Redskins' cash makes free-agent splash

Aggressive approach adds team speed, playmakers

Pro Football

March 11, 2003|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

Just when you thought it wasn't safe to wade into the NFL's tepid free-agent market, the Washington Redskins jumped in with both feet and an open checkbook.

The resulting splash recast coach Steve Spurrier's Fun 'N' Gun offense and tentatively cost team owner Daniel Snyder $31.3 million in signing bonuses.

Assuming each of the 13 players acquired in the early stage of free agency makes the team's opening-day roster - and no less than seven could start - the Redskins already have turned over more than 20 percent of their roster.

That stunning haul featured two new starting guards (Randy Thomas and Dave Fiore), reinforcements in the defensive line (tackle Brandon Noble and end Regan Upshaw) and an emphasis on speed and playmakers for Spurrier's offense.

"That's what he had at [the University of] Florida," Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of pro personnel, said of Spurrier. "He had playmakers and guys who could run. That's what we needed to do."

Powerful running back Stephen Davis is out. Fleet-footed running back Trung Canidate is in. Unless the New York Jets match the Redskins' exorbitant offer sheet for wide receiver Laveranues Coles, and another for elusive kick returner Chad Morton, they're in, too.

While the Redskins will miss Davis on third-and-short, those three players alone give Washington more big-play potential than anyone it had last season.

Canidate, who had fallen into disfavor with the St. Louis Rams, came in a Feb. 28 trade. The Redskins submitted offer sheets for restricted free agents Coles, Morton and safety Matt Bowen of the Green Bay Packers. Because the Jets and Packers already had made qualifying tenders to each of those players, they are entitled to match the offer and retain the players.

Should they decide not to match the offer, however, the Jets and Packers would receive compensation. Coles is the most expensive acquisition for the Redskins, because he will cost their first-round draft choice - No. 13 overall - on top of a $13 million signing bonus. The Redskins would surrender a fifth-round pick for Morton and a sixth-rounder for Bowen.

The rest of the Redskins' additions were unrestricted free agents, signed without compensation. Thomas represented a coup for the Redskins' beleaguered offensive line, even with a $7 million signing bonus included in a seven-year, $28 million contract.

At least until they agreed to pay Coles a $13 million bonus, Thomas' numbers drew the most criticism, even though he was the best guard on the market.

"I don't think it's valid," Cerrato said of the criticism. "It's high for a guard, but he had six other trips lined up. If we didn't pay it, somebody would have. We'd have been sitting here saying somebody else overpaid when we wanted him."

There was a method in the Redskins' madness. At least eight of the 12 free agents had signing bonuses of $2 million or less. Only guard Tre' Johnson, who re-signed with the Redskins, and quarterback Rob Johnson will be 30 or older when the season starts. Rob Johnson will back up Patrick Ramsey, who made five starts as a rookie and looms as a major key to next season.

"We've gone after a bunch of young guys who can stay together for a few years," Cerrato said. "We're not bringing in hired guns ... We're bringing in guys who can add talent and chemistry to the locker room."

Few teams have gone as deep into free agency as the Redskins this winter. In recent years, the Denver Broncos have been burned trying to buy a title; Chester McGlockton, Leon Lett, Dale Carter and Lional Dalton are among free-agent signings who disappointed.

And the Redskins failed dismally under Snyder three years ago, when they ran up the league's first $100 million payroll. But Deion Sanders, Jeff George, Mark Carrier and Bruce Smith couldn't get the team over the .500 mark.

But after meticulously studying their options, the Redskins decided free agency was the way to make amends for a 7-9 failure in Spurrier's first season. Under Cerrato's direction, the Redskins graded and ranked every potential free agent, then composed a wish list of players who would upgrade the team.

"By acting quickly, you can get the top guys on the list," Cerrato said. "We felt like after the draft that we'd have 98 percent [of the team]. Maybe there'd be someone available June 1. If you wait, you're usually hoping somebody will be there. Now we know. We tried that way last year.

"So early and quickly, we wanted to identify and attack."

Redskins' moves

Player, Position Contract Randy Thomas, G 7 years, $28 million

*Laveranues Coles, WR 7 years, $35 million

*Chad Morton, KR/RB 5 years, $8 million

Regan Upshaw, DE 5 years, $7.5 million

John Hall, K 5 years, $7.13 million

Brandon Noble, DT 4 years, $6.5 million

Dave Fiore, G 4 years, $6.5 million

*Matt Bowen, S 4 years, $6 million

Rob Johnson, QB 2 years, $2 million

Tre' Johnson, G 1 year, $655,000 Lennie Friedman, G 1 year, $530,000

Patrick Johnson, WR Unavailable

Trung Canidate, RB Obtained in trade

*-Offer sheets submitted

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