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Monday, February 10
Packed schedule keeps teams busy

By John Clayton

The NFL uses February as a time for teams to regroup. A couple of years ago, free agency started in the middle of the month, and the general managers and coaches complained there was no time to rest.

Byron Leftwich, expected to be a top-five pick, will be heavily probed at the NFL scouting combine.
Well, February provides for long weekends and a few days of relaxation, giving front-office executives a little bit of a breather. But that time is almost over. The NFL scouting combine starts next Tuesday. Free agency comes 10 days later.

Of course, not all teams have rested. The 49ers interviewed head-coaching replacements for Steve Mariucci until last Friday. Whoever gets the job must hire a staff. Mariucci is revamping the Lions' staff after taking over last week.

Things are so unpredictable in the NFL that late-starting staffs don't eliminate themselves. The Bucs made the Jon Gruden trade in mid-February, and Al Davis waited until the end of the month to promote Bill Callahan as the Raiders head coach. Both teams met in the Super Bowl.

Here's a preview of coming attractions in the NFL.

Feb. 18-24: Scouting combine
Two extra days were added to the former five-day scouting combine. The extra time was needed for players to complete the Giants' psychological test and free up more time for scouts and coaches to interview the players. Near fistfights broke out as scouts wrestled for the value time of players making the trek to Indianapolis. Virtually every draftable player attends the combine, but many of the top players elect not to work out. They save their running for individual workouts on their home turf. Marshall quarterback Byron Leftwich will be medically probed more than any other player. The shin problems that nagged him through the final weeks of the past couple of seasons have to be probed. Leftwich may not be the first choice. That honor may go to Carson Palmer of USC, but strong individual workouts and a positive medical report won't hurt. Another heavily studied player will be Willis McGahee, a former top-five prospect who had his left knee resconstructed. Teams may still consider McGahee in the second or third round.

Feb. 20: Franchise and transition tags
The free-agent market will start to go dry on this day. It's the first official day that teams can designate franchise or transition tags. At least a dozen of the top free agents in a light market will be taken off the market unless they reach contract agreements. The list of potential franchise players should be impressive. Heading the list will be Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister, Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones, Bengals linebacker Takeo Spikes, Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser, Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking and Rams left tackle Orlando Pace. The Packers may tag defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday. If the Panthers can't get a deal with punter Todd Sauerbrun, he may be tagged. The Cardinals may franchise wide receiver David Boston. The reasonably low $3 million price for franchising safeties could take Donovin Darius of the Jaguars and Tebucky Jones of the Patriots off the market. The franchise tag gives a player a tender offer equal to the average of the top-five salaries at the position from last year. It costs two first-rounders to lure a franchise player away from a team. The transition designation only allows a team to match an offer from another team, but the price is the average of the top 10 salaries. A rule change enacted last year allows teams to sign their tagged players to long-term deals by the middle of the next month without losing the chance to tag players for the length of the contract. If a deal can't be reached, a long-term deal can't be executed until after July 15.

Feb. 20: Waiver system begins
This is the first day that the waiver system begins for the 2003 rosters. This is where it gets bloody. The salary cap will be around $75 million. Because teams have done a better job of managing the cap, fewer players may be released. Last year, more than 100 veterans became salary-cap casualties. Only 10 teams are currently over the cap. The busiest teams will be the Raiders, Broncos, Browns and Titans. The Raiders are $50 million over. The Broncos and Browns are each more than $20 million over. The Titans have $10 million to cut. Veteran defenders such as Sam Adams and Tory James of the Raiders, Chester McGlockton and Denard Walker of the Broncos, Jamir Miller and maybe Dwayne Rudd of the Browns could be in the first wave of cuts. The Broncos have to decide if they want to cut quarterback Brian Griese now or wait until June when they can push $7 million of a cap hit into next year.

Feb. 27: Final tender offers
This is the final day that teams have to submit their tender offers to restricted and exclusive-rights free agents. While this is more of a formality, things could get interesting. The Bears made low tender offers on wide receiver D'Wayne Bates and linebacker Warrick Holdman and ended up losing Bates and paying Holdman more than they wanted when the Chiefs signed him to an offer sheet. The restricted free-agent period goes from Feb. 28 to April 18, and rarely have more than four restricted free agents move to different teams.

Feb. 28: Free agency begins
Expect this to be the fastest market ever. Within two or three weeks, most of the top players will be gone. Teams can begin making contact on free agents at 12:01 a.m.. Feb. 28. While the market will have more than 330 unrestricted free agents, 40 percent of the players are those who were on the streets last year. The NFL and NFLPA came up with a successful program that allowed teams to sign veteran free agents for minimum salaries based on their years of experience but count only $450,000 against the cap. Around 150 players on this year's list are those players. Look at the cornerback position. McAlister will be franchised by the Ravens, leaving Dre Bye of the Rams as the only full-time cornerback available. The rest of the list includes third cornerbacks and aging cornerbacks. Donald Mitchell, a third cornerback of the Titans, for example, is the only other corner with more than 10 starts. He started 10 games because the Titans started in nickel defenses. Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer will be pursued by the Broncos and Cowboys. There will be quality group of linebackers, but the market is thin for defensive linemen, cornerbacks, halfbacks, quarterbacks and receivers.

Feb. 28: Trading period begins
The trading period begins on Feb. 28, but it should have the drama of last year. There are no Ricky Williams trades being contemplated. Drew Bledsoe isn't being shopped around like last year. Only 32 players were involved in trades last year, only 12 before the draft. The Saints might be willing to part with left tackle Kyle Turley but only for the right offer. This isn't a trading league. If a player has significant signing-bonus proration remaining, the team has to absorb that excess on their cap before making the trade. The Steelers will shop quarterback Kordell Stewart, but knowing that no one will take his $6.3 million salary in a trade, he will be released.

March 23-26: Owners meeting
The annual owners meeting in Phoenix should be interesting. Instant replay will be a big topic. Coaches have complained the officials have become more tentative in making calls on the field and hoping that coaches will make challenges in order to get the right decision. Because of that, the coaches want to have their challenge restored if they are correct. Challenges are limited to two per team per game. Only adjustments can be made on replay because it is in a three-year lifespan. There will be plenty of discussion about helmet hits by defenders. Safeties didn't like the midseason change that heaped heavy fines and suspensions on helmet-to-helmet hits. Bucs safety John Lynch and others will be lead a contingent of players who will meet with the competition committee and try to get better direction. Safeties are concerned that the NFL is taking away the safety's ability to force turnovers. The NFL is concerned about player safety.

April 26-27: NFL draft
The draft is a week later this year, and scouts and general managers won't complain. It's hard making workouts of all the players in a two-month period from the end of the scouting combine to the beginning of the draft. In a depleted free-agent market, the draft is more important. More teams than ever in the top five will be trying to bail out of the selection. The Bengals could end up selecting quarterback Carson Palmer with the first pick, but they will be trying to pump up his value in order to hype a trade. The Texans have the third pick, but they want to trade down. So do the Bears, who may skip on taking a quarterback in the first round and would prefer to take a defensive lineman or a player at another position.

June 1: Cut day
This is the most overhyped day on the NFL schedule. Too many general managers inform fans that this is a second wave of free agency. Normally, though, no more than 12 to 18 players get cut. The significance of this day is that teams can cut a player and not take all of the cap hit this season. Look at the contract of Broncos quarterback Brian Griese. Releasing him before June 1 would create a $9.2 million cap hit. By waiting until June, the Broncos can push off $6.9 million of a cap hit on their 2004 cap and count only $2.3 million this year. Players such as Sean Gilbert of the Panthers, Tony Brackens of the Jaguars and Griese will probably be on this list. Last year, the June 1 casualties included Jamal Anderson of the Falcons, John Fina of the Bills, Charlie Batch and Herman Moore of the Lions, Antonio Freeman of the Packers, Keenan McCardell and Hardy Nickerson of the Jaguars and Derrick Alexander of the Chiefs.

July 22: Free agency ends?
The free-agent period unofficially ends, but that is a misnomer. Free agency continues on. This is an old date for unsigned players by a team. If a player is unsigned by June and a team wants to maintain exclusive negotiating rights until July 22, they can do so, but his tender would count against the cap. Not a single player received such a designation last year. The July 22 date, though, would the last time a player who was unsigned but tied to a team can worry about negotiating with only that team. Not a big deal.

John Clayton is a senior writer for

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