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A Game of Tag for Potential Defensive UFAs

The NFL salary cap is expected to go from $109 million to $116 million and unrestricted free agents will hit the open market Feb. 29 at 12:01 a.m. Less than three weeks remain before teams begin the shopping season and agents pitch their clients' services.

Some don't need to freshen up their résumés, though, as their names headline the potential list of 2008 defensive unrestricted free agents.

All 32 teams have until Feb. 21 to designate a soon-to-be-free-agent franchise player. If a player gets tagged, he'll receive a one-year contract that pays him the average of the top five players at his position or 120 percent of his salary from the previous year, whichever is higher.

So while fans play GM from the couch and peg potential UFAs for their hometown team, some players might not be available this leap year. A trio of Pro Bowlers — Kansas City DE Jared Allen, Tennessee DT Albert Haynesworth and Seattle CB Marcus Trufant — could receive a franchise tag in the next 10 days.

Allen, the 6'6", 270-pound, 25-year-old pass-rusher, collected 15.5 sacks this past season and 43 in just four pro seasons. The Chiefs have no intentions of allowing the RDE to roam free.

"We haven't talked so I'm expecting the franchise tag,'' Allen said. "For me, I stated my position. If I play this season under the franchise tag, this is my last year in Kansas City."

Haynesworth has blossomed into the game's top DT. Although he lined up in a four-man front in Tennessee, he could also be productive as the middle man in a 3-4. He was slowed last season due to a hamstring injury but still produced six sacks and 40 tackles.

"If they don't want me long-term, they can just stick the tag on me, but that's kind of tough," he said. "I consider myself a Tennessee Titan. I've been here for six years. I've been in college here for three years. I've been in Tennessee for 10 years, and I'm only 26. That's a big portion of my life. Not trying to work out something long-term hurts your feelings a little bit."

In addition to keeping a player off the market, franchising a player buys a team more time to work on a long-term deal. Last July the Colts hammered home a multiyear agreement with DE Dwight Freeney only months after tagging him.

Not many players helped their cause this season more than Trufant. The 27-year-old Seahawk collected a career-high seven interceptions and added a postseason INT against the Redskins, which he returned 78 yards for a score.

"Marcus does a lot of things for us and a lot of things that don't show up in the stats," said Seattle LB Lofa Tatupu. "A lot of teams just didn't throw at him this season and that allowed other guys to get chances."

Trufant's a Tacoma, Wash., native who attended Washington State University before playing his first five pro seasons in Seattle. The 'Hawks also probably scored points with Trufant by naming DBs coach Jim Mora the head coaching successor to Mike Holmgren in 2009. If something long-term can't be worked out between the two sides, the Seahawks could tag Trufant and pay him close to $9.5 million next season.

"Jim's a great guy and coach, and I had a lot of fun playing for him this season," Trufant said. "If I can be back, it'll be good. At the end of the day, it's all about business. Hopefully, things work out. But you never know."

Unless Asante Samuel inks a contract with the Patriots before Feb. 29, he will become an unrestricted free agent. When Samuel was tagged prior to the '07 season, the Pats promised not to give him the same designation if they won 12 games. They won 16 and Samuel, who's picked off 16 passes the past two seasons, is poised to see how much he's worth.

"There's definitely always a chance I'll be back with the Patriots," he said. "Free agency is what you work hard for, the financial security it brings. I look forward to it, but hopefully I remain a Patriot.

"It's part of the business, and eventually I will be happy with what I get."

In fact, Samuel could be delighted. Defensive backs everywhere were popping corks last spring when former Buffalo Bills CB Nate Clements reportedly signed a 10-year, $100 million dollar deal ($22 million in guaranteed money) with the 49ers. While Samuel may opt to stay put, he wasn't willing to say he'd come down in market value to remain a Pat.

"I don't think it can't be done. If they want to do it, they can do it. It's totally up to them," he said. "I don't know. We'll have to wait and see.''

Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha will probably opt out of his current deal but all signs point to Oakland slapping the tag on the five-year vet.

In Chicago, LB Lance Briggs avoided the franchise designation by playing in 75 percent of the Bears' defensive plays. Briggs, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, sat out Sunday's all-star game because of a hip injury.

"It's nothing new, and it's nothing to be concerned about with Lance," said agent Drew Rosenhaus. "He's probably feeling a heck of a lot better. We just thought it would be wise not to take the chance."

Some Bears followers are mighty concerned about their 'backers, considering Briggs' possible departure and MLB Brian Urlacher's recent neck surgery.

"I've seen myself in every possible color," said Briggs. "I went to college in Arizona, so it is appealing. I grew up in Sacramento, so the Bay Area is appealing. Seattle is appealing — anywhere along the West Coast. Everybody has their pros and cons."

Terrell Suggs has a lot of pros. Suggs, who has 45 sacks in five seasons, could rush from the edge in either a 4-3 or 3-4. The Ravens are reportedly between $5 million and $6 million under the projected cap and a Suggs tag would count $8 million against it.

"I've always said and believe in my heart that I'm a Raven," Suggs said. "I love the city of Baltimore. On the front-office side, we're decided by the decisions and moves they make, on whether they see me as a Raven."

Apparently the front-office sees him as a Raven. GM Ozzie Newsome said Monday that Suggs isn't going anywhere.

"We will be using the franchise tag on Terrell if we don't have a long-term deal in place between now and then," Newsome said.

It's Decision Time '08 in the NFL.

For an unofficial listing of UFAs-to-be, click here for AFC players and here for the NFC.

Thursday: We'll preview unrestricted free agency on the offensive side of the ball.

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