For the Washington Redskins, the NFL draft came more than a month early.
Their first-round draft choice became New York Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles. They essentially got tailback Trung Canidate with their fourth-round selection and safety Matt Bowen with their sixth-round pick.
In a wildly aggressive offseason, the Redskins decided to give up their draft picks in exchange for veterans, a tactic they eschewed last offseason when veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe was available in exchange for a first-round draft pick. Instead of going to the Redskins, Bledsoe was acquired by the Buffalo Bills.
This year, the Redskins traded their fourth-round pick to St. Louis for Canidate, a speedy former first-round draft selection who had fallen into disfavor with Rams Coach Mike Martz. Their sixth-round choice went to the Green Bay Packers to get Bowen, a restricted free agent. The New York Jets got their first-round pick -- No. 13 overall -- for not matching a seven-year, $35 million offer sheet to Coles, another restricted free agent.
All three players are penciled in as starters. The Redskins are left with five draft picks -- one choice each in rounds two, three and five and a pair of seventh-round selections. And they tried to give up their fifth-round pick but the Jets decided to match their offer sheet with kick returner Chad Morton, another restricted free agent.
"We evaluated all the restricted free agents along with the unrestricted guys, and it became pretty obvious,'' said Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel. "A sixth-round pick to get a starting safety who has played in the league? It became pretty easy. A fourth-round pick to get Trung Canidate? We asked ourselves, 'Could you get Trung Canidate in the fourth round?' And the answer was no. Can you get Laveranues at [No.] 13? No. We'd have had to give up a second-rounder to move up, and we got a better player.''
The approach is novel. Only one restricted free agent changed teams in the entire league last season. But the Redskins say they are more than pleased with the results. If they hadn't gotten Coles, the Redskins planned to trade up in the first-round draft order to draft a wide receiver -- Michigan State's Charles Rogers or Miami's Andre Johnson. Such a trade, the Redskins determined, would have cost them at least their second-round pick along with their first-round selection. They would have had to dole out a signing bonus of $12 million or more, and would have faced the risk of the rookie holding out in training camp and not becoming the sort of dominant player the team envisioned.
Coles became the 12th player added by the Redskins since the NFL's trading and free agent signing period began on Feb. 28. They all but raided the Jets, pursuing Morton and signing away Coles and guard Randy Thomas and place kicker John Hall, both unrestricted free agents. The Jets asked the league office to investigate Coles's signing, contending that the Redskins violated a rule that any contract agreements must be filed with the NFL immediately. And the NFL Players Association will ask an arbitrator to award Morton to the Redskins because the Jets, after receiving a ruling from the league office, did not match a mechanism in the Redskins' offer sheet that could void the final two seasons of Morton's five-year, $8 million contract. The NFLPA is expected to be denied its request.
In all, the Redskins signed nine unrestricted free agents. Coles's contract includes a $13 million signing bonus and is the biggest handed out by owner Daniel Snyder this offseason. Guard Randy Thomas received the next-heftiest signing bonus, at $7 million.
Coles's deal brings the sum of the signing bonuses given to the team's free-agent acquisitions to just less than $29 million. Coles's signing bonus, like Thomas's, is payable in three installments, and Coles's contract is relatively salary cap-friendly, particularly in the early seasons. He will count $2.31 million against next season's $75.007 million salary cap. The contract includes a $2 million bonus in July 2006, a provision designed to dissuade the Jets from matching.
Most of the heavy offseason lifting for the Redskins is done now. They are attempting to complete a deal with wide receiver Raghib Ismail, an unrestricted free agent. If they get him, the Redskins' remaining needs will be a punter, a kick returner, perhaps another safety and some backup players, particularly along the defensive line. Their second-round draft pick could be used on a defensive tackle, and a middle-round selection could be used for a third-string quarterback.