- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The Washington Redskins braced for another strong move into free agency last night, readying owner Dan Snyder’s private plane to pick up coveted free agents once discussions could begin after midnight.

Tennessee Titans defensive end Jevon Kearse, New York Giants defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and Seattle Seahawks cornerback Shawn Springs were expected to be among the first targets, sources familiar with the Redskins’ deliberations said in recent days.

Washington’s aggressive entrance into the market mirrors last year, when the team acquired nine players in the first three days of the signing and trading period.

Any Redskins acquisitions today or in coming days will add to a three-player bounty the club collected in recent weeks through a pair of blockbuster trade agreements and yesterday’s signing of former Chicago Bears defensive end Phillip Daniels.

Washington last night was set to ship cornerback Champ Bailey and a second-round pick to the Denver Broncos for running back Clinton Portis, and a third-round pick to the Jacksonville Jaguars for quarterback Mark Brunell. NFL rules permitted the trades to be executed at 12:01a.m. this morning, the same time the Redskins were allowed to start contacting free agents.

Bailey last night finalized a seven-year, $63million deal with the Broncos that was the final piece to the Portis trade. The pact, which includes $18million in guaranteed money, makes Bailey the highest paid cornerback in NFL history by any measure.

The Redskins once again are expected to be the most active players in an otherwise tepid market for free agents. In a mild surprise, coach Joe Gibbs seems to have embraced Snyder’s mentality of pursuing pricey veteran talent.

“I’ve always felt that in football you have to take every opportunity you can [to] get a player,” Gibbs said yesterday. “Every way you can acquire talent, you need to be after it hard. We’ve got a game plan laid out. All of our coaches are assigned to the guys we’re trying to get. We’ve got the plane going nonstop.”

Many other NFL clubs, though, have adopted the New England Patriots’ method of building through the draft and targeting mid-level free agents. Teams like the Patriots, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles have built winning teams with no impending crunch from the salary cap.

Washington continues to pace the market with big-name acquisitions and a willingness to barter draft picks for veterans. But Gibbs emphasized that the Redskins, while desirous of upper-tier players, also have an eye on fiscal limitations.

“You’re always going to have a salary-cap game plan,” Gibbs said. “I think if you don’t have a salary-cap game plan, you’re not very smart. Obviously we’ve looked at all that. … We think we’ve got a plan. It’s not just a one-year deal.”

That type of statement will make it interesting to watch the next week or so play out. Kearse, for example, is set to be the market’s hottest property. Rumors already were circulating that Washington would pony up an enormous package of guaranteed money to land the athletic pass-rusher, who played in Tennessee under Gregg Williams, now the Redskins assistant head coach for defense.

Club sources have said Washington is concerned about Kearse’s price tag, but Snyder rarely has backed off a free agent he truly wanted. On free agency’s first day last year, Snyder wouldn’t let guard Randy Thomas leave Redskin Park until he agreed to a deal.

Washington’s list of targets is extensive, going well beyond Kearse, Griffin and Springs:

• At defensive tackle, the club also is eyeing the Oakland Raiders’ Rod Coleman and Titans’ Robaire Smith.

• At linebacker, the team likes the Bears’ Warrick Holdman, who is set to be a cap casualty in Chicago. Other possibilities include Denver’s Ian Gold and the Giants’ Brandon Short. Separately, there is renewed speculation that Redskins middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter could be a post-June1 cut.

• At tight end, the New Orleans Saints’ Walter Rasby appears to be the top target. The Minnesota Vikings’ Jim Kleinsasser would have been the cream of the free-agent class, but he re-signed with the Vikings last night.

• At safety, the Redskins are interested in Carolina’s Deon Grant.

Once the trades for Brunell and Portis become official, the Redskins are set to have about $10million in cap space. First-year cap figures generally are low, so that space would allow for signings at several spots. Kearse, for instance, would come in below $3million in his first year despite an expected blockbuster deal.

More room could be created through cuts and restructurings. Releasing Trotter after June1, for example, would save Washington $2.7million — money that could go for signing draft picks.

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