|Thursday, February 27
Knight gambles on free-agent market
By Len Pasquarelli
Having spent most of his football career beating the odds, New Orleans strong safety Sammy Knight knows a promising gamble when he sees one, and that is why the Saints star is confident his roll of the dice in free agency will not come up snake-eyes.
And not surprisingly, given the degree of confidence with which Knight has always operated, he figures things will work out swimmingly for him.
"I feel good about things," said Knight, one of the NFL's most productive safeties over the past six seasons. "A lot of times, it's easy to just settle for the status quo, but I'm at the point in my career where I wanted to shake things up a little. Time for a change, time for something new, you know?"
There are some who have suggested that, had Knight not voided the 2003 portion of the five-year, $10 million contract he signed in 1999, the Saints would have released him anyway before the start of the free agency period. One team official denied that, when queried at last week's combine sessions, but did indicate the Saints might have requested a contract restructuring.
Knight opted to make the point academic, though, by putting his future into his own hands. And, as anyone who has watched the Saints over the past six seasons will attest, those are pretty good hands in which to be.
A Pro Bowl performer in 2001, Knight leads all safeties in "big plays" -- a total of sacks, interceptions, fumbles forced and recovered and touchdowns -- over the past three seasons. His 16 interceptions in that period are the third most among all safeties and his 28 pickoffs in six years with the Saints ranks third on the franchise's all-time list.
Given the dubious performance of the New Orleans secondary over the last two seasons, fans should be aghast at seeing Knight go, but he made it clear he is leaving on his terms. That certainly places him in a small subspecies of players who will go into the free agency market Friday of their own accord.
Knight made it clear he has ripped off his mental rear-view mirror.
"Most guys are pushed into free agency," Knight said. "Me, I chose to be a free agent, right? I'll never look back on the decision. I'm not a person who is into second-guessing himself. So I'm not looking back at all. Everything I do is based on looking ahead now."
There are less than a handful of veterans this year with enough temerity to have walked away from handsome salaries for the chance at landing a better deal. Just like Knight, they exude confidence there will be teams willing to pay them, clubs with open checkbooks and prepared to keep them in a tax bracket to which they are accustomed.
There is a chance, for instance, that Green Bay cornerback Tyrone Williams would have worked out a deal to stay with the Packers -- who were not ready to pay him a $4 million March roster bonus but did want to keep him -- but he also decided to exercise an option to void his deal. Williams should land a pretty solid contract offer somewhere and so should Knight as well.
But at this point in his career, Knight acknowledged, he is more concerned with winning than the number of zeroes in his contract. He feels that a team that is a contender, one that feels a quality safety will move in a step closer to a Super Bowl appearance, will come calling.
"Wherever I go," Knight said, "I want to help change things for the better. If it means I'm the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle somewhere, hey, that would be great. If I go, say, to the Cincinnati Bengals, I want to be the guy who helps get that team turned around."
Signed as an undrafted college free agent in 1997, the former Southern Cal star gained a starting job just a month into his rookie season, and has been a fixture in the Saints secondary ever since. His final season with the Trojans, he actually played linebacker, and that contributed to him not being drafted.
But he earned a starting spot as a rookie and, after just one year, the Saints made a long-term commitment to him.
Knight, 27, signed the five-year contract in 1999. The deal, which included a $2 million signing bonus, featured a provision that permitted him to void the 2003 portion of the contract if Knight accomplished performance incentives. He easily reached most of the benchmarks and that triggered his ability to void the contract.
The decision to exercise the void, he said, was an easy one. There were no sleepless nights, not much mental debate, and no regrets now.
While he bristles slight when it is suggested he might have beaten the posse out of town, Knight can rattle off a litany of veteran players released by New Orleans once their salaries reached a certain point, and allows that he didn't want to join that list.
But even if he didn't sense his day might be running out in New Orleans, he still would have opted to trigger the void.
"I've spent six years there and, the way it seems, it's time to move on," said Knight, one of the league's top playmakers at strong safety. "If you look at the way the Saints have operated, if they're going to keep you, they've made a move by now to keep you. There really hasn't been anything with me. It's kind of a repetitive thing with the team. Once you reach a certain salary level they don't want to keep you around. And there comes a point, too, where you don't want to stick around."
Two teams indicated to ESPN.com at the combine that Knight is already on their radar screen. Knight and his agent feel that, come Friday, the telephone will ring with teams anxious to display their interest.
"Things are going to work out just fine," Knight said. "They always do. This is a gamble I know that I'll win."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.