Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert ended a troubled two-year relationship with the Washington Redskins yesterday when he signed a seven-year, $46.5 million offer sheet with the Carolina Panthers.

Because Gilbert was designated a franchise player by the Redskins, the team has seven days to announce whether it will match the offer. Redskins President John Kent Cooke, however, said the team already has decided not to match the deal and that Gilbert would be free to join the Panthers as soon as the necessary paperwork is completed.

In return, the Redskins will receive Carolina's first-round draft choices in 1999 and 2000 as compensation. The teams attempted to agree on a trade last week, but when the Redskins insisted that Carolina's 1998 first-round choice be part of the package, the Panthers pulled out of the discussions and announced that Gilbert would be signed to an offer sheet after the draft.

Gilbert flew to Charlotte yesterday to sign the offer sheet and could be introduced at a news conference today. He officially should join the Panthers this weekend when he takes part in a three-day minicamp.

The Redskins had far different plans for Gilbert two years ago when they surrendered the sixth pick in the 1996 draft to get him from the St. Louis Rams. At the time, they believed he was the Pro Bowl-caliber defensive lineman that could anchor a playoff team.

And he almost did that in 1996 when the Redskins won seven of their first eight games before slumping badly and finishing out of the playoffs at 9-7.

Gilbert had three sacks for the Redskins, all of those in the first month of the season. But coaches said he played better than the numbers indicated and that they would have been more than happy to have him back in 1997.

Gilbert never even showed up for a practice, much less a game. When the sides could not agree on a new contract, the Redskins designated Gilbert their franchise player, keeping him from even negotiating with other teams.

"When when we franchised him, he made a decision that if he didn't get exactly what he wanted he wasn't going to play," Redskins Coach Norv Turner said.

He sought $25 million over five years, including an $8 million signing bonus. The Redskins eventually offered around $20 million over five years, and Gilbert did come down to $22.5 million over five years.

Still, nothing resembling negotiations ever took place, and Gilbert was convinced that he would get big money even if he sat out the entire season, which he did. The Redskins gave him permission to make a deal, and the Panthers made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. His new contract includes a $10 million signing bonus.

Yesterday as Gilbert signed with a new team, the Redskins seemingly had no regrets, not in making the trade or in taking the contract stance they did. The acquisition of defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkinson has shored up the middle of the defense, and thanks to Gilbert, the Redskins have the flexibility that comes with having an extra first-round draft choice the next two years.

"I think we made the right decision to make the trade for Sean two years ago," Turner said. "He helped us win nine games two years ago, was a strong contributor. You can't look back and see a scenario where a player sits out a whole season. You'd never expect that. We'd like to have had him last year. When you look at where we are right now, we've got Stubblefield and Wilkinson. Things happen for a reason. We're in good shape at that position."

Redskins Note: Backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler has been approached about a commentator's job with CBS. He appears, however, to be leaning toward playing at least one more season and will be at a three-day minicamp this weekend at Redskin Park.

"Every indication we have is that he's going to play," Casserly said. CAPTION: Sean Gilbert's $46.5 million contract makes him highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.