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A collective bargaining agreement that ends out there on the hazy horizon of 2011. No salary cap in 2010. The greatest economic downturn since the baby boom generation came of age.

Yet when NFL free agency starts Friday at midnight, agents and teams anticipate business as usual and that means the top free agents are going to get their money.

But unlike past years, those factors may conspire to slow the secondary market and that could help the Bengals as they need to wrap up a raft of players instead of a one-shot deal like they did last year with their richest free agent signing ever in defensive end Antwan Odom.

How teams will respond to Wednesday night's news that the 2009 salary cap is going up by $4 million to $127 million.

"I think the big guys are going to get the big money," said Chad Speck last week, the agent for the biggest of them all, Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. "But after that, I think the secondary wave isn't going to go as quickly as it has in the past."

And that means the Bengals' T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the consensus top wide receiver on the market, is going to get paid. And while the Bengals hope he re-signs once he hits the market, it's clear the calendar is the wedge between the sides.

The Bengals love his tenacity, toughness and production. Just last week, head coach Marvin Lewis talked about how much Houshmandzadeh means not only on the field, but also to him and his relationship with the rest of the team.

The Bengals also have a track record on aging wide receivers. Only two wideouts have played more than eight seasons for them and one is a punter, Pat McInally. The other is their all-time leading receiver for nearly 30 years, Isaac Curtis, before eclipsed by Chad Ocho Cinco.

(Tim McGee was injured in the preseason of his ninth year and never played again. Ocho Cinco is heading into his ninth season. Cris Collinsworth, Carl Pickens, Darnay Scott, Chip Myers and Steve Kreider were all on the roster for eight seasons.)

Houshmandzadeh, who turns 32 early in his ninth NFL season in September, has made no bones about how he feels about the Bengals' stance on age. It took him basically just five full seasons to become the club's third leading all-time receiver with 507 catches.

But there is a debate out there.

Michael Lombardi, a former NFL personnel man who writes for the National Football Post, says he wouldn't risk a four-year deal on a 32-year-old receiver. Scouts Inc., on the other hand, gives Houshmandzadeh an 83 grade that makes him an "outstanding player."

"Houshmandzadeh is fast enough to stretch the defense vertically and he can make smooth adjustments to the ball over his shoulder," the scouting report says in part. "He's a better short-to-intermediate receiver due to his toughness and concentration in traffic."

So, as usual, it will come down to the taste of each individual team. And after listening to general managers at the NFL scouting combine, there are 32 different flavors.

"We want to be sure we have enough money in the bank to cover the check," said the Giants' Jerry Reese, one of the men who supposedly has designs on Houshmandzadeh. "We're being very cautious and making sure everything is in order for us to make some big checks."

The Falcons, who aren't players in the Houshmandzadeh hunt, have a free-agent philosophy under GM Thomas Dimitroff that isn't much different than that of the Bengals.

"To throw double-digit millions in guaranteed money and a high average per year money into a player, who is not a part of your system and coming from another situation, that really has me back on my heels a little bit to be honest with you," Dimitroff said. "I think there are some fine football players in the draft that you can continue to develop. Ray Hamilton, in my mind, is a top defensive line coach. I think he gets the most out of those guys. Let's let him coach football. Let him coach the young players."

Along with the Giants, Seattle, Philadelphia and San Francisco are also thought to be players for Houshmandzadeh. In Philly and New York the lures are quarterback Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning. In Seattle and Frisco, the lure is the West Coast for an L.A. guy. For all the angst, the lure in Cincy is quarterback Carson Palmer, the man who along with former receivers coach Hue Jackson brought Houshmandzadeh out of mothballs into millions.

Of the four teams, the Eagles have the most room under the salary cap with reporting a few weeks ago when it was $123 million that Philly was $30 million. The Seahawks were at $20 million, the 49ers $12 million and the Giants $11 million.

"I think the two biggest revenues are still there; tickets and TV," says long-time agent Frank Murtha, who teaches a graduate sports labor law course at Northwestern University. "I don't think there's going to be a dramatic dropoff in free agency."

Ralph Cindrich, the Pittsburgh-based agent who was there at the creation in the NFL's first labor strife of the early '70s, also sees the revenues intact.

For '09.

"The teams that have the (cap room) are still going to use it," Cindrich says. "From what we're being told, the teams are still making tremendous revenues, so the agents have a sense of normalcy; at least through this year."

But Cindrich doesn't mince words. It could still be relatively sparse when compared to typical free-agency periods.

"All of this is going to have a chilling effect at some point," he says. "In 30 years I have never seen it like this. Even in the bad times. The revenues are still good and set for this year, but everyone is looking to the future and it's a bleak picture. While the premium blue-chippers are going to get their money, after that it's anyone's guess."

With the Bengals needing to fill several positions on offense—running back, fullback, center, right tackle—they aren't looking to use up their room on just two or three players. And Lewis said last week they're not looking for defense in free agency.

Whether they sign Houshmandzadeh or not, they are also trying to re-sign running back Cedric Benson, safety Chris Crocker, right tackle Stacy Andrews, and backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

If they don't sign those players, they have to get a veteran that plays each spot, and that includes a wide receiver if they don't get Houshmandzadeh.

All of this against a backdrop of new accounting rules. With $5.48 million already out in tender offers, another estimated $5 million budgeted for the draft picks, teams aren't allowed to roll over incentives or push dead money into 2010. Some type of pad has to be left with all dead money and incentives being absorbed into '09.

Even though Benson and Crocker were arguably the club's offensive and defensive MVPs over the 4-3-1 finish, they arrived in Cincinnati off the street during the season and most likely are going to be in that free-agency second wave.

Andrews was four quarters and four minutes away from the first wave, but now that he's coming off reconstructive knee surgery he has to figure into a lower tier.

"At some point I think it hurts the second wave of free agency," said Titans general manager Mike Reinfeldt of the economy. "I'm not sure it impacts the major, the big players. I think it's the second wave. I think the door is going to close much quicker. When all the crazy deals are getting done if before it was two or three weeks; maybe it is a week now. I think the whole thing shuts down much quicker.

"I think the money is tighter and at some point they are much more frugal with their money."

The Bengals have always operated economically in free agency and in staffing. President Mike Brown doesn't usually speak to the media, but there are no signs that they plan to lay off employees like several teams have since the end of the season.

The problem is, no one really knows what lurks behind the 2009 revenues.

"Those numbers might be the same but then you have to look at the overall revenue streams," said Texans GM Rick Smith. "Our industry is affected by the economy. Some of those numbers may be consistent. But other numbers aren't, generating revenue locally and with advertisers. You look at some of the people we're in business with as a league and some of the struggles they're having, that stuff impacts our league.''

Cindrich and Murtha aren't sure if the club layoffs are an economic necessity, or posturing for the CBA battle.

The Colts have laid off about 25 employees, and that doesn't include their all-time leading receiver.

"We have not yet seen the full effects of the recession in this industry," said Colts president Bill Polian regarding the difficulty of staff cuts. "As the commissioner said last week, because the washthrough of sponsorships and things like that have not really hit us yet, and ticket sales are yet to be tabulated. Right now it's a murky picture except that we know the rest of the country is suffering badly."

But after watching the deals roll in last week for fairly decent players staying with their teams (Polian gave cornerback Kelvin Hayden more than $20 million guaranteed), Speck could only conclude, "It doesn't look like it's stopped yet."

But, like Cindrich said, "No one knows. Even the best of the best can't tell you what is going to happen to the economy."  

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