Cardinals duo ranks among top talent in tepid market


The Arizona Cardinals get their moment of notoriety tonight.

At the stroke of midnight, when the witching hour of NFL free agency arrives, they will be prominent for two reasons - the exits of quarterback Jake Plummer and wide receiver David Boston.

Plummer and Boston are among the handful of star-potential players available in a tepid free-agent market when the signing period officially begins.

At least three teams are expected to pursue Plummer aggressively, despite the fact he has thrown 114 interceptions to 90 touchdowns in six seasons in the desert. The Denver Broncos, Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears are all frothing for a new passer.

Boston, who faces a possible four-game suspension after his second violation in the league's substance abuse program, could draw a much bigger crowd that includes the Ravens, Washington Redskins and Atlanta Falcons. He might even collect as much as $10 million in signing bonuses in the coming days.

Other players who could hit the mother lode while the cash flows are Philadelphia Eagles pass rusher Hugh Douglas, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Peerless Price, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Mike Peterson and New York Giants left tackle Luke Petitgout.

The number of big contracts in free agency is declining because more teams re-sign their own players. But for those select few at the top of their positions, it's still a win-win situation.

In the case of Plummer and Boston, it's a chance to escape the mediocrity of the Cardinals organization. Despite a staggering amount of salary cap space - reportedly $36.2 million - the Cardinals did not opt to use their franchise or transition tags on either of their two best offensive weapons.

Rod Graves, who recently replaced fired general manager Bob Ferguson in Arizona, said the Cardinals have an interest in retaining both players, but only at the team's price.

"I recognize that David Boston, as a talent, is one of the top players in the NFL," Graves said. "There has been a lot of interest in our decision not to tag him as our franchise player. There were - and still are - concerns dealing with him both on and off the field. As I've indicated ... we did not feel comfortable getting into a guaranteed contract situation with him."

Perhaps because Plummer only had one season in which he threw more touchdowns than interceptions, he would have to battle second-year quarterback Josh McCown for the starting job should he return to Arizona. Considering the Broncos want him desperately, it isn't likely to happen.

Plummer isn't the only quarterback option this year. The Pittsburgh Steelers released Kordell Stewart yesterday and he should wind up in a starting job somewhere. New Orleans Saints backup Jake Delhomme is another intriguing possibility.

Delhomme, 28, has started only two games in six seasons with the Saints. But his work in relief of Aaron Brooks twice last season suggests he may be primed for a No. 1 job. One league personnel man called Delhomme the "high-risk, high-reward guy" in this year's class of free-agent quarterbacks.

Of the 11 players who were named as franchise or transition players this offseason, Price, with 94 catches last season, may be the one most likely to move. Although Price and Eric Moulds formed the league's top receiving tandem, the Bills don't have a first-round draft pick this year because of last year's trade for Drew Bledsoe. They easily could recoup that by dealing Price and applying those picks for defense, where they need the most help.

Bills president and general manager Tom Donahoe said the team used the non-exclusive franchise tag to create more conversation with Price about a new contract. As a franchise player, Price would receive the average salary of the top five paid wide receivers in the league, or $5.01 million, this season.

"We'd like to keep Peerless, but it has to fit within the framework of what we're trying to do," Donahoe said.

The best positions in this year's market are linebacker, guard and offensive tackle. The weakest are cornerback, running back and tight end.

The linebacking crop includes the Cincinnati Bengals' Takeo Spikes (a transition player), the Seattle Seahawks' Anthony Simmons, Chicago's Rosevelt Colvin, Philadelphia's Shawn Barber and the Detroit Lions' Chris Claiborne. Only Claiborne is an inside linebacker.

In the offensive line, left tackles Walter Jones of the Seahawks and Orlando Pace of the St. Louis Rams have been tagged as franchise players and aren't likely to move.

But tackles Ryan Young (Houston Texans) and Wayne Gandy (Pittsburgh), and guards Randy Thomas (New York Jets) and Mo Collins (Oakland Raiders) are quality players who should attract the most attention.

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