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Which Top Free Agents Are Truly Free?

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I stumbled across a list of top rated free agents on The Ranch Report that claifies the Cowboys' big ticket options quite a bit.

Here are the top 20 rated FAs, with comments on their fit, price and availability:

1. RB Shaun Alexander, Seattle -- not a target with Jones and Barber under contract;
2. OG Steve Hutchinson, Seattle -- will be franchised according to reports;
3. QB Drew Brees, San Diego -- San Diego has opened negotiations with him on a new deal;
4 . C LeCharles Bentley, New Orleans -- young and good, a very real target;
5 . RB Edgerrin James, Indianapolis -- old and expensive, see Shaun Alexander;
6. CB Charles Woodson, Oakland -- Dallas has no need for another expensive cornerback;
7. RB Jamal Lewis, Baltimore -- old for his position with an injury and criminal history;
8. OLB Julian Peterson, San Francisco -- possible but not likely. Not the same after Achilles tear. Is small for a Bill Parcells OLB at 235 lbs.;
9 . OLB Will Witherspoon, Carolina -- Right for Jimmy Johnson's scheme but too small for Parcells';
10. OT Jon Runyan, Philadelphia -- Meets a need but age (32) has to be a concern;
11. WR Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis -- will be franchised according to reports;
12. DE John Abraham, NY Jets -- will be franchised. I doubt Dallas would trade its #1 for him, though it could happen. Parcells drafted him. Would cost a mint to sign long term;
13. CB Nate Clements, Buffalo -- not a need. See Charles Woodson above;
14 . DE Darren Howard, New Orleans -- A 4-3 DE is a bad fit for a now committed 3-4 team;
15 DT Rocky Bernard, Seattle -- a good interior rusher, but Dallas has big money invested in LaRoi Glover and Jason Ferguson;
16 OT Jeff Backus, Detroit -- appears interested in re-signing after Detroit hired Mike Martz as OC;
17 RB Ahman Green, Green Bay -- not a need; see Alexander, James and Lewis;
18 DE Aaron Kampman, Green Bay -- 4-3 end, not a need;
19 DE Robert Mathis, Indianapolis -- see Kampman;
20 OLB Cato June, Indianapolis -- Jimmy Johnson type LB, bad fit for Dallas;

Dallas could sign Runyan but the Marco Rivera experience should give them pause. (Then again, I spent two weeks last spring touting Packers OG Mark Wahle, only to see Dallas sign the older Rivera, so anything is possible.)

The only clear cut possibility among the top 20 is Bentley. He's young, dominant at his position and would cost only money. Parcells has a history of this type of move, signing Kevin Mawae from the Seahawks when he was a 27 year old with four years of experience. Mawae rewarded the Jets with six consecutive Pro Bowls. Bentley is a 26 year old, four-year veteran just entering his prime.

Beyond Bentley and Runyan the only truly free Top-50 free agents who fit Dallas' needs are:

24. K Adam Vinatieri, New England;
26. K Mike Vanderjagt, Indianapolis;
31. S Corey Chavous, Minnesota;
35. FB Mack Strong, Seattle;
40. OLB Akin Ayodele, Jacksonville;
46. FS Chris Hope, Pittsburgh;
50. K Joe Nedney, San Francisco;

None of these second tier free agents should cost much more than $2 million per season. Some would actually cost less.

This list suggests that unless Dallas makes a big money throw at Bentley or Runyan, the team will invest in more moderately priced "red-chip" free agents. This is how New England built its title-winners, by maximizing bang for its buck. It's not a bad formula to follow.