NFC Contenders News and Notes

The Sports Xchange's Len Pasquarelli writes about three of Packers' NFC rivals: the defensive lineman not named Albert Haynesworth that the Eagles might pursue; the Canadian import who could help Chicago's receiver corps; and the Saints' crowded backfield.

In the seemingly never-ending game of connect-the-dots, rumors continue that Philadelphia will be a real player in the anticipated trade market for Washington defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth after the lockout.

The rationale isn't just based on the Eagles' need for a dominating interior force, and a perception that the Philly front office/general manager Howie Roseman is ready to go big in terms of making veteran additions via free agency or trade, but that a reunion of Haynesworth with former defensive line chief Jim Washburn could be the kick in the butt the talented but underachieving tackle needs to resuscitate his career.

Haynesworth played the first seven seasons of his career under Washburn in Tennessee. Now, Washburn, a throwback-type coach who gets great results, has been hired by Andy Reid.

While the Haynesworth-Washburn rumors prevail, here's another, perhaps more realistic, connect-the-dots name to tie to the Eagles: free agent defensive end Jason Babin. The seven-year veteran notched 12.5 sacks playing for Washburn and the Titans in 2010. Babin, 31, never had more than five sacks in a season until 2010.

The Eagles could use a pass rusher from the left side — and despite being undersized for the position, Babin started 16 games at left end in 2010, and held up surprisingly well versus the run — almost as much as they need a play-making tackle.

Philly's top three left ends in 2010 combined for 12 sacks. The best of the bunch, Juqua Parker, is 33 and, while a try-hard defender, doesn't anchor against the run very well. Reid this week confirmed what everyone had pretty much expected, that 2010 first-rounder Brandon Graham won't be ready for camp, maybe not for the start of the season, because of knee surgery.

Since 2002, only one Philadelphia player besides right end Trent Cole has registered double-digit sacks. That was end Darren Howard, who had 10 sacks in 2008, but at least half of those came when he moved inside to tackle on third down. Philadelphia had only 39 sacks last season, its fewest since 2007. Haynesworth would fit much better into the Eagles' 4-3 front than the 3-4 the Redskins employ, and the Donovan McNabb trade last year showed that the two NFC East rivals can do trade business, but taking on Haynesworth and his contract would be a big gamble. Babin better fits the character and hustle paradigm the Eagles gave laid out.

Bears' dandy Andy

Recently signed Chicago Bears wide receiver Andy Fantuz has to confront changing countries, style of play and rules in making the switch from the CFL to the NFL. The biggest difference, besides some of the more obvious ones, like the size of the field, and the speed of the players?

For Fantuz, it's been becoming accustomed to not having the in-motion head start that CFL rules permit wide receivers.

"It's something you just have to get used to," Fantuz told The Sports Xchange this week. "You kind of have to coach it out of yourself. It takes some getting used to, definitely."

Fantuz, 27, has gotten solid reviews in the Bears' informal team workouts. Signed to a "futures" contract in February, he provides Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz a different kind of receiver, in that he is 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. None of the other five receivers on the roster are taller than 6-feet.

The perception is that the Martz-designed offense dictates smaller, quicker wide receivers, and that Fantuz, rumored to run in the 4.7-4.8 range, is a poor fit. But Fantuz, a Canadian native who played at the University of West Ontario and won the Hec Crighton Trophy (Canada's equivalent of the Heisman Trophy), doesn't necessarily agree.

"The thing at any level, especially here, is your speed in and out of your cuts, making precise moves, getting down the timing," Fantuz said. "And I think I'm getting all of that down."

Fantuz worked out for several teams after the season (the Packers were not among them, a source told Packer Report) and he and agent Hadley Engelhard settled on the Bears in part because Chicago executives convinced the pair the club could use a bigger, more physical wide receiver, one who didn't fit the mold of the other pass-catchers on the roster.

Lucky Pierre

Two New Orleans coaches this week insisted to The Sports Xchange that, despite the selection of Mark Ingram in the first round two months ago, the team is not shopping tailback Pierre Thomas.

"He's here," said one coach when asked about some reports that Thomas — who missed 10 games in 2010 because of an ankle injury, but who was the Saints' leading rusher in 2008 and 2009 — might be expendable.

"We've seen firsthand that you can't have enough (backs)."

That said, the Saints have a real logjam at tailback, with Thomas, Ingram, Chris Ivory, Julius Jones and Lynell Hamilton, also returning from injury. And that doesn't even account for Reggie Bush, who sources from both sides still has a chance of returning to the club, despite a scheduled $11.8 million payout due in 2011.

Thomas remains attractive to the Saints because, while not a great back, he is good in the team's tailback-by-committee model, fits nicely into a scheme that is heavy in screen passes, and he's relatively cheap. The four-year extension he signed back in March is worth a modest $2.7 million per year and didn't include a signing bonus.

Of course, that could also make Thomas, who is due a $2.7 million roster bonus, attractive to other teams, if the Saints decided they wanted to deal him. But the club seems insistent that isn't the case.

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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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