- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Sixteen unrestricted free agents changed teams in the first three days of free agency.
But as rich as some of the contracts were, it's pretty easy to see that teams are being more practical with their spending. That probably doesn't bode well for those who don't get deals in the next week.
You can see the differences in spending by units. The 2010 free-agency class had some big-name defensive players, and they all got paid. Julius Peppers (Chicago) received a six-year, $91.5 million deal, and defensive ends Kyle Vanden Bosch (Detroit) and Aaron Kampman (Jacksonville) each received a four-year, $26 million contract. Cornerback Dunta Robinson got a six-year, $57 million deal from Atlanta. Linebacker Karlos Dansby received a five-year, $43 million contract from Miami.
Former Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin cashed in on a four-year, $28 million deal once he was traded to Baltimore, but no unrestricted offensive player received more than $5 million a year in free agency. The Lions gave a five-year, $25 million deal to wide receiver Nate Burleson. Although that might seem like a lot, it's right in line with what a No. 2 starting receiver would receive.
Because of the uncapped year, 159 players who would have been unrestricted free agents were relegated to restricted status. That limited unrestricted free agency to 221 players with marginal marketability. Although such a scenario could have caused teams to overspend on average players, the first weekend of free agency -- which is always the most expensive -- didn't turn out to be too economically crazy.
From the inbox
Q: Does anyone else think that the UFAs who got signed on Day 1 of free agency were overpaid? Because I sure do. Julius Peppers got a ridiculous amount of money for a DE who is 30 and past trends indicate he isn't going to be a double-digit sack guy. Antrel Rolle isn't even close to being among the top 10 safeties in the league. Karlos Dansby has never made a Pro Bowl. This is absurd!
Warren in Hamilton, Ontario
A: To sign anyone who is good on the first day of free agency, teams must overpay. That's the system. Free agency is a byproduct of problems with drafting, not teams trying to buy a championship. General managers must look ahead to the draft to see whether they can get players who fill their biggest voids. If they are uncertain they can get those players, they make these bold moves. That's why the owners must get a collective bargaining extension by next year, when more than 500 players can become free agents (if most of this year's restricted free agents accept one-year deals). The only way to get a top player early in free agency is to overpay him.
Q: At least right now the Lions ' D-line looks better. Kyle Vanden Bosch, Corey Williams, Sammie Lee Hill, Jason Hunter and Cliff Avril are at least decent on paper. Adding either Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy should shore up that front seven. My question more or less is with the secondary: Do these pickups make it more of a possibility that the Lions will consider Eric Berry with the second overall pick? Also, with Antrel Rolle and Dunta Robinson with new teams, who is left on the DB market?
Gary in Middlebury, Ind.
A: Taking a safety that high is unlikely, even though Berry is a great talent. The problem is money. Rolle received $7.5 million a year. A safety taken at No. 2 would make $11 million a year. That's why the Lions would love to trade the pick, but they probably can't unless they can entice a team to trade up to draft one of the top two cornerbacks. The salary scale is out of whack at the top of the draft, and it forces teams to make value judgments. The Lions will take one of those two defensive tackles if they can't trade out of the pick. As for the secondary, there aren't too many viable options until the draft. That's why they are close to trading for Chris Houston of the Falcons. Once Robinson was signed, the best cornerback remaining in free agency was Leigh Bodden, who already has been in Detroit (2008).
Q: I know it's still early in free agency, but why haven't the Raiders made any deals? Al Davis is known to spend the money, and with this being an uncapped free agency, one would think he would make some moves. Is it because the Raiders aren't looking or because no one wants to come to Oakland?
Greg in Florence, Ky.
A: This year, Davis invested money to keep players on his team, and the free-agent list really didn't match the Raiders' needs. They weren't going to sign a wide receiver, defensive end or cornerback. Although everyone outside of the organization knows it needs quarterback help, Davis wants to stay with JaMarcus Russell and Bruce Gradkowski. Plus, there weren't any good free-agent quarterbacks available. Like many teams, the Raiders elected to sit out the first round of a bad free-agent class.
Q: Why is there such a bad rap against Donovan McNabb? Being a fan of a quarterback-needy team with a good defense and running game, he would be an excellent addition. I know Philadelphia fans are pretty tough, but I've always viewed him an upper-echelon quarterback.
Jonathan in West Fargo, N.D.
A: I agree with you. Some franchises go decades without getting a quarterback as good as McNabb. He has helped to take the franchise to five conference championship games and one trip to the Super Bowl. Some people don't realize how hard it is to win playoff games. McNabb and Andy Reid have been pretty automatic. If they make the playoffs, they usually win the first game. Still, there is a faction in the Eagles' front office that wants to move to the next quarterback, Kevin Kolb. Like most aging quarterbacks, McNabb has lost some of his skills, but he still is good and still can take a team deep into the playoffs. With Brett Favre expected back with the Vikings, I don't see a McNabb trade, but the era is about ready to end. This could be his last season in Philadelphia.
Q: I know based on what I've read (mostly from you) that the uncapped year may lead to teams curbing their spending rather than increasing it. There is one situation, however, where I just don't see why teams wouldn't take advantage of in the uncapped year: Signing players who are going to get big guaranteed money. For example, if Colts really are going to guarantee Peyton Manning somewhere in the range of $40 million, why not just make his 2010 "salary" $40 million and then have him get base salaries of say $5 million a year in the remaining years? This way, the cap hit is all absorbed in the first year (which is uncapped), rather than prorated over the life of the deal.
Brian in Durham, N.C.
A: That is one strategy, although you get the feeling the Colts would rather pay him upfront money in terms of a signing bonus. There is nothing that would prevent the Colts from just giving him a big base salary. It's going to be hard for the Colts to figure out the right way to do a contract with Manning because they don't know the rules for the future. They don't know whether there will be a cap. Believe me, everyone in NFL management is taking stabs into the dark trying to figure out the right things to do in this unusual time in NFL labor. From Manning's standpoint, how he is paid probably doesn't matter to him just as long as he gets the money and it doesn't have a long-term impact on keeping players on future rosters.
Q: With the draft coming up soon, I'd like to know your opinion on Oakland taking Bruce Campbell with the No. 8 pick. I know he is a project at tackle and I believe the Raiders do too. But with Al Davis, you really never know what he is going to do in the draft as evidenced by the Darrius Heyward-Bey and Mike Mitchell picks last year. However, Campbell had a remarkable combine, had the fastest 40 time of any lineman and has the size. Do you think that this might be a very possible pick by Oakland?
Mike in Wantagh, N.Y.
A: Even though he ran a 4.78-second 40-yard dash while weighing 317 pounds, his film doesn't merit a top-10 selection. You are right about how Davis loves speed and athleticism. That could make him a candidate in the second round if he lasts that long. Watching Campbell and Taylor Mays run so well at the combine sure makes you think Davis will be looking at both players. The Raiders under Davis always believe the one thing you can't coach is speed. He wants fast players. He wants great athletes. No doubt, he will study them.
Q: Do you think the Packers are content with their running back duo of Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson? Or could you see them making a run at a third-down back who provides explosiveness, adds more on third down and can help fix the Packers' below-average return game?
Zach in Madison, Wis.
A: I think they are content at the position. General manager Ted Thompson isn't big on free agency, so don't expect him to go there for extra help in the backfield. It's not out of the question for him to draft a fast back in the third or fourth round. Thompson loves having competition at positions in camp. He loves having a deep roster at all positions. Jackson came on as a good backup this past season. The backfield isn't broken, so there is no reason for Thompson to try to do much there. He needs to concentrate on finding young potential starting tackles and finding good, young cornerbacks.
Q: Why is everyone at ESPN so concerned with Tim Tebow and where he gets drafted? He is not even the highest-rated quarterback in the draft, but yet he gets the most publicity out of everyone there. It's always Tebow, Tebow, Tebow; there are other many better players than him.
Myers in Georgia
A: The reason everyone keeps talking Tebow is that people want to hear about him. I'll give you an example. Last week, the divisional bloggers on ESPN.com wrote about whether or not Tebow would fit on the teams in their divisions. The readership numbers were huge. I can understand why you might be worn out from hearing his name and being pounded with stories about him, but he was one of the greatest college players ever and his transition into the NFL is a fascinating story. The majority rules in the country, and a good majority of the people who follow football have spoken by reading everything that's written about Tebow.
Q: What are some of the issues you see facing the Redskins' transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4, and how do you feel about Jim Haslett? It seems like it could be a hard transition because the Redskins have run a 4-3 for so long. What do you think?
Zach in Frederickburg, Va.
A: Haslett is a good defensive coach, and he brings a lot of the zone-blitzing schemes to Washington that he learned when he was with the Steelers. The biggest transition is involving Albert Haynesworth. He loves being a defensive tackle in a 4-3. He might not take to being a nose tackle or a defensive end who is forced to two-gap. Haslett's biggest challenge is having Haynesworth buy into the scheme and using him effectively. With the Redskins last season and with the Titans the rest of his career, Haynesworth was double-teamed, but he was allowed to worry about only one gap. There will be an adjustment at cornerback too, because there will be more zone defensive plays. In a perfect world, the Redskins would find a veteran nose tackle to handle the dirty work and let Haynesworth destroy things from the defensive end position.
Q: Do you think the Steelers will pursue a veteran running back via free agency to complement Rashard Mendenhall?
Melvin in Paulsboro, N.Y.
A: Not in the first wave of free agency. Mendenhall has all the potential to be a star. The Steelers are set at starter. If Willie Parker leaves as a free agent, they can see about picking up a low-price vet or just simply draft a back.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Defensive stars were the big winners in what was a relatively tame opening weekend of free agency, John Clayton writes in his latest mailbag.