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 (ne 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

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.

"That's not against the rules, is it?" Cleveland president
Carmen Policy, a master at manipulating the cap during his days
in San Francisco, asked after the deal was struck. Nope. Nothing
says the Browns and a team that has serious cap problems can't
make a mutually beneficial deal. But that didn't make executives
around the league any happier. "It's wrong, dead wrong," says
Redskins general manager Charley Casserly. "They figured out a
way to skirt the rules."

Philadelphia's Gamble

The Eagles opened some eyes recently when they re-signed
defensive end Mike Mamula to a four-year, $11.5 million
contract. Mamula was as surprised as anyone. An underachiever
since he was selected in the first round of the 1995 draft,
Mamula missed last season after tearing the ACL in his left knee
during a preseason game. In 46 games with Philadelphia, he has
17 1/2 sacks.

"I'm flabbergasted," Mamula told SI last week. "I thought I
would have to go out on tour and prove myself to someone in free


Carnell Lake played strong safety and cornerback in 10 seasons
with the Steelers. He'll play free safety in his 11th. The
Jaguars enticed Lake with a four-year, $18 million contract and
will team him with big hitter Donovin Darius in the secondary.
Lake is the 20th Pittsburgh starter to leave since the start of
unfettered free agency in 1993.... The 49ers continued to
mortgage their future when they handed 36-year-old Jerry Rice a
$2 million bonus to restructure his contract. In the past 25
months the Niners have given Rice $10 million in bonuses. He's
now under contract through the 2004 season, but Rice is likely
to retire before then. When he does, San Francisco will take a
heavy cap hit.... If John Elway needs another reason to retire,
here it is: The Broncos will face what just might be the
toughest schedule in their history next season. Denver gets the
Vikings, Packers, Jets and Dolphins at home and must travel to
Jacksonville, New England and Tampa. Throw in a couple of games
each against a trio of AFC West foes who are probable playoff
contenders--the Seahawks, Raiders and Chiefs--and the Broncos
will have anything but a cakewalk as they go for a three-peat.

The End Zone

Before the Browns began selecting players to fill their roster,
Cleveland's Crooked River Brewing Co. sent 10 cases of its
seasonal brew to team president Carmen Policy. It's called
Expansion Draft.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Cleveland's canine corps's beloved new Browns may have less bite than hoped for, given a paucity of top free agents (page 72). [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE At the expansion draft in Canton, Cleveland's rejuvenated Dog Pound did plenty of woofing.