By Len Pasquarelli
The Sports Xchange
Amid reports that the New Orleans Saints could part ways with tailback Reggie Bush, rather than pay him the $11.8 million he is scheduled to make in 2011, the personnel department and a few assistants from at least one AFC team broke out some video of the veteran this week to gauge whether he might be a fit as a slot receiver in the club's offense.
"It's intriguing, but we just don't know yet," one of the coaches told The Sports Xchange. "But it's a pretty good example of some of the ways we spend the time we've got right now, with no players. ... You get a wild (idea) and, instead of just dismissing it out of hand, it turns into a project."
Of course, Saints' coach Sean Payton has been adamant that he wants Bush back and that he can still fit into the New Orleans offense. And quarterback Drew Brees messaged Bush that he still has a role.
But people close to Bush, who were confidently suggesting only a month ago that he could return to New Orleans with a contract extension that made him financially "whole" for this year, have expressed some doubts, now that the Saints traded back up into the first round to bag Mark Ingram with a second first-round pick.
It's a crowded backfield in New Orleans with Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory, Lynell Hamilton, Ingram and Bush. And not even Payton, a master at creating roles for all of his backs, and a coach who has embraced the committee approach, might be able to divine a brew for getting everyone involved.
As for Bush, he's been a matchup nightmare for opponents out in space, and a key player for a big, screen-pass team like the Saints.
But it's one thing to line up in the slot in situations and another to do it consistently. There were a few franchises that toyed with the idea of Bush as a wide receiver prior to the 2006 draft, when he was the second overall selection, but no one has mentioned the possibility of him moving to the position full-time until the AFC club whispered it this week.
In his first two seasons in the league, Bush averaged 80.5 receptions per year and 5.75 catches per game. The past three years, impacted by injuries, Bush's average is 53.7 catches per season and 4.15 per game.
Around the league
*Hustle back: On a Seattle-area radio show last week, we noted that quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was most likely to return to the Seahawks for 2011, and various media reports later in the week bolstered that possibility. That seems to be the prevailing belief around the league. Of all the veteran quarterbacks either available in free agency or rumored to be on the trade block, Hasselbeck is mentioned the least of anyone when a change of scenery is discussed. The 12-year veteran might be a solid "bridge" quarterback for a team seeking an experienced guy to play for a year or two while a youngster is developed, but there's only modest buzz so far about him filling such a role. Hasselbeck will turn 36 in late September, and he's coming off a season in which he had some injuries and threw only a dozen touchdown passes. Bit those who have watched Hasselbeck at practice insist he can still throw every pass and are somewhat surprised he seems to have generated so little unofficial interest. The Seahawks definitely want Hasselbeck to re-sign, probably for a short-term contract, and the organization still seems to retain confidence that backup Charlie Whitehurst can develop into a viable starter. Team officials also insisted to The Sports Xchange this week that there is little interest in Matt Leinart, a free agent and former Heisman Trophy winner who played for coach Pete Carroll at USC.
*On the drawing board: There are seven teams with new offensive coordinators and who figure to have unsettled quarterback situations, and those clubs certainly could benefit from minicamps and OTAs this spring. Unfortunately, the lockout precludes such work, and several of the coordinators involved have yet to conduct an extended sit-down session with the contenders for the quarterback job. That puts them in a really tough spot, several of the coaches conceded. Joked one: "It's going to be like going to Berlitz, you know, a cram-course in a new language, when this thing finally gets over," suggested the coordinator.
*Prime Time 'tude: In an interview with the always thought-provoking Deion Sanders this week, for a feature that will appear in the Hall of Fame program this summer, the all-time great cornerback allowed that he was signed by the 49ers in 1994 and the Cowboys in '95 to help combat the other team's great wide receiver and win a Super Bowl. But, said Sanders, there was another motivation as well. "When the 49ers signed me (in 1994), they had all the talent in the world," Sanders recalled. "But what they didn't have was attitude. I was the missing piece for that. I guess the kids today would call it 'swagger,' and that's what I gave them. Then, in '95, the Cowboys, who knew they had to beat the 49ers, were thinking, like, 'OK, what element can we take away from them?' So they took me and my attitude, and it hurt the 49ers and helped get the Cowboys a Super Bowl. I gave them both that extra intangible thing they needed." Sanders, of course, helped both teams win a Super Bowl, San Francisco in '94 and Dallas in '95. But he didn't dominate the respective teams' wide receivers. In the 1994 NFC championship game, for instance, Michael Irvin had 12 catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. In a '95 regular-season game versus the Cowboys, Jerry Rice registered five receptions for 161 yards and a score.
*Free man: The Dallas Cowboys have a plan for the offensive left tackle spot, and, despite the selection of Tyron Smith of Southern Cal with the ninth overall pick in the first round two weeks ago, a club source told The Sports Xchange that the team's "definite" preference is to have Doug Free return for at least another year, and possibly the long-term. After starting only seven games in his first four seasons in the league, Free moved from the right to the left side in his fifth year, after Dallas released Flozell Adams, and started all 16 games. By unofficial count, Free permitted five sacks in '10, all of them after Tony Romo was injured in the sixth game, and Jon Kitna became the starter for the rest of the campaign. Free, 27, a relative baby by the Dallas line's standards, is a free agent whose status won't be determined until there is a CBA agreement. The team made him a one-year restricted tender at the highest level, $3.442 million (first- and third-round compensation), but will want to discuss a long-term deal once there is labor peace and the moratorium on negotiations is lifted. A lot of teams, Dallas included, felt that Smith's athleticism and quick feet made him a left tackle candidate. But Smith never started a game at left tackle for USC and never even practiced at the position the past two seasons.
*Bowden-bound: Former University of Florida standout cornerback Janoris Jenkins, dismissed from the Gators squad two weeks ago by first-year coach Will Muschamp after a second marijuana-related arrest in three months, reportedly will transfer to Division II power North Alabama to finish his college career. The move is a good one, NFL scouts said this week, for Jenkins, who might have entered the supplemental draft or pursued litigation to force his way into the league. Both those alternatives were far more dicey than playing in 2011, league talent evaluators feel, and Jenkins, at one point rated the No. 3 cornerback prospect in the 2012 draft by NFLDraftScout.com, will have an opportunity to rehabilitate himself and his image. "He's got the goods (to play in the NFL), but he has to clean up his act," one league area scout told The Sports Xchange. "Teams worry about that (stuff), and he should, too. It's a good, solid program for him, though, and it gets (NFL) attention." The Lions, who open the 2011 season on Sept. 3, presumably with Jenkins in the lineup, are coached by Terry Bowden, who is 20-6 in two seasons. North Alabama claimed the Division II title 1993-95, and has advanced to the D-II playoffs six straight times. The Sports Xchange first reported on May 2, citing two sources, Jenkins likely would transfer to a lower-division program and play in 2011, rather than seek to move to the NFL.
*The "other" Jenkins: Most projections concerning free agency, provided there is a signing period at some point, have assessed this year's crop as a thin one. But one pending unrestricted player getting plenty of attention, at least on the rumor mill, is Green Bay defensive end Cullen Jenkins. The seven-year veteran has been linked in reports with Washington and Dallas, and there figure to be others 3-4 suitors as well when the NFL opens for business. Jenkins is only 30 years old and, even coming off a 2010 season when hand and calf injuries limited him to eight starts, appears to be a guy in demand. Ironically, Jenkins originally balked when coordinator Dom Capers introduced the 3-4 front to the Packers in 2009. But the scheme is apt to make Jenkins, who failed in Capers' experiments to make him a stand-up edge defender, a very rich man. At 305 pounds, Jenkins can anchor versus the run, yet is mobile enough to provide some pass rush. He registered seven sacks in 2010 and, among 3-4 ends, only Justin Smith of San Francisco (8.5) had more. The Redskins had 6.5 sacks combined from their ends in 2010; Dallas had just four.
*They like Ike: Getting tired of all the Ike Taylor updates in this space? Can't blame you a bit. But The Tip Sheet noted here last week that the conspicuous confidence of Pittsburgh officials that they will be able to re-sign the pending restricted free agent might be a little misplaced, since the eight-year veteran figures to have a healthy group of suitors if the market ever opens. Since last week, though, it was pointed out that Taylor enjoys a close relationship with the Rooney family, doesn't necessarily take well to change, likes the comfort level in Pittsburgh, and feels that the $11 million-per-year contract awarded lesser-talented cornerback Stanford Routt by the Oakland Raiders is a bit of an aberration. That's not suggesting Taylor will come cheap, or give the Steelers a so-called "hometown discount," but he could end up providing the team to match any outside offers. As noted here in the past, Taylor has some obvious deficiencies, but he knows the Dick LeBeau system well, and clearly is the Steelers' top player at the position.
*Yackety-yak: It isn't all that surprising that only three of the bottom 10 teams in yards-after-catch (YAC) in 2010 qualified for the playoffs. The stunning thing is that the top four teams in YAC, and five of the top six, didn't advance to postseason play. The statistic is viewed as a key one by many league observers, but a number of coaches feel it is overrated -- not as critical as, say, yards per attempt, although one would think YAC is a component of that -- and the numbers may support that.
*Punts: There is no viable defense, no excuse whatsoever, for the derogatory remarks that boxer Bernard Hopkins made this week about quarterback Donovan McNabb. But it's also true that there are people who shared a locker room with McNabb in Philadelphia who felt the quarterback was a little too cozy with Eagles' management. ... In the wake of reports that some teams are not conducting on-field workouts of their own during the lockout for fear of injury -- New York Giants' defensive end Justin Tuck suggested his unit isn't practicing for that reason -- at least three player agents forwarded reminders to their clients this week about making sure their insurance is paid. ... Speaking of the workouts, it can't be good news to the NFLPTA that several of the "practices" this week attracted more reporters than players. ... Atlanta first-round wide receiver Julio Jones, for whom the Falcons traded five choices to Cleveland to move up 21 slots in the initial stanza, continues to recover from foot surgery, and is likely a couple weeks away from being able to join workouts organized by quarterback Matt Ryan. ... It's been a few weeks now since the report that a group of about 70 mid-level NFL players was seeking out a law firm to represent its interests in the lockout. No word yet. Since Daniel Kaplan of the Sports Business Journal, who originated the story, is a terrific reporter, there's no reason to doubt it, although some at the league level definitely do. But one has to be concerned with the players and their degree of resolve. ... Anyone surprised that former NFL safety Rodney Harrison, now an NBC analyst, acknowledged this week that he would likely circumvent the lockout rules and somehow find a way to communicate with an assistant coach during the no-contact work stoppage? Harrison was among the most heavily-fined players in the league during his 15-year career and, while a passionate defender, never really paid much attention to rules. ... Sanders plans to have agent Eugene Parker, who represented him for his entire career and continues to play a role in his decisions, present him at his Hall of Fame induction this summer. ... Much was made this week about the potential that Brett Favre, who appears undecided about how to spend his retirement, might mentor Cam Newton. But as noted by The Tip Sheet last week, Favre's agent, Bus Cook, is only the co-representative for the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick in the draft. The agent listed first on the standard representation agreement that Newton signed is Tony Paige, and he apparently wants some input about Favre's possible role. ... Kansas City officials took some heat for the first-round choice of Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, who has a reputation as a bit of a diva. But the Chiefs scouts say they couldn't overlook Baldwin's enormous raw talent in seeking a complement to Dwayne Bowe. Last season, Bowe played 85 percent of the team's offensive snaps, and no other wideout on the roster logged more than 44 percent. ... It's hardly a secret, but even though they are considered management, a lot of assistant coaches, and perhaps even some head coaches, too, are quietly pulling for the players to at least win some sort of victory that allows them to get back to work. Said one assistant this week: "What's that old Jim Finks line about owners own, players play, and coaches coach? I'm about to go a little stir-crazy here, man." ... Condolences to former Atlanta trainer Jerry Rhea on the death of his wife of 54 years, Beverly, this week. One of the pioneers of training and treatment in the NFL, Rhea was the Falcons' head athletic trainer 1969-94, and is a true gentleman. ... Condolences, too, to the family of former NFL running back Ron Springs, who died Thursday at age 54, after spending the last four years in a coma. Springs lapsed into a coma in Oct. 2007 after surgery to remove a cyst. A diabetic, he had eight months earlier undergone a kidney transplant, with former Dallas cornerback Everson Walls the donor. ... Buffalo coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix said this week they plan sign a veteran quarterback in free agency to bolster the depth chart behind starter Ryan Fitzpatrick. There may be no quarterback in the league in recent years who has thrown for 3,000 yards in a season yet garners less respect from the public than Fitzpatrick. There was plenty of speculation before the draft that the Bills would expend a high-round pick on a quarterback, but the team didn't choose one at all.
*The last word: "There is not one player who hasn't enjoyed the lockout. I'm just being straight-up honest." -- Buffalo Bills three-year veteran wide receiver Stevie Johnson, per NFL.com, on the current work stoppage and players taking advantage of their time away from the field