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Mr. Laz
03-04-2005, 05:23 PM
Panthers, Cowboys, Raiders early winners in free-agent market
March 3, 2005
By Clark Judge
SportsLine.com Senior Writer

Two days into free agency, and we have a winner. Correction: We have three. Will the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders please stand up?

The three made bold moves that improve them for the coming season and could -- and, in Carolina's case, should -- return them to the playoffs. The Raiders gained the best free-agent running back out there, LaMont Jordan, one week after landing Randy Moss. Dallas helped its secondary, defensive line and offensive line a week after signing quarterback Drew Bledsoe. And Carolina just acquired the best free-agent offensive lineman, Mike Wahle, as well as coveted cornerback Ken Lucas.

OK, so Oakland still must address a defense that surrendered 442 points and ranked 30th or worse in eight categories, while Dallas has to prove it can make it to the playoffs with a quarterback who hasn't been there as a starter since 1997. But the point is: Their latest steps just moved them closer to the playoffs, where they might, just might, join Carolina next season.

Let's see why:

Oakland Raiders

It was only a week ago that critics said the acquisition of Moss and the signing of a franchise tender by Charles Woodson would detonate the Raiders' salary cap. A crash-and-burn of the roster would be necessary, they said, to accommodate the team's latest developments.

Well, it never happened. The Raiders cut a handful of second-tier players to reach the cap limit, then moved to sign Jordan, whom they tried to acquire by trade last season. His addition solves one of two problem areas -- namely, running back -- and makes the Raiders a balanced offense. I know, I know, the Raiders could have had one of the top three backs in this draft if they sat there with the seventh pick.

But they gained Moss and Jordan instead, and give them points for being aggressive. Sure, Jordan ran for only 479 yards as Curtis Martin's caddy, but Martin, it just so happened, led the league in rushing. And while Jordan's total wasn't great, it was 54 more yards than Oakland's leading rusher, Amos Zereoue.

So when does the roster purge begin? It doesn't. The Raiders will release guard Ron Stone and linebacker DeLawrence Grant, but plan to re-sign them when they complete a renegotiation of Moss' contract. That could happen as early as this weekend.

Oh, and about that other trouble spot ... that would be a pass rusher, and the Raiders will take one, maybe, two in this year's draft. Yeah, I know, they have to do more than that to solve a defense with more holes than the Nimitz Freeway, but they still have Woodson dangling out there as trade bait.

I never thought I'd say this, but I think you have to trust them here. Uh-huh, trust and the Raiders in the same sentence. Who would've imagined? They deserve it after what has happened the last week.

Dallas Cowboys

You watch Bledsoe flounder against Pittsburgh in the season finale, a game with the playoffs at stake for Buffalo and nothing at stake for the Steelers, and you wonder if he ever again will take a club to the next level.

Well, here's his chance. He has a stable of wideouts, a terrific tight end, a promising young back and an improved offensive line now that the Cowboys landed Marco Rivera. Yes, the cost was steep, but it will be worth it if Rivera keeps Bledsoe off the mat. A Pro Bowl guard the past three seasons Rivera plugs a hole in the right side of Cowboys' offensive line -- and that should help Bledsoe in gaining a comfort zone. But this is what Coach Bill Parcells likes most about Rivera: He's a big, tough guy who gives the Cowboys leadership where they didn't have it.

"He'll make the people around him better," said an NFC scout. "This is all about accountability."


Parcells promised to get bigger on defense, and he just did with the additions of 6-foot-3, 305-pound tackle Jason Ferguson and cornerback Anthony Henry. The Cowboys secondary was disappointing last season, and Henry -- a 6-1 corner who had 10 interceptions his rookie year -- is a serious upgrade from Lance Frazier. He's physical. He's a sure tackler. And he's always around the ball.

Ferguson will fit nicely with La'Roi Glover, whose seven sacks were second most on the club. The Cowboys defensive line was little more than adequate, with opponents jamming them for 4.3 yards a carry, and Ferguson is the big body the Cowboys missed next to Glover. I'm not wild about overpaying 30-year-old free agents, either, but he fills a need. He's solid against the run. He makes occasional sacks. And he had 18 pressures and two forced fumbles last year.

Look at things this way: Dallas did all this, and still has two first-round draft picks. Yeah, I think they improved.

Carolina Panthers

So the Panthers lost their top receiver. Big deal. I wouldn't have paid what Muhsin Muhammad was asking for, either. You don't blow up a salary cap for a 32-year-old wide receiver. So Carolina let him walk, which is just fine considering Steve Smith should return this year.

But it's not Smith or Muhammad I'm concerned with here. It's guard Mike Wahle and cornerback Ken Lucas, who joined the team Thursday.

Wahle is a rock-solid offensive lineman who can play guard or tackle, but offensive coordinator Dan Henning indicated the Panthers will keep him at left guard. That doesn't mean you'll never see him at tackle. You could. With seven offensive linemen activated for games, the Panthers have flexibility here they didn't in the past. Wahle should stabilize an offensive line that changed partners too often last season when only two of its members started every game. Wahle hasn't missed a start in four seasons, and if I'm Jake Delhomme I like that.

Then there's Lucas, and file him under big cornerbacks. The 6-foot Lucas was one of the top three free agents at his position and fits in perfectly with coach John Fox's aggressive, physical defense. He's tough. He can play up or back. He has great anticipation. He doesn't miss tackles. And he led Seattle in interceptions and passes defensed last year.

"You look at how good these guys should be when they get (Kris) Jenkins back," said an AFC general manager, "and I believe that if anyone -- and I mean anyone -- makes plays behind that front seven, it's going to be hard to score on them."

With Ricky Manning, Chris Gamble and Lucas, the Panthers have three cornerbacks who can make plays, and lots of them. Atlanta, beware.

MGRS13
03-04-2005, 05:27 PM
Are we the early losers?

DaWolf
03-04-2005, 05:39 PM
Are we the early losers?
I was looking at an article of last year's early winners/losers of free agency, and I noticed that of the top 3 winners, none of the teams finished better than 8-8, but all the losers really did wind up losing. The moral being it doesn't always pay off to be a winner, but you sure as hell better not wind up a loser, and if we don't sign anyone, we'll be big time losers...

2004 winners/losers in free agency (http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2004/writers/don_banks/03/11/winners.losers/)

First-week winners
1. Minnesota Vikings -- When you approach free agency with a cool $33 million in cap room, you darn well better wind up in the winner's category. Still, give the Vikings credit for keeping their own top-rated free agent off the market -- underrated tight end Jimmy Kleinsasser -- and for landing their No. 1 free-agent priority, Buffalo cornerback Antoine Winfield.

The Winfield heist wasn't easy. The Vikings didn't give up on him when it looked like he was set to sign with the Jets, talking him out of Long Island and whisking him to town on a private jet in the middle of a snowy Twin Cities night. As recruiting jobs go, it was by far the best in what has been a wild free-agent season.

Adding receiver Marcus Robinson to the haul isn't going to make anyone do handstands, but if Minnesota get its mitts on a quality defensive end, the Vikings will have had a very productive March.

2. Seattle Seahawks -- Keeping your own key free agents always gets underplayed this time of year, but Seattle struck three blows for continuity and for returning to the playoffs again next season by locking up receiver Darrell Jackson, defensive tackle Cedric Woodard and linebacker/special teamer Isaiah Kacyvenski. Even better, the Seahawks didn't get silly and try to overpay to keep injury-prone cornerback Shawn Springs, who fleeced Washington. The Eagles' Bobby Taylor is a possible replacement.

That said, Seattle did shell out too much for defensive end Grant Wistrom, who got a whopping $14 million signing bonus as part of his $33 million free-agent deal. But I'll say this much for Wistrom, who is a very good but far from great player: He'll never cheat the Seahawks on effort and he'll be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. If you have to overpay, Wistrom is the kind of steady, dependable guy to roll the dice on.

3. Carolina Panthers -- They quietly went about their business of getting receiver Steve Smith, kicker John Kasay, tight end Kris Mangum and handy reserve defensive end Al Wallace re-signed, all of whom were contributing factors in the team's Super Bowl run.

Right tackle Adam Meadows was signed to fill the void created by the release of left tackle Todd Steussie, which occurred Thursday. Jordan Gross, a rookie standout last season on the right side, will switch to left tackle. Carolina stayed true to its principles with right guard Jeno James, who signed with Miami: You don't pay guards big money, you develop them and spend for other positions.

Linebacker Jessie Armstead adds veteran presence and relatively inexpensive production to the roster. While the secondary has taken a hit with the subtraction of Deon Grant, Terry Cousin and Reggie Howard, upgrades were needed because that was Carolina's defensive weak link last year. Artrell Hawkins isn't a shutdown corner, but there's still hope that Troy Vincent's market might come around to Carolina's liking.


First-week losers

1. Tennessee Titans -- It's not like the cap-strapped Titans didn't see this coming, but it's still not a great week when you lose two starting defensive linemen (Kearse and tackle Robaire Smith) and your second-best receiver (restricted free agent Justin McCareins, who was traded to the Jets for a second-round pick this year). No matter how you cut it, that's a talent drain. And the situation will look a little worse if Tennessee fails to retain backup quarterback Billy Volek.

The Titans under Jeff Fisher's and Floyd Reese's leadership have proven to be resilient, if nothing else. Every year they seem to lose a quality defensive lineman, and they always have another waiting to play. But this time, without Kearse and Smith, the trouble is double. And the only positive so far in free agency has been re-signing No. 3 receiver Drew Bennett, who was restricted.

2. Terrell Owens -- What's that you say? Wait until Sunday's arbitration decision to declare Owens a loser or a winner? We shouldn't have to. How cut-and-dried can this thing be? Owens' in-over-his-head agent blew the filing deadline that would have made his client a free agent. Now Owens wants a do-over, because he really wants to be an Eagle, not a Raven. I want to be Antonio Banderas for a year or two, but it ain't happening, folks.

Every time I think Owens is waking up and starting to smell the coffee regarding his situation -- in other words, he has no leverage and likely will have to choose between playing in Baltimore or not playing at all in 2004 -- he opens his mouth and makes things worse. Yes, I know he's trying to agitate his way out of the Ravens' plans, but guess what? It's not working, and it's time to plan an exit strategy should the trade stand. Could somebody please get that message across to him? Who speaks T.O.?

3. Washington Redskins -- Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and hopefully for the rest of Snyder's damn-the-torpedoes tenure, the Redskins will pay for their annual free-agent spending binge. They can cook the books and shove the salary-cap bills off for a year or two, but it's going to catch up with them at some point. When it does, it's not going to be pretty. But then, Washington fans have gotten used to ugly in the past four seasons, haven't they?

Look, the moves always appear good on paper in March. But somehow, when the season rolls around, the pieces of the puzzle never quite lock together. Mark Brunell seems like a luxury buy. Clinton Portis is the real deal, but the Redskins should have gotten a second-round pick from Denver, not given one up. Cornelius Griffin is better than what the Redskins had, but he's not a premier run-stuffer. Phillip Daniels? Springs? Marcus Washington? You can't pan their signings, but you shouldn't hurt yourself praising them, either.

Washington likely will have just one pick in this year's draft, and that's where you get young, inexpensive labor in this league. But that takes patience, and there's never enough of that in D.C. As always, the Redskins have a plan. It's just that it seems so willy-nilly. Again.

4. Tampa Bay Bucs -- The Bucs have been busy, but there's only one thing I'm entirely certain they've accomplished in the first week of free agency: They've ticked off their starting quarterback -- and needlessly, as it turns out. The Jeff Garcia flirtation didn't produce a signing and now Jon Gruden has to live with an even more wary Brad Johnson. Was it really worth it, Chucky?

Curiously, the Bucs are using free agency to get older, which is not the usual approach. Charlie Garner for Thomas Jones. Derrick Deese and Matt Stinchcomb for the retooled offensive line. Dave Moore and Jeff Gooch returned to the fold. Let Gruden try to tell us again this year how he doesn't favor going with veterans over young players, as is his rep. And this time, Rich McKay isn't around to stop him from going after the Emmitt Smiths, Junior Seaus and Darrell Russells of the NFL world.

With John Lynch's departure and Warren Sapp seemingly on the way out, this is starting to look like Gruden's team, rather than Tony Dungy's. You can't blame Bucs fans for not knowing if that's a good thing or not.

5. San Francisco 49ers -- If they wind up turning Owens into a second-round pick, the 49ers can at least pride themselves on a bit of good fortune that fell into their laps. But it's hard to overcome the general perception that this team might not even be up to last year's 7-9 showing in 2004. At least seven starters or part-time players have exited this offseason: Garcia, Owens, Deese, Webster, guard Ron Stone, running back Garrison Hearst and receiver Tai Streets. Being the last one out, Streets apparently had the responsibility of hitting the lights at the team's Santa Clara complex.

Of course, things could have been worse. Running back Kevan Barlow, Plummer, and defensive end John Engleberger were re-signed, and talented linebacker Julian Peterson had his mobility limited by the franchise tag. But it's a tough case to make that San Francisco has done anything to close the gap between itself and NFC West rivals St. Louis and Seattle, both of whom reached the playoffs last season. The 49ers' moves appear to be more about dollars than sense.