<
>

Teams have money to spend in free agency

Here's all one needs to know about this year's pool of unrestricted free agents: Three of my top dozen available players, assessed with considerable input from several personnel directors and general managers, are guards.

Yeah, guards, for gosh sakes.

A decade and a half into a player-movement system that has witnessed franchises throwing big money at high-profile veterans has finally reached the point where a position that some have deemed the lowest on the NFL's evolutionary chain will finally be recognized.

Every wage scale in the past has indicated guards are essentially grunts, the consummate worker bees on any roster. In the next day or two, however, guards such as Cincinnati's Eric Steinbach, San Diego's Kris Dielman and Washington's Derrick Dockery are going to make the quantum leap from overlooked to dramatically overpaid. In-line blockers who were accustomed to carrying lunch pails to work will suddenly require bulky briefcases with which to tote home their newfound riches.

Hard to believe -- but, in a manifestation of what is likely to transpire in the feeding frenzy that probably will mark the first few frenetic days of the free-agent market, guards really are in vogue around the league. There is a chance that the seven-year, $49 million contract signed by "transition" guard Steve Hutchinson with Minnesota last spring will be eclipsed by Steinbach or Dielman, both of whom rate among the top-five unrestricted players and both of whom figure to be off the market by the weekend.

"It's just a function of where we're at as a league," said Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "It's not a great [free agency] class to begin with, because teams have done a great job of [retaining] their own best players and used the franchise tag to take other guys off the market. So the pool is thinned out, for sure, we all acknowledge that. At the same time, there's a ton of money to spend and teams always have needs. So you're going to see some positions, like guard, benefit. And in general, you're going to see a lot of second-tier guys getting first-tier contracts."

With the leaguewide cap ceiling set at a record $109 million, and with franchises having more money than ever before to invest on fewer quality players, the trickle-down to what would be some midrange veterans will be considerable. Even after teams made qualifying offers to their own restricted free agents this week and used up some more money with the application of franchise tags, there is still more than $500 million of aggregate salary-cap room remaining.

It's believed that as many as 10 franchises each have more than $30 million in cap room. And since NFL rules mandate that teams spend at least $92.6 million, the usual supply-and-demand structures will be skewed. Because the league demands that a large portion of money be spent, and because the pool of players on whom to spend it is so diluted, veterans who in the past would have been considered second-line players are going to reap the rewards.

"It's going to be worse this year, because everybody has money," said Philadelphia general manager Tom Heckert. "And it's going to be worse, in some ways, because of where the money is going. Every year, there seem to be the top guys who get paid, but those tend to be higher-profile guys. There aren't a lot of those kinds of players in this year's class. So the money is going to go to guys who are a step or two down the ladder."

Indeed, the consensus at last week's scouting combine in Indianapolis, where personnel chiefs took time out from preparing for the draft to lay the groundwork for free-agency deals, was that the 2007 unrestricted class was the most diluted in history. But that won't stop teams from writing big checks for free agents, even if some players are clearly of dubious quality.

"There are just some positions," said Jacksonville vice president of personnel James Harris, "where there is almost nothing left. But if you need a player at that position, well, sometimes you do what you have to do. There are instances, I guess, where need just overrules [fiscal] sense."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.