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Middle class in NFL feel salary pinch

The money's still good. But for a growing segment of NFL players, the last five weeks have shown it isn't nearly what it used to be, and that's left them scratching their heads.

While stars such as Chicago defensive end Julius Peppers can still get astronomical numbers, the rank-and-file players are struggling to find more than minimum-wage deals - if they can find work at all.

Free agent quarterback Josh McCown had sounded a warning during an interview before free agency opened.

"It could be slower than anything we've ever seen," McCown said then. "The owners could send a message loud and clear that they're not going to pay people.

"Guys like Julius will be fine, but the rest of us could be in trouble."

Consider McCown a prophet.

Deals this spring have been fewer and smaller than past years, and it's the guys in the middle who may be feeling it most. With teams hunkered down into the final stages of draft preparations, the middle class is lucky to hear the phone ring at all.

Only 40 unrestricted free agents have changed teams so far this offseason. Last year, 128 changed teams.

Granted, there are 103 fewer UFAs this year because of rules that raised the bar to six years of service to qualify for that status. But the deals are down by percentage as well. In 2009, 170 of the 338 UFAs signed contracts in the first four weeks of the market (50.3 percent); this year, 89 of 235 UFAs (37.9 percent) signed deals in the same time frame.

It's almost as if there's no longer a bell curve of wages, , with a few big deals and a few minimum-wage deals bracketing the majority of players between.

To those guys, the six-year, $84million deal Peppers signed with the Bears doesn't register. Big names can still get big money, but the salaries for those left over, while they're still huge to those in the real world, aren't what they used to be.

"This situation is squeezing us guys in the middle really hard," McCown said. "In a lot of ways, you have to set your ego aside, and take whatever you can get.

"We're like the rest of America right now, it's the (NFL's) middle class that's struggling."

Two years ago, McCown signed a two-year, $6.25million deal with Miami for a shot at a starting job. Once the Dolphins acquired Chad Pennington, that chance went away, and so did he. But the contract came with him to Carolina when he was swapped for a seventh-round pick.

Now, he can't find anything close to that kind of payout. Last week's workout for New Orleans was his first.

With the collective-bargaining agreement with the players' union set to expire after the 2010 season, most NFL teams have clamped down on costs. It could get better with a new labor deal, but that's a year of uncertainty away.

There may be no better example of how market forces have flattened such players than former Panthers cornerback Dante Wesley.

A decent pass defender who blossomed into a bigger role last year, his value was primarily as a special teamer. Those guys never get rich, but from time to time, teams will open up to retain their own.

Before free agency, the Panthers made him an offer: Two years of veteran minimum salaries ($755,000 and $765,000), with a $175,000 signing bonus. Not bad, but not what he was hoping for. And there was a condition - the offer was only good until the start of free agency.

Wesley said then he thought he could do better.

Last week he signed with Detroit, for the same two years and base salaries, but only a $20,000 signing bonus. The $155,000 difference was a costly lesson in the realities of the new marketplace.

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