It's a free-for-all for the free agents
By Jim Thomas
Of the Post-Dispatch

The competition for talent early in free agency has become so keen that neither the team nor the player wants to mess around.

Almost every year since the start of the current NFL free agency system, the top players go quickly, and this year has been no different.

On March 2, at the start of the free agency period, the Post-Dispatch listed the top five free agents in nine positional categories. Of the 45 players listed, only eight are still looking for jobs just 3 1/2 weeks into free agency.

So the feeding frenzy hasn't changed. If anything, it has become even more frenzied. It used to be that free agents visited several cities before deciding on a new team.

Remember the Reggie White "Tour Across America" in 1993? The late Minister of Defense visited enough towns to have a division named after him before deciding on Green Bay in '93, the first year of the current system. But such tours are nearly nonexistent these days. Players usually go to a city to sign a contract. No fuss. No muss. Some sign without even taking a visit.

"This year, it seems to have been very dramatic," said Jay Zygmunt, the Rams' president of football operations. "I don't know the exact percentage, but so many players are not making the multiple visits."

The competition for talent early in free agency has become so keen that neither the team nor the player wants to mess around.

"The best players are available early on," Zygmunt said. "The most money's available early on. And it's almost like there's a synergy that just says, 'Hey, this is the time to make a deal.'"

This year, the Rams did just that, signing linebackers Dexter Coakley and Chris Claiborne on the first two days of free agency.

Similarly, Dallas made waves early in free agency by signing cornerback Anthony Henry (Cleveland), defensive tackle Jason Ferguson (New York Jets) and offensive guard Marco Rivera (Green Bay). Those three players accounted for nearly $28 million in signing bonus money.

Carolina jumped on cornerback Ken Lucas (Seattle) and offensive guard Mike Wahle (Green Bay), for a combined $16.4 million in signing bonus.

"Everyone's looking for the big splash," Zygmunt said.

But the best players aren't necessarily the ones with the most name recognition. Teams frequently fall into the trap of buying "names" instead of buying players.

"As you well know, the best players (often) are the guys signed that the public doesn't even know who they are," Zygmunt said. "As opposed to signing the aging veteran, which everybody does. ... Sometimes you get caught up in the thrill of the chase."

The flip side to the big splash is getting your roster raided. Since their 1999 Super Bowl championship season, the Rams know this better than most. They've lost the likes of defensive end Grant Wistrom, cornerback Dre Bly, linebacker London Fletcher, wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, and offensive tackles Fred Miller and Ryan Tucker to name a few.

This year, Green Bay lost both of its starting guards (Rivera and Wahle) from the offensive line that has done such a great job of protecting aging quarterback Brett Favre in recent years.

Such is the state of today's free agency - striking whenever possible, trying to minimize losses, and rolling with the punches.

"There's an emotional roller coaster in free agency when there aren't a lot of names out there, and you're competing for them, and you lose them," New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said.

Retaining free agents is as much a part of the plan as luring them.

"A retention is just like signing a free agent," Zygmunt said. "There's no free agent we would have rather signed on the marketplace this year than Orlando (Pace)."

After playing for two years as a franchise player, Pace signed a seven-year, $52.9 million deal on March 16 that included a $15 million signing bonus.

On this year's Post-Dispatch free-agent list, only six of 45 players have re-signed with their old team. A couple of other interesting developments are reflected in what has happened to this year's free-agent list:

Other than former New York Jet Lamont Jordan, who signed a $27.5 million contract with Oakland, running backs aren't making much money in free agency.

The fact that Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James and Travis Henry are on the trading block has made it a buyer's market. So has the fact that it's a good year for running backs in the draft, particularly at the top of the draft.

Cornerbacks are cashing in. Ty Law, who's coming off foot surgery in January, is about the only elite free agent still looking for a job. But Samari Rolle, Fred Smoot, Gary Baxter and Henry have commanded signing bonuses of $9 million or more.

This comes at a time when the franchise tag number for cornerbacks ($8.816 million) amazingly has topped that of quarterbacks ($8.078 million). Go figure.