AROUND THE LEAGUE
By Len Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange
FREENEY PART OF COLTS' FACELIFT?:
One of the surprises of the week following Super Bowl XLVI has been how
many team personnel executives/coaches have phoned to inquire about
what new Colts general manager Ryan Grigson and owner Jim Irsay had to
say in interviews that we attended about the futures of defensive ends
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis in Indianapolis.
Franchises certainly are conducting their pre-free
agency due diligence about the pair of elite pass rushers. Mathis is a
pending free agent, and the Colts could be hard-pressed to retain
Freeney, who is due a $14.035 million base salary and has a $19
million-plus salary cap charge, in the franchise facelift to which
Irsay and Grigson appear committed.
If the Colts switch to a 3-4 front - a transition
that could be dicey given their defensive personnel, but one with which
new coach Chuck Pagano is most familiar - Mathis and Freeney are poor
fits. Neither has the bulk to play 3-4 end, and neither has played much
in space, so the conversion to 3-4 linebacker would be tough.
Indianapolis could reduce Freeney's cap hit with
an extension, but he's going to be 32 later this month, and how much
can a club commit to a player of that vintage, and one who might not
fit very snugly with future plans?
Of the team's pending free agents, Irsay
specifically cited Mathis and wide receiver Pierre Garcon as
priorities, although he later mentioned Reggie Wayne, but Mathis is
going to have options if he gets close to free agency.
There are at least two teams, Miami and Buffalo,
switching to the 4-3 in 2012, and both will need ends. Many pro scouts
in the league feel that Mathis, who will be 31 in about 2 1/2 weeks,
had a stronger performance than did Freeney in 2011. Mathis had 9.5
sacks, his eighth season in a row with at least seven.
Beyond a casual introductory and congratulatory
phone call, there has been no contact yet between Grigson and Mathis'
agent, Hadley Engelhard. Then again, Grigson has had a lot on his
plate, with hiring a head coach and a staff. Freeney notched 8.5 sacks
- his fewest since 2007, when he played in only nine games because of a
knee injury - but the sentiment seems to be that he lost some intensity
as the Colts' long season dragged on.
TEXANS, WILLIAMS AT CROSSROADS:
Among the more difficult decisions facing any team this spring is the
Houston Texans' conundrum with defensive end/linebacker Mario Williams,
who is eligible for unrestricted free agency.
Club officials suggest they have vacillated about
the future of the former first overall selection (2006), and how to
handle the situation. The best thing, of course, would be a contract
extension but, at least so far, there doesn't seem to be much progress
in that regard.
Absent an extension, there are all kinds of
complications. Houston would have until March 5 to designate Williams
as a franchise player, but the tag would probably cost the Texans a
one-year tender of more than $20 million, since Williams' salary is
higher than the franchise number and would command a 20 percent bump
over its 2011 level.
A pure 4-3 defensive end, Williams seemed to
handle to conversion to standup 3-4 rush linebacker pretty well under
coordinator Wade Phillips, posting 5.5 sacks before a torn pectoral
muscle ended his season after only five games. Before the injury,
Williams, who had 43.5 sacks the previous four seasons in a 4-3, was on
his way to another double-digit sack campaign.
But there is some suspicion that Williams prefers
to play end in a 4-3. And, led by Connor Barwin and rookie Brooks Reed,
the Texans generated a solid outside pass rush even after Williams was
injured. The bet in NFL circles still is that the Texans, who made the
playoffs for the first time in franchise history in '11 and finally
look to have a defense that complements their explosive offense, will
strike a long-term extension with Super Mario.
If they don't, though, they will face a knotty
decision about what to do with a still-young defender (27) some
consider the best player in unrestricted free agency.
SANCHEZ, JETS GAMBLE ON HOLMES:
When the New York Jets retained problematic wide receiver Santonio
Holmes this week, they essentially guaranteed his base salaries for
2012 and 2013, a total of $15.25 million. That's a lot of dough for a
guy who has just 103 receptions in his two years with the club; a big
swallow for a player with just one season each with at least 55 catches
and 1,000 yards. Yeah, even if he is a former Super Bowl most valuable
But sources tell The Sports Xchange that, despite
their season finale tiff -- when Holmes griped in the huddle at Mark Sanchez and, according to one player, "quit" on the team - the
embattled quarterback wanted the wide receiver to come back. Now don't
jump to any conclusions here; it would be overstatement to suggest that
Sanchez went to bat for Holmes. But the understanding is that he
apprised management that he would not be opposed to his return.
For all the problems he can engender, Holmes is a
talent, and Sanchez knows it, and he also understands the Jets don't
have much else at the position. Plaxico Burress seems destined to
depart in free agency. Second-year veteran Jerome Kerley is an emerging
player, but had just 29 catches in '11. Holmes was the only wide
receiver on the roster with 50-plus catches.
New York wants to get back to the "ground and
pound" mindset espoused by Ryan, and new coordinator Tony Sparano might
be the guy to do it, but you still have to throw the ball once in a
while. And it seems that Sanchez has realized that, distractions aside,
Holmes is his best option for now.
CAMPBELL QUIETLY WILL HAVE SUITORS:
He's kind of flying below the unrestricted free
agent radar right now, but keep an eye on Jason Campbell as a guy who
might be a alternative for quarterback-needy franchises that strike out
on some bigger names such as Kyle Orton or Matt Flynn in the
marketplace. A couple personnel men, one at the Super Bowl last week
and the other by phone, both independently mentioned Campbell's name as
a possible "fallback" quarterback they are studying.
Said one: "(Drew) Brees is going to re-sign. So is
(Alex) Smith. There's only one Peyton (Manning) to go around, and just
one Flynn out there. That doesn't leave a lot. Maybe I'm crazy, but I
think (Campbell) will get some interest. Maybe not a ton, but he'll
have some people calling."
Granted, there are perhaps only four or five
franchises looking to make a switch at starting quarterback. But for a
club that perhaps requires a "bridge" starter to its quarterback of the
future, Campbell might be an option.
The seven-year veteran has 70 starts on his
resume, and is only 30 years old, still young by quarterback standards
in the league. He is coming off a broken collarbone that limited him to
six starts in 2011 with Oakland, and precipitated the Raiders' trade
for Carson Palmer, but has been deemed healthy and ready to go.
Campbell might take a one- or two-year deal from
someone, at a fairly palatable price, for a chance to play. The new
Oakland football regime of general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach
Dennis Allen has declared Palmer the unchallenged starter for '12, so
there is virtually no way Campbell is going to stick around.
SAINTS UNDER FREE AGENT GUN:
With next year's Super Bowl in New Orleans, a lot
of people are already projecting the Saints as a team of destiny, and
possibly to become the first NFL franchise ever to play a super Bowl in
its home stadium.
But to have a chance to make history, the Saints
may have to make some hay on the free agent front, and that probably
starts with getting an extension completed for quarterback Drew Brees
before the team would have to use a franchise tag on him March 5. A
Brees deal would then enable the Saints to use the franchise marker on
guard Carl Nicks or wide receiver Marques Colston, and word from The
Big Easy is that the former is the bigger priority.
As noted earlier this week by The Sports Xchange,
keeping Nicks could be tough since his fellow guard, Jahri Evans, is
already playing under a record deal for the position. That said, the
Saints' line is built from the inside out, in part to create a physical
mindset in the run game but also to keep rushers out of Brees' face, so
New Orleans might be able to justify retaining Nicks.
The feeling around the league is that, while coach
Sean Payton will figure a way to make his receivers productive, the
NFL's best play-caller might have a difficult time replacing Colston.
Sure, the speedy Robert Meachem, also scheduled for unrestricted free
agency, might be cheaper. But Colston provides the Saints an interior
toughness, size and presence that the other wide receivers can't.
The six-year veteran has averaged 80.4 catches and
8.6 touchdowns in the five seasons he was healthy, and went over the
1,000-yard mark every one of those years. He led the Saints in
receiving three times and had the most catches by a New Orleans wide
receiver in five seasons. No one ever wants to play the Saints given
the fast-break basketball nature of the offense, but the consensus is
that the task might get a little easier if Colston departs.
Colston has already said that he won't give the
Saints a so-called "hometown discount" to stay. But even with a loaded
wide receiver pool in free agency, he won't be cheap.
RAIDERS HANGING ONTO BRANCH:
The shakeup of the Oakland defense began earlier
this week, with general manager Reggie McKenzie lopping off cornerback
Sanford Routt, arguably one of the NFL's most overpaid players.
There are doubtless more changes to come on a unit
that one of the club's various consultants after the death of Al Davis
criticized sharply and noted was in need of talent, but the Raiders
will attempt to hang on to four-year veteran strong safety Tyvon Branch. There is, in fact, a possibility the Raiders could use the
franchise marker on Branch, a former fourth-round draft pick (2008) who
has started all 16 games each of the past three seasons, after playing
mostly as a special-teams guy as a rookie.
McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen covet toughness in
the secondary, and Branch provides it. He has only three career
interceptions, but is solid in run support, and has averaged 112.3
tackles in his three years as a starter.
The preference would be to get a long-term
extension with Branch, which would open up the possibility that the
Raiders could "tag" tailback Michael Bush, but the two sides haven't
made much headway in that regard yet. The safety franchise number will
likely be a little north of $6 million. But McKenzie, even in cleaning
up the bloated mess he has inherited, seems willing to pay that. Branch
comes very highly recommended by people McKenzie trusts and will be a
--Former Tampa Bay weak-side linebacker Derrick Brooks, not only one of the NFL's top defenders during his 14-year
career with the Bucs but one of its most gracious players, isn't
eligible for Hall of Fame consideration until 2014. But, while Brooks
is taking nothing for granted about his possible candidacy, he has
already started to make sure he fully understands the process and the
mechanics of the voting.
Brooks told The Sports Xchange last week that a
few years ago, when it was obvious that his league tenure was over, he
began to educate himself on the Hall of Fame and how the process works.
He asked the late Tom McEwen, the former Tampa Tribune columnist who
was a responsible as anyone for the Tampa landing a franchise, for some
guidance. And he even had dinner with McEwen and Hall of Fame selector
to ask questions about the voting procedure.
Brooks dragged along two teammates and fellow Hall
of Fame potential members, defensive tackle Warren Sapp and safety John
Lynch (both eligible in 2013), to the dinner so that they might better
comprehend the process.
Said Brooks last week: "It gave me more
appreciation for the whole thing. I'm not going to presume anything.
It's a hard job."
STEELERS WON'T BE CAUGHT NAPPING:
There are a lot of things to generally admire
about the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the least of which is their usual
preparedness, on and off the field. It was reported early this week
that the St. Louis Rams have requested permission to interview Steelers
director of business and administration Omar Khan for their general
manager job. One of the NFL's premier salary cap experts, the departure
of Khan would be a big loss for the Steelers, but not as significant as
it would be if Pittsburgh didn't have a ready replacement already
Buried in the small type of the Steelers' front
office/executives roster is veteran cap specialist Dan Ferens, who
works for Pittsburgh in "business administration," and who essentially
has been a cap consultant for the past several seasons. Ferens
previously worked nearly 20 years for the Steelers, principally
managing the cap, before exiting for a corporate gig at IMG in 1999,
and then moving on to the Houston Texans as their chief negotiator in
Ferens resigned from the Texans in 2006 to be
closer to his native Western Pennsylvania, then rejoined the Steelers a
year later. If Khan leaves, Ferens would almost certainly be the choice
as the club's new cap manager, and things would be in good hands,
The Rams, by the way, have interviewed 10
candidates for the GM post and figure to make a decision within a week.
One element to watch is just how much control St. Louis cedes its new
general manager. New coach Jeff Fisher is expected to hold sway over
roster and personnel decisions, and that might preclude some candidates
from being able to accept the job.
NUMBERS TO NOTE:
One Super Bowl ring now separates Peyton Manning
and Eli Manning, and nearly one full point in postseason quarterback
rating separates them as well. In his 19 playoff appearances (9-10),
Peyton Manning has a rating of 88.37. In his 11 playoff games (8-3),
Eli Manning's rating is 89.34. Eli Manning, oddly enough, is just 1-2
in postseason home games and 7-1 away from home (including neutral
--Of the 38 points in Super Bowl XLVI, none was
scored - or, more accurately, accounted for - by a player who
originally entered the NFL as higher than a fourth-round draft choice.
The breakdown: Fourth-rounders scored 11 points,
five by New England kicker Stephen Gostkowski and six by Patriots tight
end Aaron Hernandez. Seventh-round tailback Ahmad Bradshaw had six
points. Undrafted free agents accounted for 19 points, six each by Pats
tailback Danny Woodhead and Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, and seven
by New York kicker Lawrence Tynes. And, of course, the safety that
opened the scoring was charged the quarterback Tom Brady of New
England, a onetime sixth-round choice. Between the two teams, 11
undrafted college free agents started the game.
Whether he re-signs with the Giants (unlikely) or continues his career
elsewhere, wide receiver Mario Manningham figures to cash in nicely on
the terrific 38-yard catch that started New York's winning drive in
Super Bowl XLVI. But the great route and reception aside, some other
franchises have a few reservations about Manningham, not the least of
which is a perception that he isn't a real good route-runner and
free-lances a bit too much. ...
Condolences to former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Tunch Ilkin
(1980-92), now an analyst for the team's radio network, on the Monday
death of his wife, Sharon, after a long battle with cancer. Sharon
Ilkin was only 55. ...
Earlier this week, The Sports Xchange had a column citing seven pending
unrestricted free agents who might be difficult to re-sign because
their incumbent franchises had already invested huge contracts in
players at the same position. Add another: Four-year veteran cornerback
Brandon Carr of Kansas City could be a victim of the six-year, $49.4
million extension the Chiefs awarded fellow corner Brandon Flowers in
September. Carr is only 25 years old, registered a career-best four
interceptions in 2011 and will be near the top of a deep cornerback
class in free agency. ...
Irsay to The Sports Xchange when asked privately last week if there is
any chance of delaying the $28 million bonus due Peyton Manning on May
8: "I don't know. But I do know this: Reasonable people can sometimes
come to a reasonable agreement." . . .
One other note on nose tackles: There are continued rumblings that
Dallas could switch Jay Ratliff, a seven-year veteran and four-time Pro
Bowl defender, to end in 2012. At about 290 pounds, Ratliff isn't
exactly the prototype 3-4 nose tackle, and the Cowboys seem to want a
stouter presence versus the run in the middle of their line. ...
Browns team officials told The Sports Xchange this week that they were
pleased with the rookie performance of defensive tackle and first-round
choice Phil Taylor in 2011. But those officials also conceded that
second-round defensive end Jabaal Sheard, who started all 16 games at
left end and had 8.5 sacks, consistently graded out higher. There
remains some chance that Sheard could move over to the right side in
his sophomore campaign. ...
As predicted in this space two weeks ago, one day after Tampa Bay hired
Greg Schiano as coach, Butch Davis has landed on the Bucs' staff, as
senior defensive assistant. ...
Ranking high on the to-do list for new Atlanta defensive coordinator
Mike Nolan is getting middle linebacker Curtis Lofton out of the team's
"sub" third-down coverage schemes. Lofton is a superb, two-down 4-3
middle linebacker, and retaining the pending unrestricted free agent is
a priority for the Falcons, but the four-year veteran is a liability in
third-down situations. Don't be surprised if ascending star Sean
Witherspoon, who is very good against the pass, moves more to the
middle in "nickel" situations in 2012. ...
Even with the Bills having made a preemptive move by signing Rian
Lindell to a four-year contract extension before the 12-year veteran
could hit the open market, there are still nine kickers who are
scheduled for unrestricted free agency. The position could have
significant turnover next season. ...
Having started the offseason roughly $25 million over the projected
2012 salary cap limit of $121 million-$125 million, Pittsburgh has come
close to halving that excess by simple contract restructurings with
linebackers Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Look for similar deals
with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, linebacker James Harrison and
strong safety Troy Polamalu, before the Steelers start having to make
the really tough decisions and release some longtime veterans. The team
would also like to finish a long-term extension with wide receiver Mike Wallace, a restricted free agent, but the tight cap situation will make
that difficult. ...
The defensive end position isn't especially deep, as usual, in free
agency. There are, though, some standouts, like Cliff Avril of Detroit.
And here's two more ends that will get considerable attention: Red Bryant of Seattle and Jacksonville's Jeremy Mincey. The former is
tailor-made for a 3-4 and the latter for a 4-3. Both players had
started in only eight games before 2011 - Bryant in three seasons and
Mincey in five - but really exploded when moved into the starting
lineup full-time for their respective clubs. ...
Deposed Oakland coach Hue Jackson, the subject of a lengthy note here
last week, is frustrated at the prospect of not being able to get a job
as an assistant in the league for 2012. Jackson would at least like the
opportunity to explain to prospective employer/coaches his emotional
outburst after the Raiders' season-ending loss on New Year's Day. He
privately feels repercussions from the incident cost him a shot at the
St. Louis offensive coordinator job. ...
Last week, we noted in this space that Steelers chairman Dan Rooney had
confirmed a report by son and team president Art Rooney II that he will
step down from his post as ambassador to Ireland at some point in 2012,
and return to the team. The elder Rooney declined to offer a timetable
for the move, but here's an educated, albeit trite, guess: Think St.
Patrick's Day, March 17, or thereabouts.
THE LAST WORD:
"I would hate to just throw everything out and start over, because I
feel it would set us back two or three years, (since) these (young)
guys are just starting to get it. I hope that we don't have to start
over, and if we do, you know what, here we go. Let's do it. We're not
going to complain about it. But I would hate to have to set certain
guys back who are doing so well right now." - Steelers quarterback Ben
Roethlisberger, per The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the hiring of Todd
Haley as the team's new offensive coordinator, and the potential
changes that he could make.
Free Agency News
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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