- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Welcome to Free Agency Lite.
Each year, teams get better at managing the salary cap. Because of that, free agency has gone back almost to its roots. Remember Plan B free agency? That beginners' version of free agency was around in the late 1980s when teams could protect most of their top players, and only the unwanted hit free agency.
In some ways, the 2005 crop of free agents is similar to those Plan B days. The usually hectic March 1 scramble will change this, but by my count, there are only 84 starters (guys who started eight games or more last season) currently available in free agency.
The younger the starter, the more chance of hitting a big payday. The important positions such as quarterback, defensive end, tackle, cornerback, wide receiver, big-play linebacker and running back get the big money. Safeties, guards, fullbacks, kickers and punters struggle to draw top dollar.
With 32 teams trying to push for 84 starters, expect free agency to move fast. The players who don't get the big dollars in the first 10 days could be out of luck. Signings will continue until the middle of training camp in August, but those who didn't hit the jackpot in the first 10 days will struggle.
Here are the twists and turns you should look for in this year's free agency period:
1. Cornerbacks are king: A year ago, 13 cornerbacks hit paydays of $3 million per year or more, with Champ Bailey getting the best contract from the Denver Broncos. Even though the new emphasis on illegal contact after five yards made it tough on cornerbacks last season, the price of top corners continues to grow. Already, there are rumors of $15 million signing bonuses for the top corners in this class. Several of the younger corners are counting on signing bonuses of $10 million or more. The top young corners are Ken Lucas of the Seahawks, Fred Smoot of the Redskins, Gary Baxter of the Ravens, Andre Dyson of the Titans and Anthony Henry of the Browns. What will be interesting to see is whether teams go for the younger corners, or the proven veteran Pro Bowl corners such as Samari Rolle and Ty Law, who are on the market after being cut. Also, don't forget Patrick Surtain of the Dolphins, who's available in a trade. The Chiefs and the Cowboys are the teams with the most desperate need for cornerback help, and they will drive the market.
2. By a nose: There are some interesting battles at nose tackle. The Jets are trying like crazy to keep nose tackle Jason Ferguson, but they know that won't be easy. Bill Parcells, who is thinking about shifting into a 3-4 defense, would love to bring Ferguson to Dallas. That battle could take Ferguson into the $3.5 million- to $4 million-per-year range. The top of the market is Bills defensive tackle Pat Williams. Watch out for the Vikings here. Imagine the impact of Williams' playing next to Kevin Williams, who became this season's Kris Jenkins. The two-Williams combination could free up a lot of space in Minnesota for linebackers Napoleon Harris (coming in the Randy Moss trade) and E.J. Henderson to make plays.
3. Big catch: The wide receiver market is strange this year. The top receivers on the market are there because they've been released. Muhsin Muhammad already received a six-year, $30 million contract from the Bears. Derrick Mason, formerly of the Titans, is being pursued by five teams and the final price could be close to what Muhammad got. T.J. Houshmanzadeh of the Bengals will get nice money. The best young receiver of the group is Plaxico Burress of the Steelers. So far, he's a little slow getting a feel for his market, but expect a big rush. The Ravens have to rebuild their receiving corps. They will be ready to strike for a top receiver or two.
4. Running on empty: Pity the running backs. LaMont Jordan of the Jets heads the list of free agent running backs, but beware of the rookies. This is a running back rich draft and the veterans on the free agent market aren't being helped by the rookies who looked good at the Indianapolis scouting combine. Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams of Auburn and J.J. Arrington of Cal convinced Cardinals coach Dennis Green that he could get running back help in the draft. The only other teams in the market for starting running backs are the Raiders and Bucs. That hurts the market of backs like Jordan, Anthony Thomas and Ron Dayne. It could also give the Jets a shot at re-signing Jordan.
5. Lining up the 3-4 More and more defenses are switching to the 3-4, and that will create interesting decisions at linebacker. Kendrell Bell of the Steelers is the best inside linebacker, but he's had a history of injuries that might scare teams away from paying him $6 million per year. Still, Bell makes plays when he's on the field. Somebody will pay him big. The hottest name is Edgerton Hartwell of the Ravens. Don't be surprised if he ends up with the best contract. He's an outside playmaker who can also play inside. Most of the top teams in need of linebackers have him targeted No. 1 or No. 2 on their boards. Antonio Pierce of the Redskins is the sleeper at middle linebacker, but the Redskins hope to re-sign him.
6. Line help: The offensive tackle market is thin. Jonas Jennings of the Bills is the best pure left tackle and figures to get a $5 million-per-year deal from somebody. The Bills don't think he merits that type of contract, but if you need a left tackle, Jennings is the guy. There are some interesting right tackles available: Kareem McKenzie of the Jets, Stockar McDougle of the Lions and Oliver Ross of the Steelers are in demand.
7. Signals crossed: Free agency isn't the answer for finding a young starting quarterback. That's not surprising because teams don't want their quarterbacks on the open market. The Chargers franchised Drew Brees for that reason. This will be a fast market for quarterbacks, but that doesn't mean there will be a lot of money. Kurt Warner figures to have the best chance of landing a starting job or at least a top backup job. He could get a deal as soon as Tuesday or Wednesday and when he does, the backup quarterback scramble will begin. Jeff Garcia could go to Detroit, Gus Frerotte to Miami, Brad Johnson to Arizona, Jay Fiedler to the Giants, Vinny Testaverde to the Jets, and on and on.
8. A cut above: There is an argument that the list of players who have been cut might be better than the free agent list. Just look at the defensive ends for example: Kevin Carter, Vonnie Holliday, Marcellus Wiley and Travis Hall are bigger names than Chike Okeafor, Reggie Hayward and Derrick Burgess, who are the top unrestricted free agents.
9. Guard play: One of the deeper areas is at offensive guard, where the top players should all come in between $3 million and $4 million per year. Take your pick: Marco Rivera of the Packers, Ben Hamilton of the Broncos, Keydrick Vincent of the Steelers, Joe Andruzzi of the Patriots, Rick DeMulling of the Colts and Pork Chop Womack of the Seahawks offer a nice mixture of veterans and youth.
10. Safety hazard: One of the toughest positions to resolve is at safety. It's getting harder and harder each year to find safeties in free agency who are going to be with a team for three or more years. The release of Robert Griffith of the Browns, Cory Hall of the Falcons, Ray Buchanan of the Raiders and Dexter Jackson of the Bucs proved that. The best available free agents are Kenoy Kennedy of the Broncos, John Howell and Dwight Smith of the Bucs and Sammy Knight of the Dolphins.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Cornerbacks and defensive tackles should be in demand this year in free agency.