The Washington Redskins, who could end a second straight season at .500 with a win Sunday over the Arizona Cardinals, won’t face major cost-cutting decisions this spring as they did in 2001.
An analysis of the Redskins’ salary cap situation by The Washington Times shows that the roster could return pretty much intact without damaging future caps.
Last spring Washington cut seven players and restructured five contracts prior to the March 2 start of free agency, shedding more than $14 million of cap space just to become compliant. In contrast, the Redskins now stand almost $14 million below the 2002 cap, though that figure will be trimmed as minimum salaries are raised, incentives are factored in and restricted players receive tender offers.
Whether the Redskins elect to pursue a route of major or minor offseason alterations is the club’s biggest question, and it will hinge on whether coach and director of football operations Marty Schottenheimer continues to control the personnel department.
Owner Dan Snyder is considering hiring a general manager-type figure, who would report directly to the owner and bring a different personnel philosophy than Schottenheimer. If Schottenheimer remains in control, one would expect the Redskins again to focus on re-signing their own players and be cautious in free agency.
Regardless, the Redskins’ offseason is shaping up to be quieter and more positive than last year’s, when cuts, renegotiations and a standoff with Deion Sanders dominated news and severely restricted player acquisition. Washington will be able to pursue a limited number of free agents this spring while remaining on course for a healthy cap situation in 2003.
The biggest issues involve the possible re-signings of key unrestricted free agents. The Redskins have 17 pending unrestricted free agents (as well as 36 players under contract and six restricted players likely to receive tender offers), of which the most significant are quarterback Tony Banks, tight end Stephen Alexander, defensive lineman Kenard Lang and linebacker Shawn Barber.
What Washington does at quarterback will influence other decisions. Bringing back Banks, 28, a first-year Redskin who has essentially a 6-6 record as a starter (not counting the Denver win in which he was knocked out), would make the most financial sense.
But can the Redskins win big with Banks? He has played for four NFL teams in six seasons, mixing big plays with costly errors. Some of Banks’ former coaches believe that he can be a Pro Bowl-caliber passer with some continuity in the same system; Schottenheimer, for his part, continues to evaluate Banks and won’t reveal much.
Washington could have a shot at several mid-level free agents, including Seattle’s Trent Dilfer, Chicago’s Jim Miller, Miami’s Jay Fiedler and Denver’s Gus Frerotte. The big name on everyone’s list is New England’s Drew Bledsoe, who is expected to be on the trading block now that young Patriots passer Tom Brady is starting.
Any team acquiring Bledsoe would have to pay his $5 million salary next season, while New England would retain the prorated effect of his big signing bonuses. Thus Bledsoe is a fairly cost-effective option, though he’ll come with a different kind of price draft picks, of which the Redskins have just four in 2002.
Other NFL clubs likely will be interested in Bledsoe, and competition could drive the price up to one or more high-round selections.
With regard to Alexander, Lang and Barber, the Redskins will look to re-sign the players before free agency opens. If that isn’t possible, they’ll have to wait and see what the market offers. Washington has capable young players at each position tight end Zeron Flemister, defensive tackles Delbert Cowsette and Jerry DeLoach and linebacker Antonio Pierce.
Alexander’s leverage might be especially limited if the Redskins want to re-sign veteran Marco Battaglia, who was picked up off waivers last month. Alexander went to the Pro Bowl last season but was injured most of this year and now is on injured reserve. Barber, too, was injured virtually all of this season.
Complicating Lang’s situation is the future of his fellow starters on the defensive line. Bruce Smith, Marco Coleman and Dan Wilkinson combine for $14.4 million of cap space about a fifth of the team’s limit. The key target could be Smith, who has the club’s second-highest cap figure ($5.4 million). He could retire or be asked to lower his $3.5 million salary.
Other key issues will involve restocking the interior offensive line and finding a starting-caliber wide receiver.
On the line, right guard Ben Coleman, center Cory Raymer and left guard Dave Szott all are unrestricted. Coleman’s status is in doubt because of a sore knee that has not fully healed. Raymer (or unrestricted backup Mark Fischer) probably would be re-signed while rookie David Brandt continues to mature. Szott likely will return for about the minimum.
At wide receiver, starter Michael Westbrook is unrestricted. It is unclear whether he or the team would be interested in extending his seven-year stay with the club. Third wideout Kevin Lockett could be asked to start, but Washington must find a playmaker to fill out its top three.