Free Agency: How Much For A New OLB?

One of the biggest mysteries of the free-agent signing season thus far – aside from "how the hell are the Redskins doing it?" – is the seeming lack of interest in star linebacker Julian Peterson, the two-time Pro Bowler the 49ers have allowed to test the open market this year. Who can afford that contract, and is it possible he could be on New England's radar as speculated in the media?

Other than an Internet-fueled brouhaha that had the Browns and Lions supposedly doing an “Anything You Can Do, I Can Offer Better” banjo-riffing contract battle, there has been virtually no action on the Peterson front.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why other NFL teams haven’t immediately rushed to Peterson as a hot item at outside linebacker, a position at which he was one of the best talents available when the free-agent period began last week.

Peterson’s agents are the Poston brothers – or, after Carl Poston was suspended by the NFLPA for two years on Wednesday, the Poston brother, as in Kevin Poston – and his representation is demanding about $20 million in cold, hard, guaranteed cash in any new contract he signs, according to a league source.

To repeat, that’s $20 million - guaranteed - to get Peterson’s signature on the dotted line.

To put that into proper perspective, running backs Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander received $15 million guaranteed each and they were coming off Pro Bowl seasons. Peterson is coming off a subpar 2005 season, which came on the heels of an Achilles' tendon injury that limited him to five games in 2004. However, the 27-year-old Peterson is a dominant defensive presence when healthy. An incredibly versatile player, Peterson has played on the front lines and occasionally in the defensive backfield. As an outside linebacker, his incredible closing speed and nearly unmatched pursuit abilities make him a real problem for opposing offenses.

Drafted by the 49ers in the first round of the 2000 draft out of Michigan State, Peterson is one of the few players potentially worthy of such a contract from a talent standpoint. However, that's in the abstract. The realities of personnel issues and the salary cap are what will decide this in the end.

In spite of the dollar figures floating around the Peterson camp's collective heads, the Cleveland Browns and several other teams still maintain at least a sliver of interest. But, as was the case with Willie McGinest, the Browns are more than willing to sit back and allow the market to correct what is – to be blunt – a ridiculous starting point in negotiations. The Browns were able to sign McGinest, so – while they’re still interested in Peterson – they are probably out of the running for his services.

Nobody is really sure what Detroit will try to do, or if Peterson is really considering joining that troubled franchise. According to Kevin Poston, Seattle was Peterson's Thursday destination, and his next stop is said to be Miami. More than one New England beat writer has speculated that the Patriots might be interested in where the market rests, as well.

In order for the Browns’ interest, in particular, or the interest of several other teams to go from minimal to anything close to serious, the source said, the Peterson camp “will have to drop their price drastically.”

Kevin Poston told Roger Phillips of the Oakland Tribune that there is plenty of interest in Peterson, saying “The market really hasn’t determined itself for Julian yet.”

Niners coach Mike Nolan earlier this week expressed some guarded optimism that the team may now have a better chance of retaining one of its top talents. When asked by Phillips if there was reason for Nolan to be optimistic, Kevin Poston said, “I don't know if they have a reason to be or not to be at this point. The fact that he's very seriously considering a number of teams ... I don't know. That's something they control. They control their optimism or depression. Is it a possibility? Sure.”

Poston declined to reveal the kind of dollar figures the 49ers are offering or the kind Peterson is seeking on the open market. He gave no indication how close Peterson was to a deal with the Niners or any other team. “I don't know how long it will take," Poston said. "It could be tomorrow. I really don't know.”

The source also said that, as Peterson goes to Seattle for his first visit in free agency, the 49ers are about to step up their efforts to get linebacker to return to San Francisco for what could be the final contract of his career.

But nobody really knows for sure where things stand as Peterson’s representatives are basically saying, “Show me the money.”

Not even those close to the team or Peterson really know, such as 49ers linebacker Brandon Moore, who said he spoke with Peterson recently. Earlier this week, Moore got a five-year, $8 million deal from the 49ers to return to the team. Middle linebacker Derek Smith got a three-year, $14 million deal from the 49ers last week.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Moore said Thursday afternoon. “I don’t even know if Julian knows what he’s going to do at this point. He wants to do the best thing for him and his family, and I don’t know if he knows what this is. I don’t know what direction he really wants to go right now.”

Peterson wasn’t going any direction during the opening days of free agency, but that finally appears to be changing. And his direction could continue to change as steered by his contract demands.

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