Cashing in

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

INDIANAPOLIS – Baltimore Ravens president Ozzie Newsome is happy to be poor.

Salary-cap poor, that is.

"I'm just glad I don't have a lot of money to go out there and shop this year," Newsome said Wednesday as he and other NFL executives prepared for another year of free agency.

"There's going to be a lot of B players making A money this year. It's a little scary."

By that, Newsome is talking about how the league's middle class figures to cash in this offseason. Few top-shelf free agents will be on the market, but there'll be a whole lot of money to spend.

And it has to be spent.

According to the NFL Players Association, there are approximately 14 teams with $20 million or more to spend this year on free agents. The San Francisco 49ers lead the way with $35 million in cap room. Overall, there's currently about $500 million in total available money among all 32 teams.

That overall amount is a slight overstatement because it also has to cover money that will be used to tender contracts for restricted free agents, exclusive rights players and draft picks. However, it doesn't factor in many players who could be cut.

In other words, there's a lot of money potentially out there. Meanwhile, the free agents look like a batch of bruised fruit.

"It's ugly," said one general manager who didn't want to be identified. "There are going to be a couple of guys who make some astronomical money that will just blow people away. Then there's still going to be other guys who make a bundle and people will be thinking, 'How did that happen?'

"You hate to say it, but a big reason is that you don't really have a choice. Look what's happened already."

That reference pertained to the recent contracts for players like Dallas Cowboys center Andre Gurode and Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday.

Gurode, who made the Pro Bowl this year, received a six-year, $30 million deal which included a $10 million signing bonus. Holliday, who is 31, received a four-year, $20 million pact that includes $7 million in the first year.

Those prices stunned numerous executives. While Gurode is considered an above-average player, he is hardly a star. With Holliday, he's the same guy who struggled two years ago to get a two-year contract worth $5 million overall.

What excites many players, such as Atlanta Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall, is the trickle-up effect that an increase for mid-level players could ultimately mean.

"That's going to make it better for everybody, so that's good," Hall said.

Said Dolphins defensive lineman Kevin Carter: "I think we're finally going to get to the point where those good-but-not-great players will start to make some serious money. Then the top players will start to make that NBA money."

Carter, a 12-year veteran who is 33 and starting to think about his post-career options, then smiled: "I just wish I was a little younger."

The same thing happened to the NFL in the 1980s when the league adopted what was known as Plan B free agency. That system allowed teams to protect most of their rosters, but allowed the bottom end to be free. That caused a feeding frenzy for free agents and ultimately raised salaries across the league.

Fueling this year's likely salary push is one key change to the collective bargaining agreement negotiated last year: the addition of a higher minimum salary cap.

This year, the maximum for each team to spend is $109 million. However, teams must also spend a minimum of 85.2 percent of the cap, which is just a little under $92.9 million. In short, teams can't bow out of the spending completely. San Francisco, for instance, won't be able to sit on its $35 million. Instead, it will be forced to spend at least $22 million.

And if the 49ers don't get a player such as Adalius Thomas or Nate Clements (if not both), they will be forced to extend players they currently have and spend on lesser talents.

"It's going to be interesting to see how all the teams approach free agency this year," Minnesota Vikings vice president of football operations Rob Brzezinski said. "Yeah, I think it's likely you're going to see an explosion in salaries."

Some executives, such as Falcons president Rich McKay and Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen, downplayed that idea. McKay said that he thought the same thing would happen last year.

The difference in 2006 was that few teams had a strong sense of what was going to happen with the negotiations over the CBA, and that slowed spending.

This year, franchises have had months to plan for spending sprees. Anticipating the higher prices, many teams have protected players who might otherwise have hit free agency.

For instance, the New England Patriots tried to sign cornerback Asante Samuel to a multi-year deal during the season, offering him a contract that featured approximately $8 million in guarantees. Now, the Patriots have slapped Samuel with a franchise tag that essentially guarantees him $7.79 million for one year. Samuel was one of seven players to be tagged as a franchise player, including middling talents such as Justin Smith of Cincinnati and Cory Redding of the Detroit Lions.

That has left for slim pickings among the players.

And perhaps fewer executives who want to buy them.

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