A productive first day of free agency for the Washington Redskins turned sour last night when coveted linebacker Antonio Pierce reached a contract agreement with the New York Giants.
Pierce, who anchored Gregg Williams’ third-ranked defense last season, was set to earn his first big NFL payday. According to sources familiar with the situation, the former undrafted free agent out of Arizona settled on a six-year, $26 million contract with the Redskins’ NFC East foe.
Washington now must search for a middle linebacker after losing a player who far exceeded expectations following Mike Barrow’s serious knee injury. In New York, Pierce will attempt to emulate his former Redskins teammate and role model, Jessie Armstead, who was a Giants institution before being cut loose in 2002.
Before news of Pierce’s agreement, the Redskins demonstrated uncharacteristic reserve at the start of the veteran signing period. The club agreed to terms with three players, but two of them were holdovers from last season and the third made a quiet (and solo) visit to Redskin Park.
A team that burst into free agency in 2003 and 2004 lived up to coach Joe Gibbs’ prediction of an understated entry this year. Perceiving they had a strong core of players to propel the team beyond last year’s 6-10 record, the Redskins chose a sharp jab instead of their more typical roundhouse right in the market’s opening round.
Former Baltimore Ravens center Casey Rabach, the highest-rated player at his position, agreed to a five-year, $13.75million deal, which was said to include $4.5million in guarantees.
But Washington otherwise signed only a pair of incumbents, nose tackle Joe Salave’a and long snapper Ethan Albright, and formally announced the seven-year, $46.5million extension for left tackle Chris Samuels.
Rabach, 27, will start ahead of Cory Raymer, who disappointed in his return to Washington last season. Although Gibbs indicated Raymer won’t be jettisoned, the Redskins nonetheless hope Rabach will settle an offensive line that was up and down last season.
Salave’a, 29, picked up a three-year deal after waiting out a technicality in league rules that prevented him from signing his desired contract until yesterday. Albright, 33, returned on a one-year, $790,000 pact that allows the club again to gain a significant salary cap credit for part of his salary.
The star-less activity was in sharp contrast to what occurred in 2003, when the Redskins played host to five free agents and traded for a sixth on free agency’s first day, and in 2004, when the club completed six acquisitions in a 24-hour period surrounding the market’s midnight opening.
“Like I said, we’re not doing a lot,” Gibbs said at an afternoon press conference. “Last year we did a lot. And I think it was a pretty awesome group we came up with. I’m sure glad we got those guys, but this year will be a lot less.”
Signing Rabach cleared up one of the Redskins’ two major positions of need, the other being wide receiver. However, the loss of Pierce last night added a major hole to Washington’s roster.
The top available receivers were Derrick Mason, Plaxico Burress and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. But Mason signed with the Baltimore Ravens, Burress generated mixed reviews around Redskin Park and Houshmandzadeh re-signed with the Cincinnati Bengals.
A key issue for Washington is the future of disgruntled Laveranues Coles, who could be traded. The market for Coles could heat up after Burress is off the market and only modest options are available to the clubs seeking a No. 1 wideout.
The Redskins have talked to the New York Jets about a swap for Santana Moss, but nothing appeared imminent.
“That’s stayed status quo for at least the last few days,” Gibbs said. “We would like to work our way through that [and achieve] what’s best for both of us. So we’re doing that, but I don’t really have anything to announce.”
Washington also is trying to trade its other starting receiver, Rod Gardner. At least four teams have expressed interest in Gardner, but it might take some time for a market to emerge for the erratic four-year pro.
Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot led the Redskins’ list of free agents and were testing the market while Gibbs waited anxiously to see if either would fit in the club’s cost structure. The coach was unavailable after it became clear that Pierce wouldn’t.
“Those are two guys we’re working extremely hard on,” Gibbs said. “We’re just in a process.”
The Minnesota Vikings took a shot at Pierce, but by nightfall the Vikings bowed out of the chase.
Smoot’s prospects were less clear. He reportedly was scheduled to visit the Kansas City Chiefs, but the Dallas Cowboys were removed as a potential suitor when they signed former Cleveland Browns corner Anthony Henry.
Washington’s other significant unrestricted players are offensive lineman Ray Brown, H-back Mike Sellers and tight end Brian Kozlowski. Brown, who is expected to return to Washington for his 20th NFL season, is a particularly important part of the Redskins’ plans.
“If we get Ray Brown in the fold, we’ll have some big sluggers in there,” assistant head coach for offense Joe Bugel said, suggesting Brown might even challenge for a starting position (presumably left guard, where two-year pro Derrick Dockery starts) if he were to return.