- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Washington Redskins defensive players are taking a good look around the locker room, realizing their unit could be in for a drastic makeover this offseason.

Not only might the defensive coaching staff be overhauled, the core of players that helped Washington to top-10 rankings in recent years could undergo significant change as the Redskins try to reverse a slide to No.23 this season.

Defensive end Bruce Smith will retire after Saturday’s finale against the Philadelphia Eagles. Both defensive tackle spots will be upgraded. At least one member of the linebacking corps seems to be in jeopardy. Safety Ifeanyi Ohalete probably will be replaced. And cornerback Champ Bailey could end up elsewhere after getting the franchise tag.

Among the safest are cornerback Fred Smoot, safety Matt Bowen and linebacker LaVar Arrington. Defensive end Renaldo Wynn and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter are solid bets to keep their jobs. But with staffing changes possible and the other six starting spots in jeopardy, players realize a major transition could be coming.

“I’m just hoping we can quietly keep this collective group together,” Smoot said yesterday. “Right now they feel like the right pieces aren’t there, but I hope they don’t throw out one of the true right pieces trying to change [things].”

Coach Steve Spurrier remains elusive about plans for the coaches. First he defended his staff and then he made it clear he didn’t say he wouldn’t fire anyone. Yesterday a high-ranking official with another NFL club said Spurrier told associates he would take a hard-line stance to protect his assistants.

Regardless, Redskins management is set to retool the defense. Vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato said the personnel department and coaching staff will get together in January to make decisions. Cerrato declined comment on specific players but did say the unit must improve.

“We’ve got to get better on defense,” Cerrato said. “Twenty-fourth [sic] is not good enough.”

The line is the one area certain to undergo major change. Smith’s final game and the suspect performance of Regan Upshaw (one sack while splitting time with Smith) have Washington set to pursue a serious pass-rusher, perhaps Tennessee’s Jevon Kearse. And starting defensive tackles Lional Dalton and Bernard Holsey will be replaced.

Defensive tackle Darrell Russell, who got limited playing time since signing midseason, will be a factor in talks. So will Brandon Noble, who was signed last spring to start but tore up his knee in the preseason. If the Redskins change coordinators, they might play two upfield tackles (i.e. Russell and Daryl Gardener, or Warren Sapp and Gardener), rather than a permanent nose tackle (like Noble) and “three-technique” tackle (like Russell, Gardener or Sapp).

Under Marvin Lewis in 2002, the Redskins used the former setup, sliding one tackle or the other into the nose depending on the formation.

At linebacker, Jessie Armstead will turn 34 in October. Because he is in the last year of his contract, his $1.5million salary can be cut with no cap acceleration. That makes him an easier target for cap room than Trotter, who is just two years into a seven-year deal. Arrington’s bloated cap numbers have the club attempting to sign him to a new contract. At some point, the Redskins might cut him to reinforce the rest of the team.

In the secondary, Smoot and Bowen are young, affordable starters. Ohalete, particularly now that he is rehabbing a knee sprain, likely will be replaced.

Bailey has the most complicated situation. Washington wants to re-sign him — in fact, Cerrato said plainly, “We want Champ Bailey to be a Washington Redskin” — but the franchise tag will make for a sticky negotiation.

Once tagged, Bailey won’t see Redskin Park until the eve of the 2004 season. He won’t participate in minicamps, training camp or preseason games. Players who get the franchise tag almost always hold themselves out of on-field work — partly to protect themselves, often to spite the club — and sources close to Bailey said he will not endanger himself in the offseason.

That, plus the fact Washington needs the more than $6million of cap space it will devote to Bailey’s tag, means the club might entertain trade offers. Also, another team might sign him away for the compensation of two first-rounders.

A variety of Redskins players made strong endorsements of Bailey yesterday, with his future a hot topic. Bowen, for one, said bluntly Bailey is “the best” among all NFL corners.

“I’ve been lucky to play with some great players,” said Bowen, who previously played for St. Louis and Green Bay, “and he’s up there with all of them.”

But Bailey is just one element of potential change. With just one game left together, players braced for alterations and made final pitches for continuity.

“It would definitely be a shame if we went back to square one,” Wynn said.

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