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Brad Johanson


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Line of Scrimmage: Free Agent Musings

LAST UPDATE: 3/9/2005 2:40:43 PM

By the way, since I wrote that the Vikings set themselves up better than did the Raiders in the Randy Moss trade, Minnesota has used its new-found cap room to add two of the top defensive free agents - DT Pat Williams and CB Fred Smoot - on the market. When Braylon Edwards stands before a throng of media hoisting a fresh Purple jersey next month, and the pundits begin anointing the Vikings as the foremost contender to Philadelphia's NFC throne, maybe you'll remember that you read it here first.

Oh, and Oakland's starting linebackers at the moment are Tyler Brayton, Sam Williams, Danny Clark, and Tim Johnson. Moving on:

BURR UNDER BURRESS' SADDLE Rumor has it that Plaxico Burress, the best remaining receiver on the free agent market, is less than thrilled with the interest he has received from potential NFL suitors. Burress and his agent, Michael Harrison, were reportedly seeking a signing bonus somewhere in the neighborhood of $10 million. The Giants, the leading contender for the former Steeler's services, are apparently willing to give Burress about $4 million up front. If the G-Men or anyone else gives him more, they'll likely be sorry. Burress has never been a No. 1 receiver in the NFL, has never displayed the attitude, temperament or numbers to be a No. 1 receiver, and still expects to be paid like a No. 1? He's a nice player, and put together a couple of 1,000-yard seasons before the Steelers switched to a run-first offense, but until he proves his mettle away from Hines Ward or starts showing better tolerance for mandatory mini-camps, he doesn't deserve No. 1 status.

CORNERS POCKETED The Ravens went from heartache to jubilation in a four-day span, finding themselves alone at the altar when cornerback Gary Baxter bolted to the division-rival Browns before solidifying their secondary by plucking Samari Rolle away from the Chiefs. Mouths are watering over the prospect of Rolle and Chris McAlister shutting down NFL receivers on a weekly basis, but those of us that have seen both in action recently will reserve our elation. McAlister was memorably torched in losses to both the Bengals and the Colts last season, is inconsistent at best and vastly overrated at worst. Rolle has a reputation as one of the league's best cover corners, a status that is countered by his one Pro Bowl appearance and the two full seasons he has played in seven professional years. McAlister and Rolle are good, and when combined with Ed Reed, Will Demps, and Deion Sanders, they will be part of perhaps the league's most formidable defensive backfield. But the two Ravens corners are not Darrell Green and Rod Woodson circa 1989, so don't believe the hype.

SCOLDING THE SKINS? Washington is wearing the pundits' dunce cap for taking a $9 million cap hit just to get rid of disgruntled receiver Laveranues Coles, and that criticism is likely justified. But from a roster standpoint, Joe Gibbs and company could end up looking a lot better than they did in 2004. The team received Santana Moss in the Coles trade, also inked the underrated David Patten, and figure to net USC stud Mike Williams in next month's draft. Sounds like a solid receiving corps to me. What's more, the Skins re-signed tackle Chris Samuels, signed run-blocking center/guard Casey Rabach off the Ravens roster, and will get tackle Jon Jansen back from injury in '05, meaning Clinton Portis should have more holes through which to run. On defense, much was made of the defections of linebacker Antonio Pierce (Giants) and cornerback Fred Smoot (Vikings), and both will be missed. But Pierce was only a starter due to LaVar Arrington's knee injury, and Arrington is expected back and healthy in the fall. Smoot will be replaced in the lineup by Walt Harris, who is a downgrade but not a major one. With the offense about to be better and the defense still running at a high level, don't be shocked to see Washington in the wild card mix in '05.

ALIVE AND WELL BY THE BAY The upset of the free agent period thus far has to be the 49ers' signing of former left tackle Jonas Jennings. As the only starting left tackle with unrestricted status, Jennings could have more or less named both his team and his price, and a San Francisco franchise that has mostly been an observer during this time of the year since owner John York took over was barely mentioned in the early speculation surrounding Jennings' destination. But the Niners took a 6-3, 325-pound step toward being competitive again, signing the 27-year-old to a seven-year, $36 million deal and filling a cavernous hole in the process. The Georgia product is a force as both a pass- and run-blocker, and San Francisco ranked near the bottom of the league in rushing yards, average per carry, and sacks allowed during last year's 2-14 debacle. The team has a long way to go in its first year under new head coach Mike Nolan, but spending the money to ink Jennings was an act of good faith toward both the current players and starving fan base, and proved that the franchise is serious about fielding an NFL-caliber club.

QUARTERBACK WATCH As predicted in this space a few weeks back, Drew Bledsoe has become a Cowboy, Jeff Garcia looks to be nearing a deal with the Lions, and Brian Griese re- signed with the Buccaneers. In mild surprises, Kurt Warner spurned Lovie Smith and the Bears to play for Arizona, Kelly Holcomb bolted from Cleveland to Buffalo, and the Browns reacted by trading for Seahawks backup Trent Dilfer. That leaves Jay Fiedler and Brad Johnson as the two major QB names still out there, and it appears that the Jets and Bears are the leading candidates for their services. Fiedler is a native New Yorker, and after the Giants signed former Bear Jim Miller on Monday, it seemed that a job backing Chad Pennington with the Jets was in the Dartmouth alumnus' near future. That leaves Johnson and Chicago destined to find each other, though a report in Wednesday's Chicago Sun-Times indicated that Eagles' third-stringer Jeff Blake was another possibility for the Bears. That same report suggested that Minnesota backup Gus Frerotte was close to a deal with the Dolphins, meaning the Vikings could also be seeking a second-stringer.

GETTING DRAFTY With most of the big free agent names having been plucked from the market, it is nearly time to devote our full attention to the NFL draft, to be held April 23-24 in New York. Below is my early read on the Top 10:

1. San Francisco - Alex Smith, QB, Utah Smith received slightly more post-combine "bounce" than did Aaron Rodgers, and it is hard to believe that new Niner head coach Mike Nolan would take a Cal QB after watching Kyle Boller for the past two years in Baltimore. The "outside the box" pick would be Braylon Edwards or one of the running backs, since San Francisco could make do with Tim Rattay at QB, but the rookie 49er regime is unlikely to be so bold.

2. Miami - Ronnie Brown, RB, Auburn The Dolphins have to take a running back, and will have their pick of Brown, Cedric Benson, or Cadillac Williams. At the moment, the sentiment is that Brown is the most complete and versatile of the three, though Benson and Williams had far more productive college careers. The Fins could be somewhat squeamish about Texas running backs and guys named Williams, so we bet they'll take Brown.

3. Cleveland - Aaron Rodgers, QB, Cal If the Trent Dilfer signing signaled anything, it was that the Browns are about to select a quarterback. They would probably rather have Smith, but they'll settle for Rodgers and hope against hope that Rodgers doesn't become yet another Jeff Tedford-trained QB (see Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller) that fails to match his college production at the pro level.

4. Chicago - Cedric Benson, RB, Texas There is significant reason to believe that the Bears will trade this pick, since their biggest need was at receiver and the free agent signing of Muhsin Muhammad suitably filled it. It seems logical that the Cardinals, who are likely coveting one of the draft's big-name running backs, would try to work something out with Chicago. If the Bears keep the pick, they'll have to take an offensive player to upgrade the NFL's worst attack of 2004. Though Thomas Jones had a satisfactory year, Lovie Smith and company would have to go for a running back.

5. Tampa Bay - Carnell 'Cadillac' Williams, RB, Auburn The Bucs re-signed Michael Pittman, Charlie Garner, and Mike Alstott, but it would be shocking if all three end up on the opening day roster. The Bucs were 29th in the league in rushing, scored only nine touchdowns on the ground last year, and their current cast of characters wouldn't do much to change that trend. Williams would give Jon Gruden and company the backfield presence they've lacked since Warrick Dunn slipped away to Atlanta.

6. Tennessee - Adam 'Pac-Man' Jones, CB, West Virginia With Samari Rolle now a Raven and Andre Dyson likely out the door as well, the Titans are in desperate need of corner help. Jones is the easy pick, though it will be interesting to see how much the stock of Miami's Antrel Rolle (Samari's cousin) rises before draft day, if at all.

7. Minnesota (from Oakland) - Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan The Vikings could pull off the steal of the draft if Edwards, who some believe to be the most talented player available, is still around at No. 7. A receiving crew of Edwards, Nate Burleson, and tight end Jermaine Wiggins could help Minnesota suitably compensate for the absence of Randy Moss. If Edwards is gone, Minnesota will take Mike Williams, who is slower but still has plenty of star potential.

8. Arizona - Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas If they end up nabbing LB Edgerton Hartwell via free agency, the Cardinals will do everything in their power to ensure the selection of one of this year's "Big 3" of running backs, which likely means trading up. Arizona ranked 30th in the league in yards per carry last year, a mark that the return of Marcel Shipp and Troy Hambrick won't do much to change. If Hartwell goes elsewhere, the Cards will also have a major need at LB, and could stand pat and take Johnson if that occurs.

9. Washington - Mike Williams, WR, USC A starting WR combination of Santana Moss and David Patten doesn't look too impressive, but a three-receiver set including Moss, Williams, and Patten certainly would. The ability of Moss and Williams to stretch the field would create beaucoup opportunities for Clinton Portis, and the Redskins, whose o- line figures to be vastly improved, might finally start scoring some points again. If Williams and Edwards both go in the top eight, don't be surprised to see Washington deal the pick and put themselves in position to select South Carolina wideout Troy Williamson later in the first round.

10. Detroit - Marcus Spears, DE, LSU The free agent acquisitions of tight end Marcus Pollard and strong safety Kenoy Kennedy mean the Lions' biggest need is at end, where they could use an impact player to start opposite James Hall. There are smaller ends in this draft - Erasmus James (Wisconsin) and Dan Cody (Oklahoma), for starters - that are probably better overall players than Spears, but neither has the requisite size to handle run-stopping chores on the right side. At 6-4, 300, Spears has the dimensions they're looking for in the Motor City.

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