http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2004/writers/don_banks/03/11/winners.losers/index.html wrote: Winners and losers Examining the best and worst of the early free-agency period Posted: Thursday March 11, 2004 7:11PM; Updated: Thursday March 11, 2004 7:30PM
The Vikings were thrilled to re-sign bruising tight end Jim Kleinsasser. Donald Miralle/Getty Images
Free agency is still a work in progress, given that the NFL's signing season can extend right up until teams start reporting to training camp in late July. But with a week or so having passed, and most of the big-money splashes already made, it's not too early to separate the winners from the losers -- at least the early winners from the early losers. First-week winners
1. Minnesota Vikings -- When you approach free agency with a cool $33 million in cap room, you darn well better wind up in the winner's category. Still, give the Vikings credit for keeping their own top-rated free agent off the market -- underrated tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser -- and for landing their No. 1 free-agent priority, Buffalo cornerback Antoine Winfield.
The Winfield heist wasn't easy. The Vikings didn't give up on him when it looked like he was set to sign with the Jets, talking him out of Long Island and whisking him to town on a private jet in the middle of a snowy Twin Cities night. As recruiting jobs go, it was by far the best in what has been a wild free-agent season.
Adding receiver Marcus Robinson to the haul isn't going to make anyone do handstands, but if Minnesota get its mitts on a quality defensive end, the Vikings will have had a very productive March.
2. Seattle Seahawks -- Keeping your own key free agents always gets underplayed this time of year, but Seattle struck three blows for continuity and for returning to the playoffs again next season by locking up receiver Darrell Jackson, defensive tackle Cedric Woodard and linebacker/special teamer Isaiah Kacyvenski. Even better, the Seahawks didn't get silly and try to overpay to keep injury-prone cornerback Shawn Springs, who fleeced Washington. The Eagles' Bobby Taylor is a possible replacement.
That said, Seattle did shell out too much for defensive end Grant Wistrom, who got a whopping $14 million signing bonus as part of his $33 million free-agent deal. But I'll say this much for Wistrom, who is a very good but far from great player: He'll never cheat the Seahawks on effort and he'll be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. If you have to overpay, Wistrom is the kind of steady, dependable guy to roll the dice on.
3. Carolina Panthers -- They quietly went about their business of getting receiver Steve Smith, kicker John Kasay, tight end Kris Mangum and handy reserve defensive end Al Wallace re-signed, all of whom were contributing factors in the team's Super Bowl run.
Right tackle Adam Meadows was signed to fill the void created by the release of left tackle Todd Steussie, which occurred Thursday. Jordan Gross, a rookie standout last season on the right side, will switch to left tackle. Carolina stayed true to its principles with right guard Jeno James, who signed with Miami: You don't pay guards big money, you develop them and spend for other positions.
Linebacker Jessie Armstead adds veteran presence and relatively inexpensive production to the roster. While the secondary has taken a hit with the subtraction of Deon Grant, Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard, upgrades were needed because that was Carolina's defensive weak link last year. Artrell Hawkins isn't a shutdown corner, but there's still hope that Troy Vincent's market might come around to Carolina's liking.
4. Jevon Kearse -- With apologies to Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who was never a free agent in any real sense, the biggest winner of all in this year's NFL shopping season is Kearse, who punched an eight-year, $66 million ticket with Philadelphia. Kearse received a $16 million signing bonus, $4 million more in 2004 and '05 roster bonuses, and was the beneficiary of a tight Tennessee salary cap that didn't allow the Titans to franchise him.
Think of it this way: That $20 million of near-guaranteed money represents almost $2 million for each of his sacks the past two years (11½ combined). It's an eye-popping pay day for a guy who missed almost 15 games in 2002-03, and is at least a candidate for chronic foot problems. Oh, to be young and a pass rusher in the NFL.
5. Cornerbacks -- Maybe it's the law of averages, but those guys who so often seem to have everything going against them on game days in the NFL -- ticky-tack pass-interference calls, offenses featuring four- and five-receiver sets and rules designed to humiliate the defense -- had everything going their way in free agency. There were runs made on other positions in the opening week of free agency, but at cornerback, it was an out-and-out sprint. To the money.
Among the corners changing teams, usually for much-larger-than-projected contracts, were Winfield, Springs, Champ Bailey (via trade), Ahmed Plummer, Jason Webster, Fernando Bryant, Hawkins, Howard and David Barrett. Four of those corners received eight-digit signing bonuses: Bailey $18 million, Plummer $11 million, Winfield $10.8 million, and Springs $10 million. Even Bryant ($7.25 million) and Webster ($7 million) -- good, but hardly difference-making talents --cashed in.
Who's next? Mike Rumph? It's enough to make Deion Sanders think about pulling on the cleats and making another run at Daniel Snyder. And don't forget, premier cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Charles Woodson never even got to the market, because Baltimore and Oakland were wise enough to secure them with franchise tags. It's safe to say that because they did, creating a bidding war for the best remaining free-agent corners, the price of McAlister and Woodson's long-term contract extensions just went up. First-week losers
The Titans just couldn't afford to keep Jevon Kearse. AP
1. Tennessee Titans -- It's not like the cap-strapped Titans didn't see this coming, but it's still not a great week when you lose two starting defensive linemen (Kearse and tackle Robaire Smith) and your second-best receiver (restricted free agent Justin McCareins, who was traded to the Jets for a second-round pick this year). No matter how you cut it, that's a talent drain. And the situation will look a little worse if Tennessee fails to retain backup quarterback Billy Volek.
The Titans under Jeff Fisher's and Floyd Reese's leadership have proven to be resilient, if nothing else. Every year they seem to lose a quality defensive lineman, and they always have another waiting to play. But this time, without Kearse and Smith, the trouble is double. And the only positive so far in free agency has been re-signing No. 3 receiver Drew Bennett, who was restricted.
2. Terrell Owens -- What's that you say? Wait until Sunday's arbitration decision to declare Owens a loser or a winner? We shouldn't have to. How cut-and-dried can this thing be? Owens' in-over-his-head agent blew the filing deadline that would have made his client a free agent. Now Owens wants a do-over, because he really wants to be an Eagle, not a Raven. I want to be Antonio Banderas for a year or two, but it ain't happening, folks.
Every time I think Owens is waking up and starting to smell the coffee regarding his situation -- in other words, he has no leverage and likely will have to choose between playing in Baltimore or not playing at all in 2004 -- he opens his mouth and makes things worse. Yes, I know he's trying to agitate his way out of the Ravens' plans, but guess what? It's not working, and it's time to plan an exit strategy should the trade stand. Could somebody please get that message across to him? Who speaks T.O.?
3. Washington Redskins -- Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and hopefully for the rest of Snyder's damn-the-torpedoes tenure, the Redskins will pay for their annual free-agent spending binge. They can cook the books and shove the salary-cap bills off for a year or two, but it's going to catch up with them at some point. When it does, it's not going to be pretty. But then, Washington fans have gotten used to ugly in the past four seasons, haven't they?
Look, the moves always appear good on paper in March. But somehow, when the season rolls around, the pieces of the puzzle never quite lock together. Mark Brunell seems like a luxury buy. Clinton Portis is the real deal, but the Redskins should have gotten a second-round pick from Denver, not given one up. Cornelius Griffin is better than what the Redskins had, but he's not a premier run-stuffer. Phillip Daniels? Springs? Marcus Washington? You can't pan their signings, but you shouldn't hurt yourself praising them, either.
Washington likely will have just one pick in this year's draft, and that's where you get young, inexpensive labor in this league. But that takes patience, and there's never enough of that in D.C. As always, the Redskins have a plan. It's just that it seems so willy-nilly. Again.
4. Tampa Bay Bucs -- The Bucs have been busy, but there's only one thing I'm entirely certain they've accomplished in the first week of free agency: They've ticked off their starting quarterback -- and needlessly, as it turns out. The Jeff Garcia flirtation didn't produce a signing and now Jon Gruden has to live with an even more wary Brad Johnson. Was it really worth it, Chucky?
Curiously, the Bucs are using free agency to get older, which is not the usual approach. Charlie Garner for Thomas Jones. Derrick Deese and Matt Stinchcomb for the retooled offensive line. Dave Moore and Jeff Gooch returned to the fold. Let Gruden try to tell us again this year how he doesn't favor going with veterans over young players, as is his rep. And this time, Rich McKay isn't around to stop him from going after the Emmitt Smiths, Junior Seaus and Darrell Russells of the NFL world.
With John Lynch's departure and Warren Sapp seemingly on the way out, this is starting to look like Gruden's team, rather than Tony Dungy's. You can't blame Bucs fans for not knowing if that's a good thing or not.
5. San Francisco 49ers -- If they wind up turning Owens into a second-round pick, the 49ers can at least pride themselves on a bit of good fortune that fell into their laps. But it's hard to overcome the general perception that this team might not even be up to last year's 7-9 showing in 2004. At least seven starters or part-time players have exited this offseason: Garcia, Owens, Deese, Webster, guard Ron Stone, running back Garrison Hearst and receiver Tai Streets. Being the last one out, Streets apparently had the responsibility of hitting the lights at the team's Santa Clara complex.
Of course, things could have been worse. Running back Kevan Barlow, Plummer, and defensive end John Engleberger were re-signed, and talented linebacker Julian Peterson had his mobility limited by the franchise tag. But it's a tough case to make that San Francisco has done anything to close the gap between itself and NFC West rivals St. Louis and Seattle, both of whom reached the playoffs last season. The 49ers' moves appear to be more about dollars than sense.