Despite the commonly held perception that the NFL free agency process is a run-amok system shy on fiscal responsibility and rife with overpaid underachievers, in 13 years of player movement there nonetheless have been a number of veterans who have paid big dividends on modest contracts.
Few of those players, however, have ever outplayed their free agency deals to the extent that Tennessee Titans defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch has this season. In a season in which about three dozen unrestricted free agents relocated for just league minimum base salaries, and then won starting jobs with their new franchises, Vanden Bosch appears to be the biggest winner of all.
The five-year veteran, whose once-promising NFL career was nearly ruined by a pair of catastrophic knee injuries while playing with the Arizona Cardinals, is certainly making good on his second chance. And making Tennessee officials, who plucked him off the unrestricted free-agent scrap heap this spring, look very good, indeed.
For an investment of just $540,000, the league minimum base salary for a player with four seasons of accrued tenure, the Titans are getting maximum return on the dollar, and then some. All because they were willing to give Vanden Bosch, a player who collected nearly as many surgical scars as sacks in his first four seasons, a chance to get his career back on track.
"After being in the league for a few years," Vanden Bosch said, "you see guys you think can still play or still help a team, and they just get phased out, because they don't get a second chance. I could have been one of those guys. When free agency started slowly, with only about three or four teams [indicating an interest], I kind of panicked. I just wanted to land in a situation where I could get a chance again. But I mean, realistically, I didn't think it would be like this."
Here is what this has become for Vanden Bosch, the Cardinals' second-round pick in the 2001 draft, who logged only 35 appearances and 20 starts in his four previous seasons: He has started in all 12 games and has 10½ sacks, just a half-sack behind the co-league leaders, fellow ends Osi Umenyiora of the New York Giants and Derrick Burgess of Oakland. Had his two sacks of Peyton Manning in last week's loss at Indianapolis not be negated by penalties, Vanden Bosch would stand alone at the summit of the quarterback takedown mountain. The 10½ sacks are not just a career high, and the most by a Titans defender since Jevon Kearse posted 11½ sacks in 2000, but are more than double the four sacks Vanden Bosch had with the Cardinals.
Vanden Bosch, who tends to get sacks in bunches, has at least one in six contests. And he has four multiple-sack games. He is second among AFC defensive ends, trailing only Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney, in the fan voting for the Pro Bowl game. And Vanden Bosch has to be on the short list of candidates for comeback player of the year honors. Not bad for a guy written off by most clubs, even those desperate for a No. 3 or No. 4 end to audition in training camp.
This has been, in Vanden Bosch's words, "a dream season." And he hopes that no one pinches him and wakes him up for at least another month.
If it has all been a little dizzying for Vanden Bosch, he certainly hasn't lost his equilibrium. Or his sense of loyalty.
Vanden Bosch, 27, is likely to collect some awards for his play this season, and could be in for some financial rewards next spring, whether it's from the Titans or from some team that pursues him in free agency. Because he signed just a one-year contract, Vanden Bosch will be eligible to test the market again in March, provided he doesn't sign an extension with Tennessee before then.
Titans general manager Floyd Reese has made it no secret that he wants to keep Vanden Bosch beyond this season, but with Tennessee typically cap-strapped at present, it will be virtually impossible to re-up the resurgent defensive end before the campaign concludes. For his part, Vanden Bosch reiterated this week his preference for staying in Tennessee, but there is little doubt he will be popular with other teams if he gets on the open market. While he probably would not command a blockbuster contract, Vanden Bosch, assuming he remains healthy for the final month of the year, would likely be offered deals more commensurate to those of midlevel starters.
Of the other veteran players currently eligible for unrestricted free agency in March, only five -- Marco Coleman (Denver), Darren Howard (New Orleans), John Abraham (New York Jets), Lance Johnstone (Minnesota) and Marcellus Wiley (Jacksonville) -- have registered double-digit sack seasons. Coleman, Wiley and Johnstone are all on the wrong side of 30 and considered well into their NFL dotage. Howard and Abraham, both of whom are currently playing under the one-year qualifying offer for a "franchise" end, could be tagged again next spring. And if they aren't, it will take a boatload of money to sign them.
Although he will still be viewed through the prism of skepticism by some franchises that might consider his 2005 performance an aberration, Vanden Bosch would be a solid addition, and one who wouldn't sink any team's salary cap. Suffice it to say, if Vanden Bosch makes it to free agency, his phone, and that of agent Tony Agnone won't be nearly as mute as it was at times last spring.
"Trust me," one veteran AFC pro personnel director said, "there are a lot of teams hoping [the Titans] can't afford him. He might not break the bank, but he'll bust his ass for you. I mean, you know what you're getting with him, and you can't say that about a lot of the guys you bring in as free agents. He's got a big motor and a huge heart. His skills are good enough. He plays the run well enough and he'll get you 8-10 sacks, it looks like. He's been hurt a lot, and absolutely, that's a factor you have to consider. But you also take into account what he's been through and how he's salvaged his career. And he's not an old guy, so he's got good years still in front of him."
Not surprisingly, Vanden Bosch eschews nearly all discussion of his future, and that is understandable, since he's only recently been able to relegate most of the first four years of his professional career to life's rearview mirror.
Chosen out of Nebraska
by Arizona with the third pick in the second round of the 2001 draft, Vanden Bosch was projected as a solid, two-way defender and earned a starting spot in his first training camp. But after the first three games of his debut season, Vanden Bosch suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him two weeks. Upon his return to practice, he tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments of his right knee when a teammate rolled up the back of his leg, and the subsequent surgery ended his season.
He returned in 2002 and started all 16 games, but in the 2003 preseason, Vanden Bosch tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and sat out the entire campaign. In '04, he appeared in all 16 games, with just one start, and registered a modest 15 tackles and no sacks. His four-year total in Arizona: Nearly as many games missed (29) as appearances (35), just 93 tackles, four sacks and two fumble recoveries.
Oh, yeah, and a huge question mark hanging over his career. One that not even he was fully confident he could expunge.
"Even last year, when I was able to play all 16 games, I wasn't right," Vanden Bosch said. "I had tendinitis in my knees and it got to the point where I was simply trying to survive. I mean, the Cardinals, give them credit, they put me in position to make some plays. But I couldn't make them. It was frustrating. You watch the tape and see a pretty good opportunity for a play, and you know you didn't make it because your body just wouldn't allow you to get to it, and that's bad. Plus, I played tentatively, you know? I'd see myself on tape looking around to make sure no one rolled up on me. I was way too conscious of where people were around me, and you can't play like that.
"But as bad as it was, I just couldn't quit, because that's not my nature. I wasn't going to be one of those guys who regrets not giving it everything he's got, giving it another shot. I just wanted to get to the offseason and get myself healthy again, get someplace where I might be able to re-establish myself, and prove that I still belonged in the league."
Fortunately for Vanden Bosch, coach Jeff Fisher and Reese were seeking a reasonably priced veteran who could come in and, in part, serve as a mentor to a young defensive end depth chart that does not include a single player with more than two seasons of NFL seniority. And fortunately for the Titans, linebackers coach Dave McGinnis was the head coach at Arizona when Vanden Bosch was chosen there in 2001, and was adept at the hard sell in recruiting him.
There is no animosity toward the Arizona organization because Vanden Bosch, a pretty pragmatic guy, understands that the Cardinals could not reconcile keeping him, given his bulging medical dossier. It is ironic, though, that the Cardinals signed former Seattle and San Francisco defensive end Chike Okeafor as an unrestricted free agent in the spring, and gave him a five-year, $25 million contract, and that he's got only 4½ sacks. But as Cardinals coach Dennis Green emphasized, sometimes players don't succeed in the NFL until they get to the right place.
When it came to resuscitating his career, Nashville, Tenn., has proven to be precisely the right place for Kyle Vanden Bosch.
Truth be told, though, the Titans got even more than they bargained for in their bargain-basement acquisition. In addition to his obvious leadership -- "He sets the tone for all of us," starting defensive end Antwan Odom said -- the hard-working Vanden Bosch has been even better than advertised on the field. He is more stout against the run than the Titans were led to believe, and his pass-rush skills have improved significantly under Jim Washburn, one of the NFL's best defensive line coaches. Like most pass rushers, Vanden Bosch concedes that sacks are a function of many things, including good fortune.
"Sacks are funny things," he said. "Just because I wasn't getting them before, it wasn't for a lack of effort. But coming here, it was like a light went on. Now there aren't many plays where I'm not getting chipped or double-teamed. But I'm still getting [sacks]."
Vanden Bosch is quick to credit Washburn with upgrading some small but key elements of his game, and it's obvious there is a mutual respect between the two.
"With the way he grew up, the way he was raised, he just has something special inside of him that is really unique," Washburn, an old-school coach with old-fashioned values and an absence of hyperbole, told the Nashville Tennessean earlier this season. "As far as guys who work hard all the time, he's the No. 1 guy I've ever had in my life."
There was a time this summer, about halfway through training camp, Tennessee coaches claim (and Vanden Bosch mildly disputes), when the defensive end seemed to hit the wall physically. But the Titans coaches and team officials hung with him because they believed, thanks in part to McGinnis' endorsement, that Vanden Bosch's motor would start revving again once he acclimated to an increased workload.
That his motor is never really idling is a product of Vanden Bosch's upbringing, the classic Midwest rearing that demands all-out effort at all times.
Vanden Bosch began working in his father's business, D&L Masonry in Larchwood, Iowa, at age 12. While other kids were sleeping in on Saturday mornings, Vanden Bosch was carrying bricks, sweeping floors, shoveling sand, pushing wheelbarrows filled with cement, and toting 40-pound concrete blocks. Both Vanden Bosch and his father, Doug, agree that football seemed a lot more fun after working at masonry, and that hauling cement blocks provided a solid foundation for the youngster.
"My dad, he wanted his kids to work hard and to understand what hard work is really all about," Vanden Bosch said. "Looking back, it was a good lesson."
Certainly there will be new lessons to be learned -- as was the case Sunday, when Washburn and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz moved Vanden Bosch into a nine-technique stance, very wide and off the ball, to keep him out of traffic as he attacked the supposedly impenetrable Indianapolis pass protection scheme. Vanden Bosch isn't sure yet what those lessons will entail, but given that he has rediscovered his self-confidence this year and rebuilt his career, he seems ready for just about anything.
Whether it's in Tennessee or elsewhere, and their preferences are clear, the Tennessee coaches feel like Vanden Bosch will continue to get better.
"Let's be honest," said Schwartz, one of the NFL's brightest defensive minds, runner-up to Mike Nolan for the San Francisco head coach job this offseason, and destined to soon be running a program of his own. "If someone told you that they knew this would happen for Kyle, I mean, they'd have to be [lying to] you. Or they'd have to own a crystal ball or something. But it did happen and it's a testament to him. All he really asked for was for someone to give him another shot, and he'd take it from there.
"He's been worth every cent and then some. And you can't say that about very many free agents, can you?"
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.