The Browns have money to burn, but marquee free agents are scarce
One of the most sought-after players in this year's crop of unrestricted free agents put his life on hold last weekend. "My father died last night," Giants defensive end Chad Bratzke said quietly from his parents' home in Brandon, Fla., on Saturday, "so it's pretty hard to focus on football." Charles Bratzke, 57, who had suffered a debilitating stroke five years ago, died of cardiac arrest.
In light of the tragedy, the teams that will most aggressively pursue the 27-year-old Bratzke—the Browns, Bears, Colts and Titans (n� Oilers), to name four—won't push him to sign a contract in the immediate future. "We'll give him the time he needs," Cleveland coach Chris Palmer said on Saturday. " Chad is worth waiting for. He's the type of high-motor guy we'd like to build our program with."
There are few such players available this off-season. Some, like wideouts Antonio Freeman of the Packers, Rob Moore of the Cardinals and Carl Pickens of the Bengals, were named franchise players, which will discourage other teams from bidding for their services. As for the 304 unrestricted free agents who went on the market last Friday, only a handful would be rated among the 10 best players on their teams. Bratzke is one of those.
Free agency used to be a big deal. In the early 1990s stars changed teams—and changed teams' fortunes. But this off-season only two unrestricted free agents played in the Pro Bowl: guards Nate Newton of the Cowboys and Bruce Matthews of the Titans. Both are 37.
Quite simply, teams have learned to cut potential free agents off at the pass. Consider, for example, the Vikings: In the past 15 months they re-signed eight key players—quarterback Randall Cunningham, tackles Todd Steussie and Korey Stringer, running back Robert Smith, wideouts Cris Carter and Jake Reed, defensive lineman John Randle and strong safety Robert Griffith—before the start of the free-agency signing period or not long after it began. So a team like the Browns, who for the most part passed on players with huge contracts at last week's expansion draft in Canton, Ohio, has plenty of money to spend but little to shop for in terms of big-name free agents.
With a dearth of talent available, Bratzke will probably sign for at least $5 million a year. The Giants already have two defensive players—end Michael Strahan and cornerback Jason Sehorn—making more than $3 million a year and can't afford to offer Bratzke the kind of money that is being floated around when his name comes up. What an unlikely turn of events for a 1994 fifth-round pick out of Eastern Kentucky who just 15 months ago suffered ligament damage to his left knee and fractured his left fibula in a game against the Oilers, ending his 1997 season and casting a shadow over his future. Following surgery, however, Bratzke hired a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a speed coach and a martial-arts trainer; worked out three times a day during the off-season; and had a breakthrough year in '98 (11 sacks and 79 tackles) lining up opposite All-Pro Strahan.
Charles Bratzke lived for his son's games, and Chad got choked up on Saturday recalling one of their last talks. "Dad," Chad told him a couple of days before he died, "a lot of teams want me in free agency. I think your son's going to be a wealthy man." Chad said his father beamed.
San Francisco East
Browns, Niners Help Each Other
During the expansion draft Browns vice president Dwight Clark got his former coach, 49ers general manager Bill Walsh, to agree to a strange deal: If Cleveland would take the burdensome contract of cornerback Antonio Langham off the Niners' hands, Walsh would give the Browns tight end Irv Smith and defensive end Roy Barker. No charge. When Cleveland got Langham to agree in mid-draft to take a pay cut on his '99 salary of $3.02 million, the Browns had a nice gift—three proven starters for a chicken-feed '99 salary-cap cost of about $6 million.