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Fantasy Notebook: NFL Teams Prepare For Free Agency...
Fantasy Notebook: NFL Teams Prepare For Free Agency... The NFL's 2005 free agency season officially gets under way on March 2. However, teams have already begun going about laying the groundwork necessary to get salary caps in order, prune rosters and taking the steps -- in some cases rather drastic steps -- necessary to get their houses in order heading into free agency, April's draft and the subsequent stream of offseason workouts and mini-camps.

League rules prevent teams from making any cuts official until this coming Tuesday (Feb. 22), but the unofficial action began in earnest this past week, when clubs began assigning "franchise" tags to high-end free agents, informally advising high-priced veterans that their time is up or announcing changing offensive roles due to personnel or coaching changes.

We'll get the ball rolling in San Diego. ... As Associated Press sports writer Bernie Wilson framed it Thursday, "For a guy who wasn't expected to do much last season, Drew Brees sure got a nice raise."

This after the Chargers used their franchise tag on Brees, who earned $1.56 million in base pay last season when he led the Chargers out of the NFL's basement to a 12-4 record and the AFC West title.

Wilson went on to remind readers that team officials needed to put the tag on Brees, the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year, to keep him from leaving as an unrestricted free agent.

"Franchising him is a no-brainer because if we didn't, we wouldn't get any compensation and he wouldn't be here, he'd be going to the airport," general manager A.J. Smith said. "We want him to be our quarterback. I mean, a little bit over $8 million for one year, for a quarterback, I think, tells you clearly what we think of his abilities and his talent. We want him to be our quarterback."

Brees has said he wants a long-term deal from the Chargers, but Smith said the team currently is not interested in offering one.

Brees, on vacation in Australia with his wife, said in a statement issued by the team that he was happy to remain in San Diego.

"We've built a solid foundation and I feel we can really make a run. I'm excited about being a part of that," Brees said.

The Chargers could trade Brees, but a team interested in him would want to negotiate a long-term contract before finalizing a deal.

Brees was tagged as a non-exclusive franchise player, meaning he can still negotiate with other teams. Should Brees receive an offer from another team, the Chargers can either match it or receive two first-round choices from that club as compensation for losing Brees.

As San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa pointed out, by making it nonexclusive, Smith knows exactly how much Brees will cost for one year -- $8.078 million, the average of the NFL's five highest-paid quarterbacks. The price for an exclusive tag could be much higher, depending on what happens to quarterback salaries during free agency.

"I plan on Drew being our quarterback, but it could take a twist," Smith says. "He will cost a team two No. 1s, or we could match the offer sheet. Now, is there anyone out there willing to give two [first-round picks] for Drew? I don't know."

Would it be hard to pass on a pair of first rounders?

"I don't know if it would be difficult or not," Smith says. "I can't answer that. If it happens, I will react to it."

According to Wilson, agent Tom Condon plans to check other teams' interest in Brees. But he said that if Brees were to leave San Diego this year, it'd likely be via a trade rather than an offer sheet and its steep price of two No. 1 picks.

"From our standpoint, $8 million and change, that's more money than he made in his first four years," Condon said. "It's hard to be unhappy if you're Drew. All in all, it's probably what we expected."

In case you missed it, Brees was coming off a 4-12 season this time last year -- a season in which he threw 15 interceptions and just 11 touchdown passes, was benched for five straight games and pulled in favor of Doug Flutie in two others.

Smith said then the Chargers needed to "upgrade" at quarterback. They got Philip Rivers in a draft-day deal with the New York Giants and gave him a $40 million contract.

But Rivers missed half of training camp in a holdout, Brees kept the starting job and threw 27 touchdown passes and just seven interceptions. He completed 65.5 percent of his passes, and his 104.8 rating was a 37.3 point improvement over the previous year.

The Chargers have freed up about $21 million in salary cap space for next season, which would allow them to fit in both Brees and Rivers, who is due about $3 million in base pay.

For what it's worth, Rivers seems to be taking the news in stride.

"We'll see what happens," Rivers told the Decatur (Alabama) Daily, when asked about the franchise tag on Friday. "I'll compete for the starting job. I'll have a full offseason and summer, and we'll see if I can get it done."

Smith confirmed Rivers' belief, telling reporter that while Brees will be listed as the first-stringer, head coach Marty Schottenheimer has a philosophy of open competition in training camp.

"So the best man's going to go out there, and coach Schottenheimer will decide who plays and who doesn't, and who starts," Smith said. "Best players play. Last year's over with, folks. Players are going to have to meet the challenge again. Things can change."

Maybe. ... But I strongly suspect that Schottenheimer's "safety-first" coaching style weighs heavily in Brees' favor. And Smith was clearly impressed with Brees' response to the challenge last offseason.

"He's a hard worker, great work ethic, intangibles, plus-plus. The guy's one of the greatest competitors that I've been around, and I really mean that," Smith said.

Despite their positive turn Brees took, Canepa believes the Chargers remain enamored with Rivers and thought of trading him is not a part of Smith's agenda.

"Not this year," Smith says. "Philip will not be traded. I don't know what the future holds, but this year he will not be traded under any circumstances."

The operative words are "this year. ..."

Other Fantasy-specific news and notes from around the NFL. ...

In Cincinnati. ... Dayton Daily News beat man Chick Ludwig advised readers that Rudi Johnson is looking at the bright side of being tagged the Bengals' franchise player. He can vacation in Hawaii a little bit longer and not have to endure the rigors of a cross-country tour when free agency begins March 2.

"It wasn't really a shock," Johnson told Doug Russell on The Sporting News Radio network after being slapped with the team's franchise tag. "It's something the team had to do to protect them and definitely not let me hit the market.

"Even though they placed the franchise tag on me, we're still going to work on a long-term deal. Hopefully, we'll get something done by the 16th of March."

League rules state that if Johnson and his agent, Peter Schaffer, can't work out a long-term contract with the Bengals by March 16, negotiations can't begin again until July 15.

As the franchise player, Johnson is guaranteed a one-year tender of $6.3 million, a salary that is causing him to back off his threat to sit out the 2005 season.

"We'll see what happens, take it day-by-day, and let my agent do his side," Johnson said. "I don't think we're too far off. We've just got to bridge the gap. That's what I pay my agent for. He's on the job right now? I'm just going to sit here (in Hawaii), enjoy myself, sit back for a while and let things unfold."

Johnson, who wants the security of a long-term deal, had threatened to out the season if he was hit with the franchise tag. And while Schaffer set a much less-threatening tone once the tag was applied, he remained steadfast in stating his client's desire for a long-term deal.

"We're frustrated because Rudi has not asked for anything other than fair market value," the agent explained. "Now that they've taken him off the market, it makes it that much more difficult to determine fair market value.

"On the other hand, they've said that he's their franchise player. The reality is the tag is not free. By stating that you are our franchise player, it means you do have incredible value to the franchise. The bottom line is actions speak louder than words.

"They said he's their franchise player. They've kept him off the market, which would have truly determined what his fair market value is. So now treat him fairly."

"This is the most responsible move we can make in pursuit of our goal to give our fans a playoff season and a run for the Super Bowl in 2005," head coach Marvin Lewis countered. "The franchise option is designed to help a team retain the rights to a top player, and the players' union supports it because it guarantees that player a salary commensurate with what he has accomplished.

"We will continue to work with Rudi and his representatives for the possibility of a longer-term contract. ..."

In Buffalo. ... The desire for a more potent offense and the potential for a more mobile, playmaking quarterback prompted the Bills to hand their quarterbacking job to J.P. Losman.

In announcing their plan to release veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe, head coach Mike Mularkey and team president and general manager Tom Donahoe stressed that change was necessary.

The Bills finished 9-7 last season and came within a whisker of making the playoffs. But according to Buffalo News staff writer Mark Gaughan, "the tenor of Wednesday's news conference held by the team's top two football men was clear: We can't kid ourselves about being close to the Super Bowl."

"We had a good year last year, but as I told the team and this organization, it was not a super year," Mularkey said. "We did not reach some of the goals we set out for."

Mularkey indicated that Losman gives him more chances to run the kind of diverse offense he likes to run. Bledsoe's immobility makes him a stationary passer.

As Gaughan noted, when Mularkey helped Pittsburgh get to the AFC Championship Game in 2001, he made creative use of rollouts, bootlegs, effective play-action fakes and, in general, mobile quarterbacking.

"There are some things J.P. has special skills for, and we're trying to take advantage of them," Mularkey said. "Strong arm, especially in the conditions here. ... Prior to his injury, he showed leadership skills that I like -- in practice and the preseason games. We designed some runs early on in preseason that he took advantage of, and he made big plays. He has pocket presence.

"With the addition of more time and being around the coaches, he has a lot of things we're going to try and scratch the surface with."

Said Donahoe: "I think knowing Mike and what he wants to do offensively, it's a lot more varied than what we were able to do this year."

According to insider Len Pasquarelli (who is fairly close to the GM thanks to Donahoe's stint as a fellow analyst), team officials don't buy into the notion that by elevating Losman means taking backward step in 2005 to make perhaps a quantum leap forward in '06.

The Bills legitimately believe that, with a strong running game led by Willis McGahee and an outstanding defense featuring Pro Bowl linebacker Takeo Spikes, they definitely can contend for a playoff spot even with an unproven quarterback.

Pasquarelli noted the team points to the fact Ben Roethlisberger won immediately in Pittsburgh last season and that Carson Palmer, the first overall choice in the '03 draft, won eight games in Cincinnati in 2004 after taking zero snaps as a rookie.

And Losman impressed coaches with his skills as a rookie.

"Absolutely, he's classic," quarterbacks coach Sam Wyche said last month of Losman's delivery. "He's over the top. He has a rifle."

Wyche says he's happy with Losman's dedication.

"I don't have any negatives on him," he said. "He studies hard. He works hard. He's a very conscientious guy. He'll come to me and say, 'Let's do something.' I don't have to go to him. Everything that was advertised about him being a good leader and mentally tough, he is."

In a column published Thursday, insider Pete Prisco suggested this could be a situation similar to what happened in Cincinnati last season. The Bengals went with Carson Palmer and fell off some, although it wasn't really Palmer's fault.

Prisco summed up by noting: "Losman does have the athletic ability Bledsoe lacks, so maybe he's a better fit for what Mularkey wants to do with the offense. If it works out, Donahoe will come up roses again. If not, then the Bills could be headed for 6-10. ..."

According to Gaughan, the Bills would like to sign 11-year veteran Shane Matthews to be Losman's backup. Matthews, 34, was Bledsoe's backup this season. The Bills will wait while Matthews decides whether to keep playing or retire.

If Matthews declines, someone such as Jim Miller, a former Bears starter, would be a similar option. ...

Also in Buffalo. ... Arizona Republic staffer Kent Somers reported Saturday that Cardinals offensive tackle L.J. Shelton met with Bills coaches and officials Thursday, a visit that could lead to a trade for running back Travis Henry.

Trade talks are expected to turn serious next week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

If such a deal comes to pass, it would be a rare player-for-player trade.

According to News beat man Allen Wilson, the Cardinals want a high draft pick in exchange for Shelton's services, but given their need for a starting running back -- the most experienced ballcarrier on their roster is Marcel Shipp, who missed last season with a fractured left fibula -- Henry just might fit the bill.

Henry was given permission to seek a trade after expressing that he wants no part of being a backup.

Wilson added that a Henry-for-Shelton trade would work out financially for both teams. Henry has one year remaining on his contract that will pay him a little more than $1 million. The Cardinals would probably sign him to a longer-term deal if the trade is made.

Shelton has four years left on a contract that averages $3 million per season, but the Bills have the cap space to accommodate that salary. Also, Shelton's current deal is much less than what current Buffalo starter Jonas Jennings is seeking.

In a related note. ... If the Bills do trade Henry, as anticipated, they will need a backup tailback to play behind McGahee. In an article published Friday, Pasquarelli speculated that one possibility is Correll Buckhalter of Philadelphia, who -- when healthy -- is a very solid back. ...

Meanwhile, in a semi-related note. ... Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones -- citing league rules -- told Dallas Morning News staffer Todd Archer that he couldn't comment on rumors that Bledsoe might be interested in working under Bill Parcells, his head coach in New England.

Jones did, however, admit that his team will need a veteran quarterback to join Drew Henson and Tony Romo.

Last year's starter, Vinny Testaverde, has not been approached about a new deal and will hit the open market March 2.

Jones sees similarities between how the Cowboys handled the quarterback spot last off-season -- when they brought in Testaverde as insurance for Quincy Carter (who was cut early in training camp) -- and this offseason.

On Wednesday, Bledsoe said he had no intention of being a backup, but Jones said he assumes Bledsoe would be willing to compete knowing Parcells does not believe in handing players jobs.

"We just can't bet the house on how these two young guys are evolving," Jones said. "That's just not smart."

Jones' stance regarding Henson, however, has not changed. He believes Henson can be the Cowboys' quarterback in 2005 and the future despite playing in only two games last year after a three-year layoff to play baseball.

According to Jones, Parcells – who is expected to attend next week's combine after remaining in Dallas for it last year – would be less reluctant to play Henson in 2005 than he was in 2004.

But according to Pasquarelli, Parcells isn't nearly as enamored with Henson as some folks in the Dallas front office -- Jones among them, could opt for another year of veteran quarterback stewardship rather than starting to try to develop a young player for the future. ...

According to Detroit News staff writer Mike O'Hara, "The off-season buzz concerning the Lions' quarterback situation has increased by several decibels with the report that Jeff Garcia has been told that the Cleveland Browns intend to release him (come Tuesday)."

Garcia played his first four NFL seasons in San Francisco under current Lions head coach Steve Mariucci.

O'Hara went on to note that the Lions are looking to add depth to what the coach referred to as "our pitching staff" in Feb. 10 interview. However, team president Matt Millen did not react enthusiastically Monday night when asked about Garcia's availability.

Garcia will become a free agent when the Browns release him. He will be free to sign with any team he chooses, without the Browns getting compensation.

"We've all had a chance to look at Jeff, both for the past season and over the years," Millen said. "We know what kind of competitor he is. Jeff's somebody we knew we had to evaluate, and we have gotten all of our work done on him. ..."

Joey Harrington is the only quarterback under contract to the Lions.

Also in Detroit. ... Booth Newspapers beat writer Tom Kowalski reported this week that because his injured ankle wasn't responding as well as the Lions hoped, receiver Roy Williams underwent surgery recently and will need 8-10 weeks to recover.

While the Lions had hoped surgery wouldn't be needed, they didn't want to delay the decision and possibly affect his ability to participate at the start of training camp. Williams is expected to sit out the team's mini-camp at the end of April. ...

In Green Bay. ... According to Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel staffer Bob McGinn, the Packers' front office and coaching staff appear confident that Brett Favre will play in 2005 and aren't worried about having his answer by the start of free agency March 2.

"We'd be able to handle that," head coach Mike Sherman said Thursday. "There was never any set deadline. I told him that, 'As we get into free agency, if you can tell, us that'd be great.'"

Two weeks ago, wide receiver Donald Driver caused a stir by predicting that the 35-year-old Favre would retire. Running back Ahman Green went on the radio one day later and said Driver probably was closer to Favre than anyone on the team except quarterback Doug Pederson.

"From knowing Brett. ... And what I've known from the season. ... It could go either way," Green said.

For the record, Favre hasn't informed the Packers if he will return for a 15th season.

"I don't believe people should speak for other people, particularly a Hall of Fame quarterback," Sherman said. "Somebody on our staff calls him once a week just to touch base. We don't press him for an answer. I don't think anybody's asked him what he's decided to do. We just ask him how he's doing, how (wife) Deanna [Favre is] doing, how's his golf game and how's his grass growing."

McGinn went on to note that in discussions with new general manager Ted Thompson and Sherman, Harlan said neither one was ready to declare Favre definitely was returning. Thompson has been busy studying tape of the 2004 Packers, including Favre.

Also in Green Bay. ... The Sporting News suggested this week that the club could use their franchise or transition tag on tight end Bubba Franks, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next month.

At this point, the team has no options beyond Franks for the starting position and would have to make finding a replacement a priority if he leaves.

As TSN put it, "the club might be able to find a better receiver, but it would be hard-pressed to find a better combination blocker-receiver than Franks. ..."

In Denver. ... Those who follow the team closely believe the arrival of new tight ends coach Tim Brewster, who was considered a major factor in the development of Antonio Gates in San Diego, will result in better performance from that position in Denver.

Brewster says he believes Jeb Putzier is only "scratching the surface" of his potential after making 36 catches in his third season. ...

In Oakland. ... Kerry Collins on Wednesday restructured his contract in such a way that lowered his base salary from $4.7 million in 2005 to $1.2 million and helped the Raiders get under the salary cap limit, according to a person familiar with the negotiations.

The Raiders now are approximately $2 million under the projected salary cap figure of $85 million. The cap was $80,582,000 in 2004. All teams must be under the limit March 1 and remain there the rest of the season.

But the team is by no means out of woods with regard to the cap. In fact, they would have to clear upwards of $6 million more of cap space should they elect to designate cornerback Charles Woodson or receiver Jerry Porter their franchise player by Tuesday's deadline.

Both will be unrestricted free agents if they aren't re-signed by March 2 and it's still not clear which of the two is more likely to earn the franchise tag.

Meanwhile, Contra Costa Times beat man Steve Corkran advised readers on Friday that the Raiders aren't inclined to pay Rich Gannon the $8 million he is scheduled to earn in 2005. He restructured his contract from $7 million to $4.5 million before last season.

That makes Collins the No. 1 quarterback until further notice. ...

In St. Louis. ... Head coach Mike Martz believes Marshall Faulk will still be a viable threat in the team's offense even though Steven Jackson will move into the starting role this coming season.

The change naturally thrusts Faulk into what Martz characterized as being a significant supporting role.

"This is not news," Martz said Wednesday. "Marshall knows all of this. We've talked to him a great deal about this. He's excited for Steven, and Marshall knows he'll have a significant role. I think he has a chance to be outstanding in that role."

As St. Louis Post-Dispatch staffer Jim Thomas reminded readers, Jackson became the starter as early as the second San Francisco game on Dec. 5, with Faulk working off the bench. But knee problems bothered Jackson the next couple of weeks and he split time with Faulk the rest of the season.

Martz added that Jackson's recent arthroscopic knee surgery went well and that the youngster will be ready to go full speed when mini-camps begin this spring.

It gives us our best lineup," Martz said of the change. "It allows Marshall to stay fresh all year and be at the top of his game. A veteran like that can come off the sideline and have a great deal of impact."

Martz went on to suggest sharing the position last year will allow Faulk to enter training camp essentially injury-free, and his best value to the team might be as a receiving threat.

It will be interesting to see how Faulk handles his role as a spot player.

As Prisco suggested Thursday, "it wasn't exactly like he worked his body to the bone in the offseason to get ready when he was the starter. Would it surprise anybody to see him come back to camp in July as the round-mound-of-ground?"

In a related note. ... Pro Football Weekly pointed out on Monday that Faulk is one of six Rams players under contract who count $4.5 million or higher against the cap in 2005, meaning he's virtually assured of being asked to take a cut in pay, as is another big-name skill player, Isaac Bruce.

Faulk and Bruce currently are slotted to receive a combined $16.87 million in '05. ...

In Philadelphia. ... Veteran tight end Chad Lewis isn't commenting on speculation that he would soon announce his retirement. He said he would prefer to speak about the situation next week.

Lewis suffered a Lisfranc tear in his left foot catching the touchdown pass that set the final score of the Eagles' 27-10 NFC Championship Game victory over Atlanta on Jan. 23.

But according to Philadelphia Daily News staffer Les Bowen, even before the injury, which required surgery and caused him to miss Super Bowl XXXIX, Lewis was looking at unrestricted free agency at age 33, and the strong possibility that he would not return to the Eagles.

Bowen went on to suggest that if Lewis is retiring, or even if he is just pretty sure he isn't in the Eagles' plans, a tight end to complement L.J. Smith becomes an offseason priority, either through free agency or the draft.

Smith caught 34 passes this past season for 377 yards and five TDs, despite suffering from a back problem that required disc surgery on Wednesday.

For the record, most observers are predicting that Smith will be ready to go full speed well before training camp opens this summer. ...

For what it's worth. ... The Eagles had 10 players in Hawaii representing the NFC at the Pro Bowl and they reportedly took quite a liking to Carolina receiver Muhsin Muhammad.

Several Eagles made a point to talk to Muhammad, no doubt letting him know what another quality wide receiver might be able to do for the team. They even convinced Muhammad to pose in a team picture with the 10 Eagles.

"It's definitely a time to see your old friends and make new ones," said Muhammad, who could be released if he can't rework his contract with the Panthers before he's due to receive a $10 million roster bonus next season. Muhammad has said he wants to stay in Carolina.

Last year at the Pro Bowl, Donovan McNabb's befriending of Terrell Owens played a big part in landing the star receiver. ...

In Tampa. ... Former Bengals quarterback Akili Smith has signed with the Buccaneers.

Smith was the third player selected in the 1999 draft, but only appeared in 22 games -- with 17 starts -- in four disappointing seasons with the Bengals, who invested nearly $12 million in bonuses and salaries on Smith. He signed with Green Bay before the 2003 season, but did not make the team.

Smith already had agreed to play in NFL Europe although he was not affiliated with any NFL team. The Bucs said Friday he will play for the Frankfurt Galaxy.

According to Tampa Tribune staff writer Katherine Smith, Smith hopes a stint in Europe will jump-start his career in the manner it did for Giants quarterback Kurt Warner and Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson.

Smith joins a Tampa Bay roster with several question marks at the quarterback position.

Johnson is expected to be released to clear salary cap room. Third-year player Chris Simms could compete for the starting position, but a recent report had Simms involved in a scenario that could send him to Cleveland in a trade. That's only if the Bucs and Brian Griese can agree to a new contract.

If the Bucs can't come to terms that lower Griese's salary cap number, he's likely to be released before March 1, when he is due a $6 million roster bonus. Negotiations between the sides continue. ...

According to PFW, with their interest in Henry cooling, the Buccaneers might make a run at Seahawks unrestricted free agent Shaun Alexander, who has expressed interest in heading to Florida. Although he has said he would give the Seahawks the first shot at re-signing him, he's said to be intrigued by the possibility of joining a potentially good, young offense.

PFW further contends that head coach Jon Gruden, who is itching for a dependable feature back, wouldn't mind giving the job to Alexander. ...

One last note out of Tampa. ... Also according to Smith, receiver Michael Clayton had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Thursday and said he plans to begin rehabilitation soon. The second-year man-to-be should be fully recovered well before camp opens. ...

Also according to PFW, Ben Roethlisberger reportedly will spend time in the offseason in Pittsburgh learning more about NFL defenses from defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.

This news drew raves from at least one source close to the team, who has no doubt Roethlisberger will improve after a tough finish to his rookie season.

In Chicago. ... New offensive coordinator Ron Turner has scaled back the offensive playbook and has introduced the basics to starting quarterback Rex Grossman.

Because Grossman, recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered Sept. 26, is limited physically -- he won't be able to run and cut until June at the earliest -- the Bears are counting on him retaining the information without the benefit of hands-on training prior to training camp.

But as Chicago Sun-Times staff writer Mike Mulligan suggested this week, the sad truth is that the team can't rely on Grossman alone after going through four starters a year ago -- and watching as Grossman suffered two serious injuries in six games.

Mulligan added: "The team isn't going anywhere until the quarterback position is solved, and while Grossman may be the answer it would be foolish to consider it a done deal. ..."

In Miami. ... The consensus among league insiders says the Dolphins are interested in veteran quarterback Gus Frerotte, the backup to Vikings starter Daunte Culpepper the past two years, who's slated to become an unrestricted free agent.

The fact that former Vikings coordinator Scott Linehan has taken over that same job in Miami lends credence to the theory. ...

And finally, also in Miami. ... South Florida Sun-Sentinel beat man Alex Marvez reports that receiver David Boston was reinstated to the Dolphins' roster earlier this week after officially serving a suspension for testing positive under the NFL's steroid and performance-enhancing substance policy.