June will continue swoon
Free agency has been weak; don't expect things to change this month
June used to be a slightly overrated personnel opportunity before the current uncapped year, but at least it gave teams hope.
After the weakest free-agency offseason since the Plan B free agency of the late in 1980s, the impending start of June hits the pro football world strangely. Only 51 unrestricted free agents -- an all-time low -- have moved, and don't expect any more by Tuesday or Wednesday.
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Winning teams used to look to June to acquire a few key players who were salary-cap casualties of other teams. A capless year killed that. Here's how bad this year's free-agency period has been: Teams that have lost players haven't been in a rush to add unrestricted free agents because it could cost them compensatory draft choices next April. Before June, a team that suffers a net loss in free agency receives a compensatory pick.
The Panthers, for example, lost three players and weren't going to do anything to ruin their chances of getting extra third-, sixth- and seventh-round picks next year. The Giants are on the line for two sixths and a seventh. The Chiefs, who need players more than most teams, didn't want to risk losing the sixth-round choice and two seventh-rounders that might be available to them.
Only the Redskins have played the free-agent market hard, signing nine unrestricted free agents. However, those deals average only $970,000 a year, and only three signed for longer than one season, hardly a huge net gain as far as talent. Think about it. Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who would often led free-agent spending, is gambling only a little more than $10 million on a volume of players.
On July 24, the final eight playoff teams will no longer be held to the current restrictions that prevent them from signing a free agent without losing one first. That will allow the New York Jets to sign Mark Brunell, but little else is left.
Let the June swoon begin.
From the inbox
Q: The Dallas Cowboys are rumored to be shopping Marcus Spears. I think he would look great in the middle of the Saints' D-line. Could the two teams make a deal here? Would Spears, a 3-4 defensive end, fit as a 4-3 defensive tackle?
Will in New Orleans
A: Spears would fit nicely in the Saints' 4-3 line, but only as a backup because of Sedrick Ellis, who is the Warren Sapp-like gap-shooter who can cause chaos along the line. In a 4-3 scheme, Spears has those type of skills, and he has wanted to get back to a 4-3 scheme since his rookie days. I don't see a trade happening here. It wouldn't make sense for the Cowboys to deplete depth along the defensive line for a fifth-round pick or less, and it wouldn't make any sense for the Saints to offer more than a fifth for a three-technique player when they already have one. Interesting suggestion, though.
CJ from Reno, Nev., has been studying the free-agent tracker and wonders who is going to sign first -- Brian Westbrook, Terrell Owens or Pierre Thomas. Westbrook should sign with someone this week. Thomas is looking for a long-term deal with the Saints but at the very least should sign his restricted tender by June 15. T.O. might have to wait until close to training camp to find a team. Bobby in Orlando, Fla., supports the cold-weather Super Bowl in New York because he remembers the steady downpour in Super Bowl XLI that slowed down his Chicago Bears. But at least it was a warm rain. No shovels were needed. Brad in Beverly, Mass., counters, saying the idea is horrible because the cold-weather participants will have a distinct advantage over a warm-weather or domed team. I'm with Brad on this one. Sloaty in Merrill, Wis., notes a player has the ability to ask to renegotiate a contract, so he asks, why can't the club do the same if the player doesn't have a good season? Teams do it all the time. The team asks the player to take a pay cut. Remember, they can cut players because most base salaries aren't guaranteed. Bryan in Morgantown, W.Va., wants an evaluation of the 49ers' receiving corps. I think Michael Crabtree has Pro Bowl potential and could be the second or third best receiver in the NFC West this year. Josh Morgan is a solid No. 2 starter. Ted Ginn Jr. was a great addition as a third receiver. Brandon Jones was a major disappointment and I think Jason Hill might have moved ahead of him. Jonathan in DeSoto, Texas, shows some optimism for his Lions, but I don't see too many more wins this year. Next year, though, could be the big jump if they get one more good draft. Health is also a key. The good draft they had last year was marred by injuries. Jonathan in Chicago wants to know how the Dwayne Bowe situation will play out in Kansas City and whether the Chiefs can finish first or second in the division. I do think the Chiefs can give the Raiders and Broncos a good run for second place with about six wins, but that's about it. By Bowe reportedly saying his teammates arranged for girls to be at the team hotel to greet them, it's going to be hard for teammates to have great trust in him. Wooly in Busan, South Korea, the only update on tackle Jared Gaither of the Ravens is that he's getting a foot injury checked out and he won't be traded. The only way the Ravens would give him up is for a second-round choice or better. I don't see the Bills or another team doing that at this stage. In light of the Supreme Court decisions against the NFL in the hat licensing case involving American Needle, CJ in New York wonders if it has any impact on the broadcast rights. None. Fans will always have options. There will be three networks broadcasting live games on Sundays and the Monday nights, and Thursday night games will also be available on cable TV. Satellite and internet streaming options will be also available, but for a price. It's a very fair system and the technology keeps improving. The NFL doesn't want to change the free TV aspect of it. To Brant in Toledo, Ohio, I don't see Patrick Crayton as an option that would intrigue the Cleveland Browns in a trade. Crayton is good but wouldn't be a significant upgrade to that receiving corps. Plus, the Cowboys aren't going to give him away. Tim in Dallas suggests a Jammal Brown for Albert Haynesworth swap to help the Saints' defensive line. The Redskins looked at Brown before drafting Trent Williams. The Redskins plan to bring Haynesworth to camp, so a trade is unlikely. Jon in Detroit doesn't understand why the Lions drafted Jahvid Best because Best has an injury history just like Kevin Smith. Smith is coming off a knee reconstruction, but he should be available to play. The Lions wanted a different type of back to add explosiveness to the backfield. The expectation is Best isn't going to get 20 carries a game. I like the move. Mookie in Snellville, Ga., asks whether Clint Ingram is a legitimate linebacker for the Saints. He's a good backup option. He's coming off knee surgery and he has starting experience. Plus, the Saints signed him for the minimal. He's not as good as a healthy Scott Fujita, but the good news is that he had one season under Gregg Williams in Jacksonville.
Q: When people look back at this era of the NFL with guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, and Matt Schaub, etc., will this become known as The Quarterback Era? Even guys like Schaub aren't as widely known in this age of NFL as they would have been in say the '70s or '80s. Although quarterback is an incredibly important position, there are more guys out there now who change how teams play defense and even draft then there were in the past. It seems as if there are more elite level quarterbacks out there now than in previous years.
Gary in Middlebury, Ind.
A: Gary, I think it will. The first quarterback era started in the 1983 draft when six quarterbacks went in the first round, three of them making the Hall of Fame (John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino). I think the second quarterback era started with Manning in 1998. This is the deepest and most productive group of top-level quarterbacks in NFL history. The top quarterbacks -- on the average -- are completing 64.7 percent of their passes, scoring 25.7 points a game and winning more than 80 percent of their games when they are playing against non-elite quarterbacks. Even though I keep taking flak for putting Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco among my elite quarterbacks, I think there are 14 of them in the league this year. During the first quarterback era, the elite list was only as deep as about 11.
Q: I know you focus more on personnel, rules, coaches, etc., but I would like to know what is going on with the NFL and television. Why are we still in a model of only two stations airing games regionally? I don't want to have to sign up for an expensive service in order to watch the one or two games a week that are interesting but not for my region. Will that ever change?
Greg in Austin, Texas
A: I don't see a change. The reason you have two stations showing games on Sundays is because two networks have the Sunday afternoon rights -- Fox and CBS. Those networks alternate doubleheaders, and they pay billions for those rights. The great thing is that those afternoon games are free to the public. If you want more, you have to pay more. The satellite package from DirecTV generates more money for the league and is a great service, but DirecTV isn't giving it away for free. If they did, they'd be out of business.
Q: With the addition of Adam Jones and draft picks Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins, can the Bengals' defense now be regarded as one of the NFL's elite? Is that enough for them to repeat as AFC North champions?
James in Columbia, S.C.
A: Elite, no. Good, yes. What is lacking is a dominating defensive line. Antwan Odom did a nice job in the first half of last season rushing the passer, but he's coming off an injury. Except for Tank Johnson, the Bengals lack size at defensive tackle. The exciting part of the defense is the play of their cornerbacks and the speed and tackling ability of their linebackers. To repeat, though, the Bengals must play better. The schedule will be tougher, and the Bengals can't count on going 6-0 in divisional games like they did last season.
Q: The Buffalo Bills did not re-sign Terrell Owens and dumped Josh Reed. Do you think that C.J. Spiller out of Clemson could become a valuable receiver? The Bills have good running backs but have no help for Lee Evans, one of the most underrated wideouts in the NFL.
Nickuru in Raleigh, N.C.
A: I'm thinking it's reasonable for him to get about 40 or 50 catches. His run-after-the-catch ability should be exceptional. Defenses might have to put a cornerback on him because he should burn most linebackers. The problem facing the Bills is that they don't have enough weapons. Opposing teams will double-team Evans. Once defenses find ways of stopping Spiller, too, then the Bills' offense could grind to a halt.
Q: With the great draft class and players they have added in free agency, why isn't Kansas City getting any talk of being a much improved team. Is there no shot to be better than the Raiders, Broncos or Chargers?
Jeremy in Little Rock, Ark.
A: The Chiefs are still a draft or two away from respectability. I think they are good enough to get to six wins this season. Maybe they can catch a break and get to seven. What's holding them back is the run-after-catch ability of their receivers. Matt Cassel is an efficient quarterback, but he doesn't have a strong arm. The offensive line should be a little better, and the defense is starting to shape up. During Herm Edwards' last couple of years, the team got too old and the talent dropped off too far. At least the Chiefs are making progress.
Q: I have been a Texans fan since 2002. After the finish they had and the players coming back, I believe they can and will do great things in 2010. Why do almost all of the analysts have them ranked in the 14-16 area? I would think that they would be closer to the top 10 in preseason rankings. Is there something that analysts know that we fans don't?
Chris in Woodlands, Texas
A: Schedule, schedule, schedule. The Texans have the hardest 2010 schedule in football. Plus, they continue to have problems winning games in the AFC South. Houston was 1-5 in the division in 2009 and 2-4 in 2008.
Q: A lot of players don't wear proper padding and protection. Is this something the league wants to change?
Ike in Alexandria, Va.
A: Believe me, one of the big underlying topics at the owners meetings was player safety and padding. This is becoming a pet project for commissioner Roger Goodell. He sees too many players not wearing knee pads and hip pads and opting for small shoulder pads because of looks. He's working with the competition committee and experts to see whether it will be necessary to legislate mandatory padding even if it might change the appearance of players. Stay tuned. This could be an interesting little battle, and in the end, the commissioner is going to be the winner.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.