Room to maneuver

Mike Sherman has a plan as June 1 approaches. While the Packers signed veteran free agent linebacker Robert Jones to a one-year contract last week, expect Green Bay to pursue some other big-name free agents this weekend or early next week.<p>

This Saturday is the deadline for National Football League teams to send tender to unsigned restricted free agents or to extend a qualifying offer to retain exclusive negotiating rights. It also is the earliest date that teams can release veteran players with high cap figures to take a lesser hit on this season's salary cap.

Unless he agrees to a restructured deal before midnight this Friday, Packers wide receiver Antonio Freeman will probably be waived after June 1. Freeman's salary cap number for next season is $5.728 million, including a $1.428 million charge for the prorated portion of the $10 million bonus he signed as part of a seven-year, $42 million contract in 1999. His production has slipped every year since then. Last season, his 52 receptions for 818 yards and six touchdowns marked his lowest output since his rookie season in 1995.

The Packers may try to retain Freeman for a reduced price simply because of the inexperience of the wide receivers in the Packers offense. But if they don't, look for the Packers to seek another veteran free agent wide receiver and probably another veteran free agent linebacker.

Many reports have indicated that the Packers will pursue Jacksonville middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson to compete against Torrance Marshall and Jones. Jacksonville wide receiver Keenan McCardell, Lions wide receiver Herman Moore, and Kansas City wide receiver Derrick Alexander are expected to be released for cap purposes as well.

The Packers, who were about $500,000 under the salary cap in early May, will have plenty of room under the cap after June 1 to obtain players, according to Sherman. Trading up in the recent NFL draft to select wide receiver Javon Walker helped the Packers free up some money to use after June 1. The Packers' rookie cap ranks 29th in the NFL.

"We have some money," said Sherman. "Because we didn't sign a second round draft pick, and that's one reason why I wasn't going to dig deep into the third round. We anticipated our second round draft pick not to be there that we would have liked to have signed. Some of that played into the decision to move up and get Walker. By not having the second round draft pick, you have a little bit more money in reserve to go get somebody, and that's part of the plan."

To further free up cap room, the Packers also are negotiating with veteran safety LeRoy Butler on a restructured contract. Butler has a salary-cap number of $3.232 million for 2002.

The Packers most likely will seek help at middle linebacker and possibly a return specialist. Freeman is not totally out of the picture in Green Bay. Wide receivers Terry Glenn and second-year pro Robert Ferguson are expected to start this season. Neither has caught a pass in the regular season from Brett Favre. Wide receiver Corey Bradford signed with the Houston Texans and Bill Schroeder jumped ship to Detroit. Wide receivers Donald Driver and Charles Lee have experience in Green Bay's offense in practice, but have not had much game-time experience. Both, of course, are eager to show that they are starting caliber receivers. But both will have to beat out Walker, who is projected as the No. 3 wide receiver heading into training camp.

Fortunately, the Packers have a minicamp from June 3-12 to give new faces a try, further evaluate each position, and prepare for training camp.

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