If safety Lawyer Milloy is a veteran of at least moderately declining skills, as suggested by some New England officials after a Tuesday morning departure that sent shockwaves through the Patriots locker room, other teams around the league clearly don't share that assessment of him.
Within two hours of Milloy's stunning release, ESPN.com reported Tuesday afternoon that the Buffalo Bills had already made a solid contract offer.
By Tuesday night, Milloy and his representatives were mulling offers from at least three franchises, ESPN.com had learned. And a decision on where the seven-year veteran will resume his career could come as early as Wednesday, as some of the teams are seeking an expeditious resolution, and negotiations on all fronts are accelerating.
"We'd sign him right now and play him on Sunday," said Buffalo team president Tom Donahoe. "We've made it clear that we want him here."
The Bills host the Patriots in Sunday's regular-season opener in what already is viewed as a critical AFC East matchup.
Beyond the Bills, the Washington Redskins and New Orleans Saints have made offers and remain in the hunt. It is believed Washington has offered a multi-year contract that would pay Milloy about $5 million over the first two seasons. League sources said that the Saints had offered a three-year contract.
The Minnesota Vikings demonstrated early interest and then, when they saw where the market was headed, backed off later in the day. The New York Jets also made at least one exploratory phone call but it is believed their interest waned as well.
Responses were mixed when ESPN.com phoned league personnel directors and general managers throughout the day Tuesday to ask if they think Milloy's abilities had declined. But most personnel men surveyed said they felt Milloy is still among the NFL's top players at his position. Several noted that his big-play skills were somewhat diminished but that he still had several good years remaining.
"It doesn't show up on film," said one general manager of Milloy's alleged decline.
Milloy was entering the fourth season of a seven-year, $35 million contract that was seen as a landmark deal for a safety when he signed it in 2000. New England will save $4.4 million on its 2003 cap but will have to count about $6 million on its 2004 spending limit because of various prorated signing bonus segments.
Patriots sources said late Tuesday night that keeping Milloy on the regular-season roster would have pushed the team over the 2003 cap limit and perhaps forced the release of a starter or two. During the offseason, the so-called "rule of 51" applies to a team's salary cap, meaning it must count only its highest-paid 51 players against the ceiling. But when the regular season begins, every player under contract counts against the cap, and a club's account typically rises.
The scheduled 2003 cap charge for Milloy was $5.836 million. The two sides had been working on a potential reworked deal for four or five months but could not get together on numbers amenable to Milloy and the Patriots brass.
Of the three teams known to still be chasing Milloy, all offer a degree of attractiveness, and he may ultimately be forced to decide between money and a chance to perhaps play in a third Super Bowl game.
In Buffalo, he would be reunited with former New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who urged Bills officials to sign Milloy, and who spoke with the safety by phone a few times on Tuesday. There is also the specter of being able to play the Patriots twice yearly, an obvious revenge element. Bledsoe, who is being counted on to demonstrate his skills as a recruiter, figures to be Buffalo's big plus. The Bills want more big plays from their safeties and their current starters, Pierson Prioleau and Coy Wire, combined for zero interceptions in 2002.
Going to New Orleans would reunite Milloy with his former Patriots safety partner, Tebucky Jones, who was traded to the Saints this spring. During the several weeks in which team officials were negotiating the Jones swap, ESPN.com confirmed the Patriots several times offered Milloy as an alternative in the trade. New Orleans last week lost starting free safety Mel Mitchell to a knee injury. Last year's starter, Jay Bellamy, has been promoted into the lineup. Some Saints officials see him, though, as a liability in the club's revamped defense.
Given the past history of owner Daniel Snyder, the Redskins may well offer the most money of all Milloy's suitors. Washington has more than $5 million in cap room, may not blink if the financial ante is raised, and certainly could use a player of Milloy's ilk to anchor its interior secondary. One of the Saints' players said Tuesday night that Milloy had hinted he favored the Redskins but wanted more time to consider his decision.
While the action was heated for the teams pursuing Milloy, his former New England teammates remained puzzled by the move, and by its unusual timing.
"Has it ever been this quiet in here? I don't think it has," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, a former Milloy teammate, of the Pats' locker room. "I think 'shocked' is the word. . . . You sort of just shake your head and ask yourself, 'Why?' "
Milloy started in 106 consecutive games going back to his rookie year in 1996, when the Patriots won the AFC championship but lost to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI. He led the team in tackles in 2001, when New England won Super Bowl XXXVI.
But last year, Milloy had no sacks, no forced fumbles, no sacks and no interceptions. His 91 tackles represented his fewest since he became a full-time starter. The Patriots will not concede this point, at least not publicly, but some team officials and coaches felt Milloy had not performed on the field to his salary level.
Said coach Bill Belichick in announcing the release: "Today is a day that nobody is happy about. This isn't the way we wanted this story to end. This is the hardest player that I have had to release. It was the hardest situation that I've had to go through like this, here or anywhere else."
The Patriots have said they did not make the move in order to create a position for a player to be added from outside the organization. They stressed publicly the release was a financial matter only and said Milloy's successor will come from a group of younger players that includes Antwan Harris, Aric Morris and Chris Akins, none of whom has ever been a starter.
"It is scary in the timing," said New England cornerback Ty Law, who has the same agent as Milloy, and who has also been approached about reworking his contract. "There is such a thing as good business and bad business. I don't know what category this one falls under. But to my eyes, and being selfish, at this late in the game and in regard to him and his family, I'm sure this is something that could have been done a long time ago."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com. The Associated Press also contributed to this story.