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Chargers and Outlaws Near Johnson Deal

Times Staff Writer

The Chargers are again close to working out a deal to acquire wide receiver Trumaine Johnson, but have made little progress in talks with No. 1 draft choice Jim Lachey of Ohio State.

The club has been working quietly but diligently for several months to obtain Johnson, the gifted pass catcher of the United States Football League’s Arizona Outlaws.

On at least two occasions, it appeared the transaction was about to be completed, only to have last-minute snags prevent the trade from being consummated.

“It looks real good this time,” a high-level Charger source said. “It looks like we will have a deal this week.”

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Meanwhile, Lachey remains unsigned, and if recent history is any indication, there is little reason to be optimistic about his chances of coming to terms soon, even though training camp is less than a month away. The Chargers last year failed to sign No. 1 pick Mossy Cade and lost one of three first-rounders, Gary Anderson, the year before.

Johnson, who has not played for the Outlaws this year because of a contract dispute, would like to join the Chargers in time for the start of camp July 19, and the Chargers are doing everything in their power to oblige him.

A stumbling block is, and has been, the $1 million it would cost to buy Johnson’s freedom from the Outlaws. The Chargers, who own his National Football League rights, would assume part of the cost of the buy out.

It was learned the Chargers have agreed to terms with Johnson on a multi-year contract that would take effect if and when he obtains his free agency.

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Bill Tatham Jr., co-owner of the Outlaws, has said the team would not relinquish its rights to Johnson unless it received a player of comparable ability, or enough money to purchase such a player.

Johnson walked out on the Outlaws on Jan. 23 after Tatham refused to advance him $250,000 for the down payment on a ranch in Louisiana.

Johnson, who caught 81 passes in 1983 and 90 in 1984, has not played a down this season and faces a much longer layoff if his contract problem isn’t resolved. Once this season ends, the USFL isn’t scheduled to play again until the fall of 1986, which would mean Johnson could go 2 1/2 years without suiting up.

He has made no attempt to conceal his distaste for the Outlaws.

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“I’d rather retire than go back to Arizona,” Johnson said last week. “The Outlaws have been unfair to me. They have been very dishonest.”

The Chargers need Johnson almost as badly as he needs a place to play. Their receiver corps, once the finest in the NFL, has slipped in the last couple of seasons, and the outlook for 1985 is mixed--without Johnson, that is.

Tight end Kellen Winslow is recuperating from knee surgery and may miss as much as half of the season. Charlie Joiner, the league’s all-time leading receiver, is as reliable as ever, but will be 38 in October. To say that Wes Chandler, after two straight subpar seasons, is at a crossroads would be generous.

The Chargers had hoped to complete the acquisition of Johnson and try to trade Chandler before the draft was held April 30. But the negotiations stalled, leaving Johnson on hold.

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The effort to finalize the Johnson deal has drawn attention away from the team’s stalemated talks with Lachey, the offensive tackle from Ohio State.

Lachey is believed to be seeking a four-year contract worth about $2 million.

Only three of the league’s 28 first-round selections have signed thus far, leading Lachey’s agent, Leigh Steinberg, to say, “This must be the slowest signing season in history.

“The teams seem to have made the decision to push back contract offers to the 1981 level, to which my response would be: roll back the TV revenues to 1981, as well.”

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Salaries accounted for about 28% of the average NFL team’s expenses in 1982, Steinberg said. Even with salary inflation caused by competition with the USFL, salaries now make up 50 to 55% of a club’s expenses, “hardly outrageous in a labor-intensive industry,” according to Steinberg.

The Chargers recently signed No. 2 draft pick Wayne Davis to a four-year deal--estimated to be worth $1 million--which Steinberg called “very competitive.”

The team has not made Lachey what the agent would consider a similarly “competitive” proposal.


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