Free agent Pat Swilling of the New Orleans Saints signed an offer sheet from the Detroit Lions yesterday that apparently will make him the second-highest-paid linebacker in the NFL.
Under the NFL's limited free-agency rules, the Saints have seven days to match the offer if they want to keep Swilling. If they don't, Swilling, 27, would move to the Lions and the Saints would get two No. 1 draft picks as compensation.
The Lions reportedly offered Swilling about $5 million for three years, $1.67 million a year.
Chuck Schmidt, chief executive officer of the Lions, would only say the offer "is not close" to the contract the Lions gave running back Barry Sanders last year. He averages $1.79 million a year.
That would mean Swilling, who led the NFL with 17 sacks last year, would trail only Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants, who makes $1.833 million in the linebacker salary derby.
Greg Townsend of the Los Angeles Raiders, who's usually considered a defensive end, is second on the linebacker salary list compiled by the NFL Players Association with an average of $1.320 million. Mike Croel of the Denver Broncos was third last year with an average of $1.303 million as a rookie. Explaining the bid for Swilling, Schmidt said, "He's in the prime of his career and he fills a big need for us."
Jim Finks, Saints general manager, gave no indication of whether he'll match the offer.
"It's no surprise. I know they've been talking for a while. Both parties played by the rules. There was nothing unethical or immoral or anything. Now I just have to make a decision. I've got to decide if matching it is the best thing for the organization," Finks said.
It's likely that Finks will match the offer because Swilling didn't reach the $2-million-a-year level. That would have set a record for defensive players.
If Finks doesn't match the Lions' offer and takes the two No. 1 picks, there's no guarantee that he'd get the second one in 1993 because the draft expires after this season. The players insist it will be illegal for the NFL to hold a draft next year. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said last week that the NFL will conduct a 1993 draft.
The Swilling offer comes against a backdrop of the players' long court fight for more free agency.
In an antitrust suit in Minneapolis starting June 15, the players' union will argue that this system in which the Saints will get compensation, if they don't match the offer, is a violation of antitrust laws. The owners will argue that compensation is necessary to retain competitive balance.
Swilling is the fourth player since 1988 to get an offer sheet from another team. In 1988, the Washington Redskins offered linebacker Wilber Marshall $6 million for five years. When the Chicago Bears declined to match it, the Redskins gave the Bears two No. 1 picks for Marshall.
Two years ago, the Denver Broncos offered defensive lineman Bruce Smith of the Buffalo Bills $1.5 million a year and the Bears offered Ray Childress of the Houston Oilers $930,000 a year. The Bills and Oilers matched the offers and kept the players.
Besides Marshall, the only other player to move with compensation under this system was defensive back Norm Thompson, who went from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Baltimore Colts in 1977 for a third-round pick.
Name, team.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Average salary
1. Lawrence Taylor, N.Y. Giants.. .. .. .. .. $1.833 million
2. Greg Townsend, L.A. Raiders.. .. .. .. .. .$1.320 million
3. Mike Croel, Denver Broncos.. .. .. .. .. . $1.303 million
4. (tie) Wilber Marshall, Washington Redskins $1.2 million
Mike Singletary, Chicago Bears.. .. .. .. .. $1.2 million
(The salary averages include all base salary and roster, reporting and signing bonuses, but not incentive bonuses.)