Free-agent picture coming into focus

Surplus of players may not find takers

March 02, 2001|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

The supply is there.

The question is, who can afford to buy?

Not many, but the NFL teams that have the money are the ones most in need. With so many teams releasing players or restructuring contracts to get under the $67.4 million salary cap by yesterday afternoon, this year's surplus of free agents, who can start negotiating with other teams today, could have difficulty finding the big-money deals of their predecessors.

Especially if a free agent wants to play for a contender. Nearly half of the 31 teams were projected to be over the cap less than a week ago, though all teams had to be under by midnight last night.

"There are more players in the market, but I don't know how many teams are going to be able to go out and acquire those players," Ravens vice president of player personnel Ozzie Newsome said.

The teams that have money to spare are just the ones NFL executives wanted when unrestricted free agency was implemented seven years ago. Arizona, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago and San Diego are the teams far enough under the salary cap that they should be big players in the glut of free agents. Those six teams combined for a 20-76 record last season, and all were at least $8 million under the cap heading into today.

With the right mix of free-agent signings and use of the draft, a team like the Bears could turn into a contender, much in the same way the St. Louis Rams did two years ago when they won the Super Bowl after finishing 4-12 the previous year.

Just what the league wants.

"To have Baltimore and the Giants go 8-8 and 7-9 and get to the Super Bowl, yeah, they have a level playing field," Newsome said. "No question. That is what they wanted. They got it."

Now, the day before free agency has become one of the most interesting days of the year, as well as a stressful day for NFL veterans. As expected, yesterday's cuts of veterans with substantial contracts were plentiful.

Tennessee released receivers Yancey Thigpen and Carl Pickens, fullback Lorenzo Neal, kicker Al Del Greco and safety Marcus Robertson, while the Washington Redskins released 1997 NFL Defensive Player of the Year Dana Stubblefield. The Ravens cut quarterback Tony Banks, the Bills cut linebacker Sam Rogers, and the Vikings got rid of former Pro Bowl defensive lineman John Randle.

Quarterback Doug Flutie lost out to Rob Johnson in Buffalo, and the Kansas City Chiefs released Elvis Grbac, declining his reported five-year, $40 million demand.

Those two, along with Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson, who spent the past two seasons with the Redskins and could easily end up with the Ravens, are the top quarterbacks.

But the top overall free agent is running back Corey Dillon, who is looking to go the way of Jeff Blake and Pickens by leaving Cincinnati for a contender. Dillon rushed for 1,435 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The Bengals named Dillon their transition player, which allows the team to match any offer he gets from another team.

If Dillon does not sign with another team, he could end up playing next season for $3.66 million, the average salary of the 10 highest-paid running backs. Before that happens, Dillon will get his fair share of attention.

"I think teams have to go one of two ways," Miami Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt said. "They go after one or two big-dollar players, or they sit back and try to fill four or five needs from a monetary standpoint."

The latter option will be the best bet for most teams looking to fill holes through free agency. Outside of Dillon and Brad Johnson, no other offensive skill player stands out as a top-notch free agent.

Derrick Mason will be the most sought-after receiver after starting last season as the Titans' fifth guy. Behind Mason are a host of second- and third-tier players (including Washington's Albert Connell, the Jets' Dedric Ward and Minnesota's Matthew Hatchette).

As for the linemen, there are a number of good guards with Kansas City's Will Shields, Washington's Tre Johnson and Green Bay's Ross Verba, but the crop is skimpy on tackles and centers.

"After seven years, we know how to operate under free agency," Newsome said. "So therefore, the marquee players are not necessarily making it to the market. They are getting done long before they have a chance to be free."

Or teams release their premier players once skills start declining, and players don't want to restructure their deals. Such was the case with Randle and Bills defensive tackle Ted Washington.

Those two are part of a free-agent crop heavy with front-seven defensive players. Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dexter Coakley and the Ravens Jamie Sharper should draw a lot of attention, as should Minnesota's Dwayne Rudd, Denver's John Mobley and Miami's Derrick Rodgers.

Buffalo's Marcellus Wiley, the Titans' Kenny Holmes and Arizona's Simeon Rice are the top linemen.

Defensive back is not as strong with the New York Giants' Jason Sehorn, Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber and Tennessee's Denard Walker headlining the corners. The Ravens' Kim Herring and Miami's Brock Marion are the top safeties.

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