Millions of thanks for NFL, free agents

With more to spend, teams begin talent chase

March 10, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

For several weeks, NFL front offices have been working off two scripts for free agency - one for a tight salary cap in the event there was no extension of the league's collective bargaining agreement, and another for a more generous cap with a new deal.

So when team owners approved a six-year bargaining agreement extension Wednesday night, personnel staffs and coaches around the league heaved a sigh of relief.

Instead of many teams having to purge their rosters and being hamstrung in trying to sign new talent, the new cap of $102 million per club - which is $7.5 million more than it would have been without the extension - will allow business as usual. For 2007, the cap will grow to $109 million.

And for players who become unrestricted free agents a minute after midnight tonight, it means that 2006 will also be remembered as a very good year.

In addition to unrestricted free agents who should be available tomorrow morning, players who have been waived will add to the quantity, if not substantially to the quality, of the available group.

Always high on the shopping list are quarterbacks. As Buffalo Bills general manager Marv Levy put it at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis recently: "There are 32 NFL teams, and about 25 of them have a quarterback situation."

So when a quarterback of any promise comes on the free-agent market, he's a hot item - regardless of the reservations a suitor should have about him.

At the top of this year's list is the San Diego Chargers' Drew Brees.

The attraction? His past two seasons, when Brees threw for 51 touchdowns and just 22 interceptions.

The problem? A shoulder injury suffered in the Chargers' final game of the season that required surgery.

Who's interested? Anyone who needs a quarterback has to have him on the list, but the Miami Dolphins keep being mentioned.

Beyond Brees, the Cincinnati Bengals' Jon Kitna, a nine-year veteran, raised his stock in a gritty losing playoff performance (24-for-40, 197 yards, one touchdown pass and two interceptions) against the Pittsburgh Steelers, filling in for injured star Carson Palmer.

Several star running backs are hoping for offers, including the Ravens' Jamal Lewis, whose 2006 season teetered between awkward and ugly. Just two years removed from a 2,000-yard campaign, Lewis gained 906 yards (for an even less-impressive 3.4 average per carry) while splitting time with Chester Taylor.

Taylor, meanwhile, is also a free agent and could be an attractive catch because he flashed skills as a runner and a receiver.

League Most Valuable Player Shaun Alexander would have been the most interesting free agent, but the tailback re-signed with the Seattle Seahawks. And the Carolina Panthers slapped a transition tag on running back DeShaun Foster.

Players who receive so-called franchise and transition tags receive relatively lucrative one-year deals but can still negotiate with other teams, but their old club has the right to match any offer.

And although Pro Bowl running back Edgerrin James was still on the prospective free-agent list yesterday, the Indianapolis Colts might try to keep him considering the more generous cap.

Among free-agent wide receivers, the Steelers' Antwaan Randle El couldn't have picked a better time to showcase his versatility. Although he had only 35 catches for 558 yards last season, he made key plays as a punt returner or as the pivot man on a spectacular gadget play, such as the touchdown pass he threw in the Steelers' Super Bowl win over Seattle.

The Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears have been eyeing Randle El.

Two other top receivers in the free-agency pool are the New England Patriots' steady David Givens and the Cleveland Browns' Antonio Bryant.

Two of the NFL's best kickers are heading for free agency, the Patriots' Adam Vinatieri and the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt. Vinatieri was New England's franchise player for 2005, and anyone who wants him will have to come up with as much as $3 million.

Vanderjagt has some gaudy statistics (23-for-25 on field goal tries in 2005) but he might be just as well remembered for missing a potential game-tying attempt against Pittsburgh in the playoffs.

Among offensive linemen, centers Kevin Mawae, a cap casualty released by the New York Jets; LeCharles Bentley of the New Orleans Saints and right tackle Jon Runyan of the Eagles are the most prominent names.

Emphasizing the importance of the offensive line, the Detroit Lions put the franchise tag on tackle Jeff Backus and the Seahawks used their transition tag on guard Steve Hutchinson.

On defense, several Ravens starters are set to test the free-agent market. The one getting the most attention is defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu. Others are defensive end Tony Weaver, linebackers Tommy Polley and Bart Scott and safety Will Demps.

Former Washington Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington is a high-profile free agent after buying out his contract. A sleeper at linebacker is Carolina's Will Witherspoon who, at 25, could be ready to hit his peak.

Defensive end John Abraham, the Jets' star pass rusher, is unhappy with his franchise tag and wants out of New York despite a one-year offer of $8.33 million.

And two members of the Steelers' starting secondary, cornerback Deshea Townsend and safety Chris Hope, are on the free-agent list.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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