Reviewing the first weekend of NFL free agency

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

NFL free agency is off to a glorious start while every other profession is troubled by layoffs.

But these are oddball times in the NFL. For example, few fans may know Jason Brown, but the Rams made the Baltimore guard the game's highest-paid center in football with $20 million in guarantees. Last year, Kevin Demoff made Jeff Faine the highest-paid center while with the Bucs, and now in his new executive position with St. Louis he does it again. With all the contracts flying around during free agency's first weekend, let's review not winners and losers — it's way too premature to stamp approval or disapproval at this point. But that said (or, well, typed), here are the early leaders and trailers from the frenzy ...

Biggest (but not best) move

The whopper of the first three days was that the Redskins "technically" made Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth the game's first $100 million defensive player. A guy who once stomped on the head of Dallas center Andre Gurode got "franchise quarterback" money in a deal that's really worth $48 million over four years. The inside word is that several other teams agreed to pay that amount or more, but that agent Chad Speck liked the idea of becoming one of owner Daniel Snyder's best buddies and enjoyed flying on his private jet. Granted, Haynesworth is one of the game's most-dominant players, requiring constant double-teams. But over the past six seasons, he has missed 22 of 96 games and there continue to be doubts about his character, coupled with the major question of how he will respond to financial security and all this money. Still, this could be a major win for Snyder, who doesn't have the greatest track record in free agency. Bruce Smith, Deion Sanders, anyone? Snyder also gave CB DeAngelo Hall way too much money, but was fortunate to sign guard Derrick Dockery, a former Redskin.

Best move

The best move might have been Scott Pioli's trade of a second-round pick to New England for Matt Cassel, the $14.6 million quarterback, and 12-year linebacker Mike Vrabel. Even though it is difficult to believe that Pioli pulled one over on his former boss, Bill Belichick, the trade was necessary because the Chiefs are desperate for a franchise quarterback, plus a solid old pro (Vrabel) for the locker room. The Boston Herald's Ron Borges wrote that one NFC personnel man compared Cassel to Scott Mitchell, a failed quarterback acquisition by the Detroit Lions back in 1994. But there is a huge difference between the two men. Cassel is someone you want in your foxhole; Mitchell's teammates eventually learned that he was the first player to bail under duress. Granted, character and toughness may not be worth $14.6 million, but it's a great starting point for your team's starting quarterback. It's why I still like Tim Tebow. This deal also made sense for Kansas City, because even with Cassel and Vrabel's $3.2 million salary for this season, the Chiefs still haven't reached the NFL salary-cap minimum threshold of $92.25 million in player salaries. The cap is $123 million this season. Yes, the Chiefs, like the Bucs, have a ton of financial room (and freedom). There is no question that Belichick preferred trading Cassel to Kansas City over Denver for two reasons: First, Chiefs aren't as good as Denver and No. 2, the Broncos were too slow on the draw in making a deal with either Tampa Bay and Detroit in order to compensate New England. It is interesting to note that both the Bucs and Lions loved Jay Cutler, but didn't hold Cassel in the same regard.

Biggest ego trip

Who can blame either Tampa Bay or Detroit for attempting to be part of a three-way (trade) that could have landed them Cutler? The fascinating revelation was that young Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, the guy that GM Scott Pioli really wanted as his head coach in Kansas City, was willing to deal Cutler in order to land another first-round draft choice and Cassel.
Granted, Cutler is steaming that he was bandied about. His ego, remember, is pretty big considering his claim that his arm is better than John Elway's. But if and when he calms down, can he really be that shocked that his new coach would investigate working again with Cassel after last season's success in New England? Cutler has been crying ever since young offensive coach Jeremy Bates left to take over as USC's offensive coordinator. A few say he wanted out because he doesn't trust McDaniels, and what a wild observation that is. Maybe rival Chargers QB Philip Rivers has Cutler pegged exactly right?

Biggest losers (so far)

Most look at the Eagles as losers, simply because they lost veteran safety Brian Dawkins to the Broncos, who also signed Philly's backup runner, Correll Buckhalter. The Broncos took a reach on safety Reynaldo Hill and Colts defensive tackle Darrell Reid while signing two proven New England veterans in long snapper Lonie Paxton and receiver Jabar Gaffney.

Philadelphia also lost some depth by trading Lito Shepherd to the Jets for a song when compared to his moaning last summer that he was worth a first- or second-round pick.

Biggest names remaining

One of the wildest stories had Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner actually considering a jump to the 49ers because the Cardinals won't budge from their two-year, $20 million offer. If the 49ers could pull off this steal, they would seriously hurt their NFC West rivals who would be forced to return to Matt Leinart. Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh has been courted hard by Seattle and all day Sunday by the Minnesota Vikings. There were reports on Monday that he had agreed to a deal with the Seahawks. The Rams have been shopping offensive tackle Orlando Pace and receiver Torry Holt, who is owed about $8 million this season if he's on the roster. Look for those two players to be somewhere else next season.

Biggest "desperation" move

The Baltimore Ravens proved how desperate they are for a cornerback by giving Domonique Foxworth, who played in Denver and Atlanta last season, a $7 million average deal. The contract has caused teams to pause paying someone like the Rams' Ron Bartell the same amount. There are always some ridiculous deals during the first days of free agency, and Foxworth's ranks near the top. Baltimore, though, figures to save the day by re-signing linebacker Ray Lewis, who didn't get a sniff from the Cowboys.

Other big moves

  • Owner Jerry Jones made two smart moves for the Cowboys in trading for Lions quarterback Jon Kitna, who gives them a decent option off the bench behind Tony Romo, plus the signing of Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking. Brooking is a quality person in the locker room, and he can still run and tackle. He should be perfect in the middle.
  • The Giants went for more speed and youth for their defense. While the Redskins might have Haynesworth, who should give New York center Shaun O'Hara a few nightmares, the Giants grabbed Falcons outside linebacker Michael Boley and Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty, who should allow Justin Tuck to move inside on obvious pass-rush downs.
  • The Bucs, who passed on Cassel, proved they want to give quarterback Luke McCown every chance possible by trading for Browns tight end Kellen Winslow and retaining last year's star wideout Antonio Bryant. Plus the Bucs kept receiver Michael Clayton, who swears he will be much, much better with Jon Gruden on the unemployment line. Winslow remains an intriguing big-play talent who still hasn't played a full season.
  • Tagged: Falcons, Bengals, Browns, Cowboys, Broncos, Lions, Colts, Chiefs, Rams, Patriots, Giants, Jets, Eagles, 49ers, Buccaneers, Redskins, Ravens, Cardinals, Keith Brooking, Jon Kitna, Chad Johnson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Orlando Pace, Kurt Warner, Torry Holt, Lonie Paxton, Mike Vrabel, Correll Buckhalter, Brian Dawkins, Deion Sanders, Ray Lewis, Jabar Gaffney, Antonio Bryant, Albert Haynesworth, Andre Gurode, Derrick Dockery, Carson Palmer, Jeff Faine, Tony Romo, Kellen Winslow, DeAngelo Hall, Michael Clayton, Luke McCown, J.J. Arrington, Ron Bartell, Justin Tuck, Domonique Foxworth, Matt Cassel, Jason Brown, Chris Canty, Michael Boley, Darrell Reid, Matt Leinart, Jay Cutler

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