TSX: Around the League (Part I)

The Sports Xchange looks at the the NFL possibly doing away with kickoffs, Larry Fitzgerald's contract negotiations, as well as those of Michael Vick and Chris Johnson, and more.

How close is close?

Good question, when it comes to a contract extension for Larry Fitzgerald, a deal that could catapult the Arizona wide receiver into an even higher tax bracket.

The Cardinals' star, who contractually cannot be saddled with the franchise marker next spring, when he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, told SI.com that he and the club are "not too far away" from a fresh extension. No reason to doubt Fitzgerald's take or excellent SI.com NFL writer Jim Trotter, who first reported the news of the progress.

There is some question, though, about exactly how imminent an extension might be.

Agent Eugene Parker told The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that there are "definitely still some philosophical hurdles" that must be overcome for any new deal to be completed. Other than acknowledging that he and Cardinals' president Rod Graves have been "working hard" to cut a deal to extend Fitzgerald's current $10 million-a-year contract, Parker declined to get into specific details.

A source from the Fitzgerald camp, however, told The Sports Xchange: "I don't want to mislead you, because the numbers on this kind of contract can just fall together, and it's done. But there is a little ways to go yet. If Larry says it's close, or (intimates) that, maybe he knows something no one else does. So we'll see."

Both sides appear to be operating on the premise that something will get done before Sept. 4, when Fitzgerald has claimed negotiations will cease and he will turn his attention solely toward getting ready for the season, which opens Sept. 11.

The Cardinals almost certainly can't afford to lose Fitzgerald, who essentially has become the face of the franchise, and the wide receiver and his advisors seem to understand that.

MV and CJ

QB Michael Vick
Jared Wickerham/Getty

On another contract extension front, The Sports Xchange has confirmed that the Philadelphia Eagles' brass and agent Joel Segal have launched into substantive work on a long-term deal for quarterback Michael Vick, who is currently playing under the one-year tender for an "exclusive" franchise veteran, slightly in excess of $16 million.

At least, the two sides were talking before Vick threw three first-half interceptions against Pittsburgh on Thursday night. There appears to be nothing imminent at this time, but it will be interesting to see if the Vick negotiations in any way impact the contract talks for Tennessee holdout tailback Chris Johnson.

We're not crazy enough to pretend that any running back is going to ever approach a quarterback-sized deal. But Johnson has noted publicly that he wants to be paid a contract commensurate to the top playmakers in the NFL, regardless of position. The promise by Titans president Mike Reinfeldt, that the club is prepared to make Johnson the league's highest paid running back if he reports to camp, clearly hasn't been enough to move the three-year veteran tailback.

Notably, Segal represents Johnson as well, so he would enter any negotiations for the tailback with a first-hand knowledge of the parameters being discussed for Vick's extension. That's not to suggest that the Vick and Johnson talks will be tag-team deals.

At the same time, it would be naive, particularly given the involvement of Segal, to think the two contracts don't have some kind of effect on each other. By the way, as of Thursday evening, there was nothing new to report with Johnson's situation, and the running back had no plans to report to camp.

Terrelle turmoil

A lot of columnists considerably wiser and more eloquent than this one weighed in Thursday on the hard-to-believe decision of commissioner Roger Goodell to conditionally allow Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor inclusion in next Monday's supplemental draft. So there's not much left to say.

Goodell's attempt to assume the role of Solomon was incredibly flawed and the army of figurative ambulance-chasing advisors surrounding Pryor ought to be smiling at the confusion created by the case of a guy who, in the league's words, "undermine(d) the integrity" of the eligibility rules, but still gained entry. As noted by several columnists, the attempt by Goodell to walk the ethical tight rope, and somehow assuage the NCAA, cannot be ignored.

Neither should the continuing input of the agents with whom the league has been counseling on-and-off for several months now -- prominent player reps Jimmy Sexton, Rick Smith, and Fletcher Smith -- about how to deal with such indiscretions. While the trio did not have direct influence or input on the Pryor matter, the cumulative impact of their meeting with the NFL had some impact. It's a slippery slope, indeed, onto which Goodell has placed himself.

That said, those who contend Goodell lacks the right and background to impose sanctions that cross the NCAA-NFL line -- to punish a player even before he is employed by a league team -- need only look to the combine for precedent. For years, players who test positive at the combine, two months before they are drafted, have been placed into the NFL's substance abuse program.

No sense kicking

It made for interesting discussion this week when New England coach Bill Belichick publicly suggested that the NFL was attempting to do away with kickoffs altogether in an effort to make the game safer. But the contention was old news of a sort. The Sports Xchange first broached the notion of the league trying to totally eliminate kickoffs in February. And even though NFL vice president Ray Anderson told The Sports Xchange in March at the annual league meeting that a no-kickoff initiative was never discussed as part of a potential change, competition committee sources contend the matter was at least floated by the rules-makers.

Given the negative reviews of return aces like Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester after just one week of preseason games, imagine how they would have reacted had the league done away entirely with kickoffs.

Two other kickoff notes: Forget the hints by some returners that the competition committee will revert back to kicking off from the 30-yard line by the time the regular season starts. The committee needs more than four preseason games as a body of work to assess the ramifications of the rules change, which was initiated more for safety than competitive reasons.

Second, the league strongly reminded game officials this week, through director of officiating Carl Johnson, that clubs cannot voluntarily kick off from the old spot of the 30-yard line if they please. At the behest of special teams coach Dave Toub, who wanted to be able to better gauge the personnel on his coverage units, the Chicago Bears twice last week kickoff off from the 30-yard line, before Johnson contacted officials and apprised them to put a halt to the practice.

Right wing

When the Dallas Cowboys nabbed offensive tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall choice in this year's draft, there was some thought that the former Southern Cal star would end up on the left side, with Doug Free moving back to the right tackle spot he had played the first three seasons of his career. But it's not going to happen this year, and maybe not for a few seasons.

For openers, Dallas retained Free, an unrestricted free agent who started all 16 games at left tackle in 2010 after the departure of Flozell Adams, with a four-year, $32 million deal. Even though the right tackle spot has made big strides financially, that's not the kind of investment that a club typically makes at right tackle.

T Doug Free
Scott Boehm/Getty

Second, Free played well in his first season on the left side, despite a slight dropoff in the final month. And, finally, the Cowboys frankly like what they've seen of Smith so far at right tackle. The first offensive linemen chosen in the opening round by Dallas since tackle Howard Richards in 1981, Smith certainly has the feet and movement skills to play on the left side, but the Dallas coaches feel he's improved his strength and drive-blocking ability.

And there are these considerations as well: Dallas runs almost as many plays to the right side as to the left. Plus the staff wants to upgrade the pass protection at right tackle, where the departed Marc Colombo (signed with Miami) surrendered seven sacks and 40-plus "hurries" in 2010.

"Against the 4-3 teams in our division, we're going to have to block (Justin) Tuck (of the Giants) and probably (Jason) Babin (of Philadelphia), two guys who can rush the passer from the strong side," one Dallas coach told The Sports Xchange. "And Washington, even though they are a 3-4 front, will bring some heat off that side, too. We really want to firm up the 'pass pro' on that (right) side, and Smith should allow us to do that. We weren't sure going into last year that Free could hold up on the left side, but he did, and his comfort level has grown there. Maybe long-term Smith is the guy (at left tackle) but not now."

Stuck in the middle

There are three teams -- Cleveland, Denver, and New England -- transitioning from 3-4 defenses to 4-3 fronts in 2011, and that means a trio of players will be asked to convert from inside linebackers to middle linebackers. To many, it might seem the difference is pretty much negligible, but certainly not to the veterans involved in the makeover.

"You've got a lot more to cover, obviously, and a lot more responsibility, mentally and physically," allowed D'Qwell Jackson of the Browns, who has played in only six games the past two seasons because of pectoral injuries. "There might be a little more freedom to roam, but you also have to play with perhaps even more discipline."

Of the three -- Joe Mays of the Broncos and New England's Jerod Mayo are the others -- the Pats' star might be the one who stands the best chance of dramatically increasing his big-play allotment. It appears in the first two preseason contests that Mayo will be afforded more blitz opportunities than he ever was in his first three seasons in the league. As a 3-4 inside 'backer, the former first-rounder totaled only three sacks, and never had more than two sacks in a year. From the early looks of things, he'll have a chance in 2011 to have a real impact on the pass-rush game.

Rocky Mountain low

Injuries this week to Ty Warren (triceps) and Marcus Thomas (pectoral) of Denver, the first of which could be season-ending, certainly have put a bit of a crimp in the switch of the Broncos to the 4-3 front that first-year coach John Fox has historically employed. Then again, given Fox's long history with injuries at the tackle position, maybe they shouldn't have been all that surprising, huh?

Since he became a head coach, in Carolina in 2002, Fox has been forced to overcome an incredible number of debilitating injuries at the tackle position. Among the players who were hurt: Kris Jenkins, Sean Gilbert, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Brentson Buckner, Shane Burton, Kindal Morehead, Jordan Carstens, Hollis Thomas and Louis Leonard.

In Carolina, especially the last few years, it seemed like general manager Marty Hurney was always trying to locate and acquire a few warm bodies to fill out the tackle complement. Now, with the injuries to Warren and Thomas, the Broncos are trolling around already for tackles. Kevin Vickerson and Brodrick Bunkley are the new starters for now, but the Broncos claimed journeyman DeMario Pressley on waivers from Indianapolis this week, and are likely to continue shopping when rosters are reduced around the league.

Fox will eventually get things turned around in Denver. But it will help if Fox, who has long been noted for developing ends, has the interior help his defensive requires.

"Stinch" stalled

In the wake of the surprising release of starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb by New Orleans this week, no fewer than five teams contacted agent Pat Dye Jr. about his client, a guy who had started 80 straight games for the Saints and who was regarded by management as a real team leader. But it's pretty obvious to all that watched him struggle in last week's preseason opener that, despite the month-old reports that Stinchcomb was completely healthy after offseason surgery, the eight-year veteran and 2009 Pro Bowl blocker still needs about 2-4 more weeks of rehabilitation on his surgically repaired left quad before he is back up to game speed.

Just a week or so shy of his 32nd birthday, Stinchcomb isn't quite ready to retire yet, and he'll eventually listen to other suitors, but he isn't ready yet, either, to completely give up on a return to the Saints, who have to pay him a $2.25 million guaranteed base salary for 2011 anyway. It's a long shot, for sure, but New Orleans officials, who agonized over the decision to cut Stinchcomb, have told the former second-rounder they could call him if Zach Strief or Charles Brown flops in their quest to replace him.

The door may have opened a crack on Thursday, when the Saints placed tackle Alex Barron on IR because of a knee injury. But the Saints still have recently signed journeymen tackle Jordan Black and George Foster around, so the odds for a Stinchcomb return are pretty long. Plus, the reality is Stinchcomb just isn't ready to play yet.

The more likely scenario is that another team signs Stinchcomb, possibly after the first week of the regular season, as an insurance No. 3 "swing" tackle. Stinchcomb never was the prototype right tackle and, despite not lining up on the left side, might be able to play some snaps there in a pinch. But it doesn't sound like Stinchcomb is going to play anywhere, or for anybody, for at least a couple more weeks.

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.

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