Titans still want to negotiate long-term deal

Updated: February 24, 2004, 9:26 PM ET
Associated Press

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 11 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.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press