- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

Defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, the Washington Redskins' player of the year, headed toward free agency last night.

No progress was made on a deal as of late last night and Gardener was set to become an unrestricted free agent at 12:01 a.m. There appeared virtually no way the sides would overcome their significant differences. He was very confident he could get his desired contract from another NFL team.

Meanwhile, the Redskins had a visit from wide receiver Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, NFL sources said. A two-time 1,000-yard receiver, Ismail could fill Washington's need for speed on offense. He was able to visit because he had been released by the Dallas Cowboys, while players whose contracts expired had to wait until midnight for official contact from suitors.

Health is a concern for Ismail, 33, who herniated a disc in his neck in training camp last summer, had surgery Aug. 21 and sat out the season. He was evaluated by Redskins doctors yesterday afternoon.

Headlining the Redskins' list of targets in free agency are Arizona receiver David Boston, New York Jets guard Randy Thomas and San Francisco defensive end Chike Okeafor, NFL sources said.

The Redskins are focusing on wide receiver, guard and the defensive line in the initial surge of free agency. Other priorities a bit lower on the list include a backup quarterback, safety and special teams.

"We have a lot of holes to fill, but there's a plan in place, through free agency and the draft, to get them filled," personnel director Vinny Cerrato said.

Cerrato said the Redskins evaluated "over 300" unrestricted free agents, restricted free agents and potential cuts by other teams, concluding the process several weeks ago.

"There's been a lot of time put in, and we have an exact idea of what we want to do," Cerrato said. "We feel good going into the process."

The salary cap remains a concern. The Redskins ducked under the $75 million limit Wednesday by releasing running back Stephen Davis, safety Sam Shade and tight end Walter Rasby, but those cuts alone weren't expected to get them much below the cap. Contract restructurings, particularly with linebacker LaVar Arrington and offensive tackle Chris Samuels, are needed to create significant room.

Washington has undergone two relatively quiet offseasons since the nearly $100 million payroll of 2000, when big-name veterans like Bruce Smith and Deion Sanders were signed. This year's plan probably will be something in between; vice president of football operations Joe Mendes called it "aggressive discipline."

"We want to be structured and disciplined," Mendes explained, "and yet when we determine a player we want to go after, we want to go after him full force."

Boston, Thomas and Okeafor could get that treatment starting today. Conversations with people around the league indicated varying levels of interest from Washington in other players:

•Wide receiver: After Boston and Ismail, Washington is likely to look at the New York Giants' Ike Hilliard and Tennessee's Kevin Dyson. Although the Jets' Laveranues Coles is an attractive restricted free agent (requiring a first-round pick as compensation), word out of New York is that the Jets will match any offer.

Boston would be far from an easy catch. He will command a huge contract after grabbing 98 passes for 1,598 yards in 2001. At the same time, teams must consider his surgically repaired knee and recent off-field troubles.

c Guard: After Thomas, Tennessee's Zach Piller, Oakland's Mo Collins and Jacksonville's Zach Wiegert seemingly top Washington's list. After years of trying to bottom feed at guard, the Redskins are prepared to invest significant resources this offseason, sources said.

Thomas, like Boston, is a headline player who is generating significant interest. The Jets, with that in mind, apparently are prepared to move on without him.

•Defensive line: Okeafor is a talented two-way player despite being a bit undersized (265 pounds). He had six sacks last season but is no slouch against the run and could be a good fit in Washington, where the Redskins want a full-time right end to play ahead of Bruce Smith.

There also have been indications of Washington's interest in Philadelphia's Hugh Douglas, but the Eagles' desire to retain their star and Douglas' high profile probably put him out of the Redskins' reach. Two more likely targets at end are New Orleans' Willie Whitehead and Green Bay's Vonnie Holliday.

Without Gardener, defensive tackle becomes a big need. The Redskins are expected to look at Oakland's Sam Adams, Tennessee's John Thornton and Dallas' Brandon Noble. Washington also is looking for depth on the interior because top reserve Carl Powell rejected a contract offer this week and headed to free agency.

Gardener had been Washington's top priority in the pre-free agency period. A deal to re-sign him nearly was completed in early February but the sides disagreed on two major points: the annual value of the first three years ($4 million vs. $5 million) and whether the signing bonus should be tied to the future health of his back.

Gardener has indicated that he wouldn't re-sign if he reached free agency, but Schwartz reiterated that Washington would not be excluded in coming days. Denver is expected to make a bid, and Gardener has said he would like to play for Cincinnati and Dallas.

Although the Redskins appear focused on wide receiver, guard and the defensive line, there is an interest in New between Jones trainer Alton Merkerson and Ruiz manager Norman Stone Orleans quarterback Jake Delhomme as a backup for Patrick Ramsey. The market for Delhomme is solid, and so the Redskins would have to move quickly.

Trading up in the draft remains another interest. In addition to the recent trade attempt with Detroit for the second overall pick, sources said the Redskins have contacted Cincinnati (No. 1) and Minnesota (No. 7) about potential trades. The Redskins probably are looking at wide receivers Charles Rogers and Andre Johnson and defensive end Terrell Suggs, though the seventh pick would be a stretch for any of the three.

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