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PATS PASSING ON MARTIN, PILING UP PICKS

The New England Patriots have decided to let star running back Curtis Martin go to the New York Jets, coach Pete Carroll confirmed today at the owners meetings.

New England has decided not to match the offer sheet the restricted free agent signed last Friday. In exchange, the Patriots would get the Jets' first- and third-round choices in next month's draft.

The Patriots have until midnight Friday to match the Jets offer and had asked the NFL to void a provision in the offer sheet prohibiting a team from declaring Martin a franchise player.

But a ruling seemed unlikely before the Patriots would have to decide whether to match the offer, the Globe said.

The offer sheet gave Martin the option of one year for $4 million or six years for $36 million. If the Patriots matched the one-year offer without being able to declare him a franchise player, he would be an unprotected free agent after that year.

The Patriots already received four Jets picks -- a third- and fourth- rounder in 1997, a second in 1998 and a first in 1999 -- in exchange for letting New York sign Bill Parcells as its coach last year. With two more picks this year, New England would have two choices in each of the first three rounds.

The Boston Globe indicated Carroll was leaning toward keeping the six draft picks in the first three rounds rather than packaging some of them in a trade so it could draft a running back earlier.

"It's a deep draft. It's not like you'd be there on the third round wondering, 'Who do we take?' " the Globe quoted Carroll as saying. "If this were a quarterback, it would be different."

Scheduling problems ahead

Giving Cleveland an expansion team in 1999 has created scheduling problems for the NFL because no other city is ready to join the new Browns.

That will leave the league with 31 teams, an odd number, when the Browns start play, forcing at least one team to be off each week, including the first and last weeks of the season.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said that byes in the last four weeks would go to teams that finished last in their divisions the previous year. The probable contenders will have their off weeks in the first half of the season and teams such as the three in Florida and the Arizona Cardinals will be off in the first few weeks to avoid playing in 100-degree heat.

But that is not a perfect system in an era when teams' fortunes change quickly, meaning a contender could have a late week off.

League officials began preliminary discussions about adding a 32nd franchise. Representatives from Houston, Los Angeles and Toronto, the three cities vying for an NFL team, have schmoozed owners this week.

Toronto has become a late player. Paul Godfrey, the publisher of the Toronto Sun and the head of the city's NFL task force, traveled to Orlando to convince owners of Toronto's sincerity.

Gilbert agrees on contract

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert, who sat out the 1997 season in a dispute with the Washington Redskins, agreed on a contract with the Carolina Panthers that would make him the NFL's highest-paid defensive lineman ever.

The six-year, $40 million deal is contingent on the Panthers working out a compensation package with the Redskins for Gilbert.

"We're far from done," Capers said. "We've gotten past step A, but we've still got steps B and C to go."

Gilbert's new contract, worth an average of about $6.7 million per season, surpasses the five-year, $32.5 million deal given to defensive tackle John Randle by the Minnesota Vikings.

Around the league

The San Diego Chargers added depth at linebacker and on special teams by signing unrestricted free agent Gerald Dixon to a $1.7 million, two-year contract. Dixon said he'll receive base salaries of $500,000 in 1998 and $700,000 in 1999, with a signing bonus of $500,000.

CBS hired former San Francisco tight end Brent Jones as a studio analyst, outbidding Newt Gingrich and the Republican party for his services.

Jones, who retired at the end of last season, thought about running for political office in the San Francisco area.

Each member of the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos earned $103,000 for a full share for the playoffs, the league announced.

Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher has asked for a $2 million extension to his contract that runs through next season. According to sources, the sides aren't close to an agreement and that could lead Cowher to Cleveland.

A fire caused $200,000 to $250,000 damage to a house in Plano, Texas, owned by Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman today. The three-alarm blaze broke out in the garage area of Aikman's 12,000-square foot home at about 7:30 a.m.

No one was injured.

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