Free agency: Unrestricted free agents

The Green Bay Packers fired their opening salvo of the free-agent season on Monday by naming tight end Bubba Franks their transition player. Franks is one of the team's nine unrestricted free agents. That number, however, likely will be going up before it comes down.

The Packers almost certainly will release standout guard Mike Wahle because, with a $6 million roster bonus pending, he counts $11 million against the 2005 salary cap. That number, no matter Wahle's prowess and his potential to get even better, is too high for a team that is about $5 million above the projected salary cap of $85.5 million.

Teams were allowed to release players starting Monday. The Packers must be under the salary cap by March 2, so a move on Wahle could come any day now. The Packers, however, likely will wait until as close to March 1 as possible to give teams less time to talk to Wahle and more time to try to find a way to keep Wahle at a price that's acceptable to both parties.

While Wahle's release looks like a sure thing, there's more intrigue surrounding safety Darren Sharper. The former Pro Bowler is the Packers' only playmaker in the secondary, but he was slowed by a knee injury last season and didn't make much of an impact other than his three touchdowns. His cap number for 2005 will be $8.633 million — including a $6 million roster bonus.

Sharper, 29, beefed up last season due to an expected role as a blitzer in Bob Slowik's scheme. The extra pounds and the bum knee made him a step or two slow. He was exploited at times, especially in the Indianapolis game. New coordinator Jim Bates, however, wants Sharper back in his ballhawking role. With the Packers being so weak in the defensive backfield and Sharper being a Pro Bowler as recently as 2003, letting him go would be a risk.

Along with Franks, of the team's current list of unrestricted free agents, only guard Marco Rivera and linebacker Hannibal Navies are starters.

The Packers would love to keep Rivera, especially with the possibility of losing Wahle. Rivera will be 33 when the 2005 season kicks off, has a history of knee injuries, and while still a Pro Bowl player, his best days are behind him. Rivera wants to stay in Green Bay and probably can be had at a fraction of Wahle's price.

Navies has been a decent player but has not been a difference maker; he neither intercepted a pass nor forced or recovered a fumble in 2004. A nagging shoulder injury that kept him out of practice off and on throughout the season didn't help. However, the Packers don't have anyone waiting in the wings to take Navies' spot and at the moment don't have the salary-cap space to sign a definite upgrade.

The other unrestricted free agents will be allowed to leave if they can find greener pastures. They are, in order of significance, safety Bhawoh Jue, tight end David Martin, linebacker Torrance Marshall, offensive lineman Brad Bedell, quarterback Doug Pederson and punter Bryan Barker.

Jue has had more bad days than good during his time with the Packers, but he showed some promise at safety last season after starting his career at cornerback. The Packers won all three of Jue's starts when Sharper was sidelined with a knee injury at midseason. Jue's interception iced the win over Washington. With the Packers' weak secondary, Jue might be back.

Martin has been a bust after being drafted as a college wide receiver at Tennessee. He missed the last seven games with a knee injury, but caught just five passes when he played. In four seasons he caught only 39 passes. However, the Packers have zero depth behind Franks, so Martin could come back by default if the price is right.

Marshall has been a star until the pads come on. He has all the athletic ability in the world but lacks a football IQ. He missed the last third of the season with an injured hamstring.

Bedell, who just finished his third season, did a decent job as the U-71 offensive tackle when Kevin Barry was injured late in the season.

Pederson is considering retirement and reportedly is in the running for a high school coaching job in his home state of Louisiana. With Craig Nall's emergence, Pederson would be no better than the third-string quarterback next fall. His value lies as a holder on kicks and as someone for Brett Favre to talk to.

Barker was brought out of semiretirement to punt last fall and likely will retire for good rather than return for a 16th season. He averaged 40.1 yards per punt last season, two yards less than his career mark.

Free agents are free to negotiate and sign elsewhere beginning March 2. As the name implies, unrestricted free agents — who must have completed four NFL seasons — are free to sign with any team without restrictions. Unless designated a franchise player, teams that lose an unrestricted free agent are not compensated.

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