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It's a Year for Second-Line Free Agents
It's a Year for Second-Line Free Agents
By DAVE GOLDBERG
AP Football Writer
Drew Bledsoe has signed with Dallas and Muhsin Muhammad with the Bears. Ty Law has drawn interest from several teams. The Tennessee Six, especially Samari Rolle and Derrick Mason, are hot commodities on the free-agent market.
As the signing period begins Wednesday, the players most in demand are those who have been released by their former employers or are about to be - as good or better than the rest of the free agents.
The reason: most teams now recognize it's best to keep your own, especially your stars. So good players go on the market only when there are salary cap issues or personality pressures - as with Randy Moss, whose trade from Minnesota to Oakland most likely will be made official in the next couple of days.
This year, the best potential free agents have been protected with franchise tags or re-signed, including offensive tackles Orlando Pace and Walter Jones; running backs Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander; wide receiver Jerry Porter; cornerback Charles Woodson, and quarterbacks Matt Hasselbeck and Drew Brees.
A lot of lesser players also are off the market as teams try to remain as cohesive as possible.
"The most important thing for us is having a certain group of guys to build around," said Washington coach Joe Gibbs, who last year inherited an offense of ill-fitting parts, the product of futile spending for half a decade by owner Daniel Snyder. "We want to honor those guys that played hard for us that we feel are Redskins."
Still, Washington is part of one of the early dramas of free agency: what to do with wide receiver Laveranues Coles, signed two years ago from the New York Jets and paid a $13 million signing bonus. Coles, who had 90 receptions last season, wants to be traded because he believes Gibbs' offense emphasizes the run too much.
The Redskins had talks with the Jets about sending him back in return for Santana Moss, but that now seems unlikely. If they release him, it could cost them more than $7 million in salary-cap space because of the prorated bonus.
The prototypical 2005 free agent may be Buffalo's Jonas Jennings, an offensive tackle who will probably be in demand simply because numerous teams need help at that position and he's probably the best remaining available tackle. He'll command big money even though he's far below Jones and Pace.
"My feeling is that because there are more top players being franchised or being retained by their clubs, more money will be thrown at fewer players. It will be expensive," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who needs a tackle but is not sure he is willing to pay Jennings' asking price.
The marquee name on the market is Plaxico Burress, the Pittsburgh wide receiver.
But he also carries a "buyer beware" tag. He's been inconsistent, and the Steelers declined to protect him as a franchise player - similar to three-time champion New England and NFC titleist Philadelphia, the Steelers often are willing to let their own go if they aren't worth the price.
Another Steeler on the market will be linebacker Kendrell Bell, the defensive rookie of the year in 2001. Since then, he has spent more time in the trainer's room than on the field and on Tuesday, Pittsburgh re-signed Larry Foote, who replaced him last season.
The Patriots already have cut Law, the anchor of their secondary for a decade. That was for salary cap reasons - he was due $12.5 million next season.
But New England also recognized that Law is 31 and that the Patriots won the Super Bowl last season without him - he missed the second half of the season with a broken foot. That injury is making some teams wary.
At this point, Law is probably only the second-most desirable cornerback after Rolle, one of six veterans released by the Titans, who need to lop the $27 million they cost off their salary cap number. There have been reports that Washington wants him, although that would be silly and is probably untrue - if they signed him, they would reopen their annual revolving door and Fred Smoot, their best cornerback, would go.
Mason, whose 96 receptions were second in the NFL last season, also will be in demand - probably the best receiver out there behind Burress. Still, he is likely to be overpaid - he is solid but was a possession receiver in a passing offense last year.
Hasselbeck and Brees are the best two of the group and both are franchise players, although Brees could be marketed by San Diego - which still sees Philip Rivers as its long-term quarterback. Bledsoe was cut by Buffalo and immediately snapped up by Dallas' Bill Parcells, who took him with the No. 1 overall pick for New England in 1993.
Jeff Garcia, released by Cleveland, could be reunited in Detroit with Steve Mariucci, who coached him in San Francisco, but only as a backup to Joey Harrington.
"He's had this system before and he's been productive, he's been to the Pro Bowl three times in a row in this system," Mariucci said of Garcia, who struggled with the coaching staff and the system in his only year in Cleveland.
And while Kurt Warner moves on from the Giants after helping to break in Eli Manning, Jay Fiedler could land in the Meadowlands to replace him as Manning's backup. The former Miami starter, a New York native, was a backup in Jacksonville in 1999 under Giants coach Tom Coughlin.
Will anyone have a huge impact?
Unlikely. Gibbs' comments echo Marv Levy, who was coaching in Buffalo when free agency began in 1993.
"I'd rather keep our own players. They know our system. Even if the newer player is a little better, he has to spend a lot of time learning what we're doing," Levy said.
In other words, buyer beware.