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Jags serious about cap

The March 3 deadline is right around the corner, and it's common practice at this time of the year for fans to quote the specific dollar position of each team's salary cap; you know, this team is $10 million over and that team is $10 million under.

Folks, don't waste your time. Those figures don't tell the real story.

For example, Peyton Manning currently counts zero on the Colts' 2004 salary cap. Is that realistic? And if the Colts put the "franchise" tag on Manning next week, what would an immediate $18 million hit do to the Colts' cap?

Then there's the Jaguars' situation. If you must know where the Jaguars stand today, it's $9.3 million under the cap, which is projected to be about $79 million per team in 2004. But the Jaguars' cap currently includes a $10.5 million hit for Mark Brunell and a $9.3 million swat for Tony Brackens. Erase those players from the roster and the Jaguars' cap room would swell dramatically.

The bottom line is that where a team's cap is on March 3 isn't nearly as important as where it is the first week of the regular season. Between now and then, teams will make tender offers, sign their rookie classes, accept "dead money," deal with injuries, etc.

And a simple look at a team's current-year salary cap reveals little. To know where a team truly stands, the next several salary caps must be considered.

"I don't have the luxury of saying we want to be better on March 10. I have to look at a lot of March 10's," Jaguars salary cap boss Paul Vance said.

Vance assumed the worst salary cap situation in league history in November of 2001, when he was promoted to his current position. The Jaguars were looking at a salary cap mess that could've taken as many as five years to correct. There was only one quick fix, and the Houston Texans provided it.

When the Texans assumed $16.9 million of remaining amortization by selecting Tony Boselli, Gary Walker and Seth Payne in the 2002 expansion draft, the Jaguars got a new lease on life. They were immediately half-fixed, and Vance won't deny the impact.

"In 2001, we had very little flexibility. We had players being paid a lot of money who we couldn't afford to get rid of," Vance said of the massive contract restructuring the Jaguars had to conduct just to prevent the league from stepping in and voiding contracts. And that may have only worsened the problem. Fielding a team was an issue; no joke, folks.

That's how bad it got. Now, three years later, the Jaguars have one of the league's healthiest salary caps and youngest rosters.

Flexibility? You betcha.

"Enough room so you're not obligated to restructure people to keep people or cut people," Vance said in defining flexibility. "To have enough room to add people within reason. But more importantly, to be able to do your roster without having to restructure people.

"How we did it was through the expansion draft. How we maintained it going forward was with the cooperation of Tom Coughlin and then 'Shack' and Jack," Vance added.

But Vance has been the driving force in this recovery.

As the Jaguars' lead contract negotiator, he has been steadfast in his pursuit of value, and even when it had become very unpopular that Byron Leftwich was a training camp holdout last summer, Vance didn't cave in to public opinion and rush a deal that might've been wrong for the team. Vance hammered out a contract with Tom Condon, one of the toughest agents in the game, and it's a deal that protects the team's long-term future at the quarterback position. It's also a contract that's symbolic of the new Jaguars.

Once upon a time, the Jaguars had a reputation for being a soft touch in negotiations. It's not that way any longer, and their salary cap reflects as much.

"The easy thing is to say we're in decent shape compared to the flexibility we had in 2001. We have a lot more flexibility. We have a stronger roster position when you look at the youth on the team," Vance said.

But he cautions against reviews based on the Jaguars' current $9.3 million cap space. "It's a meaningless number. We can't worry about where we are right now. We have to worry about where we are during the season," he said. "We can't take a picture and say we're in great shape now."

There are issues that have to be decided before the Jaguars can get an accurate representation of the state of their 2004 salary cap. For example, neither Donovin Darius nor Fernando Bryant are on the team's cap. They're both unrestricted free agents. If the Jaguars put the "franchise" tag on Darius, he would immediately assume $3.6 million in cap room. What would it cost to sign Bryant?

And what about Brackens and Hugh Douglas? If the Jaguars cut Brackens, they would realize more cap room because they would void Brackens' high salary, and cutting Douglas before June 2 would only result in a $255,000 loss of cap room, but players have to be replaced. What would those replacements cost in the way of cap room?

Danny Clark, Jamar Nesbit and Paul Spicer are unrestricted free agents the team would probably like to keep. What might they cost? More importantly, how much will the Jaguars spend in free agency, and will it have been money spent wisely?

In other words, check back in early September. Yeah, the Jags' cap is in outstanding health, but only if the right decisions are made between now and the start of the season.

"I don't want to deal in these numbers that are being bandied about," Vance said.

Maybe those words are indicative of the tough approach the Jaguars have taken toward the cap. No more pats on the back. This is serious business. No illusions.

All indications are the Jaguars are going to be very discriminating in free agency. Personnel boss "Shack" Harris has been described as someone who favors three guys at a million dollars each over one guy at $3 million. Meanwhile, Vance sees a league-wide trend away from free agency.

"The depth of the free-agent market is less. Teams are paying to retain their people. Teams that have invested in free agency have been disappointed. The frenzy to pick up guys and pay them a lot of money doesn't seem to exist any more," Vance said.

"I would say the league has become less enthralled with the experience. Teams now are saying I may have to carry some (young) guys who aren't ready, but they're young, they're less likely to get injured and they'll be with us for a number of years," he added.

And young players make for a healthy salary cap. So do expansion drafts.

OK, you've completed your "Salary Cap 101" instruction. Now, there's going to be a test, so you might want to spend the weekend reading back over the five installments.

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