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    NFL Free Agents: Best of the bunch

    NFL Free Agents: Best of the bunch

    03/02/2006
    Rams Pickett
    Defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (above) could be in high demand on the free agent market for defensive linemen.
    (Gabriel B. Tait/P-D)

    Trust us, the free agency period will begin sooner or later despite Thursday's unprecedented delay. Labor issues have created uncertainty about how the NFL's version of March Madness will unfold, but here's the best of bunch as of Thursday evening in the 2006 free-agent class:


    QUARTERBACK


    Overview: Cap cuts still could add the likes of Chad Pennington (New York Jets), Kerry Collins (Oakland) and Brian Griese (Tampa Bay) to this group. But for now, it's slim pickings beyond the top three.

    1.) Drew Brees, San Diego - Will help turn around a franchise if his shoulder is right.

    2.) Jon Kitna, Cincinnati - Hasn't played much behind Carson Palmer; can be steady starter.

    3.) Josh McCown, Arizona - Lost out to Kurt Warner with Big Red, but is better than some starters.

    4.) Anthony Wright, Baltimore - Has a strong arm and mobility and got seven starts in 2005.

    5.) Charlie Batch, Pittsburgh - Can get you through a game or two if starter goes down.

    Rams' needs: Are they set with Jeff Smoker and Ryan Fitzpatrick behind Bulger?

    Worth a look: Sage Rosenfels, Miami. Threw 61 passes last season. Will Scott Linehan look to his former Dolphins back up to add depth in St. Louis?

    Buyer beware: Jeff Garcia, Detroit. It looks very much like Garcia left his game in San Francisco.


    RUNNING BACK


    Overview: Easily the most star-studded group in the history of NFL free agency.

    1.) Shaun Alexander, Seattle - How could the Seahawks let the NFL's reigning MVP walk?

    2.) Edgerrin James, Indianapolis - He turns 28 in August; there's still some tread left on his tires.

    3.) Jamal Lewis, Baltimore - Lewis, 26, has plenty left despite his 3.4 yards per carry in 2005.

    4.) Ahman Green, Green Bay - Spent most of 2005 on IR, ending streak of 1,000-yard seasons at five.

    5.) Mike Anderson, Denver - Still productive: 12 TDs, 1,014 yards, and 4.2 yards per carry in 2005.

    Rams' needs: Need to groom a backup for Steven Jackson, with Marshall Faulk probably entering his final season.

    Worth a look: Maurice Morris, Seattle. Alexander's understudy is ready for a featured role somewhere.

    Buyer beware: Michael Bennett, Minnesota. Has durability questions and not much on change of direction.


    WIDE RECEIVER


    Overview: Not much depth to this group and very little star power, although Terrell Owens should be on the market one way or another.

    1.) Antwaan Randle El, Pittsburgh - Brings big-play and trick-play potential running, throwing, and catching.

    2.) Antonio Bryant, Cleveland - Coming off a career year (69 for 1,009) and just entering his prime.

    3.) David Givens, New England - With 114 catches over past two seasons, he would be a good No. 2.

    4.) Joe Jurevicius, Seattle - Big target who knows how to find the end zone: 10 TDs in 2005.

    5.) Corey Bradford, Houston - He would be a third receiver at best for most teams.

    Rams needs: Minimal once again, unless something funny happens with restricted free agent Kevin Curtis.

    Worth a look: Josh Reed, Buffalo. Caught 58 balls in 2003, but his numbers have dropped off since.

    Buyer beware: Koren Robinson, Minnesota. Has big-play ability as a receiver and kickoff returner, but are off-the-field issues behind him?


    FULLBACK/TIGHT END


    Overview: Jimmy Kleinsasser is a Rolls-Royce in a TE class otherwise littered with Yugos.

    1.) Mack Strong, FB, Seattle - Still one of the league's best lead blockers after 13 seasons.

    2.) Tony Richardson, FB, Kansas City - Like Strong in Seattle, it's hard to imagine Richardson not in KC.

    3.) Jeb Putzier, TE, Denver - Had 37 catches in 2005, but not much of a blocker.

    4.) Matt Schobel, TE, Cincinnati - A good receiver, but Bengals' offense is geared for blocking TEs.

    5.) Dan Campbell, TE, Dallas - Has developed into one of the league's better blocking TEs.

    Rams needs: Madison Hedgecock looks set at FB, but another TE is needed to complement or beat out Brandon Manumaleuna for starting job.

    Worth a look: Fred Beasley, FB, San Francisco. Didn't play much last year but had been a solid blocker-receiver for years.

    Buyer beware: William Henderson, FB, Green Bay. Nearing the end of the line?


    OFFENSIVE LINE


    Overlook: A solid but unspectacular class, with some depth at tackle, guard and center.

    1.) LeCharles Bentley, C, New Orleans - Play doesn't quite match reputation, but tough, nasty, and just 26.

    2.) Jon Runyan, T, Philadelphia - Physical mauler has the ideal temperament to play right tackle.

    3.) Stephen Neal, G, New England - Went from Patriots' waiver wire in 2001 to two-year starter at RG.

    4.) Justin Hartwig, C, Tennessee - Up-and-coming performer had never played center until 2003 season.

    5.) Jeff Mitchell, C, Carolina - Provides leadership and experience, including two Pro Bowl starts.

    Rams needs: Looking for a third tackle and depth on the interior; starters are set.

    Worth a look: Brad Hopkins, T, Tennessee. At 35, he could be a short-term solution for a contending team.

    Buyer beware: Mike Williams, T, Buffalo. Former No. 4 overall draft pick lost his starting job midway through 2005.


    DEFENSIVE LINE


    Overview: An average class, at best, once you get past Bernard and Pickett. Very little in the way of pass rushers.

    1.) Rocky Bernard, DT, Seattle - At age 26, led all NFL DTs with 8 1/2 sacks. Very quick for a big man.

    2.) Ryan Pickett, DT, Rams - An active player who led all NFL DTs with 115 tackles last season.

    3.) Darren Howard, DE, New Orleans - Was franchised past 2 seasons; eager to test market. Played with bad knee in 2005.

    4.) Aaron Kampman, DE, Green Bay - Solid all-around performer had career-high 6 1/2 sacks last season.

    5.) Sam Adams, DT, Buffalo - Not nearly as effective without Pat Williams around to help clog the middle.

    Rams needs: There could be plenty of holes to fill with Pickett, Damione Lewis and Tyoka Jackson all unrestricted.

    Buyer beware: Trevor Pryce, DE, Denver. Doesn't seem to have much left. It may be time to start working full-time on his many business interests.

    Worth a look: Willie Whitehead, DT, New Orleans. The man who once gave Warner a concussion has been a dependable starter for Jim Haslett.


    LINEBACKERS


    Overview: This isn't the best year to solve your LB problems in free agency, particularly once you get past the top four on our list.

    1.) Julian Peterson, OLB, San Francisco - Can be an impact player rushing the passer and in coverage.

    2.) Derek Smith, MLB, San Francisco - Underrated. He led ***** in tackles for fifth straight year.

    3.) Will Witherspoon, OLB, Carolina - Emerging player, 25, has led Panthers in tackles two of last three seasons.

    4.) David Thornton, OLB, Indianapolis - Third-year starter at age 27; strong-side linebacker had 96 tackles in 2005.

    5.) Tommy Polley, OLB, Baltimore - Revived career in hometown; four sacks and led Ravens with 134 tackles.

    Rams needs: Once again, a major area of need for a club looking for new starters at strong-side and middle linebacker.

    Buyer beware: Barrett Green, OLB, New York Giants. Injuries limited him to only 11 games in the past two seasons.

    Worth a look: Brad Kassell, MLB, Tennessee. A young, tough run defender who lacks ideal speed.


    DEFENSIVE BACKS


    Overview: Some big names are available, more so than in almost any prior year. But most are 30-somethings on the downside of their careers.

    1.) Chris Hope, FS, Pittsburgh - Ninety-seven tackles and a team-high three INTs for Super Bowl champs.

    2.) Lawyer Milloy, SS, Buffalo - Remains productive, but age (33) works against him in terms of big bucks.

    3.) Ty Law, CB, New York Jets - Yes, he's 32, but how can you overlook his 10 INTs last season?

    4.) Adam Archuleta, SS, Rams - Good blitzer and strong in the box, but he misses some open-field tackles.

    5.) Sam Madison, CB, Miami - Four-time Pro Bowler is still a solid player but can't run like he used to.

    Rams needs: Help wanted sign is up at corner and safety, particularly if Archuleta goes elsewhere.

    Buyer beware: Charles Woodson, CB, Oakland. Hasn't played a full 16-game season since 2001; missed 10 games last season.

    Worth a look: Marlon McCree, SS, Carolina. He's only 28 and coming off career year in tackles (95).


    PUNTER/KICKER


    Overview: Cream at the top - Vinatieri and Vanderjagt are arguably the two best place-kickers in the game.

    1.) Adam Vinatieri, K, New England - There has been no better big-game kicker in recent league history.

    2.) Mike Vanderjagt, K, Indianapolis - Even with playoff miss vs. Steelers, he is the most accurate PK in NFL history.

    3.) Ryan Longwell, K, Green Bay - Last season wasn't his best, but he's still dependable and accurate.

    4.) Jason Baker, P, Carolina - Led the NFC in net punting average at 38.9 yards.

    5.) Todd Peterson, K, Atlanta - Only two missed FGs in 2005, but longest make was only 43 yards.

    Rams needs: K Jeff Wilkins signed a contract extension during the season, but P Bryan Barker is unrestricted.

    Buyer beware: Tom Rouen, P, Seattle. Thirteen-year vet hasn't averaged more than 42 yards a punt since 2002.

    Worth a look: Dave Zastudil, P, Baltimore. He's only 27 and coming off a career-best 43.5 average.


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    Re: NFL Free Agents: Best of the bunch

    I would have thought Ayodele would warrant consideration on the LB list over Polley and Thornton.

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