It's generally not a position that gets a lot of attention, or play, at free agent time. But the 3-4 nose tackle spot could generate some pretty good action this spring.
At least four players who were starting 3-4 nose tackles in 2011 - Paul Soliai (Miami), Sione Pouha (New York Jets), Antonio Garay (San Diego), and Kelly Gregg (Kansas City) - are pending unrestricted free agents. There is also a strong possibility that salary cap and injury considerations could prompt Pittsburgh to release five-time Pro Bowl performer Casey Hampton.
The Jets will make a big push before the start of free agency on March 13 to get an extension completed with Pouha, a player coach Rex Ryan feels is the unheralded key to his defense, and who has been characterized as a priority. If there is no deal, though, look for Pouha to be very attractive in the market. Ditto Soliai, the Dolphins' designated franchise player a year ago, but perhaps a fish out of water (pun intended) with the Dolphins moving to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Kevin Coyle in 2012.
"With the 3-4, it all starts with the nose (tackle)," acknowledged Baltimore general manager Ozzie Newsome.
And even though at least two teams are switching from the 3-4 to a 4-3 alignment for 2012, there is a definite need for nose tackles. In addition to the teams cited, the Washington Redskins, while pleased with the work of former 4-3 tackle Barry Cofield in transitioning to nose tackle in '11, could seek a more traditional inside defender for their defense. And there could be the usual domino effect created by free agency moves.
Garay isn't a typical nose tackle type and Gregg is 35 and was only modestly effective in 2011. So their markets could be more diminished. If he is released, Hampton, despite being 34, might be a one-year stop-gap for someone, but only if he is sufficiently recovered from a late-season anterior cruciate injury and has his weight under control.
Soliai and Pouha, though, will have plenty of suitors if they hit the open market.
One guy who didn't play nose tackle in 2011, but who might consider moving back to the position if the price is right, is Aubrayo Franklin. The nine-year veteran signed just a one-year, $4 million contract with New Orleans in '11, playing tackle in the 4-3 after the 3-4 market never really developed for him. Two personnel directors at the Super Bowl last week mentioned Franklin as a possible "sleeper" at the position.
Franklin, 31, started 60 games at nose tackle over four seasons in San Francisco (2007-2010), and was a force at the position before signing with the Saints for 2011. His 17 tackles for the Saints represented his lowest yearly total since he became a starter in the league. There are pro scouts who contend that Franklin was more effective in a 3-4, and who haven't forgotten about him as a possible nose tackle for 2012.
FREENEY PART OF COLTS' FACELIFT?
One of the surprises of the week following Super Bowl XLVI has been how many team personnel executives/coaches have phoned to inquire about what new Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay had to say in interviews that we attended about the futures of defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Indianapolis.
Franchises certainly are conducting their pre-free agency due diligence about the pair of elite pass rushers. Mathis is a pending free agent, and the Colts could be hard-pressed to retain Freeney, who is due a $14.035 million base salary and has a $19 million-plus salary cap charge, in the franchise facelift to which Irsay and Grigson appear committed.
If the Colts switch to a 3-4 front - a transition that could be dicey given their defensive personnel, but one with which new coach Chuck Pagano is most familiar - Mathis and Freeney are poor fits. Neither has the bulk to play 3-4 end, and neither has played much in space, so the conversion to 3-4 linebacker would be tough.
Indianapolis could reduce Freeney's cap hit with an extension, but he's going to be 32 later this month, and how much can a club commit to a player of that vintage, and one who might not fit very snugly with future plans?
Of the team's pending free agents, Irsay specifically cited Mathis and wide receiver Pierre Garcon as priorities, although he later mentioned Reggie Wayne, but Mathis is going to have options if he gets close to free agency.
There are at least two teams, Miami and Buffalo, switching to the 4-3 in 2012, and both will need ends. Many pro scouts in the league feel that Mathis, who will be 31 in about 2 1/2 weeks, had a stronger performance than did Freeney in 2011. Mathis had 9.5 sacks, his eighth season in a row with at least seven.
Beyond a casual introductory and congratulatory phone call, there has been no contact yet between Grigson and Mathis' agent, Hadley Engelhard. Then again, Grigson has had a lot on his plate, with hiring a head coach and a staff. Freeney notched 8.5 sacks - his fewest since 2007, when he played in only nine games because of a knee injury - but the sentiment seems to be that he lost some intensity as the Colts' long season dragged on.
TEXANS, WILLIAMS AT CROSSROADS
Club officials suggest they have vacillated about the future of the former first overall selection (2006), and how to handle the situation. The best thing, of course, would be a contract extension but, at least so far, there doesn't seem to be much progress in that regard.
Absent an extension, there are all kinds of complications. Houston would have until March 5 to designate Williams as a franchise player, but the tag would probably cost the Texans a one-year tender of more than $20 million, since Williams' salary is higher than the franchise number and would command a 20 percent bump over its 2011 level.
A pure 4-3 defensive end, Williams seemed to handle to conversion to standup 3-4 rush linebacker pretty well under coordinator Wade Phillips, posting 5.5 sacks before a torn pectoral muscle ended his season after only five games. Before the injury, Williams, who had 43.5 sacks the previous four seasons in a 4-3, was on his way to another double-digit sack campaign.
But there is some suspicion that Williams prefers to play end in a 4-3. And, led by Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed, the Texans generated a solid outside pass rush even after Williams was injured. The bet in NFL circles still is that the Texans, who made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in '11 and finally look to have a defense that complements their explosive offense, will strike a long-term extension with Super Mario.
If they don't, though, they will face a knotty decision about what to do with a still-young defender (27) some consider the best player in unrestricted free agency.
SANCHEZ, JETS GAMBLE ON HOLMES
When the New York Jets retained problematic wide receiver Santonio Holmes this week, they essentially guaranteed his base salaries for 2012 and 2013, a total of $15.25 million. That's a lot of dough for a guy who has just 103 receptions in his two years with the club; a big swallow for a player with just one season each with at least 55 catches and 1,000 yards. Yeah, even if he is a former Super Bowl most valuable player.
But sources tell The Sports Xchange that, despite their season finale tiff -- when Holmes griped in the huddle at Mark Sanchez and, according to one player, "quit" on the team - the embattled quarterback wanted the wide receiver to come back. Now don't jump to any conclusions here; it would be overstatement to suggest that Sanchez went to bat for Holmes. But the understanding is that he apprised management that he would not be opposed to his return.
For all the problems he can engender, Holmes is a talent, and Sanchez knows it, and he also understands the Jets don't have much else at the position. Plaxico Burress seems destined to depart in free agency. Second-year veteran Jerome Kerley is an emerging player, but had just 29 catches in '11. Holmes was the only wide receiver on the roster with 50-plus catches.
New York wants to get back to the "ground and pound" mindset espoused by Ryan, and new coordinator Tony Sparano might be the guy to do it, but you still have to throw the ball once in a while. And it seems that Sanchez has realized that, distractions aside, Holmes is his best option for now.
CAMPBELL QUIETLY WILL HAVE SUITORS
He's kind of flying below the unrestricted free agent radar right now, but keep an eye on Jason Campbell as a guy who might be a alternative for quarterback-needy franchises that strike out on some bigger names such as Kyle Orton or Matt Flynn in the marketplace. A couple personnel men, one at the Super Bowl last week and the other by phone, both independently mentioned Campbell's name as a possible "fallback" quarterback they are studying.
Said one: "(Drew) Brees is going to re-sign. So is (Alex) Smith. There's only one Peyton (Manning) to go around, and just one Flynn out there. That doesn't leave a lot. Maybe I'm crazy, but I think (Campbell) will get some interest. Maybe not a ton, but he'll have some people calling."
Granted, there are perhaps only four or five franchises looking to make a switch at starting quarterback. But for a club that perhaps requires a "bridge" starter to its quarterback of the future, Campbell might be an option.
The seven-year veteran has 70 starts on his resume, and is only 30 years old, still young by quarterback standards in the league. He is coming off a broken collarbone that limited him to six starts in 2011 with Oakland, and precipitated the Raiders' trade for Carson Palmer, but has been deemed healthy and ready to go.
Campbell might take a one- or two-year deal from someone, at a fairly palatable price, for a chance to play. The new Oakland football regime of general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen has declared Palmer the unchallenged starter for '12, so there is virtually no way Campbell is going to stick around.
SAINTS UNDER FREE AGENT GUN
With next year's Super Bowl in New Orleans, a lot of people are already projecting the Saints as a team of destiny, and possibly to become the first NFL franchise ever to play a super Bowl in its home stadium.
But to have a chance to make history, the Saints may have to make some hay on the free agent front, and that probably starts with getting an extension completed for quarterback Drew Brees before the team would have to use a franchise tag on him March 5. A Brees deal would then enable the Saints to use the franchise marker on guard Carl Nicks or wide receiver Marques Colston, and word from The Big Easy is that the former is the bigger priority.
As noted earlier this week by The Sports Xchange, keeping Nicks could be tough since his fellow guard, Jahri Evans, is already playing under a record deal for the position. That said, the Saints' line is built from the inside out, in part to create a physical mindset in the run game but also to keep rushers out of Brees' face, so New Orleans might be able to justify retaining Nicks.
The feeling around the league is that, while coach Sean Payton will figure a way to make his receivers productive, the NFL's best play-caller might have a difficult time replacing Colston. Sure, the speedy Robert Meachem, also scheduled for unrestricted free agency, might be cheaper. But Colston provides the Saints an interior toughness, size and presence that the other wide receivers can't.
The six-year veteran has averaged 80.4 catches and 8.6 touchdowns in the five seasons he was healthy, and went over the 1,000-yard mark every one of those years. He led the Saints in receiving three times and had the most catches by a New Orleans wide receiver in five seasons. No one ever wants to play the Saints given the fast-break basketball nature of the offense, but the consensus is that the task might get a little easier if Colston departs.
Colston has already said that he won't give the Saints a so-called "hometown discount" to stay. But even with a loaded wide receiver pool in free agency, he won't be cheap.
RAIDERS HANGING ONTO BRANCH
The shakeup of the Oakland defense began earlier this week, with general manager Reggie McKenzie lopping off cornerback Sanford Routt, arguably one of the NFL's most overpaid players.
There are doubtless more changes to come on a unit that one of the club's various consultants after the death of Al Davis criticized sharply and noted was in need of talent, but the Raiders will attempt to hang on to four-year veteran strong safety Tyvon Branch. There is, in fact, a possibility the Raiders could use the franchise marker on Branch, a former fourth-round draft pick (2008) who has started all 16 games each of the past three seasons, after playing mostly as a special-teams guy as a rookie.
McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen covet toughness in the secondary, and Branch provides it. He has only three career interceptions, but is solid in run support, and has averaged 112.3 tackles in his three years as a starter.
The preference would be to get a long-term extension with Branch, which would open up the possibility that the Raiders could "tag" tailback Michael Bush, but the two sides haven't made much headway in that regard yet. The safety franchise number will likely be a little north of $6 million. But McKenzie, even in cleaning up the bloated mess he has inherited, seems willing to pay that. Branch comes very highly recommended by people McKenzie trusts and will be a priority.
BROOKS EDUCATED ON HALL
Former Tampa Bay weak-side linebacker Derrick Brooks, not only one of the NFL's top defenders during his 14-year career with the Bucs but one of its most gracious players, isn't eligible for Hall of Fame consideration until 2014. But, while Brooks is taking nothing for granted about his possible candidacy, he has already started to make sure he fully understands the process and the mechanics of the voting.
Brooks told The Sports Xchange last week that a few years ago, when it was obvious that his league tenure was over, he began to educate himself on the Hall of Fame and how the process works. He asked the late Tom McEwen, the former Tampa Tribune columnist who was a responsible as anyone for the Tampa landing a franchise, for some guidance. And he even had dinner with McEwen and Hall of Fame selector to ask questions about the voting procedure.
Brooks dragged along two teammates and fellow Hall of Fame potential members, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and safety John Lynch (both eligible in 2013), to the dinner so that they might better comprehend the process.
Said Brooks last week: "It gave me more appreciation for the whole thing. I'm not going to presume anything. It's a hard job."
STEELERS WON'T BE CAUGHT NAPPING
There are a lot of things to generally admire about the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the least of which is their usual preparedness, on and off the field. It was reported early this week that the St. Louis Rams have requested permission to interview Steelers director of business and administration Omar Khan for their general manager job. One of the NFL's premier salary cap experts, the departure of Khan would be a big loss for the Steelers, but not as significant as it would be if Pittsburgh didn't have a ready replacement already onboard.
Buried in the small type of the Steelers' front office/executives roster is veteran cap specialist Dan Ferens, who works for Pittsburgh in "business administration," and who essentially has been a cap consultant for the past several seasons. Ferens previously worked nearly 20 years for the Steelers, principally managing the cap, before exiting for a corporate gig at IMG in 1999, and then moving on to the Houston Texans as their chief negotiator in 2001.
Ferens resigned from the Texans in 2006 to be closer to his native Western Pennsylvania, then rejoined the Steelers a year later. If Khan leaves, Ferens would almost certainly be the choice as the club's new cap manager, and things would be in good hands, indeed.
The Rams, by the way, have interviewed 10 candidates for the GM post and figure to make a decision within a week. One element to watch is just how much control St. Louis cedes its new general manager. New coach Jeff Fisher is expected to hold sway over roster and personnel decisions, and that might preclude some candidates from being able to accept the job.
NUMBERS TO NOTE
--One Super Bowl ring now separates Peyton Manning and Eli Manning, and nearly one full point in postseason quarterback rating separates them as well. In his 19 playoff appearances (9-10), Peyton Manning has a rating of 88.37. In his 11 playoff games (8-3), Eli Manning's rating is 89.34. Eli Manning, oddly enough, is just 1-2 in postseason home games and 7-1 away from home (including neutral sites).
--Of the 38 points in Super Bowl XLVI, none was scored - or, more accurately, accounted for - by a player who originally entered the NFL as higher than a fourth-round draft choice.
The breakdown: Fourth-rounders scored 11 points, five by New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski and six by Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. Seventh-round tailback Ahmad Bradshaw had six points. Undrafted free agents accounted for 19 points, six each by Pats tailback Danny Woodhead and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, and seven by New York kicker Lawrence Tynes. And, of course, the safety that opened the scoring was charged the quarterback Tom Brady of New England, a onetime sixth-round choice. Between the two teams, 11 undrafted college free agents started the game.
--Whether he re-signs with the Giants (unlikely) or continues his career elsewhere, wide receiver Mario Manningham figures to cash in nicely on the terrific 38-yard catch that started New York's winning drive in Super Bowl XLVI. But the great route and reception aside, some other franchises have a few reservations about Manningham, not the least of which is a perception that he isn't a real good route-runner and free-lances a bit too much.
--Condolences to former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin (1980-92), now an analyst for the team's radio network, on the Monday death of his wife, Sharon, after a long battle with cancer. Sharon Ilkin was only 55.
--Earlier this week, The Sports Xchange had a column citing seven pending unrestricted free agents who might be difficult to re-sign because their incumbent franchises had already invested huge contracts in players at the same position. Add another: Four-year veteran cornerback Brandon Carr of Kansas City could be a victim of the six-year, $49.4 million extension the Chiefs awarded fellow corner Brandon Flowers in September. Carr is only 25 years old, registered a career-best four interceptions in 2011 and will be near the top of a deep cornerback class in free agency.
--Irsay to The Sports Xchange when asked privately last week if there is any chance of delaying the $28 million bonus due Peyton Manning on May 8: "I don't know. But I do know this: Reasonable people can sometimes come to a reasonable agreement."
--One other note on nose tackles: There are continued rumblings that Dallas could switch Jay Ratliff, a seven-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl defender, to end in 2012. At about 290 pounds, Ratliff isn't exactly the prototype 3-4 nose tackle, and the Cowboys seem to want a stouter presence versus the run in the middle of their line.
--Browns team officials told The Sports Xchange this week that they were pleased with the rookie performance of defensive tackle and first-round choice Phil Taylor in 2011. But those officials also conceded that second-round defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who started all 16 games at left end and had 8.5 sacks, consistently graded out higher. There remains some chance that Sheard could move over to the right side in his sophomore campaign.
--As predicted in this space two weeks ago, one day after Tampa Bay hired Greg Schiano as coach, Butch Davis has landed on the Bucs' staff, as senior defensive assistant.
--Ranking high on the to-do list for new Atlanta defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is getting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton out of the team's "sub" third-down coverage schemes. Lofton is a superb, two-down 4-3 middle linebacker, and retaining the pending unrestricted free agent is a priority for the Falcons, but the four-year veteran is a liability in third-down situations. Don't be surprised if ascending star Sean Witherspoon, who is very good against the pass, moves more to the middle in "nickel" situations in 2012.
--Even with the Bills having made a preemptive move by signing Rian Lindell to a four-year contract extension before the 12-year veteran could hit the open market, there are still nine kickers who are scheduled for unrestricted free agency. The position could have significant turnover next season.
--Having started the offseason roughly $25 million over the projected 2012 salary cap limit of $121 million-$125 million, Pittsburgh has come close to halving that excess by simple contract restructurings with linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Look for similar deals with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker James Harrison and strong safety Troy Polamalu, before the Steelers start having to make the really tough decisions and release some longtime veterans. The team would also like to finish a long-term extension with wide receiver Mike Wallace, a restricted free agent, but the tight cap situation will make that difficult.
--The defensive end position isn't especially deep, as usual, in free agency. There are, though, some standouts, like Cliff Avril of Detroit. And here's two more ends that will get considerable attention: Red Bryant of Seattle and Jacksonville's Jeremy Mincey. The former is tailor-made for a 3-4 and the latter for a 4-3. Both players had started in only eight games before 2011 - Bryant in three seasons and Mincey in five - but really exploded when moved into the starting lineup full-time for their respective clubs.
--Deposed Oakland coach Hue Jackson, the subject of a lengthy note here last week, is frustrated at the prospect of not being able to get a job as an assistant in the league for 2012. Jackson would at least like the opportunity to explain to prospective employer/coaches his emotional outburst after the Raiders' season-ending loss on New Year's Day. He privately feels repercussions from the incident cost him a shot at the St. Louis offensive coordinator job.
--Last week, we noted in this space that Steelers chairman Dan Rooney had confirmed a report by son and team president Art Rooney II that he will step down from his post as ambassador to Ireland at some point in 2012, and return to the team. The elder Rooney declined to offer a timetable for the move, but here's an educated, albeit trite, guess: Think St. Patrick's Day, March 17, or thereabouts.
THE LAST WORD: "I would hate to just throw everything out and start over, because I feel it would set us back two or three years, (since) these (young) guys are just starting to get it. I hope that we don't have to start over, and if we do, you know what, here we go. Let's do it. We're not going to complain about it. But I would hate to have to set certain guys back who are doing so well right now." - Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the hiring of Todd Haley as the team's new offensive coordinator, and the potential changes that he could make.
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.