TSX: Around the League

The Sports Xchange discusses the frontrunners for free agent Mario Williams, the crop of receivers in this year's draft, the market for backup quarterbacks, Peyton Manning and much more.

Should he make it to unrestricted free agency Tuesday -- and there was no evidence the Houston Texans were close to working out a new contract before he hits the market -- defensive end Mario Williams will clearly be the most coveted veteran this side of Peyton Manning.

So where will the six-year pro end up playing?

Don't count out the Atlanta Falcons, we keep hearing, as do some team officials around the league.

Let's call it, for lack of a better term, a semi-educated guess.

Maybe for some it's nothing more than an exercise in connecting the dots, always a dicey pursuit in the free agent game, but the Falcons have a need for a pass-rusher.

And, while Williams will have his share of suitors, expect the Falcons to be in the hunt.

Owner Arthur Blank certainly has a history of making free agent splashes, the team plays Williams' preferred front, a 4-3, and Atlanta might be emboldened some by the current problems confronting arch rival New Orleans, and try to steal the NFC West.

New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could use Williams in a variety of ways in an attempt to create pressure on the pocket.

Williams is going to command a ton of money, but Blank, obsessed with winning a Super Bowl, has never been shy about pursuing high profile veteran players.

Witness the free agency signings of tailback Michael Turner (six years, $34.5 million in 2008), cornerback Dunta Robinson (six years, $57 million in 2010) and defensive end Ray Edwards (five years, $30 million in 2011). Robinson and Edwards so far have provided pretty disappointing returns on the investments, but that probably won't be enough to dissuade Blank from chasing Williams, if his personnel people target him.

Plus, the Falcons are leery about laying out too much to retain end John Abraham, their lone legitimate pass rusher, but also 34 years old.

The Falcons may not land Williams, who is said to be somewhat enamored of the Falcons' possibility, but it's a pretty good bet they'll be interested.

Said one team official whose team is also expected to pursue Williams: "(Blank) is a hell of a closer. And he isn't afraid to spend."

Around the league

--Even with the presence of top-shelf wide receiver prospects who will be available in the draft in two months, candidates such as Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame) and Stephen Hill (Georgia Tech), a few personnel executives and scouts suggested to The Sports Xchange this week that the pass-catcher crop is a fairly unimpressive group.

One AFC scout, in fact, termed the group "a bunch of No. 2 (receivers)."

There are, opined the scout, no wideouts the caliber of A.J. Green or Julio Jones as there was in 2011.

That's not to say that one of the wide receivers won't be among the top 10 names off the board -- Blackmon, in particular, is regarded as a top 10 choice, perhaps top five -- but many scouts don't feel he's quite in the class of last season's highest-ranked duet.

--Where will Peyton Manning land in his second NFL incarnation?

One of the people at his agency, CAA, charged with the task of helping to locate the former Indianapolis icon a new home insisted to The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that the reports that 12 franchises have made initial inquiries about Manning are "on the high side."

The source expects that there will be "maybe a handful" of teams that will be serious suitors for Manning's services.

While the source acknowledged that a deal for Manning will be "tricky" without some sort of group or individual team workout to assess his physical status, no such session had been scheduled as of Thursday night.

Manning reiterated at his goodbye press conference that he doesn't believe he has anything to prove.

But after three known neck procedures and questions lingering after he missed all of the 2011 season, teams planning to plop down dozens of millions in guaranteed money likely think otherwise.

Manning, after all, was released by the Colts on the official waiver wire with the notation "failed physical."

--If for no other reason than the fact some general managers, personnel directors and scouts saw the note and called in response, it's probably worth reprising an item from a "draft notes" column that appeared on The Sports Xchange earlier this week: No word yet on possible failed drugs tests at the combine, an annual story, it seems, but several scouts pointed out to The Sports Xchange that about 4-5 draft prospects were diagnosed with different degrees of learning deficiencies, varying from dyslexia to attention deficit disorder to ADHD.

Some of the players spoke openly in interview sessions about the disorders, and others were discovered during the interview process. The consensus is that most of the players handled themselves fairly well in the interviews and "at the blackboard" in discussing plays and strategies, and one personnel director said no player should be "too hurt" by the disorders.

In 2009, however, it's generally believed the draft stock of Ball State quarterback Nate Davis was impacted somewhat by a learning disorder.

Davis was chosen by San Francisco in the fifth round that year.

"It's probably true every year, but the (awareness) is so much better now," one general manager said. "I don't know that we're any better trained for it, or to understand it, but it's certainly good to know about."

--A few weeks ago in this space, The Tip Sheet opined that the free agency market could be a healthy one for backup quarterbacks, perhaps better than in previous seasons because of the dearth of viable starting opportunities in the league, and that theory hasn't changed.

But the flaw in the note was that it primarily focused on former starter-level quarterbacks -- like Chad Henne, Jason Campbell, even Rex Grossman -- who might be cast into No. 2 roles.

And it largely ignored guys who already are backups and might be attractive to some clubs.

One such veteran backup who could attract considerable interest is Shaun Hill of Detroit.

The 10-year veteran has appeared in only 32 games in his NFL tenure, 26 of them as a starter, and he registered just three attempts in 2011.

But if his name doesn't exactly create much buzz among fans, it is popular right now in some league circles, as the clock winds down toward the Tuesday start of free agency.

The Lions may make one more push toward re-signing Hill before Tuesday, and that would be understandable, since the team's other veteran backup, Drew Stanton, is also a pending free agent.

His big numbers in '11 aside, starter Matthew Stafford has a history of injuries, the Lions want a veteran backup, and the overwhelming preference is Hill.

In stints with Minnesota (2002-2005), San Francisco (2006-2009) and Detroit (2010-2011), Hill has completed 61.7 percent of his attempts, has a solid ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions (29-23), and has compiled an 84.7 passer rating.

Hill started a career high 10 games in 2010, when Stafford was injured, but teams view him as a guy who would be very good if forced to make two or three starts.

--Although the Lions statistically ranked as the No. 5 offense in the league last year, they were also one of the most lopsided attacks. While fourth in passing, Detroit was only 29th in rushing, as 66.4 percent of the Lions' snaps were pass plays and nearly 77 percent of the team's gross yards were accumulated through the air.

The coaches want to be more multi-dimensional in 2012, to provide Stafford some run-game support, and so far the news has been good in that regard.

Former first-round tailback Jahvid Best (2010), who missed 10 games last season because of concussions, has been granted clearance to begin working out and has experienced no setbacks.

Last year's second-rounder, Mikel Leshoure, who was supposed to provide Detroit a solid 1-2 punch at tailback, is nearing 100 percent recovery from an Achilles injury that sidelined him his entire rookie campaign.

The Lions, the only franchise in the NFL in 2011 that didn't have a 400-yard rusher, would also like to bring back Kevin Smith, a pending unrestricted free agent.

Smith, who was signed off the street after the Lions declined to make him a restricted free agent tender last spring, ended up starting four games after being added in November.

Even without Smith, the Detroit running game, non-existent in 2011, could get an instant boost -- and potentially a nice complementary duet, if Best the sprinter and the more physical Leshoure -- if the two return.

--One of the knotty problems confronting New York Jets executives in their not-so-quiet pursuit of Manning is the psyche of starter Mark Sanchez how it might affect him.

The Jets privately allow that Sanchez has to play better, especially coming off a 2011 performance in which he was inconsistent, and drew some criticisms (even if unattributed) from teammates, and was subjected to an in-huddle tirade by wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Sanchez has started all but one game in his three years with the Jets, who made a daring move up in the 2009 draft to land him, and he took the franchise to the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons.

One Jets official conceded the team "is walking a little bit of a tightrope" in the public flirtation with Manning, and is concerned about Sanchez's reaction to the affair. As well it should be.

--When the league publishes the list of restricted free agent tender levels next week, probably on Wednesday, there figures to be a few bargains among the three-year veterans.

And we're not just alluding to Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace, who will receive a first-round tender, and who we still believe (perhaps naively) won't get an offer sheet from another club.

But the list will include some veterans who will get the bottom-level tender, entered the NFL as either low-round draft picks or undrafted college free agents, and who might be worth some consideration.

One example -- and we concede he is a favorite of ours whom we've gotten to know a bit during his three seasons in the league -- is Jacksonville linebacker Russell Allen.

The former undrafted free agent will probably get a low-level tender, meaning that he can be had by another team for no draft choice compensation to the Jags.

In his three seasons, Allen has started 15 games, played all three linebacker positions in a 4-3, and lined up some in a 3-4, and been very productive no matter where he plays.

In 2009, he led the NFL in starts by an undrafted rookie. Last season, Allen started six games, the same as high-profile veteran free agent Clint Session did for the team, and registered nearly twice as many tackles.

Granted, Allen isn't a big-play guy, but he knows how to play the game. Allen also has been a solid special teams player and, while this has nothing to do with football, is arguably one of the most socially conscious players in the league.

There hasn't been as much movement of restricted free agents in recent seasons as once predicted, and this spring doesn't figure to be much different. But given his price tag in terms of what it might take to lure him from Jacksonville, and the absence of draft choice compensation, Allen might be worth some interest.

--It's hard to argue with the results achieved by Atlanta general manager Thomas Dimitroff in his four drafts with the club.

Except perhaps in one area.

Of the 32 choices that Dimitroff has exercised since getting the job in 2008, five were offensive linemen, and the results have been dubious at best, one of the several reasons why the unit performed so poorly in 2011, and appears to require some upgrade for the coming season. Dimitroff traded up in 2008 to land a second pick in the first round, and chose left tackle Sam Baker, who is viewed with disdain locally.

Baker has been plagued by back problems, but had those same difficulties at USC, and the Falcons chose him anyway as the designated blindside protector for Matt Ryan.

After starting 30 games in 2009-2010, Baker lost his No. 1 job last season to journeyman Will Svitek, and a lot of people felt he might be released this offseason, although coach Mike Smith strongly suggested he will be back.

In the three lotteries since, the Falcons haven't chosen a lineman above the third round, but they proclaimed last summer, when three of their starters were free agents, that their youngsters would allow them to counteract potential defections.

Yet Garrett Reynolds (No. 5, 2009), Mike Johnson (No. 3, 2010), Joe Hawley (No. 4, 2010) and Andrew Jackson (No. 7, 2011) were far from ready to play.

That might in part explain the surprising dismissal of highly regarded line coach Paul Boudreau, who will be replaced by former Fresno State coach Pat Hill this year.

Coaching, though, is only part of the failure of the linemen. Baker now seems like a classic reach. Reynolds played poorly as the replacement for Harvey Dahl at right guard, lost his job for a time, and is not assured of a starting spot this season.

Johnson, although injured at times, has barely gotten onto the field in two seasons. Hawley hardly cemented himself as the heir apparent to aging center Todd McClure's job in '11.

Jackson spent time on the practice squad, was injured, and recently re-signed.

The addition of Hill might be an elixir on some levels, but the bottom line is that Dimitroff and his staff have to do a better job of evaluating line prospects.

--Since it's a Major League Baseball matter, it hasn't gotten much notice by the football press, nor should it.

Still, it's pretty interesting that San Diego Padres CEO Jeffrey Moorad may be approved as owner this weekend, completing the purchase of the team from John Moores that actually started a few years ago. Why should it matter to NFL folks?

Because for years, Moorad was the partner of onetime super agent Leigh Steinberg, who has been in the news and television a lot recently, as he attempts to rehabilitate himself, his image, and his career from the destruction wrought by alcohol addiction.

Back "in the day," Moorad was the behind-the-scenes guy as Steinberg was the more conspicuous front man for the agency. He wasn't in print, or quoted, nearly as much, but a lot of general managers felt that Moorad was more the "numbers guy" for the firm.

Kind of an interesting snippet of human interest as Moorad is poised to own a baseball team and Steinberg, who has done a noble job of late detailing his downfall, has one client remaining from what was at one time arguably the deepest and most high profile group in the league.


-- Given that Dallas officials have spoken publicly about at some point carving out a contract extension for quarterback Tony Romo, and would seem to have no need for Robert Griffin III, there continue to be rumblings that the Cowboys are very interested in trading up with St. Louis for the second overall pick in the draft.

--There were 14 NFL owners listed by Forbes Magazine this week among the world's billionaires. The list: Paul Allen, Seattle (14.2 billion, No. 48), Stan Kroenke, St. Louis (3.2 billion, No. 358-tie), Stephen Ross, Miami ($3.1 billion, No. 367-tie), Malcolm Glazer, Tampa Bay ($2.7 billion, No. 442-tie), Shahid Khan, Jacksonville (2.5 billion, No. 491-tie), Jerry Jones, Dallas ($2.0 billion, No. 634-tie), Robert Kraft, New England ($1.7 billion, No. 764-tie), Bob McNair, Houston ($1.5 billion, No. 854-tie), Steve Bisciotti, Baltimore ($1.4 billion, No. 913-tie), Blank, Atlanta ($1.4 billion, No. 913-tie), Jim Irsay, Indianapolis ($1.4 billion, No. 913-tie), Jeffrey Lurie, Philadelphia ($1.1 billion, No. 1,075-tie), Dan Snyder, Washington ($1.1 billion, No. 1,075-tie), Alex Spanos, San Diego ($1.1 billion, No. 1,075-tie).

--If, as indicated by an ESPN report on Friday, the Colts are listening to offers for defensive end Dwight Freeney, word is that the Chicago Bears, who want to find a pass-rush partner for Julius Peppers, will be one of the teams in their ears.

--Look for Cincinnati to draft a complement to Green at wide receiver, possibly with one of its two first-round picks.

--The Bengals, by the way, are still trying hard to get a contract extension with safety Reggie Nelson before the start of free agency. But it looks like the former Jacksonville first-rounder, who resurrected his career in Cincy last season, will opt for the open market.

--As of Thursday evening, there had been no substantive communication between the Oakland Raiders and agent Joe Linta, who represents linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. The expectation of the Wimbley camp is that he will be released to provide the Raiders desperately needed salary cap relief.

--Of the top 20 players in league history in terms of passing yards, Manning will become the 14th to play his career with at least two different franchises.

--Compliments of online sports gaming site Bovada, the odds on Manning's next stop: Miami, 2/1; Washington, 13/4; Seattle, 7/2; Arizona, 7/2; Jets, 21/4; Kansas City, 21/4.

--On the Friday reports emanating from Denver that Kansas City has offered Manning a "completed" contract. If the contract were completed, wouldn't it mean Manning has signed it?

--One final Manning-related note: It's interesting, even if many Colts players aren't in Indianapolis, that just one veteran, center Jeff Saturday, turned out for the farewell press conference. The Colts, by the way, are serious about having Saturday accept a position in the organization, but for now at least, his preference is to play in 2011. The Dolphins, by the way, have already had some internal discussions about the possibility of moving center Mike Pouncey to guard if Saturday would want to join Manning with the Dolphins.

--As reported by The Tip Sheet at least twice in the offseason, length of contract continues to be the biggest sticking point between San Francisco and the representatives for quarterback Alex Smith. The 49ers have stuck for months now to a three-year model.

--A wild-card for Nolan and the Falcons, who might use multiple defensive fronts in '12 could be third-year tackle Corey Peters. The former third-round choice, who has started 30 games his first two seasons, might possess the flexibility to play some end if the Falcons dabble with the 3-4 at times.

--Indianapolis brass has gone back and forth on the merits of retaining defensive captain Gary Brackett, who was injured for much of 2011 but still provides great leadership, but is expected to release the veteran middle linebacker. Two-year veteran Pat Angerer, who had been relegated to the strong-side spot when Brackett was healthy, played well in the middle in '11, and might be more adaptable if new coach Chuck Pagano switches to a 3-4 scheme. He's also seven years younger than Brackett and his salary cap charge for this season is about $6.5 million less.

--Teams continue to have some age concerns with quarterback prospect Brandon Weeden, but scouts who have had the Oklahoma State star "on the blackboard" explaining plays and strategy contend he knows the game so well that he might be worth a gamble.

--New Orleans sources to are actually taking phone calls these days, what with the bounty situation and the Drew Brees contract stalemate, contend that the recent workout by prodigal wide receiver Randy Moss was very good but not great. The source did say that Moss was in surprisingly good shape, noted that he moved pretty well, and scoffed at reports the player did not run a timed 40. Almost no veteran, he pointed out, does. Interesting is that Moss is represented by Joel Segal, the same agent who apparently is trying to move current Saints wide receiver Marques Colston elsewhere.

--The people close to Cleveland officials, including general manager Tom Heckert, are not surprised by the Browns' stance that they won't invest a ransom in moving up to the No. 2 spot for Robert Griffin III. There could be some posturing involved, of course, but the folks suggest there's just as good a chance the Browns will deal down from the fourth choice if Griffin or another player they target isn't available.

--Despite the closeness of Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and Hines Ward, the Cardinals will not make a play for the former Pittsburgh star.

The last word: "When I first started playing football, the object was to knock people out. I know with all the concussions it's (become) a big issue. It has (caused) life-long, lasting damage to players. I understand it. But if it (takes) hurting a guy to get him out of the game ... that's been around football forever. I see the issue with coaches promoting it to players. But what I'm trying to say is, the players were already doing it." -- former NFL defensive lineman Chidi Ahonotu, who played a dozen seasons in the league, on bounties, per The Buffalo News.

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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