The Washington Redskins completed a contract agreement with Pro Bowl kickoff returner Michael Bates yesterday, according to Bates's representative, and restructured the contract of safety Sam Shade, clearing salary cap space for the Redskins to sign Bates and their draft choices without having to release cornerback Deion Sanders.
Agent Jim Steiner said that Bates, 31, will sign a contract today. The two-year deal is worth $1.327 million, including a $100,000 signing bonus. The free agent had spent the past five seasons with the Carolina Panthers. Steiner said the Minnesota Vikings were in the running to sign Bates until the late stages and the Atlanta Falcons also showed interest.
"He wanted to be in Washington," Steiner said. "He liked the makeup of the team, and he liked [Coach] Marty Schottenheimer."
Bates has five touchdowns on kickoff returns in his eight NFL seasons, including a 92-yarder against the Redskins last season. The former Olympic sprinter is a superb all-around player on special teams. He is a running back but has played little on offense during his career.
The reworking of Shade's contract created about $1.4 million of additional salary cap room for the Redskins, who had been down to about $150,000 of available cap space. The move apparently does not guarantee that the Redskins will retain Sanders. But it gave the club the ability to complete the Bates signing and negotiate with its top three draft picks while delaying a decision about Sanders until around July 29, when veteran players are scheduled to report to training camp in Carlisle, Pa.
Shade agreed to reduce his salary for next season from $2.3 million to $477,000, receiving the difference as a bonus that the Redskins can prorate over the remainder of Shade's contract for accounting purposes. The two sides also agreed to extend Shade's contract by a year through the 2003 season. Some of Shade's 2002 salary was advanced to him and a $200,000 bonus was converted into incentives.
The Redskins reduced Shade's salary cap number for next season from approximately $3.5 million to around $2.1 million. It was the second major restructuring of the four-year, $10 million contract that Shade signed with the Redskins before the 1999 season as a free agent.
The contract restructuring virtually ensures that Shade will be the Redskins' starting strong safety this season. There was talk earlier in the offseason that Shade could be released, but the Redskins assured agent Mason P. Ashe that Shade would remain with the club. The team released its starting free safety, Mark Carrier.
Shade joins a long list of Redskins veterans who have agreed to restructure their contracts this offseason. The list includes quarterback Jeff George, tailback Stephen Davis, wide receiver Michael Westbrook, cornerback Champ Bailey, defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson and defensive ends Bruce Smith and Marco Coleman.
The Redskins would clear more than $3.6 million of salary cap space by releasing Sanders, who is playing baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays' Class AAA affiliate, Syracuse. But Coach Marty Schottenheimer has said he believes the Redskins would be better with Sanders than without him. Schottenheimer also has said the team could make its salary cap situation work without releasing Sanders, and reworking Shade's contract was another step in that direction.
Sanders has said he would prefer to be released by the Redskins. But his seven-year, $56 million contract would require him to report to training camp on July 29 if he is not playing major league baseball.
The Redskins must sign their first three draft selections -- first-round wide receiver Rod Gardner, second-round cornerback Fred Smoot and fourth-round quarterback Sage Rosenfels. The team has completed contract agreements with its other draft picks, fifth-round wide receiver Darnerien McCants and sixth-round defensive tackle Mario Monds.
Rookies and selected veterans are scheduled to report to Redskins Park on July 25 and begin workouts the following day. The Redskins are just beginning serious negotiations with their top picks, and now they have the cap space to complete deals. The most difficult negotiations could be with Smoot, who is seeking to be paid like a first-round selection even though he fell to the 45th overall choice, in part because of his involvement in a marijuana possession case.
The Redskins and other NFL teams may explore the possibility of trying to get their draft choices to agree to contracts with lower signing bonuses and guaranteed salaries in the early seasons of the deals. That would help teams to lower the players' first-year salary cap numbers. Normally, the signing bonus is the only guaranteed portion of an NFL player's contract and the annual salary is collected by the player only if he is on the team's roster that season.