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WhoDat 03-12-2003 08:39 AM

Four ways to handle star players
Four ways to handle star players
By Pat Kirwan
Special to

(March 10, 2003) -- In this era of super contracts, renegotiations, tags and salary-cap balance, teams are challenged as to how to handle their star players when fair-market value and the club's future are the main issues. Here is a look at how four clubs handled their star players and which method(s) I prefer and why.

The best example of how to control the market and get full value for a star player even when he's out of contract was the Buffalo Bills' handling of WR Peerless Price . Bills GM Tom Donahoe was not about to let a talented young receiver just go free and sign with a new team. He decided to put a franchise tag on him and force teams interested in Price to come forward and surrender a high draft pick for the right to sign him.

Atlanta surfaced and eventually gave the Bills the 23rd pick in the first round for the rights to Price. The Bills got value for a player they could have easily kept on their roster. As one GM said to me, "I would have kept Price on my roster with Drew Bledsoe under center, but it was a masterful job by Donahoe of getting great value for him." Teams flirting with Price tried to get away with offering the Bills a second-round pick, but Donahoe held his ground and got what he wanted.

The same scenario could have existed for Cincinnati and LB Takeo Spikes, but they chose a different path. The Bengals only put a transition tag on Spikes and that means if another team signs him to a big contract, all the Bengals get is the right to match the offer or lose everything.

The transition tag is a cheaper cap hit on paper, but only two teams in the NFL used a transition tag this year -- the Packers with DT Cletidus Hunt and Cincinnati with Spikes. Eight teams used a franchise tag instead.

Green Bay quickly got Hunt signed to a long-term deal and that left just Spikes out there with a transition tag. It's important to note that for $750,000 more cap space (not more money), the Bengals could have assigned him a franchise tag just like the Bills did with Price. The irony is that the Bills are the team that put an offer sheet in for Spikes. If the Bengals decide not to match the offer, Spikes is gone and Cincinnati receives no compensation. If they franchised him, they would now be getting the 23rd pick in the first round -- the same pick Buffalo got from Atlanta in the Price deal.

If the Bengals match the Bills' offer, then all they did was let Buffalo negotiate the contract. If they don't match, then they wasted an opportunity to get real value for Spikes. One personnel director said, "The transition tag is a headache if you want to keep your player. That's why so few teams use it."

A third technique in handling the business affairs of a star player is being orchestrated by the Eagles with DE Hugh Douglas. Philadelphia didn't tag Douglas at all, even though they have the ability to create the cap space to drop the $7.1 million franchise tag on him. Some say Philly is still dealing with the ugly public relations situation they received for tagging Jeremiah Trotter the year before and eventually letting him go anyway. I would have tagged Douglas, then let the league know he was for sale, and take the best offer in a trade if I couldn't sign him to the deal I wanted to give him.

Buying time to negotiate is critical this time of year. Even with Douglas at 32 years of age, a team like the Chiefs or Seahawks may have given Philadelphia a second- or a third-round pick. As it stands now, all the Eagles can hope for is that the market isn't high for Douglas, and his agent gives the Eagles the final shot at re-signing him. This way, Philadelphia won't overpay Douglas and they won't have to accept a contract written by another team. The Bengals will overpay if they decide to match the Bills' offer, but they could easily lose Spikes and receive no compensation.

Now that teams get to bring Douglas into their facilities and recruit him, the Eagles aren't exactly painting a picture that Philadelphia still loves him. Teams hope to break the emotional tie Douglas may still have for his old team.

A fourth method of dealing with a star player is New Orleans' handling of OT Kyle Turley . The Saints have him under contract and offered him an extension months ago. He turned down the offer and then the Saints realized they would never re-sign him. So, the team had a preemptive philosophy and went right out in free agency and signed his replacement, Wayne Gandy. Now with Gandy under contract, the Saints put Turley up for sale.

One offensive line coach called me and said, "We can have Turley right now for a swap of first round picks." I said that doesn't sound bad, but your club still has to sign the guy to a long-term deal and that will cost more money than the Giants spent to re-sign Luke Petitgout. Make sure you like him as a player.

At any rate, the Saints will get compensation for Turley from some team, and unlike the Bills, they have his replacement under contract. The Bills may believe Josh Reed is ready to take over for Price, but then someone has to replace Reed in the slot. The Saints have a much cleaner situation. They are using $3.38 million of cap space to hold on to Turley, but that's temporary. They get it all back when he's traded.

In a matter of days, the last three of these four "star" players could be gone from their 2002 teams -- all by different methods. If a team has the cap space, I prefer any method that guarantees compensation. And in that regard, I liked the Bills' and Saints' plans.

When I was with the Jets, I also had a few bad experiences on contracts with a "poison pill" in them, and that is never nice to deal with. A poison pill is a section of a contract written by a team that makes the structure of a contract hard to handle in your cap if you decide to match an offer. The Bills could easily structure a contract the Bengals would view as having a poison pill in it. Why subject yourself to those kinds of problems if you don't have to? If the Bengals were never going to match the Bills' deal, then why transition tag Spikes in the first place?

Having enough good players to win is hard enough. Keeping them and not going broke can be even harder to do. But letting them walk without compensation has to be avoided at all costs, especially when you have the resources.

WhoDat 03-12-2003 10:36 AM

Four ways to handle star players
I aim to please Gator! ;)

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