Kicker Adam Vinatieri, the hero of two of New England's three Super Bowl victories, was protected by the Patriots on Tuesday by being tagged as the team's franchise player.
Running back Shaun Alexander got the same tag from the Seattle Seahawks, who also re-signed quarterback Matt Hasselbeck as many of the NFL's prime potential free agents were taken off the market.
Indianapolis made running back Edgerrin James its franchise player, although it wasn't clear that the Colts would keep him protected or try to work a long-term deal.
James was tendered a one-year contract for a little more than $8 million, but he could offer his services to another team. The Colts could match that offer or let him go and get two first-round draft choices in return.
''The situation is fluid,'' team president Bill Polian said. ''I don't know what we'll discuss.''
Meanwhile, Jacksonville franchised safety Donovin Darius for the third straight season and four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson was made Oakland's franchise player for the second straight year.
The Raiders also re-signed receiver Jerry Porter, giving him a multiyear deal. Terms of the contract weren't released for Porter, who led the Raiders with 64 catches for 998 yards and nine touchdowns.
Free agency begins March 2, but much high-priced dealing already has taken place.
Seattle has made the biggest moves, ensuring that three of its top offensive players stayed in town.
Last week, the Seahawks signed left tackle Walter Jones to a seven-year, $52.5 million deal. Hasselbeck's deal is for $49.4 over six years, including a $16 million signing bonus.
They also ensured that they can keep Alexander or get two first-round picks for him by making the running back who finished a yard behind the Jets' Curtis Martin in the NFL rushing race, their designated franchise player. That means he is guaranteed $6.3 million although the Seahawks said they will be working on a long-term deal.
All this occurred in the midst of a front-office shakeup general manager Bob Ferguson announced his resignation on Tuesday.
Vinatieri, whose last-minute field goals won the Super Bowls in 2002 and 2004, was designated the Patriots' franchise player for the second time. He got the same tag in 2002, then signed a three-year deal which is about to expire.
The Patriots are expected to renegotiate a new contract before the deadline on March 16 to re-sign players with the franchise designation.
In a move involving a player of less importance, Carolina gave a new deal to Rod Smart, who first gained attention in the one-year XFL by wearing ''He Hate Me'' on the back of his uniform.
He has played primarily on special teams as a kick returner and missed most of last season with a knee injury.
The Pittsburgh Steelers failed to designate wide receiver Plaxico Burress as their franchise player, all but assuring he will become a free agent.
Burress had at least 60 catches for three years in a row before being slowed by a hamstring injury last season, when his 35 catches were his fewest since he made 22 as a rookie in 2000.
The Dallas Cowboys cut defensive end Marcellus Wiley just one season after he was their top free-agent signee.
The Cowboys gave Wiley a $16 million, four-year contract last March because they expected him to regain the form that produced 13 sacks for San Diego in 2001. But he had just three sacks and often was benched in obvious passing situations.
In Cleveland, Jeff Garcia is officially without a team, and the Cleveland Browns are officially without a proven quarterback.
The Browns released Garcia on Tuesday, formally ending a one-year relationship that seemed doomed from the outset. There was no fanfare as the club chose not to release a statement or give a reason for cutting ties with Garcia.
Last week, the Browns announced their intention to rid themselves of Garcia, who signed a four-year, $25 million free agent contract with Cleveland last March. Garcia's departure leaves the Browns with only prospects Luke McCown and Josh Harris under contract at quarterback.
General manager Phil Savage has said he would like to re-sign Kelly Holcomb, who can become a free agent on March 2. Holcomb has been with the Browns since 2001 but his stay in Cleveland has been marred by injuries.
He missed 10 games in 2002 with a broken leg, three games in 2003 with another broken leg and torn ligaments and four games last season with broken ribs.
Holcomb, who'll turn 32 in July, has not been working out at the team's facilities in suburban Berea. But he visited Savage and new Browns coach Romeo Crennel last week, perhaps the first sign that he is interested in staying with Cleveland.
Holcomb's agent, Frank Bauer, could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
If the Browns don't re-sign Holcomb, they'll have to hit the free agent market to find a starting QB. There aren't many good ones out there and the talent pool was lessened by one on Tuesday when the Seattle Seahawks signed Matt Hasselbeck to a six-year deal.
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