Free-agency season starts, but not all teams shop wisely

Vikings, Eagles among a few under salary cap with both dollars, sense

March 02, 2004|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The NFL's annual primer on "How to" and "How not to" begins promptly at the stroke of midnight tonight, when free agency officially opens the player pool to strikingly different strategies.

The New England Patriots are Exhibit A under "How to" in the offseason. They've used reason and restraint to mold a roster of capable players and exceptional chemistry to win two of the past three Super Bowls.

Poster boy for "How not to" is Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who annually guts his roster in search of another high-priced big name, and the process already has begun this year. Yesterday, the Redskins agreed to a $50.5 million, eight-year deal with running back Clinton Portis, all but completing the trade that will send four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round draft choice to Denver.

Most of the rest of the NFL teams fall somewhere in between the Patriots and the Redskins when it comes to handling free agency. As the Patriots have demonstrated, it is possible to build a Super Bowl foundation even when the free-agent market is as tepid as yesterday's bath water.

This year, there are six teams with more than $15 million of salary cap room to invest in major upgrades, and two more teams are in that affluent neighborhood. The Minnesota Vikings, just a Hail Mary pass away from the playoffs last season, are more than $33 million under the league's salary roof of $80.582 million. That ought to be enough to get a receiver complementary to Randy Moss and a starting cornerback for their gimpy defense.

The Philadelphia Eagles are nearly $28 million under the cap, and until wide receiver Terrell Owens blew the deadline to void the final three years on his contract, the disgruntled San Francisco 49ers star was a prime target to fix their haggard passing game.

The Arizona Cardinals, a notorious non-spender at the big table, and the New Orleans Saints, who rarely get it right, are next with $19 million and $18 million to bid. Under Dennis Green, the Cardinals will get a chance to see how much their new coach knows about personnel. Because team owner Tom Benson has a cash-flow problem, the Saints aren't expected to be active in the market.

After that come the Ravens and Dallas Cowboys, both with $16 million-plus to spend.

Weighing the various factors - the supply and demand of free agency, the depth of the draft and the promise of more June cuts - these teams will have the opportunity to substantially change their teams for the better.

The Vikings, for instance, might be inclined to wait on the draft for a No. 2 wide receiver but might be tempted to jump into the deep end of the free-agent pool for a cornerback. The cornerback pool already was strong before teams starting cutting more defensive backs in a rush to create cap space.

Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, the Eagles' starting cornerbacks, are both available, along with Buffalo's Antoine Winfield, San Francisco's Ahmed Plummer and Seattle's Shawn Springs.

The Eagles will have to replace their two cornerbacks, but the more pressing need is a big-play receiver who can stretch the field for quarterback Donovan McNabb. While Owens still is expected to be available this offseason, the Eagles could target two other receivers who would be upgrades: Darrell Jackson of Seattle and restricted free agent Justin McCareins of Tennessee.

Philadelphia has tended to be closer to the Patriots in its free-agent approach than the Redskins. But after losing the NFC championship game three years in a row, the Eagles may opt for more dramatic moves to get over the playoff hump.

Not all teams have spending room. The Titans needed massive cap relief after being $17 million over the limit at one point. The Miami Dolphins were nearly $13 million over, as well.

Neither of those teams figures to make much of a splash in free agency.

Meanwhile, the NFC champion Carolina Panthers want little more than to keep as much of their roster together as possible. With 15 unrestricted free agents, the Panthers were facing heavy losses. But yesterday, they got a five-year deal done with Pro Bowl receiver Steve Smith, which represented a promising start.

The market itself remains fluid. In addition to name players already unrestricted like defensive tackle Warren Sapp of Tampa Bay, defensive end Jevon Kearse of Tennessee and nose tackle Ted Washington of the Patriots, several more players are expected to be turned loose to salary cap considerations in the coming weeks.

Jeff Garcia would headline the weak quarterback pool if he's released by the 49ers. Quarterback Tim Couch of the Cleveland Browns could be available shortly if he doesn't agree to take a pay cut. The Cincinnati Bengals have shopped running back Corey Dillon, and ultimately they may have to cut him if they get no takers.

Other players - like Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jerome Bettis - have agreed to take big salary reductions to remain with their team.

Market openers

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