NFL free agency begins Friday

Mar 1, 2007 - 7:35 PM By PA SportsTicker

More than half of the NFL teams are about $15 million under the salary cap. But the commodities in the free agent market are quite limited.

The signing period begins Friday with the salary cap for each team at a robust $109 million. The valuable chips available appeared to be on defense, but that was before six premium players were designated as franchise players.

Defensive end Dwight Freeney of the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, linebacker Lance Briggs of the NFC champion Chicago Bears and cornerback Asante Samuel of the New England Patriots were among the unrestricted free agents tagged as franchise players, which entitles a team to the right of first refusal and two first-round picks as compensation. Only three players with such designations have switched teams since the current system of free agency was implemented in 1993.

Players that are named as franchise players automatically get tendered the average salary of the top five players at their position or 20 percent above their previous salary, whichever is greater.

Freeney, a three-time Pro Bowler, automatically receives a one-year tender worth $8.64 million, the average salary of the top five players at his position. Briggs, a two-time Pro Bowler, will earn at least $7.2 million in 2007.

Samuel, who tied for the league lead with 10 interceptions last season, is entitled to automatically make $7.79 million.

"Some of the marquee players dropped," new Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said. "All of a sudden a lot of the difference makers aren't there."

Defensive ends Justin Smith of the Cincinnati Bengals and Charles Grant of the New Orleans Saints, defensive tackle Cory Redding of the Detroit Lions and kicker Josh Brown of the Seattle Seahawks were the other players tagged as franchise players.

Pro Bowl linebacker Adalius Thomas of the Baltimore Ravens, cornerback Nate Clements of the Buffalo Bills and defensive end Patrick Kerney of the Atlanta Falcons were not designated as franchise players and should get numerous offers.

Thomas, who will turn 30 at the start of next season, has the ability to rush the quarterback (11 sacks) and the speed to cover backs and tight ends.

Clements, a two-time Pro Bowler, was designated as a franchise player in 2006. But he did not get tagged this time and should cash in. The Buffalo News reported that Clements wants a signing bonus of at least $15 million.

Linebacker Cato June and cornerback Nick Harper of the Colts; linebacker London Fletcher-Baker of the Bills and safety Ken Hamlin of the Seahawks are the other attractive unrestricted free agents on defense.

No offensive players in the market were designated as franchise players.

Running back Jamal Lewis became a free agent when the Baltimore Ravens released him on Wednesday. Lewis rushed for 1,132 yards and nine touchdowns but averaged just 3.6 yards per carry last season.

Ahman Green of the Green Bay Packers and Dominic Rhodes of the Colts are the other top running backs on the market. Rhodes rushed for 113 yards in the Colts' 29-17 victory over Chicago in Super Bowl XLI last month.

Jeff Garcia, 37, is the top quarterback available. He proved his value last season, leading the Philadelphia Eagles to five straight wins and the NFC East title after Donovan McNabb tore his ACL.

Wide receivers Donte Stallworth of the Eagles and Drew Bennett of the Tennessee Titans; tight ends Jerramy Stevens of the Seahawks and Daniel Graham of the Patriots; tackle Leonard Davis of the Arizona Cardinals and guards Ruben Brown of the Bears, Kris Dielman of the San Diego Chargers and Eric Steinbach of the Bengals should also draw plenty of interest.

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