|Plaxico Burress is working out, waiting for the right opportunity for him to play in 2012. (US Presswire)|
Players celebrate surviving the "final" cut on Twitter. Fans and media devour every roster, sizing up the numbers at each position ahead of the opening game. Surprisingly enough, there is not a primetime NFL Cut Day, Live From Radio City Music Hall, with a red carpet (or should it be a pink slip carpet in this case?), with each team having to call in its 53-man roster over those helmet phones and the commissioner there to call out the name of every undrafted free agent who cracked an NFL squad. (Maybe the weird dude in the blue suit from the NFL Network promos could play the role of The Turk?)
But, suffice to say, in a league where even the supplemental draft is somewhat fetish-sized (and I will take full blame for my role in this epidemic) we tend to lose our sense of proportion about transactions and roster gymnastics. We live for Big NFL moments (games, draft, free agency, combine, etc.), and lump in these Labor Day weekend cuts with them, but lose sight of the fact that in reality, a snapshot like this -- with the names submitted to the waiver wire ahead of last Friday's roster cuts -- doesn't really tell the story.
Managing the roster goes on well beyond those "final" cuts, and indeed the cuts and signings and trade talks went on through the weekend. Things are constantly being massaged and many of the players who "made it" over the weekend will in fact end up losing their roster spot, and future game checks, to a handful of established veterans who remain on the street awaiting work. That's how it works, and every year a few clubs make astute late signings that end up filling potentially crippling voids and can often help springboard them into the postseason.
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Usually, the player is still on the open market because of a combination of age/injury or he is content to wait for the right team to meet his price. He isn't in a hurry and realizes the onslaught of injuries that occur when real games begin could result in multiple teams vying for his services -- which only increases his worth. There will be a diminished supply of players as the attrition mounts, while demand for those with a pedigree who are in shape and ready to play only increases.
It's the economics of early September. When you factor in the CBA, and the fact that a vested veteran has a fully guaranteed base salary if he's on the roster come Week 1, it generally makes for a very active Week 2 -- with several teams trying to fill voids and without the financial burdens or worry that if a player who missed camp comes in and quickly gets hurt, you are on the hook for that entire salary.
There are some potential impact players working their way through this reality right now, but I doubt too many of them are waiting for a paycheck by the end of this month, and some of them, if they get the kind of incentives they are seeking, could end up making out quite well should they be able to perform as they have in the past. Here's a look at a few intriguing possibilities that remain:
WR Plaxico Burress
This is a money matter only. Well, that, and a reputation thing. But mostly money. Teams know he can play, and had the Jets kept him, he would be at worst their second-best receiving option right now. But his attitude has created some front-office trepidation and the fact he is seeking a deal in the $2 million-$3 million range, sources say, has scared off others who are looking only for a veteran-minimum-type contract right now.
But he will play this season, and he could very well end up being a difference maker for a talent-starved team in the red zone and on third down. Miami has the greatest need but isn't interested (especially after the Ochocinco experiment), but a contending team like Dallas, should Dez Bryant slip up or injuries mount, would be ready to pounce. If wideout becomes a need in Pittsburgh, where Burress excelled early in his career, that's a possibility as well.
RB Ryan Grant
He walked away from two deals in the offseason/preseason that would have paid him veteran-minimum money. He isn't looking for a big front-loaded deal, but does want some incentives and assurances that would allow him to reap financial reward if he gets back to the way he ran in Green Bay a few years ago. We all know running backs get hurt in droves, and Grant has been working out hard, is in shape and he will get the call ... and I bet he gets it at his price.
Detroit has been in the market for a running back for a long time. Any team could be one hit away from losing its feature back. The Packers have a need at Grant's position, too, and should Cedric Benson not make it go in Green Bay, I can't help but wonder if Grant ends up getting what he wants back there.
DE/OLB Andre Carter
He is still working back from an Achilles injury, and a smart team would find a few snaps for him on third down in the short term and view him more as a second-half-of-the-season asset. He has already worked out for the Rams and Raiders, and at this point playing for a team with championship hopes makes the most sense for Carter. He posted double-digit sack totals for the Patriots in a truncated season in 2011 and many execs think he will end up back in New England ... and the Pats are certainly keeping a close eye on him.
It might end up costing someone close to $2 million to bring him in, but this guy is always in ridiculous shape (one of the best physiques in the league), works hard and has been through the wars. In the right scheme, he has shown he can get to the quarterback. It will take a few more weeks until he's ready to go full blast on every snap, but I would go ahead and snap him up now and get him working with my trainers. You can never have too much pass rush -- just ask the defending Super Bowl champs -- and the Pats have made several of these kind of "buy-cheap" deals in the past, scooping up a veteran coming off injury and understanding how to implement him into their system.
TE Chris Cooley
He hasn't been himself for a few years because of several injuries, but he finally got through a preseason without having to sit out or go under the knife. He has tremendous hands, is a great teammate and was let go by the Redskins in large part because of his salary. He has never been a part of a true winning program in his career, and that's a pretty intriguing prospect for him now. Other NFC East teams like the Giants and Eagles have been keeping an eye on the tight end market, and they obviously know Cooley well, as he spent his entire career in that division.
I prefer Cooley to Kellen Winslow, because two teams pretty desperate for pass catchers have each walked away from Winslow in the past few months (Tampa Bay and Seattle). That tells you something about this cat. Between Winslow's health and attitude, something isn't clicking for him to the point where a team that traded for him, then walks away. In the era of two-tight end sets being all the rage, these two guys won't be out of work much longer -- and they accounted for two of the higher-profile cuts in what was a mostly mundane cut week -- but for a pass catching end I'll go with Cooley.
QB Josh Johnson
It wasn't that long ago the Bucs were very high on this kid and thought he could win games immediately. He has a unique skill set and is still only 26. The fact that his old college coach, Jim Harbaugh, signed him and then let him go among the 49ers' final cuts, might be a red flag to some. But with San Francisco recently investing a second-round pick in a quarterback, Johnson was always going to have a tough time getting the No. 2 gig there. But he is certainly better than a No. 3 at this point.
He is very smart, can pick up an offense quickly, could immediately fit into some sort of wildcat package, and he has shown he can make plays while getting limited reps. People seemed to talk more about the release of Mike Kafka and Brian Hoyer during roster cuts, but if I am looking for someone to be a plug-and-play No. 2, then I'm looking more at Johnson or Seneca Wallace, with the other two more on the developmental side right now, perhaps.
C Jason Brown
First, a caveat -- if your team loses a starting offensive lineman at this point and doesn't have solid reserves on the roster, it's pretty much screwed. There is precious little out there across the line, and particularly at tackle (unless a team were to get Chad Clifton healthy and keep him healthy, there is a major dearth of edge protectors). Brown played at a high level at one point -- though it has been several years now. He can play center or guard. He is very bright and can quickly pick up calls and the offense.
Teams are questioning how much he loves the game and how much he wants to play. If he was willing to come back for $1 million or so, he would have had a job likely with Baltimore or San Francisco in the offseason. He wanted bigger money to come back, sources said, and at this point I'm not sure that kind of deal ever will develop. But should Brown decide to take a shot on a veteran-minimum deal, he just might end up revitalizing his career. But again, some personnel guys wonder if that's a route he's willing to go a few years after getting a then-record contract for a center from the Rams.
CB Leigh Bodden/S Nick Collins
I am lumping these two together because health is a major concern for each. Collins is seeing a surgeon to make sure the neck surgery he underwent 11 months ago is not career-ending. But he wants to come back if deemed safe enough, and has been working out hard to that end. Bodden is coming off back surgery; his injuries have derailed a once-promising career. Given the dearth of cover corners out there, and the prevalence of spread offenses, he might be worth a look-see as the season goes on.
I wouldn't advocate rushing in with either play -- and with both, their health and their doctors will be their guide -- but the will is certainly there for both of them. Collins was a regular Pro Bowl selection for the Packers, and though that team's doctors saw some major red flags with his health, a lot of time has passed since then, and if they get the all clear, and my team has a need at secondary a bit down the line, I'm going to explore the possibility with these guys.