GOLDBERG ON FOOTBALL: Free-agent market isn't what it seems Print
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Wednesday, 05 March 2008 11:02
NFL Headline News

 Before free agency started a week ago, Tennessee general manager Mike Reinfeldt suggested that in a market filled mostly with midlevel players, the best strategy would be to sit back and let things settle down.
After the Titans lost five players and signed just tight end Alge Crumpler, defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth begged to differ.
``We are not doing anything. We are really just making ourselves worse the way I look at it,'' Haynesworth, protected as the Titans' franchise player, told The Tennessean. ``It doesn't look like we're trying to get better.''
Haynesworth, like countless impatient fans around the country, might be better off heeding his GM's words and waiting. Because, for the most part, the first week of free agency has been marked by teams overpaying players who are average, slightly better than that or over the hill.
Exhibit A: The New York Jets, who are trying to compete in their division with New England and in their region with the Super Bowl champion Giants.
They guaranteed $21 million to G Alan Faneca; $20 million to DE/LB Calvin Pace; and signed OL Damien Woody to a five-year, $25 million deal. They also traded for DT Kris Jenkins, an overweight underachiever in Carolina the past two seasons and renegotiated his deal to give him $20 million straight up.
Finally, they traded LB Jonathan Vilma, a Pro Bowler just two seasons ago, to New Orleans for just a fourth-round pick and left DT Dewayne Robertson, the fourth overall pick in the 2003 draft, in limbo because neither fits Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense.
Exhibit B: Cincinnati, Arizona and St. Louis. Those three clubs threw $91 million at three of Haynesworth's ex-teammates - DEs Antwan Odom and Travis LaBoy and G Jacob Bell. OK players all, but just OK - Odom and LaBoy benefited by playing on a line with Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Exhibit C: San Francisco, which apparently didn't learn after signing CB Nate Clements to an $80 million deal last year and finishing 5-11. This time they guaranteed $20 million to ``pass rusher'' Justin Smith, the fourth overall pick in the 2001 draft, but a guy who had just 43 1/2 sacks in seven seasons with the Bengals.
Those teams should consider that the Giants, Colts, Steelers and Patriots, the last four Super Bowl winners, have been moderate free-agent players at best.
Last year the Giants signed just one, linebacker Kawika Mitchell, for $1 million for one year. He played well, but so did six of the eight draft choices who made the team, including fifth-round TE Kevin Boss and seventh-round RB Ahmad Bradshaw, who along with CB Aaron Ross, WR Steve Smith and DT Jay Alford all had big plays in the Super Bowl.
Mitchell was allowed to leave for Buffalo this year, in part because the Giants think LB Gerris Wilkinson, a third-rounder in 2006, has long-term potential. New York also lost S Gibril Wilson to Oakland for $16 million in guaranteed money and replaced him with veteran Sammy Knight for about $14.5 million less, figuring the on-field difference isn't that great for a short-term fix with youngster Michael Johnson in the wings.
The Giants have spent in the past for productive free agents: WR Plaxico Burress, LB Antonio Pierce, C Shaun O'Hara and OT Kareem McKenzie.
But all came for reasonable amounts and most of the time New York prefers to pay its own players.
The Giants have extended Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck, Jeremy Shockey and O'Hara. They'll probably do the same for Pierce and Burress and at some point will pay more than $30 million in guaranteed money to Eli Manning.
The Steelers spent their money for QB Ben Roethlisberger, a $36 million guarantee. That meant they had to let Faneca go, leaving a hole in a shaky offensive line. But they rationalized it because he's 31 and may have slipped a bit. They also let Burress leave after the 2004 season, perhaps a mistake because he's matured into a more consistent and disciplined player with the Giants.
New England, the dominant team of this decade, has never been afraid to let key players go, the main exhibits being WRs Deion Branch and David Givens. This year it was CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay. Samuel, considered the premier free agent on the market, got $57 million with a $20 million guarantee from the Eagles.
Indianapolis rarely signs free agents but lets plenty go. Last year, the Colts lost four defensive starters, yet the defense improved. This year, they re-signed S Bob Sanders, the defensive player of the year, TE Dallas Clark and G Ryan Lilja, then called it a day.
Some teams making big splashes with free agency seem to be doing it for publicity.
Jets GM Mike Tannebaum, who said a year ago ``our core philosophy is building through the draft'' now seems to have alienated some his remaining stars by throwing money around.
But he seems to have decided that he has to because of the Patriots and Giants, who have made the Jets almost invisible in their own area.
Samuel's signing wasn't out of character for the Eagles, who in the past have added the now departed Terrell Owens and Jevon Kearse. But they needed a wide receiver more than a cornerback and their flirtation with Randy Moss seems to have been done with the halfhearted knowledge that he would stay in Foxborough.
Still, a team that generally builds in all the right ways, needed some love.
After all, the Eagles play in a division with the Super Bowl winner and the team that had the NFC's best record (and T.O.) last season. And the media in Philadelphia, especially talk radio, are all Eagles all the time.
Most of the other teams that spent millions for mediocrity don't have that excuse.
 

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