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Look to the draft for the biggest talent boon

I talked to two NFL general managers on Monday -- no, not Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland who flees at the mere smell of a tape recorder.

In e-mail exchanges with these two GMs, I came to believe that if a team is going to load up on talent in the 2010 offseason, it's going to happen primarily through the draft. These guys were truly excited about the college talent coming out, have already put in long hours of tape study on college players, and are eagerly looking forward to the Indianapolis Combine later this month.

And, no, they weren't bailing on the idea that free agency will have a few good players in the offing and even some intriguing surprises. But when 140 to 200 players in their mid to late 20s have basically been eliminated from unrestricted free agency lists because of the rules of an uncapped season, you can understand it diminishes the excitement about free agency.

Still, there will be a free agency this offseason, it just won't look like anything we've grown accustomed to in previous years.

Free agency will come in tiers. There will be street free agents hitting the market even before traditional free agency begins March 5. These street free agents are obviously discards, but maybe one or two will help teams in 2010.

One such street free agent hit the market Monday when the Cleveland Browns cut wide receiver Donte' Stallworth ahead of the lifting of his league-imposed suspension. If you remember, Stallworth struck and killed a pedestrian with his Bentley in Miami Beach on March 14, 2009. He pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter.

That got him suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell (not to mention it sent him to jail for 24 days, sent him to house arrest and activated other punishment). Well, after a season out of the game, Stallworth is available.

And already I've gotten a dozen e-mails from readers asking if the receiver-starved Dolphins will be interested. I cannot tell you for sure. But I seriously doubt it.

Stallworth is not the answer for a team like Miami that usually avoids such mixtures of mediocre talent and high off-field risks. Plus Stallworth, at age 29 and two years removed from a football game, probably isn't No. 1 receiver material these days.

So I wouldn't bank on him being in a Dolphins uniform despite the fact the guy lives in South Florida and his agent is Drew Rosenhaus of South Florida. But, as I said, that's a guess.

This is not a guess: Throughout free agency, you'll see players come available that typically would not in a capped year. Teams are expected to view the uncapped year as a sort of jubilee, where all their financial mistakes of the past can be erased because no salary cap means no cap hit for getting rid of under-performing players or toxic contracts.

Those players will hit the market. And maybe a handful of them become significant contributors to their new teams. The trick is identifying those few players and pairing them in the right system to bring out the best results.

Another part of free agency is players that have six years or beyond and are out of contract. These players have not been re-signed by their teams for whatever reasons and will be legitimate unrestricted free agents.

But wait, the top players in this category also might not hit free agency. Teams, you see, can slap a franchise tag or one of two transition tags on the best of these players. That could effectively take about 30 players off the market. 

So most of the unrestricted guys on the market will not be game-changers, assuming their original teams do their homework. Some will be aging players. Jason Taylor might be one of those. Some will be younger but not necessarily game-changers. Ben Watson of the New England Patriots might be one of those.

That market, I'm told, will be lean.

And then there is the restricted free agency market. It should not surprise if teams make a play for a handful of these guys. Desperate times call for desperate measures and that is desperation as restricted players rarely get signed away from their teams.

It would not be a cheap venture for any team that tries because draft pick compensation could be due for signing these players.

Why is that such a steep price to pay for proven talent, you ask? Well, because even the most proven free agents can become free agent busts. Because teams will be doubling down on the move -- giving up draft compensation and paying bigtime contracts for the players.

And because in giving up draft picks, teams will not be maximizing their chances in the draft. Yes, the same draft the two GMs told me was full of very good talent.

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