The NFL’s free agency circus begins on 2 March. Actually, I wanted to have my list of the top free agents by position on the record about a week ago so no one might accuse me of poaching on the thoughts of others. The reason that didn’t happen is that I was looking at this year’s roster of free agents completely incorrectly. I wanted to find at least one and maybe two or three quality free agents at each position and tell you to track where they went and forget the rest. And therein was my problem; this is a year where quantity far outweighs quality among the players available. I couldn’t find quality at every position let alone depth of quality.
After I reached that conclusion, I set about scouring lists of free agents looking for players at each position who were “serviceable”. I figured that I could tell you where teams might be able to find a piece to the puzzle or something like that. I had made a bit of progress trying to think in that mode until I read something that makes me think that the NFL free agent market this year might be even crazier than the MLB free agent signings were last winter. Remember that pitchers with a career mark of .500 were getting $40M guaranteed contracts; well the Miami Dolphins may have just sent up a signal flare that the NFL signings will be similarly bizarre.
The Dolphins just re-signed DL, Vonnie Holiday, to a four-year contract worth $20M (reportedly). I have no quarrel with Vonnie Holiday; he is not one of the thuggish miscreants of the league. The “problem” is that he is a defensive lineman who is 32 years old and who is “solid” and “steady” in terms of his performance. If his contract is used as a yardstick, there are gonna be a lot of guys signing for $5M per year that will make you twitch as if just grabbed the hot wire while working on a light switch.
Anyhow, let me go position by position and give you a few players that might be interesting in terms of free agent signings. Oh, and don’t let anything I said here fool you into thinking that the Washington Redskins will not add at least three players to their roster whom they will hype as certified and bona fide Hall of Fame quality studs. That’s what Danny Boy and his PR trolls do all the time. The lack of great players here will not alter that behavior even a little bit.
There were some decent free agency candidates in this group until Andre Gurode signed a long-term deal with the Cowboys and rumors began circulating that both Kris Dielman and Eric Steinbach will re-sign with the Chargers and Bengals respectively.
Assuming those last two guys stay put, the most intriguing name out there is Derrick Dockery of the Washington Redskins. Dockery was a hugely improved player last year in his fourth season in the league. I think the main reason for his improvement is that he lost somewhere between 30 and 50 lbs of fat and added about 20 lbs of muscle last winter. He’s only 27 years old and he might be worth a long-term deal somewhere. Unless of course the only reason he got into solid shape and played hard all year was based on his impending free agency… Here’s a case where a GM really does need to be able to read minds. Is Dockery the lynch-pin of an offensive line for the next several years or is he the next player to exhibit “fat wallet syndrome”?
Daniel Graham of the Patriots was a first round pick and seems to have plenty of physical skills. He can block; he can catch and he averaged 10 yards a catch or more in each of his five seasons in New England. He should be able to help wherever he signs.
After that, things drop off pretty quickly. Eric Johnson (SF) and Reggie Kelly (Cincy) are decent players but nothing more than that.
I spent a LONG time looking for a top-shelf WR to feature here and I’m convinced that there really aren’t any. Even if the Eagles’ Donte Stallworth opts out of his contract – and that would probably make him the most talented WR on the market –, I don’t see any guys here that you’d say are mortal locks to be a team’s #1 guy in the passing game.
The two guys on the free agent list that might be worth signing as slot receivers or insurance policies are Bobby Engram (Seattle) or Drew Bennett (Tennessee). Basically, the list of available free agent wide receivers should be named Blazing Saddles in honor of cast member, Slim Pickens.
There are two guys on this list with “name recognition”. Ahman Green used to be a top running back in the league but he’s now 30 years old and has been injured for part or most of the past two years. If he gets a fat contract, the team will expect him to come in and be the feature back and I’m not sure that’s in the cards any more.
Dominic Rhodes filled in well when Edgerrin James was hurt in Indy a couple of years ago; he played well this year sharing the RB duties with Joseph Addai. The problem is that he’s never been “the guy” for a team for an entire season; and if he gets a big payday, that is what will be expected of him. It would be a gamble under any circumstances; and then there’s that recent incident where he got a DUI citation; I can’t see how that would increase his free agent value.
Hey, if a team wants to roll the dice on a free agent running back, think about Correll Buckhalter (Philly). He’s been in the league 6 years and has missed three full seasons with injuries. So, he’s got a lot of tread left on his tires, right? As I said, there’s quantity and not quality available this year.
Michael Turner (San Diego) showed some ability when he filled in for LaDanian Tomlinson periodically last season. Was that because he is a diamond in the rough or was that because LT had worn out the defense by the time Turner showed up? He’s a restricted free agent, so he’ll cost a team something in terms of a draft pick; but he’s worth a look.
There are no great QBs on the list; let’s get that out of the way quickly. But there are five potentially interesting guys that GMs should think about. Jeff Garcia (Philly) proved last year that he could still play well in the right system and with a good OL in front of him. Surely, he’ll be looking for a starting job somewhere or else he’d be staying in Philly where the back-up has gotten a lot of work in the past few years and the rest of the team is good. Garcia is getting up there in years; he celebrated his 37th birthday last weekend; I wouldn’t have him as a foundation piece in a team’s “five-year plan”.
Matt Schaub (Atlanta) is a guy who has a lot of “buzz” around him but I’m not quite sure why. He’s big and he’s young and he hasn’t played all that much. He has thrown as many TDs as INTs and given the tender offer the Falcons gave him, I read it will cost a team a 1st and a 3rd draft pick to sign him. I wouldn’t do that.
Damon Huard (Chiefs) stepped in, played well, and won games when he was pressed into service last season. But before anyone gets carried away here, in the previous five seasons, Damon Huard found the field for just enough time to attempt the grand sum total of 1 – as in ONE – pass. It was incomplete. He’ll be 34 when he reports to training camp.
Jake Plummer is not a free agent in the sense that his contract is up and the Broncos have not re-signed him, but I can’t believe that Denver will keep him around. Mike Shannahan crossed the Rubicon last year when he pulled Plummer to start Jay Cutler. Jake Plummer is a career .500 QB as a starter who can be brilliant and who can be mind-numbingly bad all in the same month. He’ll be 33 years old this season and has amassed almost 30,000 yards passing; he has played in 143 games in his career and has thrown 161 TDs and 161 INTs. He is a conundrum.
And finally, there are rumors that the Houston Texans could make David Carr available. Remember, I said that there are no great QBs on my list, but Carr would be intriguing. I wonder what he might actually do with a competent OL in front of him; no one knows because he’s never had that.
I thought I had a category with some quality and some depth here – - until Dwight Freeney (Indy) and Cory Redding (Detroit) were designated as franchise players. Quite frankly – no, I am not channeling Stephen A. Smith here – there aren’t any defensive lineman left on the free agent market this year of major consequence. This is the year to be a defensive lineman coming out of college; I suspect there will be a lot of interest in those folks.
Adalius Thomas (Baltimore) is the “best of breed” here. If you believe all the stuff in the papers, he’s looking to score a humongous payday; good for him if he gets it. He’ll be 30 when the season starts so it isn’t likely he will continue to get lots better year over year, but Thomas can play any linebacking position in any defense. I think he’ll add value wherever he goes.
Lance Briggs is a fine linebacker too, but the Bears have designated him as their franchise player. It would have been interesting to see which teams would have gone after him as opposed to Adalius Thomas.
London Fletcher-Baker (Buffalo) will be 32 when he reports to training camp and has been in the NFL for 9 years. In that time, he has never missed a game; that is impressive all by itself. He’s a solid player and – by all accounts – a solid citizen. If the free agent market goes nuts as I suspect it might, he’ll score a huge contract that he will have difficulty living up to.
Cato June (Indy) got a lot of visibility during the playoffs and Super Bowl last year. He’s a high energy and high-speed guy who “flies to the ball” in coachspeak. I think he’s undersized and fits in well with a defensive scheme that calls for small and fast linebackers. If he went to the “wrong team”, he could be a huge bust. I’d be very careful here.
Nate Clements is a quality player; make no mistake about that. At first, I was sure that the Bills would designate him as their franchise player because All-Pro caliber cornerbacks who can cover AND defend against the run are very difficult to find. But they didn’t. Now, I’ve read some reports that say Clements’ agent is tossing around the idea of getting a $20M signing bonus for Clements. WOW! I don’t know if he’s worth that kind of money.
In Clements’ favor, there aren’t any other lights-out cornerbacks out there who are unrestricted free agents without a franchise tag on them. I guess Tory James (Cincy) is worth a look; he’s been a solid and dependable player for about 10 years now. So how much gas remains in his tank?
Deon Grant (Jax) can look spectacular one week and then disappear the next. When he’s at the top of his game, he’s very good; but if Clements signs for a $20M signing bonus, Grant might cost $15-18M and I would not take that kind of a chance with a guy who doesn’t always seem to bring his best game to the stadium with him.
I like Ken Hamlin (Seattle) more than anyone else on this list. Teams may worry about the head injury he received in a fight outside a Seattle club a couple of years ago, but it did not seem to affect him all that much last year. And he’s only 26 years old…
Kevin Kaesviharn has been in the league 6 years and will be 31 when the season starts. He’s a big hitter and he can cover receivers. Those are not two qualities that always go together. I’d worry about his age, but he’s definitely a capable player.
Michael Lewis (Philly) is a big hitter in the secondary but his “coverage skills” leave something to be desired. If you pair him with another safety who is good in coverage, he can be an asset; if his “partner” back there can’t cover either, he’ll be two letters short of an asset.
Todd Sauerbrun (New England) is an intriguing case. He’s had a steroid suspension; he’s had some “interpersonal issues” in some locker rooms. He also has a powerful leg…
Josh Brown (Seattle) is one of the best clutch kickers in the NFL. I believe he won three games for Seattle last year in the waning seconds of games. He’d be worth looking at.
There will surely be euphoria among the fans of several teams by this time next week as the first wave of free agent signings will have crested and there is time for fans to work themselves into a state of hyperbole. Just remember that if all of the talk and all of the PR and all of the rosy scenarios of March actually led to Super Bowl victories, Danny Boy Snyder would already have at least 5 of those puppies on his mantelpiece. When you listen to fans and/or talking heads on TV next week, remember this: If they are speaking very quickly and are shaking with excitement, they are probably just behaving as William Shakespeare described in Macbeth Act V Scene V:
“It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…