Around the AFC East: Free Agency Turmoil

The AFC East continues to churn through an adjustment period as free agency approaches, gets delayed and approaches again. The Jets resolved Chad Pennington's contract issue, but still have John Abraham to deal with. The Bills continue to struggle with their receiver issues. The Patriots know McGinest, Givens and Vinatieri may all play elsewhere and Miami has another Ricky Williams issue to deal with. The veteran purge has begun. How bloody will it get?

Jets :: Dolphins :: Patriots


With the start of free agency delayed three days due to the league's labor issues, the Bills were given a chance to reassess their strategy regarding veteran wide receiver Eric Moulds.

Buffalo wants Moulds, a 10-year veteran and their second all-time receiver, to take what his agents call a "substantial" cut in pay in order to stay on the roster.

Moulds is willing to restructure his hefty contract, which runs two more seasons, but won't take a cut. His rationale? If he has to take less money, it might as well be with a playoff contender and not the Bills who are still stuck in rebuilding mode with a new general manager and head coach.

Moulds' agents and Bills chief negotiator Jim Overdorf continue to talk, but no conversation in the last week ended on a positive note.

"The bottom line is they want Eric to take a drastic cut and we don't feel his skills have diminished to justify that," personal advisor Greg Johnson said. "It's just not going to work."

What could make it work? An extension to the collective bargaining agreement. If the CBA were extended, the salary cap now set at $94.5 million would rise an estimated $10 million and restrictive transition year rules that cut into cap space and limit how contracts are structured would be lifted.

That would make living with Moulds' $10.8 million cap figure and paying him the $7.1 million in cash that he's due in 2006 a lot easier for the Bills.

The Bills were approximately $10 million under the set cap after cutting four starters (Mike Williams, Mark Campbell, Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy) and calculating the tenders to their restricted and exclusive rights free agents.

They do not have to do anything with Moulds until they need more cap room. He saves the team $5.5 million in space while counting $5.3 million.

"Maybe they are waiting for that Hail Mary," Johnson said of a new CBA.

The release of Adams, Milloy and Campbell cleared more than $8 million in cap room.

"These moves weren't made in order to try and keep Eric, it's more far reaching," general manager Marv Levy said. "We hope something can be worked out with him. We'd like to keep him and we'll continue to make an effort to do so."


--With the possibility of a CBA extension still out there and free agency delayed 72 hours, NFL teams still didn't know what free agency rules they'd be playing under for 2006. The Bills, like most other teams, have a Plan A and a Plan B. "You're ready to go either way," said Jim Overdorf, the Bills VP of football operations and chief salary cap manager. "You have to realize that under transition rules, it's going to be a lot tighter (with money). If not and there's an extension, we're going to have more flexibility. Push comes to shove, we still have to make the right decisions." Transition rules limit raises for players to 30 percent starting next year, severely limiting how clubs can restructure deals. Bonuses labeled "not likely to be earned" also must count on the 2006 cap (they normally are rolled into the following year) and deals can only be prorated over four years, not six or seven. All of these factors chew into cap space and limit the ability of teams to sign players from what will perhaps be the deepest crop of free agents in history. More players, less money. Not a good combination.

--Defensive tackle Sam Adams and strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who joined the Bills as big-name free agents in 2003 but were released on March 1, have taken the fall for Buffalo's crash from No. 2 in total defense to No. 29 last season. The Bills were extremely weak up the middle against the run. Adams, who had issues with the former coaching staff, started just nine games and finished with a career-low 12 tackles. In his defense, he was underused and played in a system that didn't fit him. Milloy, playing much of the year with a broken thumb, finished second in tackles with 170, the second-best mark of his career. However, he was almost a non-factor in pass coverage and the new defensive system being put in place by Dick Jauron requires his safeties to move. Milloy's game was playing in the box. Age also factored in to Buffalo's decision: Adams and Milloy both turn 33.

--Tight end Mark Campbell, also cut on March 1, was a solid blocker in his three seasons with the Bills but a very pedestrian receiver with 70 catches, none longer than 31 yards. The Bills feel they can do better and released the seven-year veteran. Kevin Everett, a third-round pick who missed his rookie year with a torn ACL, will get the early nod to take Campbell's spot.

--General manager Marv Levy indicated that many factors went into the decision to jettison four starters off last season's 5-11 team (Mike Williams, Mark Campbell, Sam Adams, Lawyer Milloy). More than $13 million in cap space was cleared, but it went deeper than that. "Do they fit our needs?" Levy said. "Do they fit the style of offense and defense we're running? Are they at the age where they are approaching the so-called 'wall'? The cap is factored in. Who might we get and entice as a free agent if there's an opening? All of that. It wasn't a matter of concluding, 'These guys aren't good enough, period.' "

--The Bills gave contract tenders to three important restricted free agents: Third-year linebackers Mario Haggan and Josh Stamer and wide receiver Sam Aiken. All three star on Buffalo's top-ranked special teams while Aiken's value on offense could increase were the Bills to release veteran star Eric Moulds. The Bills would get draft-round compensation if these players sign elsewhere.

--Earning tenders as exclusive rights free agents (no negotiating rights) were starting right tackle Jason Peters, wide receiver Jonathan Smith, running back Shaud Williams and cornerback Jabari Greer. The Bills will try and work out a long-term deal with Peters, who earned 10 starts last year and is considered a rising talent.

--Adams' release increases the possibility of Buffalo spending the No. 8 pick in the draft on top prospect Haloti Ngata of Oregon. Free agent speculation in the media and on has Ryan Pickett and Damione Lewis on Buffalo's radar. The former first-round picks played for new Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell and defensive line coach Bill Kollar in St. Louis.

--Levy on free agency: "I'm not coming in with a shoot-from-the-hip comment, 'We're going out in free agency and doing this and that.' We'll evaluate. We have good cap money. We don't want to be foolish and throw an inordinate amount out for something. But I see us being active in free agency, yes."

--Jauron on free agency: "It's unbelievable how much it has changed the game, how much turnover there is year to year. In the Super Bowl years here (in Buffalo), in the glory days of the Green Bay Packers, it was the same people. It was great for fans and great for the coaches."


--LB Willie McGinest knows he won't play the 2006 season under the more than $8 million cap number he was scheduled to earn heading into free agency. He'll get his walking papers from the team, although both sides would like to see the productive as ever 13-year veteran back for another run with the team that drafted him with the fourth overall pick out of USC in 1994.

"We didn't think they were ever going to pay me $7 million or $8 million next year," McGinest told the Boston Globe. "This last year [2006] was a ghost deal. It wasn't meant to stick. That's why we escalated the numbers the way we did. It would be great if they exercised it and gave me $7 million or $8 million, but I knew if it came to it, they'd renegotiate, release me, or release me and then do a new contract."

If the veteran, who ranks third in Patriots history with 78 sacks, hits the open market a number of 3-4 teams such as Dallas, Cleveland, Chargers, Jets and Dolphins could have interest. And former New England defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel has plenty of cap money to spend with the Browns.

--LB Tedy Bruschi's name came up at the 2006 Scouting Combine, more than a decade after he participated in the annual even in Indy. San Francisco Head Coach Mike Nolan referenced Bruschi's now legendary resiliency and work ethic in an answer to a question about wanting to see players do a full workout at the Combine.

"I like to see them work out because it tells me a lot about their competitive spirit. Great example is Tedy Bruschi," Nolan said. "When he came here, he was too short, too slow, too a lot of things.

But I remember -- I was coaching linebackers when he came here -- I followed his group around and every drill he did, he was berserko about being first. He wanted to do every drill. You only do the vertical jump twice, and I think he wanted to do it four times so he could beat the guy who was already No. 1. That told me a lot about him. That told me this guy is going to be a player. What position? I don't know, but he's going to be a player because of that competitive spirit. You can gain things like that from players like that."

--K Adam Vinatieri told the Orlando Sentinel that the "opportunity to go into free agency this year is a good thing." New England chose not to franchise Vinatieri this spring after he played under a $2.5 million franchise tag salary in 2005 and the kicker reportedly turned down a multi-year deal that would have kept him as the highest-paid kicker in the game.

"I really enjoyed my 10 years with the Patriots," Vinatieri said. "It's been a great time and I have a lot of good memories there. The New England Patriots are bigger than I am. There have been other people who have been released, and others who have been brought in, and that team's been good no matter what."

--Arizona Cardinals Coach Dennis Green had an interesting assessment of the Patriots success in recent years. Depending on how you perceive the comments, it's either a somewhat veiled shot or a overwhelming compliment.

"I think New England has had the most unique way of doing it, because they've been able to work at unrestricted free agency, maintain a certain amount of players," Green said of trying to copy the Patriots success.

"They struck gold with a player that nobody in this room ever thought could be a player. I'd say Bill Belichick was a difference. And Tom Brady was a difference. Two guys. One had a lot more success the second time around, Bill Belichick. And one, nobody could have predicted he would have the intangibles that Joe Montana had. Probably the best one since Joe Montana. Now, the rest of it, it fell into place for them. But I don't think you could emulate that unless you think you could find a Tom Brady just out there somewhere."



The secondary will be a primary offseason concern for the Dolphins after three members of the starting unit from the 2005 season-opener -- including four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison -- were released and a fourth (free safety Lance Schulters) set to test the free-agent market.

The departure of Madison, nickel cornerback Reggie Howard and strong safety Tebucky Jones wasn't completely unexpected. Madison will be 32 in April and he carried a $6.3 million salary cap number. Although he played well toward the end of the 2005 season, that wasn't enough to convince coach Nick Saban to attempt restructuring Madison's contract.

Madison will be remembered as the most prolific cornerback in Dolphins history. A 1997 second-round draft choice, Madison reached the Pro Bowl four times and ranks third on the franchise's all-time interceptions list with 31.

Madison's legacy is much better than that of Howard, who will be remembered as the biggest free-agent bust of the Dave Wannstedt/Rick Spielman regime. The Dolphins signed Howard away from Carolina in 2004 with a six-year, $21.6 million contract that included a $4.5 million signing bonus. Howard, though, showed little in a nickel role in 2004 and was relegated to that same duty three games into last season when rookie Travis Daniels replaced him in the starting lineup.

Jones, a 2005 free-agent pickup from New Orleans, started six games for the Dolphins before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury. Miami's release of Jones was widely expected, as he was set to earn $6.5 million in 2006.

Daniels and Jones replacement Travares Tillman should remain starters entering the 2006 preseason, while Yeremiah Bell appears poised to replace Schulters if the Dolphins don't re-sign him. Schulters paid dividends for the Dolphins as a preseason signing, finishing with a team-high four interceptions and 76 tackles. Schulters, though, probably won't come as cheaply in 2006 after playing on a minimum-salary contract last season.

The Dolphins hope once-promising cornerback Will Poole will make a full recovery from the knee injury that sidelined him all of last season. Still, look for the Dolphins to sign a free-agent cornerback and address the position early in April's draft.


--Agent Marvin Demoff said the Dolphins planned to release quarterback Gus Frerotte until the NFL delayed the start of its calendar year to March 6. That cut is still expected to happen if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement isn't reached between the league and its players union. Should a labor pact get finalized, the Dolphins would conceivably have enough cap room to handle Frerotte's salary cap number, but a renegotiation attempt or release is still likely as Miami seeks a new starting quarterback for 2006.

Quarterbacks being potentially linked to the Dolphins include San Diego's Drew Brees, Washington's Patrick Ramsey and Arizona's Josh McCown.

Frerotte was 9-6 as a Dolphins starter in 2005.

--Quoting an anonymous source, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that tailback Ricky Williams plans to return early from India to appeal a one-year suspension stemming from his recent violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Williams traveled oversees to study yoga and holistic medicine, which are two practices he became involved with while sitting out the entire 2004 season.

The fact that Williams' violation and appeal became public knowledge through the media didn't sit well with Dolphins coach Nick Saban. Williams has three previous violations for positive drug tests for marijuana.

"I think the unfortunate thing is that we all have a professional responsibility as members of the NFL to live by the confidentiality rules we have to protect the players," Saban said. "So I'm sure that whatever organization, however this information got out, the league and those people will take responsibility and we'll be able to make changes that are necessary so that is not a problem for any player in the future. I will be proactive of making any changes that are protective of the players so this doesn't happen again.

"Ricky Williams did a fantastic job for us this year. If I was going to say who were the five guys you enjoyed coaching the most, college or pro, about the guy being a good person, a hard worker, a team player, a competitor, in my coaching career, he would be one of the top guys I have been associated with. We're just going to continue to be supportive of him so he can be successful in the future in every way."

Saban helped resuscitate the NFL career of Williams, who rushed for 743 yards and six touchdowns in 2005 after sitting out the first four games while serving a drug suspension. Williams was especially sharp late in the season, which increased his trade value. With Ronnie Brown in the fold, the Dolphins were considering an offseason trade of Williams, who reportedly was drawing interest from Denver.

Now, any chances of a deal being done are nil because of Williams' uncertain future.

--The Dolphins are seeking a new starting left tackle and veteran backup tight end after releasing Damion McIntosh and Lorenzo Diamond, who were the players handling those roles in 2005.

McIntosh started the past 30 games at left tackle for the Dolphins, but a combination of so-so play and $4.43 million salary in 2005 prompted his release.

Diamond played extensively in two tight-end sets with starter Randy McMichael while serving primarily as a blocker. Undrafted rookie Alex Holmes began splitting snaps with Diamond late in the 2005 season.



--What team will defensive end John Abraham play for in 2006? Whatever the answer, it almost certainly won't be the Jets.

Tony Agnone, one of Abraham's agents, said, "We feel at this point probably that John will not be back in New York."

Abraham and his agents, Agnone and Rich Rosa, were upset when the Jets once again slapped the franchise-player tag on the standout defensive end, despite the fact that he avoided injury and played every game in 2005, managing that feat for the first time since 2002.

They are shopping Abraham around and hope to work out a long-term deal with another team, and then have that team make a trade with the Jets.

--He wasn't officially released on "Bloody Thursday," but all indications are that C Kevin Mawae will be a cap casualty. His agent, Mark Bartelstein, said he was told by the Jets that they would be letting the perennial Pro Bowler go. Mawae's cap figure is approximately $4.5 million.

The 6-foot-4, 289-pound Mawae, who played eight seasons for the Jets, wasn't the biggest center, but certainly was one of the most athletic. The Jets used him much like a pulling guard in their running game, as he often was the lead blocker for Curtis Martin on sweeps. He started 125 consecutive games for the Jets, both in the regular season and playoffs, until a torn triceps against Buffalo on Oct. 16 ended his 2005 season. And, as it turns out, his Jets' career.

Philadelphia or New Orleans are teams for which Mawae potentially could wind up.

--C Kevin Mawae's impending release could mean that the Jets will attempt to keep veteran offensive lineman Pete Kendall, a guard for most of his career. However, he stepped into the breach at center after Mawae was hurt, and after some celebrated snapping mishaps on Monday night at Atlanta, he settled down and performed quite admirably in the role. The Jets are looking to restructure his contract.

--The Jets may be in a rebuilding mode, but this much you can say about them. They will be leaner and meaner in 2006.

The leaner will come from the fact that new coach Eric Mangini already has hired three assistant coaches to work on strength and conditioning, an area which was lax under the laissez-faire Herm Edwards. Also, the meaner side of the Jets was displayed when they released S Oliver Celestin.

Celestin, a New Orleans native, saw his entire family displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Jets brought Celestin's family to Long Island and helped them find a place to live.

The old Jets' regime sometimes received criticism for making contract decisions based on sympathy and sentimentality, but with this move, Mangini and GM Mike Tannenbaum made it clear those days are over. Sentimentality isn't how Bill Belichick won three Super Bowls in his first four seasons with the Patriots.

--Tight end Chris Baker, an unrestricted free agent, is someone whom the Jets are interested in re-signing. But their cap situation is making that very difficult right now, so they may have to let him test the free-agent waters and get back to him once they've gotten under the cap. Baker is coming off a broken fibula, so he may not be a very hot commodity in the open market.

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