In nick of time, Clifton signs

Minutes before the clock struck midnight to the start of free agency today, Chad Clifton and the Green Bay Packers agreed to a six-year contract worth $34.2 million, including a signing bonus of $11 million. By signing Clifton, the Packers avoided having to restructure other players' contracts in order to meet the salary cap limit.<p>

Agreeing to a long-term deal just before midnight allowed the Packers to retain the franchise tag that they assigned Clifton last week. It also gives the team much more room under the salary cap to pursue other free agents.

"We're not going to go hog wild in free agency, but we are going address some needs that we have to address," said Packers coach and general manager Mike Sherman. "I feel very confident that we can entertain those as well as finalize this deal with Chad." Instead of having to pay Clifton, 27, about $7 million this season as a franchise player, he will have a cap figure of around $2.5 million, according to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His signing bonus, usually paid up front, will be prorated over six years for salary cap purposes.

"It's more than a fair offer," said Clifton. "It's a great offer. It's something that I jumped at. Jimmy faxed the offer to my house. We (his wife Candy) both discussed it. We both decided that it's a fair offer, it's a great offer and I was very excited to sign it."

If the Packers hadn't signed Clifton, it is believed they would have had to restructure the contracts of safety Darren Sharper and quarterback Brett Favre. Whenever a team restructures a contract of a player it wants to retain, it ultimately affects the team's salary cap negatively in future seasons.

Clifton, who signed the contract minutes before the deadline, will remain part of a mighty offensive line for a fourth straight season. With Clifton as a pass-blocking anchor, the unit allowed just 19 sacks in 2003, and 22 in 2001, the two lowest totals by any Packers offense during a 16-game season. Clifton allowed just 1 1/2 of those sacks as Brett Favre's blind-side protector.

"It keeps our offensive line intact, which was very important to me," Sherman said. "We have our tackles signed. Last year, we get ‘Tausch' and now we have Chad. It's not just that he's an excellent player. He's a quality person."

Green Bay's offensive line also ranked first statistically in the NFL last season, posting the best combined ranking in two major O-line categories: rushing yards per game (159.9) and sacks allowed per pass play (one sack every 25.9 plays).

Because Clifton's original contract had not yet expired, the move is considered an extension, and not an unrestricted free-agent signing.

The 6-foot-5, 330-pound tackle from Tennessee will line up for a fifth straight season at left tackle. The Packers haven't had that level of consistency at the position since Ken Ruettgers protected the quarterback's blind side from 1986-95. Clifton is a key reason why the Packers have allowed only 68 sacks since 2001, the NFL's best mark.

Last year at this time, Clifton's future in football was uncertain. He was rehabilitating from a devastating hip injury, sustained during a 2002 game at Tampa Bay. With daily help from the team's strength and conditioning, and medical staffs, Clifton had to literally learn to walk before he had any thoughts of returning to the football field.

To his credit, Clifton made a successful recovery and did not miss a snap in 2003 — 1,031 offensive plays – the Packers' only offensive player with that distinction.

Clifton, right tackle Mark Tauscher, guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, and center Mike Flanagan – did not miss a start in 2003. The unit is believed to be the Packers' first offensive line to start every game in a season since Vince Lombardi's prized offensive front did it early in his tenure.

"It is a relief to have this done, have this thing checked off as a priority on our list and move forward from there, and address the needs we have on defense," Sherman said. "I feel confident we can do that with the draft and free agency."

Eight other players who were with the Packers last year became unrestricted free agents today, including punter Josh Bidwell, safety Antuan Edwards, defensive tackle Larry Smith and defensive back Michael Hawthorne.

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