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For Free Agents, Economy a Factor

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Defensive end Antonio Smith is looking for a big payday when he reaches free agency this weekend, but the economy may put a drag on salaries.

At 10:01 p.m. Arizona time Thursday, the NFL free agency period will begin.

But how much money will flow?

Every season, there are a handful of players who get huge contracts in the first week of free agency. Eventually, the market slows and teams can pick and choose as the windfalls don't necessarily come for the rest of the available guys. The question this year is how outside factors might impact free agency.

Nothing could create as much of a blow as the economy. Uncertainty reigns. NFL teams are still stable, thanks in large part to TV money coming in through 2010. But with sponsors and fans not sure of the money they

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Darren Urban

can put forward, it creates questions for franchises. Not surprisingly, that could cause a drag on how many big checks teams are willing to cut in free agency.

"We have not yet seen the full effects of the recession in this industry, as the commissioner said last week, because the washthrough of sponsorships and things like that have not really hit us yet, and ticket sales are yet to be tabulated," Colts general manager Bill Polian said at the scouting combine. "Right now it's a murky picture, except that we know the rest of the country is suffering badly."

It will be interesting to see how the market goes for many free agents expecting a big payday, especially those who aren't considered superstars – a player like Cardinals defensive end Antonio Smith, who played well in the postseason and has reached the radar of a few teams, judging by whispers at the combine.

Speculation has increased that the price paid for a high-end talent like defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth may not be as astronomical as first thought. Or that the worth of quarterback Kurt Warner, assuming the Cards don't get him re-signed before Thursday night, may not be in the double-digit millions aside from his practically perfect situation in Arizona.

Both those players will still be paid handsomely, though. It's the players who aren't scooped up immediately that may feel the squeeze.

"I think the door (to bigger contracts) is going to close much quicker," Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt said.

There are few high-impact free agents available. Fourteen teams used the franchise tag to restrict access to a player in free agency – including the Cards, who tagged linebacker Karlos Dansby – and all but took most of the big names out of the mix. Dansby isn't going to get an outside offer, nor is Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs or Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers.

Of Pro Football Weekly's top 10 "most intriguing" free agent list – put together in November – only four are scheduled to hit the open market unfettered: Haynesworth, Warner, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis and Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Warner is a safe bet to re-sign in Arizona. Many expect Lewis to eventually return to Baltimore.

With a dearth of big names will come a dearth of mega-contracts.

"Teams may not be as open to signing those big deals," Texans general manager Rick Smith said. "I do think overall, you will see teams be more prudent in their spending. It's no different than any other industry."

Of course, one of the favorite clichés of free agency is that "it only takes one team," and if, for instance, the Redskins are willing to money-whip Haynesworth with a $100 million offer, it won't matter if the rest of the league wouldn't have battled for his services.

The Cardinals wouldn't be in that mix, anyway. They have said all along their major free-agent plan is re-signing their own players first. Warner is the priority, and Graves wants to get a long-term deal done with Dansby. Safety Adrian Wilson has just one year left on his contract, and there remains lingering questions how the Anquan Boldin saga will play out.

Negotiations, bumpy economy or not, probably won't change.

Graves was asked about the uncapped year coming in 2010, when the collective bargaining agreement ends, and how it makes free-agent contracts harder with which to deal. The signing rules change for seasons beyond 2009, which will complicate this year's free-agent contracts.

But, Graves noted, "for the players, it's all about the money, so I don't know if it is any more difficult dealing with them."

It just might be more difficult for the players to get what they want.


Contact Darren Urban at askdarren@cardinals.nfl.net. Posted 2/24/09.

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