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There were probably some fans, but not many NFL pro personnel officials, surprised at the news that the cap-strapped Oakland Raiders, who have plenty of bookkeeping yet to accomplish before the league year officially commences, will use the franchise tag to retain strong safety Tyvon Branch.

Arguably at least, Branch is probably the least known of the players who, through Friday at noon, had received the franchise marker.

But the former Connecticut standout is better known in league circles than among the fans and most personnel executives admire his toughness, even at a position that historically has been lower profile.

Various Raiders team officials have been pumping Branch to The Sports Xchange for a while now, and the four-year veteran has been touted in this space for the past two months, and regarded as a Raiders priority. "He was a guy they couldn't let go," longtime league personnel man Ken Herock, who served as one of the consultants to new Oakland owner Mark Davis, told The Sports Xchange. "The best player in their secondary, even if (some fans) didn't know about him."

Another one of the former team officials who counseled the younger Davis, termed Branch "a building block no one knows about." But, obviously, pro scouts around the league knew about the former fourth-round draft pick, and he rated nicely at a position that hasn't always been a priority for many clubs.

In three years as a starter, Branch has averaged 112.3 tackles and, while he has just three career interceptions and isn't regarded as a premier playmaker, brings the kind of intensity that Raiders need on a defense that figures to be revamped in '12, after finishing a disappointing No. 29 statistically in 2011.

The new football tandem of general manager Reggie McKenzie and Coach Dennis Allen quickly came to realize, after evaluating the defense, that Branch was a player they had to keep. And there is some optimism that the team can reach a long-term agreement with Branch before the July 15 deadline for doing such deals with franchise players.

The Raiders released the overrated cornerback Stanford Routt two weeks ago, but there apparently was no way they were going to let Branch hit the market. The franchise tag will cost the Raiders $6.2 million, down nearly 30 percent from a year ago, but they already are at working on the potential long-term deal for Branch.

What about Wimbley?

The other defensive veteran some feel the Raiders can't afford to lose is linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, but it is probably only 50-50, perhaps a bit less, that the six-year pro returns.

Team executive Tom Delaney and agent Joe Linta spoke Thursday evening, and while the latter contended the two sides "continue to work hard to make it work," the situation is dicey.

Wimbley still has roughly $18 million in guarantees remaining on the five-year, $48 million extension he signed in the summer of 2011, but new general manager Reggie McKenzie has indicated there are some deals negotiated by the late Al Davis with which he can't live, and the suspicion is that the Wimbley contract is one of them.

Wimbley is only 28 and, while he likes it in Oakland, and has been productive defender in the 4-3, with 16 sacks in his two Bay Area seasons, the former Cleveland first-rounder (2006) might be intrigued by the potential to get back to a 3-4 team where he can rush the passer with even greater frequency. It will be interesting to see, if Wimbley is released, just how healthy a market he generates.

He hasn't notched double-digit sacks since his rookie season, but has 42.5 quarterback kills in his career, and he could flourish even more if used differently.

There could be more discussions over the weekend but, as for right now, an accommodation isn't close.

Mathis matters

Amid reports that negotiations between the Indianapolis Colts and pending unrestricted free agent Robert Mathis have "warmed up considerably," this dose of cold reality: the talks couldn't even be characterized as tepid as of Thursday night, because there hadn't been any negotiations, substantive or otherwise, to that point, The Sports Xchange has learned.

That might have changed later on Thursday night — neither side could be reached as of this writing — but even that might have been a big stretch, and would have required a major escalation of the dialogue.

Beyond a couple casual, get-acquainted conversations between new Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson and Mathis' camp, there had been no serious talks about a potential contract extension.

No proposals had been exchanged. Mathis earned $30 million on the five-year extension he signed in 2007, the bulk of the money in the first three seasons of the deal.

At age 31, any extension would have to be similarly structured, with big-time, front-loaded payouts.

There is still some chance the Colts might apply the franchise designation, but Mathis is dead-set against being tagged, and the marker could result in some acrimony.

The nine-year veteran has averaged 10.0 sacks over the past eight seasons, has notched more than seven sacks in each of the eight years, and had 9.5 sacks or more in all but one of the campaigns. In addition to his 83.5 career sacks, Mathis, like teammate Dwight Freeney, is adept at the sack-and-strip move, as evidenced by his 39 career forced fumbles.

Even at his age, Mathis figures to have a good many suitors if he gets to the open market.

More Mathis

On the subject of Mathis, even though he has played in a 4-3 his entire career, the veteran rushman, whom some teams feel had his best season in 2011, certainly will consider a switch to a 3-4. That could come, of course, in Indianapolis, where new coach Chuck Pagano has historically been a 3-4 devotee. Or it could be elsewhere as well. Even with his 4-3 background, and a lack of empirical evidence that Mathis can drop and cover and play in space, several defenses with a 3-4 "base" front have him rated as a possible free agent target a rush linebacker.

Debating D'Qwell

One of the head-scratchers of the week, at least to many executives, was the five-year, $38.5 million extension (advertised as $42.5 million but containing bonuses and escalators that could bring it in at less) to which the Cleveland Browns signed middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.

The six-year veteran is a solid enough player and was very productive last season, most agree, but not a difference-maker.

And for a guy who will bank close to $17 million in the first two years of the extension, he's somewhat suspect physically, having suffered two pectoral injuries that limited him to just six appearances total in 2009-2010.

The contract spiral in general at the inside linebacker position has been justifiably puzzling to some people.

In general, inside linebackers, no matter the scheme, are two-down defenders. Sure, there are guys like Patrick Willis and Jerod Mayo who break the mold, but teams clearly are overspending on some guys who are merely run-stuffers.

Jackson had a nice season in 2011, with 3.5 sacks and four passes defensed to go along with 158 tackles, but he's still not regarded as special. The next couple middle linebackers to cash in probably will be Curtis Lofton of Atlanta and Detroit's Stephen Tulloch, whether they go elsewhere or re-sign with their incumbent clubs, but it's not that difficult, some personnel guys insist, to find two-down defenders.

The Falcons value Lofton because of his smarts and because he is a guy with good football instincts who gets everyone lined up in the right place. One has to wonder — and, trust us, some in the Atlanta organization agree — just how high the price tag should be for a player of Lofton's ilk.

Although he often played on third down last season, Lofton is deficient in coverage. Still, his numbers are pretty commensurate to those of Jackson, so someone may overpay for him.

Ward's future

Hines Ward had yet to appear on the official league transaction report as of Thursday at the end of business.

While Pittsburgh officials have announced he will be released, the Steelers' 14-year veteran is not technically yet a free man.

When he is officially cut loose, Ward, who has said he wants to continue his career in 2012, may find it somewhat difficult to find a home.

One league personnel director whose franchise has been rumored to be interested in Ward, pointed out to The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that the Steelers star's 8.3-yard average per catch in 2011 was the lowest in the league for a wide receiver with at least 40 receptions.

The next-lowest was Jacksonville's Mike Thomas, who with a 9.4-yard average (on 44 catches) was more than a full yard better. The official made an interesting point: Ward had five receptions in the season finale victory at Cleveland, a total that got him to 1,000 for his career.

But the official noted that the achievement might have cost him a roster spot. He suggested that, were Ward shy of the 1,000-reception mark, the Steelers might have been more inclined to bring him back for 2012.

We don't agree, and neither do the Pittsburgh officials to whom we spoke, but it's an interesting take on Ward's bittersweet milestone.

By the way, to the people who have opined that Ward is a lock for the Hall of Fame, a couple statistical factoids: Of the seven wide receivers who have 1,000 or more catches in their careers, Ward has the lowest yards per reception (12.1) of any of them. And his average is well below that of any of the seven Hall of Fame wide receivers whose careers began after 1970.

Giant catch?

It was a below-the-radar-screen move, for sure, but veteran wide receiver Domenik Hixon has essentially agreed to return to the New York Giants.

So what's the big deal, especially given that Hixon has suffered ACL injuries to his right knee each of the past two seasons, and has appeared in just 16 games (two starts) since the end of the 2009 campaign?

Just this: The Giants, who demonstrated this season that they can develop receivers — in the wake of the Super Bowl victory, does anyone remember the angst over the departures of Steve Smith and Kevin Boss last year now? — feel that Hixon can still be a productive No. 3 (No. 4 at worst) wide receiver for them.

Hixon is most noted in some circles as a return man, but despite the knee injuries, he still retains some sneaky deep speed. And in 2009, starting in just seven of 16 appearances, he had 43 catches.

That's four more receptions than Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, all but assured to depart in free agency, registered for the 2011 campaign.

Yeah, Hixon has some of the same inconsistencies of Manningham, but will cost a lot less and, if he can stay healthy, should provide a viable backup to Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. And the Giants staff still has hopes for second-year veteran Jerrel Jernigan, a third-rounder in 2011.

The Clemson clause

In each of the past five drafts, Clemson has had at least one defensive lineman selected, including four players in the first two rounds, and the streak won't end this year, despite pretty uneven results so far by the former Tigers stars.

End Andre Branch and tackle Brandon Thompson both are highly regarded prospects, each of whom scored some points at the combine, and they can be perceived as players on the rise.

Part of what makes both attractive is their shared versatility, a quality NFL scouts clearly have not overlooked.

"The way the game is played now, with people jumping in and out of (multiple) fronts, it's a big plus for them," said one NFC area scout whose territory includes the ACC.

Branch, who had 17 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2011, is a hybrid-type edge defender, who might be able to play end in a 4-3 or some 3-4 outside rush linebacker. Timed at 4.70, Branch looks to have great upfield burst, and his 77 tackles last season indicate he is also active versus the run.

He could go off the board in the first round.

Maybe more surprising is Thompson, a player who some teams told The Sports Xchange might still squeeze into the very bottom of the first round.

The second round is more realistic, but Thompson seems to be growing on people. The key for the 314-pound Thompson, who had an excellent week at the Senior Bowl but did not run in Indianapolis, is that a few clubs, like New England, feel he can play the pure "five-technique" end spot in a 3-4, and perhaps slide inside to tackle to log some 4-3 snaps.

Thompson had just 4.5 sacks in his college career, but scouts contend there is some pass-rush potential there, and that Thompson isn't just a nose tackle-type player.

Scouts high on Hill

The man who might have sent scouts scrambling to the videotape following the end of the combine earlier this week is Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill, regarded as among the so-called big winners from the Indy sessions.

Hill caught only 49 balls in three seasons in coach Paul Johnson's run-heavy triple-option offense, yet averaged 25.5 yards per reception, and clocked a blistering 4.36 40 at the combine, with a vertical jump of 39 1/2 inches.

Scouts are already dialing up former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis, the offensive coordinator at Savannah State and a guy who has worked diligently with Hill on route-running, for his take on the wideout.

And people are calling sprint coach Loren Seagraves, who also drew a Falcons paycheck and worked on explosive speed with Hill, and who has a ton of league contacts, for Hill insights.

"Raw in a lot of ways, but some of the stuff he does just makes your jaw drop," Mathis told The Sports Xchange. "There's so much to work with."

Hill said his role model is Detroit stud wideout Calvin Johnson, but the former Yellow Jackets player to whom he is most often compared is Demaryius Thomas, the 22nd overall choice of Denver in 2010.

Thomas was arguably more productive at the college level, with 85 catches in two seasons in Johnson's offense (120 total in three seasons), but was injury-prone and was unable to run at the '10 combine because of a broken foot. Even after he was drafted, Thomas broke the foot a second time, then sustained an Achilles tendon injury.

It's felt at this point that Hill is a tad better route-runner than was Thomas coming out of college, but that the latter might have been a little more physical.

But scouts feel that Hill has similar characteristics to Thomas, who torched the Pittsburgh secondary in Denver's playoff victory two months ago, and want to do a lot more research.

"The size and speed, obviously, are there," agreed one NFC scout. "But, outside of ordering up the tape, you don't want to fall all over yourself yet."

Running back roundup

As outlined by several media outlets in the past week, perhaps most astutely by old friend Clark Judge of CBSSports.com, the current mindset in the league is to not use a top 10 pick on a running back, given the manner in which the position is utilized now, the relatively short shelf life, and the success teams have had in unearthing viable and productive runners in later rounds.

There was only one runner chosen in the 2011 draft, former Alabama star Mark Ingram by New Orleans, and his onetime Crimson Tide teammate, Trent Richardson, could be the lone back in the first round in two months.

Richardson, though, is seen as a top 10 selection. But while Richardson is pretty much everyone's pick as the No. 1 back, and seemingly a lock to be chosen in the top 10, as usual there remains considerable debate about who the second back off the board will be, and how high he will be tabbed.

One somewhat surprising result of the combine, beyond the fact there are some speedy prospects, is that the running back spot as a group might include more overall durability and toughness than previously believed. Even in a league where time sharing has become so prevalent, those attributes are coveted.

A few scouts noted after the combine that nearly all of the highly rated backs possess some injury history, but have logged 200 carries or more in a college season.

Even a prospect with some definite warts, like Chris Polk of Washington, averaged 276.5 rushing attempts in his final two seasons. Lamar Miller of Miami, the speediest back at the combine (4.40), had a 227-carry season.

Virginia Tech underclass prospect David Wilson, another very fast runner, has a 290-attempt season on his resume. Doug Martin from Boise State had a 263-carry season.

Even the undersized LaMichael James, a player some compare to Darren Sproles and viewed more as a complementary back because of his size, averaged 257.0 carries over three seasons at Oregon.

As one general manager noted, Richardson probably will be the lone back in the first round, certainly in the top 20, but there "will be enough runners to go around."

Punts

People close to Indianapolis pending unrestricted free agent Pierre Garcon contend that the reports the four-year veteran wide receiver recently rejected a five-year, $35 million extension offer are overstated. Garcon, people close to him suggest to The Sports Xchange, never received a formal offer from the team. It might be only semantics, for sure, so take it for what it's worth, but the Garcon camp was fairly adamant that an offer was never actually proposed.

-- One of the former Clemson defensive linemen alluded to above — and who falls onto the wrong side of the "uneven results" label — is 2011 second-round draft choice Jarvis Jenkins. But word is that defensive coordinator Jim Haslett is very impressed by Jenkins, who didn't play a snap as a rookie in '11 after suffering an ACL injury in preseason, and feels he could be a starter in his second year.

-- Informed on Thursday that he will be released, Pittsburgh defensive end Aaron Smith, one of the unsung heroes of the club's success the past several years and arguably one of the best "five-technique" 3-4 ends to ever play, will definitely retire. Another former Pittsburgh starter who will be cut, guard Chris Kemoeatu, indicated to team officials that he would reduce his base salary by half, from $3.6 million to $1.8 million, to remain with the team as a backup. But the Steelers had already decided to part with the penalty-prone Kemoeatu, whose performance declined precipitously the past couple seasons.

-- Of the players released so far by the Steelers, who have slashed close to $38 million from their salary cap with cuts and restructured deals, the most likely to return on a minimum deal if no market develops for him is linebacker James Farrior. By the way, the Pittsburgh staff doesn't agree with many fans that two-year veteran Stevenson Sylvester is ready to start inside next to Lawrence Timmons. The club could go with Larry Foote as the starter, but will draft an inside 'backer somewhere during the lottery.

-- If the aforementioned Lofton doesn't re-sign in Atlanta, there are people in the organization comfortable with the idea of elevating second-year veteran Akeem Dent to the starter's spot at middle linebacker.

-- The Falcons seem to have overspent to keep defensive end Kroy Biermann off the market. Biermann is a decent situational rusher but has just 12.5 sacks in four seasons.

-- Most scouts at the combine felt that North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins handled interrogation about his past indiscretions better than did Arizona State linebacker Vontaz Burfict. And not just in the media interview sessions, but in the sit-downs with individual teams. Jenkins, who was dismissed by the University of Florida after two-marijuana-related incidents, and who has four children aged 3 and under by three different women, is said to have addressed his past problems more head-on. The feeling was that Burfict, a high-round talent whose demeanor could cost him in the draft, was the more defensive of the two.

-- Houston officials have quietly begun to prepare numbers for a contract extension push with quarterback Matt Schaub, who will be entering the final season of his contract in 2011. The Texans would prefer to get something done sooner rather than later with their triggerman, and avoid the kind of situation the Saints are experiencing with Drew Brees.

-- Expect a new-look New England secondary in 2012, after a fairly disastrous 2011 campaign that had the Patriots scrambling for bodies and forced to play a pair of wide receivers, Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater, at safety. Bill Belichick again has two first-round picks and, while it's popular to project that he'll use one of them on a cornerback, that may not be the case. Still, safety Patrick Chung could be the lone returning player to line up in the same place next season. The keys will be the health of 2011 second-rounder Ras-I Dowling, who missed all but two games as a rookie because of a season-ending hip injury, and what the staff decides to do with Devin McCourty. A Pro Bowl choice as a rookie in 2010, McCourty was frequently moved inside to safety last year, and some staffers still feel that might be his best position. It's not out of the realm of possibility, either, that Dowling ends up at safety.

-- The combine results at wide receiver were somewhat mixed. While Georgia Tech's Stephen Hill dazzled scouts and Notre Dame's Michael Floyd might have moved himself into the No. 2 hole behind Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, some players expected to run fast turned in pedestrian times. One guy who helped himself, though, in terms of size (6-0 1/8, 198), speed (4.36), receiving ability, and health status, was Stanford's Chris Owusu. Forced to miss time each of the past two seasons because of concussions, Owusu checked out well with the medical people in Indy, although some teams still want to perform further due diligence on him, and was solid in all aspects. He won't go in the first round, but looks like a second-rounder who could contribute early.

-- Things could still fall apart, but the Jets are closing in on a contract extension with nose tackle Sione Pouha, an unsung player the team feels is crucial to the success of their 3-4.

-- Dallas is also working hard on an extension for outside linebacker Anthony Spencer. Despite lining up opposite DeMarcus Ware, the former first-rounder has never registered more than six sacks, and The Sports Xchange posited a few weeks ago that Spencer might not be retained. But coaches feel that, with the possible reshaping of the inside linebacker spot, and the likely exits of Keith Brooking and Bradie James, it might be better to try to keep Spencer around.

-- Unlike last year, when there was a healthy pool of 3-4 "five technique" prospects in the draft — guys like J.J. Watt and several players who ended up with 4-3 teams but who could have manned the position — there is a lack of such candidates for 2012. Some of the best "five technique" prospects look to be guys, like the aforementioned Thompson of Clemson, who played tackle in college and could move outside. One such player sometimes mentioned is Michigan's Mike Martin, but most scouts seem to feel that, while he isn't the 340-something pounder preferred by some 3-4 clubs, his best spot remains as a nose tackle prospect.

-- As predicted in a column by The Sports Xchange a few weeks ago, Baltimore linebacker Jarret Johnson is getting plenty of attention already as a pending unrestricted free agent. This week, it was reported that the New York Jets could be interested in Johnson, because of his familiarity with coach Rex Ryan, his former Ravens' defensive coordinator. There are some teams, though, who see the steady Johnson, who had just 3.5 sacks the past two seasons, as a decent fit as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 at this point of his career. No matter where he plays, though, Johnson, 31, will have a surprisingly good market. The Ravens, who used three-year veteran Paul Kruger as a pass-rush replacement for Johnson last year, seem prepared to elevate him to the starting job.

-- Perhaps it could be just gamesmanship on their part, but Cleveland officials contend they're not as sold yet on Robert Griffin III as some might believe.

-- There are plenty of mid-level wide receivers who will garner attention in free agency, and Atlanta's Harry Douglas figures to be one of them. Another guy who will be in demand, although with much more profile, is Eddie Royal of Denver.

-- So far, free agent quarterback Donovan NcNabb doesn't seem to have any suitors. That could change, of course, but there's a perception in the league that McNabb will find it difficult to accept a backup role.

-- With the use of the franchise tag on Branch, the Raiders will make one more push toward trying to re-sign tailback Michael Bush, but understand he's probably out the door in free agency. Second-year veteran Taiwan Jones appears to be the heir apparent to the No. 2 job behind oft-injured Darren McFadden, but the Raiders will also seek a veteran alternative for the backup role.

-- Several teams will look extensively into the health status of free agent middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who was limited to only nine games with Tennessee in 2011 because of groin injuries. The Sports Xchange has confirmed that a few clubs consider Ruud a potential one- or two-year stopgap at middle 'backer. The former Tampa Bay standout had 57 tackles in nine games last season. In the four previous seasons, he averaged 128 tackles for the Bucs. There has been some talk that Ruud might consider retirement because of injuries, but he wants to play if healthy.

The last word

"When I look at the quarterbacks who have success year in and year out, I see quarterbacks who are great leaders, very accurate, and are great decision makers. I think those things are my three greatest strengths." -- Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, in his combine interview


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