In the last couple weeks, we've attempted to identify a few four-year veterans who could merit more attention than perhaps the public perceives if the threshold for unrestricted free agency is dialed back to four seasons of accrued service, as it was prior to 2010.
The news that recent neck surgery will force San Francisco center Eric Heitmann to miss a second consecutive entire season prompted a few personnel guys in the league to cite Tennessee interior lineman Leroy Harris as a player who might be catapulted into the group. A fourth-round draft choice in 2007, Harris had only three starts before last season, then started 15 games in '10, but at left guard. Center is the more natural position for Harris, 27, and the fact that one-quarter of the franchises in the league might need a new snapper in 2011 figures to boost his profile.
The former North Carolina State standout is a stout interior blocker who can get out to the second level, and the fact he played guard in 2010 shouldn't detract much from his attractiveness as a center. There aren't a lot of great free-agent options, especially if a team is looking for a younger guy, at center. Carolina's Ryan Kalil has already signed the one-year franchise offer tendered him by the Panthers. Five-year veteran Chris Spencer hasn't lived up to his promise in Seattle, the Seahawks likely won't make a strong effort to re-sign him, and the plan seems to be to replace the former first-rounder with Max Unger. David Baas, who replaced the injured Heitmann in San Francisco, is more a guard. Of the six remaining best unrestricted free agent prospects, four have nine or more seasons of experience. Three have 10 seasons or more.
Jerry-rigged: The failures of Colts first-round pick Jerry Hughes as a rookie in 2010, with the former TCU standout collecting only six tackles and no sacks in his NFL debut season, are magnified by Robert Mathis preparing to hold out if he doesn't get a new contract. If the Colts were able to count on Hughes, the 31st overall pick in 2010, they'd possess some leverage beyond the fact Mathis is under contract for '11 and can be fined for his absences from any mandatory events.
But Hughes, ostensibly chosen to provide the Colts a pass-rush threat beyond the Freeney-Mathis pairing, was a monumental washout in his first season in the league. Only seven first-round choices appeared in fewer games than Hughes, and five of them either came into the season with injuries, or experienced injuries once the campaign began, and a sixth was a quarterback, Tim Tebow. The only other three first-round picks not to log a start were all defensive linemen: Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants), Derrick Morgan (Tennessee), and Jared Odrick (Miami).
Bill Polian acknowledged during the season he may have erred in not choosing offensive tackle Rodger Saffold, who started 16 games at left tackle after St. Louis grabbed him in the second round, instead of Hughes. Hughes might blossom as a pass-rush force in 2011, because a player generally makes his most meaningful progress in his second season. But the Colts would like to have had him as a realistic negotiating tool when dealing with Mathis' demands.
Sly ol' Fox: In transitioning back to the 4-3 under new coach John Fox, the Denver Broncos plan to use 3-4 linebackers Elvis Dumervil and Robert Ayers at end. And the Broncos grabbed Von Miller, the consensus best pass-rusher in the draft, in the first round. But it's still expected that Fox will push for the team to be suitors for Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson, a pending unrestricted free agent.
Fox, of course, coached Johnson with the Panthers. Only a four-year veteran, and just 24 years old, Johnson had 11.5 sacks in 2010. Fox, whose track record with ends and "edge" players in general, is pretty solid, believes you can't have enough pass rushers. Even if a lot of people feel the Broncos' biggest defensive need is at tackle, a position they did not address in the draft.
The last word: "I honestly think social media has made people cowards. Where I'm from, if you had a problem with somebody, you said it to their face, and that was it. I think now, people are hiding behind computers and smart-phones to get out something (they've) got on their chest." – New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, on the recent Twitter battle between Philadelphia tailback LeSean McCoy and teammate and defensive end Osi Umenyiora
NFL Notebook: Another underrated UFA
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