TSX: Around the League

Len Pasquarelli, senior NFL writer for The Sports Xchange, discusses the Eagles' signing of Demetress Bell, Morris Claiborne's wonderlic score, the nebulous future of Mike Wallace in Pittsburgh and more.

--On March 9, The Tip Sheet reported an unusually large number of draft prospects this year, at least according to scouts after the combine workouts, with varying degrees of learning disabilities that had been discerned by clubs either before or during individual interviews. The learning or cognitive problems ranged from dyslexia to attention deficit-type disorders.

Nearly a month later, star LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, the top-rated player at his position, was reported to have scored a "4" (out of 50) on the Wonderlic test teams regularly administer to draft candidates. Even after it was reported that Claiborne is believed to have a learning disability, he was chided by many media outlets for the low score and, indeed, it did surprise personnel officials from many teams. But not all.

"It's something with which we're becoming more knowledgeable, and that we're going to have to deal with," an NFC general manager told The Sports Xchange late this week. "A few years ago, we were all pretty (ignorant) about concussions, and the consciousness level has grown there. I mean, I know it's apples and oranges, but the same thing is going to have to happen with these (kinds of disabilities) if they keep showing up."

--Speaking of Claiborne, The Sports Xchange noted several weeks ago that Minnesota officials were strongly considering the LSU cornerback, even though many pundits assumed it was a slam-dunk the Vikings would tab USC offensive tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall selection, after Indianapolis takes Andrew Luck and the Redskins follow with fellow quarterback Robert Griffin III.

That apparently still holds true, Minnesota officials reiterated, even after the news of Claiborne's low score on the Wonderlic was reported.

The Vikings also have sent signals to other teams that they might be willing to deal down from the No. 3 slot, and Cleveland's No. 4 choice could also be in play.

The presumption is that some team desperate to fill a quarterback need could panic and reach for Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, arguably the prospect most likely to be "over drafted" in three weeks.

--Cleveland officials told The Sports Xchange this week that the presence of stud left tackle Joe Thomas, who has been chosen for the Pro Bowl in each of his five seasons in the league, will not preclude the Browns from considering Kalil if he is available. Kalil would have to play the right side, where he was used sparingly at USC, if the Browns drafted him, but he might be too talented to bypass. How good is Kalil on the left side? Good enough that he forced the Southern Cal coaches to play Tyron Smith, the Dallas first-rounder in 2011, at right tackle.

Smith, of course, will move to the left side for the Cowboys this season.

"But if (Kalil) is there," one Cleveland official said, "you can't get stuck in the whole 'which side' debate."

The Browns could have a lot of options at No. 4, but, unless they're smoke-screening people, Tannehill is not as big a target as some experts contend.

The "other" team in Ohio waited until the second round last year to choose a quarterback and Andy Dalton led the Bengals to a wild card berth. There are a few survivors in Cleveland who still feel that Colt McCoy can be effective if surrounded by a better arsenal, but that contingent seems to be dwindling.

--Just two weeks to go until the April 20 deadline for signing restricted free agents to offer sheets and, while Pittsburgh officials aren't celebrating yet, the Steelers have yet to discern any serious rumors about another club attempting to pilfer wide receiver Mike Wallace.

That doesn't mean some team isn't lying in the weeds, since teams considering offer sheets typically play their cards close to their vests and don't act until just before the deadline, but the Steelers are privately feeling pretty confident Wallace will be back for at least one more season, likely under the terms of his $2.97 million tender.

Talks aimed at a long-term extension haven't moved forward very much of late, but the Steelers are prepared to ramp up efforts if Wallace's exclusive rights revert to the club on April 20.

Another restricted free agent wide receiver likely to return to his team is Danny Amendola of St. Louis.

The speculation early in free agency was that New England might attempt to pry loose Amendola with an offer sheet, much as did with Wes Welker in 2007 before a trade was consummated with the Dolphins, but such a move never materialized.

New England officials insisted this week they were not all that serious about Amendola, and like the manner in which they have bolstered the wide receiver corps and enhanced the deep-ball element of the passing game.

--Throughout the three-year tenure of Raheem Morris as the Tampa Bay head coach, one of his staunchest supporters was cornerback Ronde Barber.

There were even some reports, including one by The Sports Xchange after the Bucs' season-finale loss at Atlanta, that Barber might retire if the Bucs canned Morris, a close friend.

Which is exactly what Tampa Bay officials did a day after the club concluded the campaign with a 10th straight defeat. So it was somewhat strange this week to read the quotes from Barber that new coach Greg Schiano will run a tighter ship in 2012, and that the more strident measures are needed.

Still, there were hints that Barber, who will return for a 16th season despite turning 37 this weekend, felt the Bucs lacked some direction in 2011.

"There are a lot of younger guys here who need people to whom they can turn (for leadership)," Barber said after the season-ending loss.

In terms of veteran guidance, it's believed that Barber, arguably the game's best slot corner for many years, has been buoyed by the free agent addition of players such as wideout Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks, whose presence should add some much needed graybeard direction.

After long discussions with Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik, the veteran cornerback also feels the Bucs can make a quick about-face, and get back on the course they seemed to set in 2010, particularly in a division that should be weakened some by the events in New Orleans.

Said a person close to Barber this week: "He's always going to be tight (with Morris), but he likes what he's seen so far, he wants to keep playing, and didn't want to go out the way last season ended. It's definitely not a slap at Raheem."

--While fighting his suspension has occupied much of his time, credit New Orleans' general manager Mickey Loomis for shoring up the linebacker position, which in general did not play well for the Saints in 2011.

New Orleans has added three linebackers in free agency -- Curtis Lofton (Atlanta), David Hawthorne (Seattle) and Chris Chamberlain (St. Louis) -- and all have been starters.

At first blush, there appears to be a logjam in the middle, but the Saints have insulated themselves well against the likelihood that Jonathan Vilma will be suspended.

Although characterized several times in this space as a two-down player, and a liability in coverage, Lofton will start in the middle if Vilma is forced to sit for a portion of 2012.

While shorter than many teams would prefer, Hawthorne, who has played in the middle for the Seahawks, projects to the weak side.

And Chamberlain, who started 25 games in St. Louis the past two seasons for new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, could battle Scott Shanle for the No. 1 strong-side slot or offer veteran backup help.

Saints officials haven't been very communicative in the wake of the bounty scandal, but one coach told The Sports Xchange this week: "The (linebacker) glut will take care of itself."

--At no point, following the Achilles injury suffered by Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters, did the Philadelphia coaches consider switching right tackle Todd Herremans to the left side.

The former guard has matured well into the tackle slot under Howard Mudd and the Eagles' staff agreed that it didn't want to move him.

A lot has been made about the perception that, because quarterback Michael Vick is left-handed, Herremans essentially is the blindside protector.

But Vick is so unique, and the Philadelphia offense calls for so much bootleg and "waggle" action, that the usual protection precepts don't apply.

Thus, the loss of Peters, presumably for the year, is a critical one. Because, in many instances, he really was the blindside blocker.

If he can stay healthy, free agent signee Demetress Bell could make himself a valuable free agent commodity next spring.

Bell signed a five-year deal in Philly, but the structure of the contract really makes it a one-year pact.

If Peters comes back as expected in 2013, coupled with the Herremans' three-year extension through 2016 (which basically created a five-year, $26.3 million contract), Bell probably will become expendable.

Punts

-Having locked up cornerback Lardarius Webb this week with an expensive six-year extension, Baltimore is said to be making progress with "franchised" tailback Ray Rice. There has been no advance, though, on a new contract for quarterback Joe Flacco, although discussions have been mostly positive.

-The Steelers, who probably need to add a young quarterback even if veteran backup Byron Leftwich returns to the team, are intrigued by Michigan State's Kirk Cousins, especially by his toughness and leadership. Pittsburgh also feels former Heisman winner Troy Smith might develop as a viable No. 3 guy.

-This week certainly offered one more reminder, as if it was needed, that the NFL is the preeminent professional sports league of all-time. Sure, the "Bountygate" tape and the appeals were the major headlines. But what other sports entity could command so much attention, at least for two days, with uniform changes and the release of its exhibition schedule?

-There are at least two teams who feel that Stanford guard David DeCastro, a player many feel is the best prospect in years at the position, can play right tackle in the league.

-Oakland officials allow that tailback Michael Bush, who signed with Chicago as a free agent, will be difficult to replace as the backup to oft-injured starter Darren McFadden, who is coming off a Lis Franc injury. But the Raiders privately feel last week's trade for former Carolina running back Mike Goodson gives them a reliable No. 2, if he can practice better ball security. And there is optimism that Taiwan Jones can develop into more than merely a sprinter in his second season.

-The Packers will keep an open mind when they meet next week with safety Nick Collins and his agents, but there is lingering concern about the veteran's neck condition. Collins will have to have some very strong reports from neck specialists for the Packers to clear him to resume his career.

-The 15-day sentence imposed on unrestricted free agent wide receiver Jerome Simpson this week has slowed, but not ended, the pursuit of the Rams and the possibility of him re-signing in Cincinnati. Both are long shots, but still possible. St. Louis, though, seems to be concentrating more on Jerricho Cotchery.

-The three teams interested in guard Eric Steinbach, who was recently released by Cleveland, probably will have him in for a physical exam, but word is that the back injury that sidelined him for all of 2011 has healed well.

The last word: "We could probably use some name tags." -- Colts cornerback Jerraud Powers, per The Indianapolis Star, on all the changes with the team.


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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