JUDGE: Ranking the NFL's free agents

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Clark Judge

Telephone an NFL general manager this week, and chances are you won't get a return call until late afternoon or early evening. Why? Free agency. It's 15 days and counting until the start of free agency, and GMs won't be caught short. They're busy negotiating last-minute deals for their own prospective free agents, as well as identifying targets outside the building for the opening of free agency March 1. This year's group is heavy in offensive linemen, particularly guards, and it's positively loaded at linebacker. Pittsburgh's Jason Gildon is there. So is Philadelphia's Jeremiah Trotter. Sam Cowart. London Fletcher. Jamie Duncan. Bargains? No. Impact players? Definitely. But impact players don't always make the difference, as New England demonstrated this season. The Patriots sank their money in retreads who fit their system, and the strategy helped propel them to the Super Bowl. Those guys are here, particularly at quarterback. No position is leaner. But there are plenty of recognizable names, too, and you can find them among the running backs, linebackers and kicking specialists. I know there's plenty of time for clubs to settle with prospective free agents, but I want to know who's out there now. So, with the help of scouts and personnel directors from three clubs, we identified the top unrestricted free agents at each position. What follows are players dressed up as bull's eyes on most teams' boards:
A year ago there was bidding on Brad Johnson, Elvis Grbac, Doug Flutie and, yes, Jon Kitna, too. Trent Dilfer, cast off by Baltimore, didn't sign until the summer, and even then it was just a one-year deal. Now you can see why. He's the best of a poor group of quarterbacks, with Chicago's Jim Miller the only other passer you'd dare call a starter.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Trent Dilfer Seattle Hasn't lost in his last 15 starts.
2. Jim Miller Chicago This year's Dilfer; was 13-3 as a starter.
3. Tony Banks Washington Strong arm, no accuracy; was 8-6 as a starter.
4. Jonathan Quinn Jacksonville Youth gives this guy a chance for the future.
5. Gus Frerotte Denver Finished the season on injured reserve.

There's one name missing here, and it's Seattle's Ricky Watters. You'd think someone who had seven 1,000-yard seasons would be included, but there's a critical factor keeping him out of our Top 5 — age. Watters turns 33 in April. Also missing: Chicago's James Allen and Tennessee's Skip Hicks.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Antowain Smith New England Led Patriots with 13 touchdowns.
2. Michael Pittman Arizona Led Cards in rushing last two years.
3. Garrison Hearst San Francisco Ran for 1,206 yards, but is 31 and injury-prone.
4. Lamar Smith Miami Got lost in '01 behind a weak offensive line.
5. Fred Beasley San Francisco Best fullback out there.

Washington's Michael Westbrook might be the most talented, but he also carries the most baggage. That knocked him off everyone's board. Jerome Pathon rose to the top on the strength of his first three games when he caught a team-high 23 passes, including 17 in the first two. That's good. This is not: He missed all but four games because of a foot injury.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Jerome Pathon Indianapolis Productive before foot injury ended season.
2. Corey Bradford Green Bay Tons of upside; may be best of Pack's receivers.
3. Germaine Crowell Detroit Coming off reconstructive knee surgery.
4. Az-Zahir Hakim St. Louis Great speed; can return punts if he can catch them.
5. Tim Dwight San Diego Effective return specialist with great speed.

There's talent galore here, primarily because we lumped guards, tackles and centers together. Chicago tried signing Olin Kreutz during the season, and it didn't happen. The reason? He wanted too much money. So Kreutz waited and guess what? Now he's now the pick of the litter. Can you say, "Cha-ching?"
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Olin Kreutz Chicago Outstanding center on best pass-protecting line.
2. Tarik Glenn Indianapolis A lesser-skilled Orlando Pace.
3. Ron Stone N.Y. Giants Named to Pro Bowl for second consecutive year.
4. Jason Fabini N.Y. Jets Jets might make him transition player.
5. Steve McKinney Indianapolis Solid pass blocker but hasn't improved since rookie season.

Our linemen get no respect. I didn't break them down by position on offense, nor will I do it on defense. New Orleans presents a problem because the Saints notified defensive tackle La'Roi Glover they wouldn't pay a $5.5 million buy-back, making him a free agent March 1. But they still could make him their franchise player. Until they do, he's in here. Defensive end Joe Johnson is not because all signs point to the Saints re-signing him.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. La'Roi Glover New Orleans Went from 17 sacks in '00 to eight last year.
2. Leonard Little St. Louis Third in NFL with 14.5 sacks.
3. Kenny Mixon Miami Versatile DE who can play DT on nickel downs.
4. John Parrella San Diego Big run stuffer; great attitude.
5. Grady Jackson Oakland Great talent with great weight problem.
One of the deepest and most talented positions, with Pittsburgh's Gildon at the top of a decorated group. The first three went to the Pro Bowl, with Trotter leading the Eagles in tackles the past three years. Pittsburgh's already talking to Gildon, and that's a smart move. Buffalo's Cowart probably belongs here, but he's an unknown because of injury.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Jason Gildon Pittsburgh Good size, speed; led team with 12 sacks.
2. Jeremiah Trotter Philadelphia Named to Pro Bowl for second consecutive year.
3. London Fletcher St. Louis Good tackler, moves well in space.
4. Jamie Duncan Tampa Bay Quick and good tackler; overshadowed by Derrick Brooks.
5. Earl Holmes Pittsburgh Instinctive and runs well; best of inside backers.

We could've grouped the cornerbacks and safeties together, but there was just too much talent at both positions.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Duane Starks Baltimore Physical CB with great cover skills.
2. Eric Warfield Kansas City First-year corner who can run.
3. Tommy Knight Arizona Finished the season on injured reserve.
4. Walt Harris Chicago Doesn't have great speed but is physical.
5. Brian Kelly Tampa Bay Beat out Donnie Abraham; good technician, not great speed.

There is talent galore here, too, with San Francisco's Lance Schulters — a Pro Bowl starter in 1999 — relegated to the third position. The top three have similar personalities on the field — they're physical players who play the ball well — but there's a substantial dropoff after the first two.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Tony Parrish Chicago Physical, good tackler; plays the ball better than Williams.
2. Shaun Williams N.Y. Giants Can play S or CB; coming off so-so season.
3. Lance Schulters San Francisco Big hitter who doubles as big playmaker.
4. Eric Brown Denver Runs fast, hits hard; can play free or strong safety.
5. Kwamie Lassiter Arizona Age (32) a factor, but second in NFC with nine interceptions.

Seldom do you find a Super Bowl hero up for sale, but that's not the case this year. You can have New England's Adam Vinatieri for the right price. Vinatieri is one of several well-known specialists, a list that includes ageless Morten Andersen because he missed only one kick inside 49 yards — and he kicked outdoors.
Rk. Name Team Comment
1. Jason Elam Denver Strong leg; made 31 of 36 field goals.
2. Adam Vinatieri New England Great pressure kicker who doesn't miss indoors.
3. John Carney New Orleans Missed only four of 31 field goals.
4. Morten Andersen N.Y. Giants Hit last 10 field-goal attempts.
5. Sean Landeta Philadelphia So he's 40; he was 3rd in NFC in punting.

Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address:

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