TSX: Around the League

The Sports Xchange discusses the Bears' need for a speedy wide receiver to replace Johnny Knox, the Saints' head-coaching plans, Mike Wallace's future in Pittsburgh, Bruce Irvin and more.

--The Thursday news that assistant head coach/linebackers Joe Vitt will serve as the Saints' head coach during the offseason, training camp, and the final 10 games of the regular season -- after he serves his six-game suspension, of course, for his admitted role in the "Bountygate" scandal -- wasn't exactly unanticipated, especially after Bill Parcells informed the football world he will remain retired.

The elevation of Vitt will be monitored closely by NFL officials, who told The Sports Xchange they will review his contract, and any enhancements made to it to reflect his new duties.

The league wants to make sure that New Orleans officials aren't bumping up Vitt's salary to the point where he will be "made whole" by his interim duties, essentially to compensate for the six weeks of salary he will forfeit as a result of the bounty suspension.

This marks the second time that Vitt, basically an NFL "lifer," will serve as an interim coach. He was 4-7 in St. Louis in 2005, when he filled in for an ailing Mike Martz that season.

As reported by other outlets, expect offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to serve as the interim coach for the first six games of the year, while Vitt is suspended.

The Saints essentially will divvy up the head coach duties in that period, but Kromer technically will have the "final call" on decisions. The setup will permit offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. to supervise the offense in Sean Payton's absence and new defensive boss Steve Spagnuolo to preside over that side of the ball without any distractions.

--The suspension of Sean Payton in New Orleans could boost Pete Carmichael's profile as a potential head coach candidate next offseason.

The perception has been that Carmichael was just the titular offensive coordinator, that Payton really called the shots, and that perhaps the assistant lacked the personality to be a head coach. The same setup was assumed in Green Bay last season with Mike McCarthy overseeing Joe Philbin, the coordinator who was hired to coach the Dolphins in January.

Carmichael assumed most of the play-calling responsibilities when Payton suffered his MCL/tibia injury last season and couldn't get too close to the sideline, and the New Orleans offense wasn't significantly impacted.

Carmichael also demonstrated more leadership skills than many observers believed he possessed, and he got a few sniffs as a head coach candidate.

If the offense clicks again in 2012, especially with Payton removed from the equation and Carmichael as the play-caller instead of merely being perceived as a go-between, his stock will be stronger for any head coach vacancies after the season.

--With roughly $20 million in salary cap space, the Cincinnati Bengals didn't really need the approximately $800,000 that they saved by dealing four-year veteran linebacker Keith Rivers to the New York Giants this week for a fifth-round draft pick.

But the Bengals really didn't need the oft-injured Rivers, the team's first-round pick (ninth player overall), either.

In his four seasons in Cincy, the onetime USC star appeared in just 36 of a possible 66 games (counting postseason), with 34 starts, and missed the entire 2011 campaign. But even more madding to Bengals coaches and team officials was that Rivers failed to make many game-altering plays. Sure his tackles-per-start ratio was decent, but Rivers had just two sacks, two interceptions, five passes defensed, one forced fumble and zero fumble recoveries during his tenure with the team.

That's only 10 "big plays" total, and it just seemed Rivers was never around the ball.

Plus, the Bengals have Manny Lawson and Thomas Howard at the starting outside linebacker spots, and tem officials told The Sports Xchange they are hopeful of being able to retain unrestricted free agent Brandon Johnson to add some depth.

"The one thing about Brandon," one coach said of the six-year veteran, who logged nearly as many snaps as Rivers in recent seasons, is that he gets his hands on the ball. It's like Rivers was allergic (to the football)."

New York will restructure Rivers' contract, to make it a bit more palatable.

--As noted in this space last week, Pittsburgh officials aren't quite comfortable yet with the specter that Mike Wallace will return.

But as the clock winds down on restricted free agency, they're feeling better than they were a month ago, and understand they hold most of the trump cards if the speedy wideout doesn't sign an offer sheet with another club by next Friday's deadline.

They also realize that they saw some hint of petulance from Wallace over the second half of last season -- when his numbers were significantly reduced, as detailed here in recent weeks -- and plan to address that when/if the three-year veteran returns.

His deep speed aside, Wallace doesn't fight much for the ball, doesn't come back to it very often, and isn't particularly physical.

There is a not-so-subtle reason, besides chiding Wallace good-naturedly, that coach Mike Tomlin inserts the needle by frequently referring to the wideout as a one-trick pony.

Make no mistake: Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert want Wallace back, preferably with a long-term deal, but at their price. Some high-ranking team executives? Well, they're a little more ambivalent, and aren't thrilled by the fact Wallace's camp has manufactured restricted free agency interest in him, and this week leaked to the media two items that are dubious: the notion that there are still some clubs that would trade for Wallace, at a price less than the first-round compensation an offer sheet transaction would require, and that he has no intention of singing the one-year, $2.7 million tender made to him.

Of course, if Wallace doesn't sign the tender by June 15, the Steelers have the option of reducing it to 110 percent of Wallace's base salary from last year, which they will do. Such a move would cost Wallace about $2.1 million.

--Denver third-year wide receiver Demaryius Thomas isn't exactly off-base in acknowledging he isn't sorry to see Tim Tebow leave town. After all, the starting tenure of Tebow was marked by a run-oriented offense that blunted the numbers of all the Denver wide receivers, Tebow was hardly an even average passer, and Thomas will get a lot more opportunities with Peyton Manning at the position.

But it's also borderline disingenuous for Thomas to suggest that Tebow basically ignored him during his stint as the Broncos' starter.

In Tebow's 13 starts (counting two playoff appearances), Thomas was targeted 87 times according to the official league game stats, an average of 6.69 times per outing.

Over the final seven games, which included Thomas' monster, four-catch, 204-yard performance in the playoff victory over Pittsburgh, he was a "target" 65 times, or on nearly 40 percent of Tebow's pass attempts.

Those final seven games included three contests in which Thomas was thrown to 10 or more times, including a pair of 13 "target" games.

There's no doubt that Thomas, who is big and fast and physical, will benefit from having Manning around. It will also help, of course, if the former first-rounder can stay healthy and on the field for a change.

--Of all the teams in the top eight of the draft's first round, perhaps the lone franchise that really isn't marketing its pick in trade-down scenarios is Tampa Bay.

Word is that the Bucs, who hold the No. 5 overall selection, haven't had much, if any, dialogue with other teams, even casual, about bailing out of the slot and trading down.

That could change, of course, in the next two weeks if someone gets desperate -- like for Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill, a prospect who seems to be the favorite to be the most "overdrafted" prospect in the lottery -- and offers a bounty to move up. But for now, it's believed that general manager Mark Dominik and rookie coach Greg Schiano are comfortable with the fifth spot, content to stay put, and land a quality pick that will augment the Bucs' core of young talent and start to expunge some memories of the 10-game losing streak with which the Bucs concluded the 2011 campaign.

Minnesota (No. 3) and Cleveland (No. 4) would seriously consider dealing back for additional choices, even though the Browns already have a pair of first-rounders and own a league-high 13 selections.

St. Louis, which already has slid back from second to sixth, by virtue of its heist with the Washington Redskins, could go even further back.

--Word out of Indianapolis is that coaches feel that defensive end Robert Mathis will be a lot more comfortable in "drop" situations than will colleague Dwight Freeney.

First-year coach Chuck Pagano is installing a hybrid defense that will feature aspects of both the 4-3 and 3-4 fronts, similar to what he employed in Baltimore, and the scheme will mean some coverage responsibilities for the two ends, who have played their entire careers in the 4-3 look.

Pagano projects Freeney as a sort of Terrell Suggs linebacker/end combination defender. But Freeney has never played in space at all, and has zero interceptions and 14 passes defensed in his 10-year career.

Nearly al of his passes defensed came on batted-down passes at or near the line of scrimmage when he was rushing the quarterback. In nine seasons, Suggs has seven interceptions and 41 passes defensed.

--Draft evaluators are always concerned about size at linebacker, but possibly less so this year than in most, because several of the undersized prospects seem to play bigger than their size and with very good leverage. One area scout termed it a draft that singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who penned the satirical tune "Short People," would like, and cited solid candidates such as Mychal Kendricks (Cal), Sean Spence (Miami, Fla.) and Adrien Cole (Louisiana Tech) are linebackers who are under 6 feet but could play. He also noted that Utah State's Bobby Wagner, who probably will go in the second round, barely measures 6 feet.

--Steelers' four-year veteran quarterback Dennis Dixon, 27, who has started just three games in his career, has made it pretty clear that he wants to depart Pittsburgh as an unrestricted free agent, to get an opportunity to at least be a No. 2 somewhere else.

But there aren't a lot of primary backup spots open and it isn't as if anyone is beating down Dixon's door right now.

The best bet for Dixon to get a No. 2 spot might be to actually re-sign in Pittsburgh, especially if Byron Leftwich goes to Indianapolis, to be reunited with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians as Andrew Luck's caddy. But both the Steelers and Dixon, an athletic guy who simply hasn't gotten many opportunities, seem to have moved on.

Punts -Wide receivers don't get selected in the first round of the draft because of their blocking skills, but led perhaps by Michael Floyd of Notre Dame, the pool of wideouts for the 2012 draft in two weeks might be among the best group of downfield "edge" blockers in recent years, some scouts feel. The ancillary ability may boost the draft stock, at least a little, of a few wide receivers.

-The addition of Rivers, if he can stay healthy, may prompt Giants coaches to switch weak-side 'backer Michael Boley to the middle, a spot where New York has struggled the past couple seasons.

-Following up on the restricted free agent theme cited earlier: Although the Patriots would likely have matched an offer, there are some in the NFL who wonder why no one dangled an offer sheet at New England backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. Tom Brady's backup has appeared in only 13 games over three years in the league, and has registered just 43 attempts, but a few scouts feel he is a better prospect than all but Luck and Robert Griffin III among this year's candidates in the draft.

-Personnel people likewise wonder why, even at a low-priority position like safety in free agency, Dallas' Abram Elam is getting so little play. The six-year pro has only three interceptions in his career, but is pretty smart and has started in 47 games the past three seasons.

-Why would the Atlanta Falcons even consider the invitation from HBO to participate in this year's edition of the "Hard Knocks" series? A lot of reasons: Head coach Mike Smith has twice already been exposed to the show, both times as an assistant head coach. Owner Arthur Blank has rarely avoided an opportunity, either personally or for his franchise, to garner the spotlight. And Blank, who is obsessed with bringing a Super Bowl to Atlanta, is keenly aware that the enhanced profile that "Hard Knocks" could bring might help deliver to him the new open-air or retractable roof stadium he so desperately wants. The stadium proposal has received mixed reviews in Atlanta, and "Hard Knocks" and the attention inherent to it could help to swing some skeptics.

-On the Falcons: Isn't it about time someone counseled wide receiver Roddy White about his propensity for "tweeting" before thinking? White this week had to again apologize, for about the umpteenth time, it seems, for some Twitter remarks. This time around, they dealt with anti-gay sentiments.

-Washington officials, who have signed safety Tanard Jackson, are relying on the advice of new secondary coach and former Tampa Bay head coach Raheem Morris that the four-year veteran isn't quite the incorrigible he's been portrayed as being. The troubled Jackson was released by the Bucs earlier in the week.

-In the past five drafts, an average of just 12.4 quarterbacks were selected. Even with the need for passers, the average doesn't look like it will be much higher in two weeks. But teams have already begun to identify quarterbacks they might sign an bring to camp as free agents, and who have a shot at developing into more than simply camp "arms." Among them: G.K Kinne (Tulsa), Alex Tanney (Monmouth), and Nick Stephens (Tarleton State). A few scouts are also intrigued by LSU's Jarrett Lee, although there are plenty of questions about his decision-making acumen.

-Scouts seem to be satisfied that the charges lodged against Bruce Irvin a few weeks ago for destruction of property aren't a major deterrent to choosing him, and the West Virginia defensive end/rush linebacker is getting serious play as a second-rounder at worst. On the flip side, the off-field indiscretions of cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was dismissed from the Florida squad and finished his career at North Alabama, are giving some teams serious pause. Jenkins is a top-three corner, at worst, but the reservations about him could keep him out of the first round.

-Although Chicago dealt for Brandon Marshall, look for the Bears, who haven't had a receiver with 1,000 yards since Marty Booker in 2002, to add a speedy wideout in the draft. That will be especially true if the Bears feel that Johnny Knox, who is attempting to come back from a serious back injury, won't be ready for the start of the season.

-Another team that's suffered a 1,000-yard receiver drought, Cleveland, feels second-year pro Greg Little could be the guy to end the streak. Little posted 709 yards as a rookie in '11 and, while he had some streaks of inconsistency, made some strides. The Browns haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Braylon Edwards in 2007.

-As noted on Tuesday by The Sports Xchange, teams really have come up the past few weeks on Mississippi offensive tackle Bobby Massie.

-Houston officials feel really good about the addition this week of former Dallas inside linebacker Bradie James. They feel that James, who played for defensive coordinator Wade Phillips in Dallas, will be a very good influence on Brian Cushing. James won't be as good as the departed DeMeco Ryans, but he should be more than adequate.

-They've been ripped by some students of the game for not having done much in free agency, despite having bushels of money, but most personnel folks feel the Bengals have helped themselves with quiet, under-the-radar, modest-cost additions. Cincy has added a pair of starting guards in Travelle Wharton and Jacob Bell and bolstered a shaky cornerback situation, one that will be even stronger if Leon Hall returns whole from injury. The Bengals have added/retained three corners, all former first-rounders. Cincy seems confident that Dallas castoff corner Terence Newman can be serviceable, and will return to form now that he will be reunited with coordinator Mike Zimmer, under whom he had some productive seasons with the Cowboys. *The last word: "That's karma. Just because he knows X's and O's, that doesn't mean he's a nice person." -- former NFL strong safety Lawyer Milloy, who played with the Atlanta Falcons and Bobby Petrino in 2007, on the deposed Arkansas coach


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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