Bears lead group of hamstrung teams making big moves

The NFL's 2010 free-agent signing period began with a whimper.

That was to be expected, given the league's uncertain labor/financial climate.

Oh, there was the big-splash signing that always occurs at the start of free agency, with the Chicago Bears giving defensive end Julius Peppers a six-year contract worth a reported $79.8 million. But even that move, along with Chicago's free-agent acquisitions of running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, wasn't so much a case of gratuitous lavish spending as it was a means of getting help despite lacking first- and second-round picks in next month's draft.

The coming days and weeks are expected to bring relatively modest free-agent signings and trades, such as the one that sent cornerback Antonio Cromartie from the San Diego Chargers to the New York Jets on Friday and the deal that sends wide receiver Anquan Boldin from the Arizona Cardinals to the Baltimore Ravens.

Another possible trade could send wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a restricted free agent, from the Denver Broncos to the Seattle Seahawks. That presumes the Seahawks attempt to acquire him that way rather than offer him a contract that, if not matched by the Broncos, would cost the Seahawks the No. 6 overall pick of the draft.

For the most part, the teams making the most notable deals on the first day of the NFL business calendar worked around various restrictions that hampered their ability to get new players.

As final-eight playoff teams, the Jets, Ravens and Colts are -- because of new rules implemented by the absence of a salary cap that disappeared when no collective bargaining agreement was reached by Friday between the league and the NFL Players Association -- severely limited in their free-agent shopping.

However, they can help themselves in other ways. The Jets were able to enhance their chances of maintaining the NFL's top-ranked defense, which they rode all the way to the AFC Championship Game, by trading for Cromartie. And they were able to do so for a third-round draft pick (that could become a second-rounder) in 2011, when the league could be faced with a work stoppage from a lockout.

The combination of Darrelle Revis, who established himself as arguably the best cornerback in the game, and Cromartie adds a dimension that should make the Jets even stronger defensively. Revis is a shut-down corner with rare athletic ability. Cromartie, who led the NFL with 10 interceptions in 2007, is looking to play more man-to-man coverage than he was able to play with the Chargers because of their lack of a consistent pass rush. The blitz-happy Jets excel at applying heat to the quarterback, and depend on their cornerbacks who hold up one-on-one.

"This pair gives us even more options on defense," coach Rex Ryan said in comments released by the team. "We should be able to disguise what we're doing a little better than we've done in the past.

"(Cromartie is) going to be a huge, huge addition for us because what he's going to bring to the table from a physical standpoint is going to be tremendous. He's got some unbelievable gifts and we're just fortunate to have him on our team. When you combine him with the players that we already have, we're going to be really tough on defense."

The Colts were able to keep a critical component of their Super Bowl team by re-signing free-agent linebacker Gary Brackett. Like the Jets and final-eight teams, the Colts would only have been able to venture into free agency if they lost a free agent, and then the financial parameters for signing a replacement would have been dictated by how much the departed free agent received from his new team.

Rather than deal with those complications, the Colts ended up securing a defensive catalyst and one of their best leaders on both sides of the ball.

"Throughout the whole process it was very clear to us in our conversations with Gary and his representatives that Gary's true intent and real hope was to stay a Colt," Colts vice president and general manager Chris Polian told reporters in Indianapolis. "Both parties were able to work toward that end and get that deal done."

Brackett's five-year agreement came after around-the-clock negotiations that technically left him as an unrestricted free agent for a few hours, beginning at midnight eastern time Friday.

"I was up," Brackett told reporters in Indianapolis. "I fielded a couple of calls. (But) I knew deep down where I wanted to be. I knew we were close to getting something done. It took a little bit after that to secure a deal, but we got something done and we're both happy and got it taken care of."

The Ravens are in desperate need of receiver help, but saw no attractive options in the open market. One free agent they could have considered was Terrell Owens, whom they once tried to sign before he joined the Philadelphia Eagles. At 36, Owens is not seen as enough of an upgrade for them to pursue. A trade for Boldin would give them one of the top receivers in the NFL, while still leaving the Cardinals deep at the position.

"The Ravens just got better," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a statement released by the team. "Anquan is a significant addition for us. He fits the personality of our team with the hardnosed, physical way he plays. We love the way he competes. Our fans will enjoy watching him compete, and his teammates will be excited to have him with us."

The Seahawks also need receiver help. After making big headlines with the hiring of Pete Carroll from USC as their head coach, they were expected to make a splash in the open market. So far, the Seahawks have been quiet in that area, but could stir some things up in a big way by landing Marshall.

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