Patriots show way: pay less, get more

NFL: Teams are showing more restraint in their off-season spending, pointing to the Super Bowl champions as an example of how to build a winner.

Pro Football

April 14, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Less is more in the NFL these days. Pay less, get more, especially in free agency.

The New England Patriots showed how last off-season. They visited every yard sale and bargain basement, spent a combined $2.7 million on 20 free agents and laughed all the way to New Orleans, where they won the 36th Super Bowl.

Who could have guessed then that second-tier free agents like Antowain Smith, David Patten, Marc Edwards, Mike Vrabel and Anthony Pleasant would help put the Patriots over the top?

Inspired by a weak free-agent class and New England's conservative lead, NFL teams appear more restrained in their off-season spending and more intent on keeping their own players.

Three players have gotten signing bonuses of $10 million or more (Dallas' Larry Allen and Denver's Rod Smith received contract extensions, Indianapolis' Tarik Glenn carried the franchise tag) - and all three stayed with their old teams.

The next three highest signing bonuses - all for $7 million - went to players who stayed home. The highest bonus awarded to a player who jumped teams went to running back Warrick Dunn, who left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for the Atlanta Falcons for a $6.5 million bonus.

Keeping players at home isn't the only developing trend. A more prudent approach has replaced the extravagant spending of the past, as well.

"For a while, we were escalating out of control," said Ravens coach Brian Billick, "to where fewer and fewer players were taking up a larger percentage of the cap. No matter how good the player, it's hard to justify a single player being worth six, seven, eight other players."

Which teams have made the biggest strides this off-season?

The Cleveland Browns plugged three major holes with defensive end Kenard Lang, strong safety Robert Griffith and middle linebacker Ernie Holmes. The Minnesota Vikings' rookie coach, Mike Tice, has overhauled his porous defense. The Miami Dolphins finally got a running game by trading for Ricky Williams.

The Patriots? They've gone back to the bargain basement. Here's a look at the league's new divisions going into Saturday's draft.

AFC East

Miami made the biggest single move in the division by trading for Williams, and the Dolphins gave quarterback Jay Fielder a new contract, too. But they lost two defensive ends to Minnesota.

The New York Jets lost four starters on defense in a cap purge. They signed cornerback Aaron Beasley and rehabilitated linebacker Sam Cowart (Achilles' tendon) to cap-friendly deals. But their best move was retaining tackle Jason Fabini.

Hoping lightning strikes twice, the Patriots signed two tight ends, including injury-prone Cam Cleeland, and 6-foot-4 receiver Donald Hayes.

AFC North

The bad news for the Ravens is that while they've had to gut their roster, everyone else in the division is buffing up. Cleveland suffered no serious losses and improved its defense. The Browns still need a running back and another receiver, but they appear on the right track.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were on the verge of re-signing Holmes when they opted for outside linebacker James Farrior of the Jets. Pittsburgh also declined to match Houston's offer for kicker Kris Brown and signed Todd Peterson.

AFC South

The Jacksonville Jaguars and Tennessee Titans have been hamstrung with cap woes. The Jaguars have signed five players to NFL minimum contracts in an unimpeded dive to the bottom of the league. The Titans have brought in only safety Lance Schulters, to whom they did not give a signing bonus.

The Indianapolis Colts look like the class of the division. They added wide-out Qadry Ismail to Peyton Manning's passing game, and they replaced Burris with Chicago cornerback Walt Harris. But the Colts took a big hit in the offensive line when they lost guard Steve McKinney to the Texans.

Houston outbid several teams for linebacker Kailee Wong.

AFC West

This division has two new coaches (Bill Callahan in Oakland and Marty Schottenheimer in San Diego) and its share of suspect signings. The Denver Broncos gave Ravens reserve defensive tackle Lional Dalton a seven-year, $22 million contract despite the fact that he rarely makes plays. Schottenheimer took two players from his old team, the Washington Redskins, in center Cory Raymer and tight end Stephen Alexander.

Oakland improved its run defense with tackle John Parrella and linebacker Bill Romanowski. Kansas City could surprise in the division after signing wide receiver Johnnie Morton and trading for left tackle Willie Roaf.

NFC East

The New York Giants are the only team besides the Ravens not to sign an unrestricted free agent from another team. The Dallas Cowboys gambled a $6 million signing bonus on defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, who is not strong against the run. Between Glover, Allen and safety Darren Woodson, they spent $23 million in signing bonuses.

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