TSX: Around the League

The Sports Xchange discusses the market for free agent receivers Mike Wallace and Pierre Garcon, the future for running back Cedric Benson, the value of the 40-yard dash, Clinton Portis and more.

WALLACE NOT HIGHLY COVETED?

Perhaps the media- and agent-fueled speculation about the future of Mike Wallace will be accurate, and the three-year veteran wide receiver and big-play threat will eventually exit Pittsburgh via a restricted free agent offer sheet that the Steelers can't, or maybe won't, match. But people close to the team told The Sports Xchange this week that they are more confident lately about being able to retain Wallace, 25, to whom they will at least apply a first-round tender.

That was evident again Thursday, in the remarks that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert made at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine. Part of that might be that a once crippling salary cap overage is much closer to being resolved, especially since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has provided the Steelers some relief by restructuring his contract.

Pittsburgh is within shouting distance of the projected 2012 cap now, and still has several roster/cap moves it can make before the deadline. But an element of the team's improved confidence in being able to possibly keep Wallace might also be that the Steelers, as is the case with The Sports Xchange, haven't really identified many legitimate potential suitors yet for Wallace, teams that will part with a first-round choice in 2012 for him.

With the pro scouts to whom The Sports Xchange has discussed Wallace, outside of the Steelers' organization, of course, there is concern about the way he finished the 2011 season, a perception in some quarters that he is a bit of a pouter, and the suspicion he isn't as polished as Pittsburgh's two other young wideouts, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders (when healthy).

Over the first 10 games of '11, Wallace averaged 5.3 catches, 92.2 yards, 17.4 yards per reception, and had six touchdowns. In the final six contests, those averages fell to 3.2 catches, 45.2 yards, and 14.3 yards per catch, with two touchdowns. Wallace had only one of his seven receptions of 40-plus yards in the final six games, only two grabs of 30 or more yards.

In that closing six-game stretch, he had had three outings of less than 40 yards, and Wallace posted just one game of more than 68 yards over the second half of the season.

Coach Mike Tomlin used to needle Wallace that he was a "one-trick pony," a deep-threat boundary receiver with dubious route-running skills. Wallace has developed into much more than that, even the Steelers would admit, but there are some in the organization who feel Brown has a much bigger upside. And some, too, who won't lie sleepless at night if the team loses Wallace in free agency, and gains another first-round pick as compensation.

It's hard to ignore Wallace's career average of 18.7 yards per catch, but not quite as difficult to imagine that even teams with later first-round choices might not want to go through all of the mechanics of attempting to pry away a restricted free agent who might still be a work in progress. We may end up dead wrong on this one. But if you're a bettor, you might want to wager a buck or two that Wallace ends up in a black and gold uniform again in 2012.

All but lost in all of the discussion about Wallace and the Steelers' salary cap problems was the assertion of Colbert this week that nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery, will be back with the team in 2012.

Hampton is 34 years old, and is carrying a salary cap charge of just over $8 million for 2012, and was generally considered to be in jeopardy. But the guess is that the five-time Pro Bowl defender will probably re-do his contract and play one more season in Pittsburgh.

The news jibes with contentions from team officials to The Sports Xchange that the coaches would rather not move former first-round defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, who has been a lot better in the eyes of the staff than some outside analysts have assessed him, to nose tackle. Look for the Steelers to take a nose tackle in the early rounds of the draft, perhaps even in the first round.

RAMS DISCUSSING TRADE OPTIONS

The potential groundwork for a trade of the overall No. 2 pick in the draft, with the St. Louis Rams sliding down and some team interested in Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Robert Griffin III jumping up, may well be laid at the Combine. But St. Louis officials, including one of the Rams' perceived decision-makers, insisted to The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that any discussions with potential suitors for the choice have been preliminary.

In fact, "very casual," was the characterization of the team official. The Rams have certainly made it clear they are willing to deal the second choice, but will now kind of sit back and see how high the auction gets before perhaps pulling the trigger.

In the unlikely situation the Rams retain the choice, they are already focusing in on two players, USC left offensive tackle Matt Kalil and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon. Like virtually everyone else in the top five, they are anxious to get a legitimate 40-yard time on Blackmon, who tweaked his hamstring and won run until his March 7 pro day.

QB JOCKEYING

Griffin and Luck won't throw at the Combine, and Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M continues to recover from a foot injury. So that could open the door, at least a little, for some quarterback to perhaps sneak into the No. 3 spot, behind Luck and Griffin. Scouts are anxious to see the quarterbacks who do throw, and some suggested that Tannehill is not yet a lock for the third spot.

That said, the same scouts agreed that Tannehill is the only other quarterback who could get into the first round. If he falters in his recovery or pro day workout, guys like Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, Nick Foles of Arizona, Kurt Cousins of Michigan State or even Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden (despite being 28 years old), might benefit.

GARCON A HOT COMMODITY

The Wallace situation has generated plenty of buzz. Much quieter, but possibly every bit as avid, is the attention ginned up by another wide receiver, one who will be an unrestricted free agent, and, thus, carries no such strings and no draft choice compensation. Officials from at least four franchises, two of them in the AFC North, this week mentioned to The Sports Xchange that Pierre Garcon of Indianapolis may be a target when the free agent signing period begins March 13.

Garcon doesn't have the pure sprinter's speed that Wallace possesses, but he is, in the eyes of some, a more polished pass-catcher and route-runner. And the feeling is that the Colts have so much to attend to, they won't be able to keep him, even though owner Jim Irsay and new general manager Ryan Grigson told The Sports Xchange during Super Bowl week that Garcon is a priority.

Garcon has averaged a good-but-not-great 13.4 yards per catch the past three years, has 137 receptions in 2010-2011 and is an emerging route-runner. He has actually logged more starts than Wallace (43-34) over the past three seasons, has played in a very intricate passing offense, and is a hard worker, even if inconsistent at times. And, as noted, he comes with no strings attached.

In the next couple of weeks, there will be plenty of assessments of lesser-known free agents, guys who will command surprisingly healthy markets when the spending begins. Keep Garcon in mind, because several clubs already have.

BENSON HEADING FOR DOOR... CINCY KICKS TIRES ON PORTIS

Further evidence that Cincinnati seems prepared to move on in 2012 without starting tailback Cedric Benson, who will be an unrestricted free agent: The Bengals have been in touch with the agents for several currently unemployed runners, including Clinton Portis, and may have already worked out the onetime Pro Bowl tailback, who didn't play at all in 2011.

Benson has been acting like a guy who won't be back, and the Bengals have a habit - some might even suggest, heavens forbid, that owner Mike Brown is doing things the way they should be done anymore at the very fungible position - of using up running backs and then replacing them.

Portis seems like a stretch at this point, but Cincinnati officials certainly haven't committed to him, and are just carrying out their due diligence. With two choices in the first round, the Bengals might address the need for a young runner that way.

Benson has been a nice player for the Bengals, racking up three 1,000-yard seasons in four years since the team rescued him from the street, after Chicago released the former first-rounder. But he is 29 (yeah, we know, still two years younger than Portis), has averaged nearly 300 carries a year the past three seasons, has considerable tread rubbed off the tire and averaged just 3.7 yards per carry the last two campaigns. Those are elements not only working against a return to the Bengals, but which also could blunt Benson's price tag in free agency.

PRESSURE POINTS

It may not be addressed in the first round of the draft, where neither Atlanta nor New Orleans currently own selections, but all four teams from the NFC South will make it an offseason priority to upgrade their pass rushes. Representatives from all of the NFC South franchises acknowledged to The Sports Xchange at various times in the past two weeks that creating more pressure, and sacks, is at or near the top of the "to-do list" for 2012.

"Whether we do it with schemes, or improved play from guys we have, or people we get ... it's got to happen," Tampa Bay rookie coach Greg Schiano, whose team finished last in the NFL in sacks (22) in 2011, told The Sports Xchange.

All four of the division's defenses ranked in the bottom half of the NFL in sacks last season. The NFC South was the only one of the league's eight divisions that didn't feature at least one player with double-digit sacks - Atlanta defensive end John Abraham led the NFC South, with 9.5 sacks - and was the lone division without at least one defense registering 40 sacks or more. There were just seven teams that didn't have two or more defenders with five sacks each, and that group included three teams from the NFC South.

The division will have three new defensive coordinators - Mike Nolan (Atlanta), Bill Sheridan (Tampa Bay), and Steve Spagnuolo (New Orleans) - and perhaps that will make for a schematic difference.

Because he will be going from a 3-4 front to a 4-3, it's hard to get a read on Nolan. Spagnuolo is a disciple of late Philadelphia coordinator Jim Johnson, but didn't have as high a blitz quota when he ran the New York Giants' unit. Sheridan succeeded Spagnuolo in 2009, and was fairly even-keeled, but he will work for Schiano, who blitzed a ton during his Rutgers tenure.

COMBINE COMPETITION FUELS DEBATE

The league's plans to make some of the Combine events a pseudo-competition between players, first reported by The New York Times, has drawn early mixed reviews from team personnel officials.

Always interested in making a buck, and in using fan interest as its flimsy rationale, the NFL this year allowed 250 fans to sit in at Lucas Oil Stadium for some events. Admission was free, but the move is seen by some personnel people as a precursor to selling tickets.

The league is fueled, of course, by the passion of the fans it charged to view Media Day at the Super Bowl earlier this month, and by the ardent interest in the draft. The league has laid out the potential for making some events, like the bench press and the 40-yard sprint, competitions between the players.

In addition to generating some revenues and creating even more interest in the draft, the process would arguably make for more compelling viewing on The NFL Network.

But as one AFC general manager told The Sports Xchange on Thursday night: "They're going to bleed the golden goose for everything it's worth. You'd think $10 billion (in revenues) would be plenty, but enough is never enough for some of these guys."

PUNTS

--Speed at the Combine is usually a good thing, but not always. Since the 40-yard times began being electronically clocked in 1999, there have been 15 players who have been under 4.3 seconds. Six of the 15 were taken in the first round, but six more lasted until after the third round, including four who were chosen in the fifth round or later.

--The fates of several players who could end up with the franchise designation should be much clearer after this weekend. Several teams will meet with the representatives for potential franchise players, including Chicago with the agent for running back Matt Forte, over the weekend. The tete-a-tete between agent Joe Linta, who represents Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, and Ravens officials is set for Saturday.

--Congratulations to Cincy owner Mike Brown for being named the inaugural winner of the Game Ball award by the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation. The alliance works to advocate more inclusion and diversity in the game, particularly at the head coach and general manager levels. Brown has been a longtime champion of diversity, as was his father, late and legendary Hall of Fame coach and innovator Paul Brown.

--Regular readers of The Tip Sheet column shouldn't have been too surprised when Griffin measured 6-feet-2 3/8 at the Combine on Thursday. Several weeks ago, The Tip Sheet cited former NFL quarterback and Seattle-area talk-show host Hugh Millen, and old friend, as saying that he stood next to the Baylor star during the Alamo Bowl warmups, and that Griffin was "every bit of 6-2." There had been a few lingering reservations about Griffin's height. Luck, by the way, checked in at 6-4.

--Former NFL quarterback Brooks Bollinger, 32, will be the new quarterbacks assistant at Pitt. Bollinger, who played six league seasons, has been an assistant at a Minnesota high school.

--After a history of knee injuries that landed him on I.R. three times in five seasons, Pittsburgh is apparently ready to walk away from talented but cursed punter Daniel Sepulveda. The Steelers not only used a fourth-round pick to get Sepulveda in 2007, but traded up to snatch him. There's no doubting the talent of the left-footed punter, but Pittsburgh can't depend on him because of the knee injuries, and the team this week made a tender offer to Jason Kapinos, who has replaced Sepulveda each of the past two seasons. Sepulveda is a pending unrestricted free agent.

--When he suggested that he would "rather have 10 (players) with four sacks (each), than four with 10 sacks," Nolan wasn't speaking literally, and it's a good thing. There were only four defenses in 2011 with at least five players who had more than four sacks, and one club with six defenders.

--The advisors for Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, a consensus top five pick in the draft, will not have a family friend work with agent Todd France on the player's first NFL contract, as was suggested in this space last week.

--Much of the free agent focus at guard has been on what the New Orleans Saints will do with Pro Bowl interior blocker Carl Nicks, a pending unrestricted free agent who will break the bank somewhere. But Baltimore is also going heavy in its pursuit of re-signing Ben Grubbs before free agency begins. It's just one more indication of the growing importance of the guard position.

--The middle linebacker position in the 4-3 has become devalued somewhat, especially in the first round, but that probably won't stop Luke Kuechly of Boston College from going off the board somewhere around the middle of the stanza. Granted, most clubs feel that Kuechly, a tackling machine, will be a two-down player in the NFL. There are a few 4-3 teams, though, that have been impressed by his nascent coverage skills on tape.

--Scouts are looking forward almost as much to Saturday's height and weight measurements of the cornerbacks as they were those of the quarterback class on Thursday. There simply isn't much size at corner this year, as evidenced by the dimension-checks at some of the all-star games, and that is a concern.

The last word: "MLB and cable sports tried to sully the reputation of an innocent man. Picked the wrong guy to mess with. Truth will set you free. Exonerated. When it's guilty until proven innocent, all you need are the facts. How's the crow, MLB? Exonerated." --Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, via Twitter, after Milwaukee Brewers outfielder and National League most valuable player Ryan Braun, a close friend, on Thursday won his appeal of a pending 50-game suspension after allegedly testing positive for performance enhancing drugs.


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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