Free Agency’s Second Wave: Guards, Linebackers, and…Bills Receivers?
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After one high pressure week of free agency, and plenty of bargains might I add (looking at you Ryan Clark, Aaron Kampman), the market has been stripped of the top end talent at most positions. And with the pressure off teams to go out and improve their teams now, some teams will be able to find steals on the secondary market.
So, where’s the value? In most years, now that we are more than ten days into the league year, the quickest way to improve would be through a trade. This year would be no exception to that rule. But trades are often costly in terms of draft pick compensation, and because of the type of player that works his way onto “the outs” with his coaching staff, trade targets, talented as they are usually come with a catch. No team has been willing to throw a first round pick at Brandon Marshall in either an offer sheet or a trade agreement, because of the baggage associated with acquiring him.
The talent on the value free agent market usually tends to be position-specific. The free agent defensive lineman who didn’t get saddled with the franchise tag flew off the board like wildfire. The defensive backs class, weak to begin with, was picked to shreds early on. Want a quality quarterback? Forget about it! The Cleveland contract with Jake Delhomme tells you everything you need to know about the market rate for prior success at the position. The running back class was old, and has been weakened from its original form by the multi-year contracts thrown at players like Chester Taylor, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Larry Johnson.
So what’s left? Well, team needs have to be specific to the holes on the team who is pursuing these players, but two markets of unrestricted free agents remain relatively untouched: interior lineman, and linebackers. The Cincinnati Bengals have failed to reach agreement with RG Bobbie Williams, who was one of the best two or three players on the market to begin with. Williams has had weight issues in his career, but he was at his best all of last season, and while teams shouldn’t pay above market rates based off career years, it’s hard to imagine a team not improving instantly with his acquisition. Same with Texans’ LG Chester Pitts. Talks between Pitts and the Texans are ongoing, however, he’s available to any team who plays the zone scheme and needs an above average pass blocker at left guard at a pretty reasonable cost. Any takers?
After a small dropoff, teams can also bid on 39-year old Kevin Mawae, who remains a quality center in this league even at an advanced age, or they can take a chance on C/G hybrid Richie Incognito, who brings the dreaded character issues to the table, which are only partially offset by his talent. There’s two factors at work here that will keep player costs down at the position. The first is supply, the second is demand. Relative to the tackle position, which has become more and more isolated from the interior line, teams still believe heavily in player fungibility. Guards are going to sign after inferior rated tackles because teams are not fearful of losing their guards to other teams and being unable to replace them. And with supply, we’re four deep right now with average or above average interior line types. Mawae’s only strong interest is from his current team, the Titans, and there’s a extenuating circumstance with Mawae being President of the NFLPA during this labor dispute, which probably shouldn’t, but will hurt his market.
But with the linebacker class, there’s no real easy explanation to why these guys have been slow to come off the market. For one thing, linebackers are hard to replace on the open market, and while they aren’t paid like premium talents, its too easy for offensive coaches to exploit below average linebackers. Tully Banta-Cain and Scott Fujita went quickly, as did Karlos Dansby and the recently released Will Witherspoon. These aren’t great players, but they are quality guys who aren’t going to have comparable talent available for no draft pick compensation within a month.
For right now, any team could sign Antonio Pierce (given he passes a physical), or Akin Ayodele to play inside linebacker, or any of Keith Bulluck, Joey Porter, Danny Clark, and Pisa Tinoisamoa to play on the outside, but the interest on these players has been slow at best. Bulluck and Porter, in particular, are still difference makers who need to be accounted for in all defensive schemes. The wide variety of player available at linebacker (one guy for every role in every scheme, seemingly) makes you wonder what teams who have needs at linebacker are waiting for. The prices are at bargain basement levels, and the talent is undeniable, pending health-checks.
Now, a very strong receiver market has been sufficiently raided near the top of the class: Kevin Walter and Nate Burleson flew off the board quickly, but the Antonio Bryant deal got me thinking: here’s a guy, who has number one type skills and is getting paid number one type money, seemingly as much about being the next Chad OchoJohnson as being his complement on a 2010 Bengals team that will struggle to throw the football. Bryant has great future value, but if I needed one receiver on this free agent market to win next year, and I couldn’t get Burleson or Walter, the next two guys on my list would be former Bills receivers Terrell Owens and Josh Reed.
Both Reed and Owens have drawn free agent interest from teams who aren’t the Buffalo Bills, but both appear to have their options limited at this point. Owens was in the mix for the Bengals, and I’m a bit surprised they chose Bryant over Owens, because Owens seems to fit the purpose of winning now a lot better. Reed’s name has been linked to the Patriots, and he’s been as good as anyone in the league at what he has been asked to do over the last four or so years, which are the same things Troy Brown used to do for the Patriots. Owens seemingly has no immediate prospects, which means that all roads eventually lead to Oakland.
That’s actually a pretty strong fit for Owens. If there’s a fault in the Raiders receiving corps, it’s that it’s young and unrefined. That’s you, Darrius Heyward-Bey. Owens might demand No. 1 type attention from his offense, and that may limit his value to a lot of teams even before you consider the things that happen just outside those white lines, but on Oakland, if he can take the pressure off of those younger players, Owens can be productive in 2010, and helpful to the cause in the long term. Whatever it may seem, going after Owens could be a good move for the Raiders. Meanwhile, the Broncos would be very wise to get in on the Josh Reed sweepstakes, as they need the help at WR before it’s too late.
Free Agency’s second wave offers plenty of options at only a few positions. For a majority of teams without needs at any of these positions, it’s time to turn attention to the draft to improve. But for a limited amount of teams who still are looking to make a splash before the draft, looking at some of the available linebackers, interior lineman, and wide receivers who are still available with no draft pick compensation, it’s these cheaper moves that could end up being the best move these teams have made this offseason.