Next Year's Free-Agent Class Could be Special

Not since the NFL officially organized unfettered free agency in 1993, has the league seen such a deep pool of unrestricted free-agents that could possible hit the market in 2003. The list of players that could become obtainable is a whose who of the NFL. Orlando Pace, Tony Gonzalez, Michael Strahan, Aaron Brooks, David Boston, Peter Boulware, Takeo Spikes, Jon Jansen, Walter Jones and Chris McAlister are just a few of the big name players you could see switching jerseys next year.

There is also a second tier of talented players like Roosevelt Colvin, Rex Tucker, Kevin Johnson, Flozell Adams, Aaron Smith, Vonnie Holliday, Kwamie Lassiter, Wayne Gandy, Marcus Robinson, Donovin Darius, Jake Plummer, Brian Simmons, Edwin Mulitalo, Lorenzo Neal and Zack Brunson that could also shake free of their former teams. Oh by the way, this list doesn't include the names of players that will become cap casualties before March and after June 1.

Comparing the 2002 class of free-agents with next year's class is like trying to compare Tiger Woods to Phil Mickelson. There is simply no comparison.

That said, more than half of the players mentioned above will either be tagged or re-signed to lucrative contract extensions before they hit the market. In the case of Gonzalez, Spikes, Brooks, Jones, Pace and Boulware, it is almost a lock that these players won't become free-agents. However, that doesn't deter from the fact that when it's all said and done, next year's impending flurry of signings is what the football gods will be talking about with great rabidity. Simply put: 32 different teams will consume more money on players than they ever have before.

The question is, where will the Ravens be when the party starts on March 1? In all likelihood, right smack dab in the middle. By all accounts, the Ravens could potentially have up to $17-$20 million to spend on free-agents. While they will not use up their cap space as gratuitously as they have in recent years, the Ravens will still be able to acquire two or three high quality players.

So which players should be atop of the Ravens' wish list? It's still early, but here are eight players the Ravens should start talking about pursuing right now:

1.      Donovin Darius: I know what you're thinking. How in the world can a strong safety be the No.1 player the Ravens should go after? Sure, it may sound absurd right now. But, Darius is no ordinary player. Next to John Lynch, Rodney Harrison, Lawyer Milloy and Sammy Knight, Darius could be the best strong safety in the game. He is a hardened leader, who hits like a truck and has a linebacker's mentality. Plus, safeties usually don't ask for a ton of money. Whether Gary Baxter falters or not, depends greatly on the Ravens' need to sign another safety.

2.      Jon Jansen: Jansen has built himself into one the top three right tackles in game today. The Ravens have been looking for a tackle to help compliment Jon Ogden for the past four years. If Mulitalo isn't capable of holding his own at right tackle this season, Jansen could get the call.

3.      Brandon Noble: Again, you are probably scratching your heads at this pick too. Noble started at defensive tackle for the Dallas Cowboys last season, and showed a lot of promise. Like Lional Dalton, Noble will get plenty of attention from teams because he has good potential. Noble would not only fill a gaping hole at defensive tackle for the Ravens, but he'd be a bargain signing as well. Talk about getting your bang for the buck.

4.      Rex Tucker: Whether the Ravens move Mulitalo back to guard or keep him at tackle, it doesn't mean that they won't need to add another guard to the lineup. Tucker is arguably the best guard available out of next year's pool of free-agents. That's why it is improbable that the Bears will let him go at the end of the season. Like his teammate Olin Kreutz, Tucker will command a large chunk of change on the open market. But with his ability to dominate at line of scrimmage, and the fact that he's only 25, he may be worth it.

5.      Mo Collins: Yet another guard is on the list. Like Tucker, Collins uses brute strength and size to pave the way for his running backs to gain substantial yardage. Also like Tucker, Collins could command good money on the open market. However, the Raiders may not be the team that pays him.

6.      John Thornton: Thornton is another one of those hidden gems you will find in free agency next year. He's been the Titans' starting defensive tackle for the past couple of years, and has shown the ability to hold his own inside the trenches. Thornton may cost a little more money to sign than Noble would, but he will hardly cost an arm and a leg to sign.

7.      Kevin Johnson: While Boston is the better player, Johnson will be more affordable. Johnson possesses the type of deep play speed that makes him hard to cover one on one. In addition to that, Johnson possesses a keen sense of getting open, and he will make the tough catches when the game is on the line.

8.      David Boston: The Ravens need a legitimate No.1 wideout, and Boston will be the best man available to fill that spot. With his combination of size, strength and speed, Boston is regarded as one of the top five receivers in the NFL. It would be a surprise if the Cardinals let him walk. However, even if he becomes available to sign, the Ravens may not be willing to fork up the dollars it will take to pry him away from other teams.



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