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Moves That Don’t Seem to Add Up

THE SPORTING NEWS

Remember Green Bay’s five-year formula that culminated in a Super Bowl championship 16 months ago? It’s now a part of the NFL archives. Long-range plans have become passe. The current operating philosophy is win now, win at all costs.

Free agency is one means to that end. But that avenue sometimes distorts the vision.

A team sees a player become available on the open market and, suddenly, its problems seem solved. Never mind that it might have to overpay the player because the demand at his position exceeds the supply, or that, just maybe, there’s a reason the player’s old team was willing to let him go.

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“The way free agency is now, if a special player is let go, there’s probably something under his hood that needs to be checked,” one NFL player personnel director says.

Let’s pop the hoods on what we think are the five most questionable signings this offseason.

1. Gabe Wilkins, DE, San Francisco 49ers ($20 million, 5 years). The Packers needed Wilkins--desperately--to stop Denver’s running attack in the Super Bowl. But Wilkins left the game after Green Bay’s first defensive series with a knee injury that had plagued him in the second half of the season. “We need you,” Packers Coach Mike Holmgren pleaded. “I can’t play. I can’t go,” Wilkins insisted. The next day, when asked about his knee by a teammate, Wilkins dismissed concern, saying he would just treat it with ice.

Some 4 1/2 months later, Wilkins still can’t go. And he and the 49ers should be concerned. San Francisco’s investment was risky enough because Wilkins, 26, has been a starter for only one season. But his rehabilitation from knee surgery has been excruciatingly slow, and he isn’t expected to return to the field until sometime in August. As a consequence, the 49ers had to re-sign Chris Doleman, 36, their starting right end the past two years who was expected to have a reduced role as a third-down pass rusher, to a higher salary.

Wilkins, who produced 5 1/2 sacks in ’97, is still raw as a pass rusher and is better against the run. He scored two touchdowns last season, including one that made all the highlight tapes. He intercepted a screen pass by Tampa Bay’s Trent Dilfer, hurdled Dilfer and ran 77 yards before slipping on some netting in the end zone as he prepared to do the Lambeau Leap. To conclude that Wilkins will be a major contributor in ’98 may be a bigger leap.

2. Sean Gilbert, DT, Carolina Panthers ($46.5 million, 7 years). Gilbert had a Pro Bowl season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1993 (10 1/2 sacks ) and played just as consistently for the Washington Redskins in 1996, even though he had only three sacks. He can be a disruptive force who makes the players around him better.

Redskins end Rich Owens erupted for 11 sacks in ’96 but fell off to 2 1/2 last year as Gilbert sat out the season in a contract dispute. The problem with Gilbert is inconsistency. Besides the ’93 and ’96 seasons, his career has been largely ordinary. He has 27 sacks in 76 games. In comparison, Dana Stubblefield has 39 1/2 sacks in 77 games, Warren Sapp has 22 1/2 in 46 games and John Randle ( $32.5 million over five years to re-sign with the Minnesota Vikings) has 85 1/2 in 128 games and has averaged 12 sacks over the past seven seasons. And Randle has gone to five Pro Bowls.

The Redskins were concerned about a knee problem with Gilbert and asked him to have minor knee surgery, but he declined. They also wanted to put a workout clause in his contract 1/3 $250,000 for 16 weeks. Gilbert, whose offseason work ethic is some- thing less than exemplary, asked for $50,000 for eight weeks. Carolina awarded Gilbert with the richest contract ever for a defensive lineman. And it owes Washington No. 1 draft picks in 1999 and 2000.

“There may be no greater gamble in the history of our league,” one general manager says.

3. Ray Agnew, DT, St. Louis Rams ($8 million, 4 years). The Rams panicked. They had just lost Bill Johnson to Philadelphia, and defensive tackles were disappearing quickly from the free-agent market. So they overreacted by giving Agnew an obscene contract for a player who has been mostly a backup the past five years.

Agnew never has lived up to his billing as the 10th overall selection (by New England) in the 1990 draft. He has started 54 of 110 games in eight seasons-- only 21 of 71 in the past five--and played fewer than 50 percent of the defensive snaps for the New York Giants in 1997.

Last year, he was cut twice: by the Giants in early June and by Carolina in August before the Giants re-signed him. When the Rams signed Agnew, Coach Dick Vermeil said he looked for Agnew to “step in and give us the production Bill Johnson did at that position last season.” Johnson made 34 unassisted tackles, had four sacks and forced two fumbles for the Rams in ’97. Agnew, playing behind Keith Hamilton and Robert Harris in New York, produced 10 solo tackles, two sacks and one fumble recovery.

Agnew is a good reserve lineman who is undersized at 6-3, 285 pounds. He is not a great pass rusher. He is 30. He is not a $2 million-a-year player. Not even close.

4. Yancey Thigpen, WR, Tennessee Oilers ($21 million, 5 years). A few weeks after Tennessee mad him the richest receiver in the NFL, Thigpen had surgery to have a screw replaced in his left foot. He still is rehabilitating and can’t run full speed, which has precluded his ability to work on the field will quarterback Steve McNair.

Pittsburgh’s team doctors had some concerns about Thigpen’s long-range availability--he has a history of nagging injuries--and the Steelers were willing to offer him $2.5 million a year. But the Oilers made a bold move and quadrupled Thigpen’s salary.

Thigpen is capable of making spectacular catches and big plays--his 17.7 yards-per-catch average led the NFL last season--but he never has been able to put two good seasons back to back. He caught 85 passes and scored five touchdowns in 1995, the Steelers’ Super Bowl season, then had 12 receptions in six games the next year, when he was beset by a variety of injuries. And, like Gilbert, Thigpen doesn’t have a reputation for being a hard worker in the offseason. Too often he came to Pittsburgh’s training camp in less than tiptop shape.

5. Jeff Burris, CB, Indianapolis Colts ($20 million, 5 years). Burris was a solid but unspectacular player with Buffalo for four seasons. He intercepted six passes, but that was only half as many as Antonio Langham had for Cleveland/Baltimore during the same period. He returned 100 punts for a club-record 1,045 yards but never scored a touchdown. Denver Darrien Gordon and San Diego’s Eric Metcalf each returned three punts for TDs last season alone.

In the free-agency market, Doug Evans and Langham were superior cornerbacks. But the Colt, are paying Burris more than the 49ers gave Langham ($17 million, five years) and only $500,000 less per year than Evans got from Carolina. The Colts have had difficulty keeping two good cornerbacks. They lost Ashley Ambrose in free agency in 1996 and Ray Buchanan in ’97. Signing Burris for $20 million we. clearly a case of price being driven up by need.

THE SECOND TEAM

1. (tie) Leslie O’Neal, DE, and Chester McGlockton, DT, Chiefs. Kansas City must have fallen in love with O’Neal when he had three of his 10 sacks in a game against the Chiefs last year. The motivation and work ethic of O’Neal and McGlockton, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, have come under question in recent seasons.

3. Rod Woodson, CB, Baltimore Ravens. Woodson’s bust will be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame one day but his performance has declined precipitously since he suffered a serious knee injury in the opening game of the 1995 season.

4. Everett McIver, G. Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys are hoping McIver, an unheralded lineman who started 14 games for Miami last season, can fill the vacancy at right guard left by All-Pro Larry Allen’s move to left tackle.

5. Edgar Bennett, RB, Chicago Bears. To sign Bennett and then draft Curtis Enis as a probable workhorse back shows a lack of foresight by the Bears.


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