Only a month into the offseason, the NFL's most explosive wide receiver, Randy Moss, already has changed teams. In coming weeks, there will be plenty of rhetoric over the possibility that Indianapolis Colts tailback Edgerrin James could be dealt away. At least a half-dozen veterans have been granted permission by their current teams to seek out potential trade suitors.
OK, so the NFL hasn't exactly become a full-blown swapfest. Not like other American professional sports. But what Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay for years has referred to as "The No-Trade League," because of the paucity of meaningful and high-profile deals, has seen a profound increase in wheeling and dealing the past couple of seasons, and there could be more to come.
"Frankly, yeah, I'm shocked," McKay acknowledged. "To do a trade in this league, you need a lot of elements to come together to get something done. You have to have two teams willing to participate, agreement on compensation, and then you still have to deal with the salary cap [implications]. That's a lot of layers. It's a lot of pieces."
Teams have been more successful of late, however, in making the trade pieces fit.
Last season, there were trades involving 11 wide receivers, nine of them starters. The Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos struck a megadeal involving tailback Clinton Portis and perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey, among the NFL's premier performers at their respective positions. Defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who led the AFC in sacks in 2003, was dealt to the Chicago Bears. Big-time playmakers such as Terrell Owens, Marty Booker, David Boston and Keyshawn Johnson all gained new addresses in trades.
The coming weeks, particularly in the days leading up to the NFL draft April 23-24, could bring considerable action in the suddenly resuscitated trade market.
The most compelling name that will be rumored in trade talks almost certainly will be that of James, who seems intent on either talking his way or dealing his way away from the Colts. Word is that newly retained agent Drew Rosenhaus already has floated some long-term contract numbers to Indianapolis officials and that there is a wide disparity between what James is seeking and what the Colts might pay. The Colts can essentially force James to play under the "franchise" marker for a year, but if team officials are concerned their star runner will boycott camp, they might become more inclined to cut a deal that would bring them several high-round draft choices.
Rosenhaus has a proven track record for stirring things up and for being able to create trade opportunities for unhappy clients. That is part of James' rationale in hiring him.
But there figure to be trade discussions on a lot of fronts in the offseason and, while some league observers aren't ready yet to concede the end of "The No-Trade League" as we have known it for many years, there has been a not-so-subtle shift in thinking.
"There aren't as many barriers now as there used to be," one owner said at the Indianapolis scouting combine. "Teams have done a much better job of managing their caps and there is more space now to absorb a trade. But we're never going to be a big trade league like baseball, no matter what happens, really. It's still a sport that isn't all that conducive to trading. But that being said, yes, [trades] are on the upswing, and I think teams are more open now to discussing them."
Around the league
One of the mysteries of the first few days of free agency is the dearth of action that Pittsburgh wide receiver Plaxico Burress is garnering on the market. The wide receiver pool has been quickly drained by signings (Derrick Mason in Baltimore and Muhsin Muhammad in Chicago) and re-signings (T.J. Houshmandzadeh in Cincinnati and Jerry Porter with Oakland) and trades (Randy Moss to the Raiders). It's hard to argue that Burress isn't the best wideout still available. But the phone isn't exactly ringing off the hook. There have been a few exploratory calls to agent Michael Harrison, but nothing of substance yet, and teams are telling Burress' new representative they have other priorities to address and might not be ready to visit with the Steelers veteran until next week. The preliminary discussion that Harrison had with Minnesota officials Thursday, and which was ballyhooed by one wire service, actually was initiated by the agent. The New York Giants unofficially floated some contract parameters this week, ESPN.com has learned, but their proposal averaged less than $4 million per year and the signing bonus was less than $5 million. Burress is said to be seeking a contract that approximates the six-year deal Muhammad inked with the Bears, a deal that includes $12 million in total guarantees and will pay the nine-year veteran $16 million in its first three seasons. Burress has to be wondering, however, whether he'll get anything close to that. "Let's just say [Plaxico] thought he'd either be on a plane by now or already signed," a close Burress friend said Wednesday afternoon, the first day of the signing period. What is somewhat puzzling is that, despite some past off-field indiscretions, Burress was a model citizen for the Steelers in 2004. His reception totals were down, thanks in part to injuries and playing with a rookie quarterback, but he bit his tongue. Taking a page from the book of teammate Hines Ward, he concentrated more on his downfield blocking in Pittsburgh's run-heavy offense, and definitely put the team ahead of himself. The rehabilitation of his persona and newfound maturity haven't translated into Burress moving to the front burner of teams looking to heat up their passing attack, though.
Another player we love in free agency, and who appears to be generating just tepid interest in the first week of the signing period, is Washington cornerback Fred Smoot. The four-year veteran has become a topflight corner over the past two seasons and has grown up off the field, but isn't getting nearly the play some lesser cover guys have experienced in the opening days of the market. Smoot turned down an extension offer during the season that would have paid him a $10 million signing bonus. Lesser-known cornerback Anthony Henry of Cleveland got $10 million to sign as an unrestricted free agent in Dallas. Seattle's Ken Lucas received a $13 million to $14 million bonus when he signed Thursday with Carolina. Those deals, one would assume, should help establish the market for Smoot, but first there has to be a market for his services. Let's be clear: There is interest in Smoot but not yet to the level everyone felt there would be. The Redskins still have a standing offer on the table for the $10 million signing bonus Smoot rejected earlier.
Quarterback carousel: The Arizona Cardinals will avidly pursue Kurt Warner, who visited with team officials this week, and who also is scheduled to meet with the Bears and Lions. Speculation is that the Cardinals prefer Brad Johnson, who played for coach Dennis Green in Minnesota, but that isn't the case. Warner is the guy the Cardinals have No. 1 on their wish list, and Johnson is their fallback option. Jeff Garcia is weighing his options and appears to be leaning toward accepting the backup role in Denver rather than signing with the Lions. Jay Fiedler has interest from the Giants and Bears. Miami is still the most likely landing spot for Gus Frerotte. Venerable Rodney Peete, released this week by Carolina for salary-cap reasons, will re-sign with the Panthers for the minimum base salary. Teams looking for a solid young backup could do worse than to consider restricted free agent J.T. O'Sullivan of Green Bay. The three-year veteran, who spent the first two years of his career with New Orleans, is an intriguing guy and carries only a sixth-round price tag as compensation if someone signed him away from the Packers. The youngster is bright, has a good enough arm and really has a command of the West Coast-style offense.
There aren't many bigger supporters of LaMont Jordan than we are. We've always touted him as a potentially great back and chided the Jets every time they vowed to give him more playing time in camp and then reneged once the season started. That said, you have to wonder what the Oakland Raiders were thinking when they awarded Jordan a five-year, $27.5 million contract this week, a deal that included $11 million in total guarantees. For sure, the Raiders were desperate for a tailback to complement their new and potentially explosive deep passing attack with Randy Moss and Jerry Porter. That's the kind of money you lay out for a proven back, a guy with multiple 1,000-yard seasons and a few trips to the Pro Bowl. As good as Jordan has been as the backup to Curtis Martin, with a 4.9-yard average per rush in four seasons, here are some sobering realities: He has averaged just 65.5 attempts per season not, of course, by choice. Jordan has never carried the ball more than 93 times in a season and never more than 13 times in a game. Jordan has never rushed for even 500 yards in a season and is being paid like a guy who annually puts up triple that number. Sure, one might note that Jordan, 26, heads to Oakland on very fresh legs, given his lack of work. But the tailbacks in a Norv Turner-designed offense have averaged 326.6 carries per year during his stints as a coordinator and head coach. That's more rushes than Jordan has for his career, and about triple the number of carries he posted in 2004, his busiest season. As noted, we love Jordan and always have, but the Raiders went a little overboard to snatch him from the Jets, who had offered a deal averaging about $3 million per year.
You think Cincinnati owner Mike Brown didn't cringe when he saw those gaudy LaMont Jordan contract figures? Brown's team will try to negotiate a long-term contract with Rudi Johnson, even though the Bengals' tailback early this week signed the one-year qualifying offer, of $6.323 million, for a "franchise" player at the position. The feeling has been that the Cincinnati choking point on a long-term deal for Johnson is about five years, $25 million, with a signing bonus in the $8 million range. Anything beyond that and the Bengals would probably just let their star play under the one-year deal and begin grooming 2004 first-rounder Chris Perry to become the starter in 2006. But the Jordan contract provides Johnson's agents, no day at the beach under the best of circumstances, plenty of ammunition for seeking a monster deal. And they would be justified, working off the Jordan numbers, in doing so. In his breakout '04 season, Johnson posted more carries (361), yards (1,454) and touchdowns (12) than Jordan has in four seasons. Yep, that noise you just heard was Mike Brown reaching into the medicine cabinet for the Pepto-Bismol.
A month ago in this spot, we opined that offensive guards, who typically don't draw much interest in free agency and rarely land pricey deals, might become hot commodities in free agency this year. The response from some quarters was incredulity. But just a few days into free agency, the guard market has been pretty good, we think even most of the skeptics would agree. Marco Rivera got a $9 million signing bonus to leave Green Bay for Dallas. The Detroit Lions, who awarded Damien Woody a $9 million signing bonus last spring, would have matched the Dallas offer for Rivera. The Packers' other starting guard, Mike Wahle, pocketed a $10 million bonus from Carolina. Some people would put an asterisk next to that one, since Wahle figures to play right tackle, and that raised his value. But as of Thursday night, Panthers coaches were insisting that Wahle start off at left guard, the position he played in Green Bay, at the outset of camp this summer. Joe Andruzzi didn't quite break the bank the way Wahle and Rivera did, but he got a four-year deal worth $9 million in going from New England to Cleveland and will earn $3 million in 2005. The Patriots' offer to Andruzzi, in terms of per-year average, didn't come close to what he got from the Browns. A few more guards in the free-agent market Cosey Coleman (Tampa Bay), Rick DeMulling (Indianapolis) and Keydrick Vincent (Pittsburgh) figure to land solid deals. The point four weeks ago was that, although guards will never approximate the earnings of offensive tackles, their salaries were likely to rise in free agency. A week into the signing period, that already seems to be the case.
Don't be surprised if the Cleveland Browns, who are in the midst of a big-time roster housecleaning, put starting center Jeff Faine on the trading block. The new regime in Cleveland isn't nearly as enamored with Faine, the Browns' first-round choice in '03, as the Butch Davis staff was. Davis chose Faine over the objections of his personnel and medical department and, two years later, there are concerns about the center's loss of weight and reduction in power. At the scouting combine last week, new general manager Phil Savage candidly used the term "dire straits" in referring to the team's interior offensive line situation, and he wasn't just talking about the guards. The aim of the Browns seems to be to replace all three inside starters. One guard will be Joe Andruzzi, who signed earlier this week as a free agent. The Browns also visited with Tampa Bay guard Cosey Coleman, although their modest offer to him didn't result in a deal. Coaches who have watched tape from the 2004 season feel that Melvin Fowler, who took over at center when Faine was injured, played better than the former first-rounder. A restricted free agent who was tendered a one-year qualifying offer, Fowler could well be the starter for the Browns in 2005.
Those teams waiting for the Buffalo Bills to drop their asking price in trade talks for backup tailback Travis Henry might not want to hold their breath. The Bills afforded Henry and his agent permission to speak to other teams about a trade several weeks ago, and that elicited pretty good interest, since the veteran runner remains a quality back. But the Bills aren't inclined to just give Henry away. It will take a first-day draft choice to pry him away from the Bills, and no one has offered that yet. A proposed trade that would have sent Henry to Arizona in exchange for offensive tackle L.J. Shelton appears dead. The Cardinals wanted Henry to play under the terms of his Buffalo contract, but he wanted an extension. It now looks as though the Cardinals, who feel the running back class in the 2005 draft is a very deep one, will pluck a back from the lottery. And it appears the most likely destination for Shelton is Chicago, where he could play left tackle and permit the Bears to keep John Tait on the right side, which he prefers. The Bills have made preliminary contact with some veteran free-agent backs, just as a contingency. If they do find a buyer for Henry, the Bills want an experienced backup who could log maybe six to eight carries per game, and who could serve as mentor to Willis McGahee.
It isn't a particularly strong free agent crop for safeties but the pool is about to get a little bit deeper. ESPN.com has confirmed the Green Bay Packers will release safety Darren Sharper in the next few days, rather than pay him a roster bonus of $2.6 million that is due on March 12. The eight-year veteran is coming off a season in which he played much of the year with a partially torn posterior cruciate ligament and, clearly, his performance suffered a bit. But Sharper, at age 29, is still a viable starter in the league and the former Pro Bowl performer will bring experience and well-documented playmaker skills to some team. One official from an AFC team told ESPN.com that he felt Sharper could provide "the right team," the kind of boost safety Rodney Harrison brought to New England when the Pats signed him as a free agent two years ago. "He isn't as big a hitter (as Harrison) but he's got much better range," said the club official. The Packers still need to carve out some cap room and Sharper's charge of $8.63 million for 2005 is too steep for Green Bay to carry. Sharper has rebuffed attempts by the Packers to reduce his deal.
Let's clear up some confusion about University of Virginia offensive lineman Elton Brown, probably the top guard prospect in the 2005 draft. A lot of folks reported that Brown bolted the combine last weekend without telling league officials that he was going back home. Not true. Brown never planned to participate in the workouts, went through the physical exam and interview process, then left. He informed combine officials of his plans and was excused.
Having released starting right offensive tackle Fred Miller in the bloody salary-cap purge in which six veterans lost their jobs, the Tennessee Titans were in no position to jettison venerable left tackle Brad Hopkins, even though his performance has slipped a bit in recent years as he battled knee problems. But Hopkins, who will be 35 when he begins his 13th season in September, all but assured himself of retaining his job when he quietly agreed this week to a restructured contract. Truth be told, the three-year extension likely won't extend Hopkins' career much, if at all, beyond the 2005 campaign. But it provided the cap-strapped Titans much needed relief by allowing Tennessee to prorate much of the $3.25 million in base salary due Hopkins, once one of the NFL's premier pass protectors, over five years. Hopkins reduced his base salary from $3.25 million to $765,000, the minimum for a veteran of his tenure, and the Titans paid him the $2.485 million balance as a signing bonus. Hopkins is due a roster bonus of $1.25 million next March and a base salary of $4.25 million. Chances are he will never see that money. Certainly he won't ever cash in on the $23 million the Titans added to his deal by extending it through 2009. For 2007-09, the extension part of the deal, Hopkins is due base salaries of $6 million per season, with a $5 million option bonus trigger. As usual, it was some creative bookkeeping by Titans general manager Floyd Reese, but it allowed Hopkins to escape the salary-cap ax that fell on a half-dozen of his teammates.
A contract restructuring from which both sides appeared to benefit was the Thursday deal struck between the Bucs and starting left defensive end Greg Spires. In that deal, for five years at $17.1 million, Spires received more than $5 million in bonus money, $2.3 million immediately, then $3 million in subsequent rosters bonuses. The base salaries are $665,000 (for 2005), $1 million (2006), $2 million (2007), $3.9 million (2008) and $4.2 million (2009). The final year of the contract is voidable. The contract is key for many reasons, not the least of which is that Spires is a terrific, high-energy player, certainly undersized, but a defender who nonetheless is extremely productive. And by completing the deal, the Bucs dodged what could have become an acrimonious situation. Spires and agent Drew Rosenhaus contended that, in a gentlemen's agreement, Tampa Bay officials had agreed to release the veteran end if a long-term deal could not be reached. Coming off a career year in 2004, one in which he posted 86 tackles and eight sacks, Spires would certainly have generated interest in the open market. Finally, the Bucs benefited from the extension because it provided them more cap room, a commodity they desperately needed.
Punts: University of Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson is the consensus top prospect at his position, and most teams agree he will be off the draft board by the middle of the first round. But a few scouts worry that Johnson is a "run-around" defender, a pursuit guy who doesn't take on blocks well and sheds poorly. After losing standout cornerback Ken Lucas to Carolina, the Seahawks already are considering possible replacements. They have shown some early interest in trading for Patrick Surtain of Miami and also are considering unrestricted free agent Andre Dyson of the Titans. Two young and productive linebackers who can run and are getting solid play in the early stages of free agency are Matt Stewart of Atlanta and Denver's Donnie Spragan. The Jaguars have given strong safety Donovin Darius, who signed the one-year qualifying offer for a "franchise" player for the third year in a row, permission to find a potential trade suitor. Detroit has some interest in Darius, who really improved his cover skills in 2004, but the Lions will meet this weekend with unrestricted free agent Kenoy Kennedy of Denver, and they might like him a little better. Landing a quality tackle such as Kareem McKenzie is a big catch for the Giants, who must improve the offensive line they put in front of Eli Manning in 2005. Minnesota is actively trying to land a quality cornerback and, as one of its many options, has inquired about Surtain. Defensive end Derrick Burgess of Philadelphia, who had a tremendous postseason with three sacks, is starting to draw attention and will meet with Miami officials next week. University of Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle had a superb campus workout Thursday, running in the 4.4's and alleviating scouts' concerns about a possible lack of speed.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.