The Washington Redskins are close to signing two restricted free agents, Green Bay Packers safety Matt Bowen and New York Jets kickoff returner Chad Morton, to offer sheets, NFL sources said yesterday. The Redskins hope to insert Bowen into their starting defense and make Morton a key element in the move to upgrade their special teams.
Meantime, the team is continuing to try to complete a deal with wide receiver Raghib Ismail, an unrestricted free agent.
The Packers and Jets each would have a week after a deal is completed to decide whether to retain their player by matching the offer. The Redskins would owe the Packers a sixth-round draft choice if they acquire Bowen and would have to give the Jets a fifth-round selection for Morton. They did not have a fifth-round pick in this year's draft until yesterday, when they got one in a trade that sent a seventh-round selection this year and a fourth-round choice in 2004 to the New England Patriots.
The terms of the Redskins' offers were not immediately available, but sources said the Packers would have a difficult time matching Bowen's contract. Bowen, 26, has split his three-year NFL career between the St. Louis Rams and the Packers. He was not a starter in Green Bay but would become one with the Redskins, who have David Terrell and Ifeanyi Ohalete as their returning starters. Terrell is a restricted free agent. Andre Lott, a rookie last season, could compete for a starting job next season.
Bowen also excels on special teams. Green Bay maintained its right to keep Bowen by matching a contract offer from another team -- or receive compensation if he signs elsewhere -- by making him a one-year, $605,000 contract offer. The Jets also made a $605,000 offer to Morton, 25.
Morton ranked second in the AFC in kickoff returns last season, averaging 26 yards per return. He set a single-season team record with his 1,509 yards on kickoff returns and returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, both in a season-opening victory at Buffalo on Sept. 8. He had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter and became the second player in NFL history to return an overtime kickoff for a touchdown with a 96-yard effort.
He also has returned punts during a three-year NFL career that began with one season in New Orleans followed by two seasons with the Jets. He returned only four punts last season because the Jets have one of the league's best punt returners, wide receiver Santana Moss. But Morton likely would be the Redskins' punt returner, and he would provide depth at running back.
Morton had only four carries and three receptions last season. But he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield, with 30 catches for the Saints as a rookie in 2000.
The Redskins originally focused on signing free agent wide receiver Jermaine Lewis as a kick returner, but believe he will sign elsewhere. They explored the possibility of signing Brian Mitchell, the former Redskin who spent the past three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, but decided against it. Mitchell signed a four-year, $3.55 million deal with the New York Giants yesterday.
The Redskins began the process of overhauling their special teams by signing Jets place kicker John Hall as an unrestricted free agent on Sunday and plan to add a punter during the offseason.
Hall spent six seasons with the Jets and said during a news conference at Redskins Park yesterday that he expects to be a better kicker now that he won't have to deal regularly with the swirling winds and troublesome turf at Giants Stadium.
"You see these other guys kicking in conditions that are better, on fields that are better," Hall said. "It will be refreshing to come down here and get on this surface and see what I can do."
Said Redskins Coach Steve Spurrier: "Any kicker that can kick for one team six straight years is a pretty doggoned good kicker, I think. . . . Hopefully our kicking woes will be taken care of."
Tailback Trung Canidate, who was acquired Friday in a trade with the Rams, also was at Redskins Park yesterday and was presented a cake for his 26th birthday during his introductory news conference. His best present, though, will be getting a chance to start now that all-pro Marshall Faulk is no longer in front of him.
"This gives me a good opportunity to get on the field and play and perform," Canidate said. "It's a good opportunity to get my career headed in the right direction. It was frustrating sitting back, not being able to play. But I had an opportunity to learn from one of the best in the game."
Redskins Notes: The club released guard Brenden Stai, clearing $1.2 million in salary cap space for next season. The team recently cleared cap room by restructuring the contracts of linebacker Jeremiah Trotter and left tackle Chris Samuels. . . . Sources said the Redskins plan to re-sign linebacker Kevin Mitchell, an unrestricted free agent. . . . Defensive tackle Daryl Gardener remained in Denver yesterday. He canceled his other free agent visits and likely will sign with the Broncos today. . . .
Spurrier said Patrick Ramsey will get 80 percent of the snaps during the Redskins' offseason practices and remains firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback even after former Buffalo Bills starter Rob Johnson signed a two-year, $2 million contract. "Patrick is our guy," Spurrier said.