NFC North News

With free agency in full throttle divisional rivals are debating whether to retain their own players or be major players in the market.

DETROIT LIONS
The Lions made a big splash in free agency, inking top offensive lineman and former Pro Bowl center Damien Woody and solid cover corner Fernando Bryant. Detroit may also add two more wide receivers to the mix within the next couple of days.

The signing of Woody is said to be for five years and $25 million that would make it the largest bonus ever paid to an interior lineman, dwarfing the previous record $7 million.

The 5'10, 27-year old Bryant gives Detroit a solid duo at the cornerback position. Bryant is known as a solid cover corner and gives the team a top-notch skilled athlete opposite Dre' Bly. Bryant has started the previous 5 seasons for Jacksonville.

The signing closes the book on Detroit's pursuit of 49ers' free-agent cornerback Ahmed Plummer but not necessarily at the guard position. Detroit is talking to guard Ron Stone, a two-time Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49'ers. If signed, Detroit would have one of the top young offensive lines in football.

Meanwhile, Detroit says they are not done and are expected to host San Francisco 49ers receiver Tai Streets and have not closed the door on Seahawks wide receiver Darrell Jackson, but want him to lower his demands.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS
The Vikings came within hours of Jim Kleinsasser becoming a free agent. Instead, he's back in the fold with a five-year contract.

There was a sentiment that if Jim Kleinsasser wasn't signed by the midnight opening of free agency, he would be gone. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was going to target Kleinsasser and make a quick move to get him once free agency opened -- despite wild spending in the nation's capital to get Mark Brunell and Clinton Portis.

Instead, the Vikings and Kleinsasser reached an agreement. He was signed to a five-year, $15 million deal that includes a $4.25 million signing bonus.

Is Mike Tice lying, being kept out of the loop or are the continuing trade rumors about Randy Moss simply fishwife gossip? At this point, who knows? A source in Miami has confirmed that the Dolphins are interested in a deal and some sources have put names to the rumor -- sending Moss to Miami for CB Sam Madison, WR Chris Chambers and DE Adewale Ogunleye. Tice has denied knowing anything about such a deal, which could either mean there's no truth to it at all, a deal is being brokered without any input from Tice or he's lying about knowledge of a deal. Until something more substantial comes through, you can take your own pick. However, as of today, Ogunleye is now a restricted free agent, which could kill any potential trade.

GREEN BAY PACKERS
In the cutthroat world of the National Football League, Chad Clifton showed a little heart. The left tackle had the option of signing a lucrative long-term contract offer, or saddling the team with a much larger salary cap hit, but he came through in the clutch.

Thanks to Clifton, the 2004 off-season got a whole lot better for the Green Bay Packers and their fans. Clifton signed off on a six-year, $34.2 million deal just minutes before the start of the free agency period late Tuesday night. The deal includes an $11 million signing bonus, and a very relieved coach and general manager Mike Sherman.

Clifton may have been able to demand more money out of the Packers, or have played for the whopping franchise tender this season of $7 million, but he didn't. Instead, he not only received the money, well-deserved money considering what he went through last year about this time, but he allowed the Packers to meet the league-mandated salary cap limit without having to restructure other players' contracts.

That's great news for a team that has to plug a few glaring holes on the other side of the line of scrimmage. If the Packers advance further than the second round of the playoffs this season, they can look back to the Clifton signing as a starting point.

The Packers aggressively pursued Clifton's agent, Jimmy Sexton, in the past few weeks and made it clear that they wanted to sign the big left tackle before the start of free agency. As the free agency deadline neared, negotiations heated up to the point that Clifton signed an extension. The Packers negotiated up until the 11th hour with defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt last year before coming to terms of a deal.

"I think Jimmy got the picture at the Combine that this is something we really want to do," Brandt said. "It really moved forward from there. In the last couple days, as was the case with Cletidus (Hunt) last year, it was fast and furious."

Clifton's attitude certainly helped.

Earlier on Tuesday, Clifton met in person with Sherman. The two discussed the contract situation and the ramifications if the Packers had to carry the franchise tag into free agency. If you think Clifton felt a little obligated to help the team by signing before the deadline and still get a very fair contract, you are right.

"That definitely crossed my mind when I had a meeting with Coach Sherman," Clifton said. "I knew that with the franchise tag, that's a huge hit on the cap this year. Both sides wanted to get a long-term deal worked out and, fortunately, we were able to do that."

Last year about this time, Clifton was struggling through an intensive rehab program to come back from a devastating hip injury. One minute before the official start of free agency, Clifton and the Packers put an exclamation point on his successful comeback.

"It's not just that he's an excellent player," Sherman said. "He's a quality person."


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