Free for All

In a league flushwith new cap cash, David Givens's roller-coaster weekend typified the wildfree-agent market

As the NFL's 2006ATM season--also known as the free-agency period--opened at 12:01 a.m. lastSaturday, teams were loaded with more spare cash than they'd ever had. Thanksto the collective bargaining agreement approved by the owners on March 8, thesalary cap increased from $85.5 million in 2005 to $102 million. Last year theaverage team entered free agency $5.6 million under the cap; this year 31 of 32teams had more than that available, including 11 teams with cap space exceeding$20 million. "It's like Christmas money, a gift," 49ers coach MikeNolan said on Saturday night. "And you know how you spend Christmasmoney."

To gauge theeffect of the spending spree on a mid-market free agent, SI tracked the 72-hourcourtship of Patriots wide receiver David Givens, from Massachusetts to Miamion Saturday, Houston on Sunday and Nashville on Monday--where, as SI went topress, he was preparing to decide his future.

Saturday, 12:45a.m. Working from his brownstone in Boston's Back Bay, Givens's agent, BradBlank, has set up his client's first visit--to Miami, where Dolphins coach NickSaban covets a good wideout to pair with star Chris Chambers. Blank's goal is afive-year, $25 million contract for Givens, a four-year veteran with two SuperBowl rings who had a career-high 59 receptions as a No. 2 receiver in 2005,when he earned $1.43 million. But now a storm brews. A report surfaces thatCleveland has signed Givens. Blank tries to reassure Dolphins G.M. RandyMueller that the story is nonsense, that he hasn't even negotiated with theBrowns. (Apparently Cleveland staffers had prepared several stories in advanceof potential free-agent signings, and an enterprising Internet user got hold ofthe Givens story and made it public.) Still, teams begin to sense that Blank isusing them. Blank fumes but doesn't change Givens's appointments: a Saturdaytrip to Miami, then a visit to Houston on Sunday.

Saturday, 1 p.m.Givens text-messages Blank, stunned after hearing reports that the Redskins arenot only trading a third-round pick this year and a fourth-rounder in 2007 for49ers wideout Brandon Lloyd (48 catches in '05) but also giving him $10 millionin guaranteed money.

Saturday, 2 p.m.New England, which hopes to keep Givens while avoiding a bidding war, has $18million in cap room. Coach Bill Belichick and vice president Scott Pioli callBlank on speakerphone to tell him that the Patriots want to be in the derby--atthe right price. Maybe five years, $17.5 million.

Saturday, 4:20p.m. Givens senses he's not going to get an offer from the Dolphins. "I'mnot feeling the love," he tells Blank by cellphone. He's right. With only$7 million to spend in free agency this year, Saban is focusing on Chargersquarterback Drew Brees. Givens does, however, get a tasty piece of sea bass athis dinner with the Miami coach.

Saturday, 5 p.m.Thinking that Givens had signed with Cleveland, Titans G.M. Floyd Reese was notgoing to pursue him. When Reese learns that Givens is still on the market, hetells Blank, "We want to be in this." Blank gives him the price. A fewhours later Reese counters with five years, $23 million. Blank knows it mightbe the best he and Givens can do. But Givens, a Houston-area native who went toNotre Dame, has never set foot in Nashville and would have to see the city.

Sunday, 8:45 a.m.Blank hears that the Houston Chronicle is reporting that Givens has canceledhis trip to Texas and is re-signing with New England. He calls Givens, who hasjust boarded a nonstop flight from Fort Lauderdale to Houston. "Sir, pleaseturn your cellphone off," a flight attendant tells him, then repeats itmore firmly. "I thought they were going to kick me off the plane,"Givens says later. He turns off the cell and proceeds to spend $300 on franticAirfone calls to Texans negotiator Dan Ferens and G.M. Charley Casserly, toreassure them that he's nowhere close to a deal with the Patriots.

Sunday, 1 p.m.Givens likes Houston's new coach, Gary Kubiak. He likes the idea of playing inhis hometown. But he doesn't like the offer: five years, $18.5 million. Ifthat's the best the Texans can do, then Tennessee is looking a lot better.Talking on his cellphone to Blank while attending a rodeo at Reliant Stadium,Givens sees a fan with an Eddie George number 27 Titans jersey and thinks, It'sa sign.

Sunday, 8:20 p.m.At his airport hotel in Houston, Givens lies on his bed, contemplating hisfuture. Now the Patriots are back in, with incentives that could push theirfive-year offer to $20 million. It's tempting, but Blank thinks he can get theTitans to $24 million without incentives. A trip to Tennessee awaits Givens onMonday. "The last two days feel like two weeks,'' he says. "I get toMiami, and [I hear] I'm signing with Cleveland. I get to Houston, and theHouston paper says I'm signing with New England. None of it's true. I'msweating. I'm nervous. Right now, five million's a pretty big difference. I'dsay I'm leaning toward Tennessee. Wait. I'm not leaning toward anyone. I'mstill open."

Monday, 12:30 a.m.Givens finally falls asleep, expecting that by dusk the following day, he'llhave signed a deal with someone.

Monday, 4 p.m. InNashville, Givens gets one final pitch from the Patriots. But the wideout,who's made $2.3 million in his four seasons, is keen on the amount ofguaranteed money because--who knows?--this might be his last NFL contract. TheTitans are guaranteeing $8 million, the Patriots $5.5 million. Barring a changeof heart, Givens has caught his last ball from Tom Brady.

Monday, 5:45 p.m.Givens has been to a Nashville hospital for a physical (he passed with flyingcolors) and met with coach Jeff Fisher and the offensive staff (he'd be one ofthree wideouts in a scheme that runs three- and four-receiver sets about 60% ofthe time). At the end of an hour session with Reese, he asks about thequarterback situation. The G.M tells him it's Steve McNair this year, thenadds, "We've got the third overall pick in the draft, and I can promise youquarterback is a position we will not ignore."

Givens iscomfortable. He likes how he'd fit in the offense. He wonders if Reese wants adecision on the spot, and Reese's answer is the right one to a guy under somuch pressure. "This is a big decision in your life," Reese says."Sleep on it. Let us know tomorrow."

Monday, 8:15 p.m.After getting a tour of Brentwood and Franklin, towns outside of Nashvillewhere many Titans players live, Givens takes time from dinner with theoffensive coaching staff to text-message a friend. "Nashville is a verynice city, surprisingly," he writes from the dinner table. From the soundof it, it's a place he may get to like quite a bit.

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Prime Movers
In a frenetic first weekend of free agency, these three teams made the mosteffective upgrades.

Team Pre--Free Agency Cap Room
1. Ravens $10.6 million
With DT Trevor Pryce (five years, $25million) and RBs Jamal Lewis (three years, $26 million) and Mike Anderson(above, four years, $8 million), Baltimore got plenty of bang for itsbucks.
2. Browns $27.7 million
Overspent at six years, $36 million forC-G LeCharles Bentley but got good value for DT Ted Washington (two years, $7million), WR Joe Jurevicius (four years, $10.5 million) and P Dave Zastudil(five years, undisclosed).
3. Cardinals $27.6 million
The signing of Edgerrin James (page 112)to a four-year, $30 million deal is a coup for a perennially disappointing teamtrying to sell tickets to the new stadium it's opening this fall. Arizonaneeded a stud RB and a marquee player; James is both.

TWO PHOTOSBOB GEVINSKI/WIREIMAGE.COM (GIVENS); TOM BERG/WIREIMAGE.COM (GIVENS INSET)SIGN ME UP Givens was eager to cash in onthe unprecedented bounty of '06. PHOTOGARY C. CASKEY/EPA (ANDERSON) PHOTOGENE LOWER/WIREIMAGE.COM (JAMES)IN THE CARDS James is the cornerstone of what should be a potent attack in the desert. PHOTOSUZANNE KREITER/THE BOSTON GLOBEPLAYER Blank's goal for Givens was $25 million.