Falcons decline to give Brooking franchise tag
By Len Pasquarelli
ATLANTA -- Even without a long-term contract agreement by the Thursday afternoon deadline for designating "franchise" or "transition" veterans, the Atlanta Falcons have decided not to use one of the restrictive markers on star middle linebacker Keith Brooking, ESPN.com has confirmed.
The decision does not necessarily mean the two-time Pro Bowl performer will go on the open market, since the free agency period does not begin until Feb. 28, providing the Falcons and Brookings' representatives eight more days to potentially negotiate a contract. It does, however, increase chances that the five-year veteran could depart in free agency.
Citing salary cap issues, and the need to budget finances for improving the team in several need areas, Atlanta officials have hinted in recent days that they would not use the "franchise" designation to limit the mobility of their top defensive player.
Placing the "franchise" tag on Brooking would have meant an immediate cap charge of $5.614 million. That would have significantly reduced the team's current salary cap cushion.
Ironically, one of the veteran free agents Atlanta was expected to ardently pursue in free agency, Buffalo wide receiver Peerless Price, was tagged with a "franchise" designation by the Bills on Wednesday evening. Teams have until 4 p.m. Thursday to exercise a "franchise" or "transition" marker.
Agent Pat Dye spoke twice with Falcons vice president Ray Anderson on Wednesday and made no progress toward a long-term deal for Brooking. It appears no deal is imminent, even though Brooking, a Georgia native, has reiterated in recent days he will accept a lesser offer to stay with the team that made him its first-round choice in the 1998 draft.
Clearly, the Falcons have played on Brookings' emotions in negotiations, and counted on receiving a "home-town discount" of sorts.
While the Falcons are believed to be offering a $10 million signing bonus, the structure of their proposal and the payout is said to be inferior to that of the six-year extension defensive end Patrick Kerney signed last year.
That deal easily voids after four years, includes a signing bonus of $8.5 million, and is worth $25.04 million over four seasons. Extrapolating the Kerney signing bonus over the six-year model with which both Anderson and Dye have been working, the signing bonus would be $12.75 million.
Arguably one of the game's top four middle linebackers, Brooking, 27, might actually command a signing bonus of $12 million-$13 million as an unrestricted free agent. In informal surveys, the general managers from two other teams have indicated to ESPN.com they would consider such a bonus for Brooking, if he were on the open market.
Most teams have anticipated that the Falcons would never allow Brooking to reach unrestricted free agency. Reached at the annual predraft combine in Indianapolis, the personnel director of one AFC team said he is "shocked" to learn that Atlanta will not apply the "franchise" designation to Brooking.
A former Georgia Tech standout, Brooking became the fifth defender in franchise history to record over 200 tackles in 2002. He is the rare middle linebacker who actually stays on the field for all three downs, and that is part of what makes him attractive to other teams, if he is in free agency.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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