Notebook: Free-agent rumors floating

The NFL is full of solid players scheduled to be free agents whenever that starts this year, but even a couple of the top ones are expected to make it to market and not agree to terms with their current teams. Peyton Manning is not one of them, but he'll be making some record-breaking money. Plus, plenty of stats on the NFL Scouting Combine and much more around the league.

Despite all the rhetoric this week, don't look for the Denver Broncos to re-sign 10-time Pro Bowl cornerback Champ Bailey. At least not before he tests the free agent market.

And don't expect the Broncos to use the "franchise" tag on the 12-year veteran, who turns 33 years old in June.

People close to Bailey feel the team's insistence this week that they will attempt to retain the popular Bailey was largely a public relations effort, aimed at trying to convince an unhappy fan base that the Broncos are going to make an effort under vice president John Elway and new coach John Fox to win again quickly.

The two sides, acknowledged Bailey's agent, Jack Reale, came pretty close to working out a four-year extension last spring. But the Broncos yanked the proposal, reportedly worth about $43 million, before it was ever consummated, the sides haven't been close since, and, this week's reports aside, the current talks have been more cosmetic than substantive.

A major sticking point: The Broncos still want to use the extension they awarded linebacker Elvis Dumervil last year as the model for a Bailey deal. Under such a contract, Bailey would not be paid the major portion of his 2012 compensation until March 5 or thereabouts of that year. The money would not be guaranteed, and Bailey could be released after 2011, the first season of a new deal and one in which he would earn total compensation of about $11 million.

The first two years of the contract would be worth about $22 million, but half of that would not be guaranteed. Bailey seems willing to afford the Broncos some sort of "hometown discount" for the first year, and has indicated that the contract can reflect the likelihood he will move inside to safety at some point in his career, but he wants some guarantees for the second season.

And the paradigm the Broncos employed in Dumervil's six-year, $61.5 million extension isn't apt to get things done.

All-inclusive: Next week's combine workouts offer a pretty graphic reminder of the diminishing impact that the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have had on the NFL draft, and the predraft evaluation process, in recent years.

Only two HBCU players, Fort Valley State wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis of Hampton (a South Carolina transfer), have been invited to Indianapolis for the auditions. That's believed to be the lowest number in at least the last 20 years.

There were just two players from HBCUs – Morehouse offensive lineman Ramon Harewood (Baltimore, sixth round) and defensive back Phillip Adams of South Carolina State (San Francisco, seventh) – selected in the 2010 draft. That was tied with 2004 for the fewest HBCU players chosen since the combined draft in '67. Harewood spent the season on injured reserve with a bum knee. Adams appeared in 15 games, with no starts, recorded 13 tackles from scrimmage and nine on special teams, and had four punt returns for 29 yards.

The last time the historically black programs reached double digits in a draft was in 2000, with 13 prospects taken. In the 10 drafts since then, there has been an average of 4.7 players from HBCUs selected.

A former Division II 200-meter champion, Lockette is a sprinter who caught only 42 passes for a 12.8-yard average and four touchdowns in two seasons, but scouts are intrigued by his speed and kickoff return ability. He averaged 24.2 yards last year on kickoff runbacks.

Ellis might be the more highly regarded of the pair, and he notched 95 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles in 2010. He began his career at South Carolina, then transferred and totaled 184 tackles in three years at Hampton.

"Some things aren't exactly the same (at HBCU schools), but it's still football and you still get an opportunity," said Green Bay free safety Nick Collins, a second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman in 2005. "It's up to you a little more. The facilities, the size of the program ... you can't let it matter."

Manning money: Since we reported in this space three weeks ago that Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay reiterated his stance that he planned to make Manning the game's highest-paid player, his remarks about the deal last week were hardly a surprise. What was surprising, though, is the intimation that Irsay could go well beyond the $18 million-per-year extension that Tom Brady received from the New England Patriots. At the league meeting last month, Irsay allowed that the Brady deal would be the foundation for a Manning extension and hinted he would not go dramatically beyond its average.

Said Manning: "One dollar more, and note, I said one dollar, would be higher." But it seems now that Irsay will go to $20 million per year, and perhaps beyond, for Manning. And that the contract's term could be for five or six seasons, beyond the four years Brady got – and both the average and the length would be newsy, indeed.

Tarred Heels: There are 15 schools with more than five players each invited to the combine and, not all that surprisingly, North Carolina leads the way, with a dozen players, three more than anyone else. Why is it not surprising that Butch Davis' team, despite a rather pedestrian 8-5 record in 2010, would have 12 guys invited? Because the NFL scouts didn't get to see many of them play very much, and some not at all, last season. Two highly regarded defensive linemen, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn, didn't log a snap because of season-long suspensions. Another two defenders, safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams, were suspended for three and four contests, respectively. Two more players are coming off serious surgeries, and two more switched positions in 2010. Linebacker Quan Sturdivant missed five games because of a hamstring injury. Said one AFC area scout to The Sports Xchange: "We think they've got a lot of (draftable) guys ... but we have a lot of what you might call 'incomplete' grades on many of 'em." The other schools with more than five players invited to Indianapolis: Iowa, Ohio State, Miami, and Nebraska (nine each); Georgia, LSU, and Southern Cal (eight); Clemson, Florida, and Wisconsin (seven); and Pittsburgh, South Carolina, UConn, and West Virginia (six).

Punts: Word is that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who missed the final 10 games of last season with a broken left clavicle, has been playing golf again and doing some light throwing, and is pain-free.

  • It was not all that surprising that Atlanta hired former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to replace quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who left to become the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. Falcons coach Mike Smith and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who gave Bratkowski a strong recommendation, are close friends. Just as important, so, too are Bratkowski and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. In fact, there were early offseason rumblings that the beleaguered Bratkowski could join a Mularkey staff if the latter landed a head coach job.

  • Of the 56 underclass players who applied for inclusion in the 2011 draft class and were approved, only two were not invited to the combine. Those two are Georgia Tech offensive tackle Nick Claytor and defensive end Zane Parr of Virginia.

  • The Steelers did not place defensive end Aaron Smith on injured reserve, after he suffered a torn left triceps after six starts, because they hoped he might return for the playoffs – worth noting, he didn't. It appears the team might have had more luck with offensive right tackle Willie Colon, who went on I.R. in the spring after tearing his right Achilles in an offseason incident. Colon, whose rehabilitation is going very well, told agent Joe Linta he felt well enough to have played in December. The team's best lineman in 2009, Colon might be an unrestricted free agent, depending on the CBA resolution. But Linta has not heard a word about an extension, and surmised this week there "is about a one-tenth of 1 percent chance" the five-year veteran will return. A lot of people in the league feel that the 340-pound Colon, despite his success at tackle, might be even better if he moves inside to guard.

  • One major reason the NFLPA initiative for a boycott of the combine never got too far off the ground: The union heeded the collective voice of the agents, who were adamantly opposed to it. There is a good chance, though, that rookies will decline to attend any draft-related activities.

  • On Friday morning, a couple hours before Irsay announced via Twitter that the Colts released strong safety Bob Sanders, three general managers/personnel directors told The Sports Xchange they would have no interest in the 2007 defensive player of the year if he were jettisoned. Said one: "His body is just falling apart." Sanders, who turns 30 next week, appeared in only nine games the past three years because of injuries. But even with those three opinions, don't bet against Sanders being in someone's camp in 2011 (if there are training camps) on an incentive-laden deal. In seven seasons, Sanders has missed more games (64) than he's played (48). That's the equivalent of four full seasons on the sideline.

  • There remains a chance that, if Detroit doesn't add an outside linebacker in the draft, two-year veteran DeAndre Levy could move over from the middle, to take advantage of his playmaking potential. .

  • The Falcons quietly extended the contract of defensive tackle Trey Lewis. In three seasons, Lewis, a sixth-round pick in 2007, has appeared in 18 games, with seven starts. He played in just one game last season, the opener, and then was inactive for the rest of the season.

    The last word: "If they told me, 'You know what, Ryan, whatever your salary is, we're going to give it to you even if you don't come to work,' what's your incentive to come to work? And, essentially, that's what the owners have done. When you make deals with (television) networks that say, 'We're going to pay you, even if you don't play' ... what's (the) incentive to play? When, if I'm not playing, I cut my biggest overhead out, which is my players, and I still make my money." – Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark, on the fact the owners will be paid by the networks (although they will have to repay the fees with interest) if there is a lockout

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