Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Strong safety Ryan Clark and tight end Robert Royal likely will be the only Washington Redskins starters who will hit the market as unrestricted free agents Friday.

Clark and Royal, teammates for four seasons at LSU and the past two with the Redskins, both started 25 of 34 games the last two years. Both would like to remain in Washington, but the team’s salary cap problems have prevented it from making either 26-year-old a firm contract offer.

“I want to be here, and the Redskins have let me know they want me back, but we have a lot of cap trouble,” Clark said. “We have to figure out a way to make something work that’s in both of our best interests. The money doesn’t even have to be equal. It just has to be close to what someone else offers for me to stay.”

Royal hasn’t been paying as close attention to the NFL’s labor situation as Clark has, but he knows “there’s a lot of stuff going on with the ‘Skins, so I don’t have a contract yet. I’m just playing things by ear. I don’t worry about what I can’t control. I love Washington. If the money’s the same, I’ll be here.”

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who was taken aback last March by the quick departures of “core Redskins” Antonio Pierce and Fred Smoot via free agency, is counting on the attraction of staying put with a playoff team to overcome the lure of more lucrative contracts for both Clark and Royal.

“With our free agents, what we’re hoping is that we’re the best place for them,” Gibbs said. “Sometimes you get forced into letting them look. Hopefully in our case, they want to be with us. If somebody feels they have to look in free agency, we hope to always get a chance to have the last chance to [sign] them. Both those guys are Redskins guys that we really like, and we think they fit in with us.”

While Pierce and Smoot left for lucrative deals, the 6-foot-4, 257-pound Royal, who had 18 of his 31 career catches in 2005 while mostly being used as a blocker, doesn’t figure to receive an overwhelming offer in free agency.

Neither does Clark, despite recording 107 tackles in two solid seasons as a starter for a top-10 defense.

“I’m a realist,” he said. “I understand my place in this league. Some people look at my size [officially 5-foot-11, 205] and think I don’t belong. I fit this defense. I can’t play three yards off the line everywhere. And I haven’t forgotten that the Redskins gave me an opportunity when no one else would [after he was cut by the New York Giants in July 2004]. I don’t want to leave here for a few thousand dollars more and be unhappy. Whatever money I’ll make will be more than I’ve ever earned in my life.”

Still, just like Royal, Clark admitted that at this point he would have to be impressed by a contract offer from the Redskins to sign before the start of free agency, especially with the unresolved state of the collective bargaining negotiations between the NFL and the players association.

Washington’s other unrestricted free agents-to-be are linebackers Khary Campbell and Warrick Holdman, running back Rock Cartwright, defensive linemen Demetric Evans and Cedric Killings, tight end Brian Kozlowski and safety Omar Stoutmire.

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