The news that recent neck surgery will force San Francisco center Eric Heitmann to miss a second consecutive entire season prompted a few personnel guys in the league to cite Tennessee interior lineman Leroy Harris as a player who might be catapulted into the group of four-year veterans who could merit more attention if the threshold for free agency is dialed back to four seasons of accrued service, as it was prior to 2010.
Heitmann has been arguably San Francisco's best offensive lineman for the better part of the past decade. He started every game for the 49ers at center from 2007-2009 and started 14 games there in 2006. But he missed all of last season with leg and neck injuries, the latter of which now threatens his career. Heitmann had surgery last month to repair a ruptured disk in his neck and faces a rehabilitation period of at least five months.
Harris, a fourth-round draft choice in 2007, had only three starts before last season, then started 15 games in '10, but at left guard. Center is the more natural position for Harris, 27, and the fact that one-quarter of the franchises in the league might need a new snapper in 2011 figures to boost his profile.
The former North Carolina State standout is a stout interior blocker who can get out to the second level, and the fact he played guard in 2010 shouldn't detract much from his attractiveness as a center. There aren't a lot of great free agent options, especially if a team is looking for a younger guy, at center.
Carolina's Ryan Kalil has already signed the one-year franchise offer tendered him by the Panthers. Five-year veteran Chris Spencer hasn't lived up to his promise in Seattle, the Seahawks likely won't make a strong effort to re-sign him, and the plan seems to be to replace the former first-rounder with Max Unger.
David Baas, who replaced the injured Heitmann in San Francisco, played primarily guard during his first five NFL seasons but had his best season in the league last year at center. He should draw some interest on the open market, but he has said he wants to remain in San Francisco and the 49ers have expressed a desire to re-sign him.
Of the six remaining best unrestricted free agent prospects, four have nine or more seasons of experience. Three have 10 seasons or more.
Birthday in Silver and Black
The NFL might consider Al Davis unpatriotic at times, given his numerous legal assaults on the NFL, and his long tenure aptly has been marked a lot of the time by fireworks.
Still, it bears mention on this Fourth of July weekend that the Oakland owner will celebrate his 82nd birthday on Monday. Yeah, born on the Fourth of July is one of Davis' many curiosities.
The Raiders haven't been to the playoffs since 2002, when they won the AFC West, and have finished in last place in the division four times in the eight years since, and posted losing records in seven of those seasons. But for all his critics, Davis has been an innovator in the league and, for the media at least, has made the journey a lot more interesting.
Given the lack of success by the Raiders in recent seasons (although the franchise seemed to get things righted a bit in 2010), it might be hard to believe for some that Davis has been a visionary. But for much of his career, he was. And those who know him well insist he still has an excellent knowledge of the game.
In the last couple weeks, The Tip Sheet has attempted to identify a few four-year veterans who could merit more attention than perhaps the public perceives if the threshold for unrestricted free agency is dialed back to four seasons of accrued service, as it was prior to 2010.
The Foxsports.com report on Thursday that an AFC team is "very aggressively" sending playbooks to its players is the latest suggestion that clubs are adopting some unconventional methods to communicate with the rank-and-file in violation of the lockout guidelines.
Here's another possibility: An AFC assistant told The Sports Xchange this week that he was party to a conversation just after the draft in which it was suggested that the team distribute playbooks, but with the postdate on the office mail machine manipulated to reflect a date during which the lockout was lifted for four days in late April, when it was legal, albeit temporarily, to talk to players.
Did his team actually carry through with the gambit? "I don't know and I don't want to know," the coach said. "But I wasn't born yesterday, either. I know there's some stuff going on around the league, because (coaching) friends tell me about it."
NFL officials have steadfastly contended that they have investigated such claims and unearthed no shenanigans that would breach lockout rules.
Around the league
--- Good to see that former Bengals' star quarterback Ken Anderson confirmed this week that he is mentoring Terrelle Pryor and his preparation for the supposed supplemental draft this summer. Last Friday, The Sports Xchange reported that Anderson was one of the candidates for the job. A day later, The Sports Xchange noted that Anderson was supervising Pryor's workouts.
--- Speaking of the Pryor practices, a person who has seen at least two of them says the most impressive wide receiver of the bunch assembled by agent/mouthpiece Drew Rosenhaus has actually been free agent Donte Stallworth. The itinerant Stallworth has played for five teams his last five seasons in the league – he missed the 2009 campaign because of legal problems – and caught only two passes in Baltimore last year. But word is that, at age 30, the eight-year veteran hasn't lost any speed, is in good shape, and can force secondaries to respect his deep burst. Could the 49ers be interested?
--- On the subject of guys who haven't lost any speed, Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told The Sports Xchange that Bills' seven-year veteran Lee Evans "still runs as good as ever." Evans, 30, posted caerer lows in receptions (37) and receiving yards (578) in 2010, and scored only four touchdowns. The occasionally offensively-challenged Bills have a blossoming, young wideout corps led by Steve Johnson (82 catches and only 25 years old), but Fitzpatrick seems confident Evans will have a rebound season in the second year under coach Chan Gailey.
--- With Peyton Manning wearing the exclusive franchise tag in Indianapolis, a rumor going around is that his agent, the powerful Tom Condon of CAA, is pushing for a CBA agreement that would do away with all franchise designations, and, thus, make his client an unrestricted free agent. Condon represents a ton of high-profile players/quarterbacks, with Drew Brees among them, and such a provision would obviously benefit them. It's worth noting, though, that, even with the CAA imprimatur, Condon doesn't have quite as much influence over CBA negotiations as he once did. Condon was represented the late Gene Upshaw, the former NFLPA executive director.
--- The Cincinnati home of Carson Palmer sold this week, the latest suggestion that the eight-year veteran has no intention of returning to the Bengals in 2011 and will retire instead, but team officials still contend they will not cave and trade the veteran quarterback.
--- Many of the draft choices at the NFLPA Rookie Seminar this week told players association officials they are running short of money and that their agents, some of them also cash-flow impacted, are reluctant to grant them further advances. As for the NFLPA, well, we're still waiting for them to respond to questions about why they told The Sports Xchange they expected 177 players to turn out for the seminar, and the actual number was closer to 150.
--- Make Atlanta offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, one of the best in the business and a man who has achieved great results in his three seasons with the Falcons, one of the guys most on the spot in 2011. The Falcons are expected to build on a '10 season in which they had the NFC's best record. But the club figures to lose three of its five line starters – guards Justin Blalock and Harvey Dahl, the former 49er, and right tackle Tyson Clabo – in free agency. The Falcons have three young players they feel are prepared to move into the starting lineup. But Garrett Reynolds, Mike Johnson, and Joe Hawley have a total of zero regular-season starts among them.
The last word
"I honestly think social media has made people cowards. Where I'm from, if you had a problem with somebody, you said it to their face, and that was it. I think now, people are hiding behind computers and smart-phones to get out something (they've) got on their chest." -- New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, on the recent Twitter battle between Philadelphia tailback LeSean McCoy and teammate and defensive end Osi Umenyiora