Thursday January 20th, 2005

While most of the big headlines and big money come rolling in during the first 10 days of the NFL's free-agent signing season, that doesn't mean some of the later moves aren't just as critical, or successful.

Last year, Carolina waited until Day 11 of free agency to add running back Stephen Davis, and he helped carry them to the Super Bowl. On the same day, Philadelphia signed linebacker Nate Wayne, who was a highly productive pickup.

As the two-week mark of the 2004 free-agency period approaches Wednesday, the pace of this year's signings have been fast and furious. But there's still some talent left on the shelves. Here are 10 high-profile free agents who are worth landing at the right price:

DT Warren Sapp, Tampa Bay: Wisely, no one in the NFL relied on reputation alone in making a big early push to land Sapp, whose game has not lived up to his name the past two seasons. But that doesn't mean Sapp isn't a good buy once his price tag falls to the $2 million per year range. He's not going to dominate a game the way he once did, but if used correctly, he's still an impact player who could add another three or four years to his career by learning how to handle a role player's mentality. Baltimore still seems like his likely landing spot.

DE Adewale Ogunleye, Miami: There's of course good reason why no one has taken the plunge and signed the restricted free agent to an offer sheet: The Dolphins protected Ogunleye with a first- and third-round tender, and that's a lot of compensation for anyone to swallow. Still, for a young pass rusher who has racked up 24 1/2 the past two seasons, it's not a ridiculous price. The Titans have cap problems, and thus probably can't afford Ogunleye's $1.824 million tender, but with a boatload of draft picks (maybe as many as 13 once the compensatory picks are awarded) and the 27th pick in the first round, why not take a shot at the guy who would walk in and immediately replace the departed Jevon Kearse?

LB Ian Gold, Denver: He comes with an obvious risk factor, because an ACL injury cost him all but six games in 2003. But at the right price, say under $3 million per year, Gold may be worth his weight in you-know-what for some lucky free-agent suitor. All indications say he's on track to be ready physically by training camp, and it bears remembering that Gold looked set for stardom coming off his strong '02 starting debut at weakside linebacker (6 1/2 sacks and 166 total tackles).

S John Lynch, Tampa Bay: With a host of teams interested in him, Lynch is proving once again that one team's garbage is another team's treasure. Has the 11-year veteran seen his best days? Certainly. But he also knows how to win, would be great for a young team still searching for its identity, and now has the added motivation of proving to the league he can still hand out some punishment back there in his centerfield role. His rehabilitation from neck surgery might worry some teams, but its sounds as if he'll be ready to roll come summer.

QB Billy Volek, Tennessee: Nobody has asked for my opinion, but I really can't understand why the Bills aren't the natural place for Volek to pursue a starting assignment. The Titans want him back and the Falcons are hot on the trail as well, but if Volek really has designs on being a No. 1, where does he think he stands a better chance of doing that: Playing behind Steve McNair or Michael Vick, or going to camp as the 1A option behind the shaky Drew Bledsoe? Volek visited Buffalo on Monday, and he has also toured Denver, Green Bay and Atlanta (twice). Has there ever been a more highly sought fourth-year quarterback with one career start?

RB Antowain Smith, New England: There are other available running backs who probably have a much bigger market for their services, like Amos Zereoue and maybe even Garrison Hearst. But how many of them have a pair of Super Bowl rings? Yes, Smith's production levels the past two years has matched his running style: downhill. But as anyone who watched New England play in the postseason can tell you, Smith still has some life left in those thick legs. The Patriots used him perfectly, and he has to know that nobody's going to pay him like a No. 1 back. But if I were a team in search of a proven veteran who can keep the chains moving once the weather turns colder, I'd be dialing Smith's number.

T Ephraim Salaam, Denver: Salaam seemed to be used as a stalking horse of sorts last week in Baltimore's successful bid to get Orlando Brown re-signed. But all I know is that a 27-year-old left tackle who has managed to start 30 games in the past two seasons for Denver, a team that consistently proves it can run the ball, must have some value in this league. Salaam can be inconsistent and he doesn't deserve big money, but left tackle is still one of the toughest positions to fill because there aren't 32 quality starters to go around.

CB Bobby Taylor, Philadelphia: Taylor probably thought he was a shoo-in to be in on that early flurry of big-money cornerback signings, but sometimes free agency doesn't go as planned. Missing more than half of last season with a broken foot on the eve of free agency wasn't as Taylor mapped it out either. Still, Taylor is worth somebody's time and middle-level investment, because at 6-foot-3, he's one of the few corners capable of looking almost every receiver in the eye. It seems like he has been around forever, but Taylor is only 30 and can give somebody another three or four decent years. Seattle and Cincinnati have looked at Taylor the longest, and Washington reportedly is interested.

DE Tony Brackens, Jacksonville: He's not the player who hung up 30 1/2 sacks from 1999-2001, but Brackens played better as last season wore on, after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee in '02. Brackens is not one dimensional; he can play the run as well as create problems with pressure on the quarterback -- and he won't turn 30 until Dec. 26. As long as he lowers his sights and expects a modest, incentive-laded deal, Brackens would make a very nice late-March acquisition.

RB Correll Buckhalter, Philadelphia: For the same reasons it makes sense for Tennessee to pursue a talent like Ogunleye, somebody might decide to make a run at Buckhalter, a restricted free agent who only carries fourth-round compensation. Suppose the running back-needy Patriots, who have a pair of fourth-round picks in April's draft, were to proffer a bid? Sure, the cap-rich Eagles already have lost Duce Staley and will do everything within their power to retain Buckhalter. But the Patriots could always get tricky and build one of those dreaded poison-pill clauses into any potential offer.

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