When the clock turns to 12:01 a.m., the Green Bay Packers will enter free agency armed with some $30 million of salary cap space.
Too bad there won't be many quality players to spend it on.
Free agency begins in hours, and once the big guns — Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Ravens linebackers Ray Lewis and Bart Scott and center Jason Brown, and, perhaps, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers — are off the market in the first three days, teams will be fighting for what's largely a group of underachievers or over-the-hill veterans.
On the record, general managers dismissed the notion that this free agent class has been reduced to crumbs by a record 14 franchise tags and a bunch of late signings.
"There are always good players. You just have to look deep into what you need and what's available," Giants general manager Jerry Reese said. "There are always people in free agency who can help you fill some holes in your roster. Sometimes, you have to look a little deeper. It would be nice to get all the top guys, but that's not reality, so you have to look at the mid levels. And you have to bottom-feed sometimes in free agency."
Off the record, however, the personnel folks became more blunt.
"Terrible," one general manager told Packer Report once the cameras were turned off last week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
"Worst ever," another GM said.
How bad is it?
Take this NFL.com story from May, which trumpeted the talent that would be available in the offseason. The story listed the top 10 free agents: Peppers, Rams running back Steven Jackson, Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris, Cowboys running back Marion Barber, Giants guard Chris Snee, Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, Haynesworth, Cowboys receiver Terrell Owens, Saints defensive end Will Smith and Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
The best of the rest included then-Lions receiver Roy Williams, Bills receiver Lee Evans, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin, Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs.
Fast forward to the eve of free agency, and of those 18 star players, only Haynesworth and Houshmandzadeh will be available on Friday. Many of them were signed during the season, signed recently (Asomugha) or franchised (Peppers, Jacobs, Robinson, Dansby and Suggs).
So, who is available among the front-line players that could interest the Packers? Dallas defensive end Chris Canty would be the ideal fit because of his experience playing in a 3-4 scheme. Canty isn't a great pass rusher, but DeMarcus Ware lined up on the same side as Canty and posted a league-high 20 sacks. But insiders tell us he will receive between $8 million and $10 million a year, based on his talent and the lack of talent available, and history has shown that probably will be too rich for Packers general manager Ted Thompson.
Even though he's flush with cap space and his team is coming off of a seven-win fall in the standings, Thompson needs to keep an eye toward the future. While he has only three unrestricted free agents this year — right tackle Mark Tauscher, defensive end Michael Montgomery and nose tackle Colin Cole — next year is a different story.
Safety Nick Collins, along with receiver Greg Jennings and the rest of 2006 draft class (minus Aaron Rodgers) will be free agents after 2009. Outside linebacker Aaron Kampman, receiver Donald Driver, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and left tackle Chad Clifton will be free agents, too, and locking up a few of them with long-term contracts this year might be the wiser use of money.
"We are cognizant of the fact that if you make an investment in free agency, then that comes with a cost," Thompson said at the Scouting Combine. "There's going to be a player or two players or something within a year from now that you won't have because you made that investment. Now, if it's worth it, it's worth it. But everything comes at a cost."
So, with that in mind, Thompson could turn to some second- and third-tier talent to help fill the holes and build depth in his new 3-4 defense. Among the ends, San Diego's underachieving Igor Olshansky, Pittsburgh's 36-year-old Orpheus Roye or New England's hard-working reserve Mike Wright could be in the mix, as could a 4-3 defensive tackle like Detroit's underachieving Shaun Cody. It's slim pickings at nose tackle, but maybe Grady Jackson could be persuaded to return to Green Bay.
The 3-4 inside linebackers are headlined by Lewis and Scott, but Lewis seems bound for Dallas and Scott reportedly is close to a deal to stay in Baltimore and will be pursued by his former coordinator, new Jets coach Rex Ryan. Cleveland's Andra Davis and the Jets' Eric Barton are a distant step behind Lewis and Scott. Forget about the 3-4 outside linebackers; the Packers would be far better off taking advantage of a deep group in the draft.
Most of the top secondary players were locked up before free agency, but there's a decent group of second-tier cornerbacks (led by Pittsburgh's Bryant McFadden, who would be a good fit in the Packers' Steelers-based defense). Hard-hitting Jermaine Phillips of Tampa Bay is the top safety.
There's not a lot of offensive line help, either. Among the top tackles, Jordan Gross has been franchised by Carolina, Vernon Carey was re-signed by Miami, and Pittsburgh's Willie Colon and Atlanta's Tyson Clabo are restricted free agents given high tenders. Other than that, it's old players (Jon Runyan and Tra Thomas), injured players (Stacy Andrews) or both (Tauscher).
There's not much young talent at guard, though the Jets released Brandon Moore, who has started all 16 games the last four seasons, for salary cap reasons on Friday, as did Buffalo with $49 million flop Derrick Dockery. After the Colts re-signed Jeff Saturday on Thursday night, the centers feature the Ravens' Brown, who is going to be the hottest commodity among the linemen, and the Vikings' Matt Birk. But Brown likely will be too rich for Thompson's blood, and Thompson has no history of throwing big money at past-their-prime veterans like Birk, who turns 33 in July.
Insiders say the key segment of free agency will be over by Monday, at the latest, with teams having upwards of $600 million to throw at the top players. If Thompson wants one of the big names, he'll have to strike quickly. Otherwise, expect Thompson to follow a familiar plan: Watch everybody spend money, see what's left and find a match.
"I still think it's a very valuable tool and I think it's a tool that's best used to address specific needs that you have," Thompson said of free agency. "We've done that in the past. The two prime examples are Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. We think they did exactly what we wanted them to do and maybe more. They're good players and they're good in the locker room and the whole structure fit into what we were trying to do. If you go outside those bounds, then the problems tend to get bigger."
What do you think about free agency?
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Lambeau Level forum.