It's Franchise Tag Tuesday, and the NFL's free-agent caviar and champagne is running low. Plenty of left over bean dip, though.
OK, maybe it's not quite that bad. But those premonitions of a dozen All-Pros being available aren't going to come to fruition. As many as seven players whom we thought might hit the market won't, thanks to franchise tags on the likes of Drew Brees, Orlando Pace, Corey Simon and others. By the end of Tuesday, there may be little left to pick over in the way of cornerstone players.
A handful of marquee players will find out their fate Tuesday when the tagging deadline arrives. That group includes quarterback Matt Hasselbeck and running back Shaun Alexander of the Seattle Seahawks, the Oakland Raiders' duo of wide receiver Jerry Porter and cornerback Charles Woodson and Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James.
League rumblings early Monday indicated that Hasselbeck and Woodson would head toward free agency and Alexander, James and Porter would draw franchise tags. If that were to play out, it would take significant air out of the remainder of free agency on both sides of the ball.
Offensive free agents
What once looked like an A-plus group has slipped to a high C. The elite portion of the talent pool was decimated almost as soon as the season ended, after the Cincinnati Bengals tagged running back Rudi Johnson and the San Diego Chargers and St. Louis Rams locked down quarterback Drew Brees and offensive tackle Orlando Pace, respectively.
Now that the Seahawks have a deal with Walter Jones, other league executives believe it makes sense that Seattle will follow suit with a franchise tag on Alexander, whom many see as one of the NFL's top three running backs. The Raiders do not appear likely to let go of Porter, whom they see as a budding star, while the Colts don't appear to be backing off on tagging James.
That will leave a lukewarm collection of remaining talent on offense, including Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress, New York Jets running back LaMont Jordan, Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Philadelphia Eagles guard Jermane Mayberry.
Defensive free agents
This group remains strong, even with the losses of Jets defensive end John Abraham, Eagles tackle Corey Simon and San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson (who was a high risk with an Achilles injury, anyway). For the Raiders to keep Woodson with the franchise tag, it would cost Oakland more than $10.5 million next season, a price that appears too steep.
With Woodson, the pool of prospects in the secondary will be loaded, though it would take a hit if the Jacksonville Jaguars tag Donovin Darius, who became one of the league's top 10 safeties last season. But cornerback should remain rich, with Washington's Fred Smoot, Seattle's Ken Lucas, the Baltimore Ravens' Gary Baxter and the Tennessee Titans' Samari Rolle.
Add that group to the availability of Philadelphia linebacker Jeremiah Trotter (even if he is likely to re-sign with the Eagles) and Jets defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, and it gives defense the early edge in free agency.
If the sale of the Minnesota Vikings goes through and prospective new owner Reggie Fowler gets his way – i.e., brings wide receiver Randy Moss back next season – he will need to facilitate damage repair. A mutual friend of Moss and Daunte Culpepper said this week that the two haven't spoken since the season ended and that Moss feels that Culpepper sold him out when he suggested recently that it might be time for Moss to move on.
One thing is for sure: Moss isn't going anywhere until the Vikings are sold. As for possible suitors for Moss, the Ravens might not be as cushy a landing pad as popular perception suggests. A league source said last week that internal concern remains over Baltimore's current locker room chemistry and a fear that Moss would fracture a team that is already flush with egos.
There shouldn't be a great deal of shock over the difficulty Nick Saban is having at filling the Miami Dolphins' defensive coordinator spot. Getting turned down by the New England Patriots' Eric Mangini was understandable. So was having Houston Texans assistant Todd Grantham take Cleveland's defensive coordinator job. But being refused by Florida State linebackers coach Kevin Steele is another matter.
It was no secret in the college ranks that Saban was notoriously hard on his defensive coordinators, micromanaging that side of the ball at both Michigan State and Louisiana State. Now he's suffering the consequences, turning his attention to University of Kentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer as his latest target.
If it wasn't clear the Washington Redskins were intending to use their No. 1 pick (ninth overall) in the draft on either Michigan's Braylon Edwards or USC's Mike Williams, the recent rumblings about the possible release of Laveranues Coles couldn't have made Washington's plans more clear. One interesting perception in some league circles is that the Redskins are swimming in circles by fiddling with the offense without biting a salary-cap bullet and pursuing a different quarterback.
Now that New England vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli has turned down a reported five-year, $15 million contract offer from the Seahawks, some are speculating he could become the NFL's highest-paid executive when his contract expires after the Patriots' 2006 draft.
"Four to five [million dollars per season] isn't beyond him," one NFC executive said of Pioli's skyrocketing stock. "I don't like it when you guys say frenzy,' but I can't think of what else would describe his reputation right now. Not on personal knowledge – but I wouldn't be surprised if he had his choice of, who knows, it could be seven or eight teams talking [to him] in 2006."
Despite his pending legal problems on a domestic assault charge, there isn't expected to be a lack of suitors for Tennessee's Rolle, who was among the Titans' salary-cap casualties on Monday.
While he didn't have a stellar 2004 season, Rolle still is viewed by many as one of the top six or seven cornerbacks in the league. And while he still struggles against physical receivers and against the run, Rolle's age – he won't turn 29 until August – makes him one of the hottest defensive commodities on the free-agent market this offseason.
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