The Washington Redskins are expected to add veteran linebacker Jeremiah Trotter to a new group of free agents hitting the NFL market starting today and will consider shopping for a pass-rush specialist.
According to two sources familiar with the situation, the Redskins will release Trotter no later than Wednesday, ending a Redskins stint that started in 2002 after the former Philadelphia Eagle signed a seven-year, $36 million contract.
June 1 is the traditional date when quality veterans are released in salary-cap moves, giving teams an opportunity to acquire free agents at reduced rates. However, NFL general managers said there will be a limited bargain-basement pool, particularly at defensive end. That fits neatly with the Redskins' approach this time. In early March, Coach Joe Gibbs and company courted free agents at Redskins Park from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 a.m., spending $50 million over the first three days. Not now.
"We'll be very cautious," said Redskins vice president Vinny Cerrato, who planned only a brief staff meeting to discuss impending cuts because the club is familiar with the possibilities from March evaluations. "We're not going to jump into it like we did in the other free agency."
After free agency started March 3, the Redskins targeted defensive end Jevon Kearse -- the prize free agent -- before his asking price (a $20 million signing bonus) grew too exorbitant even for owner Daniel Snyder. The Redskins spread their money among quality free agents such as defensive tackle Cornelius Griffin during the most active offseason in franchise history.
But despite signing 30 players and likely setting a league mark for highest payroll, the Redskins have a hole at pass-rushing defensive end. They contemplated signing defensive end Kenny Holmes, who underwent knee surgery Nov. 5, but passed on the former New York Giant after giving him a physical.
Green Bay Packers defensive end Joe Johnson, 33, is expected to be one of the few defensive ends released. But the Redskins don't appear interested in Johnson, who struggled after signing a six-year, $33 million deal (including a $6.5 million bonus) in 2002 following two straight Pro Bowl selections. Green Bay may eventually release defensive end Jamal Reynolds, the No. 10 overall pick in 2001, who has had only three career sacks. Reynolds would be a more appealing player, but Green Bay isn't likely to make a decision on the 25-year-old until after Mike Sherman's minicamp, which starts Wednesday.
Defensive lineman Peppi Zellner remains an unrestricted free agent after being a solid reserve for the Redskins last season, but the club appears willing to enter the season without acquiring a defensive end.
"You can't fill all your holes because of the cap," said Cerrato, adding that there are few quality pass-rushers in the league. "Every team has a weakness."
The Redskins may be forced to rely on linebackers Marcus Washington and LaVar Arrington, whom Gibbs has dubbed "double jeopardy," because of their ability to pressure quarterbacks. Gregg Williams, the Redskins' assistant head coach for defense, had an unspectacular defensive line last season when he was the Bills' head coach, yet Buffalo finished with the NFL's second-ranked defense. Williams's pass rush used a variety of zone blitzes, with the safety taking an attacking role -- a tactic envisioned for rookie Sean Taylor.
Teams that wait until now to release players want to delay the overwhelming majority of the salary-cap hit until 2005. Generally, if a player was to be cut before June 1, his signing bonus proration -- the annual cap allocation in bonuses left on his contract -- would count this year. For example, cutting Trotter after today would save $2.7 million against this year's cap. If the Redskins had done so before June 1, the move would have brought an instant cap hit of roughly $2 million.
The main reason to put off the cap hit for a year is the need for cap space to sign draft picks, particularly Taylor, who was selected fifth overall.
The drawback to waiving a player after June 1 is that most of his remaining prorated bonus will count the following year. In Trotter's case, in 2005 he would cost the Redskins $4.65 million in dead money or miscellaneous charges, which in NFL jargon means money against the cap for a player no longer with the team. (Players such as linebacker Jessie Armstead and center Larry Moore were cut before June because they were in the final year of their contract, bringing minimal salary-cap ramifications.)
After the NFL instituted the salary cap in 1993, the period following June 1 became active, with several high-profile releases and signings. In recent years, however, the number of marquee players available in the summer has been limited. The main reason, NFL general managers say, is that veterans tend to have roster bonuses due in March, forcing earlier decisions. Another factor is that teams have learned to better manage the cap. NFL clubs currently are an average of close to $5 million under the cap. (The Redskins are at less than $2 million.)
"It appears that fewer teams in recent years are in salary-cap jail," said New England Patriots vice president Scott Pioli. "Teams obviously are finding better ways to control cap space."
Redskins Note: According to two sources familiar with the situation, the Redskins will sign tight end Fred Baxter, a 12-year veteran, to provide depth at blocking tight end. Baxter, who played the previous two seasons with the Patriots, is expected to be officially acquired Thursday after signing a one-year contract for the league minimum. Walter Rasby is projected to start at blocking tight end.