The first rule to NFL free agency: teams don’t often lose talented young players they truly want to keep. The second: exceptions to the first rule will get paid monster dollars in short order.
The NFL is much different than Major League Baseball, where young superstars like Mark Teixeira can sit on the market for months. Most difference-makers will be signed within a week of free agency’s Friday start. Before the players are all gobbled up, let’s look at the best offensive players available.
Top five quarterbacks
1. Kurt Warner: The Cardinals are reportedly offering him more than $20 million over two years. It’s unlikely another team would come close to that, so he should return to Arizona.
2. Byron Leftwich: A few nice relief appearances for the Steelers reminded GMs that Leftwich has a big arm, a top-10 pedigree, and solid pro stats. He needs the right situation, but no free agent quarterback has a higher ceiling.
3. Kerry Collins: Like Warner, Collins has far more value to his current team than any other. There have been some rumors the Jets could show interest, but Collins’ best bet is to return to Tennessee.
4. Rex Grossman: He’s just good enough to get you beat. But you could do worse with a backup spot.
5. Dan Orlovsky: He surprisingly looked like he belonged last year for the Lions, when he wasn’t running out the back of the end zone.
Jeff Garcia: He could be a one-year stopgap for a West Coast offense, but he’s injury prone and often clashes with his coaching staff.
First-round busts: There are plenty to choose from. Kyle Boller, Patrick Ramsey, J.P. Losman, and Joey Harrington are all hoping for second (or third) chances.
Chris Simms is off the radar, but he was a young, heady quarterback for a playoff team not so long ago.
The trade market is the best chance to get a decent quarterback, not free agency. Matt Cassel and Derek Anderson should be popular targets approaching draft day. Sage Rosenfels is already reportedly headed for Minnesota. Matt Leinart and Vince Young could eventually be available at the right price.
Top five running backs
1. Derrick Ward: “Wind” is the only available three-down player who could start on many teams. Ward can catch the ball and run in short yardage situations. Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Arizona make sense as destinations.
2. Maurice Morris: BIG drop to number two on this list. Morris is an underrated jack-of-all-trades who can help teams as a backup at a low price.
3. Cedric Benson: The former Bear flashed surprising skills late last season with the Bengals, but he can’t catch or block. He’s a big man who runs small. I’d be wary of going longer than one year. Keep him motivated!
4. Fred Taylor: He can still can help you on obvious running downs, but has no receiving or special teams value. That hurts his chances of getting a backup job.
5. LaMont Jordan: He can do a little of everything as a backup, especially as a short-yardage back.
Deuce McAllister: His knees just aren’t right.
Ahman Green: Running back is a position for the young.
Rudi Johnson: Heavy dosage in Cincinnati wore his body down.
DeShaun Foster: Serviceable, but you may as well aim higher with a draft pick.
Correll Buckhalter: In a backup role, he can help you in a variety of ways.
Kevin Jones: Injuries have sapped this once-promising talent, but it’s worth kicking his tires.
Warrick Dunn: Could still help a team like the Colts on third downs.
Top five receivers
1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh: At 31, perhaps he’s not a “number one” receiver. But he’s a rock solid starter who understands how to catch the ball in traffic. Housh is also a team player and desperately wants to win. The Giants, Seahawks, Eagles, and Titans are among the many that could show interest. He’s one of the best players available at any position.
2. Laveranues Coles: A tricky case. Coles is undersized, often hurt, and has lost speed with age. But Coles is a football player; he's exceptionally tough, smart, and finds a way to produce every year. He can still help as a starter for a few more years.
3. Nate Washington: Pittsburgh’s former third receiver offers a lot of vertical ability. I’d rather make a mistake on a 25-year old.
4. Ronald Curry: Highly athletic former Raider got lost in the shuffle in Oakland, but he would make a great third receiver for someone.
5. Lance Moore (restricted free agent): The Wes Welker clone would be ranked second if he was an unrestricted free agent, but he’ll cost a second-round pick to acquire from New Orleans. He might be worth it.
Marvin Harrison: He simply couldn’t separate from defenders last season with the Colts. If he couldn’t produce with Peyton Manning, why bet on a comeback now?
Joey Galloway: The “White Tiger” isn’t a good bet to stay healthy at 38.
Amani Toomer: Diminishing returns started a few years back.
Reggie Williams: Former top-10 pick can block, but that’s about it.
Jabar Gaffney: A product of New England’s system.
Devery Henderson: Big time-speed, but way too many drops.
D.J. Hackett: The talented former Seahawk would make a lot of sense back with his old team or another West Coast attack.
Bryant Johnson: Nothing flashy, but he can help a team as a third receiver.
Bobby Engram: Probably the only receiver over 33 we’d give a contract to. Can still move the chains.
Top five tight ends
1. Owen Daniels (restricted free agent): The Texans are sure to lock up this Pro Bowl quality talent.
2. Chris Baker: The long-time Jet is nothing special, but he can block and catch enough to start for many teams.
3. L.J. Smith: If Andy Reid couldn’t turn him into a consistent pass-catcher, it’s probably not going to happen. He’s a liability when he’s asked to block.
4. Jim Kleinsasser: He’s essentially a sixth offensive linemen, which is an asset plenty of teams want.
5. Jerramy Stevens: Known best for his off-field problems and pre Super Bowl trash talking, Stevens does have the talent to help a West Coast offense.
Anyone else. This is an exceptionally weak class of unrestricted free agents. Teams are better off looking toward the draft.
Top five offensive linemen
1. Jason Brown, C/G: There are rumors he is nearing a deal to re-sign with the Ravens. If not, he will make a killing as a versatile mauler who can help teams in the run game. Players like this rarely hit free agency in their prime.
2. Khalif Barnes, T: This former first-round pick of the Jaguars is a mediocre starter, but that’s the best you’ll find at tackle after Jordan Gross and Vernon Carey re-signed with their own teams.
3. Stacy Andrews, T: Shawn’s brother is a rare commodity on the open market — a potential long-term starter with upside. But he’s recovering from ACL surgery, and still somewhat raw.
4. Tra Thomas, T: The long-time Eagles stalwart should still have a useful year or two left.
5. Jon Stinchcomb, T: An up-and-down career in New Orleans has been solid the last two years. He can start.
There’s no need to overpay for big “names” like Jeff Saturday, Matt Birk, Pete Kendall, and Jon Runyan. They all deserve jobs, but only at the right price. Offensive line is a position where you can develop young talent cheaply.