By the end of the weekend, training camps will have opened in every league
precinct. While some teams continue to fine-tune rosters with 11th-hour
contracts for serviceable veterans, there is a sobering reality for many
players left orphaned by free agency.
In many cases, their careers are over, the alleged panacea of free agency
having turned into the NFL equivalent of sticking a needle into a balloon.
Some expectations have been cruelly dashed and players who four months ago
viewed free agency as a potential mother lode are scrambling now for jobs that pay the league minimum.
By unofficial count, there are three dozen players who started a
minimum of eight games in 2001 but who remain unemployed.
"It's a monumental letdown for these guys, really, a possible psychological
trauma," acknowledged agent Angelo Wright, who this week found a home
in Denver for former Pro Bowl defensive end Michael Sinclair, released by
Seattle early in the spring. "They think they're going for a
magic carpet ride and instead they have the rug yanked out from under them."
|Jamal Anderson played in only three games last season before suffering a knee injury.|
There is still demand for a few players -- defensive tackle Sam Adams, wide
receiver Antonio Freeman, offensive guard Matt Campbell, to name a few -- but
there are not a lot of job openings right now, and the supply outdistances
In a few cases, like that of tailback Ricky Watters, continued unemployment
is a factor of his dissatisfaction with the finances offered him. But most
players still in the remnants of the free-agent pool haven't had an offer to
reject. And several of them are players who, at this point of their careers,
still have some productive seasons left.
They may not be big names -- guys like safety Chad Cota, linebacker Bernardo
Harris, offensive tackle John Fina, cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock, tailback
Jamal Anderson -- but they still could contribute to some team. Few of them,
though, will get the opportunity. It is hard to imagine, for instance, that
the Saints this week signed the venerable Terry Allen as a
backup to tailback Deuce McAllister and didn't consider Anderson.
At least Anderson, who wants to extend his NFL tenure but is also
considering a career in television, has options. That is hardly the case for
most of the unemployed veterans. Most of the out-of-work players will spend
the early days of camp scouring the newspapers in their home towns, looking
for any word of an injury that might force a team to go back into the
market. Sinclair got his job with the Broncos, for instance, because Denver
was forced to release second-year defensive end Paul Toviessi.
The bottom line, though, is that it's a maddening waiting game for players
accustomed to being in camp by now.
"You don't think it's going to end like this," said Hitchcock. "You figure
there is going to be some team that will call you. But the (silence) is
Around the leagueThe Pittsburgh Steelers continued their spending spree this week, signing
defensive end Aaron Smith to a six-year, $25 million contract, a move that
will keep him off the free-agent market next spring. Pittsburgh now has 19
of its 24 starters, including kicker Todd Peterson and punter Josh Miller,
under contract through at least the 2004 season. But it's two players the
Steelers haven't addressed, offensive left tackle Wayne Gandy and strong
safety Lee Flowers, who are starting to wonder about their futures. The vault seems poised to slam shut soon in Pittsburgh; if it
does so without new deals for Flowers and Gandy, both will become
unrestricted free agents next spring. The reluctance to re-up Gandy is not
surprising. Some in the
organization feel he is overrated and that one of the younger linemen,
perhaps Oliver Ross, will be ready to take over the position in 2003. The
situation with Flowers is a bit more puzzling, particularly since a
high-ranking Pittsburgh official twice promised the seven-year veteran this
spring that his contract would be addressed. The Steelers have an
experienced backup in Mike Logan, but it could be third-round pick Chris
Hope who could move into the starting
lineup if Flowers exits next spring.
The Washington Redskins might sign free agent defensive tackle Daryl
Gardener, cut by the Miami Dolphins last week, but no one else is beating down his door right now. Gardener rubbed Houston Texans officials,
who were very interested in him before his visit there, the wrong way during
a brief meeting. He complained the club dispatched a town car, and not a
limousine, to ferry him from the airport to the practice facility. He was,
one Texans staffer told ESPN.com, notably out of shape. After a seven-minute
workout, the Texans had seen enough, and sent Gardener packing without a
contract offer. The Detroit Lions, with a pair of ailing defensive tackles
in Luther Elliss and Shaun Rogers, also checked out Gardener and weren't
particularly impressed. There is even a split on him in the Washington
organization, but no one seems to be heeding any of the detractors on the
Miami coach Dave Wannstedt is too astute to simply give up
on a quality defensive lineman without there being some underlying issues.
And Gardener has more than a few. The franchises that have done their
homework on him, and phoned friends in Miami to get background information,
have mostly backed way from the gargantuan defensive tackle.
The St. Louis Rams ranked No. 1 in offense in 2001 and third on defense. But despite the presence of standout special teams coach Bobby April, the
club's kicking game was one of the least productive in the league. The
result: St. Louis is likely to have new players at four of the five most
critical special-teams positions. "We've certainly made a lot of changes
and, hopefully, for the better," said the colorful April. The free agency
departure of the frenetic Az-Zahir Hakim, whose problem with fumbling
mushroomed into a mental block, means that former Indianapolis wideout
Terrence Wilkins, acquired in a trade, takes over that chore. Third-round
draft choice Lamar Gordon, a tailback from North Dakota State, is the
probable new kickoff returner, replacing Trung Canidate. The Rams
dumped inconsistent punter John Baker and signed former Pro Bowl performer
Mitch Berger, who struggled with injuries in Minnesota last year. April will not ask Berger to kick off, as he
did with the Vikings. Tight end and deep snapper Jeff Robinson exited in free agency,
and the Rams expended a seventh-round choice on Chris Massey to take his
place. All of which means the lone holdover at the top special teams
positions is kicker Jeff Wilkins, solid on field goals and one of the NFL's
top kickoff men. April is optimistic the overhaul, some of it by design and
part of it dictated by free agency, gets his units turned around.
Twice-suspended defensive tackle Josh Evans, who two weeks ago won an
appeal that allowed him to dodge further sanctions under the NFL's
substance-abuse policy, has about 8.6 million reasons for staying clean. The
four-year contract Evans signed with the New York Jets paid him a signing
bonus of just $200,000, and his base salary for the 2002 campaign is the NFL minimum
of $525,000. But if Evans is productive and
plays up to the form he has demonstrated with the Tennessee Titans in the
past, someone will have to pay him next spring. New York can keep him for
the final three years of the contract, but only by exercising a $3 million
option, one that triggers base salaries of $1.2 million (for 2003), $1.9
million (2004) and $1.75 million (2005). The contract also includes a
$750,000 roster bonus for the '05 season. If the Jets don't exercise the
option, Evans can go back into the free-agent market again.
When the San Francisco 49ers reached an injury settlement with quarterback
Gio Carmazzi last week, a move that had been long anticipated, it didn't end the career of the 2000 third-round choice. Two interested franchises
immediately phoned agent Mike Sullivan, but the truth is that Carmazzi still
isn't fully recovered from the shoulder problems that have stymied his
career, and he's not ready to audition yet. The plan, Sullivan said, is to
provide Carmazzi sufficient time to rehabilitate -- his shoulder apparently
feels better than it has in two years -- and then perhaps place him on a
practice squad for the final month or two of the season. That will get
Carmazzi some exposure to regular practices, allow him to work in a team
environment and to prepare for 2003. "He's definitely not finished with
football," said Sullivan. "He wants to play again and there's no reason he
shouldn't be in a camp next summer." Carmazzi was the man Bill Walsh felt
might be the eventual successor to Steve Young, but the youngster never
logged a regular-season snap during two seasons in San Francisco.
The sometimes notorious and often braggadocious Fred "The Hammer"
Williamson lives again. Well, sort of. Last week, we noted in this space
that the Oakland Raiders like to name the bonus clauses in contract
addendums after former franchise stars who played the position of the player
being signed. So when first-round draft choice Phillip Buchanan signed his
five-year, $7 million contract on Thursday morning, it included the "Eric
Allen Guarantee," the "Willie Brown Incentive," the "Terry McDaniel
Escalator," the "Mike Haynes Escalator" and, yes, the "Fred Williamson
Honors." The loud-mouthed defensive back, who served a stint as an
analyst on Monday Night Football, played four seasons (1961-64) for the
Raiders. Note to Raiders senior administrator Bruce Allen: If you're going
to include Williamson, you've got to find a spot for Lester Hayes, man.
Catching up on a recent deal for which the salary numbers were just
reported, the three-year contract that free agent Willie Jackson signed with
the Atlanta Falcons is worth $3.5 million. The veteran wide receiver got a
signing bonus of $350,000 and a base salary for 2002 of $650,000, of which
$250,000 is guaranteed. His base salary for 2003 is $1.1 million
and for '04 $1.2 million. There are offseason workout bonuses of $100,000
each in 2003 and 2004.
Kudos to San Diego management for doing right by rookie wide receiver Terry
Charles. The promising youngster suffered a season-ending knee injury during
a minicamp and the Chargers promptly announced that they would still "slot"
the former Portland State star in the fifth round. That's precisely what the
Chargers did, signing him to a three-year contract that included a signing
bonus of $121,500. The upfront money is in line with the bonus Charles would
have received if he wasn't injured. The choice right ahead of him, Cleveland
linebacker Andra Davis, received a $123,000 signing bonus. The pick directly
behind him, linebacker Scott Fujita, got $120,000 upfront. Not every team
demonstrates such largesse in dealing with rookies who are injured before
they sign their contracts. The Dallas Cowboys gave no signing bonus to tight
end Bob Slowikowski, a sixth-round tight end who, like Charles, sustained a
season-ending knee injury in an offseason workout. Further, his scheduled
base salary of $300,000 for 2003 will revert back to the rookie minimum of
$225,000 if Slowikowski does not accrue a credited season in '02.
The discussions haven't reached the substantive stage yet, but Texans
officials continue to tell cornerback Aaron Glenn they want to sign him to a
contract extension by the start of the regular season. The move has twofold
implications: It would secure the services of Glenn, who has been terrific
in early camp workouts, for beyond 2002, which is the final season on the
contract Houston inherited when it plucked the former Jets standout in the
expansion draft. Second, it would reduce Glenn's $8 million-plus salary cap
figure for the 2002 season.
The parting shot this week comes from an unnamed Redskins operative who,
noting the shoddy performance of Washington quarterbacks in early camp
workouts, suggested that unsigned first-round draft choice Patrick Ramsey
might do well to sit at home a while longer. "The longer Ramsey is out (of
camp), the closer he gets to winning the starting job," said the observer.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.