NFL free agency often a minefield

Before all of us overreact -- and oh, how you know we will -- let's try to remember that NFL free agency is a minefield that's best served when picked through judiciously rather than romped across with the misguided notion that the billionaire with the fattest wallet can buy the next Lombardi Trophy.

Through the years, several teams, most notably the Washington Redskins under owner Dan Snyder, have failed on the field and against the salary cap after succumbing to their combination of wealth and impatience. They've been declared "winners" of free agency only to end up losers when the objective competition begins in the fall.

Just eight months ago, the Philadelphia Eagles were considered the NFL's "Dream Team." They came out of the 4 1/2-month lockout and dived checkbook-first into a hurried free-agency period. The Eagles walked off with cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha (five years, $60 million), defensive end Jason Babin (five years, $28 million) and defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins (five years, $25 million), among others.

Meanwhile, the pundits were unkind to the New York Giants, another NFC East team, whose 2011 roster was built without General Manager Jerry Reese doing public cannonballs off the free-agency high dive.

As we all know, the Dream Team missed the playoffs and the Giants won their second Super Bowl in five seasons. Funny how often things work out that way in the NFL.

Funny how often the teams that build primarily through the draft -- the Green Bay Packers, Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots included -- win championships.

But here we go again. Free agency starts at 4 p.m. EDT Tuesday. Several teams will have considerable cap room on players that are unwanted by their current teams. Although a team's salary cap figure can change quickly based on transactions made before free agency, at least 15 teams reportedly will have more than $20 million to spend, led by the Cincinnati Bengals at about $58 million.

By last Monday, a record 21 teams had used their franchise tags to significantly reduce the strength of what might have been the best free-agency class ever. But two days later, the Indianapolis Colts released four-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning into the free-agency pool.

Among those about to join Manning in signing a megadeal somewhere are Houston Texans defensive end/outside linebacker Mario Williams, an elite 27-year-old pass rusher who has missed 14 games because of injuries the past two seasons; New Orleans Saints left guard Carl Nicks, a 26-year-old multiple All-Pro destined to become the highest-paid guard in the league; San Diego Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson, a 6-5, 230-pound No. 1 receiver with a 17.5-yard career average per catch; and Packers quarterback Matt Flynn, whose two NFL starts include franchise single-game passing records for touchdowns (six) and yards (480) in a season-ending victory over the Lions.

Also available are receiver and Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham of the Giants, Colts receivers Pierre Garcon and Reggie Wayne, Saints receiver Marques Colston, Titans cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Chiefs cornerback Brandon Carr, a 25-year-old who had four interceptions in 2011.

"This is a very big free-agency class," Atlanta Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff said. "I do believe there is going to be a lot of movement because of the sheer numbers of this year's class. People really like that we're going back to having free agency before the draft, unlike last year. It allows us to make moves in free agency and it really takes the stress over the precariousness of how the draft is going to land."

Feel free to get excited as the flurry of activity begins on Tuesday. Just don't get too excited. Try to remember some of these guys:

-- Larry Brown. The MVP of Super Bowl XXX, he went from the Dallas Cowboys to the Oakland Raiders in 1996. He had two interceptions in the Super Bowl and just one in his two seasons with the Raiders. He finally was released and rejoined the Cowboys.

-- Javon Walker. In 2008, the Raiders simply ignored Walker's history of knee injuries with the Packers. They paid dearly for it. Walker made $21 million while lasting only 11 games in Oakland.

-- Antonio Bryant. In 2010, the Bengals did the same thing when it came to Bryant's knee injury with the Cowboys the year before. Bryant was released along with his $8 million guarantee before the start of the season.

-- Albert Haynesworth. The giant defensive tackle became the king of free-agent flops when he left the Tennessee Titans for the Redskins in 2009. He got a seven-year, $100 million deal with $41 million guaranteed.

Haynesworth lasted two miserable seasons in Washington before being released. He had 6 1/2 sacks on two teams that finished last in the NFC East.

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