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pakowitz 02-27-2003 01:03 AM

Colvin heads strong group of free-agent LBs
 
http://espn.go.com/nfl/columns/pasqu...n/1514601.html


Faced with the first big decision of his burgeoning football career nearly a decade ago, Rosevelt Colvin made just one college visit, and signed on with Purdue as soon as a school official handed him a pen and the letter of intent and pointed to the dotted line.

This time around, the Chicago Bears standout linebacker acknowledged, he figures to be a little more deliberate in plotting the course for the next step in his NFL career.

"When I went to college," said Colvin, a four-year veteran who will become an unrestricted free agent at 12:01 a.m. Friday, "I was naïve. I didn't realize I could leave that visit, check out some other places, and still sign at Purdue. So for me, this is the first time I have an opportunity to pick and choose and I plan to enjoy it, to let people butter me up a little bit."

A three-year starter for the Bears, and coming off consecutive campaigns in which he notched 10½ sacks each, Colvin is apt to be dipped in more butter over the next few weeks than a steamed Maine lobster. In what is likely to be a blunted free-agent market, one where it appears that even the franchises with plenty of cap room will practice some degree of fiscal responsibility, the Chicago starter should be a hot commodity.

But he might be wise not to tarry too long in search of a perfect situation because, in an otherwise thin player pool, there is a glut of quality players at the linebacker position. And while teams should be willing to loosen up the purse strings for some of the top-shelf linebackers, a position beginning to regain its once-prominent status in the wake of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' victory in Super Bowl XXXVII, it might still be a buyer's market.

A self-described "defensive end in a linebacker's body," Colvin would be a nice fit in almost any system, but there is only one of him to go around. Not to worry, though, since the unrestricted linebacker pool is so rich and seems to have a candidate to fill most clubs' needs.

That will play to the advantage of teams trying to augment their linebacker corps since, in some cases, there will be a viable alternative if the club can't land its first choice at the position. Certainly there are some positions where there aren't more than one or two possibilities worth a sizeable investment.

"We're all getting smarter now about free agency," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "Most teams realize you're better off just putting money into your own players, to maintain stability, and that means a lot of good players never even make it to the (open) market. The cupboard is about as bare this year as I've seen it."

But even with the decision by the Cincinnati Bengals to designate Takeo Spikes as a "transition" free agent, and the Atlanta Falcons' resigning of star Keith Brooking last Thursday, the linebacker shelves are well-stocked.

For the most part, free agency in 2003 is like a rummage sale, where most of the best bargains have been snatched up and the remnant is dubious. But the linebacker position has more proven prospects than suspects.

Want one of the league's best all-around linebackers, even if fans outside the Pacific Northwest may have never heard of him? Anthony Simmons of Seattle is on the market. Ditto weak-side standout Mike Peterson, who led the Colts in tackles two of the past three seasons, and who is just 26 years old, and underrated Mike Maslowski of Kansas City.

Need an athletic 'backer who can chase the ball? Then maybe Philadelphia free agent Shawn Barber is your guy. How about a veteran pass-rush guy, coming off an injury, but who might be available in an incentive-laden deal? Take a look at Jamir Miller, who will be cut loose by Cleveland, which isn't going to pay him the gaudy $14 million roster bonus he is due on Saturday.

"It's the one position where you can honestly say there are some players," said Buffalo Bills general manager Tom Donahoe, who definitely wants to add a quality linebacker to his defensive unit. "There are a lot of interesting (linebackers) out there. It's pretty deep. Other positions can't say the same."

In fact, at least 26 linebackers who started a minimum of eight games in '02 for their current teams will be unrestricted free agents, and a few more could be thrown into the pool by the beginning of the signing period.

That doesn't mean all of them will hit the jackpot financially.

Colvin, Peterson, Barber, Simmons and Shelton Quarles and Alshermond Singleton, both of Tampa Bay, along with Detroit's Chris Claiborne might all sign contracts worth $3 million or more annually. Even a few of those players might not, however, meet their financial expectations.

A first-round choice in 1999, Claiborne was noticeably overweight last year, and the Lions didn't make much of an effort to retain him. Claiborne might be a player but most teams don't consider him a playmaker, and the difference between those two levels will definitely show up in a veteran's tax bracket.

Quarles and Singleton are excellent players in Tampa Bay, but what other teams have to project is how effective they would be in a foreign system, a key element in a veteran's free-agent market price. The same is true for Jay Foreman and Jeff Posey, both starters in Houston last year, both players who benefited from the Texans' 3-4 defensive front.

Said one NFC general manager: "You have to say to yourself with those two guys, 'Can they play in a 4-3 (defense)? Can Posey get eight sacks playing a different way? Will Foreman be as good playing, say, the strong-side in a 4-3 as he was playing inside linebacker in the 3-4?' I mean, we are pretty much talking about two journeymen who clicked when they found the system that best fit their abilities."

In a spring when it is anticipated that most teams will be attempting to find bargains at every position, there could be a few cubic zirconiums among the diamonds in the linebacker pool.

Out of football in 2001, Cornell Brown returned to the Ravens, started 14 games and played well. Keith Newman was an underachiever in Buffalo, but has talent, and might flourish with a change of scenery. The Chiefs' Maslowski is a cut above average.

The prize catches among the linebackers, though, figure to be weak-side players such as Peterson, Colvin, Simmons and Barber.

A month ago, it seemed Barber would return to the Eagles on a long-term deal, but negotiations broke down. Forced to pick between designating Pro Bowl performer Walter Jones or Simmons as a "franchise" player, Seattle opted for the offensive tackle. As much as Chicago wanted to keep Colvin, it already has big money tied up in another linebacker, Warrick Holdman.

The mystery, though, is why Indianapolis made virtually no attempt to try to retain Peterson, a run-around defender, one who seems in line with the way that the position is evolving. A former second-round draft choice and three-year starter, it certainly appears Peterson's best football is still ahead of him, but that it won't be played with the Colts.

Team president Bill Polian, in explaining the decision to allow Peterson onto the free-agent market and not use a "franchise" tag on him, emphasized that such designation markers are intended for great players and not good ones. The implication, that Peterson isn't yet a special player, didn't sit well with the young linebacker.

Rest assured, there will be a franchise that values him more highly than do the Colts, and who will be ready to reward him early in free agency.


Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com


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