- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

The future of kick returner Chad Morton fell into limbo yesterday when the NFL Players' Association challenged the New York Jets' matching of the Washington Redskins' offer sheet for the restricted free agent.
According to NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen, the players' union disputes the league management council's claim that the Jets were not required to match the voided portion of the Redskins' five-year, $8 million offer sheet for Morton. Both sides' cases will be presented before a special arbitrator within 10 days, Berthelsen said, with the possibility still existing that Morton becomes a Redskin.
As had been expected, New York yesterday announced it was matching Washington's offer for Morton before the NFL's 4 p.m. deadline. However, the Jets were required to match only certain principal terms of the contract, and in this case, they did not include the two voidable years at the end of the deal.
The management council has ruled that voids are not considered principal terms. The NFLPA disagrees and will now present its case to the special arbitrator, with three potential outcomes, according to Berthelsen:
A ruling in favor of the management council, in which case Morton would remain a Jet.
A ruling in favor of the NFLPA, in which case the union believes Morton would become a Redskin.
A lesser ruling in favor of the NFLPA, in which case the Jets would have another chance to match.
A similar case came up last year, Berthelsen said, but it was resolved before going to arbitration.
Though Morton could now become available once again, the Redskins appeared yesterday to have already begun refocusing their attention on another free agent kick returner: veteran Jermaine Lewis.
NFL sources said some in the Redskins organization actually see Lewis, 28, as a better fit for the team, though Morton's age (25) and potential made the Redskins rate him as their No. 1 target at kick returner.
Washington could have a clear shot at Lewis, too. Although he has drawn significant interest from Cincinnati, Baltimore and Miami, sources said he isn't high on the Dolphins, and none of the teams appears willing to pay him very much. A plus for the Redskins is that they're near Lewis' offseason home in Baltimore.
Lewis' upside over Morton, sources said, lies in his experience as a punt returner. Morton is primarily a kickoff returner whom Washington hoped to train for punts, which generally is regarded as the more difficult duty.
Plus, the Redskins already have a promising kickoff returner in second-year running back Ladell Betts, who averaged a solid 24.6 yards last season.
Another edge for Lewis is that he's a wide receiver, while Morton is a running back. Washington wouldn't mind adding more speed at receiver but already has three capable runners in Trung Canidate, Kenny Watson and Betts.
Thus the Redskins are back in business after a frenetic start to free agency and a relative lull in recent days. Besides Lewis, the club appears to be revisiting the position of punter, where veteran Tom Tupa is seen as a good fit, and might add depth to the defense.
Newly signed kicker John Hall already has called Tupa the punter he would most like to work with. The two spent 1999 through 2001 together as Jets.
Tupa, 37, also could provide coach Steve Spurrier with an extra weapon because of his prowess as a quarterback.
However, it should be noted that the Redskins haven't given up on incumbent Bryan Barker, even though he had a dismal 2002 season (with a league-worst 30.0-yard net average). His season ended Thanksgiving Day when he suffered an open nasal fracture. Some in Washington feel that Barker remains a capable punter who is determined to bounce back.
If New York ends up retaining Morton, Washington will be left with a costly fifth-round pick in next month's draft. The Redskins had traded away their original fifth-round selection for guard Brenden Stai last summer, and to obtain compensation for Morton they had to swap places in this year's third round (dropping from 11th to 17th) and surrender next year's fourth-rounder.
As the Jets ended a seven-day waiting period by matching for Morton, another seven-day countdown began. The Redskins' late filing of the offer sheet for wide receiver Laveranues Coles on Wednesday night meant that the move didn't become official until yesterday.
The Jets have until 4 p.m. Thursday to match Coles' seven-year, $35 million proposal, though virtually no one in the league expects that to happen. A first-round pick would be due as compensation. The Redskins currently have selections in the first, second, third and fifth rounds, plus two in the seventh.
The Redskins already have begun contemplating ways in which Coles will be used strategically. Sources said he is likely to play in the slot on third downs. His toughness and reliability make him a good fit for that challenging role.
On defense, Washington believes it added speed and versatility when it obtained safety Matt Bowen from Green Bay on Tuesday. At a news conference to introduce Bowen, defensive coordinator George Edwards confirmed that Bowen would start at free safety while two-season incumbent David Terrell competes with Ifeanyi Ohalete and Andre Lott at strong safety.
Edwards added that he, like former coordinator Marvin Lewis, will tone down the distinction between the free and strong safeties.
"We need both guys to do both jobs," Edwards said. "That's the biggest plus with having a guy like Matt, because he has the ability to do both."
Bowen, only a spot starter thus far in his career, was enthused about the opportunity to be in a full-time role.
"I wish training camp would start in a couple weeks, to be honest," Bowen said. "I know I have a lot to learn about the team and the area, but I think it's going to be exciting."
Meanwhile, the Redskins will face former star running back Stephen Davis at some point next season when they play at Carolina. Davis agreed to a deal with the Panthers late Wednesday night valued at five years, $15.5 million with a $2.5 million signing bonus.
Those straight numbers are fairly modest, but NFL sources said the contract is scheduled to pay Davis more than $4 million this year (a combination of signing bonus, base salary and other bonuses) and includes a variety of reachable incentives. Benchmarks include 1,000 yards rushing and being among the NFC's top six rushers.

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