JUDGE notes: Minicamp no-shows a mixed bunch

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Clark Judge

One week after New York Giants rookie Jeff Hatch balked at practicing at minicamp, he was joined on the sidelines by Arizona's Wendell Bryant and Cincinnati's Lamont Thompson. It looks like the beginning of a trend, but appearances are deceiving. This year's work stoppages involved three different issues, with Hatch's situation resolved when the former University of Pennsylvania tackle agreed to the Giants' injury waiver after a day off. Arizona's Bryant participated in limited drills but no teamwork, and Cincinnati's Thompson never showed up. "Isolated incidents," declared Baltimore executive Ozzie Newsome. "There were some last year, too, but I think they just went under the radar screen." The problems involved guarantees of injury protection for unsigned rookies, but they won't serve as harbingers of anything. There were three incidents, two with clubs notorious for their penury and a third that was resolved within a day. If the NFL or NFL Players Association should be concerned, it's only with adopting a universal language to cover injury-protection agreements with all of the NFL's 32 clubs. Let's look at what happened. In Cincinnati, the Bengals have written injury protection for their first-round draft pick, tackle Levi Jones, but none for their second-rounder. If you guessed that's Lamont Thompson, go to the head of the class.
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  • The Washington State safety stayed away from last weekend's minicamp while the Bengals promised to cover him against injury. They offered a 1986 injury to fourth-round pick Eric Kattus as proof of their commitment, with Kattus suffering a broken collarbone in minicamp. The Bengals paid Kattus a contract appropriate to his draft position and pledged the same treatment for Thompson. Only one problem: Why would they offer written protection to Jones and not to Thompson? Agent Mike Sullivan wasn't satisfied with the answer, either, and vowed to hold out Thompson until the two sides agree on a contract. They're expected to meet Friday. "The clubs always say they will negotiate in 'good faith,'" said one agent, "but the question is: What's the definition of good faith? It's in the eye of the beholder. It's amazing to me that the NFLPA doesn't have some uniform language in the collective bargaining agreement so there is no debate." Bryant's complaint was that the Cardinals don't protect a player where he's drafted, which, in this case, is the 12th spot overall. The Cardinals offered injury protection; it just wasn't the protection that Bryant's agent sought. So Bryant was instructed to do nothing more than a minimum of work at practice. Then there's Hatch. He sat out a day of workouts because he wanted what agent Alan Herman described as "a full-protection agreement" to protect him against injury. The Giants offered to compensate Hatch "at their discretion," which Herman deemed unacceptable. Again, the issue was the value of a signing bonus, which Herman felt could be compromised by injury. "Basically, it's all a matter of trust," Cardinals general manager Bob Ferguson said. "That's really what it all comes down to." It's no coincidence that the players we're talking about were drafted in the first three rounds. As one agent explained, players taken after the third round have little choice here; they must be in minicamp to win jobs. Not only are their signing bonuses substantially less, their rate of failure is substantially more. The general assumption — not always correct — is that players taken in the first three rounds will make their clubs. Portland State's Terry Charles wasn't chosen in the first three rounds. He was a fifth-round pick of San Diego, but he was expected to make the team — that is, until he tore a knee ligament the first day of the Chargers' minicamp. Now, he's lost for the season. Nevertheless, the Chargers promise to negotiate in "good faith" and plan to pay Charles a contract that includes a signing bonus appropriate for the 142nd selection. "Why wouldn't you do that?" asked general manager John Butler. "The player is still going to be your player the next year. You want to take care of him." That was the message conveyed to Herman by Giants' general manager Ernie Accorsi, infuriated when Hatch wouldn't practice because of a clause that struck at the heart of the organization's integrity. "It was OK for Lawrence Taylor and Phil Simms," Accorsi said, "but it's not OK for Alan Herman." Hatch's action — or inaction — will have consequences. Look for the Giants to drop the "club discretion" clause in the future. Bryant's move, however, won't have an impact on anyone but, maybe, Bryant. While the Cardinals don't plan to change their injury-protection policy, owner Bill Bidwill could be more inclined to prolong negotiations with his first-round draft pick.

    Trouble for Boston

    The Arizona Cardinals aren't sure what — if anything — they will do with David Boston, now that the All-Pro wide receiver is in trouble with the law. But you can bet the NFL has its course of action determined, and it probably involves a visit with Boston and an investigation into his personal history. If Boston is cleared of drug charges, he still could be subject to the NFL's substance-abuse policy. A conviction is not necessary for a player to enter the program's Stage One, which involves testing, evaluating and monitoring for substance abuse. If, in the opinion of a medical director chosen by the NFL and NFL Players Association, a player exhibits physical, psychological or behavioral signs of substance abuse, he qualifies for the program. Look for the NFL to find out if Boston does.

    DeShaun's DaMan

    The Carolina Panthers are saying second-round draft pick DeShaun Foster has a chance to start at running back, but the club's plans are to go with veteran Lamar Smith and have Foster serve as his relief unit. That doesn't mean Foster can't appear on first down; he can, only not as often as Smith. Smith was signed as a free agent, and the club will tilt toward him because he ran for over 2,000 yards the past two seasons. Carolina was the league's 29th-ranked rushing club last year, gaining 1,372 yards. Foster might prove to be the best back in this year's draft, but he needs work on his pass receiving and, of course, his fumbling. The rap on the guy was that he couldn't take care of the ball, but Carolina running backs coach Jim Skipper isn't concerned. Skipper believes the club can correct Foster's fumbling (he lost the ball four times against Ohio State last year), with the team running him through a variety of ball-control drills. Foster is the perfect draft pick for Carolina, which can work him in slowly while Smith absorbs the early load at running back.

    Weinke on the mend

    Speaking of Carolina, quarterback Chris Weinke is expected to resume throwing next week — specifically, May 15. Weinke underwent surgery on his right shoulder to clean out debris that accumulated during last season and that inhibited his throwing. The club is interested in what effect it will have on his accuracy, with Weinke a far cry last season from the quarterback who in 2000 threw for 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions when he won the Heisman Trophy. The club remains convinced that Weinke can win in the NFL, and it doesn't have a whole lot of company in that area. There are a substantial number of people throughout the league who thought the Panthers should have used their first pick this year on quarterback Joey Harrington, not defensive end Julius Peppers.

    Desperately seeking linemen

    The Baltimore Ravens won't stop looking for offensive linemen now that Marcus Spears is out of the picture. The club is talking to former Cleveland tackle Roman Oben and will audition others even if Oben signs. Newsome said the club's intent always was to find two more offensive linemen, with Oben's visit scheduled while the club negotiated with Spears. The Ravens are desperate to find a right tackle, and Oben — primarily a left tackle — would qualify. Regardless of what happens to Oben, look for Baltimore to continue its search. Newsome promised himself he would have two more veteran offensive linemen by training camp.

    Vanover gets new life in SD

    The addition of Tamarick Vanover to San Diego means the Chargers can take Tim Dwight off punt returns, which they'd like to do now that Dwight is a starter. Vanover is a Marty Schottenheimer choice, having played under Schottenheimer for four years in Kansas City. It was Vanover's touchdown on a punt return in overtime that buried the Chargers 29-23 in a 1999 Monday night telecast. The Chargers sat down with Vanover before the signing, and the club was satisfied with his explanation of past problems. With the loss of fifth-round draft choice Terry Charles, look for Vanover to compete for a backup spot at wide receiver.

    Dorsett diatribes

    Card-carrying members of Raider Nation spoke out when I referred to free safety Anthony Dorsett last week as "decent," so I went to the club, NFL scouts and personnel directors to get the lowdown on the guy. And here's the report: Dorsett has the speed that Oakland owner Al Davis likes, which is why the Raiders signed him in the first place, but he's not instinctive and sometimes gets caught out of position. Irate e-mailers charged that Dorsett is a miserable tackler and wouldn't know an angle if he was a geometry whiz. Scouts were kinder. While conceding that Dorsett wasn't a sure tackler, they said his critics were too harsh. One source close to the club pointed out that Dorsett wasn't even responsible for two big plays charged against him last year — saying cornerback Eric Allen and an unnamed linebacker were the culprits. "Yeah, he missed some tackles," said one scout, "but he also returned two interceptions for touchdowns and was a starter on two division champions. Does that make him a bad player? I don't think so." Bottom line: Dorsett is not as good as the Raiders would like him to be, but not as bad as his critics think he is. He's what one observer described as "a programmed guy" and not an instinctive player like, say, first-round draft pick Phillip Buchanon. He's also likely to head to the bench. Though Raiders officials aren't saying a change is imminent, Rod Woodson almost surely will supplant Dorsett at free safety. Woodson doesn't have his once-great speed and, though named to the Pro Bowl, did not play at a Pro Bowl level last year. Still, the Raiders want experience and fewer errors at the position, and Woodson should check out on both. Besides, if Woodson hadn't have been signed, Johnnie Harris probably would have been moved to free safety to push Dorsett.

    Jonesin' for a running game

    Arizona running back Thomas Jones showed up at 220 pounds at last weekend's minicamp — up 10 pounds from his playing weight a year ago — and the club thinks it's a good idea. So do I. Jones could carry the weight of the offense, though Jake Plummer will have something to say about that. With the loss of Michael Pittman, Arizona will lean heavily on Jones to improve what was the NFL's 27th -ranked rushing attack. The Cardinals have the offensive line to move people. The question is: Do they have the people to follow the offensive line? Only Jones has the answer. Clark Judge can be reached at his e-mail address,
    Tagged: Bengals, Browns, Chiefs, Raiders, Dolphins, Giants, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Chargers, Marcus Spears, Thomas Jones

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