Few impact players available through free agency
By John Clayton
For a month, general managers and coaches have stared at a potential free agent list that is unspectacular and could get worse by Thursday if other top free agents re-sign. Years of working in this system have made teams more efficient in re-signing their own top players. That's watered down the list of available free agents each March. The flipside is that the list of released players could end up being better than the free-agent crop.
Teams aren't going crazy in free agency. Last year, roughly 30 players received contracts in excess of $3 million a year to move to different teams. This year might not be different even though there are more teams with cap room.
Here's a quick overview.
David Boston of Arizona is the headliner. He has the deep speed that teams can't often find, and he appears to have recovered from knee and foot problems from last year. Unfortunately, there aren't more Bostons on the list. There is a big drop-off to the next level of receiver -- Kevin Dyson of the Titans and Washington's Derrius Thompson.
San Diego's Curtis Conway, Green Bay's Terry Glenn and Chicago's Marcus Robinson could be added from the list of cut receivers. Another Arizona Cardinal, Jake Plummer, is the premier quarterback available. If he doesn't re-sign in Arizona, he could end up in Denver.
Jake Delhomme of the Saints has the eye of the Panthers. Former Steelers Kordell Stewart and Charlie Batch, Cincinnati's Gus Frerotte and Tampa Bay's Rob Johnson are bargains available for close to the minimum. If Emmitt Smith of the Cowboys and Stephen Davis of the Redskins are cut, they'll top a limited list at running back, which features Olandis Gary of the Broncos and Stacey Mack of the Jaguars, who were backups.
There are plenty of good fullbacks -- Jon Ritchie of the Raiders, Lorenzo Neal of the Bengals, Richie Anderson of the Jets and Cecil Martin of the Eagles. Ernie Conwell of the Rams is the best tight end in free agency, but he is expected to re-sign at some point. Others such as Dan Campbell of the Giants, Cam Cleeland of the Patriots, Reggie Kelly of the Falcons and Jed Weaver of the Dolphins will struggle to get more than $1 million a year.
Perhaps the deepest position is the offensive line. At left tackle, a team can grab Pittsburgh's Wayne Gandy, Dallas' Flozell Adams, Luke Petitgout of the Giants and Tampa Bay's Roman Oben, although Petitgout and Oben may re-sign before the weekend. Houston's Ryan Young and Mike Rosenthal of the Giants are interesting right tackles.
Randy Thomas of the Jets tops the guard list, and if he doesn't re-sign, he'll end up in Dallas or Tampa Bay. Oakland's Mo Collins, Dallas' Solomon Page and Tennessee's Zach Piller are the top young guards. At center, Jeff Saturday of the Colts could be joined by veterans Jeff Christy of the Bucs and Tim Ruddy of the Dolphins if they don't take paycuts.
This is the weakest cornerback class in free-agency history. The safety market will be enhanced by slower, hard-hitting safeties who aren't great in coverage. But if you need linebackers and big defensive tackles, this is the place to shop.
Look at the linebackers. Anthony Simmons of the Seahawks, Mike Peterson of the Colts and Rosevelt Colvin of the Bears are the top three. They are young, fast and can make impact. Chris Claiborne of the Lions and Shelton Quarles of the Bucs offer two different types of middle linebackers. Sam Cowart of the Jets and Kevin Hardy of the Cowboys could be added if they don't restructure their contracts by Friday.
It was surprising that the Eagles didn't franchise defensive end Hugh Douglas because there aren't many pass-rushers who can make an immediate impact. San Francisco's Chike Okeafor and Seattle's Antonio Cochran are young ends who could be signed, but they don't provide the consistent pass rush.
The tackle list is interesting and deep. It includes Washington's Daryl Gardener, Dallas' Brandon Noble, Tennessee's John Thornton along with a long list of veteran cuts -- Oakland's Sam Adams, Denver's Chester McGlockton, New Orleans' Grady Jackson, Denver's Keith Traylor and Atlanta's Shane Dronett.
There is a diversity of safeties for teams to pick and choose. Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson of Tampa Bay provides coverage skills and hitting. Kwamie Lassiter was the Cardinals' franchise player last season. For run-stoppers and play-makers, there are soon-to-be released Rodney Harrison of San Diego, New Orleans' Sammy Knight, Pittsburgh's Lee Flowers, Washington's Sam Shade and Anthony Dorsett of Oakland.
For cornerbacks, forget about it. DrÃƒÂƒÃ‚Â© Bly of the Rams is only one of three in free agency who started more than eight games last season. The rest of the cast of cornerbacks are third-down specialists and backups. Potential released players Tyrone Williams of the Packers and Alex Molden of the Chargers might draw more interest than the free agents.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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