Many free agents still waiting by the phone

With teams intent on finding cheap labor, many veteran free agents are having a hard time finding work, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: May 26, 2006
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

For most of his 12-year NFL career, Brentson Buckner has been a favorite of the media, a good player but an even better talker, an effective interior defender who could make a big tackle during the game and then would make reporters roar with laughter while describing it afterward.

But ever since his release by the Carolina Panthers on March 1, the celebrated media "go-to guy" hasn't had any teams come to him with viable contract offers.

So like a lot of veterans, Buckner is in limbo.

It's been only a little more than five years since quarterback Kerry Collins capped a personally redemptive 2000 season with an appearance in Super Bowl XXXV, but that must seem like light-years ago for the 11-year veteran, who remains unsigned. Wide receiver Kevin Johnson was once regarded for having the best hands in the league, but no franchise has reached out to snatch him from the unemployment line. Even the teams that are neediest at cornerback seem to have forgotten that Ahmed Plummer was once a first-round draft choice. The résumé of guard Tom Nutten includes 69 starts, two Super Bowl appearances and one championship ring, but those accomplishments all read like entries in a textbook on ancient history.

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The league that never really sleeps is headed into one of its drowsiest periods over the next few weeks. And for many of the veterans who remain unsigned, and who are still uncertain if they'll be heading to training camp or to the golf course in July, panic time is nearing. Granted, there aren't nearly as many out-of-work veterans as in most past seasons. On the flip side, there aren't many jobs, either, for the free-agent remnants.

Of course, all it takes is one phone call, right?

"Yeah, that's the thing you have to remind guys of sometimes," said agent Angelo Wright, who represents nine-year veteran defensive tackle Grady Jackson, who has visited with two teams this spring but is still looking for a contract. "Just because they're out of work doesn't mean they can afford to be out of shape. I told Grady last week, 'Look, the phone's going to ring. And when it does, you have to be ready.' You don't want to fill guys up with a lot of [false hope]. But there are still some teams with [roster] spots to fill."

But not many. And the teams that do have openings seem increasingly inclined to sign younger players. Even with the salary cap set at a record $102 million for the 2006 season, and more franchises with more money to spend, inexpensive labor is often preferred for the few camp spots available. It's one thing for teams to want to do things on the cheap. But some organizations want to go on the cheapest, it seems, when addressing camp quotas.

Case in point: Five-year veteran James Reed started all 16 games at defensive tackle for the New York Jets in 2005. His 58 tackles were four more stops than teammate Dewayne Robertson, the fourth overall choice in the 2003 draft, registered for the season. As a five-year veteran, Reed's minimum salary is a palatable $585,000. Yet agent Jimmy Sexton barely can get personnel directors to acknowledge his client. At the same time, in the two days following last month's draft, teams signed nearly two dozen college free agent tackles to minimum deals with salaries of $275,000.

It's hard to believe that, with the salary cap set so high this year, the $310,000 savings between signing a rookie free agent and adding a veteran such as Reed would be very significant. One would think that teams seeking help at defensive tackle, historically a difficult position to fill, would prefer a known commodity such as Reed to a callow free-agent rookie with little viable chance of making the roster. But that's the reality for some veterans right now.

Said one player agent who asked not to be identified because he's miffed his client has rejected two offers that included veteran minimum salaries: "You spend half the time pounding the phone, trying to get a team interested, and the other half of your time beating your head against the wall. It's a difficult period."

In part, that's because personnel directors view the players left in free agency as about as picked over as Filene's basement after its annual wedding gown sale. One general manager opined last week that probably the lone unsigned veteran who still has multiple suitors is cornerback Ty Law. The general manager phoned this week to add defensive tackle Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson to that list, provided the 12-year veteran released by the Detroit Lions, and considering retirement, opts to play in 2006.

The free-agency spending spree, fueled by a 19.2 percent increase in the salary cap this year, has left general managers feeling a bit like Mother Hubbard. That said, while some shelves are all but empty, the cupboard isn't yet completely bare, at least at a few positions.

Here's a position run-down of some of the players who might yet land contracts before training camps open in two months:

Quarterback

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Comp Att Yds Pct TD Int
302 565 3759 53.5 20 12

Quarterback: When Collins was released by Oakland, most felt he would sign with Baltimore to compete with Kyle Boller for the starting job. Now the Ravens have turned their attention to Steve McNair, which could create an opening in Tennessee for Collins. Jay Fiedler still is rehabilitating from shoulder surgery, but will work out for the New York Giants when recovered, and could merit some attention from New England as well. Another backup who has a chance to get into a camp is Tommy Maddox.

Receiver: Three veteran free agents -- David Boston (with Tampa Bay) and Troy Edwards and Randy Hymes (both with Jacksonville) -- signed contracts this week, and that just about tapped out the realistic candidates at the position. Kevin Johnson remains a possibility with a few teams, and the Cardinals and Lions both displayed earlier interest in Az-Zahir Hakim, but didn't sign him. Ricky Proehl would like to play a 17th season in the league and, even though he's 38, a team looking for a possession receiver could do worse than to add the guileful veteran. After that, it's pretty much guys like Patrick Johnson, Dez White and Johnnie Morton. The situation for any club seeking a tight end is dire.

Offensive line: Weight always has been a problem for Kendyl Jacox, released by New Orleans earlier this spring, but the eight-year veteran has started 85 games at guard and center. He's a little better than many scouts think. Former Pro Bowl performer Ron Stone might be another option. Possibilities at tackle are slim, with former Tennessee star Brad Hopkins (188 career starts) likely the best available. Hopkins has spoken about retirement but, for a team that desperately needs a one-year stopgap, he might be worth a phone call. Right tackle Scott Gragg might be able to help someone as a backup.

Running back: Not much at tailback, unless a team feels Jonathan Wells might be a good fit as a No. 3 guy on the depth chart, or that Lamar Gordon has something left in the tank. Nick Luchey, who worked out for the Houston Texans this week, is the top fullback still unsigned.

Defensive line: Tackle is by far the deeper position of the two line spots, with Buckner, Jackson, Reed, Jason Fisk, Gary Walker, Jerry DeLoach and perhaps Wilkinson available. Jackson is still on the radar in Atlanta and St. Louis but, as always, needs to get his weight down by about 8-10 pounds and prove to someone he has enough stamina to still be at least a rotational contributor.

If he determines he still wants to play, then Wilkinson is going to command some interest. Although he's 33 now, "Big Daddy" didn't miss a game in his three seasons in Detroit and can still be an effective force against the run if his snaps are monitored. Walker might be able to help a 3-4 team at end, the position he played in Houston, but the position otherwise is woefully picked over. The name of former Falcons starter Brady Smith still gets tossed around by some, but he couldn't pass the Atlanta physical exam this spring, and the foot injury he suffered in 2005 might have ended his career.

Linebacker

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Solo Ast Sack Int
95 71 24 4.0 1

Linebacker: His detractors claim Tommy Polley is too soft, but we've always liked the five-year veteran and former second-round draft choice, and can't figure out why he isn't signed. Polley has started, at various points of his career, at all three linebacker spots and has been fairly productive. The critics say he's a "drag-down" tackler and makes a lot of stops three yards upfield, but he's still posted 100 more tackles in four of his five seasons in the league, including a team-best 134 tackles for Baltimore last season.

After Polley, however, the linebacker pickings are slim. Chris Claiborne, who is still only 27 despite having played seven seasons in the NFL, might be worth consideration. He had surgery to repair a two-year-old knee condition doctors had missed and is in excellent shape.

Secondary: With 10 interceptions in 2005, Law not only led the league, but demonstrated he's still got a little left in the tank. Law isn't the player he once was, and he has struggled to adapt to the new emphasis on illegal contact in the secondary, as evidenced by the number of penalties he drew last season. But he is in demand and, while he might not land the $10 million signing bonus he is seeking, some team (likely Kansas City) will sign Law to a pretty good contract. Look for Law to wait until July, just before the start of training camp, to make a decision on where he will play.

Plummer might get some bites if he can show teams he is healthy again following two injury-plagued seasons. Two players with nice physical skills but who have been unable to stay healthy through their careers, Joseph Jefferson and Tony Beckham, might yet end up on a roster.

There are always plenty of safeties available even at this juncture of most offseasons, and that is the case again this year. Ten-year veteran Jerome Woods didn't help his case in Kansas City by refusing a salary reduction and skipping offseason workouts, and that earned him a pink slip last week. But he and Lance Schulters could provide veteran leadership, and a viable No. 3 safety, for some teams.

Kicker: Despite converting 23 of 25 field goals in 2005, a 92.0 percent success rate that tied for fourth best in the league, 12-year veteran Todd Peterson wasn't re-signed by Atlanta. He and five-year veteran Paul Edinger will sit by the phone and wait for some team to get into trouble in camp.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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