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In free agency, every team must make tough choice

Football's hot stove league kicks off at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning, when teams can start igniting their fans' hopes and cooking up free-agent contracts.

Yet, before any team reaches for its checkbook and before any team opens its vault, it should study the makeup of football's final four from last season. There are divergent models of how to advance to the Super Bowl.

The New York Giants won the Super Bowl a season after fans demanded more action than general manager Jerry Reese gave them, making former Kansas City linebacker Kavika Mitchell his only free-agent pickup.

The Green Bay Packers leapfrogged the Chicago Bears and most everybody else in the NFC during a year in which their only free-agent signing was former Giants cornerback Frank Walker.

The San Diego Chargers' only significant free-agent move at this time last year was to resign their guard Kris Dielman.

Three of the NFL's last four teams standing basically ignored free agency and focused on the draft. The exception was the Patriots, who charged into free agency and all the way to Glendale, Ariz., before the Giants' grasp for greatness exceeded New England's.

So there are, clearly, two models from which each team must study and choose.

Under one route, it can go conservative, relying on the draft to infuse its roster with the type of talent the Giants drafted last April, when they hit on all eight picks.

Under the other route, teams can go aggressive, raiding the free-agent market, paying for proven help like the Patriots did last year with trades for Wes Welker and Randy Moss and free-agent contracts for Donte Stallworth and Adalius Thomas.

Each team must make its choice. In the coming days, each will. But it is what makes this time of year, what is supposedly the off-season, so critical.

Every offseason decision influences every regular-season and postseason game.

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