A potentially great free-agent crop has been greatly reduced in quality and depth by recent signings and franchisings.
"Prior to all the signings and taggings, it looked like a bumper crop. It's probably been reduced to a good crop but we still have a week to go before it begins so there will be more signings and teams will keep players from getting on the open market," NFL personnel consultant Tom Donahoe told jaguars.com. Donahoe had formerly served as personnel director in Pittsburgh and Buffalo.
Donahoe ranks the Jaguars' top three needs as: 1. defensive end, 2. wide receiver, 3. safety. So what do the crops look like at those positions?
"There are a couple out there," Donahoe said of the defensive ends. "The tags will hurt every position and, because of what the Giants did, everybody is looking for pass-rushers.
"Antwan Odom is a big, rangy guy who's had difficulty staying healthy. He's very flexible, very athletic. Travis LaBoy is more of a third-down pass-rush specialist. He's not real big. The more he has to play against the run, the more he's going to struggle. Justin Smith is a good, solid, effort, tough guy who is not a great pass-rusher. He'll get you consistently six, seven sacks a year. He has a great motor but he's not a top athlete and not a great rusher," Donahoe added.
Smith is generally considered to be the top defensive end scheduled to become a free agent.
"Bernard Berrian is a guy at the top of the list," Donahoe said of the potential wide receiver crop. "(The Bears) have been trying to sign him. Justin Gage; (the Titans) have been trying to sign him. If you take them out of the mix, the next guy may be Ernest Wilford.
"Then you have Brandon Stokley, who's a little beat up. You got the three Florida guys: Taylor Jacobs, Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell. The one guy who's a little intriguing is Bryant Johnson. I might put him number three. The other guy is Devry Henderson, because of his speed, but he's not a real good catcher. The rest of the guys are just a bunch of guys. That's where you have to be careful you don't overspend," Donahoe added of the wide receivers.
The ranks at safety are thin, but there are a few guys at the top.
"Nick Ferguson is getting up there age-wise. There's Tank Williams and Eugene Wilson, Eric Coleman and Madieu Williams. (Oshiomogho) Atogwe is a really good player," Donahoe added of a restricted free agent from the Rams.
The most intriguing position in free agency could turn out to be cornerback, because of its premium nature and because of the money it commands. The Patriots' Asante Samuel would head the list of cornerbacks and he would drive the market.
"Samuel will set the market and it'll probably get stupid because of the importance of the position. Just look at what Nate Clements got last year. That's where they're going to start," Donahoe said. "If all of the A-caliber corners are gone, somebody is going to give a B-caliber corner the money and then the market is off and running. It doesn't do anything but drive up salaries. Once that first corner gets signed, the agents say that's the market.
"I think Drayton Florence will get a lot of attention. Even though he got beat out he's still a pretty good player. Ricardo Colclough hasn't really done anything but people will look at him because he was a high pick. There's William James of the Eagles. The rest of these guys, I don't see a potential starter on the list. They're all nickel guys," Donahoe said.
What's happening to this year's free-agent crop isn't new stuff. It's been a trend of recent years that teams are doing a better job of keeping the players they value.
"It looks like people have become more comfortable working the system. You study these players for months and then the better players aren't even available. It waters down the talent but it doesn't seem to change the money. Part of that is desperation. You pay a player super money but it doesn't make him a super player," Donahoe said.
Donahoe scouted the Jaguars during their regular-season win in Pittsburgh and liked what he saw.
"I was impressed with them. They're real close to being a Super Bowl-caliber team. They probably need to get a little stronger with their pass-rush. Their receivers are adequate but I don't know if they'll be more than that. The way they run the ball, they may get away with that. I think they're a tough team. You don't think of Florida teams as being gritty and tough but they are. I like the head coach. I think he's tough and he's instilled toughness in them," Donahoe said.
Heading into the season, Donahoe's top three questions about the Jaguars were: 1. the offensive coordinator, 2. Byron Leftwich, 3. wide receiver.
"I think the offensive coordinator proved himself. I had a big question on Leftwich. They obviously answered that," Donahoe said. "I like the way they play. They play a physical brand of football. To be able to go into Pittsburgh twice and win says something about how tough your team is."