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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Want to clean up during free agency? Just follow some simple rules


A player like Red Bryant doesn't get fans excited, but can make teams even better. (Getty Images)  
A player like Red Bryant doesn't get fans excited, but can make teams even better. (Getty Images)  

The NFL kicks off free agency Tuesday, which will officially open the mad season, as if Peyton Manning hasn't already kicked that off.

To help prepare for the endless stream of moves, signings, releases, restructuring, agents leaking info, agent propaganda about players and everything else that goes on for the next month or so, I offer Dos and Don'ts for all NFL teams.

These would all apply if I were an NFL general manager, which I often play out here on the pages of CBSSports.com -- much to my e-mailers' chagrin.

Do: Pay big for elite pass-rushers in their prime.

Why: They are few and far between, and rarely do they hit the market. Yet here's Mario Williams, one of the better pass rushers in the league on the market at the age of 27. How can a team pass on that?

Don't: Sign any player over the age of 30 for a big-money deal -- unless it's a quarterback.

Why: Most of the time -- no, nearly all the time -- that player's best football is behind him. So you are essentially paying for past production, rather than future potential. The price is often higher than it should be based on resume rather than the future. That's where teams get in trouble. Often it's the fans who want the name players, refusing to see that those players have played their best football already. Teams have to avoid hearing the clamor and reacting.

Do: Look for guys who are 27 or so and have at least 20 starts in the past two years after having 10 or fewer in their first two years.

Why: It means growth. It means improvement. It means the timing is right. Seattle's Red Bryant: One start first two seasons. Had 23 the last two. That's the type of player teams need to sign.

Don't: Pay fullbacks.

Why: This is a passing league now. They were big in your daddy's NFL. Not the way the game is played today. It's an air league. Not a smash-mouth league anymore. Fullbacks aren't that important. Draft a big slug in the seventh round and make him your fullback.

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Do: Grab a pass rusher when you can.

Why: See the New York Giants. You can never have enough of those guys. It might not mean signing Williams to a long-term deal that will be as big as any defensive player in the NFL, but it might mean getting a situational guy who can play in the rotation. Pass rushers are gold in the current NFL.

Don't: Sign anybody's restricted free agent to an offer sheet and give up a first-round pick.

Why: That means you’re taking Steelers wideout Mike Wallace. It's just not worth it for a variety of reasons. One, you have to pay a huge dollar deal with a lot of guaranteed money to even have a chance to get the player. If you do sign him to a sheet, the team can always match it, which means you essentially wasted time doing their negotiating. And, finally, that draft pick would be cheap labor and younger. Isn't that an advantage teams want?

Do: Try and keep your own

Why: You know them. They know you. It's easy to know them as people and as workers in the locker room.

Don't: Get sentimental.

Why: It might be nice to keep your own, but within reason. Don't pay an older, aging player just because he's done some good things for you. Sentiment is for losers. The Steelers have always done a great job letting veteran players walk and replacing them with younger, faster, better talent. That's the way it should be.

Do: Find a bigger corner you can move to safety.

Why: Look at the Houston secondary. They start four players who have started at corner in their careers. That's the prototype secondary -- provided they improve at one corner spot -- for the modern NFL game. Jacksonville hit on Dwight Lowery, a former corner, who started at safety last year. PS: Lowery is an unrestricted free agent.

Don't: Pay big money and project quarterbacks with limited starts as future franchise passers.

Why: They haven't started for a reason. Sometimes, it works out. Mark Brunell did a nice job in Jacksonville. Matt Schaub has done the same in Houston. But there are too many flops. Guys like Rob Johnson, Scott Mitchell and some might even throw in Kevin Kolb and Matt Cassel -- two average players who start. There is a reason Matt Flynn went in the seventh round. He can be solid, but he will never be a star. Be careful how you pay him.

Do: Try to find a third-down back -- for the right price.

Why: I hate the idea of paying feature backs, but I love the idea of giving a third-down backs the right contract. Getting backs involved in the passing game, even on early downs, is about to become an even bigger part of offensive football. The Saints did it with Darren Sproles last year and I think Atlanta will do it more with Jacquizz Rodgers this year. The pass-catching backs, the kind who can turn a screen pass into a 60-yard scoring play, are valuable commodities.

Don't: Sign corners who can't run.

Why: Larry Brown. Remember him? He had two picks in a Super Bowl for the Cowboys and the Raiders signed him to a big deal the next spring. He wasn't fast enough to be a top corner and was considered an Oakland flop. You have to run to play that position, with rare exceptions.

Do: Try to find a second or third receiver for the right price.

Why: With so many spread formations, you need that guy. This comes with a caveat: Do not try and make that second guy a No. 1 receiver. That doesn't work. You are what you are. A Mario Manningham is never going to be a No. 1 receiver. So be rational.

Don't: Sign two-down, run-stuffing linebackers.

Why: This is a passing league. The nickel corner is now more valuable. The run-stuffing linebacker comes off on passing downs, and we know there are a lot more of those these days.

Do: Sign hard-working, good locker-room guys.

Why: Transition can be tough. You want the right people inside the building. Not Saints, mind you, but hard workers.

Don't: Pay Randy Moss.

Why: See above. He has loafed. He isn't a great teammate. And, oh yeah, he's old.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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