With second-year QB Trent Edwards and RB Marshawn Lynch operating first-year coordinator Turk Schonert’s system, the Bills have a promising, young offensive nucleus already in place. The next phase of the offensive evolution involves upgrading Edwards’ targets in the passing game. At both wide receiver and tight end, the Bills have a serious dearth of talent. WR Lee Evans is the only pass catcher who poses problems for opposing defenses. The Bills’ front office wasted little time validating this notion, as two of their first offseason transactions were signing TE-WR Teyo Johnson and cutting underachieving WR Peerless Price. With deep-threat wideout Roscoe Parrish’s availability uncertain following a recent DUI arrest, the need only increases. While the Bills will give long looks to quality receivers of all styles, big targets who can create red-zone mismatches and can muscle their way to those third-down conversions will be particularly coveted. After finishing 29th in the league against the pass, secondary fortifications headline the defensive needs. High-priced DEs Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay failed to justify their lucrative contracts in 2007, but the prevailing thought is that they need more help in the rotation to afford them necessary breathers. The city of Buffalo is not the easiest sell to free agents, but with ample salary-cap space and all the important players already locked up, the Bills will be serious contenders for the majority of players they target.
Past Buffalo Team Reports >
By terminating the deals of QB Trent Green, MLB Zach Thomas, DT Keith Traylor, WR Marty Booker and OT L.J. Shelton, the Dolphins’ new front office sent a clear message that wholesale changes will be made to a team that went an embarrassing 1-15 in 2007. Specifically, the message was that players past their prime, especially if they’re attached to a rich contract, had better continue to produce if they want to maintain a roster spot under the new regime. Partly because of the aforementioned cuts, the Dolphins enter free agency with roughly $35 million in salary-cap room, one of the few Dolphins facts that most other teams are envious of. The issues begin at quarterback, where executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells and his brain trust must determine whether John Beck — underwhelming as a rookie in 2007 — should be given the keys to the offense. Either way, bringing aboard another passer is a necessity. But multiple players will need to be nabbed to upgrade a lackluster receiving corps and porous O-line. The defense is in dire need, as well. Miami wants to revert to a 3-4 scheme, but the switch could be dictated by whether it brings in a suitable, wide-bodied nose tackle. All three defensive levels need substantial upgrades, so expect the Fins to be scouring the free-agent list and waiver wire. S Yeremiah Bell is the only defender worth forking over even moderate money to re-sign, and even he’s a bit of a wild card coming off a torn Achilles tendon.
Past Miami Team Reports >
The “Spygate” fallout and the Super Bowl loss aren’t the only things weighing on the Patriots’ minds. Retaining numerous players and upgrading units with just an $8 million salary-cap buffer will put the league’s most resourceful front office to the test. It’s a testament to his record-breaking season and otherworldly ability that keeping WR Randy Moss is considered a “necessity” when the Patriots have one of the NFL’s reigning receptions leaders — Wes Welker, whose 112 catches tied the Bengals’ T.J. Houshmandzadeh — already on board. Then again, with the Pats unable to afford Donté Stallworth’s $8 million option and revelation Jabar Gaffney free to leave to the highest bidder, Moss could seemingly be even more important in 2008. The Pats have maximized the ability of an old and thin LB corps, and Bill Belichick will have to do his best coaching job yet to keep the veteran crew humming with little hope of a significant upgrade. Likewise, it’s unrealistic to think they can afford to retain coveted CB Asante Samuel, making it imperative that middling free-agent defensive backs such as Randall Gay stick around to ensure some semblance of a legitimate secondary. Unless they restructure enough deals, their need for personnel upgrades, coupled with their limited salary-cap maneuverability, makes for a daunting challenge.
Past New England Team Reports >
Like their division rivals in Miami and Buffalo, the Jets have considerable cap space to address glaring deficiencies. With coach Eric Mangini committed to making the 3-4 defense work, look for a revolving door of sorts throughout the front seven. The only box defender who fits well in the scheme is second-year ILB David Harris, as former first-round picks NT Dewayne Robertson, ILB Jonathan Vilma and OLB Bryan Thomas have proven ill-equipped to handle their roles. Although under contract for 2008, all could be suiting up elsewhere in the fall. Likewise, OLB Victor Hobson is likely off to the highest bidder, which only adds to their need. If Chad Pennington is traded, expect the Jets to bring in a veteran quarterback to provide insurance for (if not compete with) Kellen Clemens. But the line is the neediest of the offensive positions. The OLG and ORT spots are almost certain to see new faces in 2008, and it would come as no surprise if the Jets wind up sinking more money into these positions than anywhere else. While the Jets will be hesitant to shell out top dollar to D-linemen and linebackers unless they’re confident that these players fit the system, all the marquee free-agent names on the offensive line are sure to be fawned over in New York.
Past NY Jets Team Reports >
Teams have plenty of money to spend, but impact free agents are few and far between
By Mike Wilkening
Feb. 26, 2008
INDIANAPOLIS — You know this isn’t a banner free-agent class when the Redskins are wondering what all the fuss is about.
“I think a lot of the free agents will be overpaid,” Redskins executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato said. He works for owner Daniel Snyder, who rarely flinches at the cost of doing business in free agency.
That cost will be higher than ever this offseason, thanks to a short supply of desirable free agents and a slew of teams with the salary-cap space needed to write the contracts long in length and heavy on the up-front, guaranteed money it will take to get into the game on the first weekend of free agency, which starts Feb. 29.
Widespread use of the franchise tag is the biggest reason for the lack of freely available top talent in unrestricted free agency. Twelve players (later reduced to 11) were designated their team’s franchise player, five more than last year. Eleven prospective free agents received the “non-exclusive” franchise tag, which requires teams to tender a player a one-year contract worth the greater of the average salary of the five highest-paid players at his position in 2007 or a 120 percent raise of his 2007 salary. A player who receives the non-exclusive tag can negotiate with other clubs, but his team has the right to match any offer and receives two first-round picks should it decline to match the financial package. Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha was the only prospective free agent to receive the “exclusive” franchise tag; he cannot negotiate with other clubs, but he will receive a one-year tender worth the greater of the average of the top five salaries at his position as of April 18, 2008, or the average of the top five cornerback salaries in ’07 or 120 percent of his ’07 salary.
The increased use of the franchise tag can be attributed to the same factors that will drive up prices at the beginning of free agency. Teams are better than ever at managing the salary cap; only a handful of teams — most notably the Redskins, which may explain their market stance — don’t have much spending room under the cap, which is $116 million, $7 million more than last season. The repeated rise of the salary cap, coupled with better cap management, has allowed teams to use the tag more frequently — and not just on their best players.
“There were non-starters that got the franchise tender this year,” Rams executive vice president of player personnel Billy Devaney said, likely referring to Bengals OT-OG Stacy Andrews and Packers DT Corey Williams, two relatively obscure players to the general public but ones who were likely to receive considerable interest on the open market. “That’s because the pool (of elite free agents) is so small this year. There’s going to be a small amount of players who are going to get ridiculous money, and people are going to say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ ”
The tag particularly affected the market for defensive players. Eight defenders — Chiefs DE Jared Allen, Asomugha, Cardinals LB Karlos Dansby, Cowboys S Ken Hamlin, Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, Ravens OLB-DE Terrell Suggs, Seahawks CB Marcus Trufant and Williams — were designated franchise players. Half as many offensive players were tagged: Andrews, Colts TE Dallas Clark, Panthers OT Jordan Gross and Eagles TE L.J. Smith.
One day after giving Clark the franchise tag, the Colts removed it and signed him to a six-year contract. Several key non-tagged free agents also reached deals before the start of free agency. Indianapolis signed OLG Ryan Lilja to a five-year contract; evaluators polled by PFW said he would have been one of the top interior linemen available. Another coveted lineman, Seahawks ORT Sean Locklear, also re-signed for five years. And the Browns kept RB Jamal Lewis in the fold with a three-year deal.
With so much of their competition either off the market or saddled with the non-exclusive franchise tag, the top unrestricted free agents will have no shortage of suitors. A pair of Patriots — WR Randy Moss and CB Asante Samuel — are among the most highly desired free agents. Cowboys OLT Flozell Adams, Bears LB Lance *Briggs, Steelers OLG Alan Faneca, Chargers RB Michael Turner and Bengals DE Justin Smith will also draw significant interest.
Of that group, only Moss is expected to re-sign with his current club, meaning the first days of free agency won’t be lacking for intrigue — or contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.
The ever-rising cost of adding veteran talent makes building a team predominantly through free agency an almost impossible task, given the hefty price the best free agents command.
“It comes back to what you do in the draft, because that’s where you get the bang for the buck,” 49ers general manager Scot McCloughan said. “If you draft guys in the third and fourth round and get them locked in for three- or four-year deals, the amount of money you spend on them is much less than in free agency.
“In free agency, you always overspend.”
Teams looking to restricted free agency probably won’t find much cost relief, either. If the Browns can’t sign QB Derek Anderson to a *multiyear contract before the start of free agency, they will give him the highest tender, which would require a club that wanted to lure Anderson to surrender first- and third-round draft picks if Cleveland didn’t match the offer sheet. Cowboys RB Marion Barber, one of the league’s most punishing runners, is a similar case.
That’s life under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, but the future of the CBA is uncertain, with owners expected to terminate the final two years of the agreement this November. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw has said his membership will not take a smaller share of revenues than it did in the latest agreement, ratified in March 2006 after the owners agreed to a take-it-or-leave-it offer from the union. Should the owners vote to shorten the agreement later this year, the ’09 season would be the last covered by a salary cap.
Labor unrest may be on the horizon, but none of the executives who spoke publicly about the CBA at the Scouting Combine said they were going to drastically alter their preparation for this offseason.
“We’ve been, for some time now, talking about it, planning for it,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. “But it will be uncharted water, as well, so we’ll all learn as we go along.”
Judging from the ample cash available to teams and the short list of difference-making free agents, NFL teams have learned how to cope with free agency. But no matter how well teams plan ahead, no matter the risk of spending significant money on a veteran who may not perform as hoped, the big-ticket signings early in the signing period are always going to be a hallmark of free agency, Titans executive vice president/general manager Mike Reinfeldt said.
“I think every year is going to be the same,” he said. “There’s always horror stories — ‘This guy, we paid him all this money. What happened?’ … That being said, what happens every year is people have great needs, they’re in tough spots, and they jump in and do it. That’s going to continue.”