Spring cleaning starting earlier By Pat Kirwan NFL.com Senior Analyst (May 21, 2004) -- Business in the NFL is cyclical. May and June have unique projects on the table. NFL Network NFL Network Analysis, opinions, features and more! The June 1 cuts in the mid-1990s were a significant event. Typically, there would be upward of 30 to 40 experienced veterans let go in a "spring cleaning" sweep. Many teams were up against the salary cap and needed the space to sign their rookies and have some emergency space to get through the season. Times have changed. Over the past few years, fewer and fewer players are let go who can actually help another team. As one pro personnel director said, "This year, there probably will not be eight guys who we have any interest in." Why, you might ask? There are four reasons the list has shrunk. First, teams do a much better job of managing the salary cap. As of May 20, the average cap space on a league level is $4.8 million. That is a strong number, and it indicates most teams have the cap under control. Only three teams have under $1 million of cap space, and they will be using June 1 to get their books in order. Secondly, there are many player contracts nowadays with "roster bonus" written into them that are due in March or April. Teams that didn't want to pay those bonuses let their veterans go months ago. Thirdly, more teams with cap space to spare elect to cut players before June 1 in order to save additional cap space for 2005. Teams that wait until June 1 are putting off a large portion of cap debt until 2005. For example, Texans linebacker Charlie Clemons, who had three years remaining on his contract, was scheduled to be released in June but Houston had the cap space to do it now. (Instead of paying one year's amortization in 2004 and two in 2005, Houston decided it could afford to pay all three in 2004.) Finally, a number of veteran players have witnessed the number of players on the street who can't find the money they thought would be out there, and are willing to renegotiate down to stay under contract. When players like Antowain Smith, Marvin Jones, Chad Bratzke and Tony Brackens still are unemployed, keeping your job at a reduced rate looks like a good idea. As for the three teams with under $1 million of space -- Denver, St. Louis and Pittsburgh -- they are days away from being in good shape again. Pittsburgh will release OLB Jason Gildon and create $3.5 million of cap space. St. Louis will say goodbye to QB Kurt Warner and his $4.75 million salary will be recouped. Denver will find $1.8 million when Daryl Gardener is shown the door. Gildon should see some decent action when he hits the streets. He has 60 sacks in the past six years and 27 in the past three years. Gardener is headed to Cincinnati, and Warner is talking to a number of teams. The next team in a salary-cap pinch is San Francisco. The 49ers have barely over $1 million of space, but they need all of that and some more for their draft picks and it looks like a veteran QB has to be signed. So defensive back Zack Bronson will save them $1.75 million when his contract is terminated. Back in 2001, Bronson was healthy for all 16 games and had seven interceptions. Staying healthy has been an issue since then, but a few teams have expressed interest in him to me. The others who soon will be free include Vinny Testaverde (who is reportedly on his way to the Cowboys), Packers defensive end Joe Johnson (who has medical questions) and possibly Titans RB Eddie George. The popular opinion has been George would restructure his contract and stay with the Titans, much like Jerome Bettis did with the Steelers. But two front-office people told me if that were true, it would have been done by now. They are expecting him to be free and have been studying him closely to see how much he has left in his tank. Personally, I hope he stays with the Titans. He is the heart and soul of that franchise. Know when to pick a fight! If you have been following the activities of many teams, you can't help but read about the number of players refusing to show up at spring practice sessions. I believe players should fight for all they can get with such short careers and the injury risks, but winning a contract fight is tough. This really is the only time of year a veteran player can protest his contract situation without being heavily fined. Clubs are not permitted to fine players for missing "voluntary" camp practice. So, it becomes the forum to make a statement about their displeasure with their contracts. My advice is to know when to pick a fight. Sometimes you have the leverage to win and sometimes you don't. If you don't have the leverage, what's the point of picking a fight? As one head coach said this past week when asked about missing players, "We will just move on because we have to, and I'll coach who we have." Let's take a look at a few players refusing to practice in the hopes of winning a contract battle with their club. They are all under contract for 2004. In most cases, good luck is all I can say, but in one case -- as we shall see -- it has a chance. Keenan McCardell has performed well for Tampa Bay, but he is fighting the wrong fight. Tampa Bay wide receiver Keenan McCardell had a very good season and went to the Pro Bowl. Now he sits at home hoping for a new deal. Reportedly he would like a $9 million bonus. He's 34 years old and is scheduled to make over $5 million in the next two years. The Bucs traded for Joey Galloway and drafted Michael Clayton in the first round. The leverage is on the club's side. As for his excellent production in 2003, in Jon Gruden's offense -- especially when Keyshawn Johnson was missing -- McCardell is supposed to catch the ball a lot. Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress skipped practice with the Steelers. His production dropped from 78 receptions in 2002 to 60 in 2003; not a good time to make a case for more money. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, his team is looking for cap space and have little to use to satisfy a wide receiver who scored four touchdowns. Green Bay cornerback Mike McKenzie has another new agent and refuses to show at practice. I always like when a club gives the agent permission to go find a trade. The Packers want at least a first-round pick for their prized DB, and I would, too. Mike will be back in Green Bay. Teams like him, but I can't find anyone willing to part with the Packers' asking price. Another guy who is picking a fight he can't win is Chargers center Jason Ball. He is an exclusive-rights free agent who is sitting at home because of his low salary. He's simply too young to ever get out of San Diego. Yes, he deserves more money in 2004 based on his play in 2003, but the team doesn't have to do anything. When I was with the Jets, I was in the same situation with Wayne Chrebet, who had a tremendous season as an undrafted rookie. We didn't have to give him another penny but I did give him a $100,000 bonus for a job well done and kept the lines of communication open for later in his career, but he never missed a practice in protest before the "gift." The one player with some leverage (maybe) and a chance to win his fight is 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson. He has a franchise tag worth $7.69 million and will not practice. The club will have few places to turn to create cap space for its draft picks after it cuts Bronson. The 49ers could have close to $3 million after Bronson goes, but they need more space for a QB with Tim Rattay injured. The one thing on their side is the glut of quarterbacks on the market. Kerry Collins, Kurt Warner, Tim Couch (at some point), Jeff Blake and Kordell Stewart, among others, means San Francisco can wait until those teams willing to pay buy the guy they want and then sell "opportunity" to whoever is left. Peterson would have the Niners in a stranglehold if there were no veteran quarterbacks free, but right now it's at least a tossup as to who wins this fight. I always enjoyed the spring-cleaning business, and I found it more important than people ever realized for setting the personality of our team.