Taking stock of free agency after the opening week
Posted: Friday March 4, 2005 4:39PM; Updated: Friday March 4, 2005 8:34PM
The Jets' defense took a big hit with the loss of nose tackle Jason Ferguson.
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Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we review the opening salvos of free agency.
The early winners in the NFL's annual personnel shopping spree are easy to identify. My top five candidates for most improved are:
1. Oakland -- Picking up the game's premier playmaker in a trade (Randy Moss), and signing a frontline running back (LaMont Jordan) who adds muscle to the embarrassingly weak Raiders ground game is an instant upgrade for a franchise that is 9-23 since falling to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII. Now about the defense and that festering Charles Woodson situation.
2. Dallas -- Taking a page out of Daniel Snyder's book, Jerry Jones this week handed out bonus checks like they were autographed pictures of himself: Everyone who asked got one. Jason Ferguson allows the Cowboys to make the switch to the 3-4 defense. It would be nice if he wasn't already 30, but nose tackle is a position that can be played well by a veteran (see Ted Washington in New England in 2003).
Anthony Henry probably was only the fifth-best available cornerback, but he's young, plays pretty physical in coverage and is a clear improvement over the mish-mash that took the field at right cornerback for Dallas in 2004. Guard Marco Rivera is a little old at 33, and doesn't really deserve the Pro Bowl billing he keeps getting, but he's a more-than-solid pro who won't make the Cowboys regret their investment.
Drew Bledsoe doesn't strike us as much of an upgrade at quarterback. But the Cowboys are clearly trying to win now, as Bill Parcells enters the third season of his four-year contract, and he's a better option at this point than either Drew Henson or Vinny Testaverde. Losing linebacker Dexter Coakley to the Rams won't hurt.
3. Carolina -- In guard Mike Wahle and cornerback Ken Lucas, the Panthers have added two young players who weren't just among the best available at their position in free agency, they're among the best period. The versatile Wahle helps solidify a Panthers offensive line that had a revolving-door quality to it last season, and Lucas has developed into one of the league's most complete cornerbacks. Given the choice between Lucas or Washington's more highly regarded Fred Smoot, I'd have taken Lucas and not looked back.
With the numbers Muhsin Muhammad hung up last season, it's hard to say the Panthers won't feel the free-agent loss of their top receiver. But once Steve Smith is healthy again, he'll soak up a lot of those catches and yards, and now second-year man Keary Colbert has room to grow into a larger role.
4. Baltimore -- The Ravens' long nightmare is over. Not only do they have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, they have a darn good in one in Derrick Mason. The former Titans star was the most proven, productive receiver available, way more than Pittsburgh's Plaxico Burress, Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh or Washington's Lavernaues Coles. Mason won't take over a game the way Moss or Terrell Owens can, but he's the kind of player who can be counted on week in, week out to contribute to victories.