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Negotiating table is a tough place to sit at in the NFL

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Packers defensive tackle Corey Williams could be looking at a big pay raise this offseason.


The more I watch the ripple effect of some of the factors creating stress on player negotiations these days in the NFL, the more I feel for team contract negotiators.

There are some external forces that make it close to impossible for a team to get one of their good, young veteran re-signed if he is approaching free agency.

In the next few days, we will hear which players are going to be tagged with the franchise designation, and that will set into motion an incredible amount of pressure on signing other players.

For example, the Green Bay Packers are trying to retain the services of defensive lineman Corey Williams. He had seven sacks in 2007, which places him as one of the top tackles in that department.

Albert Haynesworth had a great year for the Titans and will get the franchise tag, but he only had six sacks. The franchise tag is worth $6.36 million, and that designation takes Haynesworth off the open market.

If Williams doesn't get a deal signed before free agency starts on Feb. 29 -- and Haynesworth is not his competition in free agency -- Williams becomes the premiere tackle on the market, and that will make the Packers' job very tough. The ripple effect of tagging Haynesworth, along with the reality of the Packers drafting Justin Harrell in the first round last year at Williams' position, could make the ability to keep Williams close to impossible.

"Whatever Williams was worth last September," said one league personnel man, "it's triple that now, and it can only get worse."

Think of the tight ends in free agency. The Eagles are slapping a tag on L.J. Smith, and the Colts will do the same with Dallas Clark. The tight end franchise tag is a reasonable number at $4.5 million, but the deals they eventually sign are going to have the Browns' Kellen Winslow looking at his contract like it is completely out of date.

The rest of the free-agent tight end population isn't very impressive, but the draft class, led by USC's Fred Davis, just moved up a notch for teams such as Seattle, Carolina, Buffalo and Cincinnati that really need to upgrade the position.

The financial compensation first- and some second-round draft picks make with no NFL experience has added a significant amount of pressure to signing young free agents who have proven themselves in the NFL.

In the 2006 draft, for example, the 32 first-round players averaged $10.38 million of guaranteed money without ever stepping on a professional football field. Along comes a guy like Panthers offensive tackle Travelle Wharton, who is scheduled to be a free agent, and he looks at a deal D'Brickashaw Ferguson got coming out of college to play the same position. Ferguson's rookie deal has a $6.24 million average, with minimum triggers over six years. In order to keep Wharton off the market in free agency, the Panthers deliver a six-year deal that averages $6 million a year with $12 million of it guaranteed.

The free-agent linebacker class this year is another interesting story that is developing quickly. The Ravens are tagging Terrell Suggs at $8.06 million. With one premiere linebacker off the market, the Cardinals then eliminated a second top linebacker by tagging Karlos Dansby.

Now the path is clear for Lance Briggs, who can't be tagged again, to control the free-agency market, and his price just went up. Whatever deal Briggs signs will probably have a big effect on what Suggs and Dansby eventually agree to.

The ripple effect of getting top flight players such as Suggs and Dansby off the market should continue down to a linebacker such as the Giants' Kawika Mitchell. He might never see the kind of money some of the 'backers above are going to, but his value on the open market just went up, and the Super Bowl performance didn't hurt his marketability.

The Chiefs are not letting defensive end Jared Allen get away, especially after leading the NFL in sacks. Allen fully expects the franchise tag. All of a sudden, Tennessee defensive ends Travis LaBoy (six sacks)and Antwan Odom (eight sacks) look pretty good to a team looking for a defensive end, and they stand to get bigger contracts with Allen out of the way.

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Justin Smith may find greener pastures outside of Cincinnati.

Justin Smith was tagged last year and didn't have a great year numbers-wise in 2007. The Bengals would have to offer him 120 percent of what he made last year, which is $10.3 million. I think he will be a free agent at that number, and with Allen off the market, Smith might feel he can do better out on the street than by staying in Cincinnati.

The Smith situation bears watching closely. Is there a team out there that will look at him the way the Seahawks looked at Patrick Kerney? Is he worth what a guy such as Chris Kelsey got in Buffalo? History says that some team will pay him significant money. "Don't let the production numbers fool you," said one GM. "He's getting action on the open market if the Bengals don't lock him up."

Sure, the salary cap is headed to the $116 million range, and a large number of teams have the cap space to sign players. But as long as rookie first-round picks upset the market for veterans and tagged players shift the market to the next players on the list, the pressure to deliver big deals is going to grow.

As I think about what Wharton got from the Panthers to not become a free agent, I can only imagine what their other tackle, Jordan Gross, is going to get to stay in Carolina. The franchise tag will be used if a deal isn't done in time, and that's a $7.45 million one-year contract.

It might take a six-year deal that averages $7.5 million with $20 million guaranteed. Here's a team that lost their starting quarterback, finished the season ranked 29th on offense, and it will probably pay out $30-35 million in guaranteed money to its two tackles.

The negotiating season in the NFL is a rough time for the guys doing the work at the bargaining table.

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