The salary cap was created to give teams choices. While it limits a general manager from keeping everybody, it also forces him to prioritize.
That's why it's hard for great players when they reach the free agent market. Since 1992, most teams have worked out the salary cap kinks to have the freedom of choice. But the price of top players has escalated so much that these decisions become more complicated.
Which is why it's possible 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens, Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp and Bengals halfback Corey Dillon could be traded at season's end. But there's also a strong possibility that Owens and Sapp could be targets for franchise designation tags.
Here's the dilemma for the 49ers involving Owens. His contract voids after the season, and timing couldn't be any worse for the 49ers. They were so cap-strapped this offseason that they could only invest less than $100,000 on free agents outside the organization. Their resources were put into keeping together a team that won the 2002 NFC West title.
The 49ers currently have about $73 million accounted for in the 2004 cap for 36 players. Starting in the offseason, teams must count their top 51 salaries to be under the cap until the start of the regular season. Those next 15 salaries will eat up the next $5 million, so let's say that the 49ers start at the cap without re-signing anyone.
Their problem is that key members of the defense they've been building for four years are reaching the end of their contracts. Linebacker Julian Peterson and cornerbacks Ahmed Plummer and Jason Webster could all become free agents. Peterson and Plummer are key players to re-sign, and the price won't be cheap.
Peterson is a $5 million-$6 million commodity. He has the speed to cover receivers, the skills to blitz or pass-rush from a defensive end position, and enough range to be a leading tackler. To keep him, the 49ers might have to come up with a $10 million-$12 million signing bonus spread over a seven-year contract.
Plummer might not be a shutdown cornerback like Patrick Surtain, Champ Bailey, Charles Woodson, Ty Law or others, but he's the best the 49ers have. Good No. 1 cornerbacks get $4 million a year. Better ones get more. Plummer will be angling for more than $4 million a year and a signing bonus of around $5 million or more.
To keep together the major components of a good, young defense, the 49ers must come up with around $16 million in signing bonuses and around $3 million in cap room for Peterson and Plummer alone. And if they can't get Peterson signed by March, they might have to place the franchise tag on him at around $4 million.
Further complicating matters is an escalator clause in Jeff Garcia's contract that takes his salary to the quarterback franchise number, more than $9 million.
Where does that leave Owens? On the outside looking in. Owens wants top receiver money, and he's good enough to get it. He's a 100-catch caliber receiver with big-play ability. Receivers as good as him get $6 million a year at the least and up to $8 million a year if you want to throw in escalators. The most worrisome thing for the 49ers is his demand for a signing bonus -- at least $18 million a year.
The 49ers turned into a more business-oriented team this season. They are on a budget for the first time. To invest $30 million of signing bonuses on three players goes against any budget, which is why Owens is likely to leave.
He'll be 30 next year. His postgame rants have turned more disruptive than helpful, and as much as he strives to win, he has trouble getting along with Garcia.
The terms of his exit, though, will cause the biggest discussion. Ideally, the 49ers would love to work out a contract with Peterson and have the option of franchising Owens. Unfortunately, the franchise number for a wide receiver next year would be second only to quarterbacks. They would have to free roughly $7 million of cap room to franchise Owens.
That will be tough to do. The 49ers have already lost $4.5 million of next year's cap when they released wide receiver J.J. Stokes and defensive end Junior Bryant in June. They will have additional dead money of $6.7 million from the voided options of Owens, Peterson and Plummer.
"In all of these decisions involving the cap, you have to study the cost benefit of doing things," Colts general manager Bill Polian said. "You have to study the cost of keeping a player and what you can do with that money to replace the player. You have to study if you can get two, three or four players with the money you might spend to keep one player."
Ideally, if the 49ers can franchise Owens and trade him, they could salvage the value of losing the best player on their team. That's what the Bills did in franchising wide receiver Peerless Price before trading him to Atlanta. The Jets made a value judgment when Redskins owner Dan Snyder gave wide receiver Laveranues Coles a $13 million signing bonus. Each team got first-round values in trades, but their offense suffered. Josh Reed hasn't replaced Price's big-play ability in Buffalo, and Curtis Conway is barely holding onto Coles' old starting job in New York.
And the bigger problem for the 49ers is if they can't trade Owens in the first two weeks of March when he can get a long-term deal without losing the franchise tag for the length of the contract, they will have to keep him and their salary cap will be shot.
So it's not out of the question for 49ers to just let Owens go. The Cardinals did the same with disgruntled wide receiver David Boston and quarterback Jake Plummer. Both players became marquee free agents, and the Cardinals didn't get any draft choice compensation. They did spend big money with their cap savings, investing in safety Dexter Jackson, quarterback Jeff Blake, linebacker James Darling, halfback Emmitt Smith and fullback James Hodgins. Last week, they re-signed left tackle L.J. Shelton and five backups, eating up $8 million of cap.
The problem with what they did is they didn't advance their personnel by acquiring big-time playmakers.
Sapp may very well be like Owens. The Bucs are pretty much at next year's cap, and all but three of their starters are under contract next year. Sapp is going to want $7 million a year and a double-digit signing bonus, but internally, the team may take the position that his skills are declining because of age. They may not offer him the six-year, $31 million deal given to Anthony McFarland this fall that included $9.5 million in guarantees.
Franchising Sapp could be a problem. He would get a 20-percent raise from his $6.6 million salary, and that may be too much cap room to clear for the two-week chance of trading him for a first- or second-round draft choice.
Sapp could hit the market.
The Dillon situation is a no-brainer. He doesn't want to be there anymore. That's clear. He came out and said he wanted to be traded and now doesn't want to play unless his groin injury has healed 100 percent. The Bengals have no cap issues. They have $13 million of room and the freedom to do whatever they want. Dillon has two years remaining on his contract, and the Bengals would have to take a $4.2 million cap hit by trading him next year. Considering he's scheduled to make $3.4 million next year, the Bengals are only out $800,000 of lost cap by trading him.
The Bengals are 3-5 and playing good ball with Rudi Johnson at halfback. Expect the Dillon situation to be handled with a trade.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.