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Thursday, February 21
Dolphins contact Saints about star halfback

By Len Pasquarelli

Ever so slightly, the level of discussion involving a trade for Ricky Williams escalated to a new level Thursday, when Miami Dolphins senior vice president Rick Spielman phoned New Orleans officials to gauge the asking price for the Saints' star tailback.

During the practices preceding the Senior Bowl all-star game last month, New Orleans general manager Randy Mueller spoke with Spielman, and told him to get back to the Saints if he wanted to pursue a potential deal. On Thursday, sources confirmed for ESPN.com that such a call was placed and the two sides revisited the issue of what it might take to consummate a trade.

The price tag, those sources said, remains a steep one and the Saints could be seeking a pair of first-round choices for Williams, who rushed for a career-best 1,245 yards in 2001. Sources said Miami has decided it would not include either of its starting cornerbacks, Patrick Surtain or Sam Madison, in any trade proposal.

Apparently the Saints continue to feel that 2001 first-round draft choice Deuce McAllister, the former University of Mississippi star who played sparingly as a rookie, can assume the starters' role in 2002 and that Williams is expendable for the right price.

It is not known when or if Spielman and Mueller will resume discussions. One likelihood is that the two will meet in Indianapolis next weekend, when the annual predraft scouting combine starts for about 300 college players. The combine in recent years has provided a forum for teams to get together about potential deals.

Cleveland Browns coach Butch Davis also has indicated a strong interest in Williams, for whom the Saints sacrificed eight choices in the 1999 and 2000 drafts.

Dolphins coach Dave Wannstedt still prefers to build his offense around a strong running game and new coordinator Norv Turner is philosophically in line with that. The problem is, Miami does not have a true feature-type back to power the running game. Incumbent tailback Lamar Smith slumped considerably in 2001 and is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent March 1.

Smith, who gained 1,139 yards in 2000, fell back to 968 yards last season. Worse, he averaged just 3.1 yards per rush. Backup Travis Minor is more suited to being a third-down specialist.

Miami was statistically No. 23 in rushing offense, a severe slide from its No. 14 status in 2000.

Despite playing three seasons, Williams will be just 25 years old in May, and most observers agree his best football is still ahead of him. In three years, he has rushed for 3,129 yards and 16 touchdowns on 814 carries and caught 132 passes for 1,092 yards and two scores.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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