First phase of free agency upon us

When the idea was first thought up, being designated a "franchise" or "transition" player was thought to be something of an honor. It meant your team thought enough of you that it didn't want to allow you to walk away as a free agent without having an opportunity to match the offer or at least receive some compensation.

It also meant you were going to be given a pretty good payday - a salary equivalent to the average of the top five players at your position or a 20 percent raise, whichever is greater, if you were give the franchise tag, the top 10 or a 20 percent raise for transition players.

But as NFL salaries have escalated - and more importantly, the signing bonuses that go with them - players have come to loath having the tag put on them. While it offers them a salary worthy of the best in the league, they lose out on that all-important signing bonus, a big one-time payday.

Tuesday, Feb. 10 marked the first day teams could use the franchise or transition tag on their pending free agents, but understandably, nobody used the designation - yet.

There have been eight players designated "franchise" players in each of the past two years, but teams usually like to wait until the deadline, which is Feb. 24 this year, to use the tag because it has a way of slowing down contract negotiations.

Top candidates to receive the tag this year are Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and Washington cornerback Champ Bailey.

The Steelers have never had to follow through on using the "franchise" tag, though they did designate linebacker Jason Gildon two years ago at the deadline. But the Steelers signed Gildon to a new contract - one they now want to rid themselves of - before the free agent period began, meaning they were free to use the designation again. Teams that tag a player, but then sign him to a new deal before the free agent period begins, retain their franchise and transition designations.

But if they do not sign the player before free agency opens, they are not permitted to re-sign with their original team before mid-July. If their original club signs them to a new deal, it loses that particular tag for the length of that contract.

Given their past reluctance to use a franchise or transition tag, the Steelers don't figure to use one this season, with only two starters - strong safety Mike Logan and fullback Dan Kreider - eligible for free agency this season.

The team will make a pitch to bring back Kreider, but having drafted Troy Polomalu in the first round of last year's draft, they will allow Logan to leave unless he will take the veteran minimum to return as a backup.

Another unrestricted free agent the team would like to have back is outside linebacker Clark Haggans, whom it would like to compete with Alonzo Jackson for its starting strongside linebacker position. Longsnapper Mike Schneck is also an unrestricted free agent and the Steelers would like to bring him back. But they won't break the bank to do so.

Others the team would like to bring back include special teams ace Chidi Iwuoma, defensive end Rodney Bailey, center Chukky Okobi and guard Keydrick Vincent. All are restricted free agents, meaning the Steelers will have to make qualifying offers to them before the free agent period begins to retain the right to match offers to them.

The Steelers regularly offer all of their restricted free agents qualifying offers in an effort to receive compensation should they sign elsewhere, but may not do so this year given the fact they are more than $2 million over the salary cap and will have to release some players to get under by March 3.

Placekicker Jeff Reed is an exclusive rights free agents, meaning his is eligible to negotiate only with the Steelers. The Steelers like Reed and will bring him back in 2004, despite his season-ending slump the team is attributing to the hip problem that caused him to have surgery to repair last month.

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