Free agency not quick cure-all for suffering NFL teams

  • Article by: MARK CRAIG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 11, 2012 - 1:30 AM

The record of free-spending teams is not as impressive as those built from the ground up.

Houston defensive end Mario Williams (90) has two things in common with Peyton Manning: He is coming off injury, and he figures to land a megadeal in free agency.

Photo: David J. Phillip, Associated Press

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Before all of us overreact -- and oh, how you know we will -- let's try to remember that NFL free agency is a minefield that's best served when picked through judiciously rather than romped across with the misguided notion that the billionaire with the fattest wallet can buy the next Lombardi Trophy.

Through the years, several teams, most notably the Washington Redskins under owner Dan Snyder, have failed on the field and against the salary cap after succumbing to their combination of wealth and impatience. They've been declared "winners" of free agency only to end up losers when the objective competition begins in the fall.

Just eight months ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were considered the NFL's "Dream Team." They came out of the 4 1/2-month lockout and dived checkbook-first into a hurried free-agency period. Hitting home runs like Hank and Harmon, the Eagles walked off with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million) and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million), among others.

Meanwhile, the pundits were unkind to the New York Giants, another NFC East team, whose 2011 roster was built without General Manager Jerry Reese doing public cannonballs off the free-agency high dive.

One critic declared, "When your biggest news ... is signing [backup quarterback] David Carr, your team has issues. ... The Giants don't seem even interested in getting better through free agency."

As we all know, the Dream Team missed the playoffs and the Giants won their second Super Bowl in five seasons. Funny how often things work out that way in the NFL.

Funny how often the teams that build primarily through the draft -- the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots included -- win championships.

But here we go again. Free agency starts at 3 p.m. Tuesday. Several teams will have considerable cap room on players that are unwanted by their current teams. Although a team's salary cap figure can change quickly based on transactions made before free agency, at least 15 teams reportedly will have more than $20 million to spend, led by the Cincinnati Bengals at about $58 million.

In the NFC North, the Chicago Bears lead the way with about $27 million. The Vikings are about $24 million under the cap after clearing close to $14 million with Saturday's release of veterans Steve Hutchinson, Anthony Herrera and Cedric Griffin. The Packers have about $10 million to spend, while the Detroit Lions have about $2 million or less.

Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman will be selective in free agency but definitely will kick the tires on some of the younger models. Recently given final say on all personnel matters, he's made it clear he prefers using draft picks to fuel a youth movement in the wake of last year's 3-13 season. Rebuilding that sort of foundation typically doesn't mesh with the quick-fix nature of free agency, but that doesn't mean Spielman won't be looking for younger players at positions of need, particularly cornerback, receiver and -- given Saturday's transactions -- guard.

"You're hoping that you're always drafting and keeping the guys you draft as you bring them up through your system," Spielman said. "If you're able to keep those guys, I think that's the best way to do it.

"But if there is a free agent out there that you think is unique, or a trade like when we traded for Jared Allen, if something pops up like that, then you try to go ahead and do that if you can."

By last Monday, a record 21 teams had used their franchise tags to significantly reduce the strength of what might have been the best free-agency class ever. But two days later, the Indianapolis Colts released four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning into the free-agency pool. Because he was released, Manning was immediately available as the most high-profile free agent since Reggie White kicked off the current era of free agency in 1993.

Among those about to join Manning in signing a megadeal somewhere are Houston Texans defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams, an elite 27-year-old pass rusher who has missed 14 games because of injuries the past two seasons; New Orleans Saints left guard Carl Nicks, a 26-year-old multiple All-Pro destined to become the highest-paid guard in the league; San Diego Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, a 6-5, 230-pound No. 1 receiver with a 17.5-yard career average per catch; and Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, whose two NFL starts include franchise single-game passing records for touchdowns (six) and yards (480) in a season-ending victory over the Lions.

Also available are receiver and Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham of the Giants, Colts receivers Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, Saints receiver Marques Colston, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, a 25-year-old who had four interceptions in 2011.

Teams also have the option of dipping into restricted free agency. The most coveted player in that pool will be Steelers receiver Mike Wallace, a 25-year-old deep threat with 2,439 yards and 18 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The Steelers can match any offer and would get a first-round draft pick if they choose not to.

"This is a very big free-agency class," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "I do believe there is going to be a lot of movement because of the sheer numbers of this year's class. People really like that we're going back to having free agency before the draft, unlike last year. It allows us to make moves in free agency and it really takes the stress over the precariousness of how the draft is going to land."

Feel free to get excited as the flurry of activity begins on Tuesday. Just don't get too excited. Try to remember some of these guys:

• Larry Brown. The MVP of Super Bowl XXX, he went from the Dallas Cowboys to the Oakland Raiders in 1996. He had two interceptions in the Super Bowl and just one in his two seasons with the Raiders. He finally was released and rejoined the Cowboys.

• Javon Walker. In 2008, the Raiders simply ignored Walker's history of knee injuries with the Packers. They paid dearly for it. Walker made $21 million while lasting only 11 games in Oakland.

• Antonio Bryant. In 2010, the Bengals did the same thing when it came to Bryant's knee injury with the Cowboys the year before. Bryant was released along with his $8 million guarantee before the start of the season.

• Albert Haynesworth. The giant defensive tackle became the king of free-agent flops when he left the Tennessee Titans for the Redskins in 2009. He got a seven-year, $100 million deal with $41 million guaranteed.

Most, if not all of us, were very excited at the time. We instantly declared the Redskins a "winner" in free agency.

Haynesworth lasted two miserable seasons in Washington before being released. He had 6 1/2 sacks on two teams that finished last in the NFC East.

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  • Charting NFL free agency

    Saturday March 10, 2012

    This is a particularly picky ranking of 15 premium players who will be available in free agency.

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Toronto - D. Hutchison 12:05 PM
NY Yankees - M. Tanaka
Washington - S. Strasburg 12:10 PM
Miami - N. Eovaldi
NY Mets - J. deGrom 12:35 PM
Atlanta - E. Santana
Boston - J. Kelly 12:35 PM
Baltimore - M. Gonzalez
Milwaukee - W. Peralta 12:35 PM
Pittsburgh - V. Worley
Chicago WSox - J. Danks 12:40 PM
Tampa Bay - N. Karns
Cleveland - C. Kluber 1:10 PM
Minnesota - A. Swarzak
Detroit - R. Porcello 1:10 PM
Kansas City - J. Guthrie
Seattle - H. Iwakuma 1:10 PM
Houston - C. McHugh
Los Angeles - J. Wright 1:20 PM
Chicago Cubs - J. Turner
Texas - N. Tepesch 2:35 PM
LA Angels - C. Rasmus
Philadelphia - A. Burnett 3:05 PM
Oakland - S. Kazmir
San Francisco - R. Vogelsong 3:10 PM
San Diego - I. Kennedy
Arizona - W. Miley 3:10 PM
Colorado - C. Bergman
Cincinnati - A. Simon 7:05 PM
St. Louis - L. Lynn
San Diego 12:00 PM
Dallas 12:00 PM
St. Louis
Washington 12:00 PM
Houston 12:00 PM
NY Giants
Minnesota 12:00 PM
New Orleans
Tennessee 12:00 PM
Baltimore 12:00 PM
Green Bay 12:00 PM
Indianapolis 12:00 PM
Oakland 12:00 PM
New England
San Francisco 3:05 PM
Denver 3:25 PM
Kansas City 3:25 PM
Pittsburgh 7:30 PM
Chicago 9/22/14 7:30 PM
NY Jets
NY Giants 9/25/14 7:25 PM
Columbus 12:30 PM
Buffalo 4:00 PM
St. Louis 5:30 PM
Calgary 7:00 PM
Edmonton 7:00 PM
Connecticut 14 FINAL
So Florida 17
Old Dominion 45 FINAL
Rice 42
Troy 0 FINAL
(13) Georgia 66
Georgia Tech 27 FINAL
Virginia Tech 24
Eastern Mich 14 FINAL
(11) Michigan State 73
Iowa 24 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
Bowling Green 17 FINAL
(19) Wisconsin 68
Maryland 34 FINAL
Syracuse 20
Tulane 13 FINAL
Duke 47
Hawaii 12 FINAL
Colorado 21
Marshall 48 FINAL
Akron 17
North Carolina 41 FINAL
East Carolina 70
Army 21 FINAL
Wake Forest 24
Virginia 33 FINAL
(21) BYU 41
(6) Texas A&M 58 FINAL
Rutgers 31 FINAL
Navy 24
Central Mich 10 FINAL
Kansas 24
Utah 26 FINAL
Michigan 10
Florida 21 FINAL
(3) Alabama 42
Louisville 34 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 19 FINAL
Wyoming 20
Indiana 31 FINAL
(18) Missouri 27
San Jose St 7 FINAL
Minnesota 24
Texas State 35 FINAL
Illinois 42
Massachusetts 7 FINAL
Penn State 48
Georgia State 14 FINAL
Washington 45
Appalachian St 20 FINAL
Southern Miss 21
Miss State 34 FINAL
(8) LSU 29
Northern Ill 14 FINAL
Arkansas 52
Middle Tennessee 17 FINAL
Memphis 36
Utah State 14 FINAL
Arkansas State 21
Miami-Ohio 24 FINAL
Cincinnati 31
Idaho 24 FINAL
Ohio U 36
Ball State 23 FINAL
Toledo 34
(14) So Carolina 48 FINAL
Vanderbilt 34
(4) Oklahoma 45 FINAL
West Virginia 33
Ga Southern 28 FINAL
South Alabama 6
Houston 47
Miami-Florida 31 FINAL
(24) Nebraska 41
New Mexico 38 FINAL
New Mexico St 35
(22) Clemson 17 FINAL
(1) Florida State 23
California 45 FINAL
Arizona 49
San Diego St 7 FINAL
Oregon State 28
(2) Oregon 38 FINAL
Washington St 31
Louisiana 9 FINAL
Boise State 34
Texas Tech 9/25/14 6:30 PM
(25) Oklahoma State
Appalachian St 9/25/14 6:30 PM
Ga Southern
(12) UCLA 9/25/14 9:00 PM
(15) Arizona State
Middle Tennessee 9/26/14 7:00 PM
Old Dominion
Fresno State 9/26/14 7:00 PM
New Mexico
(1) Florida State 9/27/14 2:00 AM
NC State
Duke 9/27/14 2:00 AM
North Carolina 9/27/14 2:00 AM
(22) Clemson
Texas-El Paso 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(20) Kansas State
Tennessee 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(13) Georgia
Vanderbilt 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Wyoming 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(11) Michigan State
Northwestern 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Penn State
TCU 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Iowa 9/27/14 11:00 AM
Tulane 9/27/14 11:00 AM
So Florida 9/27/14 11:00 AM
(19) Wisconsin
Colorado State 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Boston College
Western Mich 9/27/14 11:30 AM
Virginia Tech
Maryland 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Akron 9/27/14 12:30 PM
Bowling Green 9/27/14 2:00 PM
Arkansas 9/27/14 2:30 PM
(6) Texas A&M
Kent State 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Western Ky 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Minnesota 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest 9/27/14 2:30 PM
FIU 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Miami-Ohio 9/27/14 2:30 PM
Colorado 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Louisiana Tech 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(5) Auburn
Texas 9/27/14 3:00 PM
Temple 9/27/14 3:00 PM
(16) Stanford 9/27/14 3:15 PM
TX-San Antonio 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Fla Atlantic
South Alabama 9/27/14 4:00 PM
Cincinnati 9/27/14 5:00 PM
(23) Ohio State
Rice 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Southern Miss
(18) Missouri 9/27/14 6:00 PM
(14) So Carolina
Boise State 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Air Force
Central Mich 9/27/14 6:00 PM
Troy 9/27/14 6:00 PM
New Mexico St 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(8) LSU
Memphis 9/27/14 6:30 PM
(10) Ole Miss
Texas State 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Washington St 9/27/14 7:00 PM
(9) Notre Dame 9/27/14 7:00 PM
(7) Baylor 9/27/14 7:00 PM
Iowa State
UNLV 9/27/14 7:00 PM
San Diego St
Illinois 9/27/14 8:00 PM
(24) Nebraska
Oregon State 9/27/14 9:30 PM
(17) USC
Nevada 9/27/14 9:30 PM
San Jose St
Chivas USA 2:00 PM
Toronto FC
Toronto 40 FINAL
Brt Columbia 23
Edmonton 23 FINAL
Hamilton 25
Calgary 12:00 PM
Ottawa 3:00 PM
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