There are a lot of veteran players in Denver and Nashville, and even still Phoenix, anxiously awaiting the decision of Peyton Manning on where the four-time NFL most valuable player will continue his career.
Perhaps none more so than Broncos left offensive tackle Ryan Clady, who might be most indicative of the kind of trickle-down financial impact that landing Manning, who has informed Miami officials that the Dolphins are no longer a player in this game, could represent to a new teammate.
The fifth-year veteran is entering the final year of his original rookie contract, has been a real value on a five-year, $17.5 million deal, and is scheduled to earn $2.55 million in base salary in 2011. A two-time Pro Bowl player who has never missed a game, and is widely regarded as one of the premier blindside pass protectors in the league, Clady will doubtless get a new contract extension, no matter where Manning ends up.
Quality young offensive tackles, after all, almost never make it to the free agent market.
With Clady set to turn only 26 in September, an extension figures to be a monster deal. But the size of the contract likely would be helped some if the Denver offense had a quarterback such as Manning. Certainly, his presence couldn't hurt, right?
A guy who rarely takes a sack -- Manning averaged only 17.7 sacks in 13 seasons, just one sack every 32.2 "dropbacks," and has been sacked more than 20 times in just four seasons -- the former Indianapolis star historically has made the sum of his offensive line units better than their individual parts. And he's never played with an individual part/left tackle the caliber of Clady, a first-round pick in 2008.
Or, for that matter, the stature of Tennessee left tackle Michael Roos, who is signed through 2014. But Roos' resume, which includes one Pro Bowl invitation, could be enhanced if he's Manning's left side escort. Or how about the tight ends on the rosters of the club's still remaining in the Manning Sweepstakes? Not exactly household names, but likely to command a lot more ink if Manning, who helped to make Dallas Clark a star, turns up in their town.
But, for the heck of it, let's focus on Clady for now.
According to Stats, Inc., Clady didn't surrender a sack in his first 20 regular-season starts, the most since 1994 for a player at the outset of his career. Unofficially, he's permitted 10 in the 44 games since then, including five in 2011, and that was representative of a Denver unit that allowed 42 sacks last season, the most surrendered by the Broncos since 2002. Like some of his line mates, Clady suffered in part in 2011 from the team's run-heavy option offense, and from having Tim Tebow (33 sacks, and a sack absorbed every 9.2 "dropbacks") as the starter.
Sacks are a synergistic component of the game, as Manning's past and his quick release have indicated, and playing with a quarterback like him would further boost Clady's career and profile. It might not get him much more money, because he's going to get a ton already, but the effect of having Manning playing behind him will provide Clady with one more critical bargaining chip at negotiating time.
So while officials and coaches from the three teams with which Manning considers contenders lose sleep while he ruminates over where to play in 2012 -- and takes another step toward a resolution Friday, when he demonstrates his arm strength to Denver vice president John Elway and Broncos' lieutenants -- guys like Clady dream about what his decision could mean for them in a more-than-ancillary way.
--Given that several of the best players were tagged with the franchise marker (Ray Rice and Matt Forte), that the position has been somewhat devalued, and that Marshawn Lynch never got to the market because of an extension just before the start of the league year, it's not all that surprising that tailback is arguably one of the weakest spots in free agency. And certainly one of the least pursued.
On paper at least, the most attractive tailbacks in the unrestricted pool were Michael Bush (Oakland), Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Peyton Hillis (Cleveland), and perhaps Ryan Grant (Green Bay). Throw in two players who were released, the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs and Joseph Addai of Indianapolis.
But the three guys who seem to be getting the most attention early on might be surprising to some. They appear to be BenJarvus Green-Ellis of New England, San Diego's Mike Tolbert and the relatively unknown Jackie Battle of Kansas City.
And two of the three could actually re-sign with their old clubs, which might leave some teams scrambling.
Tolbert is in serious negotiations with the Chargers, and while Green-Ellis has plenty of suitors and will likely go elsewhere, there is a chance, The Sports Xchange was told by reliable NFL sources, that it's conceivable he could return to the Patriots, who want him back. The attractions of Green-Ellis, beyond the fact he has never fumbled in 588 combined regular- and postseason "touches," is that the former undrafted free agent knows and accepts is role, has played for a winner, is a tough guy who can also catch the ball, and knows his market.
"A lot of these guys price themselves out (of the market)," one personnel director told The Sports Xchange. "If you see any of the (backs) left out there getting $4.5-$5 million a year -- and we're talking real money here -- they've done pretty well." Two years ago, Hillis was the toast of the league.
After a down season, marred by injuries on the field and inconsistency off it, he settled for a one-year, $3 million deal in Kansas City to be a backup to the recovering Jamaal Charles.
Said the personnel director, whose team will try to add either a low-budget back in free agency or draft one in the mid- to late rounds: "Sometimes your expectations meet reality, and 'boom.' You've got to get real. It's not exactly a runaway market for the backs right now."
--Safety is another position that doesn't get a lot of early action in free agency, nor does it elicit many big deals. To that end, both the movement and the contracts at safety so far have been modest.
But a couple of the higher-profile safeties will soon get into the mix, and Reggie Nelson of Cincinnati and Washington's LaRon Landry each could have new homes and (relatively) fat contracts in the next week or two.
Nelson essentially resurrected his career with the Bengals last season, after the former first-rounder was a disappointment during his Jacksonville tenure.
Landry is the probably the top safety in the unrestricted pool, and officials from a couple teams told The Sports Xchange this week that so many franchises have expressed an interest in him that, believe it or not, he's actually turned down requests for visits. The Jets will almost certainly try to land one of the two safeties.
--General manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey deserve a lot of credit for their roles in bringing defensive end Mario Williams, the top unrestricted free agent in the market (Manning doesn't count, since he's technically a "street" guy), to Buffalo.
But people close to Williams noted to The Sports Xchange on Thursday night that first-year defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who is in his second season as the assistant head coach for the club, was a key recruiter for the Bills.
Beyond the quick bond the two men formed, Wannstedt verbalized a clear vision for the conversion back to a 4-3, after rotating fronts in recent seasons, and sensed that was the defense Williams preferred to play. Remember, Williams was a 4-3 end before last season, when Houston transitioned to a 3-4, and Super Mario played five games as a rush linebacker before a pectoral injury ended his campaign.
Wannstedt sold Williams on the Bills' returning linemen -- tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and left end Chris Kelsay -- but also pumped the six-year veteran up as the man who can be a difference-maker for the unit.
Buffalo had just 29 sacks in 2011 -- just two teams had fewer -- and sorely needed someone to provide upfield push. Since 2001, the retired Aaron Schobel is the only Bills' defender to register more than 6.5 sacks in a season. The presence of Williams should make the other defensive linemen on the team more productive.
--Contrary to suggestions from some local media outlets, the market for Atlanta unrestricted free agent middle linebacker Curtis Lofton hasn't quite dried up, but it is a bit softer than some might have guessed.
So maybe The Tip Sheet was onto something when it suggested a couple weeks ago that 4-3 middle 'backers of the run-stuffer variety were dubious investments, despite the extension recently awarded to D'Qwell Jackson of Cleveland. More possibly, it might have something to do with Lofton's purported desire for a $10 million-a-year contract.
Or just as likely, some teams are spooked by his knees.
Lofton, just 25, had surgeries on both knees last year and, while Atlanta officials tell anyone who will listen about what a good player, team leader and knowledgeable defender he is, they are also privately concerned about the degeneration in the joints.
That's despite Lofton having never missed a game, and just one start, in four years.
Atlanta would love to have Lofton back, but at a palatable price that protects the Falcons, given the condition of his knees. If the price tag gets too high, the Falcons will just move on with second-year pro Akeem Dent or the recently signed Lofa Tatupu in the middle.
Lofton has averaged 123.0 tackles since the Falcons chose him in the second round in 2008 but, as indicated in this space in the past, he isn't a great third-down player, even though Atlanta often keep him on the field in that situation.
Lofton can cut through the trash and compile impressive tackle numbers, but he's not viewed as a difference maker.
The big contracts for 4-3 linebackers such as Jackson and Jon Beason aside, we continue to content it's questionable to throw money at a run-stuffer. Ironically, Tampa Bay and New Orleans -- two franchises very familiar with Lofton from having played against him in the NFC South -- continue to keep tabs on him.
The Bucs seem to have backed off some, but the Saints, who could lose Jonathan Vilma to a suspension or salary cap constraints, appear to have a real interest, and have tentatively scheduled a weekend visit that might be contingent on a late-week visit by Joe Mays of Denver.
--Now that Seattle has retained left end Red Bryant with a five-year, $35 million contract, a wise move that kept the unheralded but coveted four-year veteran from the free agent clutches of opposing teams like New England, it looks like it's time for the Seahawks to address the long-term future of his bookend partner.
The Sports Xchange has learned that the Seahawks recently made overtures to right end Chris Clemons, who is entering the final season of his contract in 2012, about a possible extension.
Clemons is 30 years old, but has played his best football later in his career, with 11 sacks in each of the past two seasons and four forced fumbles in that period. A onetime situational rusher, who started just three games his first six years in the NFL in stints with Washington, Oakland and Philadelphia, Clemons has started all 34 games (including two playoff contests) in his two years in a Seattle uniform.
The former undrafted free agent is scheduled to earn a modest $3 million base salary in '12, but it appears now that the Seahawks want to tie him up for longer. Then again, if a deal isn't done by training camp, Clemons might be tempted to gamble on having a good year in '12, then going into free agency next spring, on the assumption that pass-rushers usually get paid.
Clemons is probably one of the league's least-known upfield rushers, but he's demonstrated he can notch double-digit sacks in a starting role. He has also dramatically improved his performance versus the run and isn't just a one-dimensional defender anymore. Seattle acquired Clemons from the Eagles in 2010 in one of the most underrated but lopsided deals in recent years.
Philadelphia got end Darryl Tapp in return, and he's started just three games and totaled only 5.5 sacks in his two seasons with the Eagles.
San Diego, with whom Charlie Whitehurst's pro career originated, is interested in re-acquiring the six-year veteran quarterback, a player it traded to Seattle in 2010.
The Chargers still have Billy Volek as the primary backup to Philip Rivers, but he is 35 years old, and entering the final year of his contract, and the club is looking toward the future. An unrestricted free agent, Whitehurst has drawn only modest interest in the market. The move could be the latest in which a team perhaps shakes up its depth chart at quarterback.
A couple weeks ago in this space, The Tip Sheet opined that, with so few teams actually requiring starters, and only a few top-flight passers available in free agency and the draft, former starters might be relegated to taking No. 2 jobs, which could bolster the strength of some teams' quarterback corps.
That has been the case so far in free agency, with onetime starters such as Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Chad Henne and Dan Orlovsky (OK, so maybe he doesn't belong with the others, but he did start five games in '11 because of Manning's injury )switching teams to accept N. 2 roles. One longtime backup getting a lot of play, as predicted here last week, is Shaun Hill of Detroit.
**UPDATE: Whitehurst signed a two-year deal with the Chargers.
Agent Pat Dye early in the week characterized the action so far on Green Bay unrestricted free agent quarterback Matt Flynn as "meticulous."
Translation: Everyone has been waiting for the Manning domino to fall before making a move on the Flynn front. The four-year veteran will now start making visits, first to Seattle and Miami, with more possibly following, but a decision on his future is far from imminent, Dye told The Sports Xchange.
"I think everyone thought it would be fast, right out of the box, but everyone, and that includes us, has had to sort a lot of things out," Dye said. "If there's a plus, it's that all the sides have had plenty of time to explore things."
--To this early point in free agency, guards are getting a lot more play than tackles, and there's a reason why: As usual, there just aren't a lot of tackles, particularly left tackles, who are available.
Longtime Detroit starter Jeff Backus has never missed a game in 11 seasons, but he's 34 are still rehabilitating a biceps injury he sustained in the playoff loss to New Orleans.
Released by San Diego, Marcus McNeill has long had back problems, made just 20 starts the past two years, and will have to demonstrate to any interested teams that's he's healthy.
Demetrius Bell of Buffalo was limited to six starts because of injuries in 2011. The best bet for teams seeking help at the left tackle position might be the draft, because the veteran pickings are thin.
--Out of the league altogether in 2011, after being released by Seattle in favor of Steven Hauschka just before the start of the season, kicker Jeff Reed will audition for NFL scouts next week in Arizona, The Sports Xchange has learned.
It's likely that representatives from as many as 20 franchises will attend the workout.
Reed, 32, was released by Pittsburgh in 2010 after a disappointing performance, then caught on in San Francisco for five games the same year.
It was thought, after the Seahawks released him last year, Reed might retire, but he's said to have gotten his head together again, and would like to return.
Reed suffered through a couple offseason situations with the Steelers and, although The Sports Xchange has learned that he was quietly fined $150,000 by the league for the indiscretions, there is paperwork from some of the judicial officials involved all but exonerating him.
His problems in 2010 notwithstanding, Reed kicked in two Super Bowl games and has one of the top postseason accuracy records ever, is 15th in all-time field goal accuracy (82.2 percent), five times converted more than 85 percent of his attempts, and is at least worth satisfying some teams' curiosity level.
Another player who was out of the NFL in 2011, former Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard, will likely allow the demand to dictate his plans for demonstrating his physical readiness for possibly returning to the league. The 10-year veteran, who was released by the Jaguars just before the start of last season, then missed the entire campaign because of back surgery, apparently is just about rehabilitated and ready to prove himself to any potential suitors.
From what he had told The Sports Xchange, it appears Garrard would prefer to work out only for the franchises that indicate a legitimate interest in him. But Garrard hasn't totally ruled out a possible "pro day" or combine-type session in which he throws for several teams. A guy with 76 starts on his resume, including 46 starts 2008-2010, Garrard has been realistic about his potential role on a team.
He told a Detroit-area media outlet this week that he could accept a backup role to Lions' starter Matthew Stafford, and has apparently said similar things to clubs that have inquired about him.
--In deciding whether to impose some sort of sanctions against longtime marketing maven Mike Ornstein, who was implicated in the New Orleans "bountygate" scandal according to the NFL security report, the league faces a tricky situation.
Ornstein is a sometimes slippery but usually lovable (in his own way) rogue, who has operated on the NFL's fringes, and became a trusted confidant to Saints' coach Sean Payton.
How close are the two men? After a 2008 pounding of Oakland at the Superdome, Payton, cognizant of the acrimonious falling out between Ornstein and late Raiders' owner Al Davis, presented his buddy with the game ball.
So why are things so delicate for the league? A twice-convicted felon, Ornstein, who has befriended more than his share of owners and club officials, knows where a lot of league bones are buried. He's been unwaveringly loyal to his league friends through some difficult circumstances, but one has to wonder when some of that information will come out of his personal vault.
By the way, in the wake of Davis' passing, Ornstein has asked some friends and acquaintances what it might take to get back in the team's graces. But it doesn't seem, from what people are saying, that such a reunion will happen.
--Tampa Bay has been deservedly lauded for getting out of the free agent chute quickly and investing big bucks to add wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright to a team that lost its final 10 outings in 2011. But the Bucs, who insist on the quality of their character and background checks of the three players, raised some eyebrows in some league quarters.
And not just because of the cash outlay, and front-loaded model, they used to land the high profile vets. The off-field indiscretions of Jackson have been well documented the past few years. Nicks has been a solid character in the league, but was anything but a choirboy during his college career at Nebraska, and once actually apologized to university officials for any problems he might have caused.
Wright was a guy, who according to former Detroit teammates, was late for a few meetings, and wasn't always as prepared for practices and games as he might have been.
All three could turn out to be upstanding citizens for the Bucs, and here's hoping that is the case. But for an organization that has suffered from some off-field incidents in recent years, and whose lack of veteran leadership was hardly a secret around the league last year, the moves are being watched closely by some in the NFL.
As of Friday morning, 16 former first-round draft choices had been released over the past two weeks.
--Although he has played primarily in a 3-4 front, and has just 7.5 sacks in 64 games (54 starts), Miami unrestricted free agent end Kendall Langford is meriting solid interest from some 4-3 teams. Cincinnati, St. Louis and Atlanta are among them.
--Two thumbs-up to Miami general manager Jeff Ireland and new Chicago counterpart Phil Emery: The former for apprising the Bears of Brandon Marshall's latest alleged run-in before dumping the potentially damaged goods on Chicago for a pair of third-round picks. The latter for quickly acknowledging to the Chicago-area media that the league has already called about the incident involving the talented but troubled wide receiver.
--The Steelers really want to upgrade their No. 2 tight end spot and were excited about unrestricted free agent Kellen Davis before the unrestricted free agent re-signed with Chicago for two years.
-Things could change, and teams interested in signing restricted free agents to offer sheets typically delay until just before the deadline (April 20 this year), but there doesn't appear yet to be any club all that hot to try to pry away Pittsburgh wide receiver Mike Wallace.
--The three-year extension that linebacker Russell Allen took to re-sign in Jacksonville has a "base" value of $6 million and a maximum value of $9 million. Cited by The Tip Sheet last week as a potential value in the restricted market, Allen surprisingly got a higher tender from the Jaguars than anticipated, and the team really raised its offer to him in the last few days before his agreement.
--The aforementioned Clady isn't the lone Denver offensive lineman who has allowed more sacks the past few years. In 2008, the last year that the immobile Jay Cutler was the Broncos' starter, the club surrendered just 12 sacks. In the past three seasons, with Orton and Tebow the starters, Denver has permitted an average of 38.7 sacks.
--It shouldn't have been a shocker, by the way, that Dallas signed Orton to serve as Tony Romo's backup. After all, Jon Kitna is retiring, and as The Tip Sheet noted last week, Cowboys coaches still aren't sold on Stephen McGee as the No. 2 guy. But remember, too, that the Cowboys made a waiver claim on Orton last year when he was released, but lost out to Kansas City as a result of the two teams' records.
--Even with a perceived frenzy of the opening days of free agency, nearly half the league's teams, 14, had yet to sign an unrestricted player from another team as of Thursday night. Six of the 14 had signed "street" free agents in the past week.
--There continue to be rumblings that the Vikings, with the third overall choice in the first round, are serious about LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. Minnesota, where the assumption has been that the Vikings will snatch USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil with their first choice, used eight different starters, and seven different starting combinations, at cornerback in '11. The team has five cornerbacks on its roster and, after the aging and increasingly brittle Antoine Winfield (158 starts), only Allen Asher (21) has more than eight regular-season starts.
--One player who hasn't been getting a lot of public attention, and hasn't yet made any visits, but it getting solid buzz among personnel men in the league is Denver defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley.
--There have been a lot of comparisons made between Tolbert and former San Diego running back Michael Turner, who has flourished as an Atlanta starter. Although Tolbert has logged more carries in his four seasons with the Chargers than Turner did (341-228) and has a better single season yardage total (735-502), he is similarly built. But personnel people around the league, even those who like Tolbert a lot, note he doesn't have the kind of long speed Turner possessed when he was younger.
--There is some concern in Houston, and rightly so, about the possible dismantling of an offensive line that some felt was the NFL's top unit in 2011. The Texans released right tackle Eric Winston last week because of a failed physical. Center Chris Myers and right guard Mike Brisiel have drawn interest as restricted free agents.
The last word: "I'd like to see us make the playoffs and possibly the Super Bowl while I'm still around. I don't expect to be around that many years. (So) I don't give a darn about the money. I can't take the money with me. The money had nothing to do with it." -- Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, 93, on the signing of Williams and its import to a team that hasn't been to the postseason since 1999, 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.