The market isn't closed, but it might as well be.
Three weeks after unrestricted free agents went on sale to the highest bidder, the rush for talent is down to a crawl. Unsigned veterans are still out there, but the big bucks aren't -- which means business is off.
|Willie McGinest may be 34, but he can still scratch and claw his way to the QB. (Getty Images)|
So did everyone have a good time? Let's find out. What follows is a three-week scoreboard of the good, the bad and the T.O.
1. Carolina: I know an NFL scout who keeps telling me the thing he loves about Carolina is that the Panthers "know their team." Once, I wasn't sure what he meant; now I am. The Panthers identify what they need; then they go get it. Case in point: defensive tackle Ma'ake Kemoeatu. Once the free-agent bidding started, Carolina made a beeline for the guy, figuring it had to gain insurance against another injury to Kris Jenkins. Jenkins is back, but the Panthers are taking no chances. They signed Kemoeatu and Damione Lewis. They also signed center Justin Hartwig, then followed with the addition of Keyshawn Johnson -- the No. 2 receiver they've been missing the past two years. Brilliant. All I know about Johnson is that the last time he and Carolina offensive coordinator Dan Henning were together, he caught 89 passes.
2. Cleveland: For years the Browns haven't had a running game. One reason is the offensive line. It stunk. So the Browns took steps to plug the holes, signing center LeCharles Bentley and tackle Kevin Shaffer. Sure, they overpaid, especially for Shaffer, but the market at tackle was thin. These are significant upgrades -- particularly Bentley, who was one of the top free agents, period -- and you don't win in Cleveland in November and December by throwing the ball; you win by running it. Now the Browns can. Joe Jurevicius is a perfect addition at wide receiver because a) he's a solid possession guy who makes third-down catches, and b) he can act as a mentor for Braylon Edwards. So Ted Washington is older than Lake Erie. So Willie McGinest is close. They know Romeo Crennel's system and fit perfectly -- even if it is, as in Washington's case, for 15-20 snaps a game.
3. (tie) St. Louis: The Rams' weakness is defense. We all know that. So do the people who compile NFL statistics, where the Rams ranked 30th in total defense and 28th in the takeaway/turnover differential. The club added linebacker Will Witherspoon, safety Corey Chavous, defensive tackle La'Roi Glover and underrated Fakhir Brown, a cornerback who -- like Glover -- played for defensive coordinator Jim Haslett in New Orleans. It also provided quarterback Marc Bulger and coach Scott Linehan a solid backup quarterback in Gus Frerotte. The Rams will be improved -- particularly on defense -- largely because of strong moves like these.
3. (tie) Minnesota: The Vikings needed a running game, so they invested in Chester Taylor and guard Steve Hutchinson. They needed a kicker, so they invested in Ryan Longwell. They needed defensive help and may have found it with linebacker Ben Leber, a guy who plays hard and stays out of trouble, and safety Tank Williams. OK, so Williams isn't the player he was three years ago. He still figures to start. I guess what I like most here is that coach Brad Childress is cleaning the place out from top to bottom, beginning with the trade of Daunte Culpepper, and changing the team's identity on the field with it. It's about time. Can Minnesota survive with Brad Johnson? It was 7-2 with him last year.
1. New England: OK, OK, so the Patriots demonstrated long ago that they don't spend zillions on free agents and will stock their team after everyone is finished cashing in the big bucks. The system worked in the past, and it may work in the future. I say "may" because the gulf that once separated New England and Miami has shrunk. Miami took giant steps in the offseason; New England stood still. No, the Pats went backward. They lost linebacker Willie McGinest; they lost wide receiver David Givens; they lost kicker Adam Vinatieri; they lost offensive lineman Tom Ashworth. In return, they signed Reche Caldwell, a seldom-used receiver from San Diego. That's what you call an imbalance of trade. Yes, New England is still the team to beat in the AFC East because the Pats still have Tom Brady, but there are cracks in the foundation.
2. San Diego: The Chargers hadn't won the AFC West in nine years. Then, quarterback Drew Brees snaps the slump by leading the team to a 12-4 season. The following season he wins nine starts, only to be hurt in the last game. Now he's gone. I don't understand how you let one of the NFL's 10 best quarterbacks walk away, especially when successor Philip Rivers hasn't made a single start in his pro career. "If this guy doesn't win," said one NFC general manager, "he'll lose the locker room." Maybe, but it's not the players I'm worried about; it's coach Marty Schottenheimer. He and GM A.J. Smith barely communicate, which means Schottenheimer is a dead man if the Chargers don't make the playoffs this year. Oh, and for the record: Schottenheimer wanted to keep Brees.
3. Pittsburgh: The Steelers lost three starters from a Super Bowl team, but they'll recover. They almost always do. That's the beauty of this organization. There's a philosophy that not only works but endures long after players are gone. Safety Chris Hope was the most significant subtraction, but Pittsburgh recovered some lost ground with the signing of the underrated Ryan Clark from Washington. Antwaan Randle El? Yes, he's versatile, but tight end Heath Miller had more catches. The biggest move for Pittsburgh was keeping offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt, but his stay could be short. He immediately moves to the top of next year's list of head-coaching favorites.
Best free-agent additions
1. Adam Vinatieri, Indianapolis: Indianapolis could've beaten New England in its 2004 season opener if only Mike Vanderjagt made a 48-yard field goal to send the game into overtime. He didn't. The Colts might've kept Pittsburgh from reaching Super Bowl XL, too, if Vanderjagt would've made a 48-yarder to send the game into overtime. He didn't. Enough already. Is there anyone out there who can make a 48-yard kick? Yep, and the Colts just signed him. All I know about Vinatieri is that he nailed every big field goal of his career and was the most important specialist in the game. More than that, he was a security blanket for the Patriots, a club that knew it could win every close game because it had a can't-miss kicker. Well, now he's gone, and, for the life of me, I still can't figure out why.
2. John Abraham, Atlanta: OK, so the Falcons added him by trade. It still was a shrewd move. Let's put it like this: Do you think the Falcons could have found a pass rusher of Abraham's caliber with the 29th pick? So they surrendered the 15th choice to Denver for the 29th, plus a third-rounder this year and a fourth in 2007. The bottom line: They gained Abraham and two draft picks for the 15th pick, and they didn't have to surrender backup quarterback Matt Schaub. Now that's what I call a deal. Abraham will improve a pass rush that tailed off last year and make it tough on opponents choosing whom to double team -- Abraham or Patrick Kerney. It's rare to find premier pass rushers, and when you do you try to keep them. The Falcons just found one.
3. Edgerrin James, Arizona: James scored 14 times last year. Any idea when someone from the Cardinals ran for 10 or more touchdowns in one season? Try Donny Anderson in 1973. That's why this should be a great move for the club. Arizona needed a running back like Barry Bonds needs good press. James had 11 or more touchdowns in four of his seven seasons with Indianapolis and last year was the AFC's second-leading rusher with 1506 yards -- or 368 more than Arizona. The Cardinals had the league's best passing attack and worst running game, but all that is about to change. You get nowhere if you can't run, and, finally, Dennis Green seems to understand. Now, about that offensive line ...
Worst free-agent additions
1. Terrell Owens, Dallas: Can you say Dy-no-mite? How soon before he and Drew Bledsoe are seen sparring on Pay-Per-View? Or, maybe, it's T.O. and that "idiot kicker." Owens is a terrific player and a lousy teammate. His history is that he'll have a good year, then torch the building -- starting with the head coach and quarterback. That might be OK by Bill Parcells, because no one I know in Dallas expects him to coach beyond this year anyway. But Parcells and his staff might want to pay attention to this: Several league sources told me Owens has a persistent groin injury that will limit his practices and could limit his play ... or at least his ability to jump up and down on the Cowboys' star.
2. Brian Williams, Jacksonville: It's not that I don't think he can play; I do. It's just that I can't believe a cornerback who opens one season as a nickel back pulls down a $10 million paycheck the next. This is the NFL version of Guys Gone Wild.
3. Antwaan Randle El, Washington: Here's another one I don't understand. You guarantee $11.5 million for a guy who, essentially, is a return specialist? Wow. What a great country. Yes, he can do a lot of things, but serving as your No. 2 receiver isn't one of them. Randle El's specialty is that he's versatile, but he won't catch more than 35-45 passes a year.
Under the radar
1. Darren Howard, Philadelphia: The Eagles need to improve their pass rush and are tired of waiting on Jerome McDougle. So they sign a guy with a history of injuries and inconsistent play -- and it just might be one of the biggest moves of the offseason. Howard had 11 sacks in two of his six seasons in New Orleans, but he needed to leave Louisiana. Pairing him with Jevon Kearse perks up a pass rush that sank to 29 sacks last year and presents matchup problems for offensive line coaches.
2. Chester Taylor, Minnesota: I don't know if this is the next Priest Holmes waiting to happen, either, but Minnesota thinks he could be. Like Holmes, he sat behind Jamal Lewis. Like Holmes, he can hammer the inside of a line or swing to the outside. Like Holmes, he can start for a lot of teams. All I know is that Taylor looked a lot better last year than Lewis, and his body hasn't absorbed the punishment that seems to have slowed Baltimore's No. 1 back. Minnesota makes a commitment to the run with Taylor and, just a hunch, but the Vikings start him going left.
3. Josh McCown, Detroit: Jon Kitna is the frontrunner for the starter's job here, and he should be. He has experience. He has won. Plus, he has the right demeanor for this situation. But McCown could be a steal. He's young and talented and should thrive under the tutelage of Mike Martz. McCown completed 70 percent of his passes in his two games indoors last year, and that's good. So is his 10-12 record as a starter with a dreadful franchise. He said he wanted to go where he could start, and give him time. It could happen here.
4. Andre Carter, Washington: Once, San Francisco attracted talent; now it drives it away -- and here's the proof. Carter could be a terrific pass rusher ... and was when the 49ers played a 4-3. But he was lost as a linebacker and quickly fell out of favor. Leave it to defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to find the right defense for this guy. Remember, Carter had 12.5 sacks in 2002. That's not that long ago. And he's only 26. I didn't like a lot of what Washington did, but I did like this move. Look for Carter to have a big year.
5. Joe Jurevicius, Cleveland: He helps in the locker room and on the field. Jurevicius lends stability to any franchise, with the Seahawks the latest example. He stepped in last year when Darrell Jackson was injured and produced 55 catches, including a team-best 10 for touchdowns. Jurevicius is solid, dependable and experienced -- playing in three Super Bowls for three different teams. He's also perfect for the Browns' Braylon Edwards, a model of professionalism Edwards can follow. He doesn't make spectacular catches, and he's not a long-distance threat. But he will produce, particularly on third downs, and he does make tough catches.
What I think about ...
1. Edgerrin James: Maybe the Cardinals' signing of Edgerrin James becomes as good for him as it is for them, but the first guy I thought of when I heard he left Indianapolis was Ricky Watters.
He was a star running back like James, and he was two years younger when he took advantage of free-agency in 1995. He didn't rush for as many yards as James, but he was death on defenses as a receiver. In fact, when he starred for San Francisco, there wasn't a better back out of the backfield.
But then Watters left the 49ers, and he left for the same reason that Edgerrin James left Indianapolis:
Money. Lots of money.
James picked up a four-year, $30 million contract that is supposed to buy him happiness, but, take it from Ricky Watters, be careful what you wish for. Watters never enjoyed the success in Philadelphia that he had in San Francisco and left for Seattle after the 1997 season.
I remember when I ran into him at training camp in August 2000, and we were talking about why he left the 49ers. I believed he traded a chance to be something special, to be a Hall of Fame back, for money. He believed he was a Hall of Fame back.
He wasn't. But he could've been had he stayed in San Francisco. He was perfectly suited to what the 49ers were doing on offense, and he would've had four more years with Steve Young, Jerry Rice and the playoffs.
Edgerrin James was a perfect fit for Indianapolis, too. He was on a Hall of Fame track. Now, I don't know. I have no idea what the Cardinals are all about, especially with their offensive line, and I don't know that they do, either.
Sure, you can't knock James for making a bundle. That's part of this business. But it might have come at a cost. And Ricky Watters knows what it is.
2. The Washington Redskins: Daniel Snyder is the George Steinbrenner of football, and if he can't win a championship, he'll buy one. He overpaid to keep defensive coordinator Gregg Williams; he overpaid to hire offensive coordinator Al Saunders. Then he overpaid just about every free agent the club signed, and outside of Andre Carter, I'm not sure the Redskins helped themselves all that much. I remember running into a Pittsburgh assistant at the NFL scouting combine in February, and he told me he didn't think the Steelers could keep Antwaan Randle El because someone would pay him $7 million-$8 million. Then the Redskins laid out $11.5 in guaranteed money. My Steelers guy was floored. Randle El is versatile, but he's a No. 3 receiver who can return punts. Yeah, he can throw. He can run. He can catch. But he's not your second receiver, and last year's numbers prove it: He had 35 catches for Pittsburgh -- or nearly half the total of Hines Ward. I thought Washington was nuts when it handed Laveranues Coles a $13 million signing bonus three years ago, but at least he was their lead receiver. In Randle El, you just spent megabucks for a return specialist.
3. Brian Griese: My nephew's a Chicago Bears fan and can't believe that neither Pete nor I wrote about Brian Griese. Well, this one's for you, chief. Brian Griese was a terrific get for the Bears, and not just because he acts as a safety net for Rex Grossman. The guy can start ... and maybe he should. "I expect he will ... from Day 1," said an AFC assistant who knows Griese. "This guy is smarter than some coaches in the league. All I know is he set passing marks wherever he's been. He's a terrific quarterback who will make sure no one is out of step in the huddle and who could put the Bears in the Super Bowl." Wow. And I thought he was insurance against another Rex Grossman injury. The bottom line is: This is a good move for Chicago and a better one for its receivers. I don't know if he winds up the starter; what I do know is that an injury to Grossman doesn't mean Chicago must lean on its defense for offense again.
4. Drew Brees: So his right shoulder is a concern. I know that. I also know that the surgeon who found a partially torn rotator cuff also said he expected Brees to play this year and to play "at a high level." That sells me. It didn't sell the San Diego Chargers, however. Or, more specifically, it didn't sell their general manager, and now Drew Brees is in New Orleans where he is a marked improvement from Aaron Brooks. Brees won 20 games the past two years, threw 51 touchdown passes and led the Chargers to their first division title in a decade. They should have kept him, and don't take it from me. Schottenheimer said the same thing. So did star running back LaDainian Tomlinson. All I know is that this is a huge gamble, and if it doesn't pay off, it's Schottenheimer's job that's next to go. And Brees? He has something to prove. Again.
5. Kerry Collins: It's hard for me to see why he isn't a good fit for Baltimore. Collins wants to go somewhere he can start, and this might be the place. The Ravens haven't given up on Kyle Boller, but they want to push him -- and who better than the quarterback who joined Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel in Super Bowl XXXV when both were with the New York Giants. Collins needs to find a place where he's not squeezed, and this could be it. Baltimore hasn't been about the quarterback since Bert Jones left town, so there's no pressure to start producing Unitas-like performances. Plus, Collins can serve as a mentor to Boller ... if, that is, he doesn't pass him on the depth chart. It makes too much sense not to happen. So what's the delay?
Division helped the most
NFC South: New Orleans has a quarterback who can win. Carolina is protected at defensive tackle and has a legitimate No. 2 receiver. Atlanta has a pass rush again. Only Tampa Bay didn't make waves, but the Bucs are the defending division champion. The NFC South is tight from top to bottom, with New Orleans trying to make up the ground it lost -- literally -- to Hurricane Katrina last year. Off what we've seen the past three weeks, you have to love Carolina. The Panthers keep fixing problems with top-notch players. But beware Atlanta. The Falcons wilted down the stretch, losing six of their last eight, but figure to make a run with the addition of pass rusher John Abraham.
Division hurt the most
AFC West: Oakland lost its starting quarterback. So did San Diego. The Raiders sacrificed cornerback Charles Woodson. Trevor Pryce is gone from Denver. So is the Broncos' leading scorer, Mike Anderson. Only Kansas City stood pat, and I don't know how wise that is considering it missed the playoffs and is a year older. The AFC West is one of the most competitive divisions out there, but I lost faith in the Raiders when they reached for Art Shell, and Shell reached for an offensive coordinator who has been running a B&B the past 10 years. Then I looked at the bright side: At least he's familiar with basements. The Chiefs had a chance to sign either Will Allen or Rocky Bernard, both of whom would have boosted their defense, yet passed. San Diego gives up on Brees, and you know what I think about that. Mike Shanahan just solidified his position by doing ... well, nothing.
Most intriguing division
The NFC East: Any one of these four could win it, but it's the subplots here that are intriguing. There's the T.O. watch in Dallas, with sideline cams poised to catch Mount St. Terrell's first eruption. There's the Donovan McNabb watch in Philadelphia, with critics ready to pounce if he can't carry the offense. There's the Eli Manning watch in New York, with expectant fans no longer wondering if Eli's coming ... but where the heck he's going. And there's the Daniel Snyder watch in Washington, where we discover if money can buy an NFC East title. Me? All I want is a ticket to Terrell Owens' return to Philadelphia and a seat as far away as possible from anyone in a No. 81 jersey. What in the world happened to the City of Brotherly Love? Next question!