Free Agency to Come In Phases

The fun for free agency is set to begin in little more than a month, but it looks like there will be considerably more big names on the list than there are currently.

For years, the Vikings were strapped up against the salary cap and were forced to make some hard decisions. For example, John Randle and Randall McDaniel -- both multiple All-Pro selections who weren't finished with their careers -- were released to create salary cap room. The same is true for Jerry Rice, whom the 49ers said they simply couldn't afford and asked to retire -- we know what his decision was.

That may be a reason the Vikings hold on to some (perhaps a substantial amount) of their available salary cap room until after free agency begins. With more teams than ever pressed tight against the salary cap, several big names are likely to be released and there are a couple of dates that will be key.

The first is March 1. That's when free agency is slated to begin and teams that have the option of voiding large contracts can do so. Expect to see players who had good relationships with their current teams -- like RB Emmitt Smith -- to be released early. The rationale is that, if the team can't re-sign the player, as a goodwill gesture, they release the player to give him as much time to sign on with someone else.

The second date is April 1. Many contracts have April 1 as a roster bonus period. For some players, these bonuses are huge -- like $3-4 million simply to remain on the roster. Some teams may hold on to their star quality players, hope that teams in their division with limited cap room take part in the early free agent feeding frenzy and can't get in bidding wars for their services to come directly back to haunt them.

The third date is June 1. This is when the hard cuts get made. These are guys that are going to provide a big cap hit -- like Randall Cunningham and Robert Smith did with the Vikings. If a team waits until June 1 to release this type of player, the cap hit can be spread over two years instead of one. This is where you'll see some of the biggest names of all, since they signed big deals four years ago and the eye-popping set of numbers come due -- like Mark Brunell counting $11 million against the Jags salary cap.

While many teams will try to pay the piper in the short term by restructuring deals to delay the killer cap hit, players like Hugh Douglas and Mo Lewis -- both of whom would look great in the Vikings uniform -- will likely be allowed to check out free agency, which could be a boom for teams like the Vikings with money to spend and needs on defense.

* As discussed last week, being at home for a conference championship game doesn't have nearly the advantage as having a bye week. With Tampa's win, home teams in conference championship games since 1990 have just a 15-11 record, while home teams with byes in the divisional round are 43-9.
* The Raiders are an early four-point favorite in the battle of former Vikings QBs, but Steve Spurrier has to be wondering what his team was thinking, since the Redskins traded for both Rich Gannon and Brad Johnson and let each of them get away for nothing in free agency.
* No decision has come yet on the new coach for the 49ers, but Denny Green's name keeps popping up. 49ers owner John York said over the weekend, "Our interest in Dennis is very well known. He's at the top of our shorter list." We'll have to see if at the top means the very top or not.

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