- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

There has been much teeth-gnashing over the NFL’s ongoing labor woes, but it’s a terrific time to have plenty of salary cap room. With the free agent shopping season beginning Monday at midnight, and many teams virtually out of the hunt because of their cap crunches, there will be less competition for the top-shelf talent.

“I’m sure there are teams that have room and therefore will be active but I think there will be less activity,” Atlanta general manager Rich McKay said. “There are a lot of teams that won’t have room. We’d love to front-load, back-load, do-whatever load but we can’t begin to load. We don’t have any place to put it.”

Cleveland, for one, has an estimated $20 million worth of room.

“We’ll be fairly aggressive right off the top if certain players get to the market,” Browns GM Phil Savage said. “Those who wait, lose. Last year before we could get the paper in the fax machine for [defensive tackle] Pat Williams, he was gone. Hopefully we’ll be the team that [beats out] other teams. We’ll be fairly disappointed if we’re not able to make a couple of moves fairly early. We have a number of players who are functional. But we need better than functional. We need players who can make plays, be difference-makers and win games for us.”

There are difference-makers at running back in reigning MVP Shaun Alexander, five-time 1,200-yard rusher Edgerrin James and Jamal Lewis, a 2,000-yard rusher in 2003. Mike Anderson and Stephen Davis are also free agents. Quarterback Drew Brees, who passed for 51 touchdowns with just 22 interceptions the past two seasons, is on the market as is multi-dimensional receiver Antwaan Randle El. Pro Bowl linebacker Julian Peterson is also available as are cornerbacks Ty Law, Sam Madison, Charles Woodson and Duane Starks and safety Lawyer Milloy.

Looking for a special teams upgrade? How about kickers Adam Vinatieri of New England or Mike Vanderjagt of Indianapolis, or Pro Bowl return men Koren Robinson of Minnesota or Michael Lewis of New Orleans?

After the cap-related cuts, such linemen as Trevor Pryce, Sam Adams, Brentson Buckner, Kenard Lang and Mike Williams joined up-and-coming defensive tackle Rocky Bernard and Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley on the market.

Homeward-bound? — Chicago area native Randle El is being pushed to sign with the Bears.

“Certainly my family members want me to come here and play here,” Randle El said. “Also my friends and those who are involved in marketing and that sort of thing. I have to make sure that it’s the best situation for my family. The money is not the biggest factor. Of course there’s a business side to it. You have to make sure you understand that I want to be a punt returner and I want to be a starting receiver.”

Bye-bye Bryant? — Cleveland receiver Antonio Bryant, who went one pick after Randle El in the second round of the 2002 draft, is also on the market despite a career year in 2005. Bryant, most famous in Dallas for throwing a jersey in coach Bill Parcells’ face a few months before his 2004 trade to Cleveland, had 69 catches for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns last season. The numbers weren’t spectacular, but they were impressive in light of the Browns’ awful running game and inconsistency at quarterback. Amazingly, only three Browns had ever topped Bryant’s yardage total: Webster Slaughter with 1,236 in 1989, Kevin Johnson with 1,097 in 2001 and Paul Warfield with 1,067 in 1968.

With Bryant, who won’t be 25 until Thursday, looking to be paid as a No. 1 receiver and the Browns assuming their past two high No. 1 picks, tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and wideout Braylon Edwards — both coming off major knee surgery — will be their go-to guys in 2006, the former Cowboy is free to shop his services.

“There’s no denying Antonio’s ability, but he also had some drops,” Savage said. “That’s just part of his makeup. He had a good year for us. There’s a market out there for him. If he comes to Indy, he’s No. 3. If he’s in Cleveland and Braylon’s back, he’s No. 2. If he goes to a team that has no receivers, he’s probably a No. 1.”

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