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Small Market Means Big Cash for Free Agents

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2005; Page D04

The NFL's free agent market opens today with a group of available players that includes a few headliners but, coaches and front office executives around the league say, probably not enough talent to satisfy all the teams that plan to be active bidders. That could send players' price tags soaring as clubs compete for the relatively few high-impact performers on the market.

"It's not a tremendously deep free agent pool," New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi said, "so it's going to get expensive."

Top Unrest. Free Agents

Player, Pos.Team

Kendrell Bell, LB Steelers

Derrick Burgess, DE Eagles

Plaxico Burress, WR Steelers

Kevin Carter, DT cut by Titans

Jason Ferguson, DT Jets

Edgerton Hartwell, LB Ravens

Reggie Hayward, DE Broncos

LaMont Jordan, RB Jets

Ty Law, CB cut by Patriots

Derrick Mason, WR cut by Titans

Kareem McKenzie, T Jets

Samari Rolle, CB cut by Titans

Jeremiah Trotter, LB Eagles

Kurt Warner, QB Giants

Pat Williams, DT Bills

_____NFL Basics_____
Team index
NFL Section
_____Mark Maske's NFL Insider_____
Clarett's Draft Stock Drops (washingtonpost.com, Feb 28, 2005)
Draft Lacks Marquee Players at the Top (washingtonpost.com, Feb 25, 2005)
Vikings Getting the Short End of the Stick (washingtonpost.com, Feb 24, 2005)

Some teams didn't wait, having signed players who had been released by other clubs scrambling to get under the $85.5 million salary cap by yesterday's deadline -- and thus eligible to be signed before the unrestricted free agents who hit the market today. Quarterback Drew Bledsoe, signed by the Dallas Cowboys after being released by the Buffalo Bills, and wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad, added by the Chicago Bears after being cut by the Carolina Panthers, are off the market.

Other teams planned to move quickly by beginning contract negotiations overnight, when the market officially opened after midnight. There was a mad rush of signings in the first few days of free agency last year, and that could be duplicated this week. This year's unrestricted free agent market is thin at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, but teams believe there are solid players available at cornerback and on the offensive and defensive lines.

Cornerback has become the most expensive position in the league, in part because top players have become even more valuable since the league implemented the new passing-friendly rules. There was a run of big-money free agent signings at the position last year, and that likely will continue. The pool of available cornerbacks got deeper when two prominent players -- the New England Patriots' Ty Law and the Tennessee Titans' Samari Rolle -- were released to join a group of unrestricted free agents that includes the Washington Redskins' Fred Smoot, the Baltimore Ravens' Gary Baxter and the Seattle Seahawks' Ken Lucas.

The cornerback signings again could be for eye-catching numbers. "Those are going to be big contracts," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay said. "They just are."

There is talent available along the defensive line, with tackles Kevin Carter of Tennessee, Jason Ferguson of the New York Jets and Pat Williams of the Bills and ends Reggie Hayward of the Denver Broncos, Derrick Burgess of the Philadelphia Eagles, Chike Okeafor of the Seahawks and Marques Douglas of the Ravens. Middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter probably will re-sign with Philadelphia, where he revived his Pro Bowl career this past season, but fellow linebackers Kendrell Bell of Pittsburgh, Edgerton Hartwell of Baltimore and Dexter Coakley, who was released by the Cowboys, will be highly coveted.

There are no premium left tackles on the market. But there still is an abundance of competent offensive linemen, with guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle of Green Bay, Rick DeMulling of Indianapolis, Jermane Mayberry of Philadelphia, Ben Hamilton of Denver and Casey Rabach -- who played center last year for Baltimore -- and tackles Jonas Jennings of Buffalo, Kareem McKenzie of the Jets and Fred Miller of the Titans.

The pickings are especially slim at tailback and quarterback. LaMont Jordan backed up Curtis Martin with the Jets but probably will be the most sought-after running back on the market, with the Colts' Edgerrin James and the Seahawks' Shaun Alexander among the dozen players league-wide off the market thanks to franchise-player tags. There are veteran quarterbacks available -- like Kurt Warner, Jeff Garcia, Brad Johnson, Vinny Testaverde and Jay Fiedler -- but they mostly will be pursued for backup jobs. With Muhammad gone, the top wideouts left are the Steelers' Plaxico Burress, and Derrick Mason, who was cut as part of the Titans' salary-cap purge.

The restricted free agent market opens with players such as Eagles tailback Brian Westbrook available, but teams can retain their restricted free agents by matching any offer sheets they sign with other clubs. The trade market also opens today, and deals agreed to -- like wide receiver Randy Moss going from Minnesota to Oakland and defensive tackle Gerard Warren heading from Cleveland to Denver -- become official. At least two players with their clubs' franchise-player tags, James and Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson, could be shopped by their teams in trade talks.

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