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Browns Jump Into Free Agent Market

February 15, 1999

CLEVELAND (AP) _ The Cleveland Browns jumped into the NFL’s free agent market Sunday, signing center Dave Wohlabaugh and punter Chris Gardocki.

The expansion Browns, with about $30 million available for possible signings, are expected to be extremely active in luring free agents to fill out the roster.

Terms were not disclosed, but Wohlabaugh was seeking the richest contract ever for a center, using Kevin Mawae’s five-year, S16.5 million contract with the New York Jets a target.

Dwight Clark, head of football operations for the expansion Browns, said Sunday that Wolhobaugh was high on the Browns’ most-wanted list.

``It was our coaches’ opinion that a center is vital to a good running game,″ Clark said. ``His ability on tape showed up very well. So we decided to make that a priority.″

The 26-year-old Wohlabaugh, 6-foot-3 and 292 pounds, became a starter with the New England Patriots in the sixth game of his rookie season in 1995 and has started every game since.

Jim Pyne, center for the Detroit Lions last season, was the first player chosen by the Browns last week in the expansion draft. Pyne is also experienced at guard.

Gardocki, 29, an eight-year NFL veteran, averaged 45.4 yards in 79 punts for the Indianapolis Colts last season. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in the 1995 and 1996 seasons.

Gardocki has never had a punt blocked. He also handled kickoffs for the Colts.

Gardocki’s signing came after Tom Tupa, a former Browns player who was the punter for the New England Patriots last season, signed with the New York Jets. Tupa had considered the Browns, but said he wanted to play for Bill Parcells and for a team he thinks has a good chance to get to the Super Bowl.

The Browns selected 37 players, most of them young and with inexpensive contracts, last week in the league’s expansion draft.

Although the Browns are believed to have gone into the free agent signing period nearly $40 million under the league’s mandated salary cap, some of that will have to be applied to signing draft picks.

The Browns will have the first pick in the NFL draft in April.

The Browns have also acquired tight end Irv Smith and defensive end Roy Barker from the San Francisco 49ers, who are trying to clear some cap space, for taking cornerback Antonio Langham and his huge contract in Tuesday’s expansion draft.

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