No new Collective Bargaining Agreement? No problem.
Even under different labor rules, it was business as usual at the start of the NFL's free-agent signing period. The top unrestricted players were quickly signed. NFL owners pleading poverty in CBA talks with the players union still found cash to tender record-setting contracts to free agents at three positions (defensive end, inside linebacker and safety). And the restricted free agent market – which is flooded this year with veterans who just completed their fourth and fifth NFL seasons – once again registered no significant movement as teams tried filling their needs with players who wouldn't require draft-pick compensation.
That's not to say this past weekend was void of any surprises. The normally tight-fisted Chicago Bears guaranteed $53 million in salaries to three free agents, the most notable being defensive end Julius Peppers. The Washington Redskins – a team expected to go gaga with at least one major acquisition in an uncapped season – were shockingly conservative.
There also was one of the bloodiest 24-hour roster purges in league history as teams shed declining big-name veterans and their salaries. Some cuts were expected like running backs Thomas Jones (New York Jets) and Brian Westbrook (Philadelphia). The axing of Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and San Diego nose tackle Jamal Williams wasn't.
Here's my take on the biggest winners and losers in free agency so far as well as a look at some big names still looking for a home.
Chicago: Without their first- and second-round picks in April's draft, the Bears needed to make something happen in free agency to give head coach Lovie Smith a legitimate shot at keeping his job beyond 2010. General manager Jerry Angelo delivered by landing Peppers, running back Chester Taylor (Minnesota) and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna (San Diego).
By guaranteeing $42 million of his six-year contract, Peppers is expected to make a Richard Dent-type impact on Chicago's pass rush. He also will need to justify the payoff by giving more consistent effort than he did in Carolina. Bears management regards Taylor as a poor man's Marshall Faulk in new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's latest attempt to recreate the "Greatest Show on Turf." Manumaleuna, a crushing blocker, played under Martz in St. Louis when beginning his NFL career in 2001.
Critics will say that signing three players in their 30s to big-money contracts is a sign of desperation. They're right. But if this gamble pays dividends and quarterback Jay Cutler can rebound from a miserable first season in Chicago, the Bears should give Minnesota and Green Bay a run for their money in 2010. If not, Smith won't have to worry about the fallout because he won't be around anyway.
Joe Flacco: The Baltimore Ravens quarterback didn't get a new contract, but he does have a new No. 1 wide receiver thanks to general manager Ozzie Newsome. The Ravens pried Anquan Boldin away from Arizona (finally) for two mid-round draft choices. They also instantly rewarded Boldin with a four-year, $28 million contract extension. Despite registering a fourth career 1,000-yard receiving campaign in 2009, Boldin's stock had slipped because of age (he turns 30 in October) and an extensive injury history. The Ravens, though, felt a Boldin trade was a better option than signing Terrell Owens, Kevin Walter or Antonio Bryant in free agency. I don't blame them. Combined with the prior offseason signing of Donte' Stallworth, Flacco should have a better collection of receiving targets that in his first two NFL seasons.
Miami: In 2008, the Dolphins lost a bidding war to the New York Jets for Calvin Pace. Bill Parcells and Co. weren't going to let another talented Arizona linebacker slip away. Miami inked Karlos Dansby to a five-year, $43 million contract that includes $23 million in guaranteed money. Dansby could make the same kind of impact at inside linebacker in Miami's 3-4 defense that James Farrior did when signing with Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2002. Miami's next target is free safety, with hard-hitting Steelers starter Ryan Clark potentially signing as early as Monday. The re-signing of quarterback Chad Pennington also gives Miami extra security behind youngster Chad Henne. The Dolphins still need a veteran wide receiver, nose tackle and pass-catching tight end but are off to a good offseason start in filling their holes.
Dunta Robinson: The guy who wrote "Pay me, Rick" on his shoes last season as a message to Houston general manager Rick Smith got his dough, but it didn't come from the Texans. Robinson snubbed a Texans contract offer with $21 million in guaranteed money to test the market. That was a good gamble. Robinson scored $22.5 million guaranteed from Atlanta, which was seeking a shutdown cornerback for a weak secondary. Combined with the re-signing of projected nickel cornerback Brian Williams, Atlanta is now deep enough that Chris Houston – a 2007 second-round draft bust – will likely get traded to Detroit for late-round compensation.
Also benefitting from Robinson's deal is Leigh Bodden, whose value as the second-best cornerback on the market has now skyrocketed.
New York Jets: The franchise believes it has acquired a shutdown cornerback to complement Darrelle Revis. I'm not drinking the green Kool-Aid. San Diego knew what it was doing when trading Antonio Cromartie for a 2011 second- or third-round pick (depending on a play-time threshold). Cromartie showed all the earmarks of becoming one of the NFL's most dominant defenders after a 10-interception season in 2007, but he hasn't gone back to the Pro Bowl since. Cromartie has struggled with injuries and tackling while developing the reputation as being difficult and un-coachable behind the scenes in San Diego. Cromartie's paternity issues also are such a mess that he had to receive a $500,000 advance on his 2010 salary from the Jets. New York general manager Mike Tannenbaum believes a scenery change will get Cromartie back on track. We'll see soon enough, as opposing quarterbacks aren't going to be throwing Revis' way.
New York Giants: In a discussion of the NFL's best safeties, Antrell Rolle wouldn't crack the Top Three. But that didn't keep the Giants from making Rolle the highest-paid safety in NFL history with a five-year, $37 million contract that includes $15 million guaranteed. One general manager I spoke with seconded my belief that Rolle was a good safety but not the same kind of impact defender as Dansby. This might explain why Miami dropped out of the bidding when Rolle's overall asking price exceeded $30 million.
Darren Sharper: He's a savvy leader coming off the best season of his 13-year NFL career for a Super Bowl winner. But at age 34, Sharper isn't going to land the kind of lucrative contract that his play warrants. As each day passes in free agency, New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis looks wiser and wiser for not using a $6 million franchise tag on Sharper. Barring an unexpected windfall from elsewhere, it looks like Loomis will have a chance to re-sign Sharper for a lot less.
Chan Gailey: Your new team is taking the massive undertaking of switching to a 3-4 defense with 4-3 personnel while also needing to upgrade the offensive line and wide receiver corps. So what did Buffalo accomplish in the first three days of free agency? Bupkis. The only player to take a visit -- journeyman offensive lineman Wade Smith – left to meet with Houston without signing a contract. No wonder Mike Shanahan and Bill Cowher didn't want the Bills head coaching job that Gailey eventually accepted.
Jake Delhomme: He never did rebound from a dreadful playoff performance against Arizona in January 2009. But ironically, the Cardinals would actually be a perfect landing spot for the best quarterback currently on the free-agent market. Arizona could use a veteran presence to replace the retired Kurt Warner behind new starter Matt Leinart. Who knows? Maybe the 35-year-old Delhomme could reinvent himself playing under Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt just like Warner did in his final three NFL seasons.
Thomas Jones: I'm not big on 30-something running backs. The Jets obviously aren't either, releasing the 32-year-old Jones following his best season rather than paying a $3.3 million roster bonus. Jones, though, is a workout warrior who is an exception to the rule. He is taking a free-agent visit Monday with Kansas City. If the Chiefs were wise, they wouldn't let Jones leave without signing a contract. He would form a standout rushing tandem with emerging youngster Jamaal Charles. Jones is drawing more free-agent interest than LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook, both of whom have age and injury concerns respectively.
Kevin Mawae: Another oldie-but-goodie, the 39-year-old Mawae is such a sound technician and good athlete that he can still handle younger defenders. The NFLPA president also provides outstanding leadership and guidance to young linemen. On paper, Buffalo would be a nice fit for Mawae because current starter Geoff Hangartner can also play guard.
Terrell Owens: Ocho Cinco and Ocho Uno in the same locker room? Don't be surprised. The receiver-starved Cincinnati Bengals are taking a long look at Owens to pair with Chad Ocho Cinco. I'm not sure how much better the 36-year-old Owens would make Cincinnati at this point in his career, but the potential T.O.-Ocho Cinco end-zone celebrations would be a hoot.