There's little doubt that the San Diego Chargers will struggle at times to replace wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who departed in free agency after a couple fractured years, landing a big-dollar contract with Tampa Bay. Jackson, after all, epitomized what the San Diego passing game was all about: a big, rangy, physical wide receiver whose size and strength alone made him an imposing component in the vertical model favored by coach Norv Turner and quarterback Philip Rivers.
That Rivers was usually among the lead leaders in the esoteric but critical statistic scouts love, yards per attempt - he averaged 8.4 yards or better in three of the past four seasons - was no fluke. Jackson and fellow wide receiver Malcom Floyd ran their routes a little deeper than most of the corresponding players in the league, especially between the hashes, tight end Antonio Gates controlled the middle of the field, and Rivers, despite his funky release, threw the ball with great accuracy.
The exit of Jackson might alter the Chargers' passing blueprint a bit, but it doesn't mean San Diego won't throw the ball effectively. Or that Rivers won't put up a fifth consecutive 4,000-yard season in 2012.
San Diego coaches are quietly amped about their offense for the coming year, and the enthusiasm isn't just because the staff feels third-year tailback Ryan Mathews is healthy and perhaps poised for a breakout season. No, there's legitimate excitement so far over the addition of some veteran receivers - Robert Meachem (from New Orleans) and Eddie Royal (Denver), in particular - to team with Floyd.
It's not that the passing game will be reinvented in 2012, although the absence of Jackson will probably prompt some changes, but it will be retooled a bit. No disrespect to Jackson, a terrific player, but the aerial game could be somewhat quicker and faster striking in '12, the ball might be spread out more, and the Chargers should get much-improved production from the slot. The health of Gates, of course, will be a factor. But so should the infusion of the veteran wideouts.
During the six seasons that Rivers has been the starter, never missing a single game in that stretch, San Diego's No. 3 wide receiver has never had more than 27 catches. In fact, 2006-11, the Chargers' third-leading wideout averaged just 24 receptions. The No. 3 wide receiver statistically wasn't always the slot guy, it should be noted for fairness and accuracy, but San Diego did have problems developing a dependable player for the inside position.
That could change in 2012, especially if Royal is healthy. The four-year veteran, who had 91 receptions as a rookie in 2008 but has averaged just 38.3 catches since, in part because of injuries, has looked very good so far, coaches acknowledged to The Sports Xchange. A former second-round choice of the Broncos, Royal has more quickness than speed, does well with the option-type routes slot receivers must perform adroitly when running between linebackers and safeties, and knows the AFC West well. Word is that he and Rivers have meshed nicely so far.
Meachem isn't as physical as Jackson, but does possess great perimeter speed and adjusts well to the ball, and will provide a different kind of vertical threat up the boundary. While he has never registered more than 45 catches in a season, Meachem, only 27, has averaged 16.1 yards per reception over the course of his career, and scored 20 touchdowns the past three seasons.
General manager A.J. Smith, who seemed to prioritize the wide receiver position during the offseason, also added veterans Roscoe Parrish (Buffalo) and Michael Spurlock (Tampa Bay). Neither has posted big numbers of late - Parrish has been beset by injuries and has played just 22 games the past three years, and Spurlock has never had more than 17 catches in a year - but should bolster the return game. And each can play adequately at wideout in a pinch. Although Parrish lacks the kind of size the Chargers have always preferred, he is good in space, once appeared to be a rising presence as a slot receiver and could be effective if healthy.
The upshot is that the Chargers haven't quite replaced Jackson, but they have compensated for his departure, and could do well in a revamped passing game.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
--As characterized by an excellent Wall Street Journal piece this week, the NFL has experienced a problem in getting fans out from in front of their television sets - where folks have access to replays, wireless and Red Zone network updates - and into the stadiums. The WSJ piece cites a 4.5-percent decrease in ticket sales over the past four years in detailing the NFL's new effort to maximize the stadium experience via wi-fi, increased replays and players wearing microphones.
But the problem isn't just in a dip in ticket sales; it's a decrease in, well, actual stadium attendance. By policy, most franchises no longer report actual, in-stadium attendance publicly or to the media. The Sports Xchange is working to compile the actual figures, at least from the stadiums owned or operated by local government entities, but some officials privately concede a few clubs averaged 5,000 or so "no-shows" in 2011.
And there are some league and team officials who consider the problem of people buying tickets and still staying away from games nearly as critical as the issue of fans not purchasing tickets at all.
--The non-nonsense approach of Tampa Bay rookie coach Greg Schiano could be tested a bit, even before training camp begins, with the felony DUI arrest of corner Eric Wright last week. But some Bucs officials insist that Schiano won't waiver in his emphasis on character, and running a much tighter ship, and on expecting plenty of personal accountability from his players.
"The (Wright) deal could be a tough one, but (Schiano) is serious about cleaning some stuff up," one team official told The Sports Xchange this week.
The Bucs invested a five-year, $38 million contract in Wright, so that might complicate matters a bit. And the team may still have to deal with league discipline for fellow cornerback Aqib Talib, even though authorities have dismissed an aggravated assault charge against him.
"It's something Greg is going to have to work through, but his message won't change," the official said.
--Apparently, the debate over whether a kicker handles kickoff duties was not a factor in the four-year, $13 million contract that Denver's Matt Prater signed this week.
We suggested last week that the four-year, $13.2 million contract to which Tampa Bay recently signed Connor Barth might be a negotiating point in some of the other kicker-related negotiations, because the Bucs' standout landed the deal even though punter Michael Koenen kicks off.
But Prater, who does kick off, and had 47 touchbacks in 2011, took a deal worth $200,000 less in total compensation than the one Barth got. Over the past 41 games, which corresponded to the same period in which Barth played for Tampa Bay, Prater connected on 81.0 percent of his field-goal attempts. Barth was slightly better, at 84.0 percent.
It will be interesting to see how much the kickoff factor impacts Josh Scobee's contract negotiations with Jacksonville, which have resumed after a long hiatus. Scobee has privately noted the kickoff role and its importance in discussions with Jaguars officials.
The other two "franchised" kickers, we're told, Phil Dawson of Cleveland and Cincinnati's Mike Nugent, probably aren't as affected. It's doubtful the Bengals will have any kind of long-term discussions with Nugent before the start of the season. Cleveland and Dawson appear content to work off the one-year franchise tender, as they did last season.
Of course, the caveat is that the Browns, because of the recent ruling in favor of Drew Brees, would have to pay Dawson 144 percent of his $3.81 million salary if he was designated a franchise player for a third time. That would be $5.49 million. So for Dawson, who will be 38 before next year's franchise deadline, there probably won't be a third franchise marker, or maybe a long-term deal, either.
--In the past few weeks, Seattle rookie quarterback Russell Wilson - his height (or lack thereof), initial contract (still the best in the third round), and potential as a starter in his NFL maiden voyage - has been a popular Tip Sheet subject.
There's no direct allusion to the former Wisconsin/North Carolina State star this week, but it might be worth noting how difficult it is for a player chosen after the second round to start on Opening Day in his rookie season. The last time a rookie selected after the second round started a season opener was way back in 2005, when Kyle Orton, a fourth-rounder with the Bears and the 106th prospect off the board that year, opened the campaign.
"Believe me, it's really on-the-job training," Orton, now the backup to Tony Romo in Dallas, told The Sports Xchange.
The former Purdue quarterback was 10-5 as a starter his rookie season, including an eight-game winning streak.
There were 46 quarterbacks picked after the first two rounds in the six-year stretch 2006-11, and none started the season opener as a rookie for his respective team.
The undersized Wilson, plucked by the Seahawks in the third round, with the No. 75 overall choice, has overcome long odds most of his career. And the past isn't necessarily a prelude to the future or a predictor of how he'll eventually fare in the league. But the strong endorsement of coach Pete Carroll aside, Wilson will have a rough time overcoming the recent history of passers taken in the third round or later.
So it's no surprise that Carroll has tabbed six-year pro Tarvaris Jackson to take the first-team snaps at the outset of camp. A much bigger surprise will be if it's Wilson at the top of the depth chart for the Seahawks' opener at Arizona on Sept. 9.
--Speaking of Tarvaris Jackson, the Seattle quarterback is the last player from Alabama State to be chosen higher than the fourth round, having been grabbed by Minnesota in the second round in 2006. Over the past 25 years, Alabama State had only two players chosen as high as the second round.
The FCS-level school may have landed another possible high-round choice on Thursday, however, when former Georgia tailback Isaiah Crowell transferred to the school after being booted off the Bulldogs' squad by coach Mark Richt following an arrest.
There is a big "but" that's attached, though, to the back. Crowell, the highest-rated high school runner in the country a year ago, and the SEC freshman of the year in 2011 when he rushed for 850 yards and five touchdowns, "might have" first-round potential, according to one NFC area scout. But the scout, and several colleagues, emphasized that Crowell, who suffered disciplinary problems in his first college season, will have to rehabilitate his image considerably over the next few seasons.
"A guy as good as he was supposed to be ... yeah, you start filing away some mental notes even at this early point in his career," a personnel director indicated on Thursday evening. "And the word we're getting was that he was a royal pain at Georgia. He's got a few years now before he's draft-eligible, and (scouts) will be watching him as much for what he does of the field as how well he plays on it. Here's hoping this (matures) him."
--The recent remarks of Buffalo center Eric Wood, regarding his solid rehabilitation from the knee injury that limited him to nine games in 2011, magnified the confidence of the Bills' staff about an improved line this year.
Buffalo coaches feel that if Wood can stay healthy - the former first-rounder has suffered two major injuries in three seasons, a fractured leg in '09, and an ACL last year - he can be a Pro Bowl-level performer.
The Bills still have a question at left tackle, where second-year veteran Chris Hairston and rookie second-rounder Cordy Glenn should compete for the starting job, but right tackle Erik Pears seems to have solidified that position. And the coaches also feel that left guard Andy Levitre might be one the most unheralded linemen in the league.
--Four teams - Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Miami and Washington - each have a draft pick involved in the logjams of unsigned prospects at the top of both the first (top eight players unsigned) and third (first nine players without contracts) rounds - and none have seemed to make much progress lately.
The first round stalemates involve so-called "offset language" and the hurdle in the third stanza is the players' attempts to maximize the 25-percent increases in their base salaries. It appears that in all the cases, the negotiations won't be resolved quickly but should be completed before training camps begin in roughly three weeks.
An agent for multiple first- and third-round picks, however, allowed this week that discussions are "slow going" with "little movement" from the franchises involved. There were, on Friday morning, just 32 of 253 picks who were still unsigned: 14 in the first round, three in the second, 13 in the third and one each in the fourth and fifth rounds. The rookie wage scale certainly has accomplished part of its intent, in getting deals done on time, but there could still be a straggler or two, given the slow pace in the first and third rounds.
-One of the more puzzling aspects at this late juncture of free agency is the lack of action on unemployed veteran kicker Ryan Longwell, released by Minnesota after the Vikings chose Blair Walsh of Georgia in the sixth round. Longwell is a 15-year veteran and will turn 38 next month, but he's got a lifetime conversion rate of 83.2 percent, kicks off and should at least be on the "short list" of a few teams.
-There is a glut of veteran free agent punters - Jason Baker, Brad Maynard, Mat McBriar, Daniel Sepulveda and Matt Turk - whose names are on the speed dials of a few personnel directors should their teams struggle in camp or preseason.
-With only about three weeks until The Opening of camp, there has been no progress, and, in fact, very little negotiation, toward a resolution of wide receiver Mike Wallace's contract situation in Pittsburgh.
-Despite the aforementioned concerns at cornerback, there has been little talk so far among the Bucs' staff about moving Ronde Barber back outside. The 15-year veteran is slated to move to free safety in 2012 and worked very little at corner in "base" situations in the spring. Moving him back to cornerback probably remains a possibility, but not until the team's off-field issues at the position are resolved, and not until coaches have a chance in camp to evaluate some other players.
-The arrest of Wright calls to mind a note from much earlier in the spring, suggesting that the Bucs' three high-profile free agency additions could be problematical in some ways. Jackson, of course, had a contentious history in San Diego over the past few years. Guard Carl Nicks experienced some issues in college. And Wright wasn't always known as a leader in Cleveland or Detroit.
-The Houston defensive staff isn't apt to suggest again that free agent addition Bradie James will give the team the same level of play as DeMeco Ryans, who was traded to Philadelphia in the offseason. But the Texans are heartened by the play of James, a nine-year veteran who groused at times in Dallas about his playing time. James has pretty much established himself as the starter next to Brian Cushing in Houston's 3-4 scheme.
-So Miami wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, 34, wants to play until he's 40, huh? Funny, but the New England Patriots, for whom Ochocinco caught only 15 passes in 15 games in 2011, thought he'd retired in 2011.
-It appears that more defensive coordinators are working this offseason on nickel coverage designs that include three safeties. The emphasis, of course, remains on No. 3 cornerbacks, since so many clubs now play with three corners for 50 percent or more of the snaps. But the success of multiple-tight end looks, and the continued trend toward bigger wide receivers, has prompted a look at three-safety packages as well. The emphasis in general on locating safeties with some corner-type coverage abilities is increasing.
THE LAST WORD
"I really do not believe it's a big deal. I just think that they don't, in general, give (short quarterbacks) the opportunities, or stick with them. A guy that's undersized has to prove himself right away. And if you don't have success right away, you're out the door. (It's) similar to a (Tim) Tebow situation. If Tim Tebow had taken over the Broncos last year and lost his first two or three games, he'd never have seen the field again. Instead, he won whatever it was - five, six in a row - and they kept doubting him until next week, until next week, until next week. (But) if he were the 6-4 guy who was a true pocket passer, drafted in the first round and the franchise decided, 'This is our guy,' then he goes out and loses his first three or four starts . . . well, there is a learning curve involved. And they have patience with him. And that's my frustration with it." --Former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie, per NFL.com, on the league's perceived bias against short quarterbacks.
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.