In a frantic day of acquisitions, the Washington Redskins added three starters on offense and planned to get two more on defense today as the NFL's trading and free agent signing period opened.
The Redskins first bolstered Coach Steve Spurrier's offense. They traded a fourth-round draft choice and guard David Loverne to the St. Louis Rams for speedster Trung Canidate and penciled in the former first-round draft pick as their starting tailback next season, ahead of Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson.
The Redskins signed guard Dave Fiore, who was released by the San Francisco 49ers this week in a salary cap move, to a four-year contract worth about $8 million and agreed to a seven-year, $28 million deal with Randy Thomas, a starter for the New York Jets the past four seasons who was regarded by many scouts as the top guard available in the unrestricted free agent market.
The team was on the verge last night of completing contract agreements with two free agent defensive linemen, end Regan Upshaw and tackle Brandon Noble, and planned to introduce them, along with Thomas, at a news conference today.
Noble and Upshaw visited Redskins Park late yesterday and their representatives were in the final stages of contract negotiations with the team last night. Team officials remained hopeful of signing free agent wide receiver Raghib Ismail, who left town after spending a second consecutive day in the D.C. area, and are negotiating with free agent wideout Ike Hilliard.
Washington is also interested in wide receiver Jermaine Lewis, a former University of Maryland standout who was released by the Houston Texans this week, as a prospective kick returner.
The Redskins all but conceded that they will lose defensive tackle Daryl Gardener via free agency, perhaps to the Denver Broncos as soon as Monday. But the club's decision-makers were ecstatic to add some speed and bulk in the interior of the line to an offense that ranked 20th in the league last year in Spurrier's first season as an NFL head coach.
"We've gotten off to what we think is a great start," Redskins offensive coordinator Hue Jackson said.
Canidate, 25, was the final player selected in the first round of the 2000 draft from the University of Arizona, where he rushed for 3,824 yards. He played in only three games in an injury-filled rookie season but ran for 441 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, as Marshall Faulk's understudy in 2001. He rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns against the Jets in his first NFL start.
He is one of the league's fastest players, timed at 4.2 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and looked like a star in the making. But he fell into Coach Mike Martz's doghouse last season, rushing for only 48 yards on 17 carries while being surpassed on the depth chart by rookie Lamar Gordon.
Still, the Redskins felt a fourth-round selection in April and Loverne, who was acquired from the Jets last offseason to be a backup but became a starter by necessity and often was overmatched, was a modest price to pay for a player capable of stardom. Jackson said Canidate will compete with Betts and Watson for playing time. But sources said the Redskins got Canidate to replace Stephen Davis, who was released Wednesday, as their starter. He is a good receiver out of the backfield and also can help the Redskins as a kickoff returner.
"It means we have a home run hitter in the backfield," Jackson said. "We've just added another playmaker to our football team."
The two guard spots were major problem areas last season when starters were rotated. But with Thomas and Fiore joining center Larry Moore and tackles Jon Jansen and Chris Samuels, the Redskins believe they have assembled one of the better offensive lines in the league.
"I've never smoked anything in my life," said offensive line coach Kim Helton, "and I actually took a puff on a cigar [yesterday]. So I'm very excited, yes."
Thomas, 27, agreed to a deal that includes a $7 million signing bonus and becomes one of the league's best-paid interior offensive linemen. He and Fiore visited the Redskins' training facility yesterday, and club officials persuaded Thomas to bypass trips to the six other teams chasing him. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Joe Mendes, the club's vice president of football operations, negotiated by telephone all day with Thomas's Memphis-based agent, Jimmy Sexton, and had a deal in place by late in the afternoon.
The Jets were interested in re-signing Thomas, and some observers thought he might reunite with former Jets coach Bill Parcells in Dallas. Instead, he becomes the Redskins' starting right guard. He started each of his 61 games for the Jets after being picked in the second round of the 1999 draft from Mississippi State, and scouts say he is a polished player equally skilled at pass- and run-blocking.
Fiore, 28, received a $1.5 million signing bonus and becomes the starter at left guard. He missed all but three games last season because of a knee injury, but said he is close to fully healthy and plans to participate in the entire offseason program of workouts and practices. The seven-year veteran has a reputation as one of the league's strongest players, and made 53 starts in 59 games for the 49ers. He broke into the league as a tight end and has played every spot along the offensive line, but received assurances from the Redskins that he will have a home at left guard.
"Just by getting set in one position, he can solidify himself as one of the top guys in the league," said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel.
Fiore grew up in New Jersey as a Redskins fan in a family of New York Giants followers, and said in an evening news conference: "It's a great day for me. I'm excited to play here. This team is on the way up, and I'm close to my family."
The Redskins might release guard Brenden Stai to clear salary cap space. With Gardener apparently departing, they probably will rethink their plan to release defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson in June. They are about to sign Noble, who spent the past four seasons with the Cowboys, to replace Gardener. Agent Rick Smith said, "we should get something done" today.
Cerrato, noting that Gardener reportedly is scheduled to visit the Broncos on Monday, said: "It looks like maybe he's going to Denver. We'll see."
Upshaw, a seven-year veteran most recently with the Oakland Raiders, could be a starter at defensive end, with Bruce Smith's future in doubt. Agent Drew Rosenhaus indicated he was close to completing a deal with the Redskins for Upshaw last night, and said "there is a good chance" the agreement will be done today.
Cerrato said the Redskins want Ismail to mentor their younger wide receivers and are confident he's healthy after he underwent surgery in August for a neck injury and missed all of last season. Cerrato said the Redskins don't intend to pursue David Boston but have other free agent wideouts on their shopping list. Hilliard played for Spurrier at the University of Florida, but is coming off a shoulder injury suffered last season with the Giants. The Redskins planned to remain busy in the coming days.
"We knew who we wanted, and we were ready to go right away," Cerrato said. "Our game plan was to strike quickly. . . . [Snyder] was up all night long. He was making deals until 3 or 4 in the morning."