Up against the cap, clock

The clock is ticking on the salary-cap strapped Green Bay Packers and their attempt to re-sign Chad Clifton. The Packers, as expected, placed the franchise tag on the soon-to-be free agent left tackle but face a crushing blow financially if they are unable to work out a long-term deal before the beginning of free agency on March 3.<p>

Packers vice president of player finance Andrew Brandt said today that the team is currently about $1.5 million under projected salary cap of $80.5 million. The cap for the upcoming season goes into effect at midnight on March 2. The amount the Packers are under the cap, however, does not include tenders to Green Bay's restricted and exlusive rights free agents. The tenders will count against the cap when the free agency period begins. The deadline for teams to place right-of-first-refusal tenders on their restricted free agents is next Tuesday.

Clifton, 27, is seeking a long-term deal and is in line for a record signing bonus for a Packers player of between $12 million and $13 million.

Unable to reach a contract agreement before today's 3 p.m. (CST) deadline, the Packers used the franchise tag for the first time with Brandt as the team's chief negotiator. Thus, the tag buys the Packers at least a week of time to re-sign Clifton, but at midnight on March 2, his estimated salary cap number of around $7 million kicks in against the team's cap. The Packers then have a two-week window in which they can still sign Clifton to a long-term deal and remove the franchise tag.

"Chad wants to be here and we want Chad here," Brandt said. "We'll see if we can find common ground. No one doubts that this is a substantial negotiation and the contract is for a premium position that requires significant income. We're trying to figure out what significant means."

The highest signing bonus ever awarded to a Packers offensive lineman was the reported $4 million given to Earl Dotson for re-signing in 1998. Fellow tackle Mark Tauscher received $3.75 million in signing and roster bonuses in November of 2002. But it will probably take a bonus closer to Brett Favre's team-record 2001 signing bonus of $12 million to keep Clifton.

The franchise tender, derived from the average of salary-cap numbers of the five highest-paid offensive linemen last year, is $7,021,000. Brandt says the Packers have a plan in case they have to enter free agency without a long-term deal with Clifton. As it stands, the Packers will have to renegotiate with a couple of players to meet the salary cap limit. Brandt said a few players have agreed to restructure their deals if need be, including tackle Mark Tauscher. The Packers also are expected to approach ineffective defensive end Joe Johnson for a salary reduction.

"In every situation there is balance, and you have to balance cap room versus what you're trying to accomplish in free agency," Brandt said. "Without revealing any plans we have in free agency, there's a plan to be prepared for that."

The Packers were in a similar situation last year with defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt. They placed the transition tag on him, then worked out a six-year, $25.5 million deal before the free-agent signing period began.

If the Packers can sign Clifton to a six-year deal, they will create a salary-cap number of slightly more than $2.5 million, factoring in a prorated $2 million for the signing bonus and a minimum salary of $535,000.

"The goal is to get a good deal for the Packers and a good deal for Chad," Brandt said. "We will be prepared to go into the new year cap-wise with the tag if need be."

Clifton, entering his fifth season, was part of an offensive line which allowed just 19 sacks for 137 yards last year. Those totals were the lowest regular-season sack numbers in Favre's Packer career. Favre was sacked just once for a nine-yard loss in the Packers' two playoff games this season. Clifton made a successful comeback from a career-threatening injury sustained at Tampa Bay, Nov. 24, 2002.

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