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Coles Situation Testing Redskins' Salary Cap

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2005; 11:38 AM

The Laveranues Coles situation severely tested the salary-cap acumen even of people around the league who know the intricacies of the system well.

At one point Monday evening, an executive from one NFL team well-versed in salary-cap rules said he thought it would be virtually impossible for the Washington Redskins to trade the wide receiver even if Coles agrees to give back a sizable portion of his $13 million signing bonus. The executive said his understanding of the rule was that any give-back by Coles would give the Redskins a salary-cap savings in the 2006 season, not next season, and that would make a trade next to impossible on the Redskins' 2005 salary cap.

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Titans Bracing for Major Losses (washingtonpost.com, Feb 21, 2005)
No Rewards for Chargers' Brees (washingtonpost.com, Feb 18, 2005)
Seahawks Have Signing to Do (washingtonpost.com, Feb 17, 2005)

He was close. But he wasn't exactly right, and there is enough of a difference to mean that trading Coles indeed is feasible for the Redskins from a salary-cap perspective -- at least if Coles agrees to a proposed signing-bonus give-back before March 2, the start of the league's fiscal year.

Under the salary-cap rules, a signing-bonus give-back by a player results in a salary-cap savings for his team in the next league year, meaning that the Redskins can make a Coles trade work on their salary cap for the 2005 season only if Coles agrees to his signing-bonus give-back before March 2. That gives Coles, the Redskins and whatever team to which they'd like to trade him until only the middle of next week to work it all out. The clock is ticking.

Here's how it all works from a salary-cap perspective:

Coles is two seasons into a seven-year, $35 million contract with the Redskins that included a $13 million signing bonus. Since the signing bonus is prorated over the duration of the contract for salary cap accounting purposes, Coles's signing bonus counts $1.86 million against the Redskins' cap for each season that he is with the team. He is on the books to count $3.36 million against the Redskins' salary cap next season (the $1.86 million signing-bonus proration plus his $1.5 million salary for the 2005 season).

Under salary-cap rules, if a player is traded or released, the remainder of his signing-bonus money that hasn't yet counted against the cap is "accelerated," and counts against his former team's salary cap the following season. In Coles's case, that would mean that he would count, under normal circumstances, $9.28 million against the Redskins' salary cap next season if they would trade him or release him (his $13 million signing bonus minus the $3.72 million of it that already has counted against the cap in his two seasons with the club). That's $5.92 million more than the $3.36 million that he'd count against the Redskins' cap by staying with the team, and that would be enough of an additional cap hit to keep him from being traded or released. The Redskins couldn't come up with the nearly $6 million in additional salary cap space without tearing apart their roster.

(Coles would count only $1.86 million against the Redskins' salary cap next season if the club would release him after June 1, actually saving the team $1.5 million from the $3.36 million charge if he remains on the roster. But waiting until then to cut Coles wouldn't solve the Redskins' immediate problem of having a player who doesn't want to be around. It wouldn't solve Coles's problem of wanting to get to another team while other clubs still have jobs and money available. And it would leave Coles counting a cumbersome $7.42 million against the Redskins' salary cap in the 2006 season.)

This is where the signing-bonus give-back comes in. And, in fact, it's not even a matter of Coles giving back money that he already has received; it's a matter of him forfeiting money that he's about to receive.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder makes it a policy not to pay a hefty signing bonus to a player in a single lump sum. He divides it up into a series of payments. That's what happened with Coles, who is due to receive a $5 million deferred payment (from his original $13 million signing bonus) on April 1. To free himself from the Redskins, Coles apparently is willing to forfeit that $5 million.

And this, in turn, is where the give-back rule comes in. If Coles agrees by March 2 to forfeit the $5 million, the Redskins would get credit for the $5 million on their 2005 salary cap. So instead of their salary cap having to absorb an extra $5.92 million hit for trading Coles, the additional cap hit would be a far-more-manageable $920,000. Suddenly, trading Coles goes from not do-able against the salary cap to do-able.

Coles and his agent, Roosevelt Barnes, apparently would expect any team trading for Coles to pay him the $5 million that he would agree to waive from the Redskins. The Redskins, in a trade, would get a draft pick or a player in return for their disgruntled player.

The problem, of course, is finding a team willing to pay $5 million and surrender a draft choice or a player for a disgruntled player with an ailing foot who could end up being released if no trade is completed. What would be in it for that team?

It would be getting Coles -- who, even with his disenchantment in D.C. and his bad foot, played at a near Pro Bowl level in 2003 and had 90 catches this past season -- without having to worry about pursuing him on the free-agent market, in which the competition to sign him could drive the financial parameters higher. One source familiar with the situation, speaking on the condition that he not be identified because the deliberations are at a sensitive stage, said Monday that a possible trade was in the works.

The Redskins' leading trade partner for Coles could end up being the New York Jets, the team from which they stole Coles in restricted free agency prior to the 2003 season. The Jets wanted to keep Coles but were unwilling to match the Redskins' offer, and took a first-round draft choice as compensation instead. But Coles had a great relationship with Jets quarterback Chad Pennington. And anyone who watched the Jets play this past season knows that their offense remains in dire need of one more receiving threat.

The Redskins probably would want defensive end John Abraham in return. The Jets have designated Abraham their franchise player. But with Coles's diminished value, given the league-wide wariness about the soundness of his foot and the fact that other teams believe the Redskins might release Coles if they can't trade him, it probably would take more than Coles to pry Abraham from the Jets.

The Baltimore Ravens remain desperate for help at wide receiver a year after trying but failing to land Terrell Owens. But the animosity between the two I-95 neighbors might preclude a Redskins-Ravens trade. Dallas Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells drafted Coles for the Jets in 2000. The Cowboys need help at wideout. But it's highly doubtful that the Redskins and Cowboys, as heated divisional rivals, would be trade partners.

Seattle Set to Sign Hasselbeck, Tag Alexander

An NFL source said this morning that the Seattle Seahawks reached an agreement late Monday night with Matt Hasselbeck on a contract extension that will keep the quarterback off the unrestricted free agent market next week. The deal will enable the Seahawks to use their franchise-player tag today on tailback Shaun Alexander, another prospective unrestricted free agent.

The deadline for teams to use their franchise tags on players is 4 p.m. (Eastern time) today. Seattle had been facing a potentially difficult choice in deciding whether to use the tag on Hasselbeck or Alexander.

Now that problem apparently is solved. Signing Hasselbeck means that the Seahawks should be able to retain all three of their key offensive players -- Hasselbeck, Alexander and left tackle Walter Jones -- who entered the offseason eligible for unrestricted free agency on March 2. Seattle signed Jones last week to a seven-year, $52.5 million contract extension that includes $21 million in bonus money (including a $16 million signing bonus). The NFC West champions began the offseason with 16 players eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Alexander, if he's given the franchise tag, would have a salary of $6.323 million next season, the average of the salaries of the league's five highest-paid running backs. He would be able to negotiate with other teams when the unrestricted free agent market opens next week, and he could sign an offer sheet with another club if he chooses. But the Seahawks would have the right to retain him by matching the offer sheet, and the right to receive two first-round draft picks from his new team as compensation if they allow him to depart . . .

The Oakland Raiders are facing a franchise-player dilemma, deciding whether to use the tag on wide receiver Jerry Porter or cornerback Charles Woodson. It appears that the Raiders will use the tag on Woodson -- perhaps merely buying time to attempt to trade him -- and try to complete a five-year, approximately $20 million contract extension with Porter before the free-agent market opens.

Woodson, as the franchise player, would have a hefty salary of $10.539 million next season. That's higher than the franchise-player figure for cornerbacks of $8.816 million because the rules guarantee Woodson a 20 percent raise from last season. He had an $8.7824 million salary last season after the Raiders made him their exclusive franchise player last offseason.

Other players who could get the franchise tag today include Indianapolis Colts tailback Edgerrin James, New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Julian Peterson, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Jacksonville Jaguars safety Donovin Darius.

Six players received their teams' franchise tags last week -- San Diego Chargers quarterback Drew Brees, Cincinnati Bengals tailback Rudi Johnson, St. Louis Rams left tackle Orlando Pace, Philadelphia Eagles defensive tackle Corey Simon, Abraham and fellow defensive end Darren Howard of the New Orleans Saints . . .

The Green Bay Packers made tight end Bubba Franks their transition player Monday. That designation would give Franks a salary of $2.095 million next season, the average of the salaries of the 10 highest-paid tight ends in the league. The Packers have the right to retain Franks by matching any offer sheet that he might sign with another club, but not the right to receive any draft-pick compensation from his new team if they opt to left him depart . . .

The Colts kept right tackle Ryan Diem off the unrestricted free agent market by signing him to a seven-year, $36 million contract extension that includes more than $10 million in bonus money.

Cuts Coming Today

The ranks of free-agent players will be bolstered considerably in the coming days as teams release players to get in compliance with next season's $85.5 million-per-club salary cap by the March 2 deadline. The cuts become official today, when the NFL's waiver system goes back into effect.

Quarterbacks Kurt Warner of the New York Giants, Brad Johnson of Tampa Bay, Jay Fiedler of Miami and Chris Chandler of St. Louis likely will be on the market soon. They'll join the two veteran quarterbacks, Jeff Garcia of Cleveland Drew Bledsoe of Buffalo, whose teams announced last week that they'd be released. Another prominent quarterback, Brian Griese, also could be on the market if he's unable to agree to a restructured contract to remain with the Buccaneers.

Carolina wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad led the NFL in receiving yards (1,405) and touchdown catches (16) this past season. But he is to count $12.5 million against the Panthers' salary cap next season and likely will be released if he can't agree to a restructured contract with Carolina. . .

The Colts probably will release tight end Marcus Pollard to clear $2.6 million in salary cap space . . .

In addition to Fiedler, the Dolphins seem prepared to release defensive end Jay Williams and safety Arturo Freeman, and perhaps linebacker Junior Seau, defensive tackle Tim Bowens, fullback Rob Konrad and wide receiver David Boston . . .

Among the other Buccaneers players apparently in jeopardy of being released are fullback Mike Alstott, linebacker Ian Gold and defensive end Greg Spires. But it seems like a long shot that the club would release the popular Alstott a year after taking a public-relations hit for releasing safety John Lynch . . .

The Tennessee Titans announced Monday that they'd release wide receiver Derrick Mason, cornerback Samari Rolle, defensive lineman Kevin Carter, offensive tackle Fred Miller, kicker Joe Nedney and fullback Robert Holcombe. The Titans were about $27 million over the cap.

Jets Trying to Re-Sign Ferguson

The Jets are making a strong push to try to re-sign defensive tackle Jason Ferguson before he hits the unrestricted free agent market next week . . .

Tim Ruskell, the assistant general manager of the Atlanta Falcons, has emerged as the favorite to be hired as the Seahawks' president of football operations . . .

It appears increasingly likely that Will Muschamp will be the Dolphins' defensive coordinator. He was Coach Nick Saban's defensive coordinator at LSU and already is on the Dolphins' coaching staff in a not-yet-specified role.

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