Cover charge: Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor help make cornerback the deepest position on the market, but the Eagles' duo and other name players might not find a big payoff in a changing business climate - NFL Free-Agent Preview
Sporting News, The,  March 1, 2004  

BY THE WAR ROOM

The Eagles' defense starts with pressure up front and heavy blitzing from the linebackers and safeties. But it wouldn't have clicked with clockwork precision for so many years if Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor, a pair of super-sized, physical cornerbacks, weren't able to rough up receivers at the line and bump them off their routes.

But now the Eagles face the possibility of losing at least one, and perhaps both, pillars of their defense. Philadelphia has a long-standing unofficial policy of paying players for what they can do now, not for what they have done in the past.

Sorry, fellas. What have you done for me lately?

The Eagles' philosophy has allowed them to make three consecutive trips to the NFC championship game without hogtying their salary cap or sacrificing their future. Even if Taylor, 30, ends up returning to the Eagles--they are more likely to re-sign him than Vincent, who will turn 33 in June--there are more than enough quality corners to make the position the deepest in the free-agent market, which opens for business March 3.

More teams seem to be warming to the Eagles' business model, eschewing long-term contracts for aging veterans with brand names and restocking with less experienced but cheaper alternatives. That could make long-term job security and big bucks tougher to come by for Vincent and others, but he can take comfort in the fact that there likely still is a roster spot for him in Philadelphia, if he wants it. But only at the right price, of course.

A position-by-position rundown of the 2004 class, with this caveat: The best player at many positions will end up re-signing or getting slapped with the franchise tag.

QB Position grade: C

BEST PLAYER

* Payton Manning, Colts. He would be the gem of this free-agent class but figures to be wearing horseshoes on his helmet in Pro Bowls through 2010.

BEST VALUE

Shane Matthews, Bengals. A veteran who has started games and isn't yet gumming his food, Matthews can hold down the fort as a fill-in.

BIGGEST RISK

Anthony Wright, Ravens. A tasty athlete who put on a show in Week 12 last season, Wright still hasn't proved he can read defenses.

SLEEPER

Shaun King, Buccaneers. King has a lot of skills, but his intangibles are in question.

ON THE RISE

Billy Volek, Titans. An ordinary athlete who has good game-management qualities, Volek looks like the next Jake Delhomme.

RB Position grade: C+

BEST PLAYER

Charlie Garner, Raiders. Tougher and more durable than he's given credit for, Garner is an underrated blocker and interior runner. And he's a better receiver than many wideouts.

BEST VALUE

Kevin Faulk, Patriots. He will do a lot of the things Garner does--plus return kicks--at a fraction of the price.

BIGGEST RISK

Thomas Jones, Buccaneers. Jones actually looked like a former first-round pick in the second half of 2003, but will the fire in his belly go away after a big payday?

SLEEPER

Stacey Mack, Texans. Blame a nightmarish 2003 on injuries and a so-so line.

ON THE RISE

Mike Cloud, Patriots. Cloud has a nose for the end zone (five TDs on 27 carries in '03).

ON THE DECLINE

Duce Staley, Eagles. Staley will draw interest because of his experience, versatility and hands, but he no longer is a dangerous runner.

FB Position grade: C-

BEST PLAYER

Terrelle Smith, Saints. A one-time college linebacker, Smith is a punishing blocker and still is young (he'll be 26 in March).

BEST VALUE

Reuben Droughns, Broncos. Droughns is too small to blow open holes. He does, however, run, catch and shine on special teams.

BIGGEST RISK

Sam Gash, Bills. Gash still can level a linebacker, but he will be 35 in March.

SLEEPER

* Dan Kreider, Steelers. A powerful lead blocker, Kreider has untapped potential as a runner and receiver.

MOST VERSATILE

Patrick Pass, Patriots. Pass is small, but he can cover or return kicks and also line up at receiver.

WR Position grace: C

BEST PLAYER

Terrell Owens, 49ers. Hall of Fame ability, bush-league attitude. Still, Owens will dominate if motivated.

BEST VALUE

Darrell Jackson, Seahawks. He's such a good value that the Seahawks will do everything they can to re-sign him.

BIGGEST RISK

Kevin Dyson, Panthers. After missing 34 games in the last four years, Dyson must prove he can stay healthy and fulfill his big-play promise.

SLEEPER

Ron Dixon, Giants. Immature and injury-prone, Dixon nevertheless has the size, speed and quickness to develop into a solid No. 2.

ON THE RISE

Dennis Northcutt, Browns. Rail-thin but cat-quick, Northcutt has great hands, runs sharp routes and jets after the catch.

ON THE DECLINE

Antonio Freeman, Packers. Crafty and tough in traffic, Freeman no longer has the speed or separation skills to be a difference-maker.

BEST VERTICAL THREAT

Marcus Robinson, Ravens. Size, strong hands and leaping ability make him a jump-ball master.

TE Position grade: B-

BEST PLAYER

Jim Kleinsasser, Vikings. He's stiff and slow but has the size and reliable enough hands to be a viable outlet receiver. He also is a punishing blocker and is steady on blitz pickups. The Vikings will push hard to re-sign him.

BEST VALUE

Todd Yoder, Buccaneers. He's athletic, hard-working and versatile enough to line up at H-back and excel on special teams.

BIGGEST RISK

Cam Cleeland, Rams. Hamstrung by injuries, Cleeland barely has topped his rookie numbers in his last four seasons combined.

SLEEPER Jed Weaver, 49ers. An excellent route runner who has some downfield speed. We haven't seen his best yet.

ON THE RISE

Erron Kinney, Titans. Massive and athletic, Kinney is a brutal matchup. He has the skills to become a complete player.

C Position grade: B-

BEST PLAYER

Damien Woody, Patriots. Woody has the size, power and range to pull, trap or slug it out. He can play guard, too.

BEST VALUE

Todd McClure, Falcons. Limited upside hurts his value, but McClure's quick feet and sound technique will be assets in a pass-heavy scheme.

BIGGEST RISK

Jerry Fontenot, Saints. Reliable and durable, but age (37) and diminished range are signs Fontenot could fade fast.

SLEEPER

Todd Washington, Texans. A mauler with outstanding size, he could be a force in a run-heavy offense.

ON THE RISE

Chris Bober, Giants. A small-school product who has most of the necessary skills and intangibles, Bober will be a load with added experience and strength.

ON THE DECLINE

Rich Braham, Bengals. A leader and still an ox of a run blocker, but a weak link in pass protection.

BEST PLAYER Adam Timmerman, Rams. An intelligent enforcer who's fundamentally sound and forceful in the running game. He lacks only athleticism.

G Position grade: B+

BEST PLAYER

Adam Timmerman, Rams. An intelligent enforcer who's fundamentally sound and forceful in the running game. He lacks only athleticism.

BEST VALUE

Kelvin Garmon, Chargers. Strong, powerful and compact, Garmon is a run-blocking force who keeps getting better.

BIGGEST RISK

Jeno James, Panthers. A serviceable blocker who could be overpaid after helping pave a path to the Super Bowl. The Panthers want to re-sign him, especially after the retirement of Kevin Donnalley.

SLEEPER

Bobbie Williams, Eagles. Last year, Williams got some of the experience he desperately needed. A solid starter if his technique improves.

ON THE RISE

Cosey Coleman, Buccaneers. He had a strong second half in 2003. A promising package of size, quick feet and active hands.

T Position grade: A-

BEST PLAYER Orlando Pace, Rams. Pace is at the top of his (or anyone else's) game. The Rams have placed the franchise tag on him for the second straight year.

BEST VALUE

John Tait, Chiefs. He's heading into his prime and one of the league's top five right tackles.

BIGGEST RISK

Todd Wade, Dolphins. A strong drive blocker, Wade lacks range in pass protection and has a tendency to get nicked up.

SLEEPER

Lewis Kelly, Vikings.

Kelly has the feet, hands and balance to excel. Power and technique could come with work and experience.

ON THE RISE

Damion McIntosh, Chargers. A former college defensive tackle, McIntosh brings power and a surly disposition to the offense.

ON THE DECLINE

0rlando Brown, Ravens. Age (33) and size are a bad mix, and Brown has a quick temper and slow feet to boot.

Availability TBD

In addition to the free agents who become available March 3, many top players will be cut loose in the coming months, mostly because their teams can't afford to keep them. The War Room's "All-Star alert list":

QUARTERBACK Rich Gannon, Raiders

RUNNING BACKS William Green, Browns

Corey Dillon, Bengals

WIDE RECEIVERS Keyshawn Johnson, Buccaneers

Muhsin Muhammad, Panthers

TIGHT END Stephen Alexander, Chargers

CENTER Tim Ruddy, Dolphins

GUARDS Ruben Brown, Bills

Frank Middleton, Raiders

OFFENSIVE TACKLES Derrick Deese, 49ers

Adam Meadows, Colts

DEFENSIVE TACKLES Bryant Young, 49ers Luther Elliss, Lions

DEFENSIVE ENDS Joe Johnson, Packers Chad Bratzke, Colts



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