The NFL's move toward spread offenses, with four-receiver sets on what were once thought of as run downs, has made the value of good cornerbacks rise immensely.
And we're not just talking about having two or three good cornerbacks, either.
Any team with a pair of good starting corners heading into the season has a leg up on most of the league, especially when it comes to playing base defense. Most coaches would give almost anything to have one premier corner, let alone two or three.
Champ Bailey wasn't at his best in 2002, but can play with most any receiver. (Getty Images)
But with the move toward more spread football, teams can no longer just get by with two good corners.
If that's all they have, offenses will attack the third or fourth corner on passing downs, something they did more of last season, in essence nullifying the value of the top two corners.
Of course, an outstanding pass rush can help compensate. That's why 11 defensive linemen were taken in the first round of the draft. Quarterbacks can't pick on corners while sitting on their backsides.
Good corners, though, can also help the pass rush. And that's why teams are in a seemingly insatiable search to find those shutdown corners, players like Deion Sanders, guys who can play any receiver in man coverage.
That want for cover corners leads to strange and desperate moves, such as the Lions paying Dre' Bly, a decent corner but nothing special, $5 million a year on the free-agent market.
It was a lean year for the position on the market, leading the Lions to overpay to get Bly in an effort to find an upgrade at a weak position.
They were off the board by the 11th pick, but that didn't stop corners from being taken. Three more went in the first round, although there was some debate as to whether Andre Woolfolk (Titans), Sammy Davis (Chargers) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Raiders) were really first-round talents -- which says how teams push to find help at such a premium position.
The good news for those teams trying to get that help is that both the free-agent market and the draft will be full of corners next year.
The free-agent corner market, in fact, might possibly be the richest of any position since the NFL went to the current system. If the cornerbacks whose contracts are scheduled to be up don't receive new deals or get franchise labels placed on them before the 2004 signing period begins, there will be a star-filled class.
Among those corners who are in the last year of their deals are Charles Woodson (Raiders), Champ Bailey (Redskins), Troy Vincent (Eagles), Bobby Taylor (Eagles), Antoine Winfield (Bills), Ahmed Plummer (49ers), Fernando Bryant (Jaguars) and Jason Webster (49ers).
Baltimore's Chris McAlister was tagged with the franchise designation for this season to keep him in Baltimore, but if he doesn't get a new deal, chooses to play for the franchise tender, his contract will be up again.
The college corner class could also be lucrative, depending on whether several underclassmen enter the 2004 draft. Some of the potential first-round corners are Michigan's Marlin Jackson (junior), Ohio State's Chris Gamble (junior), Texas' Nathan Vasher, Oklahoma's Derrick Straight and Arkansas' Ahmad Carroll.
"If you need a corner, next year is when you can get that guy," said one NFC coach. "There could be some good ones out there in free agency, provided they don't get tagged."
Based on several factors, including ability, age and injuries, here's how the top five free agents would look on our board: Bailey, Woodson, McAlister, Winfield and Plummer.
Vincent would be in the top five, but he'll be 32 in June and he is coming toward the end of his career. Based on one or two years, he'd be in the top three.
So we'll leave him out of the top five in giving a short rundown on the chances of each being on the market next spring.
Bailey: The Redskins will make every effort to get him signed to a new deal as soon as possible. They are already talking extension, and that should get done. There is no way they will let him leave, and will use the franchise label on him if a new deal isn't done before the start of free agency. He wasn't at his best last season, but he has that shutdown ability.
Woodson: The Raiders deny they tried to trade him before the draft this year, but two teams confirmed that they talked about Woodson with the Raiders. He has had some injury problems, and the Raiders are leery of giving him a long-term deal. They also don't really want to deal with Carl Poston, Woodson's agent, who is known for his outrageous demands. Woodson is a great player when healthy, but he wasn't healthy last year. Will Al Davis pony up a huge contract for him?
McAlister: He has yet to sign the one-year franchise tender, and the two sides can't sign a new deal until after July 15 or they would not be able to use the franchise designation on another player for the length of McAlister's contract. For that reason, a deal won't get done until after that date. That cuts close to training camp, which is a concern for the Ravens. If McAlister signs the one-year tender, the two sides could then be free to work out a new deal. If they can't agree and he plays for the tender, the team will likely tag him again next year. He isn't going anywhere.
Winfield: He is a smaller (5-feet-9) corner, which might deter some teams, but he is a tough, physical player. The Bills love him and will do whatever it takes to keep him, which could mean using the franchise tag. They put that label on receiver Peerless Price before trading him to Atlanta. It's a safeguard for the team. But the Bills will have to decide if he's worth shutdown corner money. He certainly is if Bly can get $5 million a year.
Plummer: The 49ers like Plummer, and want him back, but it might be difficult since they have several other key players whose contracts are up after this season, including Terrell Owens and linebacker Julian Peterson. Plummer is a former college teammate of Winfield's, but he is just a notch below him in terms of ability. With cap issues involved, the 49ers may be forced to prioritize. They did use a first-round pick on Mike Rumph last year, so maybe they're ready for either Plummer or Webster to bolt.
The Eagles are not expected to re-sign both Taylor and Vincent, which could mean one of those two or even both could be on the market. Taylor is 29, which could make him more attractive, although he isn't quite as good as Vincent. Taylor also isn't great against the run, which will turn some teams off.
But he can cover, and these days that's a must, which is why most teams can't wait until next spring.
Around the league
No more Randy Ratio
There will be no Randy Ratio talk in Minnesota this season. To refresh, that was the buzz generated last year when first-year Vikings coach Mike Tice stated at the combine last winter that he intended to make sure receiver Randy Moss touched the ball more than he had in previous years, meaning his ratio of attempts would go up.
It proved to be something that haunted the Vikings for much of the year, especially quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who seemed to be pressing too much early on to fill the ratio.
"It may have messed with his head a little," said Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
Though the Vikings still intend to make Moss the focal point of the passing game (who wouldn't) they won't make set numbers for his getting the ball. The Randy Ratio is no more. He did catch a career-high 106 passes last year, but this time around it will happen naturally.
"It wasn't something that we talked about a whole lot," said Linehan. "It's just something that Mike said before the season. It was something to help generate excitement with the fans. I'll defend Mike 100 percent on that. But we all know we want to get the ball to Randy as much as possible. We just have to do it in a way that we don't force the action."
In his first year as coordinator of the Vikings, Linehan came to respect Moss, even if the buzz was that he didn't run his routes on every play, including his infamous jog of a pass pattern on the final play in a loss to New England.
"All of that stuff is totally unfair," said Linehan. "Randy Moss plays the game to win. And he competes as good or better as any premier receiver in the league. He's the best in my mind. We led the NFL in explosive runs of 12 yards or more and I can tell you Randy Moss was a key blocker on a majority of those plays. Too much has been made the shots of him not coming off the line in a couple of games. He's unfairly tagged. He plays the game to win."
He may not have had the numbers that Marvin Harrison put up, but ask any defensive back which receiver they would least like to face, and the name of Randy Moss would likely top that list.
Moss remains the best receiver in football, even if he was doubled on nearly every play last season.
"We figure 70 offensive plays a game, maybe he saw one-on-one coverage maybe five of those 70 plays," said Linehan. "That says something for him as a player."
And it says why the ratio, even if it's not talked about much anymore, likely isn't about to go down.
Release date nearing
The magical June 1 date, when teams can release players and take some of the cap hit next year, is upon us.
So what should we expect?
The obvious. And that means not too much activity.
Among the players that are expected to be let go are Denver quarterback Brian Griese, 49ers receiver J.J. Stokes and Dolphins linebacker Derrick Rodgers, although the Saints and Dolphins are discussing a trade for Rodgers.
Pittsburgh tight end Mark Bruener is another potential June 1 cut since injuries have slowed him the past two seasons and the Steelers signed Jay Riemersma as a free agent. The Bengals are considering letting quarterback Akili Smith go, and the Giants might send disappointing running back Ron Dayne packing. It appears Steelers running back Jerome Bettis is safe, as is Jaguars tight end Kyle Brady.
"June 1 has really lost some of its luster because teams clear out guys or restructure deals long before then," said one NFC personnel director. "It isn't that big a deal anymore."
Vick getting in shape?
There has been a lot made of Michael Vick's offseason workout schedule not being what the Falcons would like. There has been some talk that it even ticked off some of his teammates.
But the word out of Atlanta is that Vick, after missing the first week, has been an active participant in the team's offseason workout program. When he missed the first week, he did contact coach Dan Reeves to notify him that he had some scheduled commitments that would make him late the first week. Reeves told him to take care of those and arrive the next week.
On Mother's Day weekend, Vick flew home to Virginia to see his mother and had trouble getting back to Atlanta. He phoned the Falcons strength coach to tell him he might be late getting back and that he might not make the Monday workouts.
Vick didn't have to make the call, since all teams have a Wednesday makeup day for any missed workouts during the week. Plus, these workouts are voluntary.
"He's not going to show up and not be in shape," said Ron Hill, Falcons vice president of football operations. "Michael knows what it takes for him to be a success on this level. He knows that the way he plays the position, running and moving as much as he does, he has to be in top shape."
Holmes' agent speaks
It was incorrectly reported in this space that Michael Todd was the agent for Chiefs running back Priest Holmes.
He used to be.
The documents that were used to report Todd as Holmes' agent were incorrect; Todd France has been Holmes' agent for the past year.
It's no wonder Michael Todd didn't return a call to discuss Holmes' injury situation. France did discuss Holmes' injured left hip.
"The doctors feel he will be 100 percent by the time camp comes around," France said. "He's ahead of schedule. Priest wants to be able to do more, faster, but there are no NFL games in March. He has to stay on schedule."
France said there is nothing duplicitous about Holmes avoiding the media. He said that's just Holmes' way, although he does talk to the media during the season -- just not a lot.
"If he rushed for 200 yards, he wouldn't have much to say," said France. "That's just Priest. He doesn't say a whole lot."
France did say that Holmes did discuss the drafting of running back Larry Johnson with the Chiefs front office, and it wasn't a move that was met with any disdain by the Pro Bowl back.
However, Holmes is seeking a new contract, something that might be on hold until he proves he's healthy again. If he is back to his pre-injury form, which made him the best runner in the league over the past two seasons, Holmes is vastly underpaid.
He will have a base salary of $1.95 million this season. He also will get a $250,000 roster bonus. That pales in comparison to the deal Marshall Faulk signed with the Rams last year, a deal that will average $6 million the first four years
France hopes to talk extension with the Chiefs before the season, but the Chiefs seem to be content with the status quo since Holmes has two years left on his contract and the Chiefs say they have a policy not to renegotiate until a player has one year left on his deal.
If Holmes was healthy, and threatening a holdout, you get the impression that wouldn't be the case with him.
Odds & ends
- A year ago, the Redskins used a third-round pick on receiver Cliff Russell out of Utah. He then tore up his right knee early in training camp, leading to a year on injured reserve. Russell is a receiver with speed, something the Redskins clearly lacked last season. That led to the team acquiring Laveranues Coles and then drafting Taylor Jacobs in the second round. Russell has made big strides in his recovery, and the team expects he will compete for time this season.
- The Rams lost cornerback James Whitley to foot and ankle injuries this offseason, which led them to draft three corners in April. But the guy who impressed most during minicamp was third-year player Jerametrius Butler. He could be the third corner behind Aeneas Williams and Travis Fisher. The Rams lost both Bly and Dexter McCleon in free agency, so Butler or one of the rookie corners has to come up big this season. Practicing against receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce can only help. Bruce, by the way, looked sharp at the team's recent minicamp, which bodes well for him this season since he is in his 10th year in the league.
- Being fat in Dallas will cost you big time. Coach Bill Parcells will fine players $285 per pound per day they are overweight. That means 10 extra pounds will cost $2,850 a day. Using that scale, Parcells already owes the Cowboys $14,250 for every day he's been there, considering he's a good 50 pounds overweight. At least he's trying, which is more than any of the Dallas lineman did the past few years. Parcells does look leaner and is working out on the treadmill more. But having to choose from QBs Chad Hutchinson and Quincy Carter could drive any coach to the buffet line. One player who is certainly too fat for Parcells is running back Troy Hambrick. He weighs 250 pounds and Parcells wants him under 240 when camp opens. Hambrick did get as big as 260. He said it came from his mom's cooking. One question here: If you have a chance to be a featured back in the NFL, replacing the legendary Emmitt Smith, don't you have to work in some lean chicken and a salad once in a while? Hambrick has always had a reputation for doing things the easy way, though. He has the ability. It's time for him to get off his butt and do some work. Those $285-per-pound fines might be motivation enough.
- One of the more improved players for the Patriots so far has been second-year tight end Daniel Graham. The Pats moved up to draft him in the first round last spring, but he wasn't the factor in the passing game they would have liked. Graham was slowed by a shoulder injury last season. If he can develop into a consistent threat in the middle of the field, it should help open up the outside for the Pats' smallish, but quick, receivers.
- To add more fuel to why the Jaguars should not have selected Byron Leftwich in the first round of the April draft comes word that second-year quarterback David Garrard has been outstanding during the team's work this offseason. Garrard has made huge strides, leading to talk that he may have been able to take over as the quarterback of the future down the road. Now he will have to compete with Leftwich when Mark Brunell leaves after next season. What if Garrard proves to be the better player? Oops.
- The Eagles promoted Tom Heckert from director of player personnel to vice president of player personnel this week. At 35, Heckert is considered one of the rising stars. That said, coach Andy Reid still calls all the shots. Reid makes all the personnel decisions in Philadelphia, although Joe Banner makes the cap decisions. Reid better hope he has more success doing both duties than did his mentor Mike Holmgren in Seattle.
- Although the Panthers say they won't replace Jack Bushofsky, who retired as the team's director of player personnel this month, don't be shocked to see former 49ers and Browns player personnel director Dwight Clark get some consideration in Carolina. He is a former college teammate of Mark Richardson, the team's president and son of owner Jerry Richardson. Word has it, Clark actually has interviewed with the team in the past year for an unspecified position.