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29 Dec 2005
by Michael David Smith
Late December is a sad time for fans of most of the league's teams. When your team isn't in the playoffs, it's tempting to put your thoughts right past February's Super Bowl and toward March's free agency signing period. So we'll take a break this week from analyzing one game in detail and instead go through the notes on the season to identify some of the top free agents who will become available in 2006.
Every fan knows that Terrell Owens will be available, and the NFL will have more free-agent running backs this off-season than the NFL Network has Fathead commercials (Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, Ahman Green, Jamal Lewis, DeShaun Foster, T.J. Duckett), so for these purposes we'll focus on some of the less-discussed players, always keeping in mind that in the age of the salary cap, smart teams look for free agents who could make a big impact without breaking the bank.
These aren't the 10 most famous free agents or even the 10 best, but simply the 10 free agents who will make for the most interesting off-season discussions, both in NFL front offices and at sports bars.
With Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora at end for the Giants, not many people in New York have paid attention to the importance of Clancy to the defensive line. After playing five years in Pittsburgh, Clancy signed a one-year contract with the Giants this year and has been a very disruptive presence in the middle. Against the Chiefs, Clancy had a great play on a second-and-1 run by Tony Richardson, shoving Kansas City center Casey Wiegmann backward and into Richardson's path to stuff the play.
The Clancy signing was a big reason for the major improvement in the Giants' run defense, but he probably won't get any huge contract offers. Why? He's a one-dimensional player who registered his first career sack this season. If he were a one-dimensional player at the other extreme, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks but leaving big holes for opposing running backs, some team would give him a lot of money. Instead, some team will get a very good player at a reasonable price.
Chavous might be the smartest player in the NFL. He always seems to know the tendency of opposing receivers, which is why Minnesota uses him as something of a third cornerback, often engaging in man-to-man coverage on wide receivers.
However, Chavous turns 30 in January and looks like he's slowing down. He's also not great in run support. A team with a young secondary would be wise to bring Chavous on board as something of a coach on the field, but a team that needs a safety who can make plays all over the field should look elsewhere.
No one has noticed because, well, he's playing for the Saints, but LeCharles Bentley has had an excellent season. Bentley has a rare combination of power when taking on huge nose tackles and quickness when he needs to get up to the next level to block a middle linebacker. Notice that while the Saints are 17th in our adjusted line yards stat, they're eighth on runs up the middle.
There has been some talk that the league could allow the Saints to spend more money in 2006 to help make up for their status as the NFL's nomads. If that happens, they'd be wise to use as much of that money as necessary to keep Bentley around. New Orleans will most likely groom a new quarterback of the future next season, and if it does, the best protection that new quarterback could have would be Bentley keeping the up-the-gut pass rush away from him.
I call it the Az Hakim syndrome: A team will overpay for a player who has a supporting role on a great unit. In 2002, it was the Lions giving Hakim a $5 million signing bonus, forgetting that Hakim looked good mostly because he had NFL MVP Kurt Warner throwing him passes, and Pro Bowl receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce drawing coverage away from him. Hakim never turned into the #1 receiver the Lions thought he would become. Some team will do the same with Hillenmeyer, giving him more money than he's worth because of a foolish assumption that any player on the Bears' defense must be great. Hillenmeyer has limited range in coverage and misses too many tackles against the run. The Bears likely won't offer him a lot of money, and any team that does is making a mistake.
Hovan has had an up-and-down career. When Minnesota drafted him, he was hailed as the successor to John Randle as a dominant pass rusher from the inside. He played well against the pass and struggled against the run, and, like all tackles who fit that description, he got too much credit from the people who judge defensive linemen based solely on sacks. But last season everyone in Minnesota seemed to blame Hovan for the Vikings' defensive struggles, and Minnesota didn't want him around anymore.
Hovan made a very smart move by signing a one-year contract with Tampa Bay. He has played very well against the run, curtailing his tendency to sell out against the pass and therefore make himself susceptible to draws up the middle. Although Hovan almost always plays tackle, he has all the skills necessary to play end, especially in the 3-4, and some team looking for a player who can move all over its defensive line would be wise to sign him.
In terms of pure athleticism, very few players can match up with Archuleta. And because he's known as a workout freak, there's no chance of him signing a big contract, becoming complacent, and showing up to camp out of shape, as some free agents have.
On the other hand, Archuleta has been inconsistent on the field. For all his speed, there are times when slower tight ends get open against him. And he whiffed on a tackle on Maurice Hicks' long touchdown run against the Rams. Archuleta was a much better fit in the Lovie Smith defense, which encourages safeties to aggressively attack the ballcarrier, than he is in the Joe Vitt defense, which encourages safeties to read and react. If a team with the right scheme signs him, it would be a good move, but he's not a player any team should sign if it means making major roster moves to clear cap room.
Last year, Seattle's front office did something many analysts said was impossible: It got tackle Walter Jones and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck signed to long-term deals in time to use the franchise tag on Shaun Alexander. This year Alexander's contract guarantees that he won't be given the franchise tag, which means Seattle likely will use it on Hutchinson.
But if Seattle decides that it can't afford to keep both Alexander and Hutchinson, Alexander is the guy they should say goodbye to. As well as Alexander has played this year, the strength of the Seahawks is the offensive line, and unlike running backs, offensive linemen often don't begin to decine until their mid 30s. Seattle would be much better off next year with Hutchinson blocking for a lesser running back than they would be with Alexander running behind a lesser line.
If Hutchinson leaves, the team that signs him will get one of the best straight-ahead blockers in football. He has great technique and great power. At 28, Hutchinson is in his prime, and even if he gets a contract that makes him the highest-paid guard in the league, signing him would be a wise investment.
He's only 27, but Peterson seems older than that, perhaps because he has suffered a torn Achilles tendon and is noticeably slower than he was as a rookie. Even if his pure speed is permanently diminished, Peterson is a good fit in the 3-4 that Mike Nolan has imported in San Francisco. Any 3-4 team looking for a linebacker should consider him.
However, reports have suggested that Peterson will seek a contract that makes him among the league's highest-paid linebackers, and any team that pays him that much is making a mistake. There was a time when Peterson had the power to take on tackles as a pass rusher and the speed to drop into coverage and keep up with running backs. That time has passed. Peterson still sometimes drops into deep coverage, but he doesn't have the great closing speed he once had. Peterson isn't a bad player, but the team that signs him probably will overpay for him.
Shaffer weighs only 290 pounds, and he plays for Atlanta offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who has a reputation for being able to teach superior (and, some say, dirty) techniques to undersized players. But that doesn't mean Shaffer thrives only because Atlanta is the right place for him. Pay close attention to Shaffer the next time you watch the Falcons and you'll notice how quickly he gets out of his stance and to the man he needs to block. Any offensive line coach who would rather have a 340-pound mauler than Shaffer is making a serious mistake. The team that signs him will have made a major addition to its offense.
In four years with the Arizona Cardinals, Vanden Bosch did nothing but nurse his perpetual knee injuries. Now that he's healthy, he's been one of the best ends in the league, playing for a minimum-salary contract for the Titans. But he's much better as a pass rusher than he is as a run stopper, which means he won't be the right fit in every defensive scheme. That fact -- and his two previous ACL tears -- should limit the interest of most front offices. Tennessee got him for one season at a bargain price, but there's a good chance that the next team that signs him will overpay for him. He deserves a heavy raise, but he doesn't deserve a salary that would make him among the highest-paid defensive ends in the league.
This is the second annual Every Free Agent Counts. You can read last year's edition here.
54 comments, Last at 04 Sep 2006, 3:46pm by george nyarko