THAT SLIGHTLY acrid odor that permeated the first 36 hours of free agency was the smell of money burning holes in the pockets of NFL general managers. Engorged with spendable cash because of an elevated salary cap, teams threw millions at a crop of players mediocre in every way but luck. What did it mean to be a free agent at a time when franchises averaged a record $14.95 million in cap room? It meant that by the end of last Saturday, four players who have never made a Pro Bowl—guards Eric Steinbach (who signed with the Browns) and Derrick Dockery (Bills), tackle Langston Walker (Bills) and linebacker London Fletcher (Redskins)—had deals totaling $148.5 million. "That's what happens when you have 32 owners with money to spend, thinking they're one or two players away," said San Francisco coach Mike Nolan. He should know. The 49ers, who went 7--9 last year but hung around in the wild-card race, had a league-high $38 million in salary-cap space. They promptly made a nice player (but not a superstar), former Bills cornerback Nate Clements, one of the richest defensive players in history with an eight-year, $80 million deal.
With revenue continuing to grow at a healthy rate, owners and players last March agreed to a collective bargaining agreement that set this year's cap at $109 million—up from $85.5 million two years ago. But boom times are not necessarily happy ones. Nolan knows that Clements's contract, plus the six-year, $30 million deal the Niners gave former Eagles safety Michael Lewis, could breed resentment in his locker room. Talk to coaches and G.M.'s around the league, and you hear a similar story: Prominent players who signed contracts in 2004 may justifiably feel that their deals are outdated and they are underpaid. Look for wildcat training-camp holdouts by players peeved that lesser teammates zoomed past them on the salary autobahn.
"I've been thinking about that for the last week," Nolan said on Saturday night, weary from two days of wooing potential Niners. "It'll distract some people, no question. It's something I may have to address with my team, depending on what sense I get from the players about it. And you know, it crosses my mind too. There are two or three assistant coaches in the league who make more money than I do. But when I signed my contract, I said, 'I do.' And my perspective is, I'll play it out."
That may be admirable, but it won't be the universal reaction. Look for players who feel shortchanged by the events of last weekend to act out this summer. In fact, bet on it.
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GOLD RUSH New Niner Lewis (left) was one of many players to cash in.