Commentary

Quick free-agent fixes becoming harder to find

In his weekly mailbag, John Clayton tackles questions on the Chiefs' QB situation, Reggie Bush, the strength of the NFC and more.

Originally Published: September 10, 2008
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Now that the season has started, we can begin to get a read on the 2008 free-agent class. So far, the news isn't encouraging for teams that use free agency to acquire impact starters.

Only 34 of the 132 unrestricted free agents who moved to new teams became starters. Think about that -- that's roughly only one per team.

Remember how the Dolphins came out in the first days of free agency and signed six players? From that group, only guard Justin Smiley started on opening day. Charlie Anderson was supposed to be the answer at strongside linebacker, but a hamstring problem and a good camp by converted defensive end Matt Roth put Anderson behind Roth last week.

Wide receiver Ernest Wilford received a four-year, $13 million contract to be inactive in Week 1. Defensive tackle Randy Starks, linebacker Reggie Torbor and tight end Sean Ryan are backups. Quarterback Josh McCown was traded to Carolina for a seventh-round choice.

The Patriots signed five, but wide receiver Sam Aiken, who's currently injured, is the only survivor. The Bucs signed eight, but only center Jeff Faine emerged as a starter. Defensive end Marques Douglas, linebackers Teddy Lehman and Leon Joe, and cornerback Eugene Wilson didn't make the team.

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan tried to fix defensive holes in free agency and had some success. Linebacker Boss Bailey and safety Marquand Manuel started in Week 1, but Niko Koutouvides lost the middle linebacker job to Nate Webster.

Wide receiver was clearly the worst position. Jerry Porter of the Jaguars and Donte' Stallworth of the Browns did not play in Week 1 because of injuries. Drew Carter of the Raiders is out for the season with a knee injury. D.J. Hackett of the Panthers and Keary Colbert of the Broncos ended up as backups. The only free-agent wide receivers who were starters on opening day were Bryant Johnson of the 49ers, Bernard Berrian of the Vikings and Devard Darling of the Chiefs.

The draft is still the best place to find starters and develop them. Free agency can only help to add depth and maybe hit on a possible starter. Fewer quality players hit the market because teams have ample cap room to re-sign their own. The days of waiting for bargains are also over.

From the group of 68 unrestricted free agents signed before March 10, only 29 ended up as starters. Of the 64 signed after March 10, only five won starting jobs.

Let's dive into the mailbag:

From the inbox

Q: John, Could you please explain the new coin-toss rule. I'm confused as to how it is different than before. Does the winner of the coin toss have to take the ball first?

John in New York

A: It's pretty simple. The NFL has gone to the college rule in allowing the winner of the coin toss to have more options. The coin-toss winner can now defer the chance to return a kick until the second half. Six of the 16 coin-toss winners in Week 1 decided to defer until the second half. Curiously, three of those victors were offensive coaches -- Scott Linehan of the Rams, Jon Gruden of the Bucs and Ken Whisenhunt of the Cardinals. All three were on the road.

Wade Phillips of the Cowboys and Marvin Lewis of the Bengals, defensive coaches who were on the road, also decided to defer. Jeff Fisher of the Titans was a home against the Jaguars and decided to defer. The Patriots' Bill Belichick said he would defer in most incidents, but that was before Tom Brady's season-ending injury.

Q: I was wondering if you know which teams cause the most injuries. I first began to think about this when I noticed that the Titans seem to injure players in almost every game they play.

Charles in Jacksonville, Fla.

A: Someone might have those stats, and at some point I will flush out those numbers, but that won't be an overnight process. I have been feeding a database for the past two seasons on missed starts, but I haven't extended it to the games in which those players were hurt. Often, you have to go back to the film or game stories to find out how a player got hurt. Some are injured in noncontact plays. Though this might not be a satisfactory answer for now, stay tuned. We'll try to figure out a way to do that in the future.

[+] EnlargeDaunte Culpepper
Tim Umphrey/Getty ImagesDaunte Culpepper appears to be at peace with his decision to walk away from football.

Q: Kansas City needs a good quarterback. Do you think there's a chance Daunte Culpepper could be interested? Plus, do you think Kolby Smith should get more playing time than Larry Johnson?

Jonathan in Darlington, S.C.

A: You're right about Kansas City's need for a quarterback, but forget Culpepper. He was pretty firm about his retirement when he e-mailed me last week. He's frustrated he was viewed only as an injury replacement, not a viable starter. Plus, the Chiefs don't want to bring in many players 30 or older. They want to build with youth. The problem now with injuries is that most of the replacements available are in their 30s. As for Smith, he's clearly the third back on that team. Johnson is still a beast. Jamaal Charles looks solid as the backup because of his speed. Smith has also been fighting injuries since early in training camp. Still, he's a good back.

Q: John, could you please forward this message to Culpepper if you have his contact information? Daunte, I am a loyal Minnesota Vikings fan and am very sorry to hear the news of your retirement. It is as disappointing to me as when you left the Vikings. There has been nothing in sports more exciting to me than the anticipation of a Daunte Culpepper deep ball to Randy Moss. Those few moments of excitement and wondering what was going to happen while the ball was in the air were a thrill for me. I hope this note reaches you, and if the opportunity arises, you'll reconsider a return to the NFL.

Matt in Madison, Wis.

A: Matt, you are expressing the thoughts of a lot of fans. Good job by you. Culpepper will be missed.

Q: If Reggie Bush can't prove to be a consistent threat at running back this year, shouldn't the Saints move him to wide receiver? All of his big plays have come from catches and he's best when he has the ball in space. I could see him playing in the slot like Wes Welker.

Kyle is Los Angeles

[+] EnlargeReggie Bush
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireReggie Bush produced 163 yards from scrimmage in the Saints' Week 1 victory over Tampa Bay.
A: That's not a dumb thought. In fact, when I was at a game in the Superdome last season, two knowledgeable people said making him a receiver could be an option. Don't expect that to happen anytime soon, though. Bush got off to a great start in the opener, and coach Sean Payton seems to know the right ways to put him in patterns to take advantage of his hands and his legs. Against the Bucs in Week 1, he was the fastest guy on the field. It didn't work last year because the Saints lost the inside running threats that freed Bush up to be a pass-catching back.

Q: Hey, John, I hear a lot of talk that the Cowboys are a lock to win the Super Bowl. My question to you: What is the percentage of sports teams that look good on paper and go out and win it all?

Eric

A: My guess is that history shows that locks are 50-50 or maybe less. Locks are hard to find. First of all, I don't think the Cowboys are a lock to win the Super Bowl. I picked them to be in the Super Bowl, but I predicted they would lose to the Chargers. You have to win a playoff game before you think Super Bowl. You saw how long it took for the Chargers to win a playoff game. Now, they are Super Bowl-ready. This should be the year the Cowboys break through and get that playoff win. Hey, the Patriots, coming of a perfect season were supposed to be a lock to beat the Giants. You saw how that one went. Someone threw away the key.

Q: Do you think we will see another player dominate both baseball and football like Bo Jackson did anytime soon?

Harlen

A: Once a generation, an athlete with two- or three-sport ability pops up. Probably the odds are against someone dominating in baseball and football because the salaries are too high to risk playing both sports. A Bo Jackson would make $8 million in football and more than $10 million in baseball if he had enough qualifying years. The problem facing a football player trying to add a baseball career to his résumé is that he would make a minimal salary too long waiting to become a free agent. Still, you never say never.

Q: For years, the NFC has been labeled as the weak side of the NFL, but are things changing? Teams like the Cowboys, Giants, Packers, Vikings and Seahawks are all teams that look like playoff contenders to me. I know the AFC is still strong, but the Pats are aging terribly, the Colts are in a strengthened division and the Jags can't keep their players out of hospitals... So would it be wrong to say that the NFC is up and coming?

Drew in Sayre, Okla.

A: Maybe this is the year. Last year, the AFC and NFC played to a draw, but the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl. I recently wrote that the NFC East must be the best division over the AFC South because of its improving play at quarterback and that division's ability to rush the passer. The NFC got off to a good start in Week 1. There is no doubt the NFC caught up to the AFC in overall competitiveness. If the AFC is indeed moving backward with the loss of Brady, and with other top AFC teams having troubles, this could be the true breakthrough year for the NFC. Remember, these things always go in cycles. That's the history of the league.

Q: I was hoping you could tell me exactly what happened to Chris Simms in Baltimore. Did he just show poorly, did he want too much money or did he just not want to play there?

Anonymous fan in Memphis

A: The circumstances in Baltimore weren't right for Simms, who ended up signing with the Titans. The Ravens had lost Kyle Boller to a season-ending injury and Troy Smith is out a couple more weeks following a rare tonsil infection. The Ravens had only Joe Flacco available for the opening game. They needed a quick study who could be the backup until Smith was healthy. Todd Bouman fit that job description perfectly. He could pick up the offense in a few days and be ready to play if called upon. It probably didn't help that Simms is a southpaw, which would cause blocking-adjustment problems in a one-week crash course for the offense. What surprised me is the Cowboys didn't sign Simms over Brooks Bollinger.

Q: Hey, John, you're not the only who made this mistake, but the last rookie QB to start in Week 1 was Kyle Orton, not Boller.

Matt in Chicago

A: You are right. I should have been clearer in specifying rookie starters exclusive of injury. Orton started because Rex Grossman was hurt that year (2005). Clearly, the intent was not to have Orton as a rookie starter. Maybe that could be argued about Flacco in Baltimore, but the Ravens drafted him to be the eventual starter. Smith and Boller were hurt, so something had to give.

John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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