For every team in need of help at the linebacker position, the offseason options are bountiful. For everybody with needs in other areas ... better hope you have a great draft.
The free-agent class of 2003 is primed to be perhaps one of the weakest in years, which only makes sense, considering the urgency teams have placed upon re-signing homegrown talent.
"It's certainly not too strong," one AFC personnel director said. "Teams are getting their own guys done so after the top few names it falls off a lot after there. For marquee players, it's pretty weak. There are some bargain second-tier guys to be had who could turn out to be first-tiered guys. There will be a guy like Priest Holmes in this group, somebody who was overshadowed or didn't have the opportunity at his position in the scheme they are using."
|The top 10 free agents|
|1. OT Orlando Pace|
|2. CB Chris McAlister|
|3. LB Takeo Spikes|
|4. LB Keith Brooking|
|5. WR David Boston (if healthy)|
|6. WR Peerless Price|
|7. DL Hugh Douglas|
|8. OL Walter Jones|
|9. LB Mike Peterson|
|10. S Sammy Knight|
As for superstar name power, the class lacks in numbers, but that doesn't mean teams who have saved their pennies will be left out.
"When we were successful in 2000 and the Patriots were successful last year, we didn't get those marquee names," Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "You can do a good job on that second tier. Those guys are just as valuable in building your team. What our surveys have shown, the more money you spend, the less successful you are, because you blow all of your money on one or two guys."
SportsLine.com has compiled a list of unrestricted free-agent talent through documents from league sources and personnel directors building their offseason boards.
Some of the names on this list are players not listed as free agents but who have already triggered a "void" in their contracts to end them, such as the Eagles' Hugh Douglas, who was able to void after his 10th sack this weekend.
(Note: Not every player who will be a free agent in March is included. Others have not yet been added because they have not voided their deals. There will be other players added to the list later because of "option" payments teams decide not to pick up.)
The 2003 unrestricted free-agency class, with grades by positions:
The crème de la crème would be the linebacker corps. There are an astonishing seven top-flight, "A" graded players in this group. Speed, Pro Bowls, crunching hits ... there is no shortage with this group. And the "B" level Accorsi preaches about holds five or six solid players who could end up providing a solid addition to a willing suitor.
Though the Falcons will likely fight any exodus with the "franchise" tag, Keith Brooking is the co-leader of this crew. The former first-round pick has become Atlanta football fans' second favorite son behind some other guy who wears No. 7. The other top backer available? Cincy's Takeo Spikes.
Though Brooking is certainly a solid Pro Bowl player, some teams actually have Spikes rated a hair ahead. Spikes is so good there was actually a debate between his teammates and the Ravens as to who was better: him or Ray Lewis.
No linebacker is on Lewis' level but the fact others did not look at this as completely farfetched shows how much Spikes is respected. If he weren't playing in Cincinnati, Spikes would be a star.
After Spikes and Brooking, talent is plentiful.
The Colts' Mike Peterson is a budding star with tremendous speed. Chicago's Rosevelt Colvin, Seattle's Anthony Simmons and Detroit's Chris Claiborne add to this solid group. The Saints' Charlie Clemons will also become free thanks to a voidable clause in his contract.
After the "A" list, teams looking for a "B" linebacker have many enticing options in the Eagles' Shawn Barber, Houston's Jay Foreman, Jeff Posey and Keith Mitchell, Tampa Bay's Shelton Quarles and Al Singleton and the Bills' Keith Newman. All are solid options.
Offensive line: B
The Rams' Orlando Pace will be a free agent because of a void clause in his contract, which immediately propels him to the top of the free agency list regardless of position. Every team official interviewed concurs Pace is the top name available; dominant offensive tackles are a rare commodity.
Pace dramatically strengthens the overall grade of this unit.
After Pace, the group's top tackles include Seattle's Walter Jones -- the team's franchise designation a year ago -- and Giants' former first-round pick, Luke Petitgout. There is little chance New York will let him go. Dallas' Flozell Adams and Solomon Page are also available.
The top guard on the list is the Jets' Randy Thomas, and the No. 1 center is the Colts' Jeff Saturday.
Other linemen who would be solid pickups include Baltimore's Edwin Mulitalo, Pittsburgh's Wayne Gandy, Tennessee's Zach Pillar and Atlanta's Todd McClure. Decent depth overall, but only three big-time names.
Wide receiver: B-minus
The grade is greatly improved by the top two players in the group: Cardinals Pro Bowl wideout David Boston and Bills receiver Peerless Price. Both are scheduled to be free to put themselves on display. Boston has an injury concern but would nevertheless command a huge price tag. Price and fellow Buffalo speedster Eric Moulds combine for one of the most electric offensive duos in the NFL. What price it would take to split them up remains to be seen.
After this pair, the talent drops considerably.
The Cards' Frank Sanders and Giants' Ike Hilliard are the next best available (although Hilliard has a couple of injury concerns). Michael Vick's favorite target, Brian Finneran, and Baltimore's Brandon Stokley are also scheduled to become free.
This group was weakened when Green Bay's Donald Driver decided to let free agency pass by re-signing last week.
Defensive backs: C-plus
Depth at both corner and safety is overwhelmingly weak. But this group holds one of the top talents slated to become available at the beginning of March. Despite being injured for part of the season, Ravens CB Chris McAlister remains regarded as one of the league's premier cornerbacks.
Considering the shoddy list that follows, McAlister's value increases dramatically. The next best thing after McAlister is the Rams' Dre' Bly and the Packers' Tyrone Williams (who earned the right to void his deal.) This trio is followed by a slew of faceless corners who could mix and match into different systems but won't send a head coach clicking his heels down the hallway.
Do Emanuel McDaniel, Tod McBride, Juran Bolden, Terry Fair, Donovan Greer, Tyrone Poole or Willie Williams excite anybody? How about Kevin Mathis, Bryant Westbrook, Ken Irvin and Eric Davis? Didn't think so, which is why the overall grade of the position is so low.
A few of the available safeties, however, keep the grade from falling below average.
The Saints' Sammy Knight has a clause in his contract that allowed him to void. Knight is one of the more underrated defensive playmakers in the league. Jacksonville's Donovan Darius is also free and a solid upgrade for many defenses. Patriots safety Tebucky Jones (who will probably re-sign before the start of free agency) and Tampa Bay's Dexter Jackson are a notch below but certainly worthy of free-agent pursuit.
Defensive line: C-minus
The Eagles' Hugh Douglas earned the right to void his contract Sunday when he surpassed the 9.5-sack mark. Douglas is clearly the most talented and fiercest defensive lineman available. For those who think Douglas is too old or too small, talk to us after he has carved up your QB for two sacks and four pressures on any given Sunday.
After the Eagles' sackmaster is Green Bay's Vonnie Holliday.
"As much as I don't want to admit it, Daryl Gardner is our top-rated defensive tackle available," said one AFC personnel executive. "He's been playing very, very well this year. When he's healthy, he's obviously tough."
Gardner was cast off by the Dolphins for a variety of reasons, reasons that will scare many teams off despite his solid play in 2002. Seattle's Antonio Cochran, the Chargers' Adrian Dingle, the Packers' Cletidus Hunt, Chike Okeafor of the 49ers and John Thornton of Tennessee round out the top of the defensive line talent currently listed as available.
Tight ends: D
There are few men in this group capable of making a name for themselves in the right system. The Rams' Ernie Conwell and Dolphins' Desmond Clark lead the list.
Those names might not be exciting on the surface, but the tight end position can often depend upon the system an offense uses. The Falcons' Reggie Kelly provides a decent receiving option, and the Giants' Dan Campbell is a solid workman type. Overall, there is nothing special at this slot. Again, it all depends on the system.
Running back: D-minus
Boys, if you've got yourself a decent runner, grab him tight, give him a big ol' hug and be oh-so thankful. The top three running backs on the open market are Jacksonville's Stacey Mack, Oakland's Tyrone Wheatley and the Bills' Shawn Bryson, who most teams polled by SportsLine.com say they would have as their top-rated back if there were no injury concerns.
Jake Plummer, Jake Delhomme, Koy Detmer, Charlie Batch, Shaun King ... ouch. Memo to teams looking for a franchise QB: make sure your college draft department is solid. Veterans such as Kent Graham and Packers backup Doug Pederson also have value (aging QBs are all the rage nowadays).
Save your cash boys and pick up a guy off the street.