After battle, many NFL teams won't fight free agents But Redskins to protect Marshall

The long battle between NFL owners and players over free agency exemptions may turn out to be one that wasn't worth fighting.

The question of how many players would be exempted from free agency was the major sticking point in the negotiations.


It took the owners four months after they lost an antitrust trial in September until -- with the prodding of federal judge David Doty -- they accepted the players' proposal, which stated they could exempt 84 five-year players from unrestricted free agency in the first year of the new plan.

After trying to get more exemptions, more than half the teams in the NFL may not even designate a "franchise player" by today's 4 p.m. deadline.


Each team can designate one "franchise player" who is not eligible for free agency and two "transitional players" who can be kept if their club matches their best offer. Next year, each team is allowed one more "transitional player."

The hangup is that if a player gets that "franchise" designation, he must be paid the average of the top five players at his position. That ranges from $3.364 million for a quarter-back to $517,900 for a kicker. "Transitional" players must be paid the average of the top 10 players at his position. Many teams would rather risk losing players than meet those salaries.

The Washington Redskins, who will designate linebacker Wilber Marshall as their franchise player, apparently will be in the minority.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Jets, Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons are among the teams that have said they won't name a franchise player.

The Philadelphia Eagles are expected to designate defensive lineman Reggie White, and the Phoenix Cardinals are expected to designate safety Tim McDonald -- even though those two players were plaintiffs in lawsuits that led to the settlement and can't be prevented from leaving. If White and McDonald are designated and sign elsewhere, their teams would get a draft choice in return -- from a separate pool set up expressly for that purpose.

Another reason teams aren't designating franchise players is because they can save that designation for future years. For example, quarterback John Elway is the Broncos' obvious franchise player. But because he has a year left on his contract, the Broncos won't designate a franchise player this year. If they can sign Elway to a new deal in the next year, they can save the designation.

The Redskins have plenty of options because they have so many high-priced players.

Marshall will get the franchise designation because his contract is up and his $1.3 million salary isn't far below the top-five average for linebackers at $1.653 million.


Jim Lachey will be designated as a transitional player even though he has two years left on his contract. He's already the highest paid offensive lineman in the league and has several years left at age 29.

By contrast, the Redskins won't protect cornerback Darrell Green, who also has two years left on his contract and is one of the highest-paid cornerbacks, because he's 33 and nearer to the end of his career.

The Redskins will consider wide receivers Gary Clark and Desmond Howard and kicker Chip Lohmiller for the designation as their other transitional player.

Free-agency facts

* A player with five years of experience who's not protected and whose contract is up can sign with any team from Monday until July 15.

* Each team can designate one franchise player who must be offered the average of the top five highest-paid players at his position or a 20 percent raise over his salary last season. Franchise players can't negotiate with other teams. If a team doesn't designate a franchise player, it can use the designation in future years. Once the contract of a designated player expires, the team can designate another player, but can never have more than one franchise player at one time.


* Each team can designate two transitional players this year who must be offered the average of the top 10 players at their position or a 20 percent raise. Transitional players can negotiate with other teams, but their clubs can keep them by matching their best offers. If the transitional designations aren't used, they are lost.

* Players with three or four years of experience whose contracts have expired can negotiate with other teams until April 20. But their clubs can keep them by matching their best offers and get compensation if they don't.