- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Capping a wild and speculation-filled week preceding free agency, the Washington Redskins were on the verge of a blockbuster contract extension with left tackle Chris Samuels last night.

Samuels, the third overall pick in the 2000 draft, was set to sign a multiyear deal that included the biggest signing bonus (nearly $16 million) in Redskins history. However, a source close to negotiations said a “snag” occurred and the pact might not get done until today.

In any case, an eventual deal was viewed as certain by both sides. It not only would lock up Samuels long-term but also would create extra salary cap room for Washington to trade disgruntled wide receiver Laveranues Coles or pursue free agents.

The market for those free agents opened at midnight. Two key Redskins, cornerback Fred Smoot and linebacker Antonio Pierce, were set to become unrestricted. Smoot wasn’t expected to return after seeking a contract much more lucrative than what Washington offered, while Pierce could be back once he shops around.

Five other Redskins — offensive lineman Ray Brown, defensive lineman Joe Salave’a, H-back Mike Sellers, tight end Brian Kozlowski and safety Jason Doering — also were set to become unrestricted free agents, though several of them should re-sign in coming days without meaningful competition.

No visible progress was made in Washington’s efforts to trade Coles. However, no deadline was associated with the move, and thus it could occur in coming days.

The Redskins’ most likely trading partner for Coles remains the New York Jets. A deal could be more likely now that the prospect of Coles being cut is quashed. Coles had hoped to “give back” part of his signing bonus to prod his release (a move that, if it gained NFL approval, needed to be done yesterday), but he now faces the real prospect of playing in Washington next season.

As the market for wide receivers dries up, other NFL teams could become interested in a trade for Coles. Already the group of wideouts isn’t terribly deep; after top-rated Derrick Mason and Plaxico Burress, none of the options is generating much buzz.

Samuels’ deal would ensure that Washington would have the cap room to trade Coles. Although some NFL sources haven’t ruled out Coles reworking his deal to facilitate the right trade, he appears determined not to aid the Redskins’ attempt to trade him, even if it means playing next season in Washington.

In any case, rampant speculation about Coles’ future and whom Washington might pursue in free agency left the team’s short-term future shrouded in confusion for the past week. Real answers will start coming today as the Redskins hit the part of the NFL calendar year for which they are best known.

The past two years, Washington paced the market, acquiring nine players in three days each time. But this year coach Joe Gibbs has said repeatedly the team won’t be as aggressive, and signals from club officials over the past week have reinforced that notion.

The best example of a more conservative approach might be the club’s interest in cornerback Samari Rolle, who was believed to be on the verge of a blockbuster contract with the Redskins over the weekend. A source close to the situation said Monday night that the Redskins are confident in their defensive personnel and content to sign a mid-level free agent or even use a draft pick at cornerback.

Of course, Smoot always could return. But he rejected Washington’s offer for a long-term contract, hoping for at least $4 million more in guaranteed money than the $10 million the Redskins were offering. There appears to be a solid chance Smoot could get that payout in free agency, perhaps even from the Dallas Cowboys.

“If he gets to free agency, he won’t have any problem latching on with somebody,” agent Bus Cook said in a phone interview. “But every [team has] got to do what they’ve got to do.”

Cook at least left the door open to an 11th-hour deal with the Redskins last night, while agent Drew Rosenhaus, who represents Pierce, seemed fairly certain his client would at least test the market.

“I don’t expect there to be any news to report tonight,” Rosenhaus said.

Salave’a, who hopes to re-sign with Washington in coming days, stopped by Redskin Park in the afternoon and made clear he has no intention of testing the market — unless he and the Redskins can’t agree on a contract.

“I’m here,” said Salave’a, who enjoyed a resurgent year in Gregg Williams’ defense. “If later down the road we get to that, we’ll pursue it then.”

The bulk of Washington’s funds will be used to bolster the offense, which ranked 30th last season in Gibbs’ return to the NFL. Wide receiver is a crucial need with Coles’ future in doubt and the Redskins determined to trade fellow starter Rod Gardner. According to an NFL source, at least four teams — Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Minnesota and San Diego — have expressed preliminary interest in Gardner.

The Redskins also are looking for reinforcements along the interior offensive line, though there are some signs the club won’t do any pricey shopping in that area, perhaps relying solely on next month’s draft.


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