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ESPN Insider - 2003 Free Agency Sneak Peek: Defense


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2003 Free Agency Sneak Peek: Defense

By Ryan Early

Thursday, December 12 Updated 2:40 PM EST

The upcoming offseason may be the last thing on most people's minds, but not for those players in the last year of their contracts. While most players dream of riches to be had in free agency, the reality is often a slap in the ego. Only a handful of players get the big payday, and that number has been fewer each year as teams begin to manage their salary caps better. New rules concerning veteran salaries implemented last season allow more experienced players to stay in the league rather than pricing themselves out of a job, but also take away a good portion of their negotiating power. But for fans of teams that are already out of the playoff race, the recent history of last to first-place teams fuels hopes of a quick turnaround.

Below are position lists of defensive players who are currently without a contract for the 2003 season, as well as several players who might be released from their current contract as they are not playing up to their high salary.

Defensive Ends

Behind quarterbacks, defensive ends are the highest-salaried position in the NFL. That reflects the importance teams place on finding someone who can rush the passer. Few starting ends ever make it to free agency as teams try to sign them to a contract extension. When a player does, due to poor cap management by his team or advancing age, they become the big winners in free agency, even in a bad year for spending money. This past offseason, Joe Johnson received more per year salary at $5.5 million than any other free agent who switched teams. The only name defensive ends who were scheduled to hit the market this year are Johnson's new teammates, Vonnie Holliday and restricted free agent Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilla. But a contract clause added one very big name to the group.

Best Available

Hugh Douglas, Eagles - A premier sack artist with 72 career sacks in eight seasons, including 11 already this year, Douglas will become a free agent thanks to a clause inserted into his contract by his agent voiding the remainder of the contract if he hit double-digit sacks this season. As a result, Douglas will be rewarded with the biggest free-agent contract of the offseason.

Vonnie Holliday, Packers - He rejected the Packers' offer of a contract extension that would have paid him about $4 million a year at the start of the season. This year has been rough on the former Tar Heel as he has missed over half the Pack's games with a variety of injuries. He had 26 sacks over his first four seasons in a Packers defensive scheme that asked him to play the run first.

Chidi Ahanotu, Bills - After playing the majority of his career with the Bucs, Ahanotu has been the ultimate mercenary the past two seasons, signing one-year contracts to help out the Rams and Bills defenses by providing solid veteran play.

Chike Okeafor, 49ers - Finally starting in his fourth year in the league and has five sacks so far. He'll only hit the big money if some team convinces itself that he's just a late bloomer.

Brad Scioli, Colts - A two-year starter, Scioli has a good motor and has made seven sacks this year. However, five of them came in his two games against the expansion Texans, who could give up a sack to Scioli's grandmother.

Lance Johnstone, Vikings - An edge pass rusher best used as a situational player, but he's used his quickness to counter the run much better this season.

Potential Free Agents

Trace Armstrong, Raiders - Though he's played better down the stretch, Armstrong is still a 37 year old ea year off Achilles surgery. The Raiders are going to be in a world of cap trouble.

Regan Upshaw, Raiders - Led the Raiders with seven sacks in 2001, then was injured in the offseason, but the coaches decided to keep him off injured reserve so he could re-join the team late in the year. He's back, but he's also scheduled to make $4.45 million next year and the Raiders are going to need a lot of help getting under the cap.

Tony Brackens, Jaguars - Brackens had knee surgery in early November and acknowledges his days in Jacksonville could be over because of his injury and a cap number close to $10 million next year. He is confident he will have a complete recovery and resume his career somewhere.

Michael McCrary, Ravens - A bizarre cap situation forced the Ravens to sign him to a contract extension even though they weren't sure he would be healthy for this season. Now his career is in jeopardy and yet his salary weighs heavily on Baltimore's books.

Kenny Holmes, Giants - Didn't play well in 2001, his first year as a Giant, because of a nagging injury. He then was benched briefly at the start of this season. Can only make a sack against a weak opponent and has not played up to his five-year, $20 million contract.

The Rest

David Bowens, Dolphins

Tom Burke, Cardinals

Antonio Cochran, Seahawks

Adrian Dingle, Chargers

Tyoka Jackson, Rams

Rick Lyle, Patriots

Keith McKenzie, FA

Rich Owens, FA

Riddick Parker, Ravens

Talance Sawyer, Vikings

Corey Sears, Texans

Fernando Smith, Panthers

Paul Spicer, Jaguars

Gary Stills, Chiefs

John Thierry, Falcons

Willie Whitehead, Saints

Peppi Zellner, Cowboys

Restricted Free Agents

Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Packers

Adalius Thomas, Ravens

Marques Douglas, Ravens

Byron Frisch, Giants

Jermaine Haley, Dolphins

James Hall, Lions

David Nugent, Ravens

Josh Taves, Panthers

Dimitrius Underwood, Cowboys

Defensive Tackles

Demand for behemoth tackles to plug up the middle of the line is always high, but surprisingly the best run defenses of the past few seasons have been built through free agency rather than the draft. The 2000 Ravens, the 2001 Bears and the 2002 Broncos all featured starting defensive tackles who had been cast off by other teams.

Best Available

Daryl Gardener, Redskins - Tossed aside by the Dolphins last year because of recurring back problems and a bad attitude, the Redskins signed him to a late offseason one-year deal after losing Santana Dotson for the season. Gardener overcame his back problems early and has been one of the best players on their up and down defense. He's already said he wants to stay in Washington, but the Redskins will have to pay top dollar.

Brandon Noble, Cowboys - The run stuffer who plays next to La'Roi Glover, Noble is one of those under-appreciated blue collar types whose solid play allows others to make the big plays.

Jeff Zgonina, Rams - He didn't start until his seventh season in the league, but he's been the key cog in the middle of the Rams' defensive machinery, starting the last three seasons. Despite the team using a couple high draft picks at the position, Zgonina refuses to give up his spot.

Cletidus Hunt, Packers - A better pass rusher than run stopper. In 11 games he's played so far this year, Hunt has 5.5 sacks but the Packers rank 29th against the run.

Gilbert Brown, Packers - A load to move out of the way, but can only go for a few downs at a time and will usually miss several games each year to injury.

Potential Free Agents

Sean Gilbert, Panthers - He's still under that ludicrously expensive contract the Panthers gave him in 1998 when they gave up two first-round draft picks to sign the Redskins' franchise player. This offseason is the first year the Panthers will actually be able to save money by cutting him. Before the cap hit would have been too big.

Sam Adams, Raiders - If he thought the contract he signed was for anything more than one year he was deluding himself.

Dan Wilkinson, Redskins - It is widely known that the Redskins don't want Big Daddy back after an inconsistent year in Marvin Lewis' defensive scheme. He can still play well for some team, though, and will get a decent contract, provided he's released in March.

John Randle, Seahawks - Seattle will look to upgrade but might be tempted to keep Randle around as a pass rush specialist. He'd have to agree to a pay cut though.

The Rest

Russell Davis, Cardinals

Jared DeVries, Lions

Santana Dotson, Redskins

Nate Hobgood-Chittick, Chiefs

Darius Holland, Vikings

Bernard Holsey, Patriots

Travis Kirschke, Lions

Ryan Kuehl, Browns

Billy Lyon, Packers

Steve Martin, Patriots

Michael Myers, Cowboys

Chukie Nwokorie, Colts

Christian Peter, Bears

Carl Powell, Redskins

Kelvin Pritchett, Lions

Montae Reagor, Broncos

Larry Smith, Jaguars

Barron Tanner, Cardinals

John Thornton, Titans

Larry Webster, Jets

Bernard Whittington, Bengals

Restricted Free Agents

Josh Williams, Colts

Brian Young, Rams

Leonardo Carson, Chargers

Kendrick Clancy, Steelers

Kelly Gregg, Ravens

John Hilliard, Seahawks

Leif Larsen, Bills

Alvin McKinley, Browns

Robaire Smith, Titans

Rod Walker, Packers

Cedric Woodard, Seahawks

Inside Linebackers

There is a revolution going on at the position as more and more teams are shifting their best athlete at linebacker to play in the middle so he can cover sideline to sideline and make up for a less athletic (read: cheaper) outside backer. With most teams playing a 4-3 defense, it is becoming hard to vote for the Pro Bowl as there are so many worthy choices, while the outside linebacker position has too many one-dimensional players.

Best Available

Chris Claiborne, Lions - He's just about the only good thing the Lions have on defense. The Lions moved him to the middle last season and he's grown into the position. He's got a nose for the ball and also likes to play special teams. How bad would the Lions defense be without him?

Levon Kirkland, Eagles - The biggest linebacker in the game, he's lost a lot of his range and the Eagles would love to find a younger and faster replacement. Will probably have to sign on somewhere as a backup for the league minimum.

Wali Rainer, Jaguars - The Browns traded him to Jacksonville when they signed Earl Holmes to take over their MLB spot. The Jaguars were glad to have him just as a body with starting experience, but his days as a starter are numbered. He has a hard time moving through traffic and getting off of blocks.

Potential Free Agents

Ted Johnson, Patriots - He's pretty much recovered from his multiple neck injuries, but he's still being paid like a starter when he can only play in limited time.

Derek Smith, 49ers - He's the veteran leader of the linebacking unit but the 49ers drafted Saleem Rasheed last year to be his eventual replacement.

The Rest

Bryan Cox, Saints

Bernardo Harris, Saints

John Holecek, Falcons

Michael Jones, Steelers

Kevin Mitchell, Redskins

Jim Nelson, Vikings

Hardy Nickerson, Packers

Orlando Ruff, Chargers

Artie Ulmer, Falcons

Restricted Free Agents

Isaiah Kacyvenski, Seahawks

Mark Simoneau, Falcons

Lester Towns, Panthers

Nate Webster, Buccaneers

Outside Linebackers

Putting up big sack numbers may be how you get to the Pro Bowl as an outside linebacker, but only the guys with the complete package get the big-money contracts. Eight outside backers have gotten contracts worth over $20 million the past two years. A particularly strong class this year could send a few players upwards toward the $30 million mark.

Best Available

Takeo Spikes, Bengals - Arguably the best young linebacker in the game who has been wasting away on a poor Bengals team. Most fans of football would love to see him go somewhere else where he could get the on-field success he deserves, but the Bengals would be fools if they didn't hit him with the franchise tag.

Anthony Simmons, Seahawks - Before injury sat him down for half of this season, Simmons had averaged 135 tackles in 2000 and 2001 while playing in a conservative scheme. He has the athletic ability to be a bigger disrupter on defense if he could roam some and blitz more.

Mike Peterson, Colts - Another outstanding young player coming off his rookie contract and ready for the big bucks. Peterson has plenty of speed and always seems to be in the right place on the field to make a play. Look for him to re-sign with the Colts thanks to Tony Dungy's influence on personnel decisions.

Rosevelt Colvin, Bears - A pass-rushing specialist who is already in double digit sacks for the second straight year. The Bears had both of their outside backers as restricted free agents last year and chose to sign Warrick Holman long term over Colvin and may not have enough cap space to get Colvin back.

Mike Maslowski, Chiefs - Considered for a long time to be the eventual successor to Marvcus Patton in the middle, Maslowski was moved outside this year as a starter and will blow through the 100 tackle mark. He won't make the same kind of money as the above four, but he will make a lot more money in March than he was expecting this time last year.

Potential Free Agents

Jessie Armstead, Redskins - He may have made the Pro Bowl a year ago, but that was based more on reputation than his on-field play in 2001. He has slowed significantly over the past two years and really should not be starting.

Derrick Rodgers, Dolphins - Able to put together the occasional good game, Rodgers is still a below-average starter who the Dolphins can better use his cap space for a more capable replacement.

Lew Bush, Chiefs - Lost his job to Scott Fujita this year. It's the second straight year he has lost his starting job in Kansas City and one must imagine he won't be given a third opportunity.

The Rest

Larry Atkins, Chiefs

Shawn Barber, Eagles

O.J. Brigance, Rams

Cornell Brown, Ravens

Glenn Cadrez, Chiefs

James Darling, Jets

Don Davis, Rams

Chris Draft, Falcons

Greg Favors, Bills

Jay Foreman, Texans

Rob Frederickson, Cardinals

Scott Galyon, Dolphins

Lemanski Hall, Vikings

Darren Hambrick, Browns

Brad Jackson, Panthers

Lenoy Jones, Browns

Richard Jordan, Lions

Terry Killens, Seahawks

Clint Kriewaldt, Lions

Eddie Mason, Redskins

Keith Mitchell, Texans

Hannibal Navies, Panthers

Keith Newman, Bills

Jeff Posey, Texans

Shelton Quarles, Buccaneers

Sam Rogers, Falcons

Johnny Rutledge, Cardinals

Alshermond Singleton, Buccaneers

Sam Sword, Colts

Restricted Free Agents

T.J. Slaughter, Jaguars

Na'il Diggs, Packers

Brandon Short, Giants

Peter Sirmon, Titans

Bobby Brooks, Jaguars

Frank Chamberlin, Titans

Matt Chatham, Patriots

Danny Clark, Jaguars

Jack Golden, Buccaneers

Clark Haggans, Steelers

Kevin Lewis, Giants

Kory Minor, Panthers

DaShon Polk, Bills

Justin Snow, Colts

Shannon Taylor, Ravens

Donnel Thompson, Colts

Antonio Wilson, Vikings


At a position where speed is needed far more than any other attribute, most teams go looking for a new cornerback in the rookie draft rather than in free agency. Over the past couple years, half of the big cornerback free-agent signings turned out to be worth nowhere near the money spent, highlighted this season by the huge disappointment Duane Starks has been in Arizona.

Best Available

Chris McAlister, Ravens - There's a reason the Ravens let Starks go, but they'll probably place the franchise tag on McAlister if they can't agree to contract terms by early March. McAlister has struggled some this season with a depleted supporting cast, but he has the potential to be a shut-down corner.

Dre' Bly, Rams - At times wildly inconsistent, but he's always there to make the big play. He has made a ridiculously high 19 pass defenses this season and has 14 career regular-season interceptions and three touchdowns.

Tyrone Poole, Broncos - Took 2001 off but the Broncos kept his rights and he came back this season to become the team's nickel back. Undersized, but very quick, Poole could become a starter again.

Tod McBride, Packers - Green Bay's nickel back has been called on for more playing time frequently this season because of injuries to others. Will never be a full-time starter but has plenty of experience as a fill-in.

Potential Free Agents

Jason Sehorn, Giants - Has finished two years in an outrageously overpriced six-year, $36 million contract. There's been talk of moving him to safety as the Giants have younger and better cornerbacks, but you can bet the Giants' front office will be looking to at least restructure this deal.

Chad Scott and DeWayne Washington, Steelers - The Steelers' pass defense has fallen apart this season, with the majority of the blame falling on their starting cornerbacks' shoulders. Both are among the highest-paid players at their positions yet Washington takes games off while Scott struggles against tall receivers.

Dexter McCleon, Rams - Lost his starting job until Aeneas Williams was lost for the rest of the season. McCleon's 2003 salary is just under $4 million.

Ray Crockett, Chiefs - The 14-year veteran no longer has the speed to keep up with receivers and it's a wonder he hasn't been benched yet as the Chiefs rank dead last in pass defense, allowing 276 yards a game.

The Rest

Taje Allen, Chiefs

Juran Bolden, Falcons

Terrell Buckley, Patriots

Eric Davis, Lions

Terry Fair, Panthers

Darrien Gordon, Packers

Donovan Greer, Lions

Duane Hawthorne, Cowboys

Ken Irvin, Saints

Todd Lyght, Lions

Kevin Mathis, Falcons

Emmanuel McDaniel, Panthers

Paul Miranda, Dolphins

Jacoby Rhinehart, Cardinals

Dainon Sydney, Titans

Jason Simmons, Texans

Robert Tate, Ravens

Bryant Westbrook, Packers

Willie Williams, Seahawks

Jerry Wilson, Chargers

Kenny Wright, Texans

Restricted Free Agents

Mario Edwards, Cowboys

David Macklin, Colts

Tyrone Carter, Vikings

Reggie Howard, Panthers

Reggie Austin, Bears

David Barrett, Cardinals

Robert Bean, Jaguars

Ralph Brown, Giants

Clifton Crosby, Colts

Pat Dennis, Texans

Ray Green, Dolphins

Michael Hawthorne, Saints

Brandon Jennings, Raiders

Ben Kelly, Patriots

Todd McMillon, Bears

Donald Mitchell, Titans

Earthwind Moreland, Browns

Hank Poteat, Steelers

Chris Rogers, Seahawks

Lewis Sanders, Browns

Kiwaukee Thomas, Jaguars

Jimmy Wyrick, Lions


Despite having near-impossible job duties (play the run like a linebacker but play the pass like a cornerback) safeties are one of the lowest-paid positions in the NFL, getting less than half the salary of quarterbacks. Even a perennial Pro Bowler like Robert Griffith got less than $4 million from the Browns last year.

Best Available

Kwamie Lassiter, Cardinals - Played out the season under the one-year franchise tender offer hoping that it would pay off into a bigger contract than what the Cardinals were offering last year. His stats are way down this year, but the defense as a whole has fallen apart over the second half of the season. Will other teams take that into consideration?

Lethon Flowers, Steelers - One of the most outspoken players in the league, but he backs up his talk with his play on the field.

Donovin Darius, Jaguars - Tom Coughlin thinks he's one of the best young safeties in the league, but some scouts on other teams say he's vastly overrated. A big hitter that sometimes injures himself.

Tebucky Jones, Patriots - Will most likely re-sign in New England. Bombed as a cornerback early in his career but he's found his niche at safety in Bill Belichick's defense.

Dexter Jackson, Buccaneers - Doesn't make a lot of interceptions, but he's a two-year starter on the best pass defense in the league. Has a huge range, perfect for covering a lot of ground in the Bucs' cover-2 defense but lets John Lynch head upfield to handle the run defense.

Potential Free Agents

Anthony Dorsett, Raiders - He'll be the first one let go in the Raiders' cap purge after the season as he's no longer a starter but has a 2003 cap number over $3 million. Dorsett is a good nickel or dime back but gets caught out of position too often when he's asked to cover a large area.

Kim Herring, Rams - He's not what the Rams were expecting when they signed him away from the Ravens two years ago following their Super Bowl win.

Sam Shade, Redskins - Had already lost his starting job when he was placed on injured reserve. A liability against the pass.

Marcus Robertson, Seahawks - The big push of signing veteran free agents that worked so well for the team in 2001 backfired in 2002 as those vets suddenly and collectively showed their age.

The Rest

Chris Akins, Browns

Jason Belser, Chiefs

Ronnie Bradford, Vikings

Eric Brown, Texans

Devin Bush, Browns

Keion Carpenter, Falcons

Chris Carter, Texans

Je'Rod Cherry, Patriots

Rich Coady, Titans

Rashard Cook, Eagles

Chad Cota, Rams

Leomont Evans, Texans

Scott Frost, Packers

Victor Green, Patriots

Cory Hall, Bengals

Henry Jones, Falcons

Rob Kelly, Patriots

Earl Little, Browns

Keith Lyle, Chargers

Anthony Mitchell, Ravens

Jason Perry, Vikings

Izell Reese, Broncos

Omar Stoutmire, Giants

Bracey Walker, Lions

Larry Whigham, Bears

Kevin Williams, Texans

Restricted Free Agents

Arturo Freeman, Dolphins

Greg Wesley, Chiefs

Ronnie Heard, 49ers

Justin Lucas, Cardinals

Ainsley Battles, Jaguars

Matt Bowen, Packers

Nick Ferguson, Jets

Trent Gamble, Dolphins

David Gibson, Colts

Steve Gleason, Saints

Michael Green, Bears

Blaine McElmurry, Titans

Jason Moore, 49ers

Aric Morris, Titans

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An outstanding read...... though maybe a little long. However, since both of my eyes are currently in one socket fom that Nite time whatever cold medicine, I'll reserve comments till that stuff wears out...though Lassiter did come through the haze. :silly:


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One thing to think about with Darius is that he's not really ever done a ton on the field that would distinguish himself from Sam Shade. He has better flash and he shows up, when he does, well, but, he's not consistent. If he can be had for a reasonable amount, I'd like to get him, but other than that, the rest of the guys do not thrill me.

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I'll bet Kim Herring gets a look this offseason. Marvin had him playing well when he was with the Ravens. And, if I'm not mistaken, he's still pretty young.

His average play for the Rams may be more scheme than physical talent, asking him to do things he's never done before. Time will tell I suppose.

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I say forget Douglas. He is 32 years old and depends on speed at 279 to be effective. What the Redskins need is YOUTH on the defensive line and I think any players we bring in as veterans need to be value pickups as Gardener was last season.

We are paying Wynn a mint and will have to cough up dollars for Daryl Gardener was well. That doesn't leave much room for another big contract on the DL.

And quite frankly we SHOULD be able to find a run stuffer at DT in the middle rounds of the draft to help Gardener inside.

Every time we need help on the DL we go via the free agent route. Just once I would like to see us dig in our heels and use the draft for that purpose :)

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The only defensive person I see that would interest me is Lassiter.

Being a true FS and his experience alone would double the effectivness of our defense.

Not sure what his contract would be, but I think getting Lassiter would just lock this group down.

Then I would draft a freak at FS during the later rounds and let him learn.

That would be about the biggest money I would spend on our Defense. The rest would should go ahead and draft unless we get a find in FA.

Mind you, I am all for keeping a very strong eye on the RE position.

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Lassiter is 33 years old. I'd rather keep Terrell and hope a year in the system allows him to grow some than to get a guy who'll be 34 before he fully appreciates all Lewis is teaching him. But, that's just me :). I don't quite hate Terrell as much as most do.

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Our decisions at the safety spot depend an awful lot on whether or not we're sticking with the same defensive system next year. If it continues to be ol' Marv's zonefest, then we definitely need an upgrade at safety, and it should probably be a solid FA pickup. If we're getting somebody who's more flexible and will utilize more man coverages the way Kurt S. did, safety is much less of a concern and we can probably live w/ Terrell. Hopefully, Marv (and subsequently our FO) will make a decision sooner rather than later.

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