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Freedom Comes to NFL : Pro football: On first day of free agency, 484 players become eligible to sign with new teams.

March 02, 1993|STEVE SPRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It doesn't quite rank up there with the fall of the Berlin wall.

But Monday was a momentous day for NFL players, the day the last major barrier to their freedom officially tumbled.

It was the dawn of a new era that promises to drastically alter the balance of power in the NFL, breaking the stranglehold owners have long held over players. From now on, players with at least five years of service become unrestricted free agents when their contracts expire. After three years, players will have limited free agency. On Day 1 of this new era, 484 players were eligible to jump ship and sign with new teams.

But it was hardly a day for celebrations or a mass exodus. Rather, it was a day for caution, negotiation and speculation.

Take the case of Raider running back Marcus Allen, for example.

The 11-year veteran has spent his entire career with the Raiders. But the only thing he is sure of is that he won't be spending any more time with them. Both Allen and the Raiders made that perfectly clear at the end of last season when Allen and owner Al Davis went public with their longstanding feud.

The reality, according to Allen, is that he isn't going anywhere . . . yet.

He spent the first day of free agency considering his options with his agent. For Allen and most of his colleagues, this is going to be a long process.

The affected players fall into three categories.

There are 298 unrestricted free agents, five-year veterans whose contracts have expired and who are free to sign with other clubs until July 15.

There are 140 restricted free agents, players who have completed either three or four NFL seasons and whose contracts have expired. These players may negotiate with new teams until April 23. By making qualifying offers, their old clubs, however, have the right to later match offers and keep the players. Or, if they decide not to match an offer, the old clubs will receive draft-choice compensation if the players sign elsewhere. The nature of the compensation will be determined by the size of the qualifying offer.

Finally, 46 players fall into other free-agent categories, such as those who received no qualifying offer from their old clubs.

The Raiders have 12 unrestricted free agents--quarterbacks Jay Schroeder and Vince Evans, running back Steve Smith, receivers Willie Gault and Sam Graddy, linebacker Riki Ellison, defensive back Ronnie Lott, defensive lineman Bob Golic, offensive linemen Reggie McElroy, James Fitzpatrick and Steve Wright and, of course, Allen.

The team avoided having two more by signing defensive lineman Aundray Bruce and punter Jeff Gossett.

The Raiders also have five restricted free agents--offensive lineman Steve Wisniewski, running back Napoleon McCallum, receiver Alexander Wright, linebacker Aaron Wallace and defensive back Torin Dorn.

The Rams have 16 unrestricted free agents, the list led by defensive lineman Kevin Greene and offensive lineman Gerald Perry.

They also have four restricted free agents--running backs Cleveland Gary and Anthony Thompson, defensive lineman Phil Hawkins and tight end Travis McNeal.

Around the league, there are some top players available.

The quarterback crop includes Vinny Testaverde, Jim Harbaugh, Jeff Hostetler, Phil Simms, Chris Miller, Steve Beuerlein, Jim McMahon and Steve Bono.

That list would appear to be of particular interest to the Raiders, who are thought to be in the market for a new quarterback.

Schroeder had his ups and downs for the second consecutive season, prompting Davis to say of his starting quarterback: "The guy takes so much damn abuse locally, sometimes you wonder if it isn't best he migrate elsewhere."

Todd Marinovich, who went from backup to starter to third on the depth chart last season, will have to fight to get his job back.

So who does that leave?

There is thought to be some interest in Testaverde. And Boomer Esiason, who has fallen out of favor in Cincinnati but is not a free agent, says Los Angeles is one of his favored destinations.

Others available for the right price include Philadelphia Eagle defensive lineman Reggie White, Phoenix Cardinal defensive back Tim McDonald, Denver Bronco linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, Miami Dolphin receiver Mark Clayton, Denver receiver Mark Jackson and Buffalo Bill linebacker Shane Conlan.

Free agency comes to the NFL after five years with no labor agreement at all and 15 years of a system in which only just two players changed clubs because teams had the right to match any offer made to their stars and were compensated with get two first-round draft choices if the player left.

Ironically, one of those two, Washington linebacker Wilber Marshall, was declared a "franchise player" by the Redskins and thus can't move, leave the team, although his salary must jump increase from $850,000 to at least $1.6 million. A franchise player must be paid the average of the top five players at his position or be given a 20% raise.

So when will the major movement occur under the new system?

"I think what you're going to find is a domino effect," agent Peter Schaffer said. "Right now, everybody thinks they're a few players away from the Super Bowl, provided they don't lose anybody. But when they do lose somebody, they're going to replace him, and then that team will have to find a replacement."

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