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Free Agency Means Big Raises for Second-Line Players

April 1, 1989

NEW YORK (AP) _ Fred Stokes, a 6-foot-3, 285-pound defensive end, was the Rams’ 12th-round draft choice in 1986. He has played little on a team so short of defensive linemen that it sometimes used two with five linebackers.

Two weeks ago, Stokes received a signing bonus of $75,000 plus a two-year contract worth $610,000 from the Washington Redskins, a 400 percent increase from his salary of $71,500 in 1988.

As the window for signing ″Plan B″ free agents closes this weekend, two things are obvious about the plan that granted outright free agency to the bottom 40 percent of the NFL’s players:

- It has been a bonanza for ″developmental″ players like Stokes and assorted long snappers, kick returners and other ″maybes″ and ″could be’s″ Between 180 and 200 players had signed as the Friday night deadline approached, far more than most people had guessed.

- It has become a huge gamble for teams spending millions on salaries and bonuses. All but Cincinnati and Chicago have signed players and all 28 lost them.

In fact, many of the teams most active in the market question if they’re doing the right thing.

″Sometimes I’m not sure that we’re not just recycling our unwanted players for someone else’s,″ says Carl Peterson, the new president of the Kansas City Chiefs, who had signed 13 players at midweek. And Coach Lindy Infante of the 4-12 Packers, who had signed 19, candidly acknowledges:

″If we can win two or three more games with these guys, you could say it’s worth it.″

The consensus among football people - admittedly a guess - is that Washington and Green Bay may have benefitted most and Houston lost most.

But the real beneficiaries are the players who had changed teams. Most are little-known - of the first 150 signed, fewer than 30 made significant contributions to their old teams last season.

They come from a group of 619, most too old, too infirm or too unproven to be among the 37 players protected under the plan, devised to satisfy Judge David Doty, presiding over the NFL Players’ Association antitrust suit, that there is freedom of movement.

Nonetheless, according to the NFL Management Council figures, the first 100 players signed had received an average overall raise of 78 percent, including $6 million in non-refundable signing bonuses.

″You see what’s out there and take a gamble,″ says Al Davis, the managing general partner of the Los Angeles Raiders, who has done well rehabilitating other teams’ failures. ″We signed high draft choices who failed to see if we could find out why they failed.″

″We identified a few needs we had and a few players who could fit those needs,″ says George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, who paid a reported $110,000 bonus to long-snapper Frank Winters of the Browns, one of the most coveted players - he reportedly received offers from 21 of the 28 NFL teams.

The greatest demand was for specialists like Winters.

Stokes was the beneficiary of a bidding war among the Redskins, Cleveland and Seattle.

″He’s a pass rusher,″ says Ernie Accorsi, the Cleveland general manager, who grabbed Robert Banks of Houston when he lost the Stokes bidding. ″There were only two there. When we didn’t get Stokes, we grabbed Banks as quickly as we could.″

Then there was Indianapolis quarterback Gary Hogeboom, a 30-year-old who has never played a full season and has a history of injuries. He signed with Phoenix for $3.5 million over four years - about the same package that Phil Simms, a Super Bowl MVP and one of the NFL’s top half-dozen quarterbacks, signed for three years ago.

Why? In a league with a dearth of quarterbacks, he was the best available, particularly to a team whose starter, Neil Lomax, has an arthritic hip that could lead to his retirement.

A few fading stars did well, too.

E.J. Junior, a one-time All-Pro linebacker on the downside of his career, received a $200,000 signing bonus and a contract averaging $500,000 for moving from Phoenix to Miami. The Giants’ Billy Ard, a 30-year-old guard who was being pushed out by younger players, got a $75,000 signing bonus and a $400,000-a-year contract from Green Bay.

How much will this matter on the field?

Some, like Peterson, wonder.

Others, like Infante, concede that the Packers are looking for ways stay competitive with veterans like Ard and Seattle center Blair Bush while they develop young players. The reasoning: the free agents are better than players available in the later rounds of the draft.

The Raiders are stabbing and the Redskins and Browns are banking that players like Raymond Butler, Barry Krauss or Banks (Cleveland) and Mike Tice (Washington) can help take them Super Bowl.

In fact, Cleveland’s plusses and Houston’s minuses could have an affect on the balance of power in the highly competitive AFC Central. At least that’s the opinion of Houston Coach Jerry Glanville, who lost a dozen players.

Some he coveted, like Banks; linebacker Toby Caston (Detroit); running bank Ray Wallace (Pittsburgh) and tight end Jamie Williams (San Francisco.) He strongly implies that he gave one list of protected players to then-general manager Ladd Herzeg and that Herzeg, who was about to resign, changed it.

″We were gutted,″ Glanville says.

″You pick guys like Banks in the 11th round and you develop them the way you want to. Then, just when you think they’re ready, someone in your own division comes and takes them away from you. It changes everything, including the chemistry. Even if you sign other players, you get new guys coming into camp who don’t know what you expect of them. You start again.″

Other teams gambled and won.

Nose tackle Jim Burt of the Giants, left unprotected because of chronic back problems, elected to stay out of loyalty to Coach Bill Parcells despite a $900,000, two-year offer from Green Bay that included a $100,000 signing bonus.

″When it came down to it, the money wasn’t the thing,″ he said.

″I want to stay in the area. I’ve got a great rapport with the fans. I feel very comfortable in this environment. You know that the grass isn’t going to be greener anywhere else. I’ve been a Giant for eight years and I owe it to myself and the Giants to finish my career here.″

The union, predictably critical, suggests that the system has been no more than rejects changing teams.

″This is not free agency,″ says general counsel Dick Berthelsen. ″It’s the owners deciding at the last minute who they’ll place on waivers.″

Many league people concur, conceding that many of the players signed now will be gone when the season starts next September, particularly the so-called ″defensive signings.″ An example - nose tackle Mike Lambrecht whom the Giants signed from Miami when they thought they might lose Burt.

In fact, some may be gone before training camp because of the owners’ new cost-saving device that limits training camp rosters to 80 players. Teams like Cleveland, Kansas City and Green Bay are well over that right now.

But the real test will come after the season, when contributions or lack of them, are visible.

″I’d guess maybe four or five will make it big,″ says Davis. ″Some of other guys will help out on special teams and as situation players. The rest? Who knows?″

END ADV for Weekend Release April 01-02

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