NFL Free Agents of 2009: Play Me Before They Pay Me

Whether or not you put any stock in the third-year receiver theory, players on the last year of their contract always put up big numbers before a team shows them the Benjamins.

Players who have just been paid should be suspect the next year — like a Shaun Alexander — but the year they earn their keep is the year to have them. If a player is set to put on a show this season, you should make sure to target them in your fantasy draft.

While an extension could come between now and the coin flip of 2008 for these players, here are a few of the top players that will be looking to upgrade to a Bentley this season:

The Running Backs (RB)

Steven Jackson. St. Louis Rams.
The grinder of the offense is coming off injury and a horrible Rams showing in 2007. With his contract up, Jackson will be willing to put his team on his back and run with it. While I still consider SJax damaged goods, he might be worth a second look after mini-camps and training camps show back to true form. I don’t see any way St. Louis lets him leave, but for the moment, Jackson’s looking like a relatively safe bet.

Brandon Jacobs. New York Giants.
The Giants have a full stable of RBs, but Jacobs was the man for most of the season that led them to the Super Bowl. With that victory under his belt, Jacobs might be one of the few Giants who will fight the Super Bowl slump and earn his weight in gold — that’s no little pile of gold either. It’s tough to say he is a must grab since the ball is passed to so many hands in the Giants’ offense, but keep his contract year in mind if it comes down to picking between runners who share the ball. Jacobs should at least fight through any injuries this season to impress and keep the necessary, hefty amounts of food on the table.

Marion Barber. Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys current focus is on getting a long-term deal signed by this man. Barber should share time with rookie Felix Jones this year. He probably won’t Wow with huge games, but he is consistent and guaranteed to be a first rounder in your fantasy draft. His extension will likely come before the season starts, but if not, do not miss the chance to stamp your ticket for this train.

Ricky Williams. Miami Dolphins.
Ricky’s gotta eat. Coming off his one-game-wonder — if wonder is breaking yourself in a handful of downs — performance in the muck of Pittsburgh last year, Williams will have to improve on the field if he wants Bill Parcells to keep him employed. He’s likely to share carries with Ronnie Brown, but if Ricky can finally pull his head out of the clouds, he could be a factor running behind Jake Long and stick around for his NFL paycheck a little longer.

Note that this list doesn’t include the currently homeless and unemployed — Shaun Alexander and Kevin Jones. Both will likely find homes where they will be earning their keep day-to-day. Jones could come back from his injury to a decent situation, but I don’t expect much of Shaun.

The Wide Receivers (WR) and Tight Ends (TE)

The real value in this season’s contract players is at the WR spot.

Terrell Owens. Dallas Cowboys.
That’s right. The typically demanding T.O. has been uncharacteristically quiet this offseason looking at the final year of his deal with the Cowboys. In a recent interview, he even expressed his desire to retire as a Cowboy. Have Jerry Jones and the boys finally tamed the T.O. of old? Regardless, T.O. is already considered one of the top WRs going into 2008, so the added motivation of earning a new deal should keep him demanding the ball week after week. If you go WR early, go T.O. Randy Moss just got paid, and the Giants exposed the Patriots’ weakness. No, it’s not stealing their video camera batteries.

Lee Evans. Buffalo Bills.
He stung me last season, but Evans’ contract year couldn’t come at a better time. The under-hyped WR of Buffalo finally has a compliment in short-yardage target James Hardy. If Trent Edwards gets more comfortable in training camp, Evans can shame face a few corners in 2008. I can’t trust him right away since I am still in a sensitive emotional state after the empty points column he awarded me in 2007, but Evans is back on my radar. I just can’t quit you, Lee.

Roy Williams. Detroit Lions.
The inconsistent Roy Williams is rumored to be on the trading block this season, but if he makes it through training camps, look for him to try to show his skills. I am not sure what he can do in the Detroit offense no matter how many times Kitna guarantees 10 wins, but with Calvin Johnson to draw similar coverage and a new offensive coordinator, Roy could be back — at least for 2008.

T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Cincinnati Bengals.
Housh has got a mess up in Cincinnati this offseason while Chad Johnson demands a trade, but T.J. will still show up when it is time to play. Last year was a big season for him, so 2008 should be his time to shine. If he gets the Bengals’ No. 1 WR role, he is a must grab. Just make sure you say his name right so that you don’t embarrass us.

Amani Toomer. New York Giants.
Sad to say that I don’t think Toomer will be looking to have a huge year. His career is winding down, and a year more in New York might just be spent as a veteran mentor to Mario Manningham and the other Steve Smith. I think Toomer might be looking for a one-year extension, but don’t count on him fighting to go out on top.

Desmond Clark. Chicago Bears.
It’s hard for anyone to shine in the Bears offense unless your name is Devin Hester, but Clark will be pushing to stay employed despite the up-and-coming Greg Olsen. If he can maintain his playing time, Clark will use it to the best of his ability. It’s iffy which TE will be a better value for 2008 though. First, they need a QB. Clark will likely be looking to show other suitors what he can do.

Notable WR of circumstance:

Anquan Boldin. Arizona Cardinals.
Even though his contract is not up, Boldin looks to be playing for mo’ money this season since Larry Fitzgerald will be making almost 7x his paycheck in 2008. Neither Arizona WR is a raw deal, but Boldin’s got something to prove.

The Quarterbacks (QB)

Rex Grossman/Kyle Orton. Chicago Bears.
One of these two underwhelming QBs has to perform this year. There just has to be some law of probability that says that, right? The two have one-year deals to show it or pack their locker. These two may end up as a case study for the NFL that proves even you are playing for the big money and big contract, it doesn’t mean you can exceed expectations or take your game to a new, less mediocre level.

Jeff Garcia. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Garcia was the leader of a Tampa Bay team that made it to the playoffs last year minus starting RB Cadillac Williams, but Garcia’s value isn’t the best being as old as he is and with so many QBs behind him. While Chris Simms is likely gone (and maybe Jake Plummer if they still consider him on the team), Garcia might not land a big money deal with the Bucs. He is already pushing for Tampa Bay to show him the money, but his performance this season might just be to show another QB-hungry team that he can still play a few more years. Hey, it worked when he was an Eagle.

Kurt Warner. Arizona Cardinals.
Could he fight for the spotlight to stay in the NFL? There’s no telling what Warner could show us this year since he became part of a QB-by-committee system at Arizona last year. I expect that Matt Leinart will get the starts, but don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard the last from Warner.

Did I miss anyone? Let me know by posting a comment down south.

Bloodletting of veterans starts free agency with a bang [NFL News]

The days preceding free agency were full of contract re-negotiations, but the veterans who didn’t want to let their value be tossed aside found themselves tossed aside instead. Just before the opening bell of free agency, the blood flowed freely across the NFL’s older locker rooms. The most tragic loss, of course, being the one-glove wonder. David Carr might never even have a back up job again. Tragic.

I feel tears coming, so let’s move on.

With so many player released, the stage was set for a hot and fast free agency season. We had been tracking the rumors, but when the clock started this weekend, some teams came out strong to sign players early. Football Jabber broke down free agency aftermath from this weekend for each individual team, but we can shoot through a few quick notes with fantasy implications right here.

First, the big moves.

As expected, the big drama surrounding Randy Moss‘s free agency ended when he signed a three-year deal with the Patriots. Did anyone expect him to move? I certainly didn’t want to guess who would get custody of the love child between Moss, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady if Moss left town.

Also as expected, Oakland is still insane. I am more convinced everyday that the front office for the Raiders is run by helper monkeys.

Bernard Berrian settled down with Minnesota, so the pressure is on Tarvaris Jackson now to learn how to make good decisions on when to throw the long ball and, hopefully, not mature into the next Rex Grossman. If he fits in this offense, Minnesota could legitimately open the field up for both Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson in 2008.

The highest bidder in the Asante Samuel lottery ended up being the Eagles. Samuel will now make sure the Eagles secondary is locked down for 2008.

Alge Crumpler officially signed on with the Titans to make Vince Young as productive a member of a quarterback-to-tight-end tandem as Michael Vick was in Atlanta.

Derek Anderson decided to stay with the Browns–as long as they paid him more than Brady Quinn. Donte’ Stallworth also signed with the Browns. Obviously prepping for a big Super Bowl run the same way as the Patriots, the Browns now officially have two receivers worth mentioning besides tight end Kellen Winslow.

Michael Turner, touted for years as an incredible beast of a running back but with doubters, took the check from the Atlanta Falcons–almost makes it a lock that Atlanta will take Matt Ryan of Boston College as the third overall pick in the NFL draft. Warrick Dunn was released, so Turner will likely be spelled by the break out running of Jerious Norwood through the ghostly shadow that Michael Vick left in Atlanta. Dunn might end up in Houston, but that’s exactly what the Texans need, another veteran running back.

Muhsin Muhammad is back in Carolina after being cut by the Bears. Note: Once again, Carr is gone. The people rejoice.

The consistent foot of Josh Brown will serve the Rams next year since Jeff Wilkins decided to retire.

Teams with large amounts of money to spend are gobbling up veterans.

The San Francisco 49ers may be planning on opening a museum in 2008. They started snapping up veterans as they were released from other teams. DeShaun Foster found a home with the 49ers–likely as Frank Gore‘s backup next year. Isaac Bruce, after being tossed aside by the Rams, got his own two-year deal with the 49ers, but Bruce only has a few more good routes in him to add to an already shallow wide receiver group in San Francisco–even if he already knows Martz’s ways.

The Jacksonville Jaguars went after better receivers to give David Garrard some targets (good move), but their choices were an aging Jerry Porter and the Vikings’ Troy Williamson, a burner with quick feet and slow, slippery hands (not so good move). Garrard still won’t have a big “sure thing” receiver in Jacksonville to make something happen unless Williamson starts catching and/or Porter returns to form as a number one or a valuable possession receiver. With Quinn Gray not re-signed, Jacksonville signed Cleo Lemon from Miami, who might forever be known for his game-winning pass in Miami’s 1-15 season.

The Buccaneers started spending hard and heavy by signing a couple of guys to strengthen their offensive line in Jeff Faine and John Gilmore. Devery Henderson might also find some of their money in his pocket. He is much younger than most of the Tampa Bay wide receiver corps. Not to be out-done by the 49ers after competing for Foster, the Bucs traded a draft pick for Brian Griese–the safest option the Bears had at QB. He will likely serve as a more legitimate backup for Jeff Garcia in 2008.

Bill Parcells is building a team of contributors to Miami with the signing of Ernest Wilford and Josh McCown along with his moves on the defensive side.

Some players with minor fantasy value in 2007 also chose to stay put.

Justin Gage will try to remain relevant in Tennessee as the Titans look to bring in greater wide receiver talent. D.J. Hackett, who played with the Seahawks last year, should be coming through soon along with a potential visit from Bryant Johnson, subbing in for Arizona’s starting receivers well in 2007. Both have significant upside when compared to the aging Gage, but he could find a place with them.

Andre Davis will return to Houston, and David Patten opted to stay with the Saints and count on Drew Brees to increase his fantasy value. Chris Redman also kept his return to the NFL going strong by re-signing for another year with the Falcons.

Despite all these moves and various trades–in only the FIRST weekend–rumors are still circulating about where more free agents will land.

The Dallas Cowboys might be interested in Tatum Bell as as backup to rest Marion Barber. The Cowboys are also leading the race to land Javon Walker since he was cut from the Denver Broncos. Their main rival for his services is the Philadelphia Eagles.

To track all the top players down to their height and weight, check out the SportingNews’ 99 Free Agent table [via Fantasy Football Librarian].