It has become a rumor that simply will not die, and is quickly becoming THE story of the offseason in Cleveland involving the Browns.
"It", of course, is Saints running back Ricky Williams, who has been not-so-secretly planted atop New Orleans' ever-expanding trading block.
Early attention was focused on Williams possibly being dealt to Miami, but now that attention has seemed to shift to a more northerly clime.
One AFC front office executive recently told Bernie's Insiders that it would be a "major, major surprise... even shocking" if Williams is not traded to Cleveland at some point before the April 20th draft. Another source tells The Insiders that Williams "will definitely be traded" before the draft, although there was some waffling when asked if Williams' destination would be Cleveland.
How does that old saying go, where there's smoke there's fire?
In this case, people around the league feel that there's a five-alarm fire raging within the offices of Berea, and the Browns are walking toward the blaze with gas can firmly in hand.
RICKY, PART II: In a related note, let's stop right now one bit of utter nonsense coming out of Rickywatch 2002: the Saints are not -- with "not" being in capital letters, bolded and carrying a font size of 36 -- seeking two first-round picks in exchange for Williams.
What New Orleans is looking for, at least for now, are a first- and third-round picks, with the organization being amenable to one of the picks being pushed back until the 2003 draft. However, while most observers around the league feel such a deal is not impossible, the Saints have very little leverage and will be hard-pressed to get a first-rounder included in any package.
To further drive home that point, the AFC exec brought up the names Jerome Bettis and Marshall Faulk.
The Steelers acquired Bettis in April of 1996 from the Rams in exchange for a second-round pick in the '96 draft and a fourth-round selection in '97. Bettis was coming off a year in which nagging injuries slowed him for a good portion of the season and led to the worst season of his career -- 637 yards rushing on only 183 carries.
However, like Williams, Bettis had 1,000-yard seasons in two of his first three years in the league before being dealt.
The Colts traded Faulk in April of 1999, with Indianapolis receiving second- and fifth-round picks in the '99 draft from St. Louis.
Faulk's trade value was seemingly never higher than after a 1998 season that saw him achieve the first of what is a current streak of four consecutive years with over 2,000 yards rushing and receiving.
Also like Williams, Faulk was perceived as being somewhat of a moody head case and viewed as a potential cancer in the Colts' locker room.
In other words, the exec said, if teams couldn't pry a first-round pick out of clubs in exchange for Bettis and Faulk, how do the Saints feel they are going to just that?
TRE' UPDATE: A couple of weeks ago, this space reported that guard Tre' Johnson, coming off yet another injury, was looking for a multi-year deal that would include some type of up-front money.
However, as of Thursday, Johnson's agent, Greg Ray, tells The Insiders that the Browns have yet to back off their contract stance regarding his client. Cleveland would like to re-sign Johnson, but only to a deal that would pay him the veteran minimum and include incentives based on playing time.
Johnson, on the other hand, would like a "two- to four-year deal" with a modest signing bonus.
The two sides continue to engage in ongoing discussions, with Ray speaking with Browns salary cap coordinator Trip MacCracken as recently as late last week. During that conversation, McCracken reiterated the Browns' desire for Johnson to return, but only if the club were protected in case of another injury to the star-crossed offensive lineman.
Speaking of Johnson and his injury, Ray said that Johnson is working out and rehabbing diligently, spending four days in Cleveland and three days in Washington D.C. as he attempts to return from a torn quadriceps tendon in his right leg.
The agent emphatically stated that Johnson will be ready not only for the start of training camp, but for minicamps as well. Ray added that he has a letter from Browns team physician Dr. John Bergfeld which states Johnson will be 100% healthy on April 1.
BROWNS NOTES: With all of the top-tier free agent offensive tackles off the open market due to either the franchise designation or having reached a contract agreement, a source tells The Insiders to not be surprised if you see the names "Victor Riley" and "Browns" in the same sentence once free agency commences on March 1. The 6-5, 328-pound Riley, who had started 47 straight games at right tackle entering last season, is a tremendously powerful blocker who excels in the running game. About to enter his fifth season in the NFL after being taken with the 27th pick of the 1998 draft, Riley is coming off a broken leg that forced him to miss nine games last season. ... There seems to be some question as to what, if any, role center Dave Wohlabaugh will play on the 2002 edition of the Browns. According to one source close to the club, there is a move underfoot in Berea in which Wohlabaugh would relinquish his starting job to starter Shaun O'Hara and be released. However, one member of the Browns' offense, who refused to allow his name to be used in any way, shape or form, stated that while the coaching staff is very high on O'Hara, they feel that he is a year away from being able to take over full-time at the center position. Whatever the case may be, it seems that the classy Wohlabaugh's days in Cleveland could be winding down.