For now, it's all about question marks.
"We went back and looked at some tape on (Carter) and compared him to people who are quote 'free agents' that we can't talk about yet because they're on other teams," Fox said at the Combine.
The result? At this point, the most stable commodity is backup
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
Jairus Byrd, Buffalo: Byrd received the franchise tag last year, and general manager Doug Whaley told BuffaloBills.com that "every option on the table" is open, which, presumably, includes a franchise tag that would be around $8.3 million this year. Byrd is elite because there are no holes in his game: he covers a lot of ground, makes few mistakes and forces mistakes. He has 12 interceptions and eight forced fumbles in the last three years, and has 22 and 11 of each, respectively, in his five-year career. In the last two years, he has nine interceptions and five forced fumbles in 27 games played. When you're good for a potential takeaway every other game, you can name your price.
Donte Whitner, San Francisco: The reported increase in salary-cap space could give the 49ers room to retain Whitner, who remains among the league's most feared hitters down the middle. The Sacramento Bee cited unnamed sources as indicating the 49ers were "more optimistic" they can retain Whitner, but they have a potential in-house replacement in C.J. Spillman, so they may not be willing to overpay to retain Whitner.
T.J. Ward, Cleveland: The 27-year-old Ward made the Pro Bowl this past season and is in line for a nice payday after his breakout campaign. He doesn't have the takeaway numbers of Byrd or the reputation of Whitner, but is ascendant, balanced and should have his best days ahead of him. Ward is the top-rated safety on this year's market according to ProFootballFocus.com (and No. 3 overall), primarily due to his work against the run, which is among the league's best.
Major Wright, Chicago: His play declined in 2013, but how much of that was a result of the Bears' overall defensive collapse? A failure to generate consistent pressure from the front seven and an inability to contain the run left the safeties overburdened and scrambling, and White's performance suffered. Injuries did not help; he played through them and missed one game, but it affected his range. With a better supporting cast, he should return to the gradual year-to-year improvement, but the year probably cost him a big contract in March. That could make him a bargain. But unlike Ward, Whitner and Byrd, he isn't a sure thing.
Stevie Brown, N.Y. Giants: A torn anterior cruciate ligament ended his year in the preseason and was an ominous sign for a defense that completely collapsed in the months that followed. Brown showed ballhawk qualities in 2012, intercepting eight passes, and was sorely missed last year. There will be some questions over how his range and speed are affected by the injury. He also only has one starting season under his belt, and the 26-year-old safety was a journeyman before joining the Giants, playing for three teams in his first two years in the league. But he's smart and a solid locker-room presence. While it's unreasonable to expect eight interceptions every season, he should settle in as a four-to-five-interception safety. An intriguing potential bargain, assuming his knee holds up.
Chris Clemons, Miami: The "other" Chris Clemons had a good season in his own right last year. He's not a thumper, but will cover a lot of ground and makes few mental mistakes. In an era where big hits are punished with increasing frequency, a safety like Clemons has more value. If Miami remains lukewarm toward re-signing him -- as multiple reports indicate to be the case -- he should have no trouble getting a three- or four-year contract at a sizable raise.
Mike Adams, Denver: Adams proved in the second half of the season that he was still a solid starter after he lost his job in the preseason to Duke Ihenacho. In his time as a backup, he remained a quality locker-room presence; he handled his demotion professionally and patiently, and when Rahim Moore was lost for the season to compartment syndrome, he delivered his usual solid play.
James Ihedigbo, Baltimore: Among safeties available in this year's free-agent class, Ihedigbo led all in quarterback hits and also was the leader in hurries (five), as measured by ProFootballFocus.com. He was expected to be a reserve, but ended up starting all 16 games for the first time in his career and finished with 11 passes defensed, three interceptions and a pair of forced fumbles. He turned 30 in December and will likely land a one- or two-year contract.
Mike Mitchell, Carolina: One of general manager Dave Gettleman's many bargain pickups last year, Mitchell solidified a safety position that had long been a bit of a spot of bother. He was on a one-year contract after not being re-signed by the Raiders last year, and is looking for a longer deal this time.
Bernard Pollard, Tennessee: Perhaps better known as "that guy whose hits injured Patriots stars," Pollard had a solid season
for the Titans last year, particularly in pass coverage. At 29, he should still have some years left, and the Titans are reportedly talking to him about a new contract.
Husain Abdullah, Kendrick Lewis and Quintin Demps, Kansas City: All are free agents, and the Chiefs' late-season struggles against the pass -- which began when the Broncos knocked them from the unbeaten ranks in Week 11 -- could leave all three swept out in an overhaul of the position. Fellow starter Eric Berry covers a lot of holes, but he can't be as active in the pass rush as the Chiefs would like with the other safety spot a concern, so look for Kansas City to target this area.
Nate Allen, Philadelphia: As a rookie, Allen looked like a potential Pro Bowler if he continued to develop, but his play hasn't evolved like the Eagles or the USF alumnus hoped. Injuries and scheme changes didn't help Allen, either. Allen is the sort of player who will make teams go back to their 2010 pre-draft scouting reports; someone who liked him will look at him and believe they can tap the potential that bore fruit for a fleeting burst in Philadelphia.
Brandon Meriweather, Washington: He has always plays on the edge, which leads to big plays -- and sometimes big mistakes. They can be relatively benign, like a spate of missed tackles, or they can lead to penalties and a suspension, as they did after a Week 7 win over Chicago last year, when he crossed over the edge. Washington changed head coaches, but not defensive coordinators, and Jim Haslett might be inclined to retain Meriweather.
Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh: Advancing age (he turned 34 in October) works against him, and recent outspokenness on hot-button issues like marijuana use in the league might give some teams pause. His intelligence and locker-room presence should help him land somewhere, if he wants to keep playing. From the Broncos' perspective, he's a non-starter because of sickle-cell trait that prevents him from being able to play at high altitude. This proved costly to the Steelers in the January 2012 wild-card game, when the Broncos picked on the area of the defense Clark usually patrolled.
Yeremiah Bell, Arizona: Bell had some solid games for the Cardinals last year and brought leadership to a team that needed it, but his age (he turns 36 in March) probably works against him getting anything more than a one-year, incentive-laden contract.
Antoine Bethea, Indianapolis: It's doubtful that Bethea will get the kind of deal his last contract had ($6.75 million a year), but he's a solid tackler and a balanced safety who remains durable. He turns 30 in July, but doesn't have any obvious injury concerns and should have no trouble starting somewhere if Indianapolis doesn't retain him.
Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans: A capable playmaker, he forced a pair of fumbles, intercepted two passes and logged 2.5 sacks last year in a scheme that allowed him to be more aggressive. But there's a question about whether he fits with the Saints any more as they work Kenny Vaccaro, a first-round pick last year, into more extensive duties.
Charles Woodson, Oakland: Woodson chose the Broncos over the Raiders last May and had a solid, albeit quiet, season in which he played all 16 games, meeting the incentives in his deal. Woodson has indicated that he would like to play in 2014, but described retirement as "a serious consideration" in an interview with SiriusXM NFL Radio this week.
Taylor Mays, Cincinnati: The 2010 second-round pick never panned out as the Bengals hoped he would, but he's a solid backup and contributes on multiple special-teams units. A change of scenery could give him a renewed chance at establishing his worth as a starter.
Michael Huff, Denver: Huff joined the Broncos in November and saw spot duty toward the end of the season. He turns 31 next month and if he's willing to accept a backup role as he did with the Broncos, could have another year or more left as an insurance policy.
OTHERS: Will Allen, Pittsburgh; Colt Anderson, Philadelphia; Sergio Brown, Indianapolis; Kurt Coleman, Philadelphia; Chris Crocker, Cincinnati; Reed Doughty, Washington; Matt Giordano, St. Louis; Jose Gumbs, Washington; Jim Leonhard, Buffalo; Chris Maragos, Seattle; Danny McCray, Dallas; Quintin Mikell, Carolina; Jeromy Miles, Baltimore; Ryan Mundy, N.Y. Giants; Ed Reed, N.Y. Jets; Craig Steltz, Chicago; Darian Stewart, St. Louis; Darrell Stuckey, San Diego; John Wendling, Detroit; Usama Young, Oakland.
STREET FREE AGENTS:
Louis Delmas, Detroit: Released by the Lions Feb. 13 for salary-cap room, Delmas is capable of spectacular play, but concerns about persistent knee problems helped lead to his release and will be a consideration for any team that pursues him. According to a report on ProFootballTalk.com, Delmas visited the Saints on Thursday.
Roman Harper, New Orleans: Released on Feb. 13, Harper only played in nine games last year, but had missed just two games in the previous six seasons. He's 31, and might not be an every-down player, but can contribute in coverage, and could be used against opposing tight ends.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
M.D. Jennings, Green Bay: According to Aaron Nagler of BleacherReport.com, the Packers are not expected to tender Jennings, which would put the 2013 starter onto the market. Jennings saw the most extensive work of his career last season, and had an up-and-down year for a defense that could be looking for an overhaul.
Rafael Bush, New Orleans: One of the more difficult post-training camp cuts in recent years was that of Bush in 2012, who moved on to the Saints and established himself as a solid starter. Bush showed some thump in his special-teams work in 2011 with the Broncos, and after the release of Harper, might be in line for a bigger workload this season in New Orleans.
OTHER: Anthony Walters, Chicago.