Coach Joe Gibbs and his Washington Redskins staff yesterday spent their second day at Redskins Park intensively analyzing the team before finalizing plans by tomorrow for changes they hope to make during the offseason. Gibbs -- also the team president -- has expressed confidence the team will have the financial flexibility to make key acquisitions while retaining most of the club's own free agents.
The Redskins are about $4 million under the salary cap -- the league-mandated ceiling on salaries -- which is projected to be $85 million in the 2005 season. However, Washington almost certainly will create more salary room by making moves before March 3, when free agency kicks off.
"We kind of know where we are," said Gibbs, who wouldn't specify the club's spending money, except to describe it as being substantial. "Obviously you project where the cap's going to be. And then [there are moves] we can do to free up money in there. We've got a great plan."
Washington's plan involves re-signing most of its 20 free agents. The top two are linebacker Antonio Pierce and cornerback Fred Smoot. But many of the team's other free agents played critical roles this season, particularly on a defense that ranked third in the NFL. Six other free agents started games this season: offensive lineman Ray Brown, defensive end Demetric Evans, safety Andre Lott, linebacker Lemar Marshall and defensive linemen Joe Salave'a and Ron Warner. There are others who were important on special teams, such as Mike Sellers and snapper Ethan Albright.
Although the Redskins appear headed for a financial quandary in 2006, the club is in good shape this year because it enters the offseason well under the cap. In contrast, for example, the Tennessee Titans are roughly $20 million over the cap, and will be forced to trim that money -- mostly by releasing players -- by the NFL's deadline of March 1.
Washington's free agents are broken down into three categories: unrestricted free agents (10), restricted free agents (seven) and exclusive-rights free agents (three). The first set generally has the most freedom to leave. Restricted free agents have limited ability to switch teams. If another club signs one of Washington's restricted free agents, the Redskins have seven days to match that offer. Should Washington decide not to match, the signing club usually must part with a draft pick from the round in which the player was originally selected. (If the player was undrafted, then the Redskins wouldn't gain a draft pick.)
"The good thing about free agency is, we control most of that," Gibbs said. "It's in our ballpark. But sometimes there may be a player where that won't work. Last year, we had two players [restricted free agent fullback Bryan Johnson and wideout Pat Johnson, an unrestricted free agent] we wanted to keep, but we lost them to free agency. That can happen."
Exclusive rights free agents have been in the league for less than three accrued seasons. Chris Clemons, a promising linebacker, has been credited with only the 2002 and 2004 NFL seasons. Clemons -- often used as a rushing end on third downs -- collected three sacks in only five games. To maintain exclusive rights on Clemons, the Redskins must make a tender offer of only $380,000, barring another team from offering a contract unless Washington eventually releases him.
Tender offers -- which must also be given to restricted free agents by a late February deadline -- count against the cap. However, the Redskins can counter the diminished funds by restructuring contracts. The prime example is left tackle Chris Samuels, whose cap hit is scheduled to be $9.6 million -- dwarfing all his teammates' -- before he becomes a free agent in 2006. Both sides have expressed optimism about reaching a cap-friendly contract extension. If talks falter, Washington could trade Samuels, saving roughly $5 million under the cap. The Redskins may also release Samuels -- creating a huge swath of cap space -- but that appears to be a last resort.
Part of Washington's free agency plan is not going over its budget, which is why Smoot's chances of returning appear slim. "If you can get rid of Champ Bailey," a Pro Bowl cornerback traded last offseason, said linebacker LaVar Arrington, "then nobody is safe. I wouldn't be surprised if they don't re-sign him."
According to sources familiar with the situation, the sides are about $4 million apart on a signing bonus. The Redskins are more optimistic about Pierce, who said this week that he likely won't join another team unless its offer is outlandish.
"We'll get it done before free agency," Pierce predicted, then added, "Hopefully."