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Market fallout

Lessons learned from this year's free-agency binge

Posted: Monday April 17, 2006 9:27AM; Updated: Monday April 17, 2006 6:26PM
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Adam Vinatieri could win the Colts a couple of games, but how will the defense respond minus two playmakers?
Adam Vinatieri could win the Colts a couple of games, but how will the defense respond minus two playmakers?
Damian Strohmeyer/SI
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I've long been of the belief that we kill too many trees writing about the draft. It's a fun exercise, but let's be honest: Of the 255 players picked last April, how many made a major  impact? I'd say 10 to 15 (Odell Thurman, Darrent Williams, Cadillac Williams, Logan Mankins, Jammal Brown, Heath Miller, Lofa Tatupu, Leroy Hill, Shawne Merriman, Luis Castillo), and, if you want to get cute about it, maybe some combo platter of the young Cowboys (Demarcus Ware, Chris Canty, Marion Barber, Rob Petitti). Some more will turn into great players, but the thing I've always disliked about the draft is making definitive judgments about the kind of NFL players these 22-year-old guys will become.

I don't mean to get on an anti-draft riff, because it is a source of legitimate hope. But the free-agency period, for the immediacy of it, is more telling about how good a team will be right away. And with free agency having pretty much come and gone, except for damaged stars like LaVar Arrington (questions about his knee) and Charles Woodson (questions about his everything), I thought it would be a good time to draw my 10 conclusions from the Great Market of 2006. In order, they are:

1. The Adam Vinatieri signing was a superb one by Indianapolis, but the Colts suffered some major hits on defense.
Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker of this era, certainly -- and perhaps in NFL history -- got $12 million over five years. That's $2.4 million a year. That's pretty reasonable, even for a guy who hasn't made a 50-yard field goal in four years. His cap number in 2006 -- $1.68 million -- is only 1.5 percent of the Colts' salary-cap total this year. Dirt cheap for a guy who could easily make the difference in two games for the Colts this season. And as much as the signing benefits Indy, it hurts the Colts' main competitor (along with Pittsburgh) for the Super Bowl this year. New England never was aggressive in trying to re-sign Vinatieri, though the Patriots did try to get something done in the two-million-plus range. The other two kickers on the market worth decent money, Ryan Longwell and Mike Vanderjagt, got $2 million and $1.83 million, on average, from Minnesota and Dallas, respectively. It's clear Vinatieri wanted to go -- to a dome and to a new team. Last week, Vinatieri told the Boston Herald he never really was close to going back to the Patriots and he didn't give the Pats a chance to match the deal he got from Indy. I have to believe New England would have matched what the Colts offered, if given the chance ... and if only to keep him from being a great dome kicker over the next two or three years for its chief rival.

Now for the bad news: The two defensive guys the Colts really didn't want to lose, they lost -- defensive tackle Larry Tripplett (to Buffalo) and linebacker David Thornton (to Tennessee). The Bills and Titans dished out deals worth $7.26 million and $7.6 million, respectively, for the first year of their contracts. That's money the Colts just couldn't afford. Talking to coach Tony Dungy at the league meetings a couple of weeks ago, he was still down about the losses, particularly Thornton.

2. Now we know how the Redskins play Houdini with the cap every year.
I hear it every winter -- from editors, readers, people in line at Starbucks. (True story: I got asked at an Orlando Starbucks during the league meetings how the Redskins were able to sign 10 guys to gigantic contracts every year.) The answer: They don't. It's 70 percent funny money. Take the case of linebacker Andre Carter, signed to a reported seven-year, $32.5 million contract on March 15. It's more accurately a one-year, $5.85 million deal, or a two-year, $10.18 million contract, or a three-year, $13.5 million deal. See, the Redskins sign players to long deals, but the contracts are back-loaded, meaning the players would get most of the money in the final years of the contracts, if they get the money at all. And if Carter turns out to be the defensive force the Redskins hope he'll be, they'll almost certainly let him play the first two years, then re-do the deal before the fat money kicks in. Specifically, in Carter's case, he has two major slices of money he may never see: $13.4 million, combined, in five separate roster bonuses to be earned if he's on the roster in 2008, '09, '10, '11 and '12; and salaries totaling $8.9 million between 2008 and 2012. Collectively, that's $22.3 million of $32 million he may never see. Now the other question you have is this: Won't the Redskins get killed on the salary cap if they release Carter after, say, two years? The answer is not really, because the only part of his contract that's guaranteed is the signing bonus, which is $5 million.

3. It's been years since I've seen money burn a hole in a team's pocket like I saw with Cleveland this year.
Here's the stat you need to know: LeCharles Bentley and Kevin Shaffer, signed to beef up the Browns' offensive line at center and tackle, respectively, will be paid a combined $20.5 million this season in salary and bonus money. That number just about leaves me speechless. And they made Dave Zastudil a $1.6 million-a-year punter -- although Zastudil over the past two seasons, punting in Baltimore, was 26th and 12th in punting average. I like Phil Savage and I think he's a smart football man. For the sake of some of the greatest fans in the history of any sport, I hope Savage knows what he's doing.