Wild start to free agency

Free agency got off to a wild start and here's a little of what we've learned so far.

Updated: March 8, 2004, 12:29 PM ET
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL hasn't seen anything like it. The first wave of free agency was a tidal wave.

In five days from last Wednesday to Sunday, 85 of the 310 unrestricted free agents came to terms. There were five restricted offers sheets and one (right tackle John Tait with the Bears) transition offer sheet. Six players were involved in five trades, including Terrell Owens, who isn't going to Baltimore without a fight.

While there are still a few players on the market that will get big money, things will slow down.

Why the craziness? The NFL undervalued their revenue projections from the 2003 season and handed each team $2.5 million of extra cap space for next season, letting them spend to $80.5 million.

Every three or four years, there is a decent cap spike, and the result is usually a wild start to free agency.

The other aspect of the cap spending spree is that teams have managed their caps better. The 32 teams had a whopping $285 million of cap space available when free agency started. That's more than $9 million a team. Teams pay a premium when they sign a free agent during the first week, but with the extra cap room, the salaries skyrocketed.

Managing caps better, though, can also create a problem for teams trying to get significantly better. Better cap management means less players get cut for cap reasons. More than 100 players got cut last year for cap reasons. Including Jets wide receivers Curtis Conway and Steelers punter Josh Miller, who are scheduled to be cut Monday, only 70 players have been released.

Over the next week, teams will gobble up the remaining players on the unrestricted list and hit the restricted free agency list a little harder. After that, they will turn to the draft and regroup their finances.

But for now, here's a little of what we've learned after a wild beginning to free agency.

Best signing so far?

Defensive end Jevon Kearse by the Eagles. Sure, the Eagles blew it by underbidding in trade talks with the 49ers for Terrell Owens. James Thrash and a fifth-rounder for Owens? Please. But in getting Kearse, the Eagles filled the pass-rushing void they lost when Hugh Douglas went to Jacksonville last year. Kearse may have foot problems, but the Eagles are going with two new starting cornerbacks. The bigger foot problems would have been the footsteps of opposing receivers running past Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown if they didn't get any help with a pass rush.

Players who should be the most thankful?

Cornerbacks David Barrett (Jets), Jason Webster (Falcons) and Reggie Howard (Dolphins). All three received six-year, $21 million contracts and $4 million or more in signing bonuses when they were just hoping to get in the $2 million-a-year range. Those three players benefited from last week's wild action in the cornerback market.

Grant Wistrom
Wistrom
Signing that made people around the league scratch their heads?

Defensive end Grant Wistrom figured to get a good contract because he's a leader and has pass-rushing ability, but a $14 million signing bonus? That's the biggest sack of his career. The Rams offered him only $16.5 million over five years to stay. Wistrom got almost all of that upfront from the Seahawks. Despite being on winning teams and Super Bowl teams, Wistrom has never been to the Pro Bowl. With $14 million, he can sponsor the game.

Team that took the biggest hit?

Though the moves were self imposed because of the salary cap, the 49ers took the biggest hit. They cut, traded or are losing in free agency six starters on offense -- quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receivers Terrell Owens and Tai Streets, left tackle Derrick Deese, right guard Ron Stone and halfback Garrison Hearst. They could lose tight ends Eric Johnson and Jed Weaver, too. General manager Terry Donahue managed to salvage the defense by franchising versatile linebacker Julian Peterson and re-signing defensive end John Engelberger, safety Ronnie Heard and cornerback Ahmed Plummer, but the offense took a big hit.

Best players left on the market?

Eagles cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent, Ravens defensive end Adalius Thomas and Cowboys defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp, Broncos linebacker Ian Gold, Lions linebacker Barrett Green and Giants linebackers Dhani Jones and Brandon Short, Ravens right tackle Orlando Brown and Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson. The best player overall is Sapp.

Clinton Portis
Portis
How much better are the Redskins?

They've probably improved by two or three games with their nine acquisitions. The biggest improvement is on offense. They have a big-time running game with Clinton Portis. They have a great one-two punch at quarterback with Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey. Walter Rasby is a good role player at tight end. Tom Tupa is an experienced punter. The defense may not be as good without cornerback Champ Bailey, but the depth has been upgraded with the signings of defensive linemen Phillip Daniels and Cornelius Griffin, linebacker Marcus Washington and cornerbacks Shawn Springs and Jarametrius Butler. The Redskins could add Panthers linebacker Greg Favors, and they are looking at University of Miami safety Sean Taylor in the draft.

Which team feels the most jilted?

The Jets. They offered former Bills cornerback Antoine Winfield $18 million over the first three years of the contract and had everything typed up and ready for Winfield to sign. But Winfield's wife wasn't fond of moving to Long Island and the two flew off in a private jet to Minnesota where the Vikings put more money up front and signed him away from the Jets.

Player taking the biggest risk?

Clearly, Jeff Garcia is a gambler as a player. He is the same way as a business man. Not wanting to go back to the 49ers and take a paycut from $9 million to $5 million, Garcia was released and found only three teams interested. The Bucs and Falcons have only backup jobs. The gamble involves the Browns. If Tim Couch takes a paycut to $4 million, Garcia has to accept being just a backup. If Couch says no and is traded to Dallas, Garcia can get a $4 million starting job in Cleveland.

Most interesting team so far?

The Dolphins. They cut seven veterans to get under the cap, including three starting offensive linemen. They should come out with four new starters on the offensive line who will all be 26-years-old or younger. They added Reggie Howard as a high paid third cornerback now that it appears Sam Madison will take a pay cut to stay as the starter. The most intriguing moves, though, were at quarterback. Jay Fiedler stays, but A.J. Feeley comes over from Philadelphia to try to beat him out as the starter.

Damien Woody
Woody
Biggest change in philosophy?

Lions president Matt Millen didn't want to put up $4 million a year to keep guard Jeff Hartings a few years ago even though he could justify the payment by moving him to center. Last week, Millen spent more than $5 million a year and gave a $9 million signing bonus to Patriots interior offensive linemen Damien Woody. Still, the Lions offensive line is getting pretty good.

Best Bargain so far?

The Bengals snatched Bucs linebacker Nate Webster for a little over $2.4 million a year. Webster has great range and he will allow Kevin Hardy to move back to a more natural spot on the outside.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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