INDIANAPOLIS -- There are more than 300 football players here for the annual predraft combine workouts, thousands of tons of meat-on-the-hoof walking the streets every night for a week, but the locals couldn't care less about all these NFL wannabes.
Just one player matters here right now. And one question supercedes all others: What will happen in the impending showdown between the Indianapolis Colts and quarterback Peyton Manning, the league co-most valuable player in 2003, and the player upon whom the viability of this city's NFL future really rests?
Certainly the Colts will not permit Manning to escape as an unrestricted free agent. General manager Bill Polian said over the weekend that the Colts would place the franchise tag on Manning. "I never expected [negotiations] would go any other way," Polian said. "I'm certain we'll tag him on Monday, and we'll continue to negotiate. The tag is a pro forma situation at this point. This is going exactly as I expected it would."
Tagging Manning will take up $18.3 million in salary cap space for 2004. That represents, even with the unexpected $2 million increase in the spending ceiling late last week, a debilitating 22.7 percent of the Colts' salary cap space for the coming season.
That said, the Colts have no one to blame but themselves for the pickle in which they're now in. Allowing the league's premier player to even reach the precipice of free agency, to get within sniffing distance of potential freedom, is a catastrophic blunder. Other franchises revisit contracts all the time in the NFL, rework deals years before high-profile performers are sniffing free agency, and the Colts should have done the same.
That the team has been victimized by off-field circumstances -- the smallest stadium in the NFL and pitifully insufficient revenues from the RCA Dome; a small-market base; the rehabilitation of good-guy owner Jim Irsay from an addiction to painkillers -- really is not an excuse for having shuttled Manning to the back burner. And now that it has been there two years too long, the club stands to be burned, no matter the outcome.
Irsay has said here, and reiterated to us at the Super Bowl, that he fully intends to make Manning the highest-paid player in league history. "But at what price?" Irsay said. "I mean, does being the highest paid mean he has to be the highest paid by, say, 25 percent more than everybody else? How high does the bar have to go?"
In his own way, Irsay has done a good job of controlling some of the spin, essentially backing Manning into a corner of sorts. With his public comments, Irsay has applied some pressure to Manning, subliminally set up the quarterback to look bad to the fans if he gets too greedy in negotiations. Image is key to Manning, the league's golden boy, and he certainly won't want to be portrayed as just another money-grubber. Then again, it would be difficult to imagine Manning, as good as any player gets off the field as well as on it, viewed in a selfish light.
The bottom line on what will eventually be a blockbuster deal, one for the ages, is that the Colts should never have permitted the Manning deal to reach this critical juncture. When he suggested last year that the Colts had "prepared" to carry a monumental 2003 salary cap hit of roughly $15 million for its star quarterback, Polian was viewed askew by many of his peers. Now he's being viewed as a guy who let a simmering stew sit on the stove too long.
Team officials have used the term "offensive Armageddon" to describe the adjustments the Colts will have to make to their payroll to fit in Manning's cap number if a long-term contract isn't consummated and the quarterback actually plays the 2004 season under the burdensome $18.3 million tag. There is some reasoned logic there, of course, but some of the organizational rhetoric is hyperbole as well.
Over the past several weeks, the Colts have cleared about $7 million to $8 million in cap room by restructuring the contracts of several veteran players. By releasing in the next week or two offensive lineman Adam Meadows, defensive end Chad Bratzke and backup quarterback Brock Huard, all moves the Colts planned to make anyway, the team will create an additional $15.5 million in cap space.
There are still moves the Colts must make, like tendering qualifying offers to most of their restricted free agents and perhaps attempting to sign some of their own unrestricted players like strongside linebacker Marcus Washington, but they won't be completely paralyzed if forced to apply the "franchise" tag to Manning.
Conventional wisdom is that the Colts will use the "franchise" tag to buy themselves some much-needed time in negotiations, and then reach a long-term deal by March 15. That's the true drop-dead date because, after that, negotiations with "franchise" players are basically precluded by league rule.
But regardless, the next month or so is going to be a pretty painful and anxious time for this city's fans, make no doubt about that. It all could have been avoided, though, had Indianapolis management exercised some foresight a couple of years ago.
Around the league
One of the more seemingly preposterous rumors connected to the Peyton Manning negotiations is that the Colts would have to release tailback Edgerrin James for salary cap reasons. No one seems to be buying into that one. But this much is clear from talking to some coaches: There is a feeling that James still isn't, even two years after his knee surgery, the player he was before the operation. And some people feel that, with Manning and wide receiver Marvin Harrison still around, the Colts might still be able to win while playing a lesser-talented tailback, like Dominic Rhodes. We concede it's a stretch, especially when one realizes Indianapolis was just one victory shy of a Super Bowl berth in 2003. There are a few teams, though, that believe Indianapolis will always be a Super Bowl threat with Manning, even if his supporting cast is somewhat blunted.
Some officials have denied it but word is that, in the wake of ESPN.com's report on Friday that Mike Williams has decided to enter the 2004 draft, the league dispatched an emissary to Los Angeles to meet with the Southern Cal wide receiver. The spin, of course, is that no one from the NFL would attempt to dissuade Williams, who has played only two college seasons, from becoming the first underclassman to petition for draft eligibility under the guidelines the league was forced to re-craft following the Maurice Clarett court decision. Instead, sources said, the NFL is more interested in laying out for Williams the ramifications of his decision and in apprising him of his potential draft status. Sources said Sunday that USC coach Pete Carroll is more confident now that Williams will remain in school, but the wide receiver has been told by at least one agent he will be a certain top-five selection in April. As they say, folks, stay tuned.
Having hogged the headlines for much of the offseason -- with the hiring of Joe Gibbs, the trade for quarterback Mark Brunell, and the dangling of cornerback Champ Bailey in trade talks -- the Washington Redskins and owner Dan Snyder aren't likely to let up on the throttle anytime soon. Look for the Redskins to be very active players in the free agent market as Snyder attempts to fill the wish list provided him by Gibbs and his staff. Near the top of that list is Minnesota Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser, a superb in-line blocker who is about to become an unrestricted free agent. Gibbs knows the importance of the tight end position in his offense and Kleinsasser already has a bull's eye on him in the Redskins coaching offices. Washington desperately needs to upgrade its defensive front and, toward that end, will chase at least one tackle and one end. The Redskins have already huddled, ESPN.com has learned, with the agent for Chicago Bears defensive end Phillip Daniels, and expect a quick deal on him after the start of free agency. Former Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache is now the defensive line coach in Washington and will push for the Daniels acquisition. There is no tampering involved in the session with Daniels' agent, Hadley Engelhard, because Bears general manager Jerry Angelo granted permission for the veteran defensive end (who is due a $1 million roster bonus Chicago has no intention of paying) to speak to other teams. No word yet as to which defensive tackle the Redskins will pursue, but no one should be overly surprised if it is Warren Sapp. Washington's offense desperately requires an upgrade at tailback and, in that regard, Redskins officials were walking around the combine like Cheshire cats, so you can bet they've already got a deal brewing. It will not be, and you can take this to the bank, a trade to acquire disgruntled Cincinnati tailback Corey Dillon, for whom there is very little market right now. The guess here is that the Redskins will sign Philadelphia tailback Duce Staley, who is poised to hit the unrestricted free agent market. Connect the dots here: Staley is now represented by Leigh Steinberg, who is also the agent for Brunell, and who will want to help provide the quarterback a much-needed running game. Plus, Snyder would like nothing better than to score a player from the Philadelphia roster, a move that will weaken the Eagles' depth. And, from a clearly sensible standpoint, Staley is arguably the top tailback available in free agency.
Even with all the excitement they have generated, there could be some negative karma involving the Redskins over the coming months. For openers, the league is again sniffing around potential tampering charges with the team, this time regarding Ted Washington, the mammoth New England nose tackle who is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Agent Angelo Wright told Boston-area newspapers he had preliminary discussions with the Redskins about Washington and then, when pressed about his comments, backed off them. But the Pats feel Washington officials illegally tampered with Lawyer Milloy last summer, before New England released the veteran safety, and are suspicious this time around as well. One thing about the league, where there's smoke, there is usually some sort of an investigation and Washington is likely to be under the microscope. There is also the matter of Patrick Ramsey, and his demand to be traded, a request that isn't going to disappear anytime soon. Ramsey and agent Jimmy Sexton (who, ironically, represents tight end Jim Kleinsasser) will probably turn up the heat in coming days on Snyder and Joe Gibbs, and things could get uncomfortable. Sexton seems to have finally convinced Snyder that he will not help him cap-wise by reworking the contract of left offensive tackle Chris Samuels, who already has redone his deal twice to help the Redskins out of jams. One of the team's two first-round picks in the 2000 draft, Samuels is still due $13.957 million over the final two seasons of his contract. The Redskins offered him an $11 million signing bonus to restructure and extend his deal, which expires after the '05 season, and he has balked. Snyder apparently has conceded he won't be able to get a new deal with Samuels now. There have been rumors the Redskins might release the standout tackle, who suffered two subpar seasons under the loony Steve Spurrier pass protection scheme, but that won't happen in 2004. Samuels will lose some leverage if Brunell is the starter, because the veteran passer is left-handed, and thus, Samuels is no longer the blindside protector. The more likely scenario is that the Redskins will wait until after the '04 campaign and consider releasing Samuels then. Oh, yeah, beyond the potential tampering investigation, there could be one more blockbuster league matter -- one that can't be divulged at this time but which could surface in the next couple weeks -- with which the Washington organization will be forced to deal.
While the free agency signing period doesn't commence until March 3, there already are whispers that the Philadelphia Eagles will invest some of the cap room they always seem to have on a big-time defensive end. Yeah, we know, that's a no-brainer. Especially after coordinator Jim Johnson got such meager production from the position in 2003. The team allowed Hugh Douglas to escape in free agency last summer, confident that N.D. Kalu, Derrick Burgess and draft choices Jerome McDougle (No. 1) and Jamaal Green (No. 4) could take up the slack. But Burgess suffered yet another injury, his third major setback in two years, and Eagles officials now have to wonder if he'll ever stay healthy. McDougle missed much of the season because of injury and Green was sidelined the entire year by a blown out knee ligament. Kalu remained what he has always been, a guy who plays well for stretches, but lacks consistency. Personnel chief Tom Heckert is familiar with Miami three-year veteran Adewale Ogunleye, who had 15 sacks in 2003, but he is a restricted free agent and might be tough to pry away from the Dolphins. One potential unrestricted free agent in whom the Eagles are very interested is Darren Howard of New Orleans, who has been productive at both end spots during his four-year career. As noted in this space last week, Howard is very highly regarded by teams seeking to upgrade at end. The one caveat is that the Saints may apply the "franchise" designation if they can't agree to a contract extension before Tuesday's deadline for "franchise" markers.
Look for a couple blockbuster deals for offensive tackles before the free agency period starts on March 3. While the Miami Dolphins are gagging over the contract proposal from the agent for right tackle Todd Wade, five years for $25 million and with a signing bonus of $10 million, they desperately need to retain the four-year veteran. The numbers might not get as high as agent Tom Condon wants but they will be in the ballpark. And the Green Bay Packers, who arguably had the best offensive line in football last season, keep trying to get an agreement with left tackle Chad Clifton before resorting to tagging him with the "franchise" marker on Tuesday afternoon. It would not be surprising to see Clifton, whose career was almost ended in 2002 by a blindside block from Warren Sapp that resulted in a catastrophic pelvis injury, sign a contract that includes a signing bonus of $12 million-$12.5 million, with a per-year average of $5.5 million.
It was only four years ago that Denver running back Mike Anderson, just a sixth-round pick in the 2000 draft, won rookie of the year honors, rushing for 1,487 yards and 15 touchdowns after assuming the starting job when Olandis Gary went down with a knee injury. Next week, Anderson figures to be in the unemployment line, as sources have told ESPN.com that he will be released. Anderson, 30, has just 1,321 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in the three seasons since that incredible rookie performance and he has been deemed extraneous by Denver officials. The Broncos now have Clinton Portis, like what they saw of young backs Quentin Griffin and Ahmaad Galloway last year, and can use the $1.255 million salary cap rebate they will get by releasing Anderson to chase some free agents or perhaps dive into the pool of teams interested in acquiring Washington cornerback Champ Bailey. Anderson is scheduled for a base salary of $1.755 million in 2004, then bases of $2.16 million and $2.565 million in the ensuing two seasons. That's a lot of money to paid a backup and, as one Broncos official noted, Anderson is hardly a spring chicken. Even though he has played just four seasons in the league, Anderson is 30 years old, having served a stint in the armed forces before going to college. No one should be too surprised, either, if the Broncos jettison former first-round cornerback Deltha O'Neal some time soon. The 2001 first-round choice was moved from cornerback to wide receiver late last season and he is balking about going to camp on the offensive side of the ball. Denver officials have said that O'Neal's days as a cornerback are over and that he will either play wide receiver or not play at all for the Broncos in 2004.
As noted above, look for the Broncos to quietly become involved in the Champ Bailey discussions. The other contenders: New Orleans, Jacksonville, Minnesota, Detroit and perhaps one more mystery team. The Atlanta Falcons, the franchise for whom Bailey would most like to play, are not in the chase. Agent Jack Reale continues to insist there are teams prepared to write the check for Bailey right now. The problem remains that Washington owner Dan Snyder doesn't know precisely what he wants in exchange for the four-time Pro Bowl performer. This much is certain: The Lions would love to grab Bailey and unite him with his brother, second-year pro Boss Bailey, but don't intend to surrender the sixth overall choice in this year's draft to secure the cornerback.
While we noted above that we feel the Redskins will bolster their rag-tag tailback corps by signing Philadelphia free agent Duce Staley, do not summarily dismiss the rumors out of Seattle on Sunday that have them acquiring Seahawks star Shaun Alexander in a deal for Bailey. While he isn't quite the classic pounder coach Joe Gibbs seems to prefer, Alexander is an immensely talented back whose skills don't often get showcased because of the city in which he plays.
Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese continues to whittle at the $17.5 million salary cap overage confronting the Titans and look for a mad scramble to restructure at least a half-dozen veteran contracts between now and March 3, when all teams must be under the league's spending limit. One player who almost certain will rework his deal is offensive right tackle Fred Miller, who has a whopping $6.423 million cap charge. Miller will take most of his 2004 base salary of $3.65 million upfront, as guaranteed money, and allow the Titans to reduce that base to the minimum. A much sticker negotiation for the Titans will be with defensive end Kevin Carter, from whom Tennessee is requesting real-money givebacks. Carter has an $11.775 million cap number, is due an incredible $4.5 million roster bonus in March and is scheduled to have total compensation of $11 million for the coming season. Of course, Reese is still trying to decide how to handle the situation with defensive end Jevon Kearse. The two sides spoke here at the combine but do not seem close to an accord. Reese would prefer not to use the "franchise" designation on Kearse but has only until Tuesday to make up his mind on that maneuver.
Barring some kind of glitch, or a really irresistible offer from another team, current Oakland Raiders offensive lineman Matt Stinchcomb will soon become the first building block in the reconstruction of the Tampa Bay Bucs offensive line. The Raiders' top pick in the 1999 draft, Stinchcomb will become an unrestricted free agent on March 3 and, shortly thereafter, will become the Bucs' starter at left tackle. Coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen are eminently familiar with Stinchcomb, who has started at all five offensive line positions during his five-year Oakland tenure, and they like him. Like him, in fact, a lot. There are at least two other teams likely to make a pitch for him, and Stinchcomb will be a pretty popular guy as soon as free agency begins, but it will be a major upset if he isn't playing in Tampa in 2004.
You've got to wonder, even with Tony Dungy around, just how the Indianapolis Colts are ever going to build continuity on the defensive side of the ball. Last year, the Colts allowed starting weakside linebacker Mike Peterson to depart in free agency, when he signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. As it turned out, Indianapolis had a very able replacement already on its roster, in David Thornton, who enjoyed a superb '03 campaign in his first season as a starter. Indianapolis might not be as fortunate, though, this time around. It looks like the Colts will have a difficult time retaining strongside linebacker Marcus Washington, a pending unrestricted free agent, and a player many teams already are eager to pursue on the open market. It doesn't appear the Colts have a young player ready to step into the vacancy the departure of Washington would create. In the scheme the Colts play, the weakside linebacker position is the more critical, but Washington has become an excellent two-way player, strong against the run and with some blitz skills, and he would be missed.
Obviously, four-year veteran tailback Jamel White doesn't fit very well into the plans of Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis in '04. The team has granted White and his agents permission to talk to other franchises about a potential trade. One team said to have at least a curious interest in White, whose roll was significantly reduced last season, is Pittsburgh. The Steelers probably wouldn't want to surrender much for White, who had 232 combined rushes in 2001-2002 but dropped to just 70 carries last year, but do have to make a move at tailback. The Steelers will release Amos Zereoue in coming weeks and are working with Jerome Bettis on a contract restructuring that would give "The Bus" one more season in The 'Burgh. At some point, though, the Steelers have to address the tailback spot for the long-term. White is 26 years old, has never been a full-time starter, but does have talent. He has three seasons remaining on the contract he signed last year. He is on the books for a base salary of $800,000 in 2004, plus a $350,000 roster bonus. In '05, he is scheduled to make $1.4 million between his base salary and roster bonus and his compensation for 2006 is $1.9 million. Any team that seeks to acquire White probably will want to revisit those contract numbers.
One of the game's nicest guys, Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Travis Hall, will soon be looking for a new home. Having failed to reach an agreement to cut his salary and his cap number, the Falcons will soon release the classy, nine-year veteran, ending a tenure marred by injuries the last several seasons. Hall, 31, scored a big payday in 1999 but then suffered a series of injuries that have limited him to an average of just 8.5 starts over the last four years. For a guy who figures to be only a backup in Atlanta, he has become too expensive to keep around. Hall is due a $1 million roster bonus in mid-March, owns a base salary of $3.1 million for 2004, and has an unwieldy $6.378 salary cap charge. The Falcons will recoup about $2 million when they release him. Although he has started just three games the past two seasons, some team would be wise to take a look at Hall, at least as a fifth or sixth lineman. He can play end or tackle, still gives tremendous effort, but has simply been betrayed by his body of late. If a team could structure a contract that was able to address injury concerns, Hall could prove to be a very viable contributor. It just wasn't going to happen in Atlanta, where he would have been forced to accept a dramatic salary reduction. Noted agent Harold Lewis of the negotiations: "They asked us to take a paycut. We'd have gone for a trim, you know, but not a crew cut."
In a long-overdue study, the NFL Players Association has recently compiled data which indicates that nearly 50 percent of the league's rank-and-file now have college degrees. The universities which have produced the most "degreed" players among the current NFL population: Notre Dame (35 players), Penn State (24), Nebraska (23), Miami (19), Florida State (18), Illinois (18), Michigan (18), California (17), Colorado (17), Syracuse (17), Georgia (16), North Carolina (16), Boston College (15), Iowa (15) and Southern California (15).
Just days after the Super Bowl, and after he miscued the final kickoff and knocked it out of bounds in a critical faux pas, word was that the Carolina Panthers would make kicker John Kasay compete for his job in 2004. Apparently, that isn't the case, as the Panthers signed Kasay to a five-year, $8.1 million contract last week. Negotiating with general manager Marty Hurney on his own behalf, and working with the guidelines of the deal close friend Jason Elam got from Denver last year, Kasay secured a signing bonus of $2 million and base salaries of $800,000 (2004), $1.2 million (2005), $1.3 million (2006), $1.3 million (2007) and $1.5 million (2008). So it appears that Kasay, who kicked four game-winning field goals in 2003 including three in overtime, is very, very safe.
Punts: The Cleveland Browns and Atlanta Falcons staged a coin-flip Saturday to break the tie for the Nos. 7-8 spots in the draft order. The Browns won the toss and will now choose seventh in the first round. . . . Dallas coach Bill Parcells once noted that, if he was going to cook the meal, he ought to be permitted to shop for the groceries. But he stayed home from the combine this week and left the shopping to the Cowboys scouting staff. . . . Don't be surprised if the Cowboys, very quietly of course, get into the bidding for Drew Henson. . . . The St. Louis Rams are working hard to strike a deal with right defensive end Grant Wistrom before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. While the two sides are not yet close, there has been progress, and the bet here is that Wistrom re-ups before getting onto the open market. . . . Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, one of the best in the business, navigated around the combine with a cane, the result of recent hip surgery. . . . Expect the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons to make plays for Indianapolis offensive lineman Adam Meadows once the Colts release him. . . . Carolina spent about $4 million in 2004 cap room paying tailback Stephen Davis (roughly $2.8 million) and quarterback Jake Delhomme (about $1.2 million) bonus for reaching predetermined performance levels in '03. . . . The Bengals are considering a move that would send middle linebacker Kevin Hardy to the outside in 2004. They would only make the switch, though, if they can find a solid replacement in the middle. . . . It will be interesting to see if a judge permits former Denver owner Edgar Kaiser, who prevailed in at least part of his case against Pat Bowlen, to buy a part of the franchise. . . . The Jets have opened contract extension talks with quarterback Chad Pennington but discussions are in the very early stages.
Stat of the week: According to the NFL Players Association, there are 977 accredited NFL agents. And 498 (or 50.9 percent) don't have a single active client in the league.
The last word: "When I was in the fourth grade, I was kind of fat, (and weighed) something like 155 pounds. And I was playing in a league where the (weight) limit was 150 pounds. So I put myself into a trash bag, ran around in it, figuring that I would lose weight by sweating it off. It didn't work, though, because my mother found out. She thought I was crazy and made me stop." -- Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris, at the combine, when asked how much he loves playing football
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.