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Even in offseason, it's a marathon, not a sprint

We're in the thick of the free-agency period, and some fans are frustrated by their team's lack of activity. It's tough for fans to sit back and watch division opponents make a big splash early in free agency. Every year, some teams appear to make big strides while others seem to be on the sidelines watching the aggressors pull away from the pack.

Last year, Carolina fans scratched their heads when defensive tackle Kris Jenkins was traded to the New York Jets. How could a team that went 7-9 in 2007 and gave up 347 points improve without its best inside defender? The Panthers just plugged in Maake Kemoeatu and proceeded to give up fewer points and go 12-4. The point is that some teams might be doing more for themselves by not reacting thus far in free agency than the teams that jumped in full blast and signed a dozen players or threw money at a couple of big-name guys.

AFC East keeps active

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When you factor in unrestricted free-agent signings, terminated players who signed with a new club (like Terrell Owens) or players who re-signed with their old club (Brandon Moore), about 135 players signed to new contracts. Also in the 135 are restricted free agents who had a deal matched or simply signed their tender offers. It sounds like a lot of signatures, and in one sense, it is. But keep in mind that close to 400 players are still on the street, and that number could grow slightly with future terminations.

Why would more players hit the streets? A team could need salary-cap space for the signing of a high-priced free agent. Or a player might have a significant roster bonus that the team doesn't want to pay it. We could actually see 10 players sign new deals this week and possibly have more players on the street by week's end. Keep in mind: If every draft pick made a roster, NFL teams would still need between 150 and 200 of the remaining free agents to contribute in 2009. In that sense, we aren't even halfway through free agency.

From now until the owners meetings at the end of this month, there will be solid player signings. After that, however, things should calm down until after the draft, when teams look to plug the holes they couldn't satisfy in the selection process.

Here are five teams that have done little so far in free agency. Have they really hurt themselves?

Green Bay Packers

General manager Ted Thompson has never been a big player in free agency. He believes in building a team through the draft. To date, the Packers have signed one player, safety Anthony Smith from the Steelers. Green Bay has plenty of salary-cap space, and its 6-10 record in 2008 points to needing more talent on the roster.

The Packers' 4-2 record in the NFC North with a first-year starting quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) suggests they aren't that far away, and Thompson isn't going to panic and throw money at aging veterans. The Packers did lose DT Colin Cole to the Seahawks, but their other two unrestricted free agents, OT Mark Tauscher and DE Mike Montgomery, still are unsigned and could return at a later date.

The Packers' position needs, especially with a switch to the 3-4, are on defense. Close to 40 unrestricted free-agent outside linebackers remain on the market, so if Green Bay misses on the guy it wants in the draft, it can return to this pool of talent and pick up a short-term answer. Thompson always can use the trade vehicle to fill out his roster, like he did in 2007 when he acquired running back Ryan Grant.

For now, the Packers see the ninth, 41st, 73rd and 83rd picks in the draft as the best way to improve and aren't worried about public perception.

San Diego Chargers

To date, the Chargers have only re-signed guard Kynan Forney to a modest two-year, $4.8 million contract, but San Diego fans want more from a team that went 8-8 last season. The flipside is that the Chargers did win the AFC West with a 5-1 record against division foes. Only the Steelers (AFC North) and Cardinals (NFC West) had better division records.

The loss of DE Igor Olshansky to the Cowboys triggered the panic button for some Chargers fans, but this roster is solid, returning 10 of 11 starters on defense. Once the team resolves the LaDainian Tomlinson contract situation, it will have more salary-cap space with which to operate. The Chargers will look to the draft, with picks 16 and 78, to help the roster (they don't have a second-round pick, which was sent to the Patriots in a draft-day deal last year).

Chargers general manager A.J. Smith has used draft-day trades to go after players he wants, and he isn't afraid to pick up the phone and make a trade for a veteran -- as he did for WR Chris Chambers in 2007. Before the Chargers take the field in 2009, they should help themselves at defensive end, offensive tackle, inside linebacker and safety.

Kansas City Chiefs

The combination of a new GM and a new head coach usually spells lots of action in free agency, especially when the team has as much salary-cap space as the Chiefs do. GM Scott Pioli knows his team has many needs, but he's also a master of waiting until the first wave of signings is over and prices settle down. No one will have a better feel for the hundreds of free agents still on the market.

As we all know, Pioli gave up the 34th overall pick in the draft to acquire QB Matt Cassel and LB Mike Vrabel from the Patriots. Pioli still has the Nos. 3 and 67 picks to parlay into more selections if he needs. The Chiefs also are starting to bring in free agents such as WR Bobby Engram, LB Clark Haggans and DBs Keith Davis and Travis Daniels for visits. Those players fit the mold under which Pioli operated in New England. He's looking for bargains, and he's sure to find a few to bolster his roster depth and special teams.

I could see Pioli being very active in the bottom-feeding business, even after the draft. Also look for more trades with the Patriots and Dolphins.

Minnesota Vikings

The Vikings made a blockbuster trade last year, bringing DE Jared Allen to the team, and they went out and won the NFC North with a 10-6 record. This year, a trade for QB Sage Rosenfels didn't bring the hype of the Allen deal, and the only other notable free-agent action has been the re-signing of TE Jim Kleinsasser.

The Vikings have salary-cap space and aren't afraid to use it, but outside of a hard recruit of WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh (who chose the Seahawks instead), they have been quiet. The loss of center Matt Birk has some fans worried, but the Vikings' brass knows it has two guys who have a chance to step in and play. Plus, the draft is solid at that position.

Picks 22, 54 and 86 will yield some good prospects, but the Vikings' interest in Houshmandzadeh could mean a veteran wide receiver is still in their plans. Approximately 25 veteran wideouts are on the street, and it soon will be a buyer's market. Guys such as Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey, D.J. Hackett, Drew Bennett and even Marvin Harrison are still looking for work.

Look for the Vikings to address offensive tackle, safety and cornerback, among other positions, before the season starts.

Atlanta Falcons

No team was a bigger surprise in 2008 than the Falcons. They defied the odds, going 11-5 with a rookie head coach, GM and quarterback. Perhaps the biggest surprise was the improved defense, but the Falcons have lost players from that unit and have done little to replace them so far in free agency. Gone are LBs Keith Brooking and Michael Boley, CB Domonique Foxworth and DT Grady Jackson -- all of whom signed with new teams. Veteran safety Lawyer Milloy was released.

Atlanta re-signed DE Chauncey Davis and LB Coy Wire with little fanfare, but fans are wondering where the defense is headed. Coach Mike Smith received great production from his players last season, and he will coach up that defense again next season. GM Thomas Dimitroff has the team in a good salary-cap situation and is starting to visit middle-of-the-road veterans, much like he learned to do in New England.

Draft picks 24, 54 and 90 are Dimitroff's best assets this offseason, but I still think we could see the Falcons consider tight end, safety, cornerback and linebacker in free agency over the next few weeks.

I had an interesting conversation with Tennessee Titans DE Kyle Vanden Bosch the other day about DT Albert Haynesworth signing with the Washington Redskins. Vanden Bosch recognized that his team lost a great player, but he also recognized two other things. One, young players such as Jason Jones are waiting to take that spot on the field. Two, everyone must step up his game now. Titans players accept the challenge to move on without Haynesworth, and they don't expect to fall back next season.

I also reminded Vanden Bosch that he once was a veteran who was looking for work and signed a minimum-wage deal just to get a job, and he turned out to be a Pro Bowler. As I said earlier, at least 150 more veterans are left to be signed, and there will be another Vanden Bosch in that group. It's not time to panic if your team has been quiet so far in free agency.

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