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Help still out there -- for a price
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Basically, there isn't much left.
But while big names like Julius Peppers and Antrel Rolle are long gone, there is still another -- albeit more costly -- way for some teams to improve their roster with a blockbuster veteran signing. That's by inking a restricted free agent to an offer sheet with clauses that his current club wouldn't want to match.
The Minnesota Vikings perfected the "poison pill" in 2006 when signing star left guard Steve Hutchinson, who was in a similar situation as an RFA player when slapped with a transition tag by Seattle. Because of the salary cap, the Seahawks were unable to match a Vikings provision that called for Hutchinson to have his seven-year, $49 million contract offer fully guaranteed. Seattle had to let Hutchinson walk without receiving any draft-pick compensation from the Vikings.
Mind you, the recompense for the NFL's top RFAs is much higher. Players like Denver outside linebacker/defensive end Elvis Dumervil and Dallas wide receiver Miles Austin would require a suitor to surrender first- and third-round choices.
But if you're a team with a need -- especially one drafting in the bottom half of the first round -- that price may very well be worth paying.
As much as the draft is considered vital for a team's long-term success, it's also a crapshoot. There is something to be said for surrendering picks to acquire an established difference-maker rather than hoping a college prospect evolves into one.
Vikings personnel executive Rick Spielman realized this in 2008. Before his arrival, Minnesota had used two first-round selections on washouts at defensive end (Kenechi Udeze and Erasmus James). Still needing to fill that void, Spielman approached Kansas City about a trade for Jared Allen, who was the Chiefs' franchise player.
It cost the Vikings a first-round pick, two third-rounders and the richest contract ever given a defensive player at the time (six years, $73 million with $31 million guaranteed). But this has proven money well spent. Allen has 14.5 sacks in each of the past two seasons as the key pass rusher in Minnesota's defense.
Dumervil can make a similar impact, especially in a 3-4 system. Moved into a hybrid end/linebacker role for the first time in 2009, Dumervil finished with career highs in sacks (17) and tackles (49). He's also just 26 years old, the same age Allen was when acquired by the Vikings.
My choice suitor for Dumervil would be Philadelphia. The Eagles whiffed last weekend on signing Peppers (Chicago) and fellow end Aaron Kampman (Jacksonville). Even in a 4-3 scheme, Dumervil would provide an excellent complement to Trent Cole, who had a team-high 12.5 sacks in 2009. The Eagles, who pick at No. 24 in the first round, also have extra third- and fifth-round selections because of previous trades.
Wide receiver is an even trickier position to draft than defensive end. In the past five years, there were about as many first-round flops (Troy Williamson, Mike Williams and Matt Jones among them) as success stories. And while rookies are making a quicker contribution in a pass-happy league, there also is a steep learning curve that comes with playing the position.
Austin, who was undrafted coming out of Monmouth (N.J.) College, needed three seasons to develop. But once he did, Austin blossomed into one of the NFL's top wideouts. He had 81 catches for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns in just nine starts last season.
I doubt it will happen, but Austin would be a great fit in New England. He would be an ideal replacement for Randy Moss, who has only one year left on his contract and is a fading player at age 33. The Patriots could dump Moss and his scheduled $6.4 million base salary without any cap ramifications. New England has three second-round picks, which would help make-up for the loss of its first-rounder (No. 22 overall) if Dallas didn't match the offer. Austin also carries less baggage than Denver's Brandon Marshall, another talented RFA with a first-round tender.
With the class of unrestricted free agents quickly dwindling, there are some other appealing RFAs that would require lesser compensation than Dumervil and Austin. These players would have become unrestricted free agents if not for changes in the final year of the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement. Here are some names to watch before April 15, which is when the rights to RFA players revert exclusively to their respective teams:
Cornerback: Richard Marshall (Carolina/second-round tender): The Panthers took a chance by not placing a higher tender on Marshall, a physical defender who is coming off his first season as a 16-game starter. Because of the big money invested in fellow cornerback Chris Gamble (he signed a six-year, $53.5 million extension in 2008), the Panthers may not be inclined to match a lucrative deal that Marshall receives elsewhere.
Tackle: Jermon Bushrod (New Orleans/second), Charlie Johnson (Indianapolis/second), Jeremy Trueblood (Tampa Bay/second) and Alex Barron (St. Louis/second): Bushrod did a solid job starting at left tackle for a Super Bowl winner, but he may be returning to a backup role with Jammal Brown set to return from injured reserve. Johnson has made 38 starts the past three seasons and can play either tackle spot. The 6-foot-8, 320-pound Trueblood is a mauling right tackle and four-year NFL starter. The talented-but-inconsistent Barron is on the outs in St. Louis with 2009 first-round pick Jason Smith projected to start at left tackle. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Barron is being dangled as trade bait.
Quarterback: Charlie Whitehurst (San Diego/third) and Tarvaris Jackson (Minnesota/third): Whitehurst has yet to throw a pass in four NFL seasons, but his potential has intrigued Arizona and Seattle. The Chargers may ultimately have to decide whether to match any offer Whitehurst signs or allow him to leave and keep 33-year-old Billy Volek as Philip Rivers' backup. A deposed starter, Jackson showed improvement in the 2009 preseason. The Vikings would like to keep him and Sage Rosenfels with Brett Favre's 2010 status uncertain.
Safety: Oshiomogho Atogwe (St. Louis/right-of-first-refusal tender), Gerald Sensabaugh (Dallas/second), Abram Elam (Cleveland/second) and Melvin Bullitt (Indianapolis/second): The Rams are willing to let another team set the market value for Atogwe, who was the Rams' franchise player in 2009. Atogwe is set to earn $7 million this season under his RFA tender, but St. Louis is trying to work out a long-term deal. The Dallas Morning News quotes Sensabaugh's agent as saying his client is receiving interest from six teams. Despite a history of off-field problems, Sensabaugh is an athletic safety who can handle most slot receivers. Elam is a big hitter and favorite of Browns coach Eric Mangini, which means he probably isn't going anywhere. Bullitt has done a yeoman's job replacing the injury-prone Bob Sanders most of the past two seasons.
Defensive tackle: Barry Cofield (New York Giants/second): The fact four of the six franchised players this offseason were defensive tackles speaks to the difficulty in finding talent at this position. The 25-year-old Cofield has started all but two games in his four-year NFL career and has plenty of good football left. The Giants already have so much money invested in their defensive line that a strong offer from elsewhere could wrest Cofield free.
Linebacker: Kirk Morrison (Oakland/third) and Rashad Jeanty (Cincinnati/right-of-first-refusal tender): Despite having led Oakland in tackles for four of the past five seasons, Morrison was given a low tender. To put this in perspective, the Raiders placed a second-round tender on their long snapper (Jon Condo). Jeanty is a former Bengals starter who led the squad with 16 special-teams tackles in 2009. He would require no draft pick compensation if Cincinnati declined to match any offer he signed elsewhere.