Free-agent crop still offers solutions
Landing even one starter from the somewhat dubious group of veteran players released by their clubs over the past few months, particularly at this late juncture in the offseason, is a difficult achievement.
But the Seattle Seahawks did even better than that last week.
They got two.
In signing cornerback Ken Lucas (released by Carolina in March) and fullback Justin Griffith (released by Oakland in February), the Seahawks accomplished an improbable daily double, plucking two veteran starters from the NFL scrap heap just three months before they go to training camp.
Both players were sought by multiple franchises, but each opted to sign a one-year contract with the Seahawks because of past ties and familiarity. Lucas, 30, originally was selected by the Seahawks in the second round of the 2001 draft and played the first four seasons of his eight-year NFL career with Seattle before signing with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent in 2005. So his second stint in Seattle is a homecoming of sorts. Griffith, 28, previously played for new Seattle offensive coordinator Greg Knapp with two franchises, Atlanta and Oakland.
Despite a subpar 2008 performance, Lucas will replace Josh Wilson at right cornerback. Griffith will succeed the departed Leonard Weaver, who signed with Philadelphia as a free agent, at fullback. Griffith isn't the pure runner Weaver was, but he is an exceptional lead blocker and an accomplished receiver.
Three of the half-dozen players listed as potential starters must overcome injuries or legal entanglements to play in 2009. Here are four other players whose football futures rest on their being healthy in '09:
"He's been a player in the league for a long time," first-year Seattle coach Jim Mora said of Lucas. "He's been a successful player. He's a taller guy. He's physical. He's competitive. He's smart. And I think were going to get his best. I think that he's really motivated."
At least on paper, the 11th-hour signings of Lucas and Griffith appear to be solid additions. Lucas has 106 starts, 24 interceptions and 84 passes defensed, and is a viewed as a physical player. In six NFL seasons, Griffith has averaged just 35.3 "touches" per season and carried only twice for the Raiders in 2008, but he really doesn't need the ball in his hands to be effective.
Locating two starters at this late date is akin to finding the Holy Grail, and most franchises certainly won't emulate the Seahawks' recent bounty. That said, there are some very good players still among the subset of veterans released over the past three months.
Of course, teams should take a caveat emptor approach with those players.
But with nearly $500 million in aggregate salary-cap room leaguewide and less than one-third of that designated as rookie allocation money, a few teams still are looking to fill holes after the draft by signing some key veterans. And rifling among the released players could be one way to fill those needs before training camps convene.
A player who was recently released and obviously has caused a stir is quarterback Brett Favre, cut by the New York Jets just days after the team traded up in the first round to choose Mark Sanchez. But while Favre would cause the biggest splash if he unretired for a second straight year and decided to play again, he isn't the only released veteran who might find a starting job somewhere in the league.
Here are a few others:
CB Dre' Bly (Denver): He's lost a step at age 31, but Bly always has relied more on instinct, awareness and gambling than speed. He still possesses terrific hands and has registered at least two interceptions in each of his 10 seasons in the league. A two-time Pro Bowl defender, the former North Carolina standout was selected by St. Louis in the second round of the 1999 draft. He has three seasons of six or more interceptions and has started in 111 of 151 appearances. For his career, he has 390 tackles, four sacks, 40 interceptions, 91 passes defensed, 18 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries.
RB Edgerrin James (Arizona): Now 30 years old, an age at which most running backs are in rocking chairs, James can help someone as a complementary-type back. There also are a few teams for which he might be at least the nominal starter. He started just seven games for the Cardinals in 2008 and rushed 133 times for 514 yards, all career lows. But he showed in the postseason that he still possesses some running skills and demonstrated in Super Bowl XLIII that he is a more effective receiver than his 12 catches last season indicated. A 10-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl performer, James has rushed for 12,121 yards and 80 touchdowns on 2,982 carries in his career. But his per-carry average, once more than 4.0 yards in seven seasons with the Colts, was less than 4.0 yards in all three of his seasons with the Cardinals. The former University of Miami star averaged 4.22 in Indianapolis and only 3.64 in Arizona.
WR Plaxico Burress (New York Giants): Obviously, after shooting himself in the leg, the nine-year veteran has some legal issues swirling around him. If he can extricate himself from them, several teams likely will be interested, among them the New York Jets. Burress, 31, has 505 catches, 1,845 yards, and 55 touchdowns for his career. He has three seasons with 70 receptions or more and has 22 touchdown catches the past two seasons. Because of the shooting, he appeared in only 10 games in 2008 before being released. The former Michigan State star was a first-round draft choice of Pittsburgh in 2000. His size (6-5, 232) makes him a major red-zone threat, and he can make the acrobatic catch.
DT Dewayne Robertson (Denver): The six-year veteran never has quite lived up to the promise with which he came into the league as a first-round pick of the Jets in 2003. But Robertson is only 27 years old and tackle is a difficult position for teams to fill, so he likely will be in someone's training camp this summer. He probably is better suited for a No. 3 tackle role but could be a starter for a few clubs. In 102 games and 86 starts, the former Kentucky star has 278 tackles, 16 sacks, one pass defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He started 15 games for the Broncos in 2008, and had 22 tackles and 1½ sacks, but he is ill-suited to the 3-4 scheme Denver will play in 2009.
DE Jason Taylor (Washington): There aren't many 34-year-old unemployed players who are of interest to a lot of teams, but Taylor's ability to rush the quarterback makes him attractive. Released in March, the 12-year veteran has 482 tackles, 120½ sacks, seven interceptions and 55 passes defensed in 188 games and 177 starts. A six-time Pro Bowl player, Taylor has six seasons with 10 or more sacks and posted 36½ sacks in a three-year period, 2005 through 2007. Buyers might want to beware of a calf injury that limited him to 13 appearances and eight starts in 2008. Taylor had just 21 tackles, and his 3½ sacks were the fewest the former Akron standout had since 1999.
SS Roy Williams (Dallas): He's an in-the-box safety at a time when players of that ilk are becoming less popular in the league. But the five-time Pro Bowl player is only 28 and still hits hard, and there could be a team willing to design a scheme that diminishes his coverage shortcomings. The Cowboys' first-round pick in 2002, Williams has 414 career tackles, 6½ sacks, 19 interceptions and 38 passes defensed. He broke his right forearm early in the 2008 season and then re-fractured it when he returned to action, and the injuries limited the former Oklahoma star to only three games and two starts.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.