RUMOR CENTRAL: TAYLOR ON THE BROWNS AND THE NFL

Telling it like it is: "Michael owes his career to him. Coach Robiskie, in Michael's mind, salvaged his NFL life."

For those who are thinking about writing Michael Westbrook's name into one of the starting wide receiver positions for 2002, you may want to shy away from using a pen.

Westbrook, who can become an unrestricted free agent on March 1, was thought to be on his way out of D.C., with Cleveland and a reunion with current Browns wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie as a potential destination.

However, with the firing of Marty Schottenheimer and hiring of Steve Spurrier, the big, talented receiver may never hit the open market.

"Of course it does... But it's still a business, so we'll see what happens," Westbrook told the Washington Post, when asked if Spurrier's hiring increased the chances that he'd be back with the Redskins. "To be in an offense that Steve Spurrier has is always a receiver's dream. Any time you've seen the ball thrown to me, I make plays. If he comes here and throws me the ball, I'm going to make plays, period."

That being said, don't discount the relationship between Westbrook and Robiskie as a major factor in what the receiver ultimately does this offseason.

"Michael owes his career to him. Coach Robiskie, in Michael's mind, salvaged his NFL life," a source close to Westbrook told Bernie's Insiders.

"If there were an opportunity for him to hook-up with Coach Robiskie again, if for some reason he's not wanted [in Washington], he'd probably jump at the opportunity to join him in Cleveland or wherever he's at. There's a respect there that you can't count in dollars and cents. If it works out with the Redskins, though, that's great too."

There are, however, two concerns that may or may not prevent Westbrook from returning to Washington.

One, as is the case with any free agent: How much money will he be asking for and how will that demand fit into the team's salary-cap structure? It's unclear at this point what exactly Westbrook will be seeking if he hits the open market and, more to the point, what the market will bear for the 6-3, 221-pounder. The cap should not be an obstacle to getting Westbrook re-signed as the Redskins are roughly $14 million under the 2002 salary cap, which is expected to come in at around $72.9 million.

It's the second concern, however, that will play the biggest role in whether Westbrook stays or goes: How will he fit into Spurrier's offense and, more succinctly, what offense will Spurrier run in the NFL?

The answer to that question will be the overriding factor as to whether or not Westbrook will be available on this year's free-agent open market.

BROWNS NOTES: Speaking of Robiskie, don't be surprised if his name surfaces in connection with the new coaching staffs in San Diego and Carolina, pending the outcome of each club's search. The 47-year-old Robiskie is highly respected around the league and could emerge as an offensive coordinator candidate, particularly if Ted Cottrell lands with the Chargers or Tony Dungy with the Panthers. Robiskie, who served as the Redskins interim head coach following the firing of Norv Turner during the 2000 regular season, is also thought of as a potential head-coaching candidate down the road, particularly if/when he lands a coordinator position and is successful in that endeavor. ... While the focus of Browns fans in regard to free agent running backs seems focused on Seattle's Ricky Watters, don't forget Tampa Bay's Warrick Dunn. Whispers intimate that there may -- and let us once again stress the word "may" -- be an interest in the 5-9, 185-pound Dunn. Yes, he doesn't seem to fit Butch Davis' profile of an ideal every-down back, but, if there is one thing that everyone should have learned during Davis first 12 months in Cleveland is to expect the unexpected from Butch, errr, Coach Butch. ... One other name to not forget in favor of someone else in free agency is Seattle offensive tackle Walter Jones. While most of the OT focus is on Indianapolis' Tarik Glenn -- which is understandable given offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' ties to the Colts -- some members of the organization actually have Jones rated above Glenn. While neither is likely to hit the open market, there is a better chance that Jones will become available.

COPYCATS: Given the surprising success of the Bears and Patriots this season, expect clubs from around the league to attempt to copy their 2001 approach to free agency.

Both Chicago and New England avoided the big-money free agents and instead "settled" on several mid-level players. Their records -- 13-3 and 11-5, respectively, in addition to first-round playoff byes -- will force teams across the NFL landscape to at least consider altering their strategy of pursuing the biggest names on the open market.

One club already taking a serious look at that approach is Tennessee. Burned by the likes of Yancey Thigpen and Fred Miller via free agency, and Kevin Carter via the trade route, the Titans may shift their focus to some of the lesser names available this offseason.

"If you look throughout the league, our experiences in addition, the glamour of free agency has really been tarnished,'' general manager Floyd Reese told reporters yesterday. ''If you look on a yearly basis at the number of top 10 or top 15 players that are signed and what it costs you and all the turmoil you go through to get it done and then look at what you are getting in return, it is very difficult."

Not only that, but the bigger names sometimes force younger, drafted players into the shadows for a longer period of time as a team attempts to justify a multi-million free-agent contract.

"Those type of players [mid-level FAs] allow you to draft and allow you to develop your younger players, and plug them in sooner than if you would have gone out and gotten a big ticket free agent," Titans head coach Jeff Fisher said.

LEAGUE-WIDE NOTES: The Packers could conceivably enter the 2002 season with two new starting wide receivers. Bill Schroeder will become an unrestricted free agent in less than two months, while Antonio Freeman could become a cap casualty. Freeman is scheduled to have a base salary of $4.3 million next year and will not return if he does not restructure his contract or take a pay cut. He will likely be amenable to a restructure, but could balk at taking any type of cut in pay. ... Whispers coming out of the Bay Area say that running back Garrison Hearst may not have a place on the 49ers roster next season. Hearst capped his stirring return from a devastating leg injury by rushing for 1,206 yards and being named the NFL's Comeback Player of the Year. Still, given the Niners' cap restraints -- they are roughly $ 6 million over next year's cap -- and the presence of rookie Kevan Barlow, the club may go in a younger, cheaper direction at the RB position. ... Jets defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell is drawing interest from three NFL teams regarding their vacant head-coaching position, although he likely has a serious shot with only one of those clubs. Cottrell, who just completed his first season in New York, will interview with the Chargers, Colts and Panthers at some point in the next week. San Diego appears to be his only real hope of landing an NFL job. Indianapolis has former Tampa Bay coach Tony Dungy at the top of their wish list, while the Carolina may be leaning toward New York Giants DC John Fox


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