Of Buffalo’s 21 free agents, none can be considered an urgency to re-sign as a starter in 2009. Most will be evaluated by what they bring to the table as backups and special teams players.
CB Jabari Greer, an unrestricted free agent, watched rookie first-round pick Leodis McKelvin emerge at his starting right corner spot while he sat out the final six games of the 2008 season with a knee injury.
Perhaps Buffalo’s most important free agent to re-sign is one that can’t get away anyhow. RB Fred Jackson, who emerged as a strong No. 2 behind Marshawn Lynch, is an exclusive rights free agent. The Bills only need to tender him a one-deal at $460,000. He’s hoping for a long-term contract and the Bills are open to talking.
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS
1. Defensive end: Buffalo’s anemic pass rush ranked 26th in large part to Pro Bowler Aaron Schobel missing 11 games with a foot injury. With no guarantee he’ll ever regain his past form, the Bills need to shop for their next great end.
2. Wide receiver: The Bills collected just nine TDs from their wide receivers and rookie James Hardy will be coming off major knee surgery. The team can no longer ignore getting some help for Trent Edwards and Lee Evans, preferably through free agency.
3. Offensive center: Veteran Melvin Fowler hit the wall and was benched the final 11 games in favor of Duke Preston. The team needs a dominant force in the middle. It’s been a long time since Kent Hull played.
OFFSEASON STRATEGYThe trifecta, headed by Bill Parcells, don’t like shelling out big free-agent contracts to their own, so don’t expect any of their top three free agents of LB Channing Crowder, RT Vernon Carey or SS Yeremiah Bell to be tagged.
Because they have three free agent starting defensive backs to consider keeping, it’s imperative they hold onto at least one and that should be SS Yeremiah Bell, the only true playmaker in their back end. While not an Ed Reed type regarding picks, Bell is a run-stuffer (120 tackles) and always seems to be in the right place during critical defensive stands. Forget his age (soon to be 31) or brittle past, the Dolphins need to use some of their $23 million of cap funds on Bell. Neither FS Renaldo Hill or CB Andre’ Goodman should command the big numbers that Bell will.
As for Crowder, if the Dolphins just show him some love he’d re-sign, but they clearly won’t break the bank for a player who still hasn’t proven he could be an impact playmaker like his predecessor Zach Thomas was. He also has a long history of knee concerns. Crowder made a ridiculously low $1 million last year, yet he notched 114 tackles.
If they don’t tag or re-sign Carey, expect the Dolphins to invest big in a free-agent lineman. Last year they spent the most on LG Justin Smiley ($9 million signing bonus) so if Carolina’s Jordan Gross isn’t tagged, expect a phone call from Tuna at about 12:01 AM Feb. 28.
“You have to value everybody,” Parcells said during Super Bowl week in Tampa. “We have our own free agents, we have others, we have to put a value on them and then we have to decide what we’re going to do – and our opinion of a value might be different than theirs.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen.”
Expect the Dolphins to bolster their front seven in free agents by picking off any linebacker the Ravens can’t re-sign. It would be hard to believe that the Ravens would allow either star LB Ray Lewis or Terrell Suggs to depart, so that leaves Bart Scott, 28, a solid ILB who is durable and productive and could easily step in for Crowder. Cowboys DE Chris Canty is a Parcells’ guy and should be available. He’s a younger, larger cheaper version of veteran Vonnie Holliday, who may be expendable because of his lofty cap hit of $5.75 million due to an upcoming $1.5 million roster bonus. With young defensive ends Phillip Merling and Kendall Langford pushing the classy 33-year-old, it would be wise for Holliday to restructure his contract ASAP. Of course, free agent DE Julius Peppers would also allow Joey Porter to post another Pro Bowl season.
The Dolphins want to continue to get younger on defense, and improve their run defense which improved from 32nd to 10th, but was still overpowered at times, allowing 112 or more rushing yards in nine regular-season games. They need another outside linebacker to complement Joey Porter in the pass-rushing department. Porter’s career-high 17.5 sacks accounted for more than half the sacks from the entire defensive line.
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS
1. Offensive line: Without the surprise implementation of the Wildcat last season the Dolphins running game would’ve been ranked near the bottom of the league instead of 11th. They averaged 6.1 yards per attempt behind the Wildcat and 4.2 overall. If they allow free agent RT Vernon Carey to walk then this would become more of a priority because they’re counting on inexperienced guard Donald Thomas and oft-injured LG Justin Smiley to bounce back from multi-surgeries. Mississippi’s Michael Oher may still be on the board by Miami’s 25th pick and he seems to be the kind of project that would be right up former O-line coach Tony Sparano’s alley.
2. Wide receiver: The absence of a playmaking receiver and lack of arm strength by QB Chad Pennington hurt the running game because safeties were able to cheat up and stuff the box. Also, an inconsistent, evolving offensive line didn’t afford Pennington enough time to take shots downfield. That said, the young corps of Ted Ginn Jr., Greg Camarillo and Davone Bess all improved because of Pennington’s smarts and accuracy. Kenny Britt from Rutgers might be a good fit as we all know how Parcells loves athletic receivers who played in the Northeast and his hometown of New Jersey.
3. Cornerback: While CBs. Andre’ Goodman and Will Allen both had solid seasons, they’re both over 30 and Allen ended the season pretty beat up, while Goody is an RFA. The depth is virtually non-existent because 2006 first-round pick Jason Allen has been unable to get on the field regularly for any of the three head coaches he’s played for. The Dolphins need to get younger, especially if they allow free agent SS Yeremiah Bell and to a lesser extent FS Renaldo Hill to depart. UConn’s Darius Butler may be on the Dolphins menu come draft time. Free-agent wise, Oakland’s Nnamdi Asomugha will be on everyone’s wish-list unless the Raiders re-sign him or tag him.
New England Patriots
OFFSEASON STRATEGYThe Patriots have already franchised QB Matt Cassel and it’s unlikely anyone else will receive the tender as well, so the next order of business is addressing the team’s current crop of free agents.
There are a lot of decisions to be made in the secondary, starting with Rodney Harrison, James Sanders, Tank Williams and Lewis Sanders, who are all free agents. Plus, the team must decide what to do with free-agent punter Chris Hanson, who struggled at times throughout the season.
Running backs LaMont Jordan and Evans are also free agents and so is long snapper Lonie Paxton. Two of the top restricted free agents are tackle Wesley Britt and linebacker Eric Alexander. The Patriots will also have decisions to make on restricted free agent linebacker Pierre Woods and wide receiver Jabar Gaffney. All told, they have 18 remaining unrestricted free agents.
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS
1. Cornerback: They still haven’t found a replacement for Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs won’t get as many opportunities to make plays as long as there is a similar less than stellar CB on the other side to throw at. Terrence Wheatley stepped up before getting hurt last year and may have a chance to win the role in his second season, though don’t rule out the possibility of another veteran free agent or two joining the mix.
2. Running back: Laurence Maroney struggled last year before getting hurt and could become trade bait if the Patriots find a suitable replacement. They had enough bodies at the start of the year until injuries took their toll, which may mean more durable players are a possibility.
3. Wide receiver: A third option behind Welker and Moss would be ideal. Jabar Gaffney does not command enough attention to free up opportunities for others and the Patriots are too top-heavy at this position. At times, Cassel would only lock in on one of two players, making the offense predictable. The Patriots need more balance from top to bottom.
New York Jets
OFFSEASON STRATEGYILB Eric Barton, a defensive stalwart since coming over as a free agent before the 2004 season, likely will not be re-signed. But the Jets could be in the market for either of Baltimore ILBs. Bart Scott is younger and has enjoyed playing for Rex Ryan; Ray Lewis, also a Ryan disciple, seems like more of a long shot.
Both kickers, Mike Nugent and Jay Feely, are unrestricted free agents, and both have expressed the desire to be back. Obviously, the Jets will sign only one, and Nugent is six years younger than Feely, so Nugent figures to get the nod. Look for them to try to re-sign FB Tony Richardson, who is getting up in years but still is a tremendous lead blocker, and a good change-of-pace ball carrier when called upon. That is, unless Richardson chooses to rejoin former Jets running backs coach Jimmy Raye, now the offensive coordinator in San Francisco. However, Richardson has professed a desire to stay with the Jets.
TOP THREE TEAM NEEDS
2. Cornerback: The secondary needs a solid corner to play opposite lockdown corner Darrelle Revis on the left side.