In the first 72 hours of free agency, NFL teams invested in players from A (safety Adam Archuleta) to Z (punter Dave Zastudil), and everything in between. And, as is historically the case during the free-agent period, the ever-nebulous idea of fiscal responsibility again proved to be little more than a concept worthy only of fleeting lip service.
With teams armed with the additional $7.5 million in salary cap room every franchise realized as a result of the extension to the collective bargaining agreement, and with a staggering increase of 19.2 percent over last year's spending limit, the checkbooks came out the moment free agency commenced. And for the folks at IMG Football, the Kansas City-based agency that represents many of the league's highest-profile players, the industrial-sized coffeemaker came out, too.
"You remember the old line from 'The Godfather,' when the five families are going to war with each other and they declare, 'We're going to the mattresses,' right?" said Tom Condon of IMG Football. "Well, we've gone to the mattresses in here. It's been a lot of early mornings, then late nights, and then early mornings all over again. But we knew there would be a feeding frenzy and we were ready."
The manic pace and big deals of the opening three days of free agency will, indeed, feed the folks at IMG Football for a while. It's difficult after only 72 hours to declare winners and losers in free agency because there is still a considerable amount of money to be doled out, and good players are still available in the talent pool. But definitely mark IMG Football as one of the early leaders.
At the beginning of business Wednesday, Condon and partner Ken Kremer had completed contracts for eight clients, and those deals totaled about $155 million. And that's not counting Drew Brees' six-year, $60 million deal with the Saints and deals still to come for defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, cornerback Will Allen and a few others.
Among the contracts consummated over the first three days of free agency was the landmark offer sheet that Seattle offensive lineman Steve Hutchinson signed with the Minnesota Vikings, a seven-year, $49 million deal that is by far the largest ever for a guard. Only three NFL offensive tackles, a position that is always paid higher than guard, average $7 million per year.
Linebacker Will Witherspoon signed a six-year, $33 million contract with St. Louis. Defensive end Anthony Weaver got $26.5 million from Houston on a five-year contract. Defensive tackle La'Roi Glover's three-year contract with the Rams is worth $12 million. Another defensive tackle, Chris Hovan, got a five-year, $17.5 million contract in Tampa Bay after essentially being on the NFL scrap heap a year ago, when IMG could barely give him away.
It doesn't hurt, of course, that Condon also represents NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw. Or that one of his top young lieutenants, Andrew Kessler, is the son of labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who was key to hammering out the CBA extension. To suggest that IMG Football doesn't benefit from those relationships would be naive.
But when the green flag fell on free agency at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, it was hard work and tenacity -- and the ability to "go to the mattresses" -- that most paid off for IMG Football and has made the agency an early winner in the market.
Here's a look at some other early free-agency trends:
On the line: Run stuffers are stuffing their checking accounts with newfound riches. By far the hottest position in the first three days of free agency was defensive tackle, with lots of teams wanting big-bodied defenders who eat up blockers and clog up everything in the middle. Great run defenses historically are built from the inside out, and the opening 72 hours of free agency demonstrated that franchises still hold to that as one of the NFL's unwavering truisms. At least nine tackles signed deals, either with new teams or with their incumbent clubs, and the spending spree at the position has been dizzying.
The biggest deals went to Glover, Maake Kemoeatu (Carolina), Gerard Warren (Denver), Chris Hovan (Tampa Bay), Larry Tripplett (Buffalo) and Kendrick Clancy (Arizona). What they all have in common, besides the ability to go out and pay cash now for a new car, is the ability to stop the run. Of the group, only Glover has big-time pass-rush skills. Kemoeatu, Warren and Hovan totaled four sacks in 2005, but they averaged 58.7 tackles, an impressive number for the position. The three signed contracts that total more than $25 million in guarantees.
In a league in which sack men are always a prized commodity, it's suddenly cool to play the run again. A year ago, Hovan and Clancy were on the scrap heap and signed minimum deals. Each guy had a good year stopping the run, resurrected his career and cashed in the last few days. Just how desperate are teams for proven interior linemen? Ted Washington, who will turn 38 next month, got a two-year deal from Cleveland worth nearly $7 million. Even Damione Lewis, widely regarded as a first-round disappointment for much of his five-year tenure in St. Louis, got a $2 million-a-year contract in Carolina.
Home sweet (lakefront) home: Armed with the fourth-most salary cap room in the league, and confronted by a lot of holes to fill, the Cleveland Browns vowed to break from the gate quickly in free agency. And in a frenetic spending spree, general manager Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel did just that in the first three days. The Browns added center LeCharles Bentley, regarded by ESPN.com as the premier player in free agency. They signed left offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, punter Zastudil and defensive tackle Washington.
Yeah, the Browns invested a lot of money in an effort to close the talent gap in their division. But they also did an effective job of playing the homecoming card, as Bentley, Jurevicius and Zastudil are all Cleveland-area natives who grew up as Browns fans. Bentley and Jurevicius might have been able to get more money elsewhere.
Tired legs, fresh money: The conventional wisdom, given recent trends, was that some of the free-agent tailbacks with a lot of tread rubbed off their tires would have problems generating a market. The quintet of Shaun Alexander, Edgerrin James, Ahman Green, Mike Anderson and Jamal Lewis qualifies as a group with a ton of collective road wear, having accumulated an aggregate 7,883 carries and 19.9 rushing miles. The average age of the five, at the start of the '06 season, will be 29.0 years, which qualifies for Medicare benefits in the NFL these days.
Of the group, all but Alexander have experienced major surgeries during their careers. Dating back to college, Lewis has torn the anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees, and he underwent ankle surgery last spring. Oh, yeah, he also spent time in a federal correctional facility. But we should all have such "problems" getting paid in the dotage of our respective careers. James and Alexander landed megadeals, in Arizona and Seattle, respectively. Lewis re-signed with Baltimore on a phony three-year deal worth $26 million that is actually a one-year contract at $6 million. Not bad, though, for a guy no one thought would be back with the team.
Anderson and Green didn't do nearly as well, but no one needs to plan any telethons for them. In all, the five, led by Alexander ($15.125 million) and James ($14.75 million) will bank $40.87 million in 2006 compensation alone. The four-year, $30 million contract agent Drew Rosenhaus negotiated for James, given its structure and a lack of suitors, was a particularly masterful and impressive bit of work. So much for conventional wisdom, huh?
Fullbacks, empty pockets: While the tailbacks are running to the banks, the lead blockers who open many of the holes for them aren't really getting two cents' worth of action yet. There are four Pro Bowl-caliber fullbacks on the market -- Mack Strong (Seattle), Tony Richardson (Kansas City), William Henderson (Green Bay) and Fred Beasley (San Francisco) -- and none has signed. All of them likely will find jobs, but fullback is an underappreciated position, and the first three days of free agency have reinforced that.
Oh, Danny, yoi: For weeks leading up to free agency, owners around the league whispered that it was mathematically impossible for the Washington Redskins to get under the salary cap, and they chortled that fraternity brother Dan Snyder would not be able to continue his free-spending ways. Yet three days into free agency, the Redskins have added wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Brandon Lloyd, tight end Christian Fauria, defensive end Andre Carter and safety Archuleta.
So, either Washington contracts manager Eric Schaffer is a genius or Snyder has found a way to circumvent the cap. Seems it must be the former, since none of the legion of the team officials who keep wondering privately how the Redskins are able to add players -- and who complain to the media about Washington's laxity in turning in contracts to the league -- apparently has the gumption to raise the issue with the NFL Management Council. Give Snyder, whose team is a veritable mint, credit for this: He's terrible at reading a blueprint but great at doling out the long green.
In each of the last two springs, Snyder has vowed publicly that the roster he has assembled will represent the Redskins' team for three years. Then the inevitable occurs. Washington doesn't win a Super Bowl, the roster is blown up and Snyder goes back to the vault for another free-agent spending spree. One of these years, paying out all that money actually might pay off in a championship.
Big investments in small return men: There are a lot of people in the NFL who like Randle El but believe that he is just a No. 3 wide receiver and that his biggest contribution comes as a return man. If that's the case, the Redskins shelled out a lot of Snyder's cash for a punt returner. Unless, of course, you buy the joke making the rounds -- that Randle El, who threw a touchdown pass to Hines Ward on a reverse in Super Bowl XL and who played quarterback at Indiana, owns the best arm on the Redskins' roster, by default.
Randle El isn't the only return guy who got a nice deal. Detroit will pay Eddie Drummond $6 million over five years, and he got $2 million of that up front. Koren Robinson resurrected his career after battling alcoholism and turned his 2005 Pro Bowl season as a kickoff returner into a new three-year deal with the Vikings. And the New York Giants, who spent $6 million on a three-year contract for R.W. McQuarters, could use the veteran cornerback as a returner at times.
David and go-lieth: There was so much misinformation surrounding New England wide receiver David Givens that one would have thought some U.S. government intelligence agency -- and not highly respected Brad Blank -- was representing the four-year veteran.
Less than five minutes after free agency commenced, a story appeared on the Cleveland Browns' team Web site touting the signings of Givens and Baltimore punter Zastudil. Personnel directors interested in Givens, some of whom already had arranged visits with him, scrambled for information. Cleveland officials claimed someone had hacked into their site and posted the story. A day later, as Givens was preparing to meet with Houston officials, two newspapers reported that he had reached an agreement to re-sign with the Patriots. Also untrue.
On Tuesday, Givens did (we think) reach an agreement in principle with Tennessee (four years, $24 million). Oh, yeah, Zastudil did sign two days after the bogus Web site report, with Cleveland.
Curious and curioser: As usual, the opening days included some head-scratchers. Philadelphia, which historically has been a creative but cautious shopper in the market, signed Darren Howard to a contract that included more than $10 million in guarantees. That came despite the fact Howard has missed an average of five games the past three seasons and is a player in decline. So desultory was Howard's play in 2005 that New Orleans didn't even dress him for the final month of the season. It was suggested that the pairing of Howard and left end Jevon Kearse gives the Eagles one of the NFL's best outside tandems. Huh? The two combined for 11 sacks in 2005. Meanwhile, Derrick Burgess, the end Philadelphia allowed to escape to Oakland as a free agent last spring, had a league-best 16 sacks in 2005. The Eagles also added former Cincinnati tight end Matt Schobel, who -- despite just 90 catches in four seasons -- is known as a very good receiver and a dubious blocker. Philadelphia already has one good-catch-no-block tight end in L.J. Smith, who had 61 receptions last season. San Francisco traded emerging wide receiver Lloyd to Washington, for third- and fourth-round draft choices, in part because the 49ers felt the three-year veteran was unpopular among teammates. They replaced him by signing talented but flawed free agent Antonio Bryant of Cleveland, whose career has been marked by attitude problems, and giving him a $5 million signing bonus. Having already lost tailback Chester Taylor (to Minnesota) and concerned that Jamal Lewis might also depart, Baltimore on Sunday night signed Anderson. Less than 12 hours later, Lewis re-signed. Part of the Ravens' spin, from new running backs coach Tony Nathan, is that Anderson might play fullback now. Fullback: a position he hasn't played in three years and one where the Ravens have Alan Ricard -- regarded as one of the NFL's best lead blockers -- coming back from a calf injury that limited him to two games in 2005.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.