The NFL has easily the best offseason in sports. There’s the draft, free agency, cuts, trades, and this year, the argument over the collective bargaining agreement. 2006 in particular will be possibly the most chaotic in the league’s history. There’s the draft that everyone is talking about, star running backs who will be moving to a different team, and the great debate between the Union and the league.The hottest topic right now is whether the players and owners will finally agree to a new agreement. If the two sides cannot make a deal, we could be looking at an uncapped 2007, which would make for the craziest season in league history. The main issue is what percentage of revenue should go to player salaries instead of the league. The players want 56% and the owners want 60%. Though this may not seem like much of a difference, it actually means $300 million more per year to the players. The talks have gone nowhere so far, and they caused free agency to be delayed by three days. What does all this mean for the 2006 offseason/regular season? There will be more free agents as more players were cut this year, and also the free agents will receive lower signing bonuses. Therefore, players expected big money will be disappointed, so this could lead many to resign with their old teams. However, this mess doesn’t affect the 2006 season as much as it would in 2007 or 2008.
Though the negotiations between the players and the league are the most important thing happening this offseason, the most interesting thing for most fans is the draft. This seems to be the most loaded top of the draft we’ve seen in recent years, so don’t be surprised if a few teams try to trade up.
The only thing for sure about the draft appears to be that the Texans will select Reggie Bush first overall. The only way that won’t happen is if the Texans suddenly realizes that they need a quarterback more (the name Vince Young comes rapidly to mind), or if a team throws in a Ricky Williams for the entire draft -like trade. Neither will likely happen, however. Houston just re-signed David Carr, so they won’t take a quarterback; and many teams would rather trade up to the 2 or 3 pick anyway.
With the second pick, I’d say the most likely thing to happen would be for the Saints to pick Matt Leinart. This seems to have been the consensus for a while now. After that, there are no guarantees. The Titans could take either Vince Young or Jay Cutler, whose stock is rising fast, with the third pick. The Jets will then probably pick the last quarterback standing. The Packers, Raiders, and 49ers will probably try to trade up, but if they can’t, there is still solid talent to choose from.
This draft seems balanced at every position except for wide receiver. After a few straight years of strong first-round wideouts, this year no one really stands out. The only first-round prospects are Ohio State’s Santonio Holmes, Miami’s Sinorice Moss, Florida’s Chad Jackson, and Arizona State’s Derek Hagan. The only sure thing about the receivers in this draft is that Detroit will not take one in the first round for the fourth time in a row. Unless Matt Millen just wants to anger Lions fans even more.
Anyway, the other positions look pretty strong in this year’s draft. This year’s top running backs are almost on par with last year, when 3 of the top 5 selections were backs. Besides Reggie Bush, this class features DeAngelo Williams (one of the most underrated players in the entire draft), Bush’s USC teammate LenDale White (who would have been a Heisman favorite if he had stayed in college), and former Minnesota standout Laurence Maroney. Many teams will probably be coveting these backs, including Arizona with the 10th pick, Philadelphia with the 14th, and Minnesota with the 17th pick.
There are many other standout players in this year’s draft. Offensive Lineman D’Brickashaw Ferguson is the most hyped prospect at his position since Robert Gallery a few years back. Many teams will try to take him. Linebacker AJ Hawk will be a top 10 selection, possibly going as high as #5 to Green Bay. Other projected top ten picks include Texas defensive back Michael Huff, Virginia Tech corner Jimmy Williams, and NC State defensive end Mario Williams.
Besides the setup for one of the more entertaining drafts ever, this offseason brings what could be a fascinating free agent signing period. Though there won’t be a lot of star players changing uniforms this year, the running back class is loaded. Shaun Alexander, Edge James, and Jamal Lewis head the list of free agent backs. Many have called these backs “aging” and said that it will be hard for them to find big money. I disagree. These guys are among the premier backs in the entire NFL, and none of them have even turned 30 yet! Maybe I could see why the Ravens might want to part ways with Lewis, who has had multiple off-the-field problems and has missed loads of time due to injuries. But why would the Colts and Seahawks possibly not want to resign their two star backs? They both put up 1,500-yard season in 2005, and are in the prime of their careers. I see these backs having at least four or five more Pro Bowl-type seasons. Quarterbacks of this caliber are never given away in free agency. Alexander, James, and Lewis shouldn’t be either.
This theme of players who their current teams should keep but probably won’t is a common one among this year’s free agents. San Diego quarterback Drew Brees has not been resigned for some reason. The Bolts have a talented but completely untested backup, Phillip Rivers. Sure, they are paying Rivers big money just to sit on the bench, but Brees is an efficient passer that has led the team to winning records in each of his last two seasons. Why would a team ever release a Pro Bowl passer? It’s beyond me. Another free agent that I can’t even picture in another uniform is the Patriots’ Adam Vinatieri. If the Patriots do not resign Vinatieri, that would be like the Yankees not signing Bernie Williams. Sure, he’s just a kicker, but he is the only kicker ever to have had 2 game-winning Super Bowl kicks. In an era where teams are often let down by their kickers, it will be strange to see a kicker of Vinatieri’s caliber change teams.
Besides the players already mentioned, this year’s free agents don’t seem that special to me. Steve Hutchinson of the Seahawks and LeCharles Bentley of the Saints are probably the best offensive lineman available. The only great receiver available is TO (he’s actually not a free agent yet, but he will be), but he has so many problems that many teams won’t touch him. Besides Owens, the other receivers include the Patriots’ David Givens and the Steelers’ Antwaan Randel El, who aren’t proven #1 targets.
On the defensive side, no players besides linebackers Julian Peterson and Will Witherspoon seem like difference-makers to me. The best cornerbacks are Charles Woodson, Will Allen, and Ty Law, but they all have either age or ability issues. Among the safeties, only the Steelers’ Chris Hope and the Rams’ Adam Archuletta seem worth signing. Usually there are a few stud defensive linemen available, but this year’s class seems meager to me. In fact, almost every player among this year’s free agents has some issue that will keep him from getting big money. Besides the running backs, no position really has any star players available. This year, teams will have to look to the draft instead of free agency to fill their needs.
So those are the best players available, but which teams can afford to sign them? The team with the most cap space available is surprisingly Minnesota ($26 million under the cap), who signed a bunch of free agents last year and will be looking for a star runner this year. They’ll be the front-runners to pick up James or Alexander unless they pick a running back in the draft. Also well under the cap are the Cleveland Browns, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Green Bay Packers, all with $20 million to play with. Some teams that will work to get under the cap are the Oakland Raiders ($23 million over), Kansas City Chiefs ($18 million), and Washington Redskins ($14 million).
Usually the NFL’s offseason is great, but this one will probably be particularly entertaining. From a star studded-draft to the arguments between the players and the league, this offseason will be a fun one.