Spend big in free agency? Not so fast

A lot of teams with a lot of money will be chasing a paltry few difference-makers on the open market. Packer Report publisher Bill Huber takes a first look at the free agent Class of 2009.

It's easy to say Packers general manager Ted Thompson should be more active in free agency.

The Packers have holes to fill. So fill them, right?

Well, it's not quite so easy, and this year's class of free agents is the latest example.

First and foremost, there won't be many difference-making players available when business opens on Feb. 27.

"It is not a quality group," Scout.com analyst Ed Thompson told Packer Report. "The ones who are high quality will likely be franchised, and that's going to make it slim pickings for everyone else. The draft is going to be more important than it has been in years for many teams."

Second, teams have a ton of room under the salary cap. The Packers are well-positioned at about $18 million below the estimated 2009 salary cap of $123 million. So, that's the good news. The bad news? The Packers actually rank in the bottom half of the league in terms of available space. Eleven teams are $25 million or more beneath the cap, led by Tampa Bay ($42 million) and Arizona ($41 million).

And of the Packers' cap space, they would like to sign long-term contract extensions with receiver Greg Jennings and safety Nick Collins. Plus, the Packers presumably want to retain Colin Cole, and perhaps Michael Montgomery and Mark Tauscher, as well. And on top of that, they need to keep in mind Aaron Kampman and the entire 2006 draft class (minus A.J. Hawk) will be free agents after 2009.

Taken together, that means a lot of teams have a lot of money to spend on a few free agents, and Thompson has some reasons to play it close to the vest.

How weak is this free agent class?

Of the top 10 available free agents, according to Scout.com's rankings, Tennessee and defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth have begun work on a contract extension, the Raiders are expected to make cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha their franchise player again, Baltimore likely will make outside linebacker Terrell Suggs their franchise player, Arizona has a ton of space to lock up linebacker Karlos Dansby, Carolina will franchise either defensive end Julius Peppers or left tackle Jordan Gross and the Giants will keep one of their two superb running backs (Brandon Jacobs or Derrick Ward).

In May, an NFL.com story trumpeted the free agent class of 2009. Its top 10 players were, in order, Peppers, Rams running back Steven Jackson, Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, Cowboys running back Marion Barber, Giants guard Chris Snee, Asomugha, Haynesworth, Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens, Saints defensive end Will Smith and Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

Well, Jackson, Harris, Barber, Snee, Owens and Smith all signed long-term extensions during the season, as did Buffalo receiver Lee Evans, Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, Cowboys receiver Roy Williams and Cowboys defensive backs Ken Hamlin and Terence Newman.

Simply, most teams have managed their caps well, allowing them to sign their top players to extensions before they reach free agency.

None of this is to say there won't be anyone worth looking at for Thompson, and it's not to suggest he should sit on the team checkbook this offseason. The Ravens likely won't be able to keep all three of their stud free agent linebackers: Suggs, Ray Lewis and Bart Scott, though Suggs suggested they take a "hometown discount" to stay together. Carolina likely can't retain both Peppers and Gross. The Bengals might not use the franchise tag on Houshmandzadeh.

There are some interesting veteran offensive linemen available, such as Minnesota center Matt Birk, Colts center Jeff Saturday and one or both of the Eagles' tackles, Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas. There are some sledgehammer fullbacks and blocking tight ends available, too.

It's important to remember that Super Bowls aren't awarded based on who spends the most money. If that were the case, the open-the-vaults Jets and the Cowboys would be playing on Sunday instead of the thrifty Steelers and Cardinals, and Baltimore and Philadelphia wouldn't have joined them in the league's final four.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.

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