With the NFL's free-agency signing period beginning March 2, here is a rundown of the top five offensive players at each position, according to my ratings of the unrestricted free agents (these lists do not include any players released due to salary cap or other issues).
1. Brad Johnson | Washington: While he did struggle at the controls, tossing 15 interceptions and fumbling the ball away four times, Johnson still has plenty of value on the open market. Not the type who can carry an offense on his shoulders, Johnson needs a quality supporting cast in order to get the job done at a satisfactory level.
2. Gus Frerotte| Denver: Filled in admirably when Brian Griese was injured, but his sub-par effort in the Broncos' playoff loss to Baltimore proved that there were reasons why he dropped all the way to the seventh round when he came out of Tulsa back in 1994. I'm told that Frerotte is looking for an opportunity to be a starter, and barring an injury to Griese, that's not going to happen with the Broncos.
|With Trent Dilfer at QB, the Ravens went 11-1 and won the big one. But now he's a free agent, and there are still doubters.|
3. Trent Dilfer | Baltimore: All this guy has done is win football games and stay away from the crucial mistake, yet there are still plenty of critics and doubters out there. With the Ravens, Dilfer galvanized the team when Brian Billick's squad was at the crossroads, bringing the energy and leadership ability that created a winning atmosphere. With Dilfer at the helm, the Ravens were 11-1 and Super Bowl champions. Now, the Ravens' brass has to decide whether to go a different direction or re-sign Dilfer, while in the process developing highly regarded youngster Chris Redman to the point where he could take over the reigns this coming season if Dilfer failed to get the job done.
4. Jon Kitna | Seattle: The Seahawks will obviously be going in a different direction, with Kitna looking for another opportunity to compete for either a starting job or primary backup position. Last season, his 19 interceptions proved to be his downfall, although on the plus side, he did manage to complete 62 percent of his aerials.
5. Shane Matthews | Chicago: Has the knack for providing a spark off the bench, so this will depend on how much interest is shown from other clubs. Ideally, the Bears would like to have him back as the No. 3 option. The question now becomes whether he'll be able to find a better opportunity on the open market.
RUNNING BACKS & FULLBACKS
1. Corey Dillon | Cincinnati: Even though he put together an outstanding campaign -- rushing for nearly 1,500 yards and averaging 4.6 yards per carry -- the ongoing contract saga with Dillon and the Bengals' brass continues. Where would the Bengals be without Dillon? Well, I guess you could argue they couldn't be any worse.
2. Tiki Barber | New York Giants: Arguably the Giants' MVP, Barber's multi-dimensional skills were on center stage this past season when he went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark and also hauled in 70 receptions. An ideal fit with the Giants, he doesn't figure to be moving on.
3. Charlie Garner | San Francisco: Has developed into an outstanding all-purpose back with the Niners, but with their current situation, he figures to garner the type of offer he commands from another organization.
4. Howard Griffith | Denver: Over the past three years, the Broncos have seen Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson all rush for over 1,000 yards in a season. Some of the credit has to go to Griffith, who has proven to be a vital performer on the offensive side of the ball in the Mile High City. His return reportedly depends on just how pricey things become.
5. Jerome Bettis | Pittsburgh: While RBs in the NFL are easily replaceable for the most part, and you can land quality performers in the mid-later rounds of the draft, it goes without saying that the Steelers' brass figures to make re-signing such a valuable big back like Bettis a priority.
|RB Tiki Barber is a free agent, but expect the Giants to be able to re-sign him.|
1. Derrick Mason | Tennessee: Not only did he develop into an outstanding pass-receiving option for Steve McNair, but he also continues to excel as one of the more dangerous return men in the NFL. His return to the Titans is obviously critical.
2. Albert Connell | Washington: Figures to be moving on after a far-less-than spectacular 2000 season that saw Connell averaging nearly 20 yards per catch but haul in just 39 receptions. On draft day, the Redskins will be looking for a quality compliment to Michael Westbrook within the first two rounds.
3. Matt Hatchette | Minnesota: Has flashed big-time ability on various occasions with the Vikings, but this past season his performance seemed to level off. He has plenty of talent, though, so expect Hatchette to garner some interest in free agency.
4. James Thrash | Washington: Became a productive member of the Redskins offense this past season, finishing second on the club with 50 receptions. Even though they will be addressing the WR position early in the draft, allowing Connell and Thrash to both move on in free agency could be risky.
5. James McKnight | Dallas: With Joey Galloway and Raghib Ismail both coming off the injury list, bringing McKnight back into the fold should be the Cowboys' focus. Last year, he averaged an impressive 17.8 yards on 52 receptions.
1. Rickey Dudley | Oakland: Has a ton of talent, as he displayed in '99. However, this past season saw Dudley be plagued by periods of inconsistency. If a big offer comes his way, the Raiders' brass may be forced to allow the former Ohio State Buckeye to find another home.
2. Marcus Pollard | Indianapolis: Combines with Ken Dilger to give the Colts a great deal of talent at the TE position. He averaged nearly 15 yards per reception, becoming a real threat after the catch. With Pollard developing into such a key performer on offense with the Colts, you can rest assured they don't want to see him moving on.
3. Jeff Thomason | Philadelphia: Overshadowed by teammate Chad Lewis, but Thomason proved to be an integral part of the offense when the Eagles moved into the red zone. Depends on other interest, but the Eagles would obviously like to bring him back for the right price.
4. Byron Chamberlain | Denver: Has ability, but the Broncos have other options at this spot and also have a number of key free agents they desperately need to bring back into the fold.
5. Johnny McWilliams | Minnesota: Not only is McWilliams an unrestricted free agenct, but the Vikings' other TEs, John Davis and Andrew Jordan, can also test the waters on the open market. Based on his fine showing last season, McWilliams figures to be the TE they most would prefer to re-sign.
With so much talent at the OG position in free agency, I decided to go 10-deep along the offensive line
1. Will Shields | Kansas City: Has consistently performed at a high level with the Chiefs since they landed him as a third-round steal in the 1993 NFL draft. After being named to his sixth straight Pro Bowl, the Chiefs can't afford to allow a big-time guard like Shields to move on. It will be interesting to see if they franchise him and what type of offers come his way.
2. Jeff Hartings | Detroit: Quality performer up front for the Lions, with some talk as well about moving Hartings from guard to the pivot position.
3. Pete Kendall | Seattle: Over the past five years, the former Boston College grad has been a model of consistency from his LG position for the Seahawks.
4. Dan Neil | Denver: The Broncos have a number of key free agents, with Neil figuring to be a real priority to bring back into the fold. Like Kendall with Seattle and Hartings with Detroit, a solid, reliable performer like Neil would be a major loss if allowed to hook on with another organization.
5. Jeff Mitchell | Baltimore: A later-round find who has developed into an outstanding anchor along the Ravens' offensive line. They definitely want to make a strong pitch to re-sign the former Florida Gator.
6. Ross Verba | Green Bay: After moving inside from tackle to guard, Verba made the necessary progress as the season went along. This one figures to boil down to what type of offers come his way. The Packers don't want to cut him loose, but their hand could be forced.
7. Jeff Smith | Jacksonville: Has quietly developed into a fine player at the center position with the Jaguars. He would figure to be one of the free agents the Jaguars re-sign, but with their present cap situation, this is easier said than done.
8. Richmond Webb | Miami: With the talent level at the guard position along with Mitchell and Smith at center, Webb is the first OT to be listed. The 11-year veteran still holds up quite well at LT, but the Dolphins have some options to fill the void should he move on.
9. Scott Gragg | San Francisco: Huge bookend who has settled in quite well with the Niners, giving them more of a force when it comes to moving defenders off the line of scrimmage. If the dollars are right, they would obviously prefer to re-sign Gragg.
10. Jerry Wunsch | Tampa Bay: While he's not a top-of-the-line performer, the Bucs would definitely prefer to re-sign the former Wisconsin Badger due to their lack of overall talent and depth at the OT positions.