The Saints have a lot of big-name, big-time talents scheduled for free agency. Will their style of offense dictate how they prioritize them?
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.
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.
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.
Colts owner Jim 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."
There are continued rumblings that Dallas could switch Jay Ratliff, a seven-year veteran and four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, 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.
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.