- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Except maybe for the first year of NFL free agency, which was a blast simply because it was all so new, the current Free Agent Chase might be the most entertaining we’ve seen. When was the last time a starting Pro Bowl running back switched teams — as Edgerrin James did by leaving the Colts for the Cardinals? When was the last time a former Pro Bowl quarterback, still ascending at 27, changed jerseys — as Drew Brees did by dumping the Chargers for the Saints?

The answer to both questions, of course, is never.

Terrell Owens, the best receiver of his generation — and also the most annoying — is available. Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in pro football history, is out there. LaVar Arrington, a three-time Pro Bowler and only 28 (come September), is shopping himself around. (LaVar may be overrated, but he’s always a threat to, as Dexter Manley would say, ring someone’s clock.)

Then there’s the Vikings’ decision to divorce Daunte Culpepper, another three-time Bowler who’s on the good side of 30. Brees to New Orleans, Culpepper to Miami — these are potential franchise-changing moves, folks. If Culpepper’s knee and Brees’ shoulder hold up, their teams, previously quarterback challenged, could be in the playoff mix this season.

Imagine if the Houston Texans had come into existence under conditions like these. Instead of throwing David Carr to the wolves as a rookie, they could have turned the offense over to Brees or Culpepper. Instead of gambling (unsuccessfully) that Tony Boselli would be healthy enough to protect their QB’s left flank, they could have used their first-round pick to draft Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson — and lined him up next to Steve Hutchinson, the stud guard who just signed a huge offer sheet with the Vikings, and LeCharles Bentley, the all-pro center who joined the Browns.

With James at running back and Owens and David Givens at receiver, the first-year Texans would have had a killer offense … instead of the 76-sack disaster they wound up with. And with a virgin salary cap, they unquestionably could have afforded all those players — though on defense they might have been forced to play a 2-3 matchup zone.

Seriously, the free agent market this year is like one of those rare-coin commercials: Once-in-a-lifetime offer! Never to be available again! Usually, the market is glutted with creaky veterans, marginally talented younger guys and damaged-goods/red-flag types. It’s very much a buyer-beware world. But this offseason we have players at crucial positions — indeed, at just about every position — who are in their prime and come with few, if any, strings attached.

Take James, for instance. Granted, he has almost 10,000 yards on his odometer, but he’ll still be just 28 this season. Besides, there’s nothing in his recent performance to suggest he’s heading toward a cliff; he rushed for 1,548 yards two years ago and 1,506 last year. (At that rate of decline, he figures to drop below 1,000 in 2018.)

Indeed, James might be the best unrestricted-free agent back ever. Curtis Martin, remember, was restricted, and the other notables — Ricky Watters, Stephen Davis, Warrick Dunn, Terry Allen, Charlie Garner, Antowain Smith — didn’t have Edgerrin’s resume. (Priest Holmes was quite the find, no question, but who saw him coming?)

Even rarer, though, is the twentysomething quarterback being up for bids — the accomplished twentysomething quarterback, that is. Ordinarily, you’re looking at the likes of Kerry Collins, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson, Vinny Testaverde, Drew Bledsoe and Chris Chandler. Short-term solutions, in other words. If you’re lucky.

But here we have Brees going to the Saints and Culpepper, for the discount price of a second-round pick, going to the Dolphins. Which raises the question: What did Daunte do on that party boat, anyway (besides what’s come out in the media) — show the Packers’ 2005 highlight film?

This is what many thought free agency would be like back in ‘93, when it first came in: lots of big-name players moving, lots of big checks being written. But the hard cap has been more limiting than expected, and clubs have gotten very good at protecting their assets, at keeping key performers out of other teams’ clutches. So enjoy this brief bit of March Madness, NFL style, while you can. It isn’t likely to happen again any time soon.

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