As draft nears, free agency still offers options for teams in need

As teams zero in on what they'll do in next week's draft, the other major outlet for player acquisition -- free agency -- remains open but seemingly devoid of shoppers.

If you're looking for any sign of life among available unrestricted free agents, you need to tune into "Dancing With the Stars," where you'll catch a glimpse of Terrell Owens sitting in the studio audience.

The only real buzz -- if you can call it that -- emanating from the free-agent market concerns former "Dancing With the Stars" contestant Jason Taylor. The New York Jets have met with him. However, he continues to lobby to remain with the Miami Dolphins, with whom he has spent all but one of his 13 NFL seasons and where he could far more easily juggle his professional and family lives.

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Certainly, team decision-makers are able to multitask. Just because they're largely consumed with draft preparations, that doesn't mean they can't do anything else on the player-personnel front.  The Jets just pulled off a significant trade Sunday when they acquired wide receiver Santonio Holmes from the Pittsburgh Steelers. A week earlier, the Washington Redskins made the biggest move of the offseason when they landed quarterback Donovan McNabb from the Philadelphia Eagles.

More trading is bound to occur in the days leading up to and during the draft.

Where does that leave the free agents? Potentially, they could stay in a holding pattern until at least April 25, after the drafting and post-draft rookie signings are finished, and there is reason to believe that most will still be looking for jobs into May and beyond.

Taylor, Owens, and safety Darren Sharper represent three of the bigger names among unemployed players. Why are they and other veterans still available? Because they're veterans. As the Eagles have reminded us with the purging of McNabb and other 30-plus-year-old players from their roster, the goal in the NFL is to be as young as possible while not undermining your chances for success by having too little experience.

Taylor is entering his 14th season. Although he can still be an effective pass rusher as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense -- which makes him attractive to the Jets - he's not, relatively speaking, going to command much in the way of a salary because he's still seen as an aging player with declining skills.

According to NFL sources, the Jets might be interested in paying Taylor about $1.75 million per year over two seasons. That apparently is more than he'll be able to get from Miami, and Taylor is using the Jets' interest to help drive up the Dolphins' price. But so far, that hasn't worked because the Dolphins realize his preference is to remain as close as possible to his family. In addition, he had a frustrating experience trying to commute to Miami on his days off when he spent the 2008 season in Washington.

Owens led the Buffalo Bills in receptions last year, but the universal opinion around the league is that the 36-year-old receiver has lost a great deal in the way of speed and athleticism. The Bills paid him a guaranteed salary of $6.5 million last year, largely to help boost their ticket sales (which he did), but no team will come close to making such an investment now. Owens' harshest dose of reality came last month when the Cincinnati Bengals chose to sign another free agent, Antonio Bryant, instead of him despite heavy lobbying from Chad Ochocinco for the team to add Owens.

Sharper joined the New Orleans Saints last season, and helped them win a Super Bowl. Now, he is a man with a ring but no team. Since the end of the season, Sharper underwent arthroscopic knee surgery, which could be a discouraging factor for some potential employers. But the expectation is that he'll fully recover and be able to play again. Sharper's bigger drawback, though, is something that can't be corrected by surgery: He is 34. Although he tied for the league lead with nine interceptions last season and is a perfect fit for Gregg Williams' scheme, the Saints seem to have concluded that Sharper is too old for any sort of major contractual commitment because their focus is on the future rather than on rewarding past contributions. With the rest of the league apparently sharing that perspective, Sharper isn't likely to draw any interest until after teams looking for safety help see where they are following the draft.

Other notable players who remain in limbo include receivers Kevin Curtis, Torry Holt and Laveranues Coles; running backs Brian Westbrook and Jamal Lewis; offensive tackles Flozell Adams and Shawn Andrews; center Kevin Mawae; defensive linemen Charles Grant and Leonard Little; linebackers Keith Bulluck, Derrick Burgess and Antonio Pierce; cornerbacks Lito Sheppard, Fred Smoot and Nick Harper, along with safeties Ken Hamlin, Gibril Wilson and Jermaine Phillips.

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The fact Fred Bright, the Ocmulgee (Ga.) Circuit District Attorney, revealed there would be no sexual-assault charges against Ben Roethlisberger hardly did anything to diminish the overwhelmingly negative perception that the public, including numerous fans of his team, has of the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.

By revealing sordid details of the case, and making it eminently clear that he wished he had what was legally necessary to bring charges against Roethlisberger, Bright succeeded in casting a great deal of doubt over the player's innocence. He certainly has given NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Steelers plenty to ponder as they determine whether Roethlisberger should receive some sort of suspension or fine. Roethlisberger also didn't do himself any favors in the robotic-sounding delivery of his prepared statement.

Trade winds picking up

Baltimore Ravens offensive tackle Jared Gaither figures to be dealt at some point during the draft, although it will likely involve a team that gets shut out of a chance to land one of the top tackles on the draft board.

Yet another player who will likely be part of a trade next week is Bills running back Marshawn Lynch.

Harris' future in doubt

The status of Green Bay Packers cornerback Al Harris might not be grabbing a whole lot of attention during the offseason, but it's worth a closer look, especially with the draft approaching. When healthy, Harris is among the very best players at his position. But since suffering a severe knee injury last season, Harris' health has been up in the air.

At last month's NFL Annual Meeting, Packers coach Mike McCarthy referred to it as a "real serious injury." He reported that the 35-year-old Harris was doing movement drills, "and he feels he's really making progress, and we'll just continue to watch that and see how he responds." We might very well get a good indication of the Packers' response in the draft.

Tough comparison

Coach Wade Phillips and quarterback Tony Romo have a lot in common when it comes to comparisons with the greatness of the Dallas Cowboys' past. Phillips operates in the shadows of Super Bowl-winning coaches such as Tom Landry and Jimmy Johnson, while Romo operates in the shadows of Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks such as Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman. And perhaps they'll never be able to carve out mega-successful identities of their own.

"That's a tough comparison," Phillips said. "That's what they always say: Don't go somewhere where they've had that kind of tradition, because you're going to always be compared that way and it's tough to live up to. But it's tough to live up to your dad when he's been in the business. I think if we win one game next year, I'll be tied with my dad (former Houston Oilers and Saints coach Bum Phillips) in number of wins (with 82 in the regular season). I'm hoping to make that."

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