San Francisco – In 2004 the 49ers had almost $29 million in "dead money" (money being paid to players no longer on their roster) and were cap-strapped most of the offseason. This year, the Niners are $20 million under the cap and they figure to be relatively aggressive in the free agent market.
Standout LB Julian Peterson will be named the team's franchise player on February 22nd for the second straight year, even though he missed all but five games last season with a torn Achilles tendon. Head coach Mike Nolan and linebackers/assistant head coach Mike Singletary see Peterson as an integral cog in their switch to the 3-4 scheme that new defensive coordinator Billy Davis is preparing to install.
After Peterson, the toughest decisions the new coaching staff and front office have to make is the disposition and potential of restricted free agents starting T/G Kyle Kosier and LG Eric Heitmann. Kosier is versatile (able to play four positions along the line) and Heitmann is consistent and a solid athlete. Although they aren't bona fide starters, they're worth keeping.
WR Cedrick Wilson and S Ronnie Heard are two other starters slated to become unrestricted free agents, but neither has shown enough to warrant a big-time paycheck. Wilson is an average slot receiver with more talent than production and Heard is probably better suited as a backup, so the team is likely to replace them in the lineup. The team will probably look to do that through the draft with younger more talented players.
Free Agent Focus: The team will look to pick up some experienced offensive lineman to help improve a line that allowed 52 sacks in 2004. LT Kwame Harris and RG Justin Smiley are assured of spots, along with C Jeremy Newberry, but experienced linemen are needed to offset the youth along the line.
St. Louis – As stated in this column a last week, the Rams will be looking to renegotiate the contracts of a few aging veteran players. With the team only about $4.5 million under the cap, the team needs the cap room to make moves during the offseason and for their rookie pool.
The top candidates are RB Marshall Faulk and WR Isaac Bruce, who are scheduled to make a combined $16.87 million in salary next season. Look for the Rams to target a few second-tier free agents who will add depth and leadership to a team that is talented but inconsistent week to week.
LT Orlando Pace is set to be named the team's franchise player for the third straight season and his cap hit will be close to $9 million dollars if they can't sign him to a long-term deal. Pace fired his agent shortly after the Rams' season ended and it may not be until the preseason before negotiations begin.
One of the team's unrestricted free agents can start looking for new digs. LB Tommy Polley is a talented player who is an excellent coverage linebacker, but his play was so inconsistent that at one point during the season he was benched in favor of rookie LB Brandon Chillar. The coaching staff seems prepared to make Chillar the starter and thus Polley will be donning a new uniform in 2005.
DE Bryce Fisher's "coming-out party" in the last half of the season may have priced the unrestricted free agent out of the Rams' price range. When the Rams selected him he was a fringe player who has narrowly avoided being a training camp cut almost every season he has played. Now with a team-leading 8.5 sacks and NFC Defensive Player of the Month honors in December he is on the entire league's radar as a defensive end ready for a for a big payday.
Free Agent Focus: The Rams don't have a lot of room and they don't have a lot of talent needs so they probably won't be very active. With the loss of T Kyle Turley (a likely June 1st roster casualty) and the possible losses of guards Tom Nutten and Chris Dishman to retirement look for the Rams to target one or two offensive lineman during free agency. Tennessee's Fred Miller, a former Ram, could be a possibility if, as expected, he's a cap casualty. Other possibilities are Pittsburgh's Oliver Ross, Buffalo's Jonas Jennings, and Indianapolis' Ryan Diem.
Another position of need is at middle linebacker. Former LB Pisa Tinoisamoa will be moved to strong safety next season allowing current middle linebacker Robert Thomas to move to the weakside linebacker post, his more natural position. Philadelphia's Jeremiah Trotter, Baltimore's Edgerton Hartwell or Washington's Antonio Pierce would all be upgrades at the position as all three weigh over 240 pound. Pittsburgh's Kendrell Bell could be another option as he can play all three linebacker positions and can rush the passer.
Arizona – As far as their cap is concerned the Cardinals, for the third straight season, are nearly $10 million under the salary cap and poised to be major players in free agency. And, just like in any other season, they will struggle to get top-notch free agents to look at their team with any real sincerity.
Head coach Dennis Green adds credibility to the franchise and their budding offensive prowess may make their team more appealing but they will still have to pay a premium to get the best talent to sign on the dotted line.
Four Starters—CB Renaldo Hill, TE Freddie Jones, LB Ronald McKinnon and G Cameron Spikes—are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents but only Hill would be a big loss. Hill, who replaced the oft-injured CB Duane Starks and filled in nicely, adds depth to a very thin position. Hill will be the Cardinals' priority free agent to re-sign…and soon.
Free Agent Focus: Instead of signing on big-time, high-priced free agent Green believes in spreading the wealth and signing several players for that same amount of money. That plan makes sense for the Cardinals, who have several needs, including running back, quarterback, offensive line, defensive line and cornerback. The club has plenty of room under the salary cap, although it would like to reserve some of that to re-sign WR Anquan Boldin, who has threatened a training camp holdout if his contract isn't redone.
The team would like to bring in a veteran quarterback to compete with QB Josh McCown. Veterans Drew Bledsoe, Jeff Garcia and Brad Johnson are definite candidates for the Cardinals, as Green has had success with recycled quarterbacks in the past (Randall Cunningham, Jeff George and Warren Moon in Minnesota).
Along the defensive line, soon-to-be former Minnesota Viking DT Chris Hovan is probably the biggest name defensively the team is looking at. Some experts think that Hovan's play has declined over the last two seasons, but the Cardinals feels that a change of scenery would do wonders for him.
.NET Reporter Scott
Eklund writes for Seahawks.NET every week. Feel free to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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