It’s tough to keep a veteran defensive line together in the NFL, where players at those positions are among the best compensated.
The Washington Redskins encountered that difficulty last offseason, when Marty Schottenheimer, the new coach and director of football operations, cut highly paid tackle Dana Stubblefield while keeping his highly paid linemates, ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman and tackle Dan Wilkinson.
This offseason the Redskins could face a similar choice: Stubblefield’s replacement, natural end Kenard Lang, is an unrestricted free agent whom the club hopes to re-sign, while Smith, Coleman and Wilkinson have three of the team’s highest four salary cap figures in 2002. By the time training camp rolls around, one starting lineman could be gone.
“With things the way they are in the NFL, it’s always a possibility that happens,” Coleman acknowledged yesterday. “There’s really no telling. I have no idea what’s happening in the minds of the guys who make that call. I just have myself prepared for whatever might come, personally.”
Stubblefield’s release is part of why the Redskins are in far better cap shape this offseason than last. His departure saved them a small amount in 2001 helping them to nudge below the cap by the March 2 deadline but erased $9.3 million from the 2002 ledger. Washington currently is about $14 million below the 2002 cap.
“You were surprised [when Stubblefield was cut], but you were surprised for about 10 seconds,” Wilkinson said. “You were constantly reminded: Dana and many other guys around the league, I couldn’t believe they were getting cut. Some of them were Pro Bowl picks. You’re just constantly reminded that there are no guarantees.”
Wilkinson’s job appears to have the most security, thanks to his age (28), play (he was named a third alternate for the Pro Bowl yesterday) and relatively low cap figure ($3.7million). The cap number resulted when Wilkinson renegotiated his contract several times, and he now recognizes that he has a bit more security than some peers around the NFL.
“It’s always good when you have some type of idea what your future holds,” Wilkinson said. “I would like to retire here, but with the NFL like it is these days, you never know. There is no certainty, no guarantees. And everyone must plan for that.”
Less secure are Smith, a future Hall of Fame selection whose five sacks this year put him 12 shy of Reggie White’s NFL record (198), and Coleman, a 2000 Pro Bowl pick whose sack total has dropped from 12 to 31/2.
The scheduled cap figures of Smith ($5.4million) and Coleman ($5.3million) rank Nos.2 and 3 on the Redskins, behind only running back Stephen Davis ($5.9million). The costs of the two ends could lead to one or the other being cut, particularly if Washington re-signs Lang and wants to move him back to end.
One source close to Smith, 38, expects him to return next year to keep pursuing White’s record. But Smith continued to stave off talk of his possible retirement.
“That’s not an issue that should be brought up right now,” Smith said. “We have a game to play. That’s what we are focusing our attention on. We’ll let the cards fall where they may after the season’s over.”
Smith has been a cap cut once before in his career, in 1999 by Buffalo. Coleman’s age (32) and status as a team leader could protect him over Smith if it comes to that. Also, Smith still isn’t fully on board with Schottenheimer. The Redskins might ask Smith to lower his salary ($3.5million) to remain.
If Lang, 26, signs elsewhere as a free agent, the Redskins might be more inclined to keep Smith, Coleman and Wilkinson. In any case, team sources said, decisions will be made with the team dynamic in mind not with the goal to reduce the defensive line’s cost per se.
Lang still considers remaining in Washington his top priority. The sides are in contact and plan to negotiate during the next few months until free agency begins. But if a deal isn’t complete before the market opens, Lang will consider all offers.
“I’m not going to sell myself short, because this is a business,” Lang said. “I’d love to be back. But I have an opportunity to set myself up for life. I’ve got to jump on it because in this league you can’t make up money that you miss.”
Returning to end is one of Lang’s goals, but he said it won’t keep him from re-signing. He considers this a fun group (just before this interview, he was preparing to throw a helmet full of ice water on a teammate), and he was one of many Redskins yesterday expressing hopes that the roster returns largely intact in 2002.
Coleman was another. He can see unity on this club, which rebounded from 0-5 to win five straight and followed the end of its playoff hopes with a 40-10 win at New Orleans. If it’s up to him, he’ll play with the same defensive linemates and teammates next year.
“It really would be nice to see everybody come back from the whole team, really,” Coleman said. “When you go through adverse times as we did this season, that’s the makings of a team that will be playing hard together, for one another. Of course, with the way the NFL is, that might be hard to do for everybody.”