Free agent class lacks excitement

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

Here's a small bit of advice for those fans who are intrigued by free agency in the NFL this time every year.

Don't blink, you might miss it all.

The NFL free agency Class of 2008 reads more like the attendance roll from the school in "Little House on the Prairie." Sure, there's some intrigue to go with the likes of wide receiver Randy Moss, guard Alan Faneca and cornerback Asante Samuel.

But to put all of this in perspective, of the top 10 free agents as rated by a group of 10 NFL general managers and/or coaches, two are kickers and one is a fullback.

Not exactly the types of players who change a team.

"No, there just isn't much out there," Kansas City Chiefs President Carl Peterson said. "Teams have done a really good job of keeping their own players, signing guys to longer contracts earlier. Everybody has become a lot smarter about handling the (salary) cap."

While that's true to an extent, the drop in top-flight free agents has a lot more to do with the explosion in the salary cap over the past three years. Now at $116 million per team, the league is so flush with cash that the hard decisions of years ago are gone.

As the contracts of star players start to rise, teams have an easier time keeping those players. For instance, aging Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor isn't a problem for Miami this year (at least for now) despite his $7.5 million base salary.

Teams are more judicious about letting veterans go because they don't have to. In past years, many teams scrambled at this time of the year to get under the salary cap, either restructuring contracts or simply cutting good players.

"It's just not an issue," veteran agent Gary Wichard said. "Yeah, a team might have a guy or two who's making a little more than they really think he's worth, but the question they face if they let him go is, 'Do you really want to dump him and risk having somebody else take him?'–"

Here's the proof: With a week remaining before the start of free agency, only three teams were over the salary cap for next season. In the past, teams were regularly well over the cap. In fact, Indianapolis, a team regularly at or over the cap, was able to re-sign tight end Dallas Clark (six years, $36 million) and guard Ryan Lilja (five years, $20 million) last week.

"Our plan is always to keep our own players, so this has been successful for us," Indianapolis President Bill Polian said. "I'm not interested in what free agency has to offer."

No one really is this year. After Moss, Samuel, Faneca and linebacker Lance Briggs, other top players just aren't very impressive. For instance, defensive end Justin Smith, who had only two sacks last season and has never had more than 8½ in his seven-year career with Cincinnati, is expected to strike it rich.

"Yeah, that's really what I want to pay for," a NFC general manager said, his voice full of sarcasm. "The stuff you're seeing in the market is really just awful, for the most part. But somebody is going to pay. The money is there and very few teams ever resist."

At the high end, Samuel is hoping to get a contract that will feature $26 million in guaranteed money and an average of probably more than $10 million per year. Despite being 31 years old, Faneca could get a contract in excess of $8 million per year, only a year after three lesser guards got an average of $7 million.

In fact, look for the structure of Faneca's deal to surpass the cash flow Dallas gave guard Leonard Davis last season. As part of a seven-year, $49.5 million deal, Davis received $24 million in the first three years of the deal. Faneca has spent the past two years complaining about his contract with Pittsburgh, and one of several teams, including the New York Jets, Miami, Atlanta and Arizona could make a run at him with a lot of cash up front.

In the case of Samuel and Faneca, the contracts have been earned through years of productive play. For others, there's little more than flashes of production. Smith is a prime example. His career high in sacks came as a rookie in 2001. Despite playing on the right end for most of his career, he has never been a dominant pass rusher.

But he's the best of a mediocre lot of pass rushers. Aside from Smith, Tommy Kelly, Antwan Odom and Bobby McCray are the only players with any significant pass rush skills. All of them are flawed. Kelly has some inside pass rushing ability, which makes him intriguing, but he's coming off a season with only one sack.

Odom had eight sacks last season, but he did that playing opposite Pro Bowl end Kyle Vanden Bosch and tackle Albert Haynesworth. McCray had 10 sacks in 2006, but had only 11½ in his other three seasons combined.

Likewise, the only offensive tackle of great note is 34-year-old Flozell Adams, who is expected to re-sign with Dallas. The next best offensive lineman could be former first rounder Kwame Harris, who was used as a backup last year with San Francisco.

Of the positions with depth, safety leads the way. But that's hardly amazing as it's considered one of the easiest positions to fill.

Bottom line …

"There's not much to get excited about," Arizona general manager Rod Graves said.

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