<
>

Titans still want to negotiate long-term deal

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans decided their best
chance to keep Pro Bowl defensive end Jevon Kearse is by letting
him test the free agent market and refused to tag him as their
franchise player.

"It's almost going to serve as an arbitrator if you will,"
general manager Floyd Reese said Tuesday. "Let the market decide
what's out there, then go from there.

"I'm not sure what the market holds, I'm really not. I know
there's a number of defensive ends that have been franchised, and
that will only escalate his value. Now, where does that put him?
... We'll let the market seek its own level."

Reese has been talking for months with agent Drew Rosenhaus
about a long-term contract for Kearse, who led the Titans in sacks
four of his five seasons. But Reese said the two sides were never
really close to an agreement.

"They weren't budging much, and we had what we felt was a very
strong deal and didn't feel we had to budge much, so that's kind of
where we got stuck. It just wouldn't change," Reese said.

Both sides agreed that using the franchise tag would be
unproductive. Reese said that would have been a disruptive force
for a team working to reach the Super Bowl, and they want to keep
negotiations moving.

"The fact they've not franchised Jevon is a good move for both
sides in terms of eventually getting a long-term deal done,"
Rosenhaus said.

Now Kearse probably will test the free agent market starting
March 3 to gauge the price for a player who had 36 sacks and was a
Pro Bowler in his first three seasons.

But the defensive end had just 11½ sacks in the past two
injury-plagued seasons. He missed 12 games with a broken bone in
his left foot in 2002, sprained the same foot in 2003 and missed
nearly three games.

Rosenhaus anticipates several teams looking at Kearse, but he
said there's mutual interest in keeping the defensive end in
Tennessee.

"I'll certainly keep them in the loop, and I will work very
diligently to make a quick resolution here once Jevon gets into
free agency, so the Titans are still very much in the picture,"
Rosenhaus said.

The Titans know it takes only one team with plenty of salary cap
space to offer Kearse a contract they can't match. With Kearse's
injury history, Reese said they felt it was a risk they couldn't
run for a team with no space under the cap.

"Somebody can come in and throw down a deal we can't or won't
match? Absolutely. That's why they call it free agency," Reese
said.

The franchise tag would have guaranteed Kearse a one-year salary
of $6.5 million but created more problems than it solved for the
Titans, including forcing the team to cut another $4.5 million
under the cap.

Reese said they could have handled the cap figure but didn't
want the distraction that would have followed by angering Kearse.
Now the veteran can erase any questions about his value.

Kearse finished 2003 with 67 tackles, third among defensive
linemen. He also had 19 quarterback pressures, three tackles for
loss, four forced fumbles and one interception.