NFL plays free-agent gamble: 28 teams protect 66 players

Studying more angles than a billiard player, the Washington Redskins made an intriguing gamble yesterday that illustrated the complicated decisions NFL teams have to make under the free agency system.

While the 28 NFL teams decided to protect a total of 66 players including 10 "franchise" players and 56 "transition" players, the Redskins decided not to include wide receiver Gary Clark among the three players they were allowed to protect.


That means Clark is free to sign with any team and joins defensive lineman Reggie White and tight end Keith Byars of the Philadelphia Eagles, safety Tim McDonald of the Phoenix Cardinals and quarterback Steve Beuerlein of the Dallas Cowboys on the short list of the most coveted free agents.

The list of more than 300 players who have five years of experience and are eligible for free agency will be announced Monday when the signing period is scheduled to begin.


The Clark move showed that under the new system, the teams won't simply protect their best players. They'll take into account their contract status and the likelihood that they might leave the team.

General manager Charley Casserly said, "He indicated through his agent that he'd like to stay with the Redskins although he'd like to explore free agency."

His agent, Ralph Cindrich, said he thought the Redskins made a good move.

"It was a calculated gamble that I think was a smart move on their part. He's a Redskins kind of a guy. Why should he leave there?" he said.

While giving Clark the freedom to leave, the Redskins designated linebacker Wilber Marshall as their "franchise" player and offensive lineman Jim Lachey and kicker Chip Lohmiller as ** their "transition" players.

Marshall was just one of 10 players in the league designated a franchise player and two of them, White and McDonald, can't be prevented from leaving their teams because they were named plaintiffs in the lawsuits the players filed.

The Redskins had to make Marshall an offer of $1.635 million -- the average of the five highest paid linebackers in the league -- to designate him as a franchise player, although he can bargain for more.

Marshall, who moved from the Chicago Bears to the Redskins for two No. 1 picks in 1988 under the old restrictive system, isn't free to negotiate with another team and reportedly isn't happy about that. ESPN reported he's thinking of suing.


While he'll be given a chance to register his objection before federal judge David Doty, who's overseeing the settlement between the sides, a lawsuit would have little chance of success if Doty approves the system. He's having a hearing today.

As the two transition players, Lachey and Lohmiller must be offered an average of the top 10 highest paid players at their position or a 20 percent raise when their contracts expire after the 1994 season.

Because Lachey is the highest paid offensive lineman at an average of $1.35 million and Lohmiller is the second highest paid kicker at an average of $509,000, the Redskins will simply have to offer them a 20 percent raise.

Clark is in a different situation. He made $850,000 last year, but the Redskins would have had to offer him $1.325 million -- the average of the 10 highest paid wide receivers -- if they had designated him as a transition player. They decided they'd let him test the market and then negotiate with him although he'll likely get more than the average.

Another factor was that if they had made him a transition player, they would have had to match every aspect of a contract offer he got from another team to keep him. Now they can negotiate their own deal with Clark within the parameters of his best offer.

"We talked about it a long time, and we really didn't know what was the right thing to do. We'll see how it comes out," Casserly said of the new system.


An even bigger gamble was made by the Philadelphia Eagles, who didn't designate Byars, a standout running back and tight end. Instead, they designated two players who are lawsuit plaintiffs they can't prevent from leaving, White and linebacker Seth Joyner, whose contract expires next year, and cornerback Eric Allen. They'll now get compensation if White and Joyner leave, but they risk losing Byars.

Only one of the 10 franchise players was a quarterback (Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers), and three were left tackles (Lomas Brown of the Detroit Lions, Jumbo Elliott of the New York Giants and Paul Gruber of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

That's because a franchise offensive lineman only has to be offered $1.168 million. A franchise quarterback must be offered $3.264 million. Quarterbacks such as Jim Harbaugh of the Chicago Bears and Vinny Testaverde of Tampa Bay weren't designated because their teams don't think they are worth that much.

Thirty nine of the 66 protected players are under contract and aren't eligible for free agency this year.