TSX: Around the League (Part I)

The Sports Xchange discusses the Eagles' new defensive coordinator, Reggie Bush's inevitable departure from New Orleans, James Harrison's future with the Steelers and more.

Bush league

A few weeks ago, Yahoo! Sports reported that New Orleans tailback Reggie Bush has been given permission by Saints officials to seek a deal that will land him with another team. No one questioned the validity of the report - and the lockout essentially precluded New Orleans officials from discussing it - but it is essentially accurate.

One reason: The Sports Xchange has confirmed that the Bush camp pushed for the right to explore outside options and that, regardless of the views expressed by the tailback in an interview this week, in which he insisted his preference is to return to New Orleans, he has no intention of accepting a big hit to his contract.

"(Bush) has basically forced the issue," a league source told The Sports Xchange.

The deal, entering its final season, is scheduled to pay Bush $11.8 million. His original contract, negotiated in 2006, has been reconfigured once, and neither side seems keen on restructuring again.

Even with the moratorium on discussing players during the lockout, the suspicion is that Bush and his advisors have nonetheless identified a subset of potential suitors, have some feel for the price they can elicit and have determined there will be some attractive free agency opportunities if the tailback is released by the Saints.

New Orleans coach Sean Payton genuinely likes Bush, and his committee approach at tailback has nicely defined his role, but the five-year veteran might be a luxury at this point. For the Saints, Bush is a potentially explosive receiver in space, a terrific player in a screen-heavy offense and a superb punt return man. But he wants a bigger profile and, with first-round draft choice Mark Ingram further bolstering an already crowded tailback spot in New Orleans, it will be hard to justify paying nearly $12 million to a guy who is basically a role player.

RB Reggie Bush
Jamie Squire/Getty

The bet remains here that, between signing bonus and 2011 salary, Bush will be "made whole" on the $11.8 million, or close to it, but the odds are it won't be in New Orleans.

Castillo switching sides

There are at least three NFL franchises enacting dramatic schematic changes on defense in 2011, including the much-ballyhooed attempt by Houston head coach Gary Kubiak to save his job by bringing in Wade Phillips to convert the Texans to a 3-4 front, a makeover that will require considerable personnel maneuvering.

Yet it is a guy who is hardly new to a team, but will switch the side of the ball on which he has worked his entire NFL career, who might actually face the biggest challenge confronting any of the assistant coaches in the league this year.

Not since he tutored linemen and linebackers at Kingsville (Tex.) High School from 1986 to 1989 has Juan Castillo worked on the defensive side. Still, it is Castillo, the Philadelphia offensive line coach the past 13 seasons and an offensive assistant in all 16 previous years with the club, who has been tabbed by head coach Andy Reid and charged with the daunting responsibility of upgrading the Eagles' defense for 2011. Castillo, 51, has long been one of the league's best offensive line coaches, a guy who did his job quietly and without the requisite fanfare, but who was often identified by this columnist as an excellent, if underrated, O-line mentor.

But when Castillo was promoted to defensive coordinator by Reid in early February - after the club discussed the opening with a number of coaches more experienced at directing an NFL defense - the move was regarded by many as a bit of a shock. To some, perhaps, even a reach. And the pressure to upgrade a unit that, even with its perceived problems had finished 12th in the NFL in both its seasons under deposed coordinator Sean McDermott (2009-10), began almost immediately.

Reid has cited Castillo's "toughness, desire and work ethic," in explaining the move. The Eagles' head coach, the longest-tenured sideline boss in the league in terms of continuous service with the same franchise, has noted that Philadelphia defensive bosses in the past, including the late and legendary Jim Johnson, often huddled with Castillo about the soundness of some of their blitz packages. Castillo has described himself as "a defensive guy who's been on the offensive side."

Said Castillo after being named to the job: "I would say (to Reid), ‘C'mon, coach, when are you going to move me over (to defense)?'"

Now the move, as stunning as it was to some national observers and to the Eagles' always throaty, fan-base, has come. And with it arrives the pressure inherent to the job of improving a defense that, while still ranking statistically in the top half of the NFL, wasn't quite good enough to carry the club beyond the first round of the playoffs. And which is expected, especially by the vocals masses at Lincoln Financial Field, to complement a high-octane offense that is anticipated to be one of the most explosive in the league.

In admittedly casual conversations with coaches, general managers and scouts over the past few weeks, The Sports Xchange asked the NFL executives to identify a few assistants who might have increased focus on them once the long lockout ends and camps begin, because of the circumstances they would face. Many of them cited first-year offensive coordinators for clubs that have rookie quarterbacks expected to immediately start in 2011 - Jay Gruden (Cincinnati), Bill Musgrave (Minnesota) and Chris Palmer (Tennessee).

A few noted that first-year Carolina offensive chief Rob Chudzinski inherits the task of getting overall top pick Cam Newton ready to play as quickly as possible. How about Washington holdover coordinator Kyle Shanahan, whose head coach/father has all but anointed little-used Jon Beck, with four career starts and zero appearances since 2007, as the leader of the Redskins' quarterback depth chart?

Atlanta veteran offensive line coach Paul Boudreau, who could lose three of his five starters in free agency, was frequently named.

Others named defensive coordinators such as Phillips, Dick Jauron (Cleveland) and Dennis Allen (Denver), all of whom will switch the "base" schemes of their new teams. The name of Miami running backs coach Jeff Nixon, who figures to lose his top two tailbacks, Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, in free agency, was raised. A pair of former Pittsburgh stars who will be first-time secondary coaches for their respective teams, Hall-of-Famer Rod Woodson (Oakland) and standout Carnell Lake (Steelers), were mentioned.

Tennessee first-year defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who replaces long-time Titans aide Jim Washburn (who, ironically, moved to the Eagles) in that capacity, was named. Ditto Cleveland D-line coach Dwaine Board, who will attempt to get 4-3 production from a Browns unit that features plenty of 3-4 leftovers. So was Denver defensive line coach Wayne Nunnely, who takes over a contingent shy on inside players. Special teams coaches who might be without both of their incumbent kickers because of pending free agency were included as well.

In all, nearly four dozen assistants were named by top NFL executives.

But the one name that stuck out because of the unusual circumstances - a new gig, on the opposite side of the ball, after having carved out an excellent reputation in his previous role with the same franchise - was that of Castillo.

"Look, because of the lockout, with no (minicamps or OTAs), every coach is going to be under pressure," said one NFC head coach. "But that Philly situation ... yeah, that is going to get a lot of attention. It's unusual, to say the least."

The poll was hardly scientific, and exact tabulations weren't compiled, but there was general agreement that the 16-year assistant is perhaps in a unique situation. Rarely has an incumbent NFL assistant been asked to switch sides of the ball. It's difficult to remember a guy with an offensive pedigree being promoted to such a critical spot, or someone on defense moving to a high-profile offensive post. No doubt, Castillo has been a top-shelf offensive line coach, with five blockers under his stewardship having been selected for at least one Pro Bowl appearance.

Castillo certainly has some big clodhoppers to fill. In Johnson's 10 years as Eagles defensive coordinator, the team finished statistically among the top 10 six times. Three times, Philadelphia was in the top seven. Only twice was the unit lower than No. 20. As noted above, even in McDermott's two seasons as Johnson's successor, the Eagles were 12th each year.

Still, given the comfort level of the players with their new coordinator, his familiarity with the locker room and the confidence of and team officials Reid in him, it's hard to bet against Castillo. But there is considerable work to be accomplished - the Eagles allowed 31 touchdown passes in 2010, their 39 sacks belied the lack of a consistent-pressure pass rush, there appear to be questions at linebacker and the unit could feature several new starters - for the unusual move by Reid to be seen as a roll of the dice that came up a winner.

Harrison's time numbered

LB James Harrison
Diamond Images/Getty

His rant earlier this week aside, Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison can probably start the countdown to the end of his career with the Steelers, especially given the history of the team and its football people.

Forget the fact that the league's defensive player of the year in 2008 became the latest to provide a black eye for the Black and Gold. The Steelers will take the accompanying public relations hit and, while hardly satisfied with Harrison's attempt to apology and explanation, move on.

In time, probably another season or so, they'll move on without Harrison. A passionate defender whose effort and play-making skills are much admired by coordinator Dick LeBeau, the late-blooming Harrison is 33, and will be 34 before the start of the 2012 campaign.

Harrison has demonstrated none of the performance drop-off typical of players at that age, and certainly no loss of energy, but the Steelers have a way of phasing out older outside linebackers, spinning the revolving door, and moving in new guys who previously apprenticed in their 3-4 system. Tagged with the franchise marker earlier this spring, LaMarr Woodley is 5 1/2 years younger than Harrison, and the Steelers will make it a post-lockout priority to hammer out a long-term agreement that extends the one-year tender he signed earlier this spring.

If they succeed, the deal is sure to rival the six-year, $51.75 million contract Harrison signed in 2009. While the success of the Pittsburgh defense depends in part on having two terrific outside ‘backers, the club might not want to invest such a big part of its salary cap on the position. Harrison's base salary for this season is just $3.67 million. Even in 2012, it's a palatable $5.315 million. But there is nearly $19 million left in base salaries for the three-year period 2012-2014, and the bet here is that Harrison won't be around to cash much of it.

The Pittsburgh system is built on bringing in former college defensive ends, taking a season or two to convert them to 3-4 linebackers and then moving them up the playing-time chain. The team invested a second-round pick in 2010 on Jason Worilds and a fifth-rounder this year on Chris Carter, and the club expects both to be players in the future.

Perhaps eventual contenders, in fact, for Harrison's spot.

Bridge men

One of the priorities for some teams when the lockout ends - especially for those clubs who drafted quarterbacks expected to start early in their careers (Newton of Carolina, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder of Minnesota, Tennessee's Jake Locker, and perhaps Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco) - is finding a veteran "bridg"? at the position. An inexperienced, non-threatening passer who could perhaps log a few starts while the rookie prepares to step into the lineup, or who might provide a temporary alternative/willing mentor if the youngster falters.

One guy who fits that description, and who might have generate a nice group of suitors in free agency, particularly with the Bengals, is five-year veteran Bruce Gradkowski, who played in Oakland the past two seasons and who is a pending unrestricted free agent. There are certainly more high profile passers who figure to be available, especially via trade, but Gradkowski is a steady player with an in-check ego, and will get surprisingly good play.

Gradkowski, 28, has a resume that includes 20 regular-season starts. Not a huge body of work, granted, but 11 of those starts came under Gruden's nose. Gradkowski might not know all the newer wrinkles of Gruden's playbook, but he has a basic familiarity with the design and desires of the team's first-year coordinator, having spent 2006-2007 in Tampa, when Gruden was an offensive assistant there.

There figure to be some other teams with an interest in the unheralded Gradkowski, think Tennessee, for instance, but his is a name that has been mentioned internally by Cincy officials. Guys of his ilk - like Trent Edwards, Kyle Boller and Matt Moore, among others - will merit a lot more attention in free agency than they might in most seasons. By the way, the Bengals' brass is still set against putting their reluctant starter, Carson Palmer, on the trade heap.

At least for now.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

Bear Report Top Stories