Over the two days of the draft, football futures, fortunes and finances will be determined for a lot of young men.
And, no, we're not referring to the players who will be selected Saturday and Sunday.
Certainly this is a weekend for prospects. But there remains an undeniably suspect, and still unemployed, group of veteran players in the free-agent market. And if you think some of those veterans still looking for jobs will have no interest at all in what transpires between noon Saturday and sometime early Sunday evening, when the draft concludes, well, you're deluded.
By the time the New England Patriots anoint the 2005 "Mr. Irrelevant" on Sunday night, 255 more players will have entered the NFL workforce. And that means 255 roster spots that are gone, occupied by rookies, largely taken up by cheap labor and, most significant, unavailable now to veteran free agents trying to squeeze out another paycheck.
Every time a team plucks an offensive tackle prospect from the draft board, it represents one less opportunity for, say, unrestricted free agent Victor Riley, a seven-year veteran who has mostly been a starter in his stints with the Kansas City Chiefs and New Orleans Saints. Journeyman quarterback Jeff Blake, a 13-year veteran with a resume that includes more than 20,000 passing yards, should cringe when clubs select much younger arms in the draft. The anticipated "run" on cornerbacks in the first and second rounds? Well, it could run veterans such as Chad Scott or Dewayne Washington, released by Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, respectively, this offseason, right out of the league.
Said one player representative on the level of anxiety that exists among the remnant group of veteran free agents right now: "I've still got a couple of [unsigned veterans], and I guarantee you that if a team called just offering the minimum [base salary] to sign them, both would take the deal in a heartbeat. It's a pretty desperate time for some guys. Some of them could be shut out by the end of the weekend."
If this weekend represents two days of potentially fulfilled dreams for hundreds of youngsters in the draft pool, it is a time that might try the souls of veteran players who are still waiting for the telephone to ring. There was the characteristic trickle of veteran signings this week, as some teams checked a few remaining items off the "to do" list in advance of the draft. But come Monday morning, with rosters reinforced by the lottery and even fewer jobs to offer, the free-agent faucet, which has only been dripping of late anyway, will be further tightened.
Think about this: Every spring, an average of about 100 veteran free agents never get re-signed to NFL contracts. Their careers, essentially, end involuntarily. They don't retire; they get retired. And the draft is certainly a component in the attrition process. That helps explain why some agents hit the phones hard this week, attempting to line up roster spots for their unsigned veterans before those slots are consumed by rookies.
"Let's be honest," agent Joel Segal said. "You make your money on all the big contracts you negotiate for well-known players. But you earn your commissions trying to find jobs for guys who are fringe-type players. There is a lot of turnover at the bottom of every roster in the league. Teams feel like those last five or seven roster spots are kind of interchangeable. If they can fill the spot just as efficiently with a kid making the rookie minimum salary ($230,000), rather than someone making, say, the five-year minimum ($540,000), they'll take the younger player a lot of times."
That said, it still is puzzling why some free agents -- tailback Anthony Thomas, a former offensive rookie of the year; linebackers Warrick Holdman, Rob Morris and Anthony Simmons; defensive tackle Ellis Johnson; and offensive tackle Chris Terry, just to cite a few -- haven't, as of Friday morning, lined up gainful employment for 2005.
"You worry," said one unemployed safety, "if time is running out, if things are starting to shrink on you."
Certainly the clock will be ticking on some careers this weekend. And by Monday, the classified ads definitely will be reduced.
For a lot of veterans who went into free agency with high expectations, the process can be a blow to the ego. And, unfortunately, this weekend is one in which a sharp pin might be poked into the balloon of inflated free-agency expectations.
Around the league
• Most of the legion of critics who spent much of the week taking shots at our story on the Washington Redskins' interest in Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell articulated two similar, salient points: First, teams don't typically make such trade-up deals, like the one in which the Redskins acquired the 25th spot in the first round from Denver, until later in the week. Second, teams certainly don't complete that kind of deal to target one player, because there is uncertainty about whether that prospect will be available.
Having done this job now for 27 years, I'm pretty aware of that. But here's the point that the critics are missing: We're talking about the Washington Redskins here. With such a dysfunctional franchise, convention does not apply. Everyone seems willing, probably because of the presence of the sainted Joe Gibbs, to believe that Washington has straightened out its act. Yet with the exception of the brilliant hiring of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who cobbled together the NFL's third-ranked unit in 2004 despite playing with a lot of spare parts, what has the current regime done that has been all that successful? Hey, that trade for quarterback Mark Brunell -- a guy we panned dozens of times in this space before the Redskins acquired him -- worked out well, didn't it?
Maybe we'll be wrong and maybe Washington will, indeed use that No. 25 spot as part of a package to move up in the round for someone like Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards. After all, one of their coaches told a friend this week they are poised to do "something big." Heck, maybe they'll keep the choice and still pass on Campbell.
But a couple points here of our own: If the Redskins weren't so keen on Campbell, why were they so upset when we made public their interest in him? Why did vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato (a guy to whom I haven't spoken in 15 months by the way) essentially conduct an internal witch hunt trying to ferret out the source of what he assumed was an organizational leak? And has anyone yet heard Gibbs, the man who fueled the Campbell fixation, deny interest in the quarterback? The Redskins love the perception that they know how to wheel and deal. But mostly they like to squeal when someone uncovers their strategy. The fact is, whether the critics want to buy the truth or not, we stumbled onto a story that, for once, the Redskins didn't want out. They were way too ham-handed in their execution, and far too chatty with some of their fraternity brothers who reside outside the walls of Redskins Park. Going on the offensive to try to cover their tracks once the story was out of the bag -- having some of their buddies try to discredit it -- was handled in typically clumsy fashion by a franchise that's suffered through a pretty miserable offseason.
• Per usual, Redskins quarterback Patrick Ramsey, one of the league's classiest players, said and did all the right things after the story about Jason Campbell was reported. But you've got to wonder if, privately, Ramsey isn't banging his head off a wall somewhere.
Ramsey probably could have escaped Washington last spring, after the Redskins traded for Mark Brunell, had he fought a little harder to get out. Owner Dan Snyder probably would have dealt him away -- perhaps to Miami before the Dolphins completed the deal for A.J. Feeley -- had Ramsey gone out of character and become the squeaky wheel. If you don't believe it, consider for a second how Snyder reacted to Laveranues Coles this offseason, when the disgruntled wide receiver wanted to get traded. But Ramsey permitted himself to buy into coach Joe Gibbs' sales pitch about how he would have an opportunity to compete with Brunell for the starting job.
Unfortunately for Ramsey, he is repeating the mistake, investing in Gibbs' rhetoric. The truth is, there still are people inside Redskins Park who feel Ramsey isn't the team's best quarterback.
• There figures to be some player trades during the draft -- tailbacks Shaun Alexander (Seattle) and Travis Henry (Buffalo), along with wideout Rod Gardner (Washington), are all good bets to have new homes by Sunday evening -- but don't look for New Orleans defensive end Darren Howard to be searching the Yellow Pages for a moving company.
The Saints, of course, have been shopping the talented Howard, and his $7.8 million salary-cap number for 2005, around the league for months. But ever since the Saints and Cowboys failed to consummate a swap last month, things have cooled considerably, and the phones of New Orleans officials haven't been ringing. Loaded with a league-high 13 choices, Philadelphia might have been a suitor for Howard, but only if the Eagles had succeeded a few weeks ago in dealing defensive tackle Corey Simon to Baltimore.
There are some unsubstantiated rumblings that, as the first round progresses and based on what transpires, the Cowboys might make a draft-day offer. But in this regard, the situation with Howard remains unchanged: General manager Mickey Loomis and coach Jim Haslett know that the five-year veteran, who matched his career-high with 11 sacks in '04 despite playing much of the time at tackle, is a good player. And, since the Saints can afford to carry Howard's ponderous cap number for one more year (not carry it very comfortably, but carry it nonetheless), they aren't just going to give him away.
• At a league meeting in Atlanta earlier this week, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay all but guaranteed that tailback Edgerrin James will not be traded. Certainly not during the draft. "I don't see it happening," Irsay told ESPN.com. "I mean, you never say never, I guess. Anything is possible. But we really haven't had any action on 'Edge' and we don't anticipate any. And that's fine, really. We'll be thrilled to have him back."
Thrilled, that is, for one more season. Irsay didn't directly address the possibility of a long-term deal for his talented tailback, but general manager Bill Polian conceded weeks ago that a multi-year accord was not an option for a franchise that wants to redirect more of its salary cap to the defensive side of the ball. Even the prospect of finally securing approval for a new stadium, with the project having gained positive momentum now, will not be enough to change the Colts' stance on James. "The stadium would give us security for 10, 15, 20 years down the road," Irsay said. "That's how I view it. I don't think that it would change any of our plans, or how we do business, in the short-term."
• There was no discussion at this week's four-hour league meeting about the proposed purchase of the Minnesota Vikings by Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler. The primary agenda item was to update owners on the progress (or lack thereof) toward an extension of the collective-bargaining agreement. Make no mistake: The owners are becoming increasingly antsy as the league inches toward a potential "uncapped" season.
Many of them, speaking privately, also are concerned about Fowler's bid. The league continues its due diligence in that regard but there still is no guarantee the sale of the Vikings will be ready for a vote when the owners convene again on May 24-25 in Washington, D.C. Three owners to whom we spoke all rated Fowler's chances as 50-50 at best. Another used the term "gloomy" to assess it.
Falcons owner Arthur Blank said he dined with Fowler a few weeks ago when the prospective Vikings owner was passing through Atlanta, and found him to be a "good man." Blank allowed that, having only a few years ago jumped through all the hoops one must navigate on the way to NFL ownership, he can commiserate with Fowler, but noted that his own approval came relatively quickly. "But with us," Blank said, "there weren't any questions of financial wherewithal." Asked if that meant there are concerns about the depth of Fowler's pockets, Blank said: "I don't think it's a slam-dunk. If it was, he probably would be the owner by now."
• Don't be surprised if left offensive tackle Alex Barron of Florida State, generally regarded by draftniks as the top prospect at the position, slips a bit in the first round. "[Barron] might be in for a little bit of a wake-up call," suggested one NFC college scouting director. Several teams now have Jammal Brown of Oklahoma, always slated to go in the first round but suddenly one of the fastest-rising players in the days preceding the lottery, rated ahead of Barron on their boards.
There has been a perception that the Houston Texans, who got mixed results (and that's being kind) from Seth Wand in his first season as the leftside starter in 2004, would be elated to find Barron still available at their 13th spot. Not true. Fact is, the Texans are actually hoping to add an offensive skill-position player, such as South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson, who might be gone by the time Houston goes on the clock.
OK, so if Barron is snubbed by Houston, the next team in the draft order, the Carolina Panthers, would provide him a safety net, right? Maybe not. The buzz is that the Panthers prefer the tough-minded Brown, who played right tackle in college, but who Carolina coaches believe can move to the weakside pass-protection spot. Some team could get a steal in Barron. As for Barron, a freakishly-gifted athlete with a suspect motor, well, he might learn the lesson that, no matter how rare your athletic skills, you've still got to play the game with passion.
• Apparently, the leaguewide memo about everyone needing bigger cornerbacks did not make it to the desks of Detroit Lions scouts. The Lions already have one of the shortest corners in the NFL in underappreciated ballhawking six-year veteran Dre' Bly, who was measured at 5-foot-9 7/8 when he attended the 1999 scouting combine. Now word is that, if West Virginia University star cornerback Adam "Pac-Man" Jones somehow drops to the 10th overall slot on Saturday, the Lions will quickly gobble him up. Jones checked in at 5-foot-9 ½ at this year's combine.
Chances are pretty good that Jones won't last until the No. 10 pick. The Tennessee Titans, who lost both the starters (Samari Rolle and Andre Dyson) from their 2004 defense in the past six weeks, are now said to prefer Jones even over Miami cornerback Antrel Rolle, the chic pick for them in most mock drafts. A lot of pundits insist the Lions will choose University of Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson if he is still on the board at No. 10. The way we hear it, though, team president Matt Millen would take Jones over Johnson.
• If quarterback Alex Smith (Utah) and wide receiver Braylon Edwards (Michigan) come off the board first, and Cleveland is stuck with the No. 3 overall choice, don't be all that surprised if Browns officials select wide receiver Mike Williams (Southern California).
It could be difficult, in the No. 3 slot, for Browns general manager Phil Savage, one of the best evaluators in the business, to reconcile any defensive player that high. Savage noted at the combine that Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, regarded by some as the premier defensive prospect, did not rate top-three status. Of course, a lot has changed since the combine, but the league consensus remains that Johnson should not go that high. Savage has always believed that you pick your board as you have it stacked. Some feel that Mike Williams would be his best option.
• As of Friday morning, some more late draft tidbits: There are suspicions that Minnesota, which isn't necessarily as locked into a wide receiver with the seventh pick as many folks believe, actually has wideout Troy Williamson (South Carolina) ahead of Mike Williams on its board. ... The popular pick for Dallas, at the 11th spot, is Troy defensive end and linebacker Demarcus Ware, one of the best hrybid players in the draft. But Bill Parcells also still is eyeing another hybrid guy, Shawne Merriman of Maryland. If he does opt for Merriman, however, Parcells wants him to drop about 15 pounds from his current weight of 274, to be better able to play linebacker. ... Keep an eye on Southern California defensive tackle Mike Patterson, undersized but virtually unblockable at the college level, sneaking into the first round. Indianapolis and Philadelphia are viable possibilities for Patterson, who certainly would be a great fit in the Colts' one-gap scheme. ... At least two teams eyeing LSU defensive end Marcus Spears project him as a tackle. ... The Steelers appear undeterred by the physical problems of Heath Miller, who has not been able to work out for anyone because of hernia injuries, and are a strong possibility now for the Virginia tight end. ... After sliding a bit in recent weeks, Georgia defensive end David Pollack is back on the rise again. He could go just outside of the top 10 now, perhaps to a team that slides back a few slots from its current pick. ... Green Bay is very hot on Georgia middle linebacker Odell Thurman. The Packers still are attempting to reconcile some character concerns, but they clearly admire the former Bulldogs star. ... Kansas State tailback Darren Sproles, the munchkin-sized runner with deceptive power and great quickness, could get into the bottom part of the second round. There are several teams who have upgraded him recently. ... OK, we know this is a no-brainer, but, as the masters of the obvious, we offer it anyway: Expect the Eagles, with a league-high 13 picks, to be incredibly active. As one sage general manger noted to us: "They can't make all those choices, not with their roster, not as loaded as they already are. They'd just be drafting guys who would have no chance of making their team."
• One of the ironies of the Wednesday night trade that sent Doug Jolley from the Raiders to the Jets is that the New York personnel department had the former Oakland tight end rated below Chris Baker in the 2002 draft. Baker is the three-year veteran who, between the defection of former starter Anthony Becht to Tampa Bay as a free agent last month, and the acquisition of Jolley, was the lone experienced tight end on the roster. The Jets chose Baker with a third-round pick, the 88th selection overall. Despite the positioning on the New York draft board, Jolley went 33 slots earlier, with the Raiders grabbing him in the second round.
No one should be too surprised if new Jets offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger gets both tight ends on the field at the same time. Heimerdinger was fond of two-tight end formations for several years as the Tennessee Titans coordinator, using Frank Wycheck as an H-back and guys like Jackie Harris, Erron Kinney and Shad Meier as the more conventional, in-line tight end. Baker, who the Jets felt would be a big-time receiver when they drafted the former University of Michigan standout, has turned out to be a far better blocker. The Jets will need him to compensate for the exit of Becht, who was underrated as a blocker. Jolley is deficient as a blocker, and that's being kind.
• When unrestricted free agent and four-year veteran Andre Dyson opted on Thursday to take a five-year, $17.5 million contract from the Seattle Seahawks, it meant the Jets likely lost their best viable option, outside of the draft, for upgrading at cornerback. And since New York officials believe in their hearts that starting cornerback Donnie Abraham is not coming back for '05 -- the savvy nine-year veteran has stayed away from all the offseason workouts to this point as he deliberates his future -- there could be a crisis of sorts at the key position.
But here's one golden oldie, a guy whom New York brass is eminently familiar, that Jets officials might want to at least think about: Aaron Glenn. Yep, the same Aaron Glenn who played the first eights seasons of his 11-year NFL career with the Jets before moving to Houston in the 2002 expansion draft to help stock the Texans roster. The acquisition of cornerback Phillip Buchanon this week, in a trade with Oakland, did not automatically make Glenn expendable. In fact, Texans general manager Charley Casserly and coach Dom Capers both went out of their way to note that Glenn remains in their plans. They cited the need, with Indianapolis in the division, for having three top-shelf cornerbacks on the roster. But the addition of Buchanon, and the presence of second-year veteran Dunta Robinson, the 2004 first-rounder who was arguably the best defensive rookie in the league last season, gives the Texans a pair of young corners.
DeMarcus Faggins emerged last year as a very good "nickel" cornerback, so much so that Houston signed him to a new contract. The bet here is that Glenn could be gotten from the Texans for a pretty modest price. Sure, he's going to be 33 in mid-July, just before training camp begins. And, yes, he still has some of the most dubious hands of any corner in the NFL, and drops as many interceptions as he makes. But Glenn, who almost certainly would have to restructure his contract for the Jets, still had five pickoffs in 2004. He's had four or more interceptions in five of the past seven campaigns. Look at the other veteran corners still in the unemployment line, and suddenly, for the Jets, Glenn might not look like such a bad option.
• One aspect of the annual NFL lottery often overlooked by even the sharpest fans is the post-draft, or at least the hour or two following the final pick. That's when the feeding frenzy to sign undrafted college free agents begins and, from accounts by player agents and even a few personnel directors, this year could be pretty wild. Truth be told, a lot of teams cheat a bit, and begin cutting contingency deals with prospective free agents as early as the start of the second day of the draft. But that's a story for another time.
The real story is how adroit some franchises have become at identifying so-called "premium" free agents, good players who might not have the complete package, but who possess one or two qualities that might help them find their way onto an NFL roster. Some of those teams -- Indianapolis, Minnesota, Atlanta and Buffalo are certainly among them -- are terrific in reeling in undrafted players who end up contributing for them.
Last year, for instance, Buffalo had five undrafted players -- safety Rashad Baker, cornerback Jabari Greer, tight end Jason Peters, defensive end Constantin Ritzmann and tailback Shaud Williams -- make the team. A lot of teams still treat the undrafted free agents as little more than afterthoughts. But guys like Tom Donahoe and Tom Modrak in Buffalo and Bill Polian in Indianapolis have unearthed enough gemstones in the past to realize there might always be a diamond in the rough in the undrafted rookie pool.
• Punts: Look for the Saints to complete a contract extension with star wide receiver Joe Horn sometime in the next week or so. ... Congratulations to ol' buddy Pat McManamon upon his return to the Akron Beacon Journal to resume covering the Cleveland Browns beat. McManamon served as editor of the team's web site for the past year but discovered that sometimes you just can't get that printer's ink out from underneath your fingernails. ... A quiet but solid acquisition this week by a Detroit Lions team that has been both active and productive in the offseason. The Lions signed restricted free agent offensive lineman Kyle Kosier away from the 49ers. The versatile Kosier, we felt, was one of the best bargains in the restricted market. For whatever reason, the 49ers, who bounced the guy all over the place on their tattered line in 2004, didn't agree and declined to match the offer sheet to which Detroit signed the three-year veteran. ... The Packers still have some interest in re-signing unrestricted free agent linebacker Hannibal Navies. ... Eagles right offensive right tackle Jon Runyan this week accepted a restructured contract to assure he remains in Philadelphia this season. ... The addition of veteran punter Tom Rouen on Thursday guarantees that the Carolina Panthers will release Todd Sauerbrun.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.