TSX: Around the League

Len Pasquarelli, senior NFL writer for The Sports Xchange, brings you all of the latest NFL news, including Drew Brees' contract talks, the severely reduced market for running backs and more.

For most of his 18 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Joe Banner was reviled by many fans of the franchise, and vilified for the club's inability to win a Super Bowl during his time as owner Jeff Lurie's first lieutenant.

Banner, 59, stepped down as team president Thursday. He was a savvy guy, a front office executive who introduced some new wrinkles -- like the actuarial-based assessments of a veteran's viable productivity -- to the game. And Banner took much of the heat for coach Andy Reid, perhaps even more of a lightning rod during their time together, for the voracious Philly fans. No doubt, Banner made some mistakes and misjudgments -- perhaps most notoriously the decision to let popular safety Brian Dawkins depart as a free agent in 2009 -- but more often his personnel calls were on the nose.

Particularly early on, the model he established -- identify and draft good players, develop them, funnel them into the lineup when ready, and often sign them to contracts years before their current deals expired -- as a solid one.

Few of his "early" contracts, which locked in players for deals that ended up saving the team money in the long-run, blew up in his face. For all of that, Banner should have been more appreciated than he was. Now that he is gone, perhaps with some time to closely examine his methodology, Banner will get more credit for what he brought to the Eagles' organization and the league.

Banner will work toward assembling a group to perhaps purchase a professional sports franchise, preferably in the NFL.

However, reports that Cleveland and St. Louis might be on Banner's radar are likely erroneous.

The Browns said through a spokesman that the club is not for sale.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke hasn't acknowledged the rumor with any response. Even with the problems at the Edward Jones Dome, league sources indicate he's not going to bail.

Don't discount, though, the possibility of the Buffalo Bills. While the Bills aren't technically for sale, Hall of Fame owner Ralph Wilson is 93 years old, and none of his heirs really want the team with his eventual passing.

Wilson's will includes a stipulation that the franchise will be handled by a group of estate trustees, much like the Jets were when Leon Hess died in 1999, with the intention of selling the Bills. At some point, they'll be in play.

--Amid the alternating reports this week regarding Drew Brees, who has the "exclusive" franchise tag and has been absent from offseason workouts, is this from the camp of the New Orleans quarterback: Brees' representatives continued on Thursday night to examine all the contractual nuances of the new offer posited by the club within the past week.

And, while there is a framework for a counter proposal, none has been made yet, and it remains uncertain when the next step of the negotiating dance will take place.

One source close to Brees told The Sports Xchange that he would be "pretty surprised" if a deal is completed with the next week.

There was, at least as of Thursday, still a good chance that talks could leak into July, when the timeline gets compressed, and everyone is under pressure to cut an agreement for the record-setting quarterback.

--The continuing availability of some free agent tailbacks like Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant and Jackie Battle has been a source of puzzlement in this space for some weeks now, but one AFC pro scout who has done some homework on the three did shed some light on the inability of the first of that trio to locate a new team so far.

Benson, the scout emphasized, has put the ball on the ground too much, with 12 fumbles (seven lost) over the past two seasons.

There is some lack of confidence in his ball security proficiency.

For sure, there are other questions about Benson, including some personal issues, but the fumbles remain a sticking point.

Benson has a lot of things working against him -- he is 29, has some tread rubbed off the tires with nearly 300 attempts per year the last three seasons, and might not adapt well to playing second fiddle for a team with a younger runner -- but the fact remains he has rushed for 1,000 yards three straight times.

Benson lacks long speed, and has just six runs of 20 or more yards and one for 40-plus yards the last two seasons (he had 10 of the former and one of the latter in 2009), but is a power back who might still be able to handle 7-10 carries per outing.

Many of his warts were raised by the talent evaluator, but the fumbles were really emphasized.

--There has been no significant progress in negotiations between Detroit officials and franchise defensive end Cliff Avril, according to sources from both sides.

Earlier this week, Lions' president Tom Lewand seemed to indicate the club preferred the four-year vet sign his $10.6 million tender before any kind of long-term contract discussions would advance, but Avril doesn't seem in any hurry to do so.

The NFL deadline for signing franchise players to multiple-season deals is July 16.

Avril is just 26, had 11 sacks and six forced fumbles in 2011, and is said to be "very conscious" of some of the recent deals for defensive ends, and the market at the position.

--If the NFL intends to hire replacement officials, to stand in for its locked-out zebras, it might want to get cracking and demonstrate a sense of urgency.

The regular season kicks off in less than three months. Word is that the league has been very deliberate in contacting potential replacements, and that the process could take a bit longer than originally anticipated.

No one can really quibble with the deliberation, since the NFL wants the best arbiters available, but the clock is ticking and replacements must be trained and educated.

According to arena league supervisor of officials Carl Paganelli Sr., only one of his charges had been contacted by NFL director of officials' recruiting Ron Baynes as of Thursday night about possibly working games. One would think that, with officials from the college BCS conferences ruled out, the arena league might be prime recruiting territory as the NFL seeks to fill its complement of game officials.

That hasn't been the case, though, so far. Paganelli told The Sports Xchange that arena league officials are signed to contracts through the indoor loop's season, which ends with a championship game in early August, but that they are free to leave early if the NFL beckons.

"Their contracts will just be terminated," Paganelli said. "So technically, I guess, they're available."

An arena league staffer noted that the indoor league added a sixth official this season, and that the officiating configuration might make it somewhat easier for a transition, given some similarity to the NFL alignment. Paganelli, though, didn't feel the additional official would matter much to the NFL or any attempt by his men to make a changeover. "The games are still different," he said. "The NFL is fast, definitely, but in our game, because of the (reduced) size of the field, the players are on top of you faster. You've got the net, balls off the net, things like that. It will take some work to get accustomed to the NFL."

--When it comes to the lockout, Paganelli is definitely a man in the middle.

A veteran of about 50 years of officiating, and in his second stint directing the arena league's officials, Paganelli has three sons who are NFL officials and currently locked out. Carl Paganelli Jr. is an umpire, and Perry and Dino are both back judges, and the trio has combined for 33 seasons in the league.

"We're fortunate, in having three (sons) in the league; it's sort of a family of football officials," Paganelli said. "But we try not to get involved in NFL matters. Other than televising our Friday night games, the NFL really doesn't have much connection to us, so it's not a big deal. From a purely personal standpoint, though, you want things to go well."

In Super Bowl XLI, Carl Jr. and Perry became the first brothers to be part of a title game crew.

--The report from Chicago that Devin Hester's return duties could be curtailed some in 2012, as arguably the best runback specialist in league history concentrates on his duties as a slot receiver, might not be the only instance of a team revamping its kick return game in 2012.

Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April, whose club ranked only 31st on kickoff returns and No. 28 on punt returns in '11, has been impressed by rookie Brandon Boykin in workouts.

The former Georgia star and fourth-round draft choice, who is the SEC career leader in kickoff return yards and had four kickoff runbacks for touchdowns in his career, may be slotted to handle both chores for the Eagles.

Boykin didn't return punts for the Bulldogs until last season, but appears comfortable doing so. Indianapolis, which has long been woeful in the return games (dead last in the kickoff and punt return categories last year), likely will turn to third-rounder T.Y. Hilton to improve those areas.

And undrafted free agent Marquis Maze and fifth-rounder Chris Rainey could handle the return duties in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers want to reduce the workload of 1,000-yard wide receiver Antonio Brown. A former Alabama star, and only 5-feet-8, Maze has been an eye-opener in OTA drills, and will battle for a spot on the roster, even with the Steelers seemingly stacked at wide receiver.

As noted here last week, Rainey has impressed with his quickness throughout the spring.

--Who'd have thought that Major League Baseball, which for years lagged behind in drug testing and lived through a period when the use of performance enhancing drugs was apparently rampant, would actually nudge ahead now of the NFL in that regard?

But Thursday, MLB and its powerful players' association announced in conjunction, and with little fanfare, that baseball will begin testing for HGH in spring training next year.

The NFLPA, which agreed to HGH testing in last summer's CBA extension, continues to drag its heels and make excuses for why it hasn't moved ahead with the program. By the way, word is that some members of congress are just as concerned, perhaps even more so, by the NFLPA's dilatory stance on HGH testing than they are the union's collusion claims against the league.

The NFLPA stall tactics don't seem to be going over very well on The Hill.

--This is the time of the offseason when teams get some bargains in veterans left in the unrestricted pool, and the Kansas City Chiefs seem to have done just that with their recent signing of safety Abram Elam.

The seven-year pro, who started all 16 games in Dallas last season and has 47 starts the past three years with Cleveland (2009-2010) and the Cowboys, offers some insurance for emerging star Eric Berry, who is rehabbing from an ACL injury sustained in the '11 opener.

But Elam could push third-year veteran Kendrick Lewis for a starting job, provides the Chiefs an excellent No. 3 safety option at worst, and has looked very good in workouts, Kansas City coaches say.


-In case anyone's interested, and most teams don't appear to be, there are still 23 former first-round draft picks still unemployed.

-As noted earlier this week by The Sports Xchange, the 121 officials from the 2011 NFL season averaged 11.4 seasons of NFL tenure. The average for the league's 17 referees was 14.9 years. There were only four officials with fewer than 10 seasons of NFL experience, but a like number with 20 or more years in the league. That's a lot of tenure to attempt to replace in a short period.

-Atlanta tailback Michael Turner conceded some skepticism about the club's plan to reduce his attempts in 2012 -- after all, the Falcons insist that every year, it seems, and Turner has averaged 337.0 carries in the three seasons he's been healthy with the team and played all 16 games -- but new offensive coordinator Dick Koetter does seem intent on cutting back the workload.

-Dallas is seeking a No. 3 receiver, but for now at least, neither Terrell Owens nor Chad Ochocinco seems to be the answer. A Cowboys scout said on Thursday night that the club's personnel people had previously looked at tape of Owens, and then broke out video of Ochocinco after he was released by New England earlier in the day, and were "fairly unimpressed."

-Third-round draft choice Mohamed Sanu of Cincinnati continues to look like a mid-round heist. The former Rutgers standout could end up starting opposite 2011 rookie standout A.J. Green in a passing attack that hopes to have slot receiver Jordan Shipley back healthy after an ACL injury last season.

-For much of his lengthy time as an agent, Tony Agnone has fudged a bit when reporting contract values to the media. That's why there's some irony in the fact Agnone was dismissed, albeit temporarily, for leveling with defensive end Osi Umenyiora about his reworked contract with the Giants. Agnone counseled Umenyiora that the proposal wasn't a particularly good one and, as it turns out, it wasn't.

Umenyiora signed a deal that will raise his 2012 salary, but to only $6 million, a bargain for a proven pass-rusher. And it appears the contract does not preclude the Giants from using the franchise tag on Umenyiora next spring when the deal expires.

-This could be a very good season for rookie return men in the league. In addition to Brandon Boykin in Philadelphia, Joe Adams (Carolina, fourth round), Ryan Broyles (Detroit, second round) and Josh Robinson (Minnesota, third round) are among the first-year specialists expected to improve the return games of their respective clubs as rookies.

-The league, one New Orleans official insisted this week, is apt to unearth no evidence of OTA violations against the club when it reviews video from recent practices. Feeling burned and perhaps picked upon already by the NFL this offseason, coaches have been particularly careful in practice to heed the non-contact provisions outlined in the CBA, the official said. Maybe it's a self-serving assessment, and probably biased, but the official dismissed the incident this week involving middle linebacker Curtis Lofton and quarterback Chase Daniel as "nothing really."

-Fourth-year veteran Keenan Lewis suggested earlier in the spring that he might have a Pro Bowl season in 2012 if he wins the left cornerback spot in Pittsburgh that was vacated when William Gay signed as a free agent with Arizona. But it's actually been a pair of 2011 draft picks, Cortez Allen (No. 4) and Curtis Brown (No. 5), who have been more impressive in the Steelers' OTA sessions.

-Staying with the Steelers, the organization has no plans, at least for now, of reducing its one-year restricted tender to unsigned wide receiver Mike Wallace. The three-year veteran, who has boycotted offseason workouts but does have a playbook, was tendered at $2.7 million. Pittsburgh has the right to lower that to $577,500 if Wallace hasn't signed by June 15 (which he almost certainly won't), but will not take the reduction option. The Steelers still want to work out a long-term contract with Wallace and don't want to create any more acrimony.

-Former Carolina wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett, a second-round pick in 2007, has washed out in his attempt to resurrect his career in the CFL. Jarrett, one of the biggest mistakes in Carolina draft history, has opted to retire at age 25. In four NFL seasons, the former Southern California star registered only 35 receptions for 428 yards and one touchdown.

-According to reports, Detroit veteran left offensive tackle Jeff Backus has been an impressive mentor for Lions' first-round choice Riley Reiff, who make someday take his job. Detroit officials noted to The Sports Xchange the efforts of some veterans to counsel 2011 first-round defensive tackle Nick Fairley on his off-field behavior.

-Jets coaches have begun to work in first-round defensive end Quinton Coples as a stand-up rush linebacker in some of their defensive fronts.

-There are some reports that arena league players may strike, maybe as early as Friday, and league officials are closely monitoring the perceived unrest among its rank-and-file.

-Wide receiver Santonio Holmes has been a model citizen of sorts off the field for the New York Jets. But the veteran wideout continues to be a bit of a pain on the field, as exemplified by his actions at an OTA this week, when he felt he was overworked by coaches, and that could be an issue. The Steelers, who dealt Holmes to New York for a bargain basement fifth-round pick in 2010, privately contend it was more than the wide receiver's marijuana problems that prompted the trade of the former Super Bowl most valuable player. The Jets might be dealing with some of those "other" problems, it seems.

-For much of his previous four seasons in Miami, Kendall Langford played end in a 3-4 defense. But Langford has been playing mostly inside in offseason workouts with St. Louis, which signed him as a free agent this spring, coaches seem to like what they've seen of him there, and he could be an important part of the Rams' revamped line.

The last word: "Anyone who's got red blood and plays football knows what the Dallas Cowboys are, and knows what it means to play for them. ... People can't get enough of the Cowboys. -- Dallas chief operating officer Stephen Jones, per NFL Network, on the continued popularity of the Cowboys.

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.

Bear Report Top Stories