ATL: Teams Have Answer For Wallace

AROUND THE LEAGUE: Have teams figured out how to defend Mike Wallace, thereby reducing his market value? Does Peyton Manning merit special treatment in Denver? What is Rex Ryan up to now? ...

   Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin spoke at length to the media this week about his hope that restricted free agent wide receiver Mike Wallace will return to the team.

   The deadline for signing players to restricted offer sheets is only three weeks removed and there was no evidence at the league meetings that anyone plans to make a move on the three-year veteran. But like many Steelers' officials who note that opposition defenses went to great lengths to "take away" Wallace from the offense in the second half of the season, Tomlin's logic included one flaw.

   Said the coach from another AFC team: "If that's true, what do they think, we suddenly forgot the stuff we did to Wallace in the second half? Why wouldn't we do the same stuff again?"

   Good point. In the first half of the season, Wallace averaged 5.37 receptions, 100.0 yards, and 18.6 yards per catch, with five touchdowns. Over the final eight games, his averages were 3.6 catches, 49.1 yards, and 13.6 yards per reception, with three touchdowns. Over the second half, Wallace had three games with fewer than 50 yards. All four of his 100-yard outings came in the first half of the season. There is little doubt that Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert want Wallace back, ideally on a long-term deal, and at worst under the terms of his restricted tender for one season.

   But some club officials might balk if another team signs Wallace to an offer sheet and the Steelers have to choose whether or not to match it. Fellow "Young Money" wideout Antonio Brown, who some feel is a more rounded receiver than Wallace, will be entering his restricted year in 2012, and ultimately the team will have to deal with him as well.
Restricted Free Agency

   Speaking of restricted free agents, there was a time when some observers felt that the market for three-year veterans, even with the entanglements of the whole offer sheet process, could flourish into one that was at least modest.

   But that certainly has not been the case in recent years, and likely won't be this spring, either.

   When the new CBA eliminated the first- and third-round tenders, and limited the high-level restricted tender to a first-rounder only, there was considerable speculation that players like Wallace and Baltimore cornerback Ladarius Webb might elicit offer sheets. But that doesn't appear to be the case.

   Teams have until April 20 to sign restricted free agents to offer sheets, and then their exclusive negotiating rights revert to their incumbent franchise.

   It's been two years since a restricted free agent changed teams via an offer sheet, and the draught could continue. A dozen of the 41 restricted free agents were granted tender levels higher than the round in which they were originally drafted.

   "For all intents and purposes, the (restricted) market, which was never all that big to begin with, has been eliminated," said veteran agent Frank Bauer at the league meetings. "

 Having Manning Raises The Bar

   Denver executive vice president John Elway is fond of noting that the presence of Peyton Manning for the Broncos "raises all ships." But it also raises expectations, too, for the team's loyal fans.

   And with Manning comes lofty expectations from the quarterback himself as well.

   One of the benefits of having Manning is that he fully expects his teammates to be as obsessed with the pursuit of perfection as is he. And to be just as precise, even, as coach John Fox acknowledged this week, "that's a pretty high bar."

   And some might suggest that's the lone downside with Manning, too. Even casual observers of the game are familiar by now with the Manning body language, the deep sighs and obvious frustration when a teammate doesn't quite measure up his standards.

   "He expects everyone to treat the game and prepare the same way he does," Fox said. "He definitely sets the standard."

   Some of his new teammates, particularly the wide receivers are going to have to clean up some old habits.

   Neither of the projected starting wideouts, Demaryius Thomas or Eric Decker, are regarded as great technicians. In fact, both third-year receivers have been criticized by coaches for running lazy routes, too often rounding off their patterns, and Manning will expect precision.

   Denver quarterbacks Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow threw only 13 interceptions between them in 2011, one every 33.0 attempts. That's not much worse than Manning's career mark, an interception every 36.4 passes. But team sources acknowledged at the league meetings this week that many of the receptions came from sloppy routes, and conceded that Manning will not tolerate that.

   "Those guys," allowed a team official, referring to the wideouts, "are going to have to get better."

   Another starter who will have to up his game is center J.D. Walton. The two-year veteran snapper, has struggled a bit at times in the recognition aspect of the game, and will be counted on now to make most of the pass protection calls and switches.
Easier Street For Manning

    Not that Manning is seeking any kind of favoritism or anything, but lack of coach-supervised activity with his new teammates, precluded until mid-April by the terms of the new collective bargaining agreement extension, has chafed the quarterback a bit.

   So much so that Manning has actually sent e-mails to both Elway and Fox, The Sports Xchange has learned, urging them to seek a rollback.

   That's not going to happen, so Manning is going to have to wait for formal workouts. In the meantime, as was his wont in Indianapolis, he is arranging throwing sessions with receivers at a local high school field.
Twenty Reps A Game For Tebow

   New York Jets coach Rex Ryan suggested this week that newly-acquired quarterback Tim Tebow could get as many as 20 snaps per game in the Wildcat offense that first-year coordinator Tony Sparano will install. But sources in New York contended to The Sports Xchange that the Wildcat role definitely will not be the only way in which Tebow is involved in the offense.

   The Jets and Sparano have already kicked around the idea of an H-back or fullback roles for Tebow as well. He could even, according to early suggestions, possibly align in the slot at times.

   Jets people have debunked the notion that Tebow's insertion into the game in a Wildcat role could disrupt the rhythm of starting quarterback Mark Sanchez.

   But what the Jets say publicly, and fret over privately, are two different things. There are real concerns internally about how Sanchez will react to Tebow's presence.
Rags To Riches In Carolina

    Don't try telling second-year Carolina coach Ron Rivera that he's got a glut of riches at tailback, with the free agency addition of Mike Tolbert, to go along with DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and a rehabilitating Mike Goodson.

   At the annual NFL meetings this week, Rivera, when asked how he planned to dole out carries to all the tailbacks, staunchly insisted that Tolbert is a fullback.

   On the Panthers' offseason roster and depth chart, he is listed as an "FB," even though he averaged 151.5 rushes the past two seasons, after totaling just 38 carries his first two years in the league.

   "We didn't get him to play tailback," Rivera told The Sports Xchange. "He's a fullback to us. He can run some of the fullback leads and bellies we couldn't run a year ago. That's what he is, a fullback."

   Time will tell.

   Despite the assessment from Rivera -- who emphasized that he and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski coached Tolbert in San Diego, and are familiar with his strengths -- the four-year veteran is not an especially strong lead-blocker, according to league scouts.

   He does, however, have good hands, having caught 54 balls in 2011, and is solid in pass protection. Part of how the Panthers utilize Tolbert might depend on what they do with Stewart.

   The fourth-year veteran is entering the final season of his original rookie contract, and general manager Marty Hurney was pretty adamant this week about not dealing Stewart, despite contentions in this space last week that Carolina brass would listen to offers for him. People close to Stewart claim there have been no discussions on an extension, either from the Panthers or another club with permission to stretch out his deal, so perhaps Carolina will hold onto him, and net a compensatory pick if he were to depart next spring as a free agent.

   In that scenario, Tolbert, who signed a four-year, $10 million contract, would be a nice insurance policy. Last season, the Carolina fullback, Richie Brockel, a converted tight end, had only three carries, and one of those was on a trick "fumblerooski" play on which he scored. If Tolbert gets a healthy workload as a fullback, though, it will still be regarded as an upset.
New Leader In Atlanta?

    To the surprise of very few, Atlanta coach Mike Smith suggested that weak-side linebacker Sean Weatherspoon will be asked in his third season to assume some of the leadership void created by the free agency departure of middle 'backer Curtis Lofton.

   Weatherspoon has been mentioned several times in the Tip Sheet as a developing, young star.

   Lofton, who signed with New Orleans last week -- five years, base value of about $27.5 million, quite a comedown from the $8 million-$9 million per year he was seeking at the outset of free agency -- is a good, but limited, player, a two-down run-stuffer, who was more a liability on third down than the Falcons will ever admit.

   "His time has come," Smith said of Weathersoon, who the coach felt was Atlanta's most valuable defender in '11. "Time to take that next step."

   There is even a possibility that Weatherspoon, the Falcons' first-round choice in 2010, will be asked to make some of the defensive calls that were Lofton's responsibility.

   "I'm ready," Weatherspoon said. "Ready for it all."

Pittsburgh officials say 11-year veteran nose tackle Casey Hampton is making good progress from the anterior cruciate ligament injury he sustained in a playoff loss at Denver, and the subsequent surgery to his left knee. But they also suggested that the five-time Pro Bowl defender is a candidate to open the season on the physically unable to perform list, which would sideline him for at least six games.

   --As detailed this week by, the NFLPA definitely made some financial concessions for the future to bump up the salary cap spending limit for the 2012 season.

   --One area in which teams seem to be cooperating with agents in free agency, to make player representatives look better is in guaranteed salaries. More clubs are fully guaranteeing the first- and second-year base salaries of contracts to make the deals appear better. Tacitly, unless a team strikes a really bad deal, those seasons are essentially "guaranteed" anyway. But the practice tends to reduce the signing bonus outlay and keeps agents happy.

   --The odd-man out in the Carolina tailback collection could be Mike Goodson, who appeared in only four games in 2011 because of a hamstring injury. Goodson notched 103 rushes for 452 yards in 2010, and might be another nice insurance policy down the road, if Jonathan Stewart exits in 2013.

   --A few scouts who attended the Thursday workout of Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw came away with some concerns about his quickness, and whether he can play on the edge in the NFL. Upshaw struggled in the 40 and in some lateral drills, and clubs will schedule individual workouts to better gauge his status.

   --There were a few talent evaluators at the much-anticipated Thursday session of Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill who felt his accuracy and arm strength were good, but who still want to see him drive the deep ball a little better. Tannehill is reportedly a bright guy who does well "at the blackboard" for scouts, but who might still need some developmental time. That factor, along with his lack of experience at the position, could be a caveat for the teams allegedly considering him as a top 10 pick next month.

   --Denver's Ryan Clady, noted in this space a couple weeks ago as a player who will benefit from Peyton Manning's presence, led left tackles leaguewide with seven holding penalties in 2011. Broncos coaches blame the team's quarterbacks, far more than Clady, for holding the ball in the pocket too long.

   --Minnesota coach Leslie Frazier insisted the Vikings haven't yet decided on USC tackle Matt Kalil with the third overall choice in the draft. Neither Frazier nor club officials would comment on a report by The Sports Xchange a few weeks ago that the Vikings are seriously considering LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne with the pick.

   --A source close to unrestricted free agent tight end Dallas Clark termed "ridiculous" the report that the former Indianapolis standout will never play again. Said the source: "If it's true, it's new to Dallas." The onetime Pro Bowl performer has been limited to just 17 appearances over the past two seasons because of wrist and leg injuries, but plans to play in 2012, even if the market is a little soft right now.

   --Stat stuff: Over the course of his career, Manning has averaged 26.1 points per game. In his career as a head coach, Fox is 38-3 in games in which his team scored 26 or more points.

   --The not-so-subtle hints about improved ball security that first-year Tampa Bay coach Greg Schano directed at LeGarrette Blount this week merited plenty of attention. And, given that Blount has fumbled nine times in two seasons (six lost), deservedly so. But two other big factors that have caused some concern about Blount with the new coaching staff, and which could prompt the Bucs to take a long look at Alabama tailback Trent Richardson with the fifth overall pick in the draft, are his dubious pass protection skills and the perception he hasn't grasped some elements of the offense.

   --Even though Cincinnati invested a three-year, $9 million contract to pry BenJarvus Green-Ellis from New England, the back known as "The Law Firm" is still expected to share time with three-year veteran Bernard Scott. And the Bengals likely will add another tailback in the first three or four rounds of the draft. Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden favors a tailback slot more by committee, and, thus, the decision to not try to keep Cedric Benson around.

   --While officials from both Dallas and Washington allowed privately this week that legal action might be the next step in battling the salary cap sanctions imposed on the two clubs, assuming their grievances are denied, they are closely investigating league by-laws to determine the viability of potential lawsuits.

   --The Dolphins have begun negotiations with the representatives for left offensive tackle Jake Long about a contract extension. Long, who will make $11.2 million in 2011, is entering the final year of his rookie contract.

   --Arizona was wise to re-sign unrestricted free agent wide receiver Early Doucet to a two-year deal (terms undisclosed), given that the four-year veteran is coming off a career-best 54 catches. But some Cardinals' people think that third-year wide receiver Andre Roberts, who started all 16 games in 2011 and registered 51 catches, is the real up-and-comer at the position. The club also feels that third-year veteran Stephen Williams, a onetime undrafted college free agent who played in only two games last season and didn't have a catch, will improve dramatically and bolster a position where Larry Fitzgerald is, of course, the stud performer.

   --The Eagles, both coach Andy Reid and club officials, are ecstatic over the trade acquisition of middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans, whom they feel is a much more natural 4-3 "Mike" linebacker. "It's still hard to believe we got him," Reid said.
   *The last word: "It was a circus, and it's going to be more of a circus with (Tebow) in the locker room. I'm not questioning his ability to play the game. He can flat-out play the game. But it's going to bring more to the locker room, (with) every day, 'Does Mark need to start? Does Tim need to start?' It's going to just be an ongoing thing throughout the whole season." -- New York Jets' cornerback Darrelle Revis on the addition of Tebow to a locker room he said was in "disarray" in 2011

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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