Franchise-tag season opened Thursday and the Raiders must choose between locking in Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler or Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
If they don’t tag Lechler, and it appears they won’t, it could be very difficult to re-sign him – especially in light of a face-bruising assault near the end of last season.
Lechler was punched in the face by teammate Terdell Sands during an argument on the team flight home from Denver on Nov. 23, according to five sources – two former assistant coaches, a front-office member, a team administrator and an AFC head coach from outside the organization.
Sands was neither suspended nor fined by the team, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation. Consider this all the more reason for Lechler to leave Oakland if he becomes an unrestricted free agent, two of those sources said on the condition of anonymity.
As it was, Lechler has complained openly about the climate of the past six losing seasons and declined to say he wanted to come back. Taking a haymaker from a 350-pound defensive tackle certainly did not help.
A team official had no comment on the matter. One former assistant coach was particularly blunt about it.
“They should have cut Sands already for that,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “That’s just ridiculous.”
On Wednesday, Raiders owner Al Davis said one thing was certain: Keeping both Pro Bowlers will not be easy.
“We’ve got a tough problem with Nnamdi and Lechler, a tough problem,” Davis said. “They’re both unsigned and you only have one franchise designation. I’m not resigned to anything, but I say it’s tough.”
Davis said he will use the exclusive franchise tag on one of the two, which means that player cannot negotiate with other teams. Multiple team sources expect that tag to go to Asomugha for a second straight year, freeing Lechler to hit the free-agent market Feb. 27.
The only way they can ensure Lechler comes back is to use the franchise tag on him instead at a cost of $2.483 million for one season. Or, they could use the transition tag at $2.264 million. Again, that is not in the team’s plans.
Lechler made $1.5 million last season. He was voted to a second straight Pro Bowl, and the fourth of his nine-year career with the Raiders, while maintaining an NFL-record 46.8-yard career punting average.
Asomugha made $9.765 million last season, then went on to make his first Pro Bowl as a starter. If tagged again, he is guaranteed a 20 percent raise that will pay him $11.7 million next season.
Like Lechler, Asomugha expressed his frustrations with the ongoing losing, constant coaching changes and personnel decisions. The Raiders tried to sign him to a long-term contract last offseason, but Asomugha rebuffed their offers.
The Raiders have until Feb. 19 to use the franchise tag before they both become unrestricted free agents.
“There’s much work to do in regards to Nnam, Shane Lechler, other free agents on our football team,” Tom Cable said Wednesday when he was introduced as the Raiders’ new head coach. “Nnam’s important, Shane’s important, they’re all important. And that’ll be addressed rather quickly.”
Both players are in Hawaii this week for Sunday’s Pro Bowl and could not be reached for comment. Their agent, Tom Condon, did not immediately respond to an e-mail Thursday.