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Free Agency Early Birds Get Their Worms


As usual, the NFL free agency period started with a bang this week. Several teams, including the Jets, have already jumped into the pool with both feet and are looking to reshape their teams with available veterans, while others have decided to sit back and let the market settle. But with the top players coming off the board quickly, how much longer can they afford to wait? Here is an early look at the winners and losers out of the gate.

Early Leaders

Cleveland Browns — The move to keep QB Derek Anderson was a key for this team and gives them a stable situation at that position for the foreseeable future. The most recognizable problem for the Browns heading into free agency was their defensive line. But now, with the trade for former Packers DT Corey Williams and former Lions DT Shaun Rogers, they have two guys in the mix who can actually make this group a strength. There is some question about Rogers' motor, but Romeo Crennel is a former D-line coach who can motivate, and it will be interesting to see how Rogers reacts to a positive environment in Cleveland.

Some critics are saying the Browns paid too high a price for these two players, but when your defense averages over 30 points allowed per game, you're going to have to do something to get it right. On offense, the signing of Donté Stallworth now gives Anderson and the Browns three viable deep threats in addition to possession receiver Joe Jurevicius and the final piece to an explosive passing attack.

The interesting part of all this activity is that GM Phil Savage's strength is his ability to draft talented players, but now he doesn't have any impact picks left with the first-rounder given up last year for Brady Quinn and the second-rounder going to Green Bay this year for Williams. The only thing left for the Browns to do is get themselves back in the first two rounds of this draft.

Miami Dolphins — In typical Bill Parcells fashion, the Dolphins have been volume buyers thus far with seven players signed and an eighth added via trade. Parcells is overhauling the roster and building up the back end of his team. These are his patented "hold the fort" guys, though some will end up being more than that.

Josh McCown is a solid backup QB with NFL starting experience, Ernest Wilford is a big, physical receiver, and former Jets TE Sean Ryan is a solid blocker and a reliable if not top-end receiver. Justin Smiley is a workmanlike lineman who can start the rebuilding of an offensive front that struggled last season.

On the other side of the ball, DT Randy Starks is underrated and Jason Ferguson (trade), who played for Parcells with the Jets and Cowboys, knows the system inside and out. Linebackers Reggie Torbor and Charlie Anderson will bolster a unit that has to replace Zach Thomas. The team is also reportedly close to signing former Cardinals LB Calvin Pace. He is a critical piece to the puzzle and a player who can play the strong outside spot in the 3-4 defense à la Greg Ellis in Dallas.

New York Jets — Critics will say the Jets spent an awful lot of money for a 32-year-old guard in Alan Faneca, but the fact remains that he is one of the best players in the league at his position. He is not as dominant at the point of attack as he once was, but he is certainly an upgrade for the Jets, and his ability to pull and lead-block to the right side gives the team some options in the run game.

Fans will have to understand that this is a quick fix that makes their team better for the immediate future and will help LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson in his development, but the Jets will be looking for a new guard in the next couple years.

The team is also reportedly close to signing T Damien Woody away from the Lions. Woody is another veteran who started his career as a C/G but made the move to RT in Motown and had some success.

On defense, it seems that the Jets have finally acknowledged that they do not have the personnel to run Eric Mangini's 3-4 defense effectively. The trade of Jonathan Vilma to New Orleans and the reported deal that will send Dewayne Robertson to Cincinnati point to that fact. The trade for Kris Jenkins fills a need and gives the Jets a big body in the middle to protect LB David Harris and allow him to run to the ball, a key to these scheme.

New York has addressed two of its most glaring needs with these moves, upgrading the O-line and converting the defense, but still has other holes to fill. The good news is that the team entered free agency approximately $17 million under the cap and has likely created some more space by unloading Vilma and possibly Robertson, so expect the Jets to continue to be active in free agency despite the fact that Faneca and Jenkins will make about $38 million in guaranteed money.

They have also done a good job of acquiring second-day draft picks that can be parlayed into a first-day pick (e.g., use two fourth-round selections to move into the third-round). It's a good start with more to come.

Minnesota Vikings — The signing of WR Bernard Berrian gives this team a vertical threat who can catch, something that has been missing in the Twin Cities since Randy Moss' departure, and S Madieu Williams is a smart player and the best safety available in this year's free agent class. Both will improve the Vikings immediately.

Early Losers

New England Patriots — The defending AFC champs end up here only because of volume. They haven't lost anything they didn't know they were going to lose or weren't willing to lose. The Pats did not make an offer to CBs Asante Samuel and Randall Gay and to Stallworth. They knew Samuel was gone, and Gay was a depth guy who would have started only because of the loss of Samuel. He'll be a solid starter for New Orleans but is not a big loss for this team.

The thing that hurts in free agency is when you start losing players at the same position. With both of those players gone and Eugene Wilson reportedly close to leaving, depth in the secondary becomes an issue.

Stallworth is a vertical threat who is capable of the big play, but his loss only hurts if New England can't get a deal done with Randy Moss, and all indications are that a deal is imminent. Kelley Washington has been re-signed and the receiving depth the Pats have gives them some wiggle room.

Pittsburgh Steelers — You can't let Faneca walk if you want to run the ball, which is still the heart and soul of the Steelers offense. They are not good at tackle, they've now lost the best guard in football, and their plan for replacing him at this point isn't solid. Stay tuned.

The Trade Trend

There have already been nine trades in a few short days and our expectation is that the trend will continue. With the increase in the salary cap in recent years, more and more teams have enough room under the cap to absorb these trades. The ability to pull off a sign-and-trade also secures the new player for the long term and allows the team to retain its draft picks, which is still the lifeblood of any personnel department.

With the combine in the books, teams now have a much better feel for what this year's draft will NOT provide them, so expect more trades and free agent movement as holes continue to be filled heading into the draft. Don't be surprised to see as many as 25 trades by the time the draft is over.

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