|Friday, February 15
Texans already working hard
By Len Pasquarelli
In terms of high-stakes bartering, it is hardly as significant as the deal-making which allegedly accompanied the Olympic pairs ice skating competition earlier this week, nor as insidious as the purported wink-wink agreement between the French and Russian judges.
But make no mistake about this: When the NFL expansion draft convenes Monday afternoon, a good deal of the suspense will have already evaporated, particularly for the Houston Texans and some of the incumbent franchises desperate to unload overpriced and underachieving veterans on the league's newest team.
And part of the reason for that is, like other expansion teams before them, the Texans have struck a number of backroom agreements on which players they will select, who they likely will ignore, and what veterans might be "pulled back" by the other teams.
Some of the deals were in place even before the 31 existing teams submitted their five-man list of players available to Houston and some other accommodations are more recent. There is nothing untoward about the deal-making, no ostensible rules against the handshake agreements fashioned by Texans general manager Charley Casserly and his league counterparts, and the upshot of these arrangements figures to benefit Houston and several incumbent teams as well.
"Charley has been really smart in orchestrating some things," said the agent for a player who has been assured by the Texans that he will be chosen. "He knows the teams that are in (cap) trouble and really need him to take some high-priced guys off their hands. And he has been able to play that to his advantage. He's been pretty good at the art of the deal."
One example: The Texans will exit the expansion draft with a pair of proven cornerbacks in New York Jets starters Marcus Coleman and Aaron Glenn. But in agreeing to take two players whose cap values represent more than $13 million of New York's $19.4 overage on the spending limit, it is believed the Jets will not pull back offensive right tackle Ryan Young. A three-year veteran and two-year starter, Young is one of the true bargains in the expansion lottery.
Houston already has quietly approached Glenn about a new, three-year contract, one that will lower his 2002 cap charge to the Texans. Look for a similar proposal to Coleman.
In the 1999 expansion draft, to help stock the Cleveland franchise, the entire process was all but orchestrated before the ESPN coverage even came on the air. Every one of the other teams knew precisely which player would be chosen from its list and the Browns knew who would be pulled back once a player was selected. It was, noted one Cleveland official, like reading a script.
The final choice of the Browns, for instance, was San Francisco cornerback Antonio Langham. While he did not fit the profile set by the Cleveland management, which wanted younger and cheaper players and more quantity than quality, Langham had started his career with the Browns and remained a very popular player with the fans.
Part of the agreement to select Langham, and permit the cap-strapped 49ers to expunge him from their books, was that the two franchises would also consummate a number of post-expansion draft trades aimed at helping San Francisco ameliorate a burgeoning cap overage. The teams finished off three trades in the 10 days following the expansion draft.
It isn't believed that Casserly and coach Dom Capers have such exotic deals in place, but it does appear there are arrangements with some teams -- notably Jacksonville, the Jets and Baltimore -- on which players will be chosen from those clubs. In 1995, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Carolina Panthers had several pre-expansion draft deals in place.
Said one league general manager: "Who does it hurt? Absolutely no one. It's a win-win, because (Houston) gets a player it wants and the other team unloads a salary cap albatross. Just because it's done behind the scenes doesn't make it underhanded. It takes two to tango, and I suspect that Charlie had his dance card filled with teams wanting to cut deals with him."
No existing team can lose more than two players, unless it wants to. It appears that both the Jets and Jaguars could sacrifice three veterans each by not pulling back players once a choice is made from their list. Jacksonville, which is $27.7 million over the 2002 cap, could realize a savings of about $16 million if the Texans select offensive left tackle Tony Boselli and defensive tackles Gary Walker and Seth Payne.
Casserly also knows, after weeks of wading through player contracts and the cap statuses of all the other teams, that many players on the expansion lists will be released. Some cap-strapped teams simply can't afford to retain them and, with all the cap space they will have at his disposal this spring, the Texans will be able to sign those veterans at reduced rates.
The Texans could look to free-agency for a ceteran quarterback along the lines of a Trent Dilfer or Jim Miller or Gus Frerotte -- to be the starter for a year or two. That will permit Houston to develop likely No. 1 pick David Carr of Fresno State and to upgrade the roster around him by 2004, when he's ready to play. The Texans are also reportedly interested in selecting Danny Wuerffel during the expansion draft.
The Texans have said they will not select any player over 30 years of age and will probably take just 15-20 players. Houston is permitted to choose 30-42 players, or fewer than that, provided the aggregate salary cap charge represents 38 percent of the 2002 spending limit. That means the club can stop once it has chosen players whose cap charges total slightly more than $27 million.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.