The free agency acquisition this week of offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, recently released by Minnesota, is a bit of a gamble by Baltimore, Ravens sources have acknowledged. But the move allows the Ravens to at least have a chance of getting their offensive line, whose performance in preseason has been shoddy to say the least, back in some semblance of order. Particularly if McKinnie, jettisoned by the Vikings because he was overweight and out of shape, can return to the level of play he demonstrated for much of the first nine seasons of his career.
Reportedly 40 pounds overweight when he reported to the Vikings in early August, the former first-round pick might need time to work back to playing shape, but it still expected to open the season as the team's starting left tackle. That will allow Michael Oher -- who took over on the left side last year after Jared Gaither was injured, and whose performance merited mixed reviews, at best -- to return to his more natural right tackle slot.
And that means that Marshal Yanda, when healthy, can slide back inside to right guard. One of the NFL's best inside blockers, Yanda was forced to play primarily at right tackle in 2010 because of the line shuffle precipitated by Gaither's back problems.
If McKinnie can hold up, and the Ravens can get center Matt Birk (offseason knee surgery) back on the field, the line should be whole and effective again. Left guard Ben Grubbs is a Pro Bowl-caliber inside blocker, Yanda is a mauler, and Oher is notably more comfortable as a strongside presence.
McKinnie is "the big key," according to one Baltimore official this week. The Ravens are gambling that McKinnie, who clearly let himself go during the lockout, isn't too big to be a factor at left tackle.
LB Jon Beason
Dan the man
Carolina middle linebacker Jon Beason, a three-time Pro Bowl player, might be the best overall defender in the NFC South. But the four-year veteran underwent surgery this week to address tendinitis in his left Achilles, and while it is possible Beason could end a stint on the non-football injury list and return to practice next week, his status for the regular-season opener is iffy.
Not having Beason available would be a big setback for the Panthers and first-year coach Ron Rivera -- who allowed the day after a drubbing at the hands of the Bengals that he's very concerned about his front seven -- but the club might have a more than adequate replacement in fourth-year veteran Dan Connor. Despite the myriad problems of the Carolina defense, which has played miserably in the preseason, especially versus the run, Connor has acquitted himself pretty well.
A third-round choice in 2008, Connor has been a popular name when other teams have phoned general manager Marty Hurney about potential trades. In fact, it is believed Chicago inquired about Connor's availability when the Bears traded tight end Greg Olsen to the Panthers.
"He's ready to be a player," cornerback Chris Gamble told The Sports Xchange.
Connor, 25, started the first eight games in 2010 when Beason shifted to weak-side linebacker to fill in for the injured Thomas Davis, and notched 47 tackles before a hip injury ended his season. The former Penn State standout is in the final year of his original rookie contract and, assuming he does not sign an extension, can be an unrestricted free agent next spring. Odds are Connor won't break the bank, but he'll have a surprising number of suitors.
Nick of time
A few weeks ago, The Sports Xchange featured a column identifying 10 unrestricted free agent veterans who remained available at the time, and who might interest a few clubs, even halfway through training camp. Since the column, seven of the 10 players either signed with new franchises or re-signed with their old ones and, while none of the deals were blockbusters, the players were at least able to find homes.
Arguably the most puzzling of the players from the group who remains in the market is former Eagles offensive lineman Nick Cole. A five-year veteran, Cole has started in 29 of his 77 appearances, and has logged starts at both guard spots and at center. At 335 pounds, the former New Mexico State standout, who has never had a surgery, might not be an optimum fit for the sleeker, quicker model that new line coach Howard Mudd prefers, but one would think he'd be in some team's camp.
Agent Frederick Lyles told The Sports Xchange his client has had offers from four clubs, three of them in the NFC, but that Cole isn't inclined to simply jump at some of the deals other players have signed. "We're hoping to maybe get something done next week," Lyles said, "but the situation has to be right."
As a Pittsburgh native, it's gratifying to see a man nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame who preceded the team's Super Bowl run. As a Hall of Fame selector, the nomination of defensive back Jack Butler as one of the two senior candidates this week means a lot of research, since he predates (1951-59) my too-long history of covering the game.
But kudos to Butler's family, and to former Steelers' personnel ace Art Rooney Jr., for their dogged persistence in championing the cause of a man who collected 52 interceptions, and ranked No. 2 in NFL history in that category at the time of his retirement, for his career. Butler's children -- particularly daughter Maureen and sons John and Mike -- weren't overbearing with the materials they annually submitted selectors in support of his candidacy. But the packages were always complete, well-prepared and reasoned. Same with the notes forwarded by Rooney, one of the premier talent evaluators perhaps in league history and the man responsible for selecting most of the players who spearheaded the franchise's success of the 1970s.
Not only was Butler, now 83, a superb player, but he also headed up the scouting evaluation combine, Blesto, for four decades, and brought some tremendous talent scouts to the league. Since he was nominated as a player, that latter element won't be permitted to be part of the review of Butler's contribution to the league -- much the same way Dick LeBeau's coaching legacy was not allowed two years ago -- but it will be difficult to ignore.
The nomination of Butler, whose career was cut short by a leg injury so severe some people wondered if he would ever walk again, is a testimony to his short but productive career. But it is also a nod to those who tirelessly and passionately trumpeted his achievements over the last several years.
-As noted in various reports this week, there has been some progress in contract extension talks between the Philadelphia Eagles and Joel Segal, the agent for quarterback Michael Vick. Both sides seem motivated to try to complete a deal by the first month of the season, and possibly sooner.
RB Tiki Barber
-Some people close to Barber have suggested that he might play in the UFL, for former coach Jim Fassel, to demonstrate to skeptics he's got something left in the tank. But to this point, Barber has dismissed such suggestions.
-In the wake of the season-ending knee injury to starter Terrell Thomas last week, the New York Giants signed veteran cornerback Brian Williams from the sparse free agent remnant. But the Giants, who will move former first-rounder Aaron Ross into the starting lineup, after he had been relegated to nickel duty most of 2010, are still actively shopping for at least one more edge defender. There isn't much available on the trade market, however, and team officials weren't particularly impressed with Lito Sheppard or Dre Bly, the other free agents auditioned this week.
-As if the Green Bay offense wasn't imposing enough, the Packers have been experimenting with the no-huddle attack in preseason. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is said to like the no-huddle a lot.
-The Packers, by the way, continue to add playmaking wide receivers to an already-stocked arsenal. Second-round choice Randall Cobb looks to be a guy who will command playing time. And former practice squad wideout Chastin West is making a play for a roster spot as well.
Arizona coaches and players have been impressed by the deep-ball abilities of quarterback Kevin Kolb. Not too much by Kolb's arm-strength, although there were some skeptics in that regard, but by his long-ball accuracy.
-Dallas may shop seven-year veteran defensive end Igor Olshansky, who appears to have lost his starting job to Kenyon Coleman, who seems to be stronger and more disciplined versus the run. Olshansky could be attractive to some 3-4 teams seeking to bolster the always difficult to fill end position.
-Cornerback Kelly Jennings, who started 14 games for Seattle in 2010, is trying to ward off a challenge from Brandon Browner for a starting job. Browner actually entered the league way back in 2005 with Denver, then played in the CFL, and has yet to play in an NFL regular-season game.
-Houston coaches contend that Mario Williams is starting to become a lot more accustomed to linebacker in the team's new 3-4 look, after having played end for his entire previous career in the league. The former top overall choice (2006) still gets lost as time on those few occasions when he is required to drop and cover, but is making strides in pressuring the pocket from a standup position.
-The Washington defense appears to be significantly improved in its second season under coordinator Jim Haslett. One reason, Redskins' officials privately note, is the play of former 4-3 defensive tackle Barry Cofield, who has made a solid conversion to 3-4 nose tackle. Albert Haynesworth never accepted the switch last year, but Cofield has been more than comfortable with it. And Stephen Bowen, acquired from Dallas as an unrestricted free agent, has also provided stout play versus the run.
-Speaking of transitions, it appears that Cleveland tackles Ahtyba Rubin and first-rounder Phil Taylor have done very well in converting to the Browns' new 4-3 front. Despite a lack of publicity, Rubin was one of the league's best young nose tackles in the 3-4. And most scouts felt first-rounder Taylor was a better 3-4 fit.
-After signing inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons to a six-year, $50 million contract extension this week, Pittsburgh has all but closed up shop in terms of new deals for 2011. That means safety Troy Polamalu, the NFL's reigning defensive player of the year, will go into the final season of his contract without an extension. The Steelers will use the franchise tag to retain Polamalu next spring and keep him off the unrestricted market.
-Free agent wide receiver Mark Clayton, who played very well for the Rams before injuring his knee after five contests in 2010, has performed moderately well in workouts for teams, but the belief is that he needs a little more time to rehab his injury. Several franchises are keeping Clayton near the top of their "emergency" lists, even more so than Terrell Owens (who acknowledged this week that he still needs a couple months to recover from knee surgery), in the event of an injury.
The last word: "Listen, I don't want to make it seem like I don't have open arms to anybody that's come into the organization. If they open the doors for Kerry Collins to come in, that's fine. I can't do anything about that anyway. But I'll be damned if we're going to open the door for somebody else (from the outside) and just drop our heads on who we already have. Colts are big on protecting their own, right? So I'm going to help protect our own." -- Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne, per the Indianapolis Star, on the Wednesday addition of Collins
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.