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Friday, February 13, 2009
Reality break for your free-agent fantasies

By Pat Yasinskas
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

It is dream season in the NFC South.

Julius Peppers to the Falcons? Hey, pair him with John Abraham and opposing quarterbacks won't be able to throw a pass. And while the Falcons are at it, why not go out and grab Kansas City tight end Tony Gonzalez if he really is available? That would give Matt Ryan a stud at every skill position.

 Haynesworth
 Gonzalez

And all Carolina really needs to do to make up for losing Peppers is go out and land Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, who just may be the biggest name on the market, if he makes it to free agency. That would fix everything.

But there's another school of thought down in Tampa Bay. With more than $40 million in cap space, the Bucs can bring in Haynesworth and Peppers. At the same time, they're going to re-sign Antonio Bryant, bring in Cincinnati receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh and perhaps even pay a king's ransom for New England quarterback Matt Cassel or Arizona receiver Anquan Boldin. Next stop? Miami for the Super Bowl.

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  The Titans Albert Haynesworth shows why he is one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL.
Over in New Orleans, fans have tempered things just a bit because general manager Mickey Loomis came out and said the Saints aren't going to be big players in free agency because they don't have a lot of salary-cap space.

But the Saints' faithful seemed to have hijacked Loomis' calculator because they think they can get Oakland cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha, who just has to be better than the 74 other cornerbacks the Saints have signed in the last three years. Plug Asomugha into Gregg Williams' new defense and the dynamic duo of Charles Grant and Will Smith suddenly will crank out 45 sacks. Drew Brees will throw for another mile and all will be right with the world, if the Saints just make this one little move.

Now, everybody wake up.

Sure, it's wonderful to dream, and a couple of these moves actually could happen. But the reality is most of them won't. There's a few simple facts that dilute these illusions (delusions?) of grandeur.

First, not all of these guys might not be available as you think. Franchise tags and trade prices are going to get in the way. Second, the salary cap is an issue for everyone, even the Bucs. Third, there are 28 other teams out there.

 
  Greg Trott/Getty Images
  The Falcons splurged on Michael Turner in free agency last year.

Here's a look at why the NFC South teams might not be as active in free agency as their fans would like.

FALCONS. Sure, it would be great to get Peppers or Haynesworth to give Abraham a little help on the defensive line. And Ryan throwing to Gonzalez would be a dream come true for fantasy football players. But think about it a little more. The Falcons have about $20 million in cap space and they'll probably create some more in the coming days by releasing players and restructuring contracts.

That could give them enough to make a run at Peppers, who is likely to command about $13 million a year, whether he decides to show up or not. Or they could bring in Haynesworth at a similar price. Or trade some draft picks for Gonzalez.

But there's one thing hanging out there that could ruin all this: Quarterback Michael Vick and his $15 million in remaining pro-rated bonus money. That's not counting on Atlanta's books right now, but it could at any time if the suspended Vick is reinstated and the Falcons cut him as they almost certainly will.

That should curb the enthusiasm a bit. General manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith made their free-agent splurge last year with running back Michael Turner. They've got a nice young core in place. I'm thinking they take a practical, more frugal approach this year. Think mid-level free agents.

PANTHERS. Losing Peppers will be a major blow because the Panthers don't have another dominant player on the defensive line, which is supposed to be the cornerstone of a John Fox defense. But speaking of a Fox defense, is it really that appealing to free agent defensive linemen right now? Peppers and tackle Kris Jenkins have asked out of Carolina in back-to-back years.

 Peppers

The Panthers may or may not have enough cap room to make a run at Haynesworth, depending on who they cut, who they restructure and how they end up using the franchise tag on either Peppers or offensive tackle Jordan Gross.

They could end up with some draft picks in exchange for Peppers and that would be nice because the Panthers don't have a first-round pick at the moment. The draft may be their best option for rebuilding the defensive line.

SAINTS. Loomis wasn't playing coy when he said the Saints won't be major players in free agency. They currently are over the cap. They'll get under by restructuring deals and releasing a few players.

 Vilma

However, they're going to need that money to make certain they re-sign middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma in the first week of free agency. Williams and the Saints want to build the defense around Vilma and there are holes to fill all over the defense.

The Saints can get a lot more bang for their limited bucks by targeting several reasonably-priced defensive free agents instead of putting it all into one high-priced cornerback.

 Bryant

BUCCANEERS. Yes, the Bucs have a lot of cap money to work with and they'll pursue some high-priced free agents who could fill some real needs. Maybe Peppers, maybe Haynesworth and maybe Houshmandzadeh. But not all of them. The Bucs have to worry about re-signing some of their own free agents. They've already signed quarterback Luke McCown and they're trying to do the same with Bryant and offensive tackle Donald Penn.

That means that a salary cap that seems limitless isn't. The Bucs have a new coach in Raheem Morris and a new general manager in Mark Dominik. That means they've got a honeymoon period and time to build, a luxury the Jon Gruden regime never had.

Like the rest of the NFC South, they can't build it all with one or two big moves.