Yes, there will be a free-agent season this year.
The old Michigan passing combination of Elvis Grbac and Desmond Howard will be available. So will Jerome Bettis, Rod Woodson, Gilbert Brown, Chad Brown, Daryl Johnston, Neil Smith and Larry Centers, all standing to cash in now.
But with the salary cap up just $700,000 from last season to about $41.45 million, 1997 looks like a stop-gap year. The real fun starts next year, when billions of dollars from a new television will start giving even the most cap-strapped teams room to maneuver.
“The good players will still get a lot of money this year,” says Bill Kuharich, general manager of the New Orleans Saints.
“There will just be a lot fewer of them getting it.”
All this is subject to late developments. Teams continued to negotiate with their own players until the midnight deadline and others were prepared to slap “franchise” and “transition” labels on players they want to keep.
Oddly, the highest-paid free agent may be one who’s been a free agent since early last season - Jeff George, the talented but troublesome quarterback who was cut by Atlanta last season after a spat with June Jones, then the Falcons’ coach. He’s set to sign a contract with the Raiders for an estimated $25 million over four years.
George is one of four intriguing quarterbacks available along with Grbac and Heath Shuler.
And George’s arrival in Oakland will turn loose another - Jeff Hostetler, although at 36 and injury prone, Hostetler may have to be a backup.
The only true free agent in the group is Grbac, who proved as Steve Young’s understudy in San Francisco the last two seasons he has the talent to be a starter.
He could become the latest ex-49er quarterback in Kansas City - the aging Joe Montana and career backup Steve Bono preceded him. The Chiefs also talked Tuesday to Chris Chandler, who still is under contract to Houston but will probably give way to Steve McNair.
Unlike many free agents, Grbac will take his time signing - the signing period extends until April 15.
“It’s not like it’s going to be that one day there’s Elvis and the next you find out he’s with another team,” says his agent, Jim Steiner. “This is going to be done judiciously with anyone we talk to.”
Shuler is more iffy.
Shuler was the third overall pick by Washington in the 1994. Yet he lost his job to Gus Frerotte and is on the trading block.
Other big names are likely to return to their old teams.
Bettis, for example, was negotiating with Pittsburgh up to the midnight deadline and the Steelers also hope to keep Woodson and Chad Brown, who had 13 sacks after being moved from inside linebacker to the outside.
Derrick Thomas appeared set to re-sign with Kansas City, although the Chiefs were making less of an effort to re-sign Neil Smith, their pass-rushing defensive end.
And Gilbert Brown is at the top of Green Bay’s re-signing list. Overshadowed by Reggie White, Brown is the 325-pound rock that holds the Super Bowl champions’ defensive line together.
Howard, the Super Bowl MVP, is farther down the list. The $1.5 million he is seeking, a raise from $275,000, is more than the Packers can afford for a kick returner.
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