- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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This past week was one in which the teams held the advantage. An NFL-record 14 potential free agents were franchised, further depleting a shallow free-agent pool.
This week, the negotiating advantage slips to the players. Teams have until midnight ET Thursday to reach agreement with their players and prevent them from hitting the open market. Agents for the top free agents know how thin certain positions are.
Take cornerback. With Nnamdi Asomugha, Kelvin Hayden and Dunta Robinson franchised or signed last week, the top free-agent cornerbacks are Ron Bartell, Bryant McFadden and DeAngelo Hall. Their teams would like to keep them, but the market has increased, and each of these players could get up to $8 million a season to leave. Those figures have stalled re-signing talks.
Here's a quick preview of what might happen before the start of free agency.
The Titans and the Cardinals must determine whether they will be able to re-sign their starting quarterbacks. The Cardinals have drawn closer to getting a deal done with Kurt Warner by increasing their offer to the $12 million-a-year range. Warner would like to be paid among the top five quarterbacks with a two-year deal. Chances are improving that a deal could be done before Thursday. The Titans aren't close to reaching a deal with Kerry Collins.
The highest-stakes game remains Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. The Titans appear willing to give Haynesworth around $10 million a year, but he could get $15 million to $16 million a year if he hits free agency.
With more teams going to 3-4 defenses, the demand for nose tackles and 3-4 defensive ends will be high. Because of that, current Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty will have plenty of suitors. Chargers defensive end Igor Olshansky and Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith also figure to do well on the market.
Expect a game of musical chairs at inside linebacker if deals aren't done before Friday. Ray Lewis and Bart Scott of the Ravens, Channing Crowder of the Dolphins, Zach Thomas and Kevin Burnett of the Cowboys, and Takeo Spikes of the 49ers all are available. The Ravens probably won't know until Thursday night whether Lewis will be back.
The Ravens have another challenge in trying to re-sign 320-pound center Jason Brown. With more teams going to 3-4 schemes, a bigger center is in demand, and Brown is big enough to handle those big nose tackles. The Ravens are trying desperately to re-sign him. Two veteran centers who may hit the market are Matt Birk of the Vikings and Jeff Saturday of the Colts.
During the next four days, teams also must set up trade scenarios. Do the Cardinals offer a contract extension to WR Anquan Boldin, or do they trade him? The Patriots hope they have set the stage for a Matt Cassel trade. Chiefs RB Larry Johnson will continue to push for a trade.
It should be a busy few days.
Let's dive into the mailbag:
From the inbox
Q: John, what is the feeling about the front-office moves the Detroit Lions have made since firing Matt Millen? How does the rest of the league view the Lions' revamped front office?
Derek in Muskegon, Mich.
A: The one criticism going around is the lack of fresh talent evaluators. When you lose for so long, you'd like to have new sets of eyes seeing what you have. So far, though, I like the path general manager Martin Mayhew has taken. He's been meticulous about what he's doing. First, he got great value for wide receiver Roy Williams in the trade with the Cowboys. I think he made a good move by making Daunte Culpepper the Lions' "bridge'' quarterback until they can figure out what to do in the draft. He has locked up a few starters but has the ability to upgrade in free agency and the draft. Listen, it's going to take a few years to get this team back to a competitive level. He's off to a good start.
Q: I couldn't help but feel the Cardinals fired Clancy Pendergast at the wrong time. I got the feeling that the true reason he was fired was because he didn't hold the players accountable for their shortcomings -- which we all know is something Ken Whisenhunt has preached for quite some time. Is this truly the case?
Colton in Scranton, Pa.
A: Pendergast was blindsided by his firing. He was a carryover coach from the previous staff, and Whisenhunt wanted his own guy as defensive coordinator. Pendergast will be fine. He has head-coaching credentials in the future. In Kansas City, he'll get a chance to re-establish himself and rebuild his career. His reputation around the league is very good. He has an aggressive, blitzing scheme that works and can coach the 4-3 or 3-4. The Cardinals will be fine, too. Whisenhunt knows what he's doing.
Q: The one thing that has really caught my attention is the possibility of some kind of labor strife between the players and owners looming in the next couple of years. How realistic is the possibility that we'll have a strike or lockout in the NFL in the next couple of years?
A: There is better than a 50 percent chance of a lockout in 2011. If the league goes to an uncapped year in 2010, it is going to be hard for the owners to get a salary cap back into the NFL model. The salary cap came as a result of a lawsuit, and only bad things can happen if no deal is done. The league basically has until next March to come up with a collective bargaining extension. I'm optimistic. I think something can and will be done, but it's going to be hard. The clock is ticking. It is time to get worried.
Q: I imagine your piece about whether or not to change overtime has filled your mailbox a dozen times already, but here's one more idea: Sudden death would occur when one team scores a minimum of four points in overtime. In this scenario, a one-posession overtime would happen only if the receiving team scores a touchdown. The kicker could still be a key. He could win the game by kicking two field goals before the other team does. Or, he could pin the opponent with a deep kickoff, which could result in a safety.
Archie in Boca Raton, Fla.
A: Archie, that's a pretty good solution. Again, I'm not for change, but because kickers have become so consistent, some concession probably needs to be made. The idea is to not let overtimes be decided by a short kickoff, a good return and a cheap field goal. As long as teams have to earn their game-winning field goal, the change works.
Q: John, I was reading your piece on how teams have become wary of drafting underclassmen QBs. How come the NFL doesn't change its draft rules so that underclassmen can't be drafted on the first day? That would help encourage the more talented young players to stay an extra year in college.
John in Tampa, Fla.
A: As long as a college player stays in school for three years, there can't be any restrictions on his ability to be drafted. If there were, a player could sue the NFL and probably have a pretty good chance of winning. It's buyer beware when you take a quarterback who is a junior or red-shirted sophomore. It took a lot just to make players have at least three years of eligibility in college before turning pro. More restrictions are highly unlikely.
Q: In your opinion, which is the better option: trading for Boldin or signing T.J.
Tim in Dayton, N.J.
A: That depends on the team. If the team is Philadelphia, I think trading for Boldin would be the better option. If it's the Giants, I'd vote for a Boldin trade. If it's Chicago or Seattle, I think Houshmandzadeh would be the better option because it doesn't require either team to give up a draft choice.
Q: What position should the Chiefs look to fill with the No. 3 pick?
Bryan in Kansas City, Mo.
A: The Chiefs had a great draft last year, getting a defensive tackle, a left tackle, two corners, a tight end, a safety and a running back. Now, they need to work on getting more weapons for the offense. First, they need a quarterback. They either have to draft Mark Sanchez or trade for Matt Cassel. Second, they need to continue to rebuild the offensive line. They probably could use one more wide receiver. The key is getting the quarterback. Tyler Thigpen can do some things, but they are in position to get the first or second quarterback in the draft. Trading down wouldn't really help as much. They got volume last year.
Q: Do you think there is any chance the Patriots will draft a running back in one of the early rounds? Laurence Maroney has been a dissapointment the last few years, and Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk aren't getting any younger.
Matt in Boston
A: No way. There are too many good, available veterans. They could sign Fred Taylor. They could trade for Larry Johnson. Maroney has been a disappointment, but the Patriots spread the wealth in the backfield. They still have Morris and Faulk. They also can use Heath Evans as a running back if they re-sign him. This is a veteran team, and its resources in the draft can be used for help in the secondary, along the defensive line and maybe on the offensive line.
Q: The belief seems to be that the Jags will not be big players in the free-agent market. But they have a lot of money under the cap. Also, coach Jack Del Rio's job is on the line this year, so rebuilding doesn't make a lot of sense. Any chance they go for a big-time player?
Josh in Jacksonville, Fla.
A: They have gotten away from signing big-name free agents. Those have hurt the Jaguars in the past. The best way for them to build is through the draft, but you're right, they have created more holes than they can fill just by using draft choices. My guess is they will sign only midlevel-type free agents.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.