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
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.
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
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
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
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
"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 Yahoo.com, 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
--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
--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
--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.
ATL: Teams Have Answer For Wallace
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