By Rick Maese and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2010; D01
The Washington Redskins launched a major overhaul of their roster Thursday, releasing 10 players, including several high-priced veterans, and clearing space for additions that could become cornerstones of Coach Mike Shanahan's remodeled team.
Finally getting a chance to address the Redskins' roster, Shanahan and General Manager Bruce Allen wasted no time making sweeping changes, gutting the team's aging nucleus and signaling a wide-reaching shakeup that promises to have ramifications beyond the 2010 season. The overhaul came just hours before the start of the NFL's free agent signing period.
The cuts went deep, as the team released starters such as defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin and guard Randy Thomas, said goodbye to a captain, running back Rock Cartwright, and cut influential locker room leaders in wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, cornerback Fred Smoot and running back Ladell Betts. Also let go was veteran backup quarterback Todd Collins.
Allen called it "a day of change for the Redskins."
"We feel we addressed some of the concerns we have and addressed our plan for the 2010 season and beyond," Allen said at an evening news conference at Redskins Park. "We've been working on this a few days, a few months in some cases."
In all, the team parted ways with more than 72 years of experience and freed itself of nearly $17 million in 2010 salaries.
The Redskins were free to start spending that money almost immediately. Free agency began at 12:01 a.m., Friday, and many around the league expected the Redskins to be among the busiest teams. Washington was expected to spend the early morning hours Friday pursuing a wish list of free agents, beginning with Carolina's talented defensive end Julius Peppers.
There will be other suitors giving chase after Peppers, though. Shortly after midnight, the Chicago Tribune reported that Peppers had a Friday visit scheduled to Chicago, where the Bears are eager to sign a pass rusher.
The Redskins could also try to negotiate with Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby and New Orleans safety Darren Sharper. Dansby, however, said on ESPN he has a trip scheduled for Miami.
With Thursday's retirement of six-time Pro Bowler Chris Samuels, the Redskins must also address the left tackle position. The top free agent candidates appear to be Green Bay's Chad Clifton and Arizona's Mike Gandy.
Allen did not discuss specific free agents in his meeting with reporters, and he would not characterize how aggressive the Redskins might be in acquiring free agents.
He did say that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder has not placed any financial restrictions on the front office and that the team has spent several weeks planning for free agency.
"We've developed a pretty extensive game plan for what we're going to do in free agency," Allen said.
One player who seemed to be a big part of the team's free agency plans, San Diego running back Darren Sproles, was tendered a high-level offer by the Chargers on Thursday, one week after the team announced it didn't intend to tender him at all. It's doubtful any team would pursue Sproles as a restricted free agent, though it was possible the Chargers would consider trading the fifth-year veteran.
While Friday could be a busy day for the Redskins -- the team signed Albert Haynesworth to a record contract just hours after free agency began a year ago -- it would be tough to match Thursday's activity, when many of the last remnants of the Joe Gibbs years were shown the door.
"Maybe it's time for something new," Betts said. "Looking at it from the outside, it sure seems they're trying to go in a new direction with new people at the top. That's the way it is when you have a lot of change like the change the Redskins have had."
In addition to Samuels, seven of the released veterans had played under Gibbs during his second tenure with the franchise. Smoot, Cartwright and Betts date back even further, having been drafted when Steve Spurrier coached the team.
"I am a bit shocked," said Randle El, who joined the team as a free agent in 2006. "I thought that with a new GM and a new coach, I thought you'd be given a shot to show them what you can do. And I figured that with some of the younger guys who still haven't proven themselves, they would want to keep the veterans around."
That clearly wasn't the case. The Redskins began the 2009 season with the league's oldest roster, but seven of the 10 players released Thursday were at least 30 years old. Six of them of them were set to earn at least $1 million next season.
"To be honest, I figured they would want to renegotiate and go from there," Randle El said. "But at the same time, I had a high [salary] for next season, so this is what they decided to do. But I know I can still play. I just have to find a team that looks at me as an asset and wants me. That's the next step."
Randle El had 50 receptions for 530 yards, but last season marked the first time in his eight-year career that he failed to notch at least one touchdown catch. He started only three games and was supplanted as the team's flanker before the season and struggled returning punts.
Smoot was due $3.9 million in 2010, Thomas $3.7 million and Collins $2.9 million -- so it wasn't a surprise to many that the Redskins released the veterans. Thomas was at Redskins Park for Samuels's retirement news conference but said he received the phone call from Allen when he returned home.
"I'm not really surprised because this is the business," Thomas said. "It's all about 'what have you done for me lately?' and I was hurt last year. So that's just the way it is. But I told myself I was either going to prepare to be a free agent or prepare to go to training camp [with the Redskins]. So I'm going to be prepared."
The team also released running back Marcus Mason, fullback Eddie Williams and defensive lineman J.D. Skolnitsky.
Allen said the cuts were made to allow the former Washington players time to find a new playing home.
"One of the reasons to do it today was to give these players an opportunity at the starting line of free agency to maximize their earning power. . . . I'm hoping and we're rooting for some of these players," he said.
Amid all the veteran departures, the Redskins retained one key piece of the offensive line, re-signing center Casey Rabach to a three-year contract. Rabach would have become an unrestricted free agent at midnight.
The Redskins will now rely on free agency and April's draft to fill the holes created by Thursday's roster cuts. Releasing Griffin, considered the team's best interior defensive linemen before the arrival of Haynesworth a year ago, creates a big vacancy on the defensive front.
Griffin, 33, joined the Redskins as a free agent from the New York Giants in 2004 and has been a regular starter the past six seasons. With his departure, the question mark surrounding the team's tackle position has only grown. The Redskins are expected to shift to a 3-4 defense and Griffin might have seemed like a good option at nose tackle.
Redskins coaches, though, clearly have other plans.
"To be honest with you, I saw it coming," said Cartwright, a reserve running back and kick-return specialist. "When you have a new coach and a new coaching staff, they're going to want to go in a different direction. Am I happy about it? No. But it's something you can't control."