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Top 5 FA's still on the board ?
Here then is a list of the top five unrestricted free-agents identified by GMs and player personnel directors:
1. Ty Law, cornerback: The four-time Pro Bowl choice would have been a slam dunk as an early signing were it not for a fractured foot that forced him to miss 12 games last season. OK, his age is a factor, too. Law is 31, and clubs are reluctant to spend millions on a 31-year-old cornerback with a bad wheel. If Law thought he'd attract the big money spent on, say, free-agent cornerbacks like Ken Lucas, Samari Rolle, Anthony Henry and Fred Smoot, he discovered a brave new world when he visited Kansas City. The Chiefs desperately need a cornerback to help fix the league's 32nd-ranked pass defense, and at first glance, Law seems the perfect fit. But the club passed when it had him in this week for a physical and a visit with coaches. The Chiefs are concerned about his age and injury and are willing to wait. That doesn't mean they won't sign him if he stays out there. It means they're cautious, and join the club.
2. Ed Hartwell, linebacker: The Chiefs were interested until they asked Hartwell what he wanted. When he started talking about a signing bonus in the $10-11 million range, they immediately moved on to Kendrell Bell. Hartwell might have been the better choice for Kansas City, but not at that price. Scouts love his size (he's 6-1, 250), especially if you're a team that plays a 3-4 defense. All of a sudden you have a big inside linebacker, and teams that opposed Baltimore last year noticed. He was a factor in limiting opponents to 3.6 yards a rush. Hartwell plays well with his hands, has a nose for the football and runs sideline to sideline. Plus, he's a sure tackler, second only to Ray Lewis on the Ravens last year in total tackles. "For the life of me," said one NFC scout, "I can't understand why someone hasn't taken a run at him." I can. It's all about the money. Hartwell, who just completed a visit with Seattle, plans to choose among three clubs, his agent said.
3. Mark Fields, linebacker: The downside here is that Fields turns 33 this year and did not play in 2003. The upside is that he's coming off a terrific 2004 season when he had four sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and an interception. Fields played so effectively after sitting out the previous season with Hodgkins Disease that he finished second to San Diego quarterback Drew Brees in voting for the league's comeback player of the year. He later was invited to the Pro Bowl, which, teammate Julius Peppers said, "was a good ending to the Mark Fields story." Only it's not over; Fields is a productive player and a team leader. Though he missed three games, he was a steady contributor to a club decimated by injuries. Fields wants to re-sign with the Panthers, with the two sides talking about a three-year deal, but he won't act until he takes his annual physical in late April.
4. Anthony Thomas, running back: I know, I know, you can time the guy with an hourglass, and the Bears -- who need a productive back -- gave up on him a year ago. Still, you can't ignore the facts, and the facts are that in two of his four seasons, Thomas ran for more than 1,000 yards. Hey, in his first year, he set a Chicago rookie record by gaining 1,183 yards, averaging 4.3 yards a carry. He became the team's third fastest back to rush for 2,000 yards, trailing only Walter Payton and Gale Sayers, and while you like that company, it's hard to get over the Bears turning cold on Thomas before last season. The reason, scouts said, is speed. He doesn't have it, with one player personnel director saying, "you watch a hole open where you could get 5 or 6 yards and he can't get more than 2. There's no explosion there." Yeah? Well, there is someone who's productive, and that should count for something.
5. Renaldo Hill, cornerback: Arizona's Hill played in front of Duane Starks a year ago, and, yeah, Starks was hurt but Hill was the better player. He's a solid cover corner who had his best season in 2003 when he started 14 times and produced a career-best 67 tackles, two sacks and five interceptions. Critics don't like his size (he's 5-11, 194) and complain about his speed, saying he seems more suited as a nickel back, but he plays faster than he times. Plus, the guy is smart. With the cupboard of cornerbacks just about empty, Hill is worth a shot except ... except the Cardinals are interested in re-signing him. They have the cap room -- and the money -- to outbid someone like Seattle, which expressed interest after losing cornerback Lucas to Carolina.
Honorable mention: Take your pick here. The popular choice is former New England wide receiver Troy Brown. Or is that former New England defensive back Troy Brown? How about punt returner Troy Brown? The guy's versatile, was a huge contributor to the Super Bowl champions and turns 34 this year. That last item keeps him on the market, though his agent hasn't ruled out the possibility of Brown returning to the Patriots.