The opening of the NFL’s free agent marketplace is less than five weeks away and three key Redskins remain unsigned.

While London Fletcher will be 37 in May, the three-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker and defensive captain has the advantage in the negotiations because the Redskins need him more than he needs them. Many teams that are closer to winning a Super Bowl might see Fletcher as one of the final pieces of the puzzle.

The opposite might well be true of LaRon Landry, Washington’s most feared hitter and probably its best athlete when healthy. But that’s the rub for the 27-year-old strong safety who missed 15 of the past 23 games with a chronically ailing left Achilles on which he has declined to have surgery. Landry’s value around the league has surely plummeted because he hasn’t been on the field much lately and because there’s no sure timetable for his healthy return as there would be after a torn ACL.

And then there’s Fred Davis. Washington’s top offensive performer through 12 games with 59 catches, 796 yards and three touchdowns, the 26-year-old tight end was suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for the final four games after a trio of failed drug tests.

Davis, who might well have been headed to his first Pro Bowl if he hadn’t screwed up, was likely looking at a lucrative multi-year deal from the Redskins or one of their rivals after a second fine season in the past three.

But now, he’s one failed drug test from a year-long NFL suspension, making signing him a much bigger gamble.

So what do the Redskins do about Davis?

On the day after the season, coach Mike Shanahan implied that he’s not that worried about Davis messing up again.

“I do feel very good about Fred as a person,” said Shanahan, whose second season in Washington ended with a 5-11 record despite Davis’ performance. “I liked the way he worked. I like his development … since I’ve been here. Hopefully the mistake won’t happen again.”

That’s tempting to believe although Davis was also disciplined for minor incidents at Southern Cal and during his rookie minicamp. After all, if Davis had maintained his production over the final four games, he would have finished with a franchise-tight end record of 1,063 yards which would have ranked third in the league behind only the totals of New England’s Rob Gronkowski and New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham. And Davis’ projected 79 catches would have tied for fifth among NFL tight ends behind only the totals of Gronkowski, Graham, Detroit’s Brandon Pettigrew and Atlanta Hall of Fame lock Tony Gonzalez.

The Redskins could keep their fingers crossed that two-time Pro Bowl tight end Chris Cooley – who turns 30 in July — can stay healthy after missing most of 2009 and 2011 with injuries or try to replace Davis with a draft pick or a free agent such as Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley.

However, I think that it makes sense for the Redskins to place the franchise tag on Davis at an estimated $5.4 million (the actual figure won’t be known until early March). That gives them a year to see if he stays clean, plays just as well or better in 2012, and what happens with Cooley.

If all goes well and Davis makes his predecessor as Washington’s No. 1 tight end an afterthought, and puts his off-the-field troubles definitely in the rear view mirror, then he’ll be due the big-time, long-term contract he wants now before hitting the market next March.

David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.


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