Czar: Watch for trade market to warm up soon
As one NFL executive told me, “Only A.J. (Smith) could get a third-round pick for a quarterback nobody really knows whether he can play or not.”
Yes, the Chargers tendered their third-string quarterback with that compensation, a value that the Cardinals, who are frightened about the prospect of only having Matt Leinart in their quarterback stable, are willing to pay for signing Charlie Whitehurst -- unless the Seahawks do it first. But does it really matter where Whitehurst goes?
That is the current state of NFL free agency.
The free market
You should understand that this wasn’t a great free-agent class from the outset. The Cardinals were hardest hit, losing two defensive starters in Antrel Rolle and Karlos Dansby while finally trading physical receiver Anquan Boldin to Baltimore. The Cardinals have been talking to pass rusher Joey Porter, but they have been reluctant to pay his asking price because there is no one else bidding for the ex-Steeler and Dolphin. Even the Cardinals aren’t that stupid.
And, yes, the Carolina Panthers are finally fixing their salary cap by ridding themselves of eight former (and very much older) starters while preparing for the future. In hindsight, Julius Peppers should have accepted their long-term contract a year ago, but Peppers was too greedy for his own good and now he’s in Chicago.
There are some big names remaining like Terrell Owens. But his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is still asking for a minimum of $5 million a season and too many clubs believe that is too much money for a 36-year-old receiver who can bring a locker room turmoil and heartache. The Bengals passed on T.O., believing that Chad Ochocinco was enough of a distraction, and then gave Antonio Bryant the contract that Laveranues Coles was earning there. No one is beating down Coles’ door and if he wants to play, will have to settle for a whole lot less than what he used to earn.
Because the Chicago Bears have pushed all their chips into the middle of the poker table in order to win now, they look like a good team to land Owens, even if his style doesn’t suit the Mike Martz offense. He remains a name and still has enough speed that Jay Cutler can’t overthrow him.
I hate to write this, but probably the best unrestricted player available is veteran Houston guard Chester Pitts. However, Pitts tore his ACL early last season and will be on the shelf until May or June. Teams want to see where he’s at before committing huge money to the eight-year veteran. Pitts would love to remain in Houston and there’s a slight chance that the Texans could re-sign him despite recently grabbing reserve Wade Smith from the Chiefs. Pitts has to be on the radar of the Bears, Seahawks, Redskins and maybe even the Colts.
Getting back to Whitehurst, isn’t it funny that he will end up being worth more (third-rounder) than Brady Quinn (sixth-rounder)? OK, the Broncos tossed in a running back for Quinn, but we all know that Kyle Orton will remain the starter there unless something bizarre happens, and that’s always a possibility with a kid like Josh McDaniels running the team.
The best players available aren't really available right now. I'm talking about the restricted free agents, the ones who were tendered contracts while asking for first and third-round compensation in return.
Remember when Broncos receiver Brandon Marshall flew to Seattle once free agency began? Well, the Seahawks checked him out, but still haven’t made an offer. Yes, Marshall is available, but the asking price is steep. At minimum a first-round draft choice and there’s no way that Pete Carroll is parting with the sixth overall pick for a disgruntled receiver who really can’t stretch the field. The Seahawks already have enough of those types of receivers: overpaid route runners!
However, McDaniels does want to unload Marshall, who would remain a pain in the butt in Denver if he doesn’t get a front-loaded contract. He will grouse all year while earning less than $3 million. And minus Marshall, Denver’s offense will need a receiver or two. T.O. isn’t a solution here because of his asking price.
The best receiver in this category is the Chargers’ Vincent Jackson. Now, teams at the bottom of the first round – clubs like the Saints and Colts and even the Cowboys – wouldn’t mind a receiver like Jackson. He’s a top-five receiver in my book. But the Chargers have basically said they will match any offer that Jackson receives. And what does that mean? Hell, he may not receive anything unless a team writes a “poison pill” contract for him, one that the Chargers might be reluctant to match like what the Vikings did a few years ago with Steve Hutchinson.
There were over 220 restricted free agents this year, but fewer than 10 have signed their tenders. It made sense that quarterbacks like Matt Moore (Carolina) and Bruce Gradkowski (Oakland) signed with their old teams because they never would have seen similar contracts on the open market. The guy who made out the best was Jake Delhomme, who is still owed millions by the Panthers, but got $7 million more from the Browns. That’s a huge contract for a guy who may be simply a great leader and locker-room guy. But such a deal also makes it sound like Mike Holmgren knows that the Eagles won’t be parting with either Donovan McNabb or Kevin Kolb.
Free agency: Dead or alive?
Next month’s draft could be pretty exciting because there’s a chance that’s when some of these restricted free agents may actually change clubs. If teams strike out on the player/position they covet in the draft, they could end up swapping their picks for a restricted player. And if teams can convince their tendered players to sign the contracts, they can end up trading them.
Agents have basically been telling their restricted clients not to sign, that an offer is right around the corner. But, hey, that’s been a big lie thus far as teams have been playing it close to vest, unwilling to lose a first- or second-round draft choice.
But that could all change once teams get on the draft clock.