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Free-agent class of 2009 appears mighty impressive

Now the Ravens know what it feels like to run into perennial Pro Bowl linebacker Ray Lewis. The two sides have hit a stalemate on contract talks aimed at a long-term extension.

After 12 seasons in Baltimore, Lewis is heading into the last year of his contract. The two sides have engaged in contract talks, the Ravens have weighed in with their multi-year offer, Lewis has spelled out his asking price, and too much of a gap now exists to make anyone think a deal is anywhere near imminent.

But Baltimore knows Lewis will still play all out without an extension. Lewis knows he's going to get paid somewhere. And heading into this weekend's mandatory minicamp in Baltimore, each side is comfortable with where the situation is at.

For now.

But it is an issue that, if unresolved, will garner more attention as the season goes on.

It is a similar story in other cities, where other high-profile players are creeping closer to hitting the free-agent market after the 2008 season. Check out the list of prospective free agents for 2009, though any could be wiped off it with a long-term extension at any time. The list of potential free agents is a highly decorated one. It will garner a record amount of money.

Here is a look at arguably the top 10 players poised for free agency this winter.

  1. Julius Peppers, Panthers defensive end –- Coming off a down year, but teams pay premium for pass rushers.
  1. Steven Jackson, Rams running back –- Hard to imagine St. Louis parting ways with its most popular player.
  1. Tommie Harris, Bears defensive tackle -– Talks on a long-term contract hit a standstill last month.
  1. Marion Barber, Cowboys running back –- Last season, one NFC coach said Barber is an elite back in the same class as LaDainian Tomlinson or Adrian Peterson. Now he wants to be paid that way.
  1. Chris Snee, Giants guard –- At a time when interior offensive linemen are cashing in, the son-in-law of Giants coach Tom Coughlin is going to cash in.
  1. Nnamdi Asomugha, Raiders cornerback –- Oakland plans to franchise him again if he remains unsigned, which is a distinct possibility.
  1. Albert Haynesworth, Titans defensive tackle –- Tennessee wouldn't let Haynesworth leave this offseason, and its stance is unlikely to change.
  1. Terrell Owens, Cowboys wide receiver -– At the age of 34, T.O. is performing like he were 24.
  1. Will Smith, Saints defensive end -– New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant got his money and Smith intends to do the same.
  1. T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Bengals wide receiver –- Still waiting for his first big-money deal.

Of course, the list hardly stops there. It goes on and on, like the money that could be spent on some of these players.

The free-agent class of 2009 also is scheduled to include Lions wide receiver Roy Williams, Bills wide receiver Lee Evans, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, Cowboys cornerback Terence Newman, Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin, Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking, Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby, Buccaneers quarterback Jeff Garcia and Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer.

It stands right now as one of the more attractive free-agent classes in recent memory -- maybe the most attractive. It is rare that so many talented players hit the market. But it could have something to do with the skyrocketing prices now being paid to players.

There still is plenty of time to see the list of free agents reduced, to watch long-term extensions get worked out, or for teams to slap franchise tags on their players if no deal can be reached.

But the early indications are, front offices need to get their checkbooks ready.

Wedding bells

Now that the NFL Draft is complete, coaches and players are making spring and summer plans. But few people have anything planned any more notable than Broncos coach Mike Shanahan's plans this weekend.

Shanahan confirmed Wednesday on NFL Network that he and his wife, Peggy, are two of the approximate 200 people invited to the wedding of Jenna Bush, daughter of United States president George Bush.

Shanahan's daughter, Krystal, also will attend, and she is the connection between the two distinguished families.

Krystal Shanahan and Jenna Bush met as students at the University of Texas. They became so friendly that they actually shared an apartment in New York City.

As the daughters became friendly, so did their parents. Mike Shanahan even once made an appearance at President Bush's campaign rally at Red Rocks in Colorado.

Now the Shanahans will see the Bushs again this weekend, in Crawford, Texas, at the Wedding of the Year.

Parting shot ...

In one way, Bill Parcells is back. But in another, he's not.

He doesn't hold daily press briefings. Doesn't utter the sound bytes for all time. Doesn't do anything other than his job, which is to try to straighten out the Dolphins. It's maddening. Brett Favre is heard from more often than Parcells -– and he's supposed to be retired. Now it seems like Parcells is. The Dolphins might be better, but they're a lot quieter.

These days, we hear from Dolphins coach Tony Sparano. We hear from Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. We hear zilch from Parcells. And no disrespect to anybody in Miami's organization, but I prefer Tuna to Dolphin any day.

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