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Peter King
March 15, 2004
During a five-day free-agent feeding frenzy, teams bulked up their rosters with contracts totaling more than $1 billion
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March 15, 2004

March Madness

During a five-day free-agent feeding frenzy, teams bulked up their rosters with contracts totaling more than $1 billion

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After being introduced as the newest member of the Philadelphia Eagles last Thursday, defensive end Jevon Kearse donned a ceremonial jersey with KEARSE and a 1 on the back. A reporter asked Kearse what number he would wear come autumn, considering that the 90 he wore for five seasons with the Tennessee Titans belonged to defensive tackle Corey Simon in Philly. "I don't care," said a beaming Kearse. "The only number I'm worried about is the contract number. And that one's pretty good."� Kearse was putting it mildly. Despite his history of injury (14 missed games out of the last 35) and recent poor pass-rush production (no sacks in his last 30 quarters), the Eagles signed him to an eight-year, $62.6 million contract just 14 hours into the NFL's most explosive free-agency period ever. You could call the team crazy for guaranteeing a guy with a titanium rod in his left foot $20 million, but Philadelphia was not alone in its madness.

On March 2, the day before the free-agent market opened, the Indianapolis Colts signed franchise quarterback Peyton Manning to a seven-year, $98 million contract that included an NFL-record $34.5 million signing bonus. By Sunday free agents and players who renegotiated deals as parts of trades had already signed contracts totaling more than $1 billion. This was possible largely because the 32 teams were, on average, $8.5 million under the $80.6 million salary cap. It was, says San Francisco 49ers general manager Terry Donahue, "a feeding frenzy unlike any I've ever seen."

An unexpected one too. In the month following the New England Patriots' second Super Bowl victory in three seasons, club officials and coaches around the league fell all over themselves praising the champions' fiscally conservative, no-stars approach. The Patriots stayed on that course last week with three no-frills signings—backup wide receiver J.J. Stokes, third-down back Kevin Faulk and reserve linebacker Don Davis—and an offer to defensive end Rodney Bailey, a restricted free agent from the Pittsburgh Steelers. But New England walked alone.

The Washington Redskins may be 38-42 since Daniel Snyder became owner five years ago, but he is the undisputed champion when it comes to grabbing off-season headlines. (Remember Steve Spurrier?) At week's end the Redskins had thrown $58 million in signing bonuses at nine new players (box, page 52). What's more, the Atlanta Falcons gave 5'10" cornerback Jason Webster a $7 million signing bonus as part of a six-year, $18 million deal, though he was on the field for just 19% of the San Francisco 49ers' defensive plays last year; the Oakland Raiders decided nosetackle Ted Washington was worth $8 million over the next two seasons, though he turns 36 next month and broke a leg in each of the past two years; and the Seattle Seahawks made defensive end Grant Wistrom, who had 41� sacks and no Pro Bowl appearances in six years with the St. Louis Rams, a $34 million player (over six years, including $14 million to sign).

Think this was a good year to be a free agent? Just ask cornerback Antoine Win-field. In five seasons with the Buffalo Bills, the 5'9" Winfield earned a reputation as a tough, clinging cover corner, but not much of a playmaker (six career interceptions). On the first day of free agency Winfield; his wife, Erniece; and his two agents visited the New York Jets. Coach Herm Edwards's wife, Lia, showed Erniece homes in upscale Garden City on Long Island. The couple dined with Jets officials in Manhattan that night; team owner Woody Johnson met Winfield for dessert at Tavern on the Green. The next day, last Thursday, the agents hammered out a six-year, $30 million contract (including $10 million to sign) and canceled a scheduled visit to the Minnesota Vikings, who had the cornerback at the top of their free-agent list. Winfield met with Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson to discuss when the corner would be in town for the off-season program. Erniece donned a Jets jersey with WINFIELD and 26 on the back, wearing it around the team's complex. However, when the time came to put his name on the dotted line later that night, Winfield backed away. Seems he was being flooded with cellphone calls from Vikings coach Mike Tice and some of his players. Minnesota was a league-high $33 million under the cap, and a verbal agreement between Winfield and the Jets wasn't going to stop Tice. He arranged to borrow a buddy's private jet and flew the Winfield entourage from Long Island to St. Paul early on Friday. Later that day, Minnesota added $4.8 million to the package the Jets had offered, and just like that, Winfield was a Viking.

Cap money wasn't burning a hole in every team's pocket. The Dallas Cowboys, who were $9.5 million under the cap, were waiting for the right bargains. The Cincinnati Bengals, usually an afterthought in the free-agent market, spent a reasonable $10.8 million over five years on up-and-comer Nate Webster, a speed linebacker formerly with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But the lessons of New England's free-agent philosophy-give the market a chance to settle and then go bargain hunting for second-tier players-were mostly lost last week.

"This time of year 90 percent of the teams think they're one or two players from the playoffs," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last Saturday. "But I've learned football is a business of quality depth management. The bottom 10 or 15 guys on your roster are important because in such a physical game, you're going to need them to play for you at some point. It's like a stock portfolio; you'd better be good from top to bottom. History has shown you can't win in football by a quickie solution. You can't buy NFL titles."

Philadelphia has lost the NFC Championship Game each of the past three seasons, and the situation there is interesting because since Andy Reid took over as coach in early 1999, the Eagles had paid big money only to land free-agent tackle Jon Runyan and to extend the contract of quarterback Donovan McNabb. This year the Eagles let two starting cornerbacks ( Troy Vincent and Bobby Taylor), their defensive MVP ( linebacker Carlos Emmons) and a couple of running backs ( Duce Staley and Correll Buckhalter) test the market. only Buckhalter is likely to return. Yet on :he first day of free agency the tightfisted Eagles gave Kearse $12 million to sign, $8 million more in roster bonuses over the next three years and $125,000 a year to work out at the team's facility in the off-season. They were also trying to swing a deal with the 49ers for Terrell Owens (box, right), who would have been in line for a signing bonus in the $10 million range himself.

Forget, for a minute, the unrealistic salaries in the last three ^ears of the Kearse deal, which will undoubtedly be renegotiated if he remains in the league that long. The Eagles have committed $35.8 million over five years to a 27-year-old player who has missed 14 games in the last two years because of a broken foot and a high ankle sprain (on the same leg) that still nagged him after he returned for the final two months of last season.

Philly scrutinized two MRIs and a bone-density scan of the foot, broken early in 2002, and last week had doctors bend and contort the foot during a thorough examination. They reported that Kearse is not at major risk for a re-fracture. The Eagles paid Kearse top dollar because a quality pass rusher is critical to the success of defensive coordinator Jimmy Johnson's high-risk scheme, and they haven't had such a player since Hugh Douglas was a force in 2001. Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz called Kearse "devastating" to opponents during the first half of last season, before the sprained ankle. Schwartz said he had no doubts that Kearse would return to the form he showed in his first three NFL seasons, when he had 36 sacks in 48 games.

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