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Original Issue

Paydays Coming

Shortly after
Giants quarterback Eli Manning agreed in principle last week to a six-year, $97.5 million extension with $35 million guaranteed, an NFL general manager was asked how the deal might affect Philip Rivers, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees—star quarterbacks whose contracts expire between 2010 and '12. The reply: "Big-time renegotiations."

Much of the football community had been waiting for the Manning deal to reset the compensation bar for quarterbacks. The pact did not set a record for guaranteed money as many believed it would (rookie Matthew Stafford got $41.7 million guaranteed from the Lions), but one agent of a top-tier quarterback says the Manning deal, whose structure all but assures him of earning $49 million over the next three seasons, remains eye-opening.

The ripple effect probably won't be seen immediately. Brady's deal expires after the 2010 season, but the Patriots likely will want to make sure he's fully recovered from reconstructive left-knee surgery before ponying up megamoney. And Brees and Peyton Manning have two years left on their pacts after this season, so there's no reason to rush.

That leaves Rivers, whose contract expires at the end of the 2009 season. He and Eli have been linked since they were the central figures in a blockbuster draft-day trade in '04, with the Chargers selecting Manning No. 1 overall and sending him to the Giants for Rivers (taken fourth overall) and three draft picks. Since then Manning has won a Super Bowl, and Rivers has taken San Diego to the playoffs in each of his three seasons as a starter. The Chargers' quarterback also is coming off a year in which he tied for the league lead with 34 touchdown passes and had an NFL-best 105.5 passer rating.

San Diego tried to open contract talks with Rivers last February, but agent Jimmy Sexton rebuffed the team while waiting for the Manning deal to be finalized. Sexton and Chargers management had a contentious negotiation in 2004, when Rivers missed 29 practices and two preseason games before agreeing to a six-year, $40.5 million deal with $18 million guaranteed, and this one could be just as intriguing.

General manager A.J. Smith says only that Rivers will be with the team in 2010, meaning it will use the franchise tag on him if a deal can't be reached. That could be a costly strategy, preventing the Chargers from applying the tag to one of their other stars whose contracts expire at the end of the '09 season—a list that includes linebacker Shawne Merriman, wide receiver Vincent Jackson, left tackle Marcus McNeill and running back Darren Sproles.

However, if—as expected—union and management fail to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement before March 2010, that season will be "uncapped," and players will need six accrued seasons instead of four to reach unrestricted free agency. Merriman, Jackson, McNeill and Sproles each would have five or fewer, thus preventing them from hitting the open market without restrictions that favor the Chargers. Some league observers believe San Diego would benefit more than any other team if the owners and players fail to reach an agreement. "If I'm a team, that's what I would want," one agent said. "You're going to piss off some guys, but that's the business."

Rivers is taking things in stride. After suffering a torn right ACL in January 2008, which required off-season surgery, he knows the end of his career could be a play away and wants to maximize his earnings. At the same time, he understands that the Chargers could have greater roster flexibility if he signs a new contract before '10, putting San Diego in position to use the franchise tag on someone else if a new CBA is reached.

"It's way too early to feel that side of it," Rivers said last week, when asked if there was an urgency to get a deal done before 2010. "If we were sitting here [in this position next February], then that's a little different. But we're not there." Yet.



STRIKING GOLD Eli's new deal could set off a ripple effect among his fellow quarterbacks.



KING PHILIP Rivers's contract is up after this season, and San Diego is intent on keeping him.