The early consensus around the league seems to be that the Oakland Raiders are getting the better, by a comfortable margin, of the tentatively set trade in which they're obtaining wide receiver Randy Moss from the Minnesota Vikings for linebacker Napoleon Harris and two draft choices, including the seventh overall selection in April.
"I thought if the Vikings were going to get rid of the guy, they would do better than that," said one NFL general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the trade is not yet official and he did not wanted to be viewed as prying into other clubs' business. "I mean, the guy is a royal pain. But he's flat-out the most talented player in the whole league."
The Raiders are counting on that, and counting on Moss embracing their long-standing tradition of assembling renegade players unwanted elsewhere and winning big while ignoring what the rest of the league -- or the rest of society, for that matter -- thinks of them.
The Raiders haven't won much in the past two seasons, going 9-23 since their lopsided Super Bowl loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January 2003. They had an aging roster and a 5-11 record this past season under first-year coach Norv Turner.
But now owner Al Davis has given Turner the means to jump-start the down-the-field passing game they both like. Kerry Collins will enter next season as the club's undisputed starter at quarterback, and the Raiders this week signed wideout Jerry Porter to a contract extension to keep him off the unrestricted free-agent market next week. When the Moss trade becomes official Wednesday, barring any last-minute snags, the Raiders will have a player who is among the sport's most dominant offensive performers when he's healthy and properly motivated. The final piece to the offensive puzzle for Oakland will be adding a workhorse runner that Turner can use to keep defenses off balance.
Moss, at 28, is still young, and is under contract for four more seasons. Now the Raiders can only hope that his addition will do for them what the addition of another talented but often-troubled pass catcher -- Terrell Owens -- did for the Philadelphia Eagles this past season.
In return, the Vikings are getting, in Harris, a linebacker who was selected in the first round of the 2002 draft out of Northwestern but failed to become a standout defender in his three seasons in Oakland. Minnesota also receives a draft choice that will give the Vikings two of the top 18 selections in April. The Vikings should be able to turn those picks into two immediate starters. They probably would have to trade up from the seventh spot if they want to choose the wide receiver regarded as the best available in the draft, Michigan's Braylon Edwards, but they might be able to stay put and select former University of Southern California standout Mike Williams.
The other draft pick involved in the trade is thought to be a low-round selection.
A year ago, when the Miami Dolphins inquired about Moss, the Vikings' asking price for him was trio of first-round picks. But that was before Moss suffered through an injury-filled, unproductive-by-his-standards season, and before he added to the list of controversies that he's generated by walking off the field with two seconds remaining in the regular season finale at Washington and pretending to moon the Lambeau Field crowd as part of a touchdown celebration during the NFC playoffs.
Moss's act finally had worn thin in Minnesota. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper said publicly that perhaps it was time for Moss to go. And team officials, despite their public denials that they were shopping him, seemed intent upon trading Moss. Owner Red McCombs did not allow the pending $625 million sale of the franchise to Arizona businessman Reggie Fowler to halt the process. Fowler said publicly in recent days that he would not sign off on a Moss deal. But McCombs still is running the franchise, and the questions raised about Fowler's financial wherewithal to secure the required league approval of the sale further weakened any impact that his objections might have had.
The Vikings apparently just wanted to be rid of Moss. They are about to accomplish that, but many around the league wonder if they shouldn't have kept shopping.
"That's the problem when everyone knows you're desperate to get rid of a guy," an executive from another NFL team said. "You might not come out and admit it, but people know it. And you don't get equal value in return."
Combine Gets Underway
Coaches, scouts and front-office executives will spend the remainder of the week and the weekend in Indianapolis evaluating draft-eligible players at the NFL scouting combine.
They will be particularly curious about Williams and former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, the two players who attempted to enter last year's draft after the initial ruling by a federal judge in Clarett's lawsuit against the NFL temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players. But that ruling was overturned on appeal, and the league managed to keep Williams and Clarett out of last year's draft.
Williams's petition to have his collegiate eligibility restored at USC was denied by the NCAA, and he sat out the recently completed season. Clarett hasn't played in two seasons since leading Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman. Clarett, like Williams, is eligible for this year's draft. But, unlike Williams, he is not regarded as a top prospect. In fact, most teams seem to be regarding Clarett at this point as a likely fourth- or fifth-round pick, depending upon how he looks in pre-draft workouts.
Clarett showed up at last year's combine overweight and out of shape, and turned off some people in the league with his attitude. He could move up clubs' draft boards in the coming weeks if he is in good condition and comes across as eager to work and impress. . . .
The next significant trade to be completed could be one involving Buffalo tailback Travis Henry and Arizona offensive tackle L.J. Shelton. The two teams have been discussing such a swap, and talks could intensify in Indianapolis. . . .
The Carolina Panthers have until next Wednesday to negotiate a reworked contract with Muhsin Muhammad that would keep the wide receiver with the team. That's when a $10 million roster bonus in Muhammad's contract is due. He would count $12.5 million against next season's $85.5 million salary cap under the current terms of his contract, and the Panthers will release Muhammad before having to pay the roster bonus if they can't get him to agree to a new deal. General Manager Marty Hurney likely will meet with Muhammad's agent, Joel Segal, in Indianapolis. . . .
People around the league believe it's possible that the Colts could end up trading tailback Edgerrin James and the Raiders could deal cornerback Charles Woodson. Each was given his club's franchise-player tag on Tuesday. . . .
The Raiders probably will wait until June to make a roster move with quarterback Rich Gannon. In the meantime, they likely will rework his contract to create salary cap space. It appears likely that Gannon will retire after suffering a broken vertebra in his neck during a game against the Buccaneers in September. . . .
The Dolphins released quarterback Jay Fiedler and safety Shawn Wooden, and confirmed that they'd cut defensive end Jay Williams and safety Arturo Freeman. . . . The New England Patriots released cornerback Earthwind Moreland, tight end Zeron Flemister, guard Wilbert Brown and defensive lineman Buck Rasmussen. New England also hired Joel Collier, a veteran assistant who spent 11 seasons on the Dolphins' staff, as an assistant secondary coach. . . .
The Eagles made a one-year, $1.43 million qualifying offer to tailback Brian Westbrook, who's eligible for restricted free agency.
The contract tender preserves the Eagles' right to retain Westbrook by matching any offer sheet that he might sign with another club. It also gives the Eagles the right to receive a first-round draft pick from Westbrook's new team as compensation if they allow him to leave.
The Eagles could have increased that prospective compensation to first- and third-round picks if they'd made Westbrook the highest restricted-free-agent tender, set this year at $1.9 million. Many people around the league had expected Philadelphia to give Westbrook the highest offer to ward off any potential suitors.
Have the Eagles made the Laveranues Coles mistake? In 2003, the New York Jets tried to save a little bit of money and salary-cap space and, figuring that no team would go after Coles in restricted free agency, made the wide receiver only the second-highest contract tender. The Redskins swooped in and signed Coles to a seven-year, $35 million offer sheet that included a $13 million signing bonus, and the Jets reluctantly allowed him to depart and took a first-round pick as compensation.
The relationship between Coles and the Redskins since has soured, but that doesn't change the fact that the Jets were careless at the time. Redskins officials said they wouldn't have pursued Coles if the Jets had given him the highest tender in restricted free agency. Teams around the league learned their lesson. Last year, each of the top three restricted free agents -- Cincinnati tailback Rudi Johnson, St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, then with Miami -- was given the highest qualifying offer, the one requiring first- and third-round draft selections as potential compensation.
A player is eligible for restricted free agency if his contract has expired and he's been in the league for three seasons (unrestricted free agency comes after four seasons). It's relatively rare for a top player to be a restricted free agent because most sign contracts longer than three seasons as an incoming rookie.
Eagles Release Wayne
Philadelphia released linebacker Nate Wayne today. Wayne began last season as a starter, but was benched in a midseason lineup reshuffling by defensive coordinator Jim Johnson in which Jeremiah Trotter replaced Mark Simoneau at middle linebacker and Simoneau was moved to outside linebacker in Wayne's spot. Wayne failed to regain his starting job during the playoffs even when Simoneau was hurt, as the Eagles went with Keith Adams. . . .
The three-year contract that quarterback Drew Bledsoe signed with Dallas is worth about $14 million. He said during his introductory news conference Wednesday he'd been told by Coach Bill Parcells that he'd be the Cowboys' starter next season, ahead of youngsters Drew Henson and Tony Romo.
"That's what I anticipate, yes," Bledsoe said. "That was said, yes. He did tell me I would be the starting quarterback. But if we get into training camp and there's a better option, he'll do it. . . . I anticipate being the best guy."
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he was in agreement with Parcells about signing Bledsoe, even though that likely keeps Henson on the bench for at least one more season.
"I think we're better than we were an hour ago, before Drew signed," Jones said.