Free agency doesn't solve much as teams keep their best players Print
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Thursday, 28 February 2008 09:38
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 Every year when free agency starts, it seems Daniel Snyder has the Washington Redskins' plane fueled and ready to swoop into a rival's city and return with a prized free agent.
Except most of those prizes turned out to be duds. That's one reason the Redskins ended last season $20 million over the salary cap and have spent the last few weeks cutting duds and restructuring the contracts of players they want to keep.
When free agency 2008 starts at midnight Friday, few teams are inclined to splurge, having learned there rarely are players available that can turn a franchise into an instant winner.
In fact, the opposite is true. As Snyder learned the hard way, it's self destructive to pay $35 million to a limited player with a ``name,'' as the Redskins did with Adam Archuleta two years ago. Archuleta went from starting strong safety to third string in less than a season and now is in Chicago.
More savvy teams have known for a decade the best way to succeed is to draft well and re-sign your own players.
Indianapolis, for example, let a bunch of defensive starters go last year, yet got much better there. One was cornerback Jason David, who fit Indy's ``Tampa Two'' but was beaten regularly after getting a four-year, $15.6 million contract from New Orleans.
The Saints are again looking for a cornerback.
This year, the Colts have spent the postseason re-signing safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 defensive player of the year, tight end Dallas Clark and guard Ryan Lilja.
``The net is that we've got Bob on a long-term contract, we've got Dallas on a long-term contract and we've got Ryan on a long-term contract. So we've had a hell of a free agency year,'' says team president Bill Polian, whose two decades of success in Buffalo, Carolina and Indianapolis make him the NFL's anti-Snyder.
Another example are the New York Giants, who a year ago signed one free agent of note, midlevel linebacker Kawika Mitchell and only for a year.
However, all eight Giants draft picks made the team and six contributed significantly to the team's surprising run to a Super Bowl victory.
Mitchell is a free agent again and may not be re-signed because New York has another linebacker in the wings, Gerris Wilkinson, a third-rounder in 2006 who has been impressive when healthy. And the Giants have tied up two of their most important young players, pass rushers Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck long term.
The Giants also could lose safety Gibril Wilson and linebacker Reggie Torbor, who filled in admirably when Matthias Kiwanuka was injured. Like most smart teams, the Giants offer what they think players are worth and let them walk if they ask too much.
``If you can get it done, you get it done. If not, you try to do your best with the draft,'' says general manager Jerry Reese, who certainly did his best last season. ``It's different every year.''
New England, whose 18-0 run was ended by the Giants in the Super Bowl, does the same.
The Patriots let wide receivers David Givens and Deion Branch go - Branch in a trade that brought back an extra first-round pick - and neither has performed as well in Tennessee (Givens) or Seattle (Branch).
This year, they have two of the most attractive free agents: WR Randy Moss and CB Asante Samuel.
Protected last year by the franchise player tag, Samuel is almost sure to go on the market, hoping to match or top the $80 million contract that fellow cornerback Nate Clements got from San Francisco last season.
Buyer beware: the 49ers, who went on a spending spree last season in hopes of returning to contention, finished 5-11.
Moss, who rejuvenated a declining career with the Patriots, setting a single-season record for touchdown catches with 23, is likely to stay, assuming New England pays market value, which could be $8-10 million per season with $20 million or more in guaranteed money.
Why leave? Moss tends to lose attention on mediocre or bad teams and if he goes elsewhere, he won't have Tom Brady throwing to him and a team almost guaranteed to at least win the AFC East.
Dallas, a winning team with a good QB, reportedly is interested in teaming Moss with Terrell Owens, a pairing of two huge egos that would be fun to watch, but probably not for Cowboys fans.
There are other ``name'' free agents available, notably Chicago linebacker Lance Briggs, Pittsburgh guard Alan Faneca and a pair of potentially good pass rushers in Justin Smith of Cincinnati and Antwan Odom of Tennessee.
But Smith, the fourth overall pick in 2001, has a so-so 43 1/2 sacks in seven seasons and Briggs, protected as the Bears' franchise player last season, may not be as productive without Brian Urlacher next to him.
Another attractive free agent is San Diego RB Michael Turner, who has averaged 5.5 yards a carry as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup the past four years. Turner is the real deal, but this year's draft is loaded at running back and teams needing help at that position might fill it with a younger, cheaper rookie.
Other teams will pick up veterans cut to make cap room, as Dallas did with former Dolphin Zach Thomas.
Like the 34-year-old Thomas, many of those are aging, injury prone or both, like Jevon Kearse, released by the Eagles on Thursday and 34-year-old Kevin Carter, cut by Tampa Bay on Wednesday.
One player getting attention is 30-year-old tight end Alge Crumpler, a former Pro Bowler and one of many veteran Falcons purged by a team that needs a fresh start.
Ultimately, the best way to approach free agency is to find a player who fits both your scheme and your budget and go after him. In some cases, it might be a veteran quarterback to use as a backup. Todd Collins, who replaced an injured Jason Campbell and led the Redskins to the playoffs, is available.
Yet, even teams that need help are cautious.
``We have a lot of needs,'' Panthers general manager Marty Hurney says. ``We have a lot of areas that we want to improve in. It's just what comes up and is the right fit.''
Teams with fewer holes might do well to imitate the Super Bowl winner
The Giants had a very quiet offseason in 2007.
Look how they finished.
 

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