Samuel set for massive free agent deal

Jason Cole

INDIANAPOLIS – The $26 million figure didn't faze one NFL general manager in the least.

"Sounds about right," the GM said without a hint of excitement or disgust.

That price is the neighborhood of guaranteed money some team figures to spend to sign prized cornerback Asante Samuel to a contract during the opening weekend of free agency, which begins at 12:01 a.m. ET Friday. The guarantee, combined with cash flow over the first three years, is the key part of any contract a player signs these days. So while many people talk about Samuel being the first $100 million cornerback in the NFL, the real measure is how much money he commands earlier in the contract.

That said, if you're Samuel's agent Alonzo Shavers, naming a price in this year's free agent market doesn't make a lot of sense. When you have the goods, let the market determine itself.

"That's how we're going to handle it," Shavers said. "There's no reason to get ahead of ourselves too much. As they say, hope for the best and prepare for the worst."

Shavers, a tall, lean man with salt-and-pepper hair, gained more of the white stuff during the past year as he has dealt with the New England Patriots and their cap-conscious style. Last offseason, he and Samuel turned down a reported multi-year offer from New England that included $12 million in guarantees. Shavers wanted at least $18 million, a figure eclipsed when the San Francisco 49ers signed cornerback Nate Clements to a deal that included a reported $22 million in guarantees, part of an eight-year, $80 million that has a fair amount of fluff at the end but certainly enough substance to be a very strong deal.

A year later, the Clements' deal is irrelevant to Shavers. If he's right, the market for players is about to take another huge jump.

"Don't talk to me about the Clements deal," Shavers said, with mild disdain. "Everybody brings that up to me and that's not anything like what I'm thinking. That was last year. That's history."

Without being too detailed, Shavers' new touchstone is the six-year, $72 million contract Indianapolis defensive end Dwight Freeney received before last season. That deal included $30 million in guarantees. The deal also was the biggest ever for a defensive player. While Shavers admits that pass rushing defensive ends are more valuable than cornerbacks in the pecking order of NFL position importance, the difference isn't enough to put a comparison out of the realm of discussion.

"I think you start at where Freeney is and work your way down, not from Clements and work up," said Shavers, who expects interest from the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and possibly Dallas Cowboys. He said the Patriots remain a serious contender to re-sign Samuel.

Samuel's preference is to stay a title contender, although he remains open to all possibilities (money talks).

"But Asante is used to winning. He wants to be part of that," Shavers said.

Of course, there are folks up in New England who resent Samuel for taking a run at the money. After quarterback Tom Brady, linebacker Tedy Bruschi and wide receiver Randy Moss took below-market deals to stay or join the Patriots, the expectation was that others would follow.

That's a noble position, but not realistic. In particular, the Pats not only figure to lose Samuel this year, but also might lose nickel corner Randall Gay (also an unrestricted free agent). That's quite a hit to the secondary. Look down the road and keeping nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who has two years left on his original six-year deal, doesn't figure to be easy, either.

The bottom line is that this is business for all concerned. Samuel put himself in position for this kind of pay day by doing everything right. As a fourth-round pick in 2003, he saved his money early so he wouldn't be forced to take a below-market deal.

Samuel and Shavers withstood the criticism they received last year when they balked at the long-term offers New England made and more ripping when Samuel held out from the start of training camp, threatening to not report until after the tenth week of the season.

The holdout worked when the Patriots agreed to not put the franchise tag on Samuel again after the 2007 season, as long as Samuel played in at least 12 games and/or 60 percent of the plays.

In short, Samuel prepared himself and exercised his rights as a player to get what he wanted. He also performed, getting another six interceptions (plus another in the AFC title game against the San Diego Chargers) this season and helping New England get to another Super Bowl.

Some people absurdly suggest that if Samuel really wanted the money, he should have caught the potential interception on New York's final drive, a play (assuming Samuel would have actually gotten his feet down in bounds) that could have prevented the Giants' stunning win. But those same people forget that Clements got his big contract despite never going to the playoffs.

In Samuel's five seasons, the Patriots have won two Super Bowls, appeared in a third, lost once in the AFC Championship and made the playoffs every year.

That's the type of resumé that makes general managers and coaches from around the NFL take notice.

No matter what the price.