Brooking's deal worth $41 million over seven years
By Len Pasquarelli
ATLANTA -- Just one day after Atlanta Falcons officials publicly declared an impasse in negotiations, the team reached a contract agreement Thursday evening with Keith Brooking, a deal that will keep the team's star middle linebacker off the unrestricted free agent market.
Although the team announced a six-year deal, the contract, league sources said, is actually for seven years. It includes, though, a voidable seventh year that is contingent on Brooking reach very easy benchmarks.
The signing bonus is about $10.5 million and the total value of the contract is approximately $41 million for seven years and roughly $35 million over the first six seasons.
"It means a lot to me," said Brooking. "It's security for my family and also means I should be able to finish my career right here at home. That meant a lot to me, being able to have my family around me, and being able to stay with a team I grew up watching. It's a pretty emotional thing, really."
ESPN.com reported Thursday morning that the two sides had narrowed their differences and that a deal was likely to be struck later in the day. That was despite the Wednesday contentions by both sides that an agreement was not imminent and that serious hurdles remained.
But illustrating the sudden acceleration of negotiations between Wednesday and Thursday, ESPN.com learned that Falcons vice president Ray Anderson returned to Atlanta from Indianapolis, where he was attending the NFL's predraft scouting combine. Agent Pat Dye, who reiterated Wednesday his client's goal of staying in Atlanta, delayed his departure to Indianapolis, which was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
The parties met at the home of owner Arthur Blank to hammer out the final details of the contract. Anderson and Dye are expected to proceed on to the combine on Blank's private jet.
A signing bonus of about $10 million would be the second-highest ever awarded by the franchise. The club paid quarterback Michael Vick a combined $11 million signing and option bonus -- $3 million upfront and $8 million the following March -- after choosing him with the first overall selection in the 2001 draft.
The Falcons decided Wednesday, a first reported by ESPN.com, that they would not use a "franchise" tag on Brooking, even without a long-term deal before the 4 p.m. Thursday deadline. That decision did not necessarily mean the two-time Pro Bowl performer would 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. But team officials did not want to face another deadline, pushed for a quick resolution, and got it.
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. A long-term deal will mean a lower salary cap number for 2003, since the team can prorate the signing bonus over the length of the contract.
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.
The "franchise" designation on Price might actually have helped speed up the Brooking negotiations, since Atlanta knew the wide receiver might now be out of their reach.
Dye spoke twice with Anderson on Wednesday afternoon and made no progress toward a long-term deal for Brooking. It appeared then no deal was imminent, even though Brooking, a Georgia native, had reiterated in recent days he would accept a lesser offer to stay with the team that made him its first-round choice in the 1998 draft.
Cleary, the Falcons played on Brookings' emotions in negotiations, and counted on receiving a "hometown discount" of sorts.
While the Falcons were believed to be offering a $10 million signing bonus for the last few days, the structure of their proposal and the payout was 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.
It is believed the Falcons improved the payout structure to help close the gap between themselves and Brooking.
Inarguably one of the game's top four middle linebackers, Brooking, 27, might have actually commanded a signing bonus of $12 million-$13 million as an unrestricted free agent. In informal surveys, the general managers from two other teams 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 would have made him attractive to other teams.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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