Inside job: Teams make good calls retaining these five free agents

The ripest fruit doesn’t always grow on your neighbor’s tree. Sometimes it’s best to pick from your own vines.

On the opening day of free agency last week, while the Bears signed former Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, the Lions corralled former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Jets traded for San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie, the Colts quietly held a news conference to announce the re-signing of middle linebacker Gary Brackett.

In years past, the Colts have allowed their linebackers to leave. Mike Peterson, David Thornton and Cato June all exited as free agents. This time, Indianapolis took care of its own by locking up Brackett with a five-year contract reportedly worth $33 million, of which $12 million was guaranteed.

The NFL has entered into what it likes to call uncharted waters. This is the first year since 1994 that there is no salary cap, which has made this class of free agents (they must have at least six years’ experience to qualify) mostly average.

So it makes a lot of sense for teams to retain their own core players rather than seek out the company of strangers. Or, as former NFL personnel man Bill Kuharich put it: "The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know."

A scrappy 5-11, 235-pound player in the middle of the Colts’ defense, Brackett has been devilish for opponents. He has totaled more than 100 tackles in each of his five seasons as a starter, including a team-leading 149 in ’07.

"He’s built for their defense—a guy who can diagnose, know where to be and run to the ball," Kuharich said.

Brackett is one of the leaders of an underrated defense that usually is overshadowed by Peyton Manning and the offense. He had 13 tackles in Super Bowl 43 and made one of the biggest plays of the game when he and fellow linebacker Clint Session teamed up to stop Saints running back Pierre Thomas at the 1-yard line on a fourth-and-goal play in the second quarter.

The Colts ended up losing that game, which is one reason Brackett wanted to stay in Indianapolis.

"I really felt that we had some unfinished business," he said at his press conference. "We went to the Super Bowl this year, but didn’t get the job done. I feel like we’re right there, we’re very competitive, and next year I think it is the same thing over again."

The Colts were one of several teams that made smart moves with a stay-at-home signing during the first week of free agency. Here are four others:

Kevin Walter has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the past three seasons with the Texans.
Kevin Walter has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the past three seasons with the Texans.

• Kevin Walter, WR, Texans (five years/$21.5 million/$8 million bonus). Andre Johnson is Houston’s premier wideout, but the 6-3 Walter is more than a sidekick. In the past three seasons, he has quietly averaged 59 catches and 770 receiving yards while scored 14 touchdowns combined.

"He does a great job running routes, is easy to find over the middle and is a great blocker," former Seahawks coach Jim Mora said.

• Ryan Clark, FS, Steelers (four years/$14 million). Although fellow safety Troy Polamalu gets more attention and lines up in myriad places, Clark provides a strong presence in the deep middle of coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense. Clark is an instinctive player and one of the hardest hitters in the game. Just ask former Ravens running back Willis McGahee, who fumbled after getting smashed by Clark in the AFC championship game a year ago.

"The Steelers are a team that prides itself on its toughness, and this guy is tough," Mora said. "He knows the complexities of the system and allows Polamalu to free-lance."

• Chad Clifton, OT, Packers (three years/$19.8 million/$6.375 million bonus). He’ll turn 34 in June and was nicked up a bit last season, but Clifton was as much of a proven commodity as any of the left tackles that were on the market. He has been a longtime pillar for the Packers at one of the most important positions on offense—and one of the key reasons for the rapid development of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"In a left tackle market that was lean in depth and front-line starting options among unrestricted free agents, Clifton was one of the better solutions despite his age," an AFC scout said. "He gives the Packers short-term stability at a critical spot."

• Leonard Weaver, FB, Eagles (one year/$1.75 million). He does a lot more than provide a 6-0, 250-pound fireplug in the backfield. Last season, he carried 70 times for 323 yards and two touchdowns—nearly surpassing his rushing totals for his three seasons in Seattle combined—and caught 15 passes for 140 yards and two more TDs.

"He is a different spin on their offense as a fullback who became more involved as the season went along in receiving and running the ball," Kuharich said.   

Dennis Dillon is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at ddillon@sportingnews.com.

The ripest fruit doesn’t always grow on your neighbor’s tree. Sometimes it’s best to pick from your own vines.

On the opening day of free agency last week, while the Bears signed former Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers, the Lions corralled former Tennessee defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch, the Jets traded for San Diego cornerback Antonio Cromartie, the Colts quietly held a news conference to announce the re-signing of middle linebacker Gary Brackett.

In years past, the Colts have allowed their linebackers to leave. Mike Peterson, David Thornton and Cato June all exited as free agents. This time, Indianapolis took care of its own by locking up Brackett with a five-year contract reportedly worth $33 million, of which $12 million was guaranteed.

The NFL has entered into what it likes to call uncharted waters. This is the first year since 1994 that there is no salary cap, which has made this class of free agents (they must have at least six years’ experience to qualify) mostly average.

So it makes a lot of sense for teams to retain their own core players rather than seek out the company of strangers. Or, as former NFL personnel man Bill Kuharich put it: "The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know."

A scrappy 5-11, 235-pound player in the middle of the Colts’ defense, Brackett has been devilish for opponents. He has totaled more than 100 tackles in each of his five seasons as a starter, including a team-leading 149 in ’07.

"He’s built for their defense—a guy who can diagnose, know where to be and run to the ball," Kuharich said.

Brackett is one of the leaders of an underrated defense that usually is overshadowed by Peyton Manning and the offense. He had 13 tackles in Super Bowl 43 and made one of the biggest plays of the game when he and fellow linebacker Clint Session teamed up to stop Saints running back Pierre Thomas at the 1-yard line on a fourth-and-goal play in the second quarter.

The Colts ended up losing that game, which is one reason Brackett wanted to stay in Indianapolis.

"I really felt that we had some unfinished business," he said at his press conference. "We went to the Super Bowl this year, but didn’t get the job done. I feel like we’re right there, we’re very competitive, and next year I think it is the same thing over again."

The Colts were one of several teams that made smart moves with a stay-at-home signing during the first week of free agency. Here are four others:

Kevin Walter has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the past three seasons with the Texans.
Kevin Walter has averaged 59 catches and 770 yards over the past three seasons with the Texans.

• Kevin Walter, WR, Texans (five years/$21.5 million/$8 million bonus). Andre Johnson is Houston’s premier wideout, but the 6-3 Walter is more than a sidekick. In the past three seasons, he has quietly averaged 59 catches and 770 receiving yards while scored 14 touchdowns combined.

"He does a great job running routes, is easy to find over the middle and is a great blocker," former Seahawks coach Jim Mora said.

• Ryan Clark, FS, Steelers (four years/$14 million). Although fellow safety Troy Polamalu gets more attention and lines up in myriad places, Clark provides a strong presence in the deep middle of coordinator Dick LeBeau’s 3-4 defense. Clark is an instinctive player and one of the hardest hitters in the game. Just ask former Ravens running back Willis McGahee, who fumbled after getting smashed by Clark in the AFC championship game a year ago.

"The Steelers are a team that prides itself on its toughness, and this guy is tough," Mora said. "He knows the complexities of the system and allows Polamalu to free-lance."

• Chad Clifton, OT, Packers (three years/$19.8 million/$6.375 million bonus). He’ll turn 34 in June and was nicked up a bit last season, but Clifton was as much of a proven commodity as any of the left tackles that were on the market. He has been a longtime pillar for the Packers at one of the most important positions on offense—and one of the key reasons for the rapid development of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

"In a left tackle market that was lean in depth and front-line starting options among unrestricted free agents, Clifton was one of the better solutions despite his age," an AFC scout said. "He gives the Packers short-term stability at a critical spot."

• Leonard Weaver, FB, Eagles (one year/$1.75 million). He does a lot more than provide a 6-0, 250-pound fireplug in the backfield. Last season, he carried 70 times for 323 yards and two touchdowns—nearly surpassing his rushing totals for his three seasons in Seattle combined—and caught 15 passes for 140 yards and two more TDs.

"He is a different spin on their offense as a fullback who became more involved as the season went along in receiving and running the ball," Kuharich said.   

Dennis Dillon is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at ddillon@sportingnews.com.

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