Despite an 11th-hour bid from a team in their own division, ESPN.com has learned that the Green Bay Packers -- decimated by injuries to three of their top four wide receivers -- reached agreement Wednesday with free agent Antonio Freeman.
Negotiations went deep into Tuesday night, and Freeman met for several hours with head coach Mike Sherman, before opting for the Packers over the Detroit Lions. The Lions had all but assured the veteran he would fill the No. 3 wideout role and they also proposed to guarantee his base salary.
But Freeman, who will sign a one-year contract with the Packers to begin his second stint with the team, could start quickly in Green Bay, where he knows the offense and where injuries could move him near the top of a diluted depth chart. Freeman, of course, played the first seven years of his career with the Packers before his release last spring for salary cap considerations.
"All along Free had various opportunities to sign with other clubs, but this was just the right time and the right place for him to contribute to a winning team," his agent, Joel Segal, told The Associated Press. "He maintained that his priority was to find a situation where he could contribute, and he's always had an affinity for the Packers."
Freeman already counts $4.3 million against the Packers' salary cap this season and would count an additional $475,000 against it if signed to a deal for the veteran's minimum of $775,000. Freeman was released by the team in June 2002 in the middle of a seven-year, $42 million contract.
The Packers-Freeman courtship began Monday morning, just one day after three Green Bay receivers, including both starters, suffered injuries in Sunday's season opener that could sideline them for various periods of time. The Lions entered the bidding Tuesday.
Freeman had maintained all summer that he would not reach a panic decision about where to play in 2003 and that proved to be the case.
Donald Driver, the Packers' top receiver, suffered a neck injury and he will be evaluated on a day-to-day basis.Robert Ferguson suffered ligament damage to his right knee and ankle. Karsten Bailey, the No. 4 wide receiver, strained his hamstring during the loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
The spate of injuries left second-year veteran Javon Walker as Green Bay's lone healthy wide receiver.
A first-round pick in the 2002 draft, Walker started two games as a rookie, and he had 23 receptions for 319 yards and one touchdown.
Freeman, 31, played last season for the Philadelphia Eagles on a one-year contract. He rejected some contract proposals in the offseason and told ESPN.com two weeks ago that he was seeking an opportunity with a team where he would get playing time, and where the franchise had a chance to go deep into the playoffs and possibly to the Super Bowl.
With more than enough cash in the bank, Freeman acknowledged that he had opted for deliberation over desperation. But the plight of the Packers, and his friendship with many of the veterans on the roster, helped bring him back to Green Bay for a second stint.
The advantage to the Packers is that Freeman is familiar with the offense and might be able to step quickly into the lineup, depending on his conditioning. A team source said he appeared to be in very good shape during a Tuesday audition.
Playing as the No. 3 receiver for the Eagles last season, he had 46 catches for 600 yards and scored four touchdowns. His reception total would have topped all wide receivers on three teams in the league. It was better than the catch totals of a dozen No. 2 receivers and just five of the No. 3 wideouts leaguewide had more catches.
His best seasons, of course, came with the Packers. From 1995-2001, he had 417 catches for 6,510 yards and 57 touchdowns. Four times Freeman registered 60 or more receptions and in the three-year period between 1997-99, he averaged 79.7 receptions, 1,247 yards and 10.7 touchdowns.
Freeman appeared in 101 games for Green Bay, which selected him in the fourth round of the 1995 draft, and the former Virginia Tech star started 90 contests.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.