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Sunday, February 24, 2002
Updated: February 25, 1:20 PM ET
Salary-cap cuts will be deep -- again

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Wary of what is about to transpire this week, when high-profile client Chris Chandler is likely to go from underappreciated to unemployed, agent Frank Bauer surveyed the situation and required just seven words to synopsize the NFL's pending roster carnage.

Shannon Sharpe
Shannon Sharpe isn't the only Ravens' player who could be headed elsewhere.
"This is going to be a bloodbath," assessed Bauer of the wholesale salary dumping that will occur before Friday, when all teams must be in line with the NFL's $71.101 million cap ceiling for the 2002 season.

Certainly the wounds that began last week, as franchises struggled to get bloated salary caps back under control, represented just a trickle. This week rosters will hemorrhage, the league waiver wire will be daily awash in red ink, and not even an industrial-sized tourniquet will be sufficient to stop the bleeding.

The body count -- many of the veteran victims with big names, bigger contracts, and diminishing skill levels -- figures to be high. For months now, cap managers around the league had the March 1 date circled on their calendars and, with the deadline for salary cap compliance looming, veterans with unwieldy salaries and shrinking statistics will cringe every time the phone rings this week.

Over the coming days, the competitive landscape of the NFL will be dramatically altered, not to mention littered with castoff veterans, many of them starters.

By unofficial count, there were 25 players released last week, and the litany includes 20 "vested" veterans, seven of whom appeared in at least one Pro Bowl, and five one-time first- or second-round draft choices. Sixteen of the cap casualties started at least eight games in 2001.

Two years ago, Indianapolis tight end Ken Dilger was good enough to merit a five-year contract worth about $15 million. Last week, with the cap-strapped Colts in slash-and-save mode, Dilger became expendable. The Carolina Panthers, for whom cap-slashing has become an annual rite of spring, released both their starting cornerbacks, Doug Evans and Jimmy Hitchcock. Denver cut linebacker Bill Romanowski after he declined to reduce his salary.

The number of players released last week will be dwarfed in the coming days, when dozens of players will either restructure their overpriced contracts or be released into a buyer's market. At least three general managers to whom ESPN.com spoke over the weekend were in their offices, hitting the phones, bargaining and bickering with agents, working on salary restructurings.

By the end of the week, fans will be able to assemble an impressive "All-Cut" team.

Said the general manager of one AFC franchise which still has plenty of juggling to do just to barely squeeze under the cap: "This is a deadline league and nothing gets done until the gun is pointed at your head. Now there's less than a week (to get under the cap) and I'm staring down the barrel. When I left home Saturday morning, I told my wife, 'Well, I'll see you when I see you.' She was sleeping when I got home Saturday night and when I left again (Sunday) morning. But this is what the process has become."

The Tennessee Titans, nearly $20 million over the cap, will probably restructure the contracts of a half-dozen veterans and release three or four more this week. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones once likened the salary cap to a credit card and noted that, no matter how far into the future a club stretches the payments, there will always arrive a day of reckoning when the bill comes due. For many teams, that day is Friday, and teams are scrambling for funds to pay the cap piper.

Indeed, the system has now evolved into an addition by subtraction syndrome taken to the extreme, in which many franchises can only escape what Buffalo general manager Tom Donahoe has dubbed "cap jail" by releasing veteran players early in the spring. The players refer to it has "getting whacked" and, while the organized crime allusion is a bit overplayed, it has now part of salary cap jargon.

The volume of players "whacked" this week could well depend on how many are willing to make salary accommodations, to lower their cap values and likely their overall compensation as well, to avoid free agency. Some players, anxious to test the open market, will rebuff all attempts by club officials to restructure their contract. Others are wary of a market that was severely blunted last spring, figures to be stunted again this year, and where money is scarce.

There will, however, be some impressive names among the players released this week, several of whom will draw considerable interest. In fact, they will bolster what is universally regarded as the thinnest unrestricted free agent pool since the current system was adopted in 1993.

It's becoming, unfortunately, a significant part of the game's tapestry. All you can do is deal with the reality of it.
Hadley Engelhard,
agent for Dorsey Levens

"(Among) the names we have on the March 1 list of potential cuts, trades or restructures, there are a lot more talented players depthwise than in the free-agent market," said Miami vice president Rick Spielman.

As of Sunday, there were still at least eight teams $7 million or more over the salary cap, and all of them were scrambling. Several agents acknowledged they were being pressured to restructure clients' contracts or have the players released. None of the agents who spoke to ESPN.com were surprised, frankly, because this is what they have come to expect over the past few seasons.

"It's becoming, unfortunately, a significant part of the game's tapestry," said agent Hadley Engelhard, who represents tailback Dorsey Levens, one of the players certain to be released by Green Bay this week. "All you can do is deal with the reality of it."

Last year, in the two-week period preceding the date in which teams had to be under the salary cap, there were 57 players released. Many more players than that reworked contracts to avoid being cut. Even with the cap relief some teams realized in last Monday's expansion draft -- when Baltimore, Jacksonville and the New York Jets saved an aggregate $37 million in cap room -- the number may grow from that 2001 total.

Compounding the problem is that many veterans have March 1 roster bonuses in their contracts, with payment of $1 million or more due if they are on the roster that date, and teams do not want to make those investments. So instead of waiting until June 1 to cut a player, when the salary cap impact can be somewhat ameliorated, teams will act this week.

"What it creates," said Washington Redskins personnel director Vinny Cerrato, "is two rounds of player cuts. There are some teams that simply can't wait until June 1, because they need to create cap room now."

Players like Atlanta wideout Terance Mathis, the leading receiver in franchise history, New York Jets middle linebacker Marvin Jones, Giants weakside linebacker Jessie Armstead, and 49ers tight end Greg Clark have already been apprised of their pending releases. Shannon Sharpe, with more catches than any tight end in league history, is among the Baltimore Ravens veterans who will be cut loose. In fact, even after losing weakside linebacker Jamie Sharper and punt return ace Jermaine Lewis, the Ravens could still be forced to release four more starters.

"From an emotional standpoint, it kills you, because you work so hard to assemble a team and then the cap helps tear it apart," said Ravens vice president Ozzie Newsome. "But you do what you have to do to stay within the parameters. It forces you to make gut wrenching decisions on your roster and, in some cases, to take a step back before moving forward again."

In a league where owners increasingly seek instant gratification, this week represents the second half of the binge-purge equation, as disgruntled organizations make deep cuts. The Ravens are a prime example of a team built for the short term, a move that paid off with a Super Bowl title in 2000, but which precluded the club from being able to sustain its excellence.

Teams extend their salary cap hoping to open the window of opportunity for a title, but what is more difficult to extend is a club's championship shelf life. One general manager termed it the "here today and gone tomorrow" mindset and that's an apt description.

Those underproducing players with fat contracts may not be gone tomorrow, but they probably will be by Friday, when the new cap limit begins to be enforced.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.