- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 5, 2003

The Washington Redskins have impressed some of their NFL rivals by being aggressive in free agency and attacking needs, but there are questions about the club's new defensive line, the caliber of some of its pickups and whether the new parts can be incorporated seamlessly.

Conversations with personnel people around the NFL in recent days revealed a mix of opinions about Washington's unprecedented activity since free agency and the trading period opened Friday. While many clubs waited out the initial surge and few deals got done, the Redskins acquired nine players with more on the way.

Praise was forthcoming for the Redskins' identification of needs and ability to land a star player like guard Randy Thomas. He drew interest from six other teams but never made visits to those clubs. Addressing needs, in the minds of some, compensates for overspending a criticism of the Thomas signing.

It's generally felt that if a team makes a signing in the first few days of free agency, it's going to overpay. That's why so many teams are conservative in the early going.

But by identifying a crucial need and a talented player, an early signing can make sense. In the minds of several personnel people, Washington fulfilled those two criteria in signing Thomas and kicker John Hall. Although the Redskins probably overpaid for each player, there's a high likelihood that each solved what had been a long-term liability.

Guard and kicker have been Redskins revolving doors in recent years. Recurring injuries to guard Tre Johnson and kicker Brett Conway created major problems, and the Redskins' attempt to bottom-feed on the interior offensive line yielded mixed results.

Thomas' talent was unquestioned by those interviewed. Dave Fiore, signed to start at left guard, was considered "average, but you can go play [with him]" by one talent evaluator, "a good player when healthy" by another. Fiore's five knee surgeries were a real concern, and some wondered whether he is the best fit for the scheme. But the fact that he fills a huge need, like Thomas, was seen as compensating for some of his downside.

The Redskins' kicking situation "was a mess," acknowledged one personnel person, meaning the pickup of Hall was particularly important. His career 73.4 percent clip on field goals isn't the best, but it was acknowledged that he often kicked in difficult conditions at Giants Stadium.

The biggest questions seemed to be about Washington's defensive line. Defensive end Regan Upshaw and defensive tackle Brandon Noble were considered positive, cost-effective acquisitions. But the impending loss of defensive tackle Daryl Gardener means the Redskins are without a real difference-maker on the line.

"I've always felt that you need to have somebody who the other team has to account for on the defensive line," said one general manager.

Gardener last year made his teammates better by consistently penetrating the line and flushing ballcarriers out of their comfort zones. Upshaw is "quick, active" said one talent evaluator, and another admired his "upside." In Noble, "you know what you're getting," said one, "a good, solid player." But no one believed Upshaw or Noble would have the impact of Gardener.

"On the defensive line, they're not as good as they were," one general manager said.

The pickup of running back Trung Canidate, in a trade with St. Louis, was admired for the element it might bring coach Steve Spurrier's offense, but most people agreed that it would be a stretch to view Canidate as a full-time starter.

"He can give them some plays," said one evaluator, but he added that Canidate is "not consistent … not tough, and he will fumble." Another said Canidate "can be explosive," but only in a "rotation."

One person felt backup quarterback Rob Johnson has extremely high potential, saying, "I'm not sure he's had the opportunity to be in the ideal situation." Others shrugged at Johnson but said he's adequate as a backup to Patrick Ramsey.

A general question of some personnel people regarded Washington's heavy reliance on free agents. They didn't dispute the individual signings but wondered about chemistry between so many new veteran players.

Although eight of Washington's nine pickups are relatively young (only re-signed Tre Johnson is older than 29), and although the moves made fairly good sense from an economic standpoint, many personnel people prefer to build a team through the draft. There, they said, smart moves pay off with young, cheap players who can be molded to fit a system.

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