In Scout.com’s free agent rankings, Dallas has two of the top-rated free agents (receiver Dez Bryant, No. 2; running back DeMarco Murray, No. 6) and Denver has four of the top 15 (receiver Demaryius Thomas, No. 5; guard Orlando Franklin, No. 7; tight end Julius Thomas, No. 9; defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, No. 15).
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Cowboys coach Jason Garrett called Bryant and Murray “cornerstone players” for the team.
Murray is an especially interesting case. The running back position has been devalued over the years – none have been taken in the first round of the past two drafts and just two have been taken among the top 10 picks in the past six drafts. And if that’s not proof that a team can’t find a great running back at a limited cost, the Cowboys grabbed Murray with the 71st pick of the 2011 draft. However, Murray led the NFL in rushing by almost 500 yards and had 80 more rushes than any other runner in the league in 2014. Garrett took exception to the idea that his team could “plug in” another back and get similar results.
“The runner does matter,” Garrett said. “I think we’ve all seen that running backs don’t seem to be drafted quite as high as they used to. I think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the player. But I do think the value of the running back is really, really critical to having a great running football team. I think the history in the NFL proves that. Recent history proves that.”
For Denver, the questions go far beyond the future of quarterback Peyton Manning. If Manning does return, who will surround him? Julius Thomas (13) and Demaryius Thomas (12) combined for 25 touchdown catches. Franklin is a superb young guard and Knighton is the bruiser in the middle who would be key to the Broncos’ new 3-4 scheme.
“The key in this business is holding your football team together and getting better at the same time,” Broncos coach Gary Kubiak said. “We’ve got some key free agents. John’s doing a great job with that in Denver. I’ll leave that to him. I know we’re going to do everything we can to hang on to our players but, at the same time, you have to put yourself in position through free agency and the offseason to get better as a football team. John’s track record has proven he’s doing a great job of that so I’ll leave that to him. We would like to hang on to everybody. We want to keep the team intact as best we can.”
The top free agent in this year’s class is Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh. General manager Martin Mayhew said the Lions are prepared to make the “serious financial commitment” necessary to lock up Suh.
“I’m reluctant to put a timetable on it at this point. I’m very optimistic that we’ll get something done,” Mayhew said. “I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but again, a lot of the ingredients that need to be there are there. I know what he’s looking for: He wants to play for a winning team. We’ve got a team that can win right now. We’ve got a quality quarterback, we’ve got a defense he enjoys playing in, we’ve got a head coach he enjoys playing for, so it’s a great situation for him and obviously he’s an important part of that, of us building our football team.”
Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said he “would love” to re-sign outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Using the franchise tag is an option, Colbert said, downplaying the notion that the tag causes bad blood between the player and the team.
“There hasn’t been an issue for us,” Colbert said. “Ideally you want to sign your players to long-term contracts, something that they both agree upon. But when they are presented a tag, they have the option of signing it or not signing it. Most of the time they jump in and sign it. It is guaranteed money for just a signature. Again, it’s something that both sides agreed was doable. If we choose to use it or any team chooses to use it, the player has agreed to it via the agreement that everybody agrees to.”
“Everyone asks that question all the time. I think I've been asked that question for five straight years now,” Baalke said. “Frank’s just the Energizer battery. He just keeps on ticking. The last two games of the season, I think you saw what Frank still has left in the tank. A very good football player. One of the most passionate, if not the most passionate, football player I've ever been around. So, I still think he's got it in him. I know that he still believes it. I talked to him the other day on the phone and we're going to do what we can to get him back as a 49er.”
Meanwhile, the Cardinals and star receiver Larry Fitzgerald worked out a new deal, general manager Steve Keim announced. The reported two-year, $22 million deal, which is all guaranteed, will provide a financial war chest for the Cardinals, considering Fitzgerald was set to count $23.6 million against the cap in 2015.
Talks have been ongoing for about a year, Keim said, but he and agent Eugene Parker “put the foot on the gas pedal” in the last week to get it done.
“There are some additional tough decisions we’re going to have to make but it does give us the room, at least from our projections, that we’ll be able to be pretty active in free agency and address some of those needs we’ve talked about,” Keim said. Among them: “Try to get more athletic on defense, particularly at both inside and outside linebacker spots, trying to get little more aggressive and more physical inside on the interior of our offensive line.”
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