The Washington Times - March 12, 2013, 01:54PM

Here’s what I’m thinking as we count down to the start of the 2013 NFL league year:

The important takeaways from coach Mike Shanahan’s press conference Monday were the philosophies he shared. Amid all the misdirection and smokescreens this time of year, we should pay attention to Shanahan’s core beliefs about building a sustainable program.

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His approach to restructuring contracts to create salary cap space opposes that of the regime that preceded him in Ashburn. Given the results of that previous era, it’s fair to say this is a positive for the Redskins.

“If you get too creative, it comes back to haunt you,” Shanahan said. “We’ve been trying to do things the right way, not structure things out into the future where it comes back and bites you three or four years from now. You do that and you don’t do things the right way. You’ve got to deal with the situation, and we’re not going to mortgage the future because of something that’s been done to us today. Hopefully we can find the right guys that fit. We might have to do one or two. You never know what the situation may be. But you do it with the best interest of your organization and your football team.”

DE Adam Carriker and WR Santana Moss are known to have restructured their contracts to save the club space against its penalty-reduced 2013 salary cap. Neither player’s restructure included an extension, according to Carriker and a Washington Post report about Moss. That means they took pay cuts (notwithstanding incentives), likely after facing an ultimatum presented by the team. Moss’ restructure reportedly saved $2 million

The Redskins, then, are believed to be about $3 million under the cap early Tuesday afternoon. That’s not enough to sign a top-tier cornerback or safety in free agency.

Remember, the Redskins still have to sign their draft choices later this summer. So as we move forward into free agency, keep in mind that even mid-level player acquisitions – or re-signing LB Lorenzo Alexander or TE Fred Davis – must be offset by a move to create cap room. And considering Shanahan’s aversion to restructuring contracts, the Redskins are likely to be extremely limited in acquiring players. He said as much on Monday.

“We’re not able to go out in free agency,” he said. “We might be able to do it for one guy or two guys, depending on what the money is. But that’s just the hand we were dealt and are dealing with.”

That could be posturing, but the numbers don’t lie. The Redskins don’t have the cap space without restructuring deals or cutting players. Shanahan said he doesn’t want to do either.

“You always want to have continuity if you can,” he said. “You want to have the right guys on your football team, the guys that gave you a chance to have success this year. You want to keep those guys if you can. That’s what our game plan is. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out that way, but for any organization to have success, I think that’s one of the keys.”

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Shanahan believes public uncertainty gives him a competitive advantage in football games, and the same goes for acquiring free agents.

Since he took over in Washington, there have been instances when the Redskins’ first indication of interest in a free agent has been a contract offer after the market opens. Sure, in past years it was considered illegal tampering to negotiate with players from other clubs before the start of free agency. The point is that waiting quietly with a contract offer has not prevented the Redskins from acquiring players.

So as reports of the Redskins’ interest in certain players circulate leading up to 4 p.m., I struggle to see what incentive the team has to telegraph their interest in a player. I’m talking about intentional publication/circulation/expression of genuine interest. Loose lips are rare at Redskins Park these days.

There are many ways to gauge a player’s cost – one being contacting the agents of similarly-skilled players. Or, if the Redskins really want a specific player, they determine what he’s worth to them based on previous deals for other players and offer a contract accordingly.

Time can be an issue after the market opens, but assuming everyone involved has a working cell phone, the money does the talking, regardless of the order in which offers are extended.

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Shanahan on Monday said: “Thank god our draft choices have worked out because we’ve got some character, we’ve got some players.” Fans should have responded with a “Hallelujah!”

That the Redskins won the NFC East division championship last season despite being limited by a salary cap $18 million lower than Philadelphia and New York is astonishing. It happened because the Redskins have drafted well. From first rounders such as LT Trent Williams and QB Robert Griffin III to third-day picks such as ILB Perry Riley and RB Alfred Morris, the greatest reason for the Redskins’ turnaround is drafting talented players who have made a positive impact.

Because the salary cap penalty limits them more this year than last year, and because draft picks are cheaper than free agents, they’ll need another good draft in order to repeat. In other words, the draft should be our main focus for our measure of whether they’ll improve in 2013.

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The Shanahan/Bruce Allen regime has been in place long enough now to have established some patterns. One is that their longest-term free-agent contracts go to younger players, perhaps with the exception of offensive linemen. Consider:

NT Barry Cofield signed for six years at age 26.

WR Pierre Garcon signed for five years at age 25.

DE Stephen Bowen signed for five years at age 26.

RG Chris Chester signed for five years at age 28.

C Will Montgomery re-signed for four years at age 29.

DE Adam Carriker re-signed for four years at age 27.

…Just something to keep in mind.

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I’m most intrigued Tuesday and this week by the fate of ILB Lorenzo Alexander. No one disputes his value on special teams and his character and leadership. A main variable affecting his market is what teams think of him as a defensive player.

The Redskins last season used Alexander, who turns 30 in May, in sub packages and goal line situations. It takes only one team that envisions an expanded role for his price to increase.

For as much as Alexander, the person, means to the organization, perhaps his fate will come down to whether the Redskins want to pay a Pro Bowl special teamer/backup linebacker or a No. 3 cornerback. Or whether they’re willing to sacrifice future dead money or cutting a player in order to create the cap space to do both.

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Another philosophical change Shanahan has implemented is re-signing homegrown players. Redskins supporters still curse the decision to let safety Ryan Clark leave in favor of free-agent bust Adam Archuleta in 2006. That’s an extreme example, but Shanahan learned the lesson along the way without having been in Washington to experience the fallout.

So the Redskins wisely re-signed restricted free agents FB Darrel Young, TE Logan Paulsen and LS Nick Sundberg to multi-year deals. They’re committed young players who fit in the program. And the fact they tendered incumbent backup NT Chris Baker a $1.3 million qualifying offer shows a commitment to him in the face of the salary cap limitations.

“The guys we were able to get are quality guys, everything that you look for in players,” Shanahan said. “Those are the guys you want to keep. You want to reward the guys who have worked for you extremely hard before you go elsewhere, and I thought we were able to do that.”

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ROLB Rob Jackson’s decision to re-sign only a one-year contract is logical.

He’s currently blocked by ROLB Brian Orakpo on the depth chart. Jackson is now positioned to leave next offseason to find more playing time. In addition, considering Orakpo also is entering his contract year after battling his pectoral injury for parts of two seasons – Jackson is positioned to see what the Redskins decide about Orakpo’s status before deciding about his own destination.

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I agree with Bruce Allen’s assessment that the Redskins’ $36 million salary cap penalty was a “travesty of fairness.”

The Redskins did not violate the collective bargaining agreement when they moved contracts into the uncapped season. Furthermore, the NFLPA’s collusion suit was thrown out because the league and union agreed in the 2011 CBA they would not pursue past issues. Yet the NFL punished the Redskins for something that occurred prior to the new CBA. It’s totally a raw deal, one that’s seemingly arbitrary on the NFL’s part.

Suing the league always was a losing proposition, which obviously is why it never came to that. I sympathize with the Redskins as they move forward.

That’s all for now. HAPPY NEW LEAGUE YEAR!!!