The Pace Chase Is On

March 17, 2003
The Pace Chase Is On
by Keith Weiland

The first true offseason has been a pedestrian one thus far for the Texans. The team signed a couple players here, lost a couple players there. Mix in a low-wattage trade for a backup lineman, and that’s really been about it.

Well, the pace may be quickening. And by pace, I mean Orlando Pace.

An all-everything left tackle for the St. Louis Rams, Pace is in the midst of what is turning out to be an nasty round of contract negotiations. At 27 years old and arguably the best lineman in the game, Pace and his agent, Carl Poston, feel as though he deserves some special money.

The Rams know it, too, because they have seen Pace deliver on Sundays. He has been a significant part of their two Super Bowl teams in the past four seasons. Problem is, as a result of that success, the Rams have too many other players that deserve some special money as well.

So to help manage the bleeding of their salary cap, the Rams slapped the gauze of a franchise tag on Pace before the free agency period commenced earlier this month. What that means is that St. Louis keeps Pace on its roster for one year at $5.83 million while the front office negotiates with him and his agent on a long-term deal.

But the pace of those negotiations has slowed to a screeching halt. With the passing of the 15-day deadline that encourages teams to reach long-term deals with their franchised players, the Rams will lose the right to use the franchise tag again for the length of any new contract if Pace is signed before July 15.

Pace is now likely to sit out mini-camps, offseason workouts, and possibly training camp. Pace could even threaten to sit out part of, or even all of, the 2003 season.

Not a big surprise that this could get ugly since there’s a history here of prolonged contract disputes between the Rams and Pace. As a result, the rumors linking possible trades involving Pace, ostensibly for the purpose of either side creating some leverage on the other, were left for the fodder of conspiracy theorists and online message boards.

That was until Poston’s comments on Friday legitimized some of the rumors.

“We’re asking for a trade,” he said. “We’d like to see a trade happen. And the only reason we’re doing that is that the Rams are not negotiating. They refuse to. I don’t know why.”

Just a guess, Carl, but the reason why probably has a little something to do with the outrageousness of what you’re asking for on behalf of your client.

According to reports in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the numbers Poston and Pace are asking is something in the range of – you might want to sit down for this – seven or eight years for a total of $85 million, including a $23.8 million bonus. The Rams are believed to be offering roughly half that amount.

Pace is, however, the top offensive tackle in game and that does come at a hefty price. At 6’7″ and 325 pounds, Pace was once a strong Heisman candidate – at tackle fer crissakes! – and he has lived up to those expectations as a pro. He was the first overall selection in the 1997 draft, and on his résumé are a few Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl ring.

The idea of a trade could make sense for the Rams, especially if the team is able to acquire a player like the Saints’ Kyle Turley for a late first or early second round pick. Turley is asking for less than half the bonus money Pace is seeking.

So where do the Texans fit in to all of this? Probably just as a negotiating ploy, so don’t get too carried away, but the Texans are on a VERY short list of possible trading partners should the Rams decide to make an offer.

Houston general manager Charley Casserly wouldn’t be doing his job if he weren’t at least paying attention to this situation. If Pace could be had for the team’s first round pick in April (at #3 overall), plus maybe a couple of third rounders tossed in for good measure, then this could be an attractive acquisition, especially for a team whose quarterback is one year removed from establishing the record for turf sandwiches.

Another possibility for a trade offer might be Houston’s early second rounder (#36 overall) this year and a first rounder in 2004. The Rams could then offer Houston’s second round selection to add Turley.

Anything more than that though, and the Texans should consider the offer too rich.

The key to any trade is whether Casserly and Poston could knock out a more fiscally responsible contract for the Texans. Ain’t no way Pace is getting a $23.8 million bonus, but the figures bandied about might explain why the Texans are the only team currently rumored as being possible suitors in potential trade scenarios.

Other suitors could eventually surface. One team that comes to mind as being in need of a tackle, and having some wiggle room in their 2003 cap, is Carolina.

Yes, them again. Recall that the Panthers were the team that signed Stephen Davis last week, a running back the Texans also pursued.

Before the cap-friendly Davis signing, ESPN estimated Carolina’s cap space at $8 million. Assuming Carolina isn’t thinking of drafting a franchise quarterback with their first round pick, a trade for a franchise tackle makes a lot of sense for the team. If you wash out the first round money Carolina would owe to its pick at ninth overall, it may be a little easier to justify financially, too.

A few other teams could have interest in Pace. The Dolphins might, though if they are serious about pursuing Brian Griese, then they would need to restructure somebody else on the roster in order to even think about adding Pace.

Seattle is another possible destination if the Seahawks can’t work out a long-term deal with their franchised tackle, Walter Jones. Talks were headed nowhere, and now, just like with the negotiations between the Rams and Pace, they have been suspended until July. It seems unlikely, however, that each team would be willing to swap their same headache.

Other teams with either the cap space (like the Vikings) or the need (like the Steelers) don’t appear to be good fits on the surface. Toss in the Bucs, who are tight on cap space but are looking at re-signing Roman Oben, and the Chiefs, who own the Vermeil factor – he won a Super Bowl with Pace – and may be willing to trade John Tait, but both are longshots, too.

Don’t expect the Texans to make a trade for a while. The only thing that could press the issue of a trade is if the Rams are set in getting Houston’s first rounder this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if Casserly had an offer on the table by draft day, one he could pull the trigger on if Charles Rogers and/or Terrell Suggs is gone by the third pick.

So how does Houston’s incumbent franchise tackle, Tony Boselli, figure into this equation? Wasn’t he supposed to be the answer at left tackle anyway? Well, yes, and the Texans still remain optimistic that he’ll be ready for the season.

That’s at least what the team is telling anybody who asks. Off record, Houston’s front office bean counters might say otherwise in light of the restructuring of Boselli’s contract in February.

Boselli’s 2003 cap hit is now only $3.705 million, which is about half of what it was previously. There are additional incentives if he does in fact play this fall, but if the Texans cut him after the 2003 season, then they only take a cap hit of $3.05 million in 2004.

Boselli probably agreed to the restructuring because he really thinks he can return this year. Regardless of whether he can or can’t, he could be gone in another year either way, making him less of an obstacle for the Texans should they pursue Pace in a trade and a long-term deal.

And how’s this for David Carr’s dream scenario in 2003: A healthy Boselli at one end of the offensive line and a primo Pace at the other? For a player who ate more grass than Bevo last year, he may never get his pants dirty all season.

Keith Weiland counts his lucky stars that he has yet to receive a franchise tag.