By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- Jeff Saturday isn't leaving Indianapolis.
The three-time Pro Bowl center who was expected to be one of the top centers on the free agent market suddenly changed plans Thursday, signing a three-year deal that will likely allow the 33-year-old retire to finish his career with the team that brought him into the league.
Saturday's agent, Ralph Cindrich, would not disclose financial terms, but said the deal was completed just hours before free agents could start signing with new teams. Cindrich said Saturday will now be paid like one of the NFL's top centers.
What changed things was the salary cap number. It was expected to be $123 million, but increased to $127 million Wednesday night, and that gave the Colts more flexibility to re-sign Saturday.
"It looked very dire," Saturday told The Associated Press. "I had made up my mind that we were headed to free agency and until yesterday that was the plan. Then they came up with this deal. I'm extremely excited about continuing the journey and being part of this team."
For the Colts, it was a rare bit of good news in a week filled with players lining up to test the open market.
On Wednesday, the Colts officially released record-setting receiver Marvin Harrison, saving them about $6 million in cap room. Last week, Thomas Mills, the agent for longtime punter Hunter Smith, said his client did not expect to sign before Thursday night's deadline and would test the market.
Other veterans joined the club Thursday. Craig Domann, the agent for defensive end Josh Thomas, told The Associated Press his client would become a free agent, and The Indianapolis Star reported running back Dominic Rhodes would, too. The Associated Press left repeated messages for Rhodes' agent, Todd France, at his office, on his cell phone and through e-mail.
Wednesday morning, it looked like Saturday would join them.
Instead, the Colts and three-time MVP Peyton Manning will have their longest-tenured starter on the offensive line back for three years.
"You never know how everything is going to go," Saturday said. "Maybe you finish the three years and you're done, or maybe you come back as a backup or whatever. But this leaves those options open."
The Colts could still face significant changes.
Besides Harrison, Smith, Thomas and Rhodes, linebacker Tyjuan Hagler, defensive tackle Darrell Reid, cornerback Keiwan Ratliff and safety Matt Giordano all appear headed to free agency, too. All started at least one game in 2007 or 2008 with the Colts.
If the Colts can't re-sign any of those players, it would be one of the largest exoduses in the 11-year tenure of team president Bill Polian.
What's changed? New salary cap rules and a wave of lucrative deals have constrained Indy's budget.
Since 2004, 10 players have signed deals worth at least $19 million -- not counting Saturday's new deal.
The bigger problem are rules changes that accelerate the charge for prorated bonuses when veterans are released. They also limit the base salary increases to 30 percent for players who sign new deals in 2009.
The combination has put the Colts in a salary cap pickle for the first time in the Polian era.
Polian has almost always preferred signing his own players rather than paying big bucks to players from other teams.
The most notable exceptions this decade were receiver Brandon Stokley, who left Baltimore to join the Colts, and former New England kicker Adam Vinatieri.
But last week, it appeared the Colts would be parting with some of their best-known players as they pondered using the franchise tag to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden, their top offseason priority. When Hayden agreed to a five-year, $43 million contract last Thursday, the dominoes started falling Saturday's direction.
The Colts offered Saturday a one-year deal, which he rejected. Negotiations were stalled until the Colts learned Wednesday night they had another $4 million to work with. So they went back to Saturday and offered him the longer deal he had been seeking.
It didn't take long for Saturday, who began his career as an undrafted free agent in 1999 and started 138 games over the last nine years, to make his decision.
"The one-year deal wasn't in his market value, and the one-year deal would have been catastrophic," Cindrich said. "This one makes him one of the best-paid centers in the league and it's all real money."
Indy also offered one-year tenders to defensive tackle Daniel Muir and running back Lance Ball.
Muir, who was claimed off waivers last season and played in six games, received a $460,000 tender. Ball, who was signed to the practice squad in mid-October and rushed for 83 yards in the regular-season finale, received a $310,000 tender.