While some fine-tuning remains on a few details, the New York Jets have taken the first step toward keeping their defensive front four together, reaching an agreement in principle with end Shaun Ellis on a contract extension believed to be for seven years.
Financial details of the contract, which is likely to be announced later this week, were not immediately available. Ellis, who began to emerge as a big-time player in 2003, will receive about $14 million to $15 million in guarantees. A five-year veteran, Ellis earlier this season rejected an extension proposal from Jets management.
Securing the services of Ellis, 27, was key for the Jets and for their defense. The former University of Tennessee standout was eligible to become an unrestricted free agent next spring, and there were unsubstantiated rumors that Dallas coach Bill Parcells, who was the head coach in New York when Ellis was chosen in 2000, would pursue him.
Certainly, Ellis would have been among the most coveted defenders in free agency.
Two other defensive line starters for the Jets, nose tackle Jason Ferguson and right end John Abraham, are pending unrestricted free agents. Ferguson, enjoying a career season, has already rebuffed one extension offer. Abraham leads the NFL in sacks, but the Jets have proceeded with prudence in negotiations with their star pass rusher because of past off-field incidents.
In addition to its standout defenders, New York also has several other key players eyeing unrestricted free agency, including right offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, tight end Anthony Becht and tailback LaMont Jordan.
New York kept its most important potential free agent, quarterback Chad Pennington, off the 2005 market by signing him to a $64 million extension in early September. Clearly, the Jets, and assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who manages the salary cap and serves as chief negotiator, have a busy time ahead.
Retaining Ellis, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth in 2003, provides a bit of security and will allow New York maneuverability in its dealings with other free agents.
Earlier this week, in speaking of the two-year extension with which he was rewarded, Jets general manager Terry Bradway acknowledged: "We won't be able to keep everybody."
Ellis, 27, was one of New York's four first-round choices in the 2000 draft, along with Abraham, Pennington and Becht. His career started slowly, and he bounced back and forth between end and tackle before finally settling at the former position. A player who has worked hard to upgrade his game, and who has become a solid two-way defender against the run and the pass, Ellis had a breakthrough season in 2003.
He recorded a career-best 12½ sacks, still played the run well and anchored the strong side of the line. Ellis' sacks have fallen off some this year, with just 3½ sacks entering Sunday afternoon's game at Arizona, but he has maintained a high level of performance. For his career, Ellis has 236 tackles, 33½ sacks, five forced fumbles and an interception in 73 games, including 58 starts.
Reaching a deal with Ellis opens up the possibility that the Jets, if necessary, would use the "franchise" designation to retain Abraham.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.