HONOLULU — After the game, there was a beaming smile on Adalius Thomas’ face. No wonder — he had just returned a Marc Bulger fumble for a touchdown in the AFC’s 31-28 win over the NFC in the Pro Bowl on Sunday.
Honolulu. Thomas may have played his last game in a Ravens uniform when the AFC won the All-Star contest
31-28 on Feb. 10.
Meanwhile, fellow Pro Bowlers and teammates at the Baltimore Ravens, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs, wore bitter smiles, looking at Thomas’ celebration — because it might have been the last time for them to see him in a Raven helmet.
“It could be my last game with some of these Ravens guys,” Thomas said after the Pro Bowl. “If it is, it’s been a great run, great seven years. But it’s the business side. They have to do what’s best for them, and I have to do what’s best for me.”
The seven-year veteran Thomas will become an unrestricted free agent on March 2. The emergence of the 29-year-old Thomas in the last two seasons has made him one of the most sought-after players in the free agency market in this offseason.
Thomas, a former defensive end at the University of Southern Mississippi, was drafted in sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft (186th overall) by Baltimore, and was soon moved to linebacker because he lacked the height (188 cm) for an NFL defensive end.
He was slow to make an impact and was a backup linebacker and special team player before the 2004 season.
Thomas’ breakout season was 2005, when he accumulated 84 tackles (69 solo) and nine sacks playing in all 16 games. And in 2006, Thomas racked up 83 tackles (64 solo) and a career-high 11 sacks, which ranked 11th in the league, to help the Ravens build the NFL’s best defense (264.1 yards allowed per game and 12.6 points allowed per game).
Now the once-ordinary backup Thomas is a rising star. As more teams apply the 3-4 defensive scheme, a guy that is blessed with both phenomenal athletic ability and great power is in demand.
Teams such as the Cleveland Browns, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots are using the 3-4 and could be a possible destinations for Thomas.
However, Thomas is not the only fascinating free agent on the market. Here are some of the notable players that may be free agents this offseason:
Dwight Freeney (Indianapolis Colts DE; UFA) — Arguably the biggest name in the free agency market. The 2004 sack king is considered one of the most technical and quick ends in the league. He ended up with career-low 5.5 sacks this past season, but he has averaged 11.3 sacks in his career. The Super Bowl champ Colts and coach Tony Dungy will definitely try to entice him to stay in Indy.
Asante Samuel (New England Patriots CB; UFA) — This is a phenomenal playmaker who has both killer instincts and play-reading skills in the backfield. In the past season, Samuel corrected 10 interceptions for the Patriots, tying with Denver Broncos corner Champ Bailey. He picked off three of Bears quarterback Rex Grossman’s passes in Week 12.
Nate Clements (Buffalo Bills CB; UFA) — A tough, physical and durable Ohio State playmaking product, who was given the franchise tag at the end of the 2005 season, is likely out of Buffalo this year. Clements is considered one of the most exciting defensive backs in the NFL. In 2006, he had 70 tackles (54 solo) and three interceptions.
Lance Briggs (Chicago Bears LB; UFA) — Along with 2005 Defensive Player of the Year Brian Urlacher, Briggs represents the hard-nosed, physical defense for the NFC Champion Chicago Bears. The weak side linebacker is known for his merciless hits. Briggs recorded 130 tackles (109 solo).
Dominic Rhodes (Indianapolis Colts RB; UFA) — Although he was replaced by Joseph Addai as the starting running back in the playoffs, his stock is soaring because of his magnificent play in the Super Bowl in Miami.
Damon Huard (Kansas City Chiefs QB; UFA) — A signal caller who had started in only six games in the previous nine seasons suddenly became a Cinderella man in the 2006 campaign because of starting quarterback Trent Green’s absence with a concussion. Huard made eight starts in 2006. He can keep his cool on the field and gives up very few interceptions (only one in 10 games played in 2006).
Jeff Garcia (Philadelphia Eagles QB; UFA) — The short but swift and gutsy quarterback is still alive. He can make his teammates feel better with his uptempo offense, using both courageous passes and miraculous runs. The 36-year-old certainly wants to be a starter again.
Other must-watch free agents: Ahman Green (Green Bay Packers; UFA). Matt Schaub (Atlanta Falcons; RFA), Cato June (Colts LB; UFA).