He wasn't on the training camp roster last summer, and wasn't in the Carolina Panthers media guide, either, given his Aug. 1 addition to the team. But when Super Bowl XXXVIII kicked off six months ago, offensive lineman Matt Willig was dressed and on the Carolina sideline, a valuable, veteran insurance policy, playing for minimum salary.
There will be, for sure, a few more Matt Willig-type players signed by NFL teams in the three weeks remaining before the starting of training camps. And, in truth, even a few veterans who figure to end up contributing more to their teams in 2004 than the classy and utilitarian Willig did to the Panthers' conference championship run last season.
The New York Jets made the NFL's first meaningful post-July 1 roster tweak Thursday, signing six-year veteran tight end Mikhael Ricks, a converted wide receiver who still runs well and should add a new dimension to the mid-field passing game. His signing won't signal an opening of the flood gates, not with the paucity of serviceable players among the free agent remnant pile, but should result in at least a modest ripple effect.
When personnel directors and general managers return from vacations next week, the market should pick up enough to at least register a blip on the radar screen, as teams make one final sweep through the free agent bargain basement. It is a group, no denying, that is mostly threadbare, but with a few veterans worthy of consideration as clubs try to improve their depth or fill out a last, remaining roster hole.
"You know that old saying about how one man's trash is another man's treasure?" noted one AFC general manager. "Well, what's out there right now is pretty much everyone's trash, to be honest. But there might be three or four players, especially if reality has set in and they're ready to take the minimum (salary), who could still find homes. I mean, you would think somebody will sign (linebacker Jason) Gildon, and a few others, right? There are some guys worth plucking off the scrap heap. Just not many, that's all."
The leading career sacker in Pittsburgh Steelers history, Gildon, released for salary cap considerations, is in many ways the poster child for the group of free agents still hoping to land a training camp gig. Translation: He is on the wrong side of 30 and his production has declined in recent seasons.
Gildon's sack total has declined every season since he posted a career-best 13½ in 2000. His six sacks in 2003 represented his fewest since '97 and, after 10 seasons playing in the Steelers' 3-4 scheme, he has, somewhat justifiably, been typecast by some clubs. Rarely has Gildon been asked to drop and cover, has played principally coming forward toward the line of scrimmage, and probably is best suited to situational status at this juncture of his career.
But his six sacks in 2003 would have been enough to lead eight teams and there are three or four clubs still interested in Gildon and he will be in someone's camp, provided that he is willing to be a role player and for about one-third of the $3 million-plus that he was to have earned with the Steelers in 2004.
Here are a few more players who should escape the unemployment line in weeks leading up to training camp:
RB Antowain Smith (most recent team: New England): The Patriots' leading rusher in each of their two Super Bowl victories, the seven-year veteran has averaged more than four yards per carry just once in his career, but is a big-game performer. Smith is 31 now but retains a warrior's mentality, knows how to play the game, and is probably as good as, or better than, most of the No. 2 tailbacks in the league.
OT Greg Randall (San Francisco): Kind of the Rodney Dangerfield of offensive linemen left in free agency. The guy is only 26 years old, has 39 career starts, has never missed a game because of injury, and was flagged for only three penalties in 16 starts for Houston last season. The 49ers signed him this spring and then dumped him six weeks later. He might be better than any of the three candidates Dallas will trot out for the right tackle job in camp. Not a great player but, for a minimum salary, a good insurance policy.
FS Zack Bronson (San Francisco): Has visited Buffalo and Cleveland and there has been some dialogue with Atlanta and St. Louis, as well. He will be a little choosey about where he signs and it won't be surprising if he doesn't land a job until two or three weeks into camp. The biggest red flag, besides the fact he's 30, are injuries. Bronson has played just two full seasons and, in the last two years, appeared in only 17 games. Teams will have to weigh the injury factor against his 19 career interceptions.
DE Kenny Holmes (New York Giants): Like Gildon, he probably is relegated to being just a situational pass rusher now. Unlike Gildon, who is said to be in terrific condition, Holmes is coming off a knee injury that must be closely checked out. The seven-year pro was never worth the big money the Giants gave him as a free agent in 2001, but he's got 38½ career sacks and, if healthy, could still bring some pressure off the edge. The same might be said for former Colts end Chad Bratzke, who might merit a look. And don't discount versatile Rick Lyle (New England), who can play end or tackle, and could be valuable to one of several teams implementing a 3-4 front this year.
MLB Jeremiah Trotter (Washington): Only 27 years old, with a reéumé that includes two Pro Bowl appearances and, even in a down year in 2003, still led the Redskins in tackles. The problem is, teams are wary of his knee problems, and, despite being a high character type guy, that could make it difficult for Trotter to land a job.
A gaggle of guards: There are a ton of interior offensive linemen still available, with the list including Todd Perry (Miami), Jamie Nails (Miami), Ray Brown (Detroit) and Chris Dishman (Arizona), among others. Also in the mix is longtime Dolphins starting center Tim Ruddy. Many from this group might have to wait for someone to be injured in camp before the phone rings. Ruddy and Perry have generated interest, and could probably have jobs by now, but both will wait for the right circumstance. "They both want to play and, if it happens for them, great," said agent Ralph Cindrich. "But both are conservative guys who have saved their money and neither is going to jump at something just to say they've got a job."
RBs James Stewart (Detroit) and Dorsey Levens (N.Y. Giants): Two experienced backs, although Stewart is coming off an injury that cost him the entire '03 campaign, and two guys who know the ropes. Both are positive presences in the locker room, as well.
Around the league
ESPN.com reported Thursday that agent Tom Condon of IMG Football kicked off the negotiations for top overall pick Eli Manning by meeting with Giants officials on Tuesday. The second half of the equation: While in "the town so nice they named it twice," Condon, appropriately enough, pulled a little double duty. Condon also huddled, ESPN.com confirmed, with Jets officials about quarterback Chad Pennington, who is entering the final season of his original NFL contract. There is a long way to go, of course, in negotiations for both quarterbacks. That said, there is some sense of urgency. The Giants report to camp on Aug. 29 and obviously want Manning on the field when practices commence the next day. Pennington has indicated he doesn't want contract negotiations to be a distraction -- and, unlike other players who say the same thing, he really means it -- and so the Jets might be facing a deadline of sorts, too. As noted here just a few weeks ago, Pennington could pull in a signing bonus second only to the $34.5 million that Condon negotiated for Peyton Manning four months ago.
We don't want to overstate the significance of the Jets' addition of tight end Mikhael Ricks because, let's face it, the guy has never caught more than 40 balls in a season. But he does provide New York, and thus Pennington, an interesting dimension. And while he is probably best-suited to playing in two-tight end formations, Ricks might take some playing time away from starter Anthony Becht in obvious passing situations. The reason is that Ricks just simply moves better than most tight ends in the NFL and can get deep up the middle and provide vertical stretch. In six seasons, Ricks has 26 receptions of 20 yards or more and four catches of 40-plus yards, and he has averaged a pretty gaudy 12.5 yards per reception. Becht has averaged 8.9 yards per catch in four seasons, has just seven catches of 20 or more yards, and has never had a reception of longer than 30 yards. Becht was part of one of the several packages the Jets floated to the Redskins back in March, when they were bidding for then-Washington cornerback Champ Bailey. And the four-year veteran, one of four first-round picks the Jets had in the 2000 draft, is going into the final year of his contract.
The Los Angeles Lakers' unsuccessful pursuit of Mike Krzyewski prompted some dialogue this week as to what college football head coaches are held in highest regard by NFL general managers, in terms of what they might achieve at the pro level. A quick survey of five general managers and/or personnel directors resulted in this list: Nick Saban (LSU), Kirk Ferentz (Iowa), Jeff Tedford (California), Bob Stoops (Oklahoma), Ralph Friedgen (Maryland) and Tyrone Willingham (Notre Dame). "If they want to be, at that's a pretty big if given their current situations, all those guys could probably be (NFL) head coaches in the next two or three years," said one personnel chief. "But we saw (Saban) turn down a job this year in Chicago, and maybe that's the trend." Two more coaches who earned some mentions were Mike Bellotti of Oregon and Ohio State's Jim Tressel. The former has gotten some sniffs from NFL teams in the past. Given his rather conservative style of play, it might be surprising to have Tressel come up in casual conversation, right? But the Buckeyes coach was very quietly considered, although not contacted, by two NFL franchises this offseason. One of the teams made a head coach change and the other did not.
Spring mini-camps, where workouts take place minus pads (we think), are difficult times to assess defensive players. So it might be a tad early to evaluate new Cincinnati middle linebacker Nate Webster, signed from Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent, and felt to be a good fit with a Marvin Lewis-designed defense that places a premium on speed. But word from a couple Bengals veterans is that Webster, a former special teams ace with just one regular-season start, will have to go a bit harder once pads are on in camp. The surprising thing, noted one Bengals veteran, was that Webster didn't seem nearly as quick as advertised. "But in fairness," said the player, "the kid is coming in cold, having to learn a new system, stepping right in as the starter. We'll see what happens in camp." The Bengals staff moved veteran Kevin Hardy out of the middle, where he played in '03 after spending most of his career on the outside, and carved out a spot for Webster. One 'backer to watch in Bengals camp: Third-round draft pick Caleb Miller of Arkansas, who made a very favorable impression this spring.
Several weeks ago, in discussing the overhaul of the Philadelphia secondary, we noted that the Eagles were only the second team since the 1970 merger to exercise each of their top three draft choices on defensive backs. That came in 2002, when the Eagles grabbed cornerback Lito Sheppard in the first round and safety Michael Lewis and corner Sheldon Brown in the second. All three will be starters in 2004. The other franchise we cited was Green Bay, which chose defensive backs with its first three picks in the '99 draft. But, oops, as pointed out to us by avid San Diego fan Michael Lombardo, the Chargers also used three straight selections in the 2003 lottery to choose cornerbacks Sammy Davis (No. 1) and Drayton Florence (No. 2a) and safety Terrence Kiel (No. 2b). Along with cornerback Quentin Jammer, the team's first-round choice in 2002, the group gives the Chargers a group of young and emerging secondary players. In fact, with Jammer now emerging as a big-time talent, the secondary figures to be one of the areas on which the Chargers should be able to build for the future.
One potential contributing factor to Indianapolis' acquisition of Green Bay defensive end Jamal Reynolds on Thursday is the presence of older brother Diron Reynolds on the Colts' coaching staff. The elder Reynolds is entering his second season as a defensive quality control assistant, is well regarded, and likely had some input into the deal. Part of the equation, obviously, is that Colts officials are counting on Diron Reynolds to prod his younger brother to the kind of effort Green Bay coaches couldn't elicit in three seasons. It's not a bad gamble for the Colts, since Reynolds' base salaries for the next two years are palatable, and since they don't have much financial exposure if he doesn't cut it and they release him. By the way, Packers officials said the low-round draft choice they got from the Colts is not conditional upon Reynolds making the Indy roster.
Punts: The Giants are now considering the possibility of a new facility rather than sinking $300 million into the renovation of Giants Stadium. While the Seattle Seahawks will pursue a new deal with quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, there are some team officials wary of an extension for tailback Shaun Alexander, who is also entering the final year of his contract. His solid numbers aside, some in Seattle feel that Alexander ranks at only about the middle of the pack among NFL tailbacks. The Redskins remain a bit concerned about the toe injury that plagued wide receiver Laveranues Coles through much of the second half of the '03 season and which limited him in mini-camps during the spring. Coles did not have surgery, is counting upon rest and orthopedic devices in his shoes to help the problem, and will take it easy early in camp. Buffalo has switched third-year pro Coy Wire from strong safety to free safety in an effort to possible generate more takeaways. Add the Philadelphia Eagles to the list of franchises that want all their rookies, even low-round picks, to sign five-year contracts.
The last word: "When I first walked in, and I saw the coaching staff, I kind of thought it was the reunion from (the movie) Cocoon! I said, 'There's no way these guys are going to be able to hold up.' But we got out there on the field, and I'll tell you what, they have more energy than any coaching staff, probably since Penn State, that I have been around. They showed that they know what they're talking about. They know what they want us to do and they know how to get us to do it. You can't hold anything against that." -- Washington linebacker LaVar Arrington, addressing the age of some of the assistants on Joe Gibbs' staff
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.