According to Pat Kirwan, the success of such 2003 free agent pickups as Bills LB Takeo Spikes has emboldened NFL shoppers in 2004
(by Pat Kirwan, NFL.com Senior Analyst)
As one GM asked me this past weekend, "Why do you think the first wave of unrestricted free-agent contracts are so out of whack?" Good question. After I got done stating it was predictable and not anymore disturbing than in years past, I gave him three reasons why the new deals seemed high.
First, six new head coaches means turnover at six franchises, and that usually means heavy signings. Washington, Chicago, Arizona, Atlanta, Buffalo and the Giants have new coaches, and those teams have not been shy in the first week of free agency. Sixteen of the 65 signings have come from those teams.
Second, the increase in the salary cap (up $5 million instead of the expected $3 million) gave a number of teams newfound space to go out in the market and be aggressive. It's kind of like an increase in your tax return -- the government hopes you will go out and spend it to spark the economy.
Lastly, unlike most years when free agents tend to disappoint their new team more than meet expectations, a number of last year's signings played to a high level. Stephen Davis was a great signing for the Super Bowl Panthers. Dre Bly made the Pro Bowl for the Lions, along with Takeo Spikes in Buffalo. In fact, when you look at the Pro Bowl rosters this year, you can count 17 players who played for someone else prior to going to the Pro Bowl with their new team. That sends a message that you can buy success.
Ten topics to think about
Here are 10 thought-provoking dilemmas around the league that are hard to answer (for now):
1. Why wouldn't every veteran who gets the franchise tag sign the offer sheet? If and when they sign it they are guaranteed their salary, which is the average of the top five players in the league at that position.
2. It's not hard to justify the Houston draft compensation for Drew Henson, but is it possible to realistically put a deal together that works for the club and the player? So far, most think that is the stumbling block.
3. Why would any club renegotiate Terrell Owens' contract and convert his salary to a signing bonus? He's a volatile player and right now the Ravens or whomever else winds up with him have total control. If he has to go at some point, the club would not suffer a large cap hit.
4. A number of NFL coaches question the Denver logic to trade Clinton Portis on the theory the Broncos can produce a 1,000-yard back any time they want. People who have worked with the Broncos say it was always about line coach Alex Gibbs ... but he's with the Falcons now.
5. What is Bengals running back Corey Dillon's value at this point in his career? People I speak with are all over the place about his value. That tells me the eventual trade deal will be built on some "if" clauses. If he rushes for 1,200 yards then the trade value goes up from one draft round to another.
6. What is wide receiver Joey Galloway thinking about by not accepting the Tampa Bay contract offer? The closer teams like the Bucs get to the draft, the less likely he will even see the offer they have made. The draft will inject at least 15 receivers on the first day and that will change the landscape.
7. Why did the Chiefs "transition tag" tackle John Tait instead of the "franchise tag?" The Chiefs believed they had a better chance of signing Tait if he was allowed to go out and get an offer they could match. If they decided not to match the offer ( Chicago made one recently), they would be in line for a very good compensatory draft pick for the loss of Tait. Tait got an offer in one week and the Chiefs know they would have dragged negotiations well into the summer otherwise.
8. Will the Redskins ever run out of cap room to be so aggressive in free agency? With all the cash Washington is using to get the deals done, it will have the space to do a few more deals. The only stumbling block some competitors are hoping for is the issue surrounding LaVar Arrington's contract. A roster bonus in the $6.5 million neighborhood is in store for Arrington in 2005. The club said it never existed; the player said it was agreed upon. One GM told me he believes the player will win the case, but I do not think so. Not with the player and agent signature on the deal.
9. Will the teams in cap trouble just continue to lose players and not be able to replace them? Don't kid yourself and think it will be a problem to find good replacements in the spring. Players getting terminated are beefing up the free-agent lists and recently cut veterans will find work. Free agents like Garrison Hearst, Marvin Jones, Ruben Brown, Jeff Blake, Tim Ruddy, Mark Dixon, Chad Bratzke and Brock Marion are just a few of the available players. By June, there may be enough free players to start another NFL team!
10. Can Warren Sapp find the kind of money he's looking for? Sapp will be paid well but the market so far doesn't seem to be there for a blockbuster deal.
Draft picks headed in the right direction
I talked with two college personnel people and I asked them to give me a few potential draft picks heading up the charts now that they have had time to digest the combine results, interviews with coaches and scan some of the campus workouts. Always remember, momentum has to be timed up as close to the draft as possible. Make a move too early and the player brings extra scrutiny upon himself.
For now, the following players seem to be helping themselves:
QB Philip Rivers is gathering some momentum and is making a move at the No. 2 spot among quarterbacks in some people's eyes. Both NFL men I talked to liked RB Kevin Jones from Virginia Tech as the top back this week, which is a shift from the pre-combine thinking when he was second or third among ball carriers. The wide receiver position is loaded at the top of the draft yet both mentioned how impressed they are with DeVery Henderson from LSU. He may be down around the ninth slot at his position but he's heading up the chart in their eyes. I got a chance to watch two game tapes of him and if there are eight receivers better than him, well, then this is a great receiver draft.
Tackle Kelly Butler from Purdue will not catch Robert Gallery, but he is close to becoming a late first-round selection. He has a ways to go but at 6-foot-7, 320 pounds and a 5.1 in the 40, he's heading there. Maryland has had a few good defensive tackles in the past few years, and it looks like Randy Starks is the next in line. He measured in at 6-3, 315 pounds and ran a 5.03. He is heading toward the top of the class and as one personnel man said, "He has rare athletic ability and quickness to be disruptive. He has defensive line coaches excited."
The last name mentioned to me was cornerback Dunta Robinson from South Carolina. After running a sub-4.4 in the 40 and measuring slightly taller than players ranked ahead of him just two weeks ago, he is working his way closer to being a first-round selection.