- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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HONOLULU -- For years, the Pro Bowl was the unofficial start of free agency.
General managers, on the prowl for top free agents, would sneak over to Hawaii and bump into Pro Bowlers attending this game. League rules prohibit recruiting players until March 2, but the relaxed atmosphere and easy access to players makes it easy for GMs to get to know the players.
The 2008 Pro Bowl is presenting general managers with an unusual set of circumstances. Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss and Bears linebacker Lance Briggs pulled out of the game. Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen, Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and Seahawks cornerback Marcus Trufant are expected to be franchised if they don't get long-term deals done in the next week.
That doesn't leave many free-agent targets for GMs to approach. And with a $116 million cap, teams are able keep their top players if they wish. The trend is that most players want to stay where they are. For some, though, the uncertainty is creating a little anxiety.
Cornerback Asante Samuel would love to remain in New England. Last offseason, Samuel received the dreaded franchise tag that locked him up without a long-term deal for 2007.
However, because his
one-year tender included a playing-time clause, which he met, the Patriots cannot franchise him again.
Now, he's free. He'd like to stay a Patriot, but he simply doesn't know what will happen.
"Obviously it's my goal to have financial security for me and my family and my kids,'' Samuel said. "I definitely want to play on a winning team. But I would love to remain a Patriot.''
The salary-cap-conscious Patriots often ask for players to take a little less than market value to stay in New England. The reward is the satisfaction of winning. Moss, for example, gave up $7 million of his 2007 base salary of $10 million to facilitate a trade to the Patriots.
Nate Clements set the market for cornerbacks when he signed a 10-year, $100 million contract with the 49ers last offseason. With most of this year's top free-agent cornerbacks expected to be franchised, Samuel will probably be the top cornerback available. Each day he wrestles with thoughts of staying with the Pats or going.
"Definitely, it's going to be an anxiety attack for the Patriots at those numbers to try to get something worked out,'' Samuel said. "I don't think it can't be done. If they want to do it, they can do it. It's totally up to them. I don't know. We'll have to wait and see.''
From studying rosters, the teams in possible need of cornerbacks are the Titans, Jets, Redskins, Eagles and Browns. There are enough options for Samuel to know that he can get his money and also be with a winning team. What he's not sure about is taking a hometown discount to stay with the Patriots.
"I can't say no, I can't say yes,'' Samuel said. "I guess it could be how I'm feeling that day. Hopefully, we can work something out.''
Allen is in a stranger situation. He loves being a Chief. But negotiations for a long-term deal haven't started. General manager Carl Peterson has already stated that Allen won't hit the free-agent market; that means he's likely to be franchised. If that happens, Allen won't be happy.
"We haven't talked so I'm expecting the franchise tag,'' Allen said. "For me, I stated my position. If I play this season under the franchise tag, this is my last year in Kansas City. I've expressed wanting to stay there. For me, it's about time to get a long-term deal. I want to win. I love Herm Edwards. I love the coaches. I love the city. I really want to stay there, but eventually we've got to do something.''
Though he wants to lock up a long-term deal in Kansas City, Allen is concerned about the team's ability to win. He watched an aging team go from 10-6 to 4-12. Allen wants to be a consistent winner.
"I love Tony Gonzalez to death, but I don't want to be a 12-year vet and still wondering when we are going to be consistent enough to win a championship," Allen said. "That's what's frustrating. We're in games until the fourth quarter and we lose. I go into Herm's office and asked what do I need to do more to win.''
Cowboys left tackle Flozell Adams and Vikings fullback Tony Richardson are in the latter stages of distinguished careers. Both are free agents. Both haven't heard from their teams. The last thing they want to do is leave.
"I don't know anything,'' Adams said. "I'm planning on being back, but I don't know. I'm not used to being a free agent, but I take it as it is. All I know is that this is a damn good offensive line and I would like to stay.''
Two years ago, Richardson was a free agent with the Chiefs and expected to be re-signed. It didn't happen and he ended up going to the Vikings and reestablishing himself as a Pro Bowler.
"I'm up this year and obviously I want to stay in Minnesota,'' Richardson said. "I have two guys -- Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson -- to work with. I couldn't ask for a better situation. All signs are pointing to me staying, but it's a business.
"I don't want to move at this point in my career. I had a good meeting with the owners. I've got some gas left in the wheel and want to keep playing. I feel like I'm 25.''
Some players will leave. Guard Alan Faneca knew the Steelers wouldn't meet his $7 million-per-year demand to keep him in Pittsburgh, so he has to look for a new home.
Cowboys safety Ken Hamlin signed a one-year deal to play next to Roy Williams in Dallas, but he awaits word on whether the Cowboys will sign him after a Pro Bowl season. Moss is hopeful of staying in New England, too.
So while Hawaii used to be the launching point for a lot of Pro Bowlers to go to different teams, that doesn't appear to be the case this year as several players want to stay with their current teams -- as long as they aren't franchised.
Still, it makes for some interesting talk around the pool.
John Clayton, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame writers' wing, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
While some Pro Bowl players are soaking up the Hawaii sun, those on the verge of free agency are fretting over their futures, writes John Clayton.