Just one week after it began, the free agent free-for-all appears to be slowing. Only three unrestricted free agents remain from Pro Football Weekly's top 30: LB Ed Hartwell, CB Ty Law and WR Plaxico Burress, and Burress could sign with the Giants soon.
Key positions such as cornerback, wide receiver and running back are tapped out. After Fred Smoot signed with Minnesota yesterday, the top free-agent options at cornerback are former Patriot Ty Law and Titans' CB Andre Dyson. Law is still in a walking boot after foot surgery and will not shed it until the end of the month. That is why teams are now looking at players who are restricted free agents or contract players available for trade; Miami CB Patrick Surtain is now the most desirable cornerback, even though he could cost a second round pick to obtain.
This impacts the Cowboys because they have needs at some of these thin positions, namely free safety and backup running back. Since the best options at running back are currently restricted free agents, the Cowboys will have to consider whether they value certainty or cap money more.
A case in point is Ravens' restricted-free-agent Chester Taylor. Taylor is a 5'10", 213 lb. third year back from Toledo. He has been a capable backup for Jamal Lewis and has a respectable career yards-per-carry average of 4.3. He would seem a low priority for Baltimore, who drafted RB Musa Smith to spell Lewis two years ago and a possible target for the Cowboys, who need a dependable backup for Julius Jones. Though he is a restricted free agent, signing Taylor would only cost Dallas a fifth-round pick. The certainty of a player like Taylor would seemingly outweigh the risk of a typical fifth-round selection.
But certainty is only one factor to consider. The minimum NFL salary for a fourth year player is $455,000. The minimum salary for a rookie is $230,000. Signing a player away from his current team will require the Cowboys to go beyond the league minimum. This year's draft is rich in running back prospects, and running backs traditionally slide on draft day. Should Dallas roll the dice and hope a good back falls to it in the middle rounds (it doesn't have a third round pick) or pay the extra money and fill a need now? This is the type of "mid-level" decision that can impact a season as much as a big-money, high-profile signing.