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Original Issue

Market Forces

The economy and the looming prospect of no salary cap will suppress spending on free agents below the marquee level

NFL TEAMS aren't crying poverty, but they are claiming hardship in this down economy. The Colts reportedly have eliminated 25 positions in their organization, the Redskins have chopped at least 20 and the Browns have trimmed 13. The league office is in the midst of cutting 150 jobs through layoffs and buyouts.

Still, there will be plenty of cash around when free agency kicks off on Feb. 27. Quarterback Matt Cassel received a guaranteed $14.65 million contract for '09 after the Patriots franchised him. Running back Brandon Jacobs got a raise from $927,000 to $6.6 million after the Giants tagged him. Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha and Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs will get guarantees of nearly $12 million and $10 million, respectively, if, as expected, they're franchised for a second season, and Panthers end Julius Peppers would earn nearly $17 million for '09 if tagged. The market should be equally lucrative for marquee players who dodge the franchise assignment, notably Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, Bengals wideout T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Panthers tackle Jordan Gross, and Cardinals QB Kurt Warner and linebacker Karlos Dansby.

The players who'll feel the pinch are the second-tier guys, a group that has scored some eye-opening contracts recently. Two years ago guard Derrick Dockery received $18.5 million and tackle Langston Walker $10 million in guarantees from the Bills. Last year wideout Donte' Stallworth pocketed nearly $12 million from the Browns, while the Jaguars gave $12 million to cornerback Drayton Florence and $10 million to wideout Jerry Porter.

Such deals will be harder to come by this year, and the reason is as much the collective bargaining agreement as the economy. The most recent CBA, signed in 2006, included procedures that would kick in if the sides failed to finalize a new deal by 2009, the year before the scheduled elimination of the salary cap (and salary floor). Those mechanisms, meant to keep teams from dumping salaries into a capless 2010, could result in less spending on middle-of the-pack players this year. For example:

• When a player achieved certain performance incentives deemed "not likely to be earned" (such as reaching 1,500 yards rushing or finishing in the top five in sacks), the money counted against the following year's salary cap. This season those incentives will count the moment they're achieved, something teams will have to factor into their cap management.

• When a player is traded, released or retires after June 1, the prorated remainder of his bonus will now apply to the current year. Say the Raiders wanted to cut wide receiver Javon Walker, who signed a six-year deal with a $12 million bonus. In previous seasons, if Walker was cut after June 1, the Raiders could defer the cap hit until the following year; this year $8 million would count immediately. "You're going to have a lot of guys who are kind of uncuttable," said a league source. That means fewer open spots and less money for other players.

• Another CBA rule that could affect new contracts is the maximum 30% increase in base salaries from 2009 to '10 and beyond. Before, a team with little cap space could backload a deal to pay much more in later years; that's not possible now. "Teams that have a lot of cap room won't be hurt," says agent Joe Linta, "but the ones who don't are going to have a harder time."

The top-tier free agents need not fret, but others may find their time on the open market will be longer (and less lucrative) than anticipated.

Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.

Trotter's Take State of Disunion

The search for a new executive director of the NFL Players Association to succeed the late Gene Upshaw is down to former union presidents Troy Vincent and Trace Armstrong, and D.C. attorney DeMaurice Smith. The only certainty regarding the final vote of the 32 player representatives in mid-March is that it will leave plenty of people unhappy.

Some in the union worry that Vincent will make wholesale changes; others fear the status quo from Armstrong, in part because he works for the same firm (Creative Artists Agency) as agent Tom Condon, who represented Upshaw and is thought by some to wield too much influence within the union. Smith, a compromise candidate, is taking hits because he has no history with the union or the league. Whoever is ultimately selected could have a tougher time uniting the membership than he will negotiating with the owners on a new CBA.



CASH CALL Lewis (52) and Houshmandzadeh (84) will draw high bids; Jacobs (inset) got a 600% raise.



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