Free-agent wave's a trickle


The NFL's second wave of free agency hits tomorrow, but unlike previous years, there won't be much of a splash.

Sure, there will be a few big names tossed into the free-agent pool - wide receivers Jerry Rice and Herman Moore and cornerback Deion Sanders are expected to top the list - but for the most part, it will be a less traumatic June than in recent years.

Because teams can spread salary cap losses over two seasons instead of one by cutting a player June 1 or later, this has become a big cutdown date on the NFL calendar. (A team that cuts a player before June 1 must take the full cap hit on the remaining prorated signing bonus in the next season.)

This year is different, and there are three primary reasons:

Players are more aware of the economic climate and react accordingly.

Management has gotten a better grip on dealing with cap issues.

Most of the big cuts have already been made.

Clearly, June 1 isn't what it used to be.

"That's because a lot of players have been talked to and they realize that the market has been a very soft market," said Ozzie Newsome, who has worked the salary cap skillfully as vice president of player personnel for the Super Bowl champion Ravens. "Therefore, they're better off staying with their team and negotiating reductions in contracts."

In order to avoid the unemployment line, several veterans have agreed to take pay cuts. Safety Devin Bush saved the St. Louis Rams $1.35 million in salary cap space by agreeing to drop his 2001 base salary of $1.95 million to $500,000.

Tampa Bay wide receiver Reidel Anthony restructured the final year of his five-year contract - absorbing a cut of about $250,000 - to remain with the Buccaneers.

And Ravens offensive tackle Harry Swayne, who was due to make $2 million this season, renegotiated a two-year deal worth $1.2 million.

In all three cases, the alternative was being released in June.

"People are better prepared to deal with the salary cap now, so there are not going to be as many people available," Newsome said. "There are still going to be some cuts, but I think there is an awareness of both players and organizations to make this thing work without having to do it through releases."

Not everyone agrees to take less, however. Moore, the Detroit Lions' all-time leading receiver, has so far refused to cut his salary from $3.295 million to $1 million this season. That will leave Matt Millen, the team's new president and chief executive officer, little choice but to cut Moore.

Similarly, New Orleans Saints guard Chris Naeole, due $1.123 million this year, has declined a contract extension. The 10th pick in the 1997 draft figures to be a cap casualty tomorrow.

Rice, perhaps the best receiver in NFL history, has reached the end of the line with the San Francisco 49ers. The team wants him to retire after 16 seasons - and is offering him $1 million to do so - but he wants to play. His most feasible options include the Oakland Raiders and Seattle Seahawks.

By cutting Rice, the 49ers clear $2.5 million worth of cap space.

In Washington, the Redskins are in salary cap purgatory with just $57,000 left. The simplest solution is to cut Sanders, who is playing baseball with the Cincinnati Reds this summer and is uncertain of returning to the Redskins. Releasing Sanders would give the Redskins a $3.625 million rebate. It's a move they are expected to make.

Other starters likely to hit the free-agent market shortly include linebacker Lonnie Marts (due a $516,000 roster bonus June 5) of the Jacksonville Jaguars, linebacker Barry Minter ($2.3 million base salary) of the Chicago Bears, and cornerback Phillippi Sparks of the Dallas Cowboys.

Non-starters who are certain to be cut are Saints wide receiver Keith Poole, Pittsburgh Steelers running back Richard Huntley, Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle Rod Jones and Denver Broncos defensive end Lester Archambeau.

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