For the Washington Redskins, this year's National Football League draft will last much longer than two days. It won't end until Bruce Clark, the former all-America defensive lineman from Penn State, signs a contract.
Clark could be an important figure in the Redskins' future. If they can sign him, he would replace the No. 1 draft choice they traded away last year to Los Angeles. And he would go a long way toward alleviating obvious defensive line problems.
As it stands, the Redskins don't expect to be able to draft a quality defensive lineman with their highest choice in the draft, which comes in the second round and would be the 49th player chosen. It would take a major mistake by other clubs for any top-rated linemen to be available to Washington, and, even then, there is a major gap this season between Kenneth Sims, the draft's top-rated player, and the other linemen.
So it is likely that General Manager Bobby Beathard will be thwarted for the second straight year in his search for an inspired pass-rushing rookie. Last season, he entered the draft with the same priority and came away with a number of offensive players and only one defensive lineman, Dexter Manley, in the fifth round.
That's why the pursuit of Clark extends the club's draft. And the seriousness of that pursuit will provide a good indication of the Redskins' commitment to reconstructing what once was a playoff team under George Allen.
Clark was drafted by Green Bay in the first round of the 1980 draft. But he opted to play for Toronto of the Canadian Football League, where he was paid $250,000 each of the last two seasons.
Now he wants to return to the NFL. Until Wednesday, he is the property of Green Bay, which no longer is negotiating with Clark after making a qualifying offer. Beginning Thursday, other teams can talk to Clark, who can select one club's offer. Green Bay then has the right to either match that offer and sign Clark, or let him go to the rival team.
"This will be a test of whether Ed Garvey is right when he says there is no reason for NFL teams to bid for players because there is no incentive to win," said Richard Bennett, Clark's Washington-based attorney. "Bruce is a valuable player who would help a lot of teams. He is in a unique situation and he has unique leverage. But I just don't know how spirited the bidding will be."
Bennett carefully guards his client's financial demands, but they probably will be considerable, particularly if reports are true that some teams were willing to pay as much as $2 million just for the rights to a high No. 1 selection in this year's draft.
Clark certainly will ask for a contract at least the equal of what linebacker Tom Cousineau, another CFL free agent, was offered by Houston last week: $1.5 million for three years, including $350,000 a year in salary. Bennett also has a history of requesting large signing bonuses for his clients, who include Art Monk and Terry Metcalf of the Redskins.
Under NFL rules, the Redskins are not allowed to talk about Clark until Thursday. But they probably will not pursue him until a decision is made on whether a high bid would upset the club's salary structure and cause disharmony. It is likely an offer will be tendered, perhaps within a week after the draft. But it also wouldn't be surprising to see them not bid for Clark.
To get Clark for four years, it could cost a team $2 million or more, which is more than the Redskins have paid any other player. Quarterback Joe Theismann, an eight-year veteran, just signed a four-year contract--the second largest total package in Redskins history--that could earn him $1.5 million or more over four years.
But Bennett said clubs shouldn't be able to hide behind the size of contracts with established players.
"The teams just have to explain to their players that Bruce had unique leverage that many of them never enjoyed," Bennett said.
"If we don't get the money we want, that doesn't necessarily mean we will sign with Green Bay . . . we can always go back to Canada. Green Bay's first offer wasn't even close. We sent a new offer to them, but we haven't heard anything from them. We are in no hurry."
Clark, who played for a poor team in Canada and was shuffled to several positions, was not a dominating player the last two years, which could hurt his bargaining power. And Green Bay seems willing to match any reasonable offer with some of the $18 million the club has set aside in a Wisconsin bank. But the Packers, much like the Redskins, won't guarantee any part of a player's contract.
Meanwhile, Beathard continues to refine the Redskins' selection priorities for Tuesday. He has nine choices in 12 rounds, selecting from a group of prospects considered inferior to players available in many recent drafts. But he knows he must use the draft, if possible, to strengthen a struggling defensive unit.
"We'd have to be lucky to get a defensive lineman early, so maybe we'll settle for a wide receiver or a cornerback or something like that," said Beathard, alluding to two other problem areas. "But it's not a good year for cornerbacks, either. The strength of the draft is wide receivers, which we need, and running backs and linebackers."
Cornerback is a priority because Lemar Parrish has asked to be traded and Joe Lavender is 33. Beathard thought if he signed Renaldo Nehemiah, he would alleviate the need to complement Monk with a speedy wide receiver. Nehemiah signed with San Francisco, however, and that position again became a priority. Tight end Don Warren is a competent blocker, but the Redskins would like a quicker player to use with him when they go to their two-tight-end formation.
There even is the possibility the Redskins could pick a running back before the fifth round, in order to provide backup quickness at halfback if Joe Washington is injured again next season.