- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

A wide gap in negotiations and the heft of the franchise tag figure apparently have led the Washington Redskins to do what once seemed unthinkable: allow four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey to seek a trade.

Bailey has been given permission to negotiate a contract with other NFL teams, agent Jack Reale confirmed yesterday. If an agreement can be struck, the new club would discuss trade terms with Washington. Several league officials believe the Redskins’ asking price would start at first- and second-round picks.

The process is similar to what Washington is doing with Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell, whom they hope to acquire when the league’s signing and trading period opens March3.

But while Brunell is a 33-year-old passer with a track record of injuries, Bailey is one of the NFL’s premier players at just 25. Rather than be at most a stopgap starter, Bailey would become a key part of another team’s foundation.

Redskins vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato played down the decision to make Bailey available, saying the organization still has an “extremely high” opinion of the shutdown cornerback.

“We just want to explore all our options,” Cerrato said. “We want to check everything out. We still think there’s the chance to get a deal done [in Washington].”

NFL sources, however, said the sides are far apart following Wednesday’s meeting between Reale and Redskins contract specialist Eric Schaffer. Proposals were exchanged with little progress that day, sources said, and by Thursday speculation was building that Washington might deal Bailey after putting the $6.8million franchise tag on him.

On Thursday night, Redskins owner Dan Snyder called Reale to tell him Bailey could begin shopping for a new team. Yesterday afternoon Reale faxed a letter stating his client’s availability to the NFL’s other 31 teams.

Bailey, who has had five defensive coordinators in five NFL seasons and hinted late last season he might like to be elsewhere, could not be reached. Reale said his client took the latest news with the same detached attitude that has governed most of his thinking over the past year.

“He’s very resigned to just waiting to see what happens, what the level of interest might be, where it might come from,” Reale said. “There are a lot of movable parts in this situation. It wouldn’t be a done deal even if we found a trade partner.”

Indeed, Bailey’s high price tag, in terms of both contractual and trade compensation, will make for an interesting market. There was speculation that the Atlanta Falcons (who play in Bailey’s home state), Detroit Lions (who employ his brother, linebacker Boss), Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints might be among the suitors.

But one of those clubs would have to overcome the sticker shock associated with a player of Bailey’s caliber. He rejected Washington’s nine-year, $55million proposal during the preseason; a new deal might be in the six-year, perhaps $40million to $45million range. The Redskins’ opening proposal had a $14.7million signing bonus; a new deal might approach $18million in guaranteed money.

If Bailey leaves, the Redskins might use cornerback Fred Smoot in the No.1 cornerback spot, where the defender often has the burden of covering the opponent’s top receiver. Smoot had a resurgent year in 2003 after being the subject of offseason trade talk. Washington then might sign a solid corner, such as the San Francisco 49ers’ Ahmed Plummer, to play alongside Smoot.

The free agent crop at cornerback is strong. The Oakland Raiders’ Charles Woodson, Baltimore Ravens’ Chris McAlister, Buffalo Bills’ Antoine Winfield, Seattle Seahawks’ Shawn Springs and Philadelphia Eagles’ Troy Vincent and Brian Dawkins all are set for unrestricted free agency. However, some of those players will sign with their current teams or get the franchise tag.

Appearing to drive Washington’s decision to shop Bailey is the salary cap. The Redskins are about $6million below the projected $79million cap, but they still haven’t made tender offers to their restricted players. Using the $6.8million franchise tag would push them over the spending limit.

Although Washington has veterans who can be cut for significant cap room (Bruce Smith, Trung Canidate, Byron Chamberlain, Lional Dalton and Jessie Armstead lead the list), the club also is pursuing Brunell and needs starters at running back and three spots along the defensive line. In addition, the fifth draft pick overall will be costly to sign.

Early projections of the Redskins’ cap had Washington able to franchise Bailey and pursue some free agents. A long-term deal with Bailey would have opened more room. But after registering the NFL’s second-highest payroll in 2003, the Redskins at some point must become selective about expenditures.

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