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Colts keep Pro Bowl center Saturday with three-year contract

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Saturday isn't leaving the Colts.

The three-time Pro Bowl center, who was expected to be one of the top offensive linemen on the free-agent market, suddenly changed his plans Thursday, signing a three-year contract that likely will allow him to finish his NFL career with the team that brought him into the league.

Age: 29

Height: 6-2  Weight: 295

College: North Carolina

Experience: 10 seasons

Saturday's agent, Ralph Cindrich, wouldn't disclose financial terms of the deal with the Colts, but he said it was completed just hours before free agents could start signing with new teams. Cindrich said Saturday will now be paid like one of the NFL's top centers.

What changed things was the salary-cap number. It was expected to be $123 million but increased to $127 million Wednesday night, and that gave the Colts more flexibility to re-sign Saturday.

"It looked very dire," Saturday told The Associated Press. "I had made up my mind that we were headed to free agency, and until yesterday, that was the plan. Then they came up with this deal. I'm extremely excited about continuing the journey and being part of this team."

For the Colts, it was a rare bit of good news in a week filled with players lining up to test the open market.

On Wednesday, the Colts officially released record-setting wide receiver Marvin Harrison, saving them about $6 million in cap room. Last week, Thomas Mills, the agent for longtime punter Hunter Smith, said his client didn't expect to sign before Thursday night's deadline and would test the market.

Other veterans Colts players joined the club Thursday. Craig Domann, the agent for defensive end Josh Thomas, told The Associated Press his client would become a free agent, and The Indianapolis Star reported that running back Dominic Rhodes would, too. The Associated Press left repeated messages for Rhodes' agent, Todd France, at his office, on his cell phone and through e-mail.

Wednesday morning, it looked like Saturday would join them in freee agency. Instead, the Colts will have their longest-tenured starter on the offensive line back for three years.

"You never know how everything is going to go," Saturday said. "Maybe you finish the three years and you're done, or maybe you come back as a backup or whatever. But this leaves those options open."

The Colts still could face significant changes. Besides Harrison, Smith, Thomas and Rhodes, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, defensive tackle Darrell Reid, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and safety Matt Giordano all appear headed to free agency, too. All started at least one game in 2007 or 2008 with the Colts.

If the Colts can't re-sign any of those players, it would be one of the largest exoduses in team president Bill Polian's 11-year Indianapolis tenure.

What's changed? New salary-cap rules and a wave of lucrative deals have constrained the Colts' budget.

Since 2004, 10 players have signed deals worth at least $19 million -- not counting Saturday's new deal.

The bigger problem are rules changes that accelerate the charge for prorated bonuses when veterans are released. They also limit the base-salary increases to 30 percent for players who sign new deals in 2009.

The combination has put the Colts in a salary-cap pickle for the first time in the Polian era.

Polian has almost always preferred signing his own players rather than paying big bucks to players from other teams. The most notable exceptions this decade were wide receiver Brandon Stokley, who left the Baltimore Ravens to join the Colts, and former New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri.

But last week, it appeared the Colts would be parting with some of their best-known players as they pondered using the franchise tag to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden, their top offseason priority. When Hayden agreed to a five-year, $43 million contract last Thursday, the dominoes started falling in Saturday's direction.

The Colts offered Saturday a one-year deal, which he rejected. Negotiations were stalled until the Colts learned Wednesday night they had another $4 million with which to work. So they went back to Saturday and offered him the longer deal he had been seeking.

It didn't take long for Saturday, who began his career as an undrafted free agent in 1999 and started 138 games over the last nine years, to make his decision.

"The one-year deal wasn't in his market value, and the one-year deal would have been catastrophic," Cindrich said. "This one makes him one of the best-paid centers in the league, and it's all real money."

Indianapolis also offered one-year tenders to defensive tackle Daniel Muir and running back Lance Ball.

Muir, who was claimed off waivers last season and played in six games, received a $460,000 tender. Ball, who was signed to the practice squad in mid-October and rushed for 83 yards in the Colts' regular-season finale, received a $310,000 tender.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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