and they're pledging to be uncharacteristically quiet, at least for the start of free agency. But, even with a thin class, the rest of the league isn't expected to sit quietly. If anything, a free-agent class without an abundance of impact players might result in some quick signings. Some teams are going to make fast and hard plays for the few gems.

"It's kind of like college recruiting," Cerrato said. "If you get them in your city and they leave, you're probably not going to sign them. To get a deal done, you're probably going to have to overpay. So what are you going to say, 'We didn't overpay, but we didn't get him, either?'"

Here's a look at five teams that are likely to take an aggressive approach to the start of free agency and might do their share of overpaying:

Carolina Panthers

Since they teamed up in 2002, general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox have taken a conservative and frugal approach to free agency. But Hurney and Fox are coming off two disappointing seasons, and owner Jerry Richardson is on the record saying he expects a very busy offseason. That has prompted Fox and Hurney to do business the way they haven't in the past, cutting their own players (Mike Wahle, DeShaun Foster and Dan Morgan).

Wednesday's signing of former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad is the kind of move Richardson used to make. (Remember Kevin Greene?) Muhammad might be a decent role player for a year or two, but he's not going to solve all of Carolina's problems. Hurney and Fox have to win this year, and they need playmakers on offense and a pass rush. The Panthers aren't done at wide receiver and need a running back at least to complement DeAngelo Williams.

They also need an offensive tackle, if they really are going to put Travelle Wharton at guard and move Jordan Gross from right to left tackle. But, more than anything, they need a defensive end to replace Mike Rucker. Cincinnati's Justin Smith might be the best available.

San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers were one of the most aggressive teams in free agency last year, going all out to get cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis. The results weren't all that impressive, but that's not Clements and Lewis' fault. It's just that the 49ers didn't get enough other good players.

The 49ers might be even more aggressive this time around because coach Mike Nolan clearly is in a must-win situation. Numerous sources said at last week's scouting combine that the 49ers already were laying groundwork for a series of big moves. There's been a lot of talk about the 49ers' trying to get Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs. There's growing talk the 49ers are ready to make a strong run at Arizona's Calvin Pace.

Denver Broncos

Denver never sits quietly in the offseason, and coach Mike Shanahan isn't going to change his methods. The Broncos already have been exploring defensive tackle help through potential trades. But the bigger need might be at wide receiver.

The Broncos could pull a surprise and enter the sweepstakes for Randy Moss. Or they could be a player for someone like Jacksonville's Ernest Wilford.

Shanahan has anointed Jay Cutler as the franchise quarterback. But if the Broncos don't sign a couple of wide receivers, Cutler will join Brian Griese and Jake Plummer on the list of guys who couldn't fill John Elway's shoes.

Tennessee Titans

Tennessee survived the salary-cap jam it was in during recent years, but the Titans have to start spending money to stay competitive in a division where Indianapolis and Jacksonville are very good and Houston is getting better.

Quarterback Vince Young can do only so much by himself. He needs weapons, and the Titans need to score more points. One way to make that happen might be to pursue receiver Ernest Wilford, who showed some promise in Jacksonville. But Wilford never really flourished in the Jaguars' group of underachieving receivers.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A lot of folks around the league are anxious to see what the Bucs have up their sleeves.

After releasing defensive ends Greg Spires and Kevin Carter, Tampa Bay has more than $40 million in cap space. General manager Bruce Allen and coach Jon Gruden are bright enough to realize they can't sit tight, even though they made the playoffs last season.

The Bucs were 9-7, but lucked out at times. They have to get better to be a serious contender, and their wish list starts with playmakers at running back and wide receiver. They also were sniffing around Gross before the Panthers put the franchise tag on him. A lot of people assume Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca will end up in Arizona, but the Bucs might make a play to strengthen the interior of their offensive line.

The Bucs also need to rebuild at defensive end and find some cornerback help because Ronde Barber is aging. But no talk of Tampa Bay's plans would be complete without mentioning quarterbacks.

The Bucs have Jeff Garcia for the present, but Gruden likes to stockpile players at this position. The one thing Gruden -- who has won big with Brad Johnson and Rich Gannon -- lacks is a quarterback for the future.

Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.