Free agents land with thud NFL: This season's crop of free agents was most expensive and has proved to be mostly disappointing, particularly along the defensive line.

November 27, 1998|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Ozzie Newsome drew an imaginary line in the dirt beyond which he would not go in pursuit of free agents Doug Evans and Yancey Thigpen last winter.

When negotiations took Evans and Thigpen well past that line, Newsome, vice president of player personnel for the Ravens, retreated posthaste to explore other options.

It was the smartest thing Newsome did in the off-season.

Since signing a five-year, $21 million contract to play wide receiver for the Tennessee Oilers in February, Thigpen has labored with foot, groin and knee injuries. He has 20 catches and only two touchdowns and hasn't played since Week 6.

Evans, a cornerback who signed a five-year, $22.5 million deal with the Carolina Panthers, has not fared much better. He dislocated his left thumb in Week 4, severely sprained his collarbone in Week 10 and went on injured reserve Nov. 10. When he was on the field, he surrendered a ghastly six touchdown passes.

The cost of free-agent reinforcements went up dramatically in 1998, especially on the defensive line. Free-agent production, meanwhile, has gone down. Much of the league-wide underachieving is injury-related, but not all.

The Washington Redskins, for instance, handed out signing bonuses totaling $13 million to defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson to restore their run defense. (Wilkinson was acquired in trade after being tagged Cincinnati's franchise player.) The result? In a season when the Redskins expected to reach the playoffs, they rank 28th against the run and have won two games.

Looking to improve their pass rush, the Jacksonville Jaguars gave linebacker Bryce Paup a five-year, $21.876 million contract. But Paup, who led the NFL with 17 1/2 sacks in 1995 with the Buffalo Bills, has spent more time dropping into pass coverage than blitzing the quarterback. Result? He has 3 1/2 sacks in 11 games.

Desperate at cornerback and wide receiver because they were losing Antonio Langham and Derrick Alexander to free agency, the Ravens were negotiating with Evans and Thigpen. By the time the bidding reached $4 million a year, they dropped out.

"You have to value what that player is worth to you," Newsome said. "If you pay top dollar for Evans, he's got to be [the equivalent of] Deion Sanders. That's what they're paying Deion. Same thing with Thigpen. You have to say he's in a class with Jerry Rice, Cris Carter and Herman Moore. If you don't feel like a guy will impact you that way "

You look elsewhere.

The Ravens did and came away better for it. They gave former All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson a four-year, $11.5 million deal. He has five interceptions, two for touchdowns.

At wide receiver, the Ravens opted for promising rookie Patrick Johnson with a second-round draft pick. Thigpen still may be a good signing for the Oilers, but Johnson's speed made him one of the draft's most attractive receivers.

"It's hard to really examine the true impact of a guy changing teams until the second or third year," Newsome said. "History has shown the first year they all struggle or come up with some type of injury. The second and third year, they have a better understanding of the system they're in and have a bigger impact."

Free-agent payouts were reaching record levels this off-season in large part because of a 26 percent hike in the salary cap, from $41.45 million per team in 1997 to $52.388 million in 1998. The laws of supply and demand didn't hurt, either.

No less than four teams used the franchise tag to retain rights to defensive linemen. In addition to Wilkinson, other free agents so restricted were end Joe Johnson in New Orleans and tackles Tim Bowens in Miami and Dan Williams in Kansas City.

When defensive linemen Eric Swann (Arizona), Ted Washington (Buffalo), Warren Sapp (Tampa Bay) and John Randle (Minnesota) got between $5 million and $6 million-a-year contracts to stay with their respective teams, the lid was off the market.

Stubblefield got a six-year, $36 million deal to leave the San Francisco 49ers. Defensive end Gabe Wilkins got five years and $20 million to bolt Green Bay for the 49ers. Defensive tackle Chester McGlockton, virtually run out of Oakland, signed a five-year, $30 million contract with Kansas City.

Then defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who sat out 1997 as Washington's franchise player, joined Carolina for a seven-year, $46.5 million deal that also cost the Panthers two first-round draft picks.

All of the defensive linemen who changed teams have had problems in their new cities. All four have reputations as players who take plays off.

Wilkins had a lingering knee injury from last season and has played only three games for the 49ers. Gilbert was a tackle in the Redskins' 4-3 defense, but became an end in Carolina's 3-4. That switch and a thumb injury have helped hold Gilbert to three sacks. McGlockton had back surgery in September and by the time he joined the team, the Chiefs' season was lost.

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