With a new CBA agreement seemingly in the not-too-distant future (we hope), the free-agency period promises to be a furious race to the most-sought-after players. Of those players, who will be the first that teams will call, and which teams will be the quickest to the phone?
While most people are busy debating where the assorted ne'er-do-well free-agent wide receivers (T.O., Moss, Plaxico) might wind up, I think the most interesting battle will be for the corners who have to cover them. By all accounts, Dallas and Philly will take a run at Nnamdi Asomugha, but I think the Texans will (overpay to) land the shutdown corner they need. And if I'm right, that position of weakness will suddenly become a strength with 'Cane rookie CB Brandon Harris lining up on the other side. And with those additions, the Texans will not only get to the playoffs, they'll win the AFC South. So, in other words, Houston really oughta pick up that phone.
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As a sidenote, how low must Randy Moss' self-esteem be right now? Every sports radio show and podcast in the country (including mine) is debating which of the aforementioned troubled trio of receivers will be the biggest contributor in 2011. Some say Plax, some say T.O., but nobody says Moss. In other words, in a race against a guy infamous for destroying the chemistry of roughly half the league's teams and another guy who just got out of a two-year stretch in the pokey, Randy gets the third-place ribbon. Oh, the poor dear.
The Eagles will be poised to pounce as soon as the free-agent market opens. And their primary target will be the best available player in free agency: Asomugha. The Eagles might not necessarily be only one player away from Super Bowl contention, but they are solid enough in every other area to view the addition of one of the NFL's best cornerbacks as putting them in striking distance. The Eagles also want to be sure he doesn't end up with one of their fiercest rivals, the Cowboys, who also figure to have a great deal of interest in Asomugha.
If I'm Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik, I've already got Asomugha on speed dial. I know the Eagles, Texans and Cowboys might be interested, but Dominik needs to try to be the first in line to get the standout cornerback. Tampa Bay will have plenty of money to sign Asomugha -- and it will take plenty -- but it needs to do what it can. Cornerback Aqib Talib might have some serious legal issues and could be suspended for his felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon indictment. Veteran Ronde Barber won't be around long-term either.
In a division in which the Bucs have to face Carolina's Steve Smith (maybe), Atlanta's Roddy White and Julio Jones -- White told me that Asomugha is the toughest cornerback he's faced -- and New Orleans' Marques Colston, Devery Henderson, Lance Moore, and Robert Meachem, landing Asomugha could balance the scales and allow the Bucs' emerging offense to tip things in their favor.
I tend to think the Kevin Kolb trade sweepstakes will be in full swing the moment this lockout is lifted, and the need for a quarterback always trumps all. If a Kolb trade comes together, look for it to happen very quickly.
On the free-agent front, I really believe the initial flurry of activity will be teams looking to re-sign priority free agents at key positions. A deal like the monster Asomugha is about to sign will still take some time to come together, but, say, the Packers trying to lock up James Jones, the Ravens looking to retain Marshal Yanda and the Jets looking to keep Santonio Holmes, those are the kind of deals that could be fast tracked.
If you're making me pick one of the above names, I'll go with Holmes.
When free agency opens, I think the Cardinals will be on the phone. They will text, Facebook, tweet, and fly to QB Marc Bulger's side. A consistent, accurate QB is the key to coach Ken Whisenhunt's attack. Kurt Warner is not coming back, but Bulger's path has some similarities, doesn't it?
The 49ers will be the quickest to the phone to secure their deal with Alex Smith. Coach Jim Harbaugh is seemingly smitten with the idea of having the veteran continue as the team's leader, and it makes sense for them to wrap up a deal immediately to put everything in place. With another offensive system to learn, Smith shouldn't waste a lot of time haggling over the numbers because this could be the most important season of his career, and he could cement a long-term spot on the roster with a playoff berth. The 49ers' followers might not like the thought of Smith remaining as the franchise quarterback, but he is considered their best option at the position and I would expect them to secure his services immediately when free agency begins.
I think the 49ers are going to try and get Smith in the building very, very quickly. I know this is far from sexy, being that Smith hasn't exactly channelled his inner Joe Montana in his career, nor is there a huge demand for his services. But, Harbaugh wants to get a veteran starter into camp (when it begins), while still developing Colin Kaepernick.
I also believe the Rams will be quick to the phone, as that wide receiver corps needs a lift. But, who they go after remains to be seen. There are some quality guys out there at the wide receiver position, like Santonio Holmes and they might even make a play for Plaxico Burress. Whoever it turns out to be, I see St. Louis' front office making a solid effort to grab Sam Bradford a weapon in the passing game.
The very first call made when free agency opens will be Al Davis trying to lure Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers to Oakland. When Davis finds out that Rodgers isn't available, he will turn his attention to the most-coveted prize, Nnamdi Asomugha, wich will lead to an embarrassing exchange between Davis and a Raiders staffer who must explain that they had Asomugha.
Asomugha is going to get more calls and texts than Jenn Sterger on a Jets' road trip in 2008. Asomugha could be the guy who pushes a team such as the Cowboys or Texans over the top, and he is going to be paid handsomely for it.