Cardinals 'working hard' to extend franchise star Fitzgerald.
How close is close?
Good question, especially when it comes to a contract extension for Larry Fitzgerald, a deal that could catapult the Arizona wide receiver into an even higher tax bracket.
The Cardinals' star, who contractually cannot be saddled with the franchise marker next spring, when he is slated to become an unrestricted free agent, told SI.com that he and the club are "not too far away" from a fresh extension. No reason to doubt Fitzgerald's take or excellent SI.com NFL writer Jim Trotter, who first reported the news of the progress.
There is some question, though, about exactly how imminent an extension might be.
Agent Eugene Parker told The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that there are "definitely still some philosophical hurdles" that must be overcome for any new deal to be completed. Other than acknowledging that he and Cardinals' president Rod Graves have been "working hard" to cut a deal to extend Fitzgerald's current $10 million-a-year contract, Parker declined to get into specific details.
A source from the Fitzgerald camp, however, told The Sports Xchange: "I don't want to mislead you, because the numbers on this kind of contract can just fall together, and it's done. But there is a little ways to go yet. If Larry says it's close, or (intimates) that, maybe he knows something no one else does. So we'll see."
Both sides appear to be operating on the premise that something will get done before Sept. 4, when Fitzgerald has claimed negotiations will cease and he will turn his attention solely toward getting ready for the season, which opens Sept. 11.
The Cardinals almost certainly can't afford to lose Fitzgerald, who essentially has become the face of the franchise, and the wide receiver and his advisors seem to understand that.
Around the league
MV and CJ
On another contract extension front, The Sports Xchange has confirmed that the Philadelphia Eagles' brass and agent Joel Segal have launched into substantive work on a long-term deal for quarterback Michael Vick, who is currently playing under the one-year tender for an "exclusive" franchise veteran, slightly in excess of $16 million. At least, the two sides were talking before Vick threw three first-half interceptions against Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
There appears to be nothing imminent at this time, but it will be interesting to see if the Vick negotiations in any way impact the contract talks for Tennessee holdout tailback Chris Johnson. We're not crazy enough to pretend that any running back is going to ever approach a quarterback-sized deal. But Johnson has noted publicly that he wants to be paid a contract commensurate to the top playmakers in the NFL, regardless of position.
The promise by Titans president Mike Reinfeldt, that the club is prepared to make Johnson the league's highest paid running back if he reports to camp, clearly hasn't been enough to move the three-year veteran tailback. Notably, Segal represents Johnson as well, so he would enter any negotiations for the tailback with a first-hand knowledge of the parameters being discussed for Vick's extension. That's not to suggest the Vick and Johnson talks will be tag-team deals. At the same time, it would be naive, particularly given the involvement of Segal, to think the two contracts don't have some kind of effect on each other. By the way, as of Thursday evening, there was nothing new to report with Johnson's situation, and the running back had no plans to report to camp.
A lot of columnists considerably wiser and more eloquent than this one weighed in Thursday on the hard-to-believe decision of commissioner Roger Goodell to conditionally allow Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor inclusion in next Monday's supplemental draft. So there's not much left to say. Goodell's attempt to assume the role of Solomon was incredibly flawed and the army of figurative ambulance-chasing advisors surrounding Pryor ought to be smiling at the confusion created by the case of a guy who, in the league's words, "undermine(d) the integrity" of the eligibility rules, but still gained entry.
As noted by several columnists, the attempt by Goodell to walk the ethical tightrope, and somehow assuage the NCAA, cannot be ignored. Neither should the continuing input of the agents with whom the league has been counseling on-and-off for several months now — prominent player reps Jimmy Sexton, Rick Smith and Fletcher Smith — about how to deal with such indiscretions. While the trio did not have direct influence or input on the Pryor matter, the cumulative impact of their meeting with the NFL had some impact. It's a slippery slope, indeed, onto which Goodell has placed himself.
That said, those who contend Goodell lacks the right and background to impose sanctions that cross the NCAA-NFL line — to punish a player even before he is employed by a league team — need only look to the combine for precedent. For years, players who test positive at the combine, two months before they are drafted, have been placed into the NFL's substance abuse program.
*No sense kicking
It made for interesting discussion this week when New England coach Bill Belichick publicly suggested the NFL was attempting to do away with kickoffs altogether in an effort to make the game safer. But the contention was old news of a sort. The Sports Xchange first broached the notion of the league trying to totally eliminate kickoffs in February. And even though NFL vice president Ray Anderson told The Sports Xchange in March at the annual league meeting that a no-kickoff initiative was never discussed as part of a potential change, competition committee sources contend the matter was at least floated by the rules-makers. Given the negative reviews of return aces like Josh Cribbs and Devin Hester after just one week of preseason games, imagine how they would have reacted had the league done away entirely with kickoffs.
Two other kickoff notes: Forget the hints by some returners that the competition committee will revert back to kicking off from the 30-yard line by the time the regular season starts. The committee needs more than four preseason games as a body of work to assess the ramifications of the rules change, which was initiated more for safety than competitive reasons. Second, the league strongly reminded game officials this week, through director of officiating Carl Johnson, that clubs cannot voluntarily kick off from the old spot of the 30-yard line if they please. At the behest of special teams coach Dave Toub, who wanted to be able to better gauge the personnel on his coverage units, the Chicago Bears twice last week kicked off from the 30-yard line, before Johnson contacted officials and apprised them to put a halt to the practice.
When the Dallas Cowboys nabbed offensive tackle Tyron Smith with the ninth overall choice in this year's draft, there was some thought that the former Southern Cal star would end up on the left side, with Doug Free moving back to the right tackle spot he had played the first three seasons of his career. But it's not going to happen this year, and maybe not for a few seasons. For openers, Dallas retained Free, an unrestricted free agent who started all 16 games at left tackle in 2010 after the departure of Flozell Adams, with a four-year, $32 million deal. Even though the right tackle spot has made big strides financially, that's not the kind of investment a club typically makes at right tackle. Second, Free played well in his first season on the left side, despite a slight dropoff in the final month. And, finally, the Cowboys frankly like what they've seen of Smith so far at right tackle. The first offensive lineman chosen in the opening round by Dallas since tackle Howard Richards in 1981, Smith certainly has the feet and movement skills to play on the left side, but the Dallas coaches feel he's improved his strength and drive-blocking ability. And there are these considerations as well: Dallas runs almost as many plays to the right side as to the left. Plus the staff wants to upgrade the pass protection at right tackle, where the departed Marc Colombo (signed with Miami) surrendered seven sacks and 40-plus "hurries" in 2010. "Against the 4-3 teams in our division, we're going to have to block (Justin) Tuck (of the Giants) and probably (Jason) Babin (of Philadelphia), two guys who can rush the passer from the strong side," one Dallas coach told The Sports Xchange. "And Washington, even though they are a 3-4 front, will bring some heat off that side, too. We really want to firm up the 'pass pro' on that (right) side, and Smith should allow us to do that. We weren't sure going into last year that Free could hold up on the left side, but he did, and his comfort level has grown there. Maybe long-term Smith is the guy (at left tackle) but not now."
Stuck in the middle
There are three teams — Cleveland, Denver and New England — transitioning from 3-4 defenses to 4-3 fronts in 2011, and that means a trio of players will be asked to convert from inside linebackers to middle linebackers. To many, it might seem the difference is pretty much negligible, but certainly not to the veterans involved in the makeover. "You've got a lot more to cover, obviously, and a lot more responsibility, mentally and physically," allowed D'Qwell Jackson of the Browns, who has played in only six games the past two seasons because of pectoral injuries. "There might be a little more freedom to roam, but you also have to play with perhaps even more discipline." Of the three — Joe Mays of the Broncos and New England's Jerod Mayo are the others — the Pats' star might be the one who stands the best chance of dramatically increasing his big-play allotment. It appears in the first two preseason contests that Mayo will be afforded more blitz opportunities than he ever was in his first three seasons in the league. As a 3-4 inside 'backer, the former first-rounder totaled only three sacks, and never had more than two sacks in a year. From the early looks of things, he'll have a chance in 2011 to have a real impact on the pass-rush game.
Rocky Mountain low
Injuries this week to Ty Warren (triceps) and Marcus Thomas (pectoral) of Denver, the first of which could be season-ending, certainly have put a bit of a crimp in the switch of the Broncos to the 4-3 front that first-year coach John Fox has historically employed. Then again, given Fox's long history with injuries at the tackle position, maybe they shouldn't have been all that surprising, huh? Since he became a head coach, in Carolina in 2002, Fox has been forced to overcome an incredible number of debilitating injuries at the tackle position. Among the players who were hurt: Kris Jenkins, Sean Gilbert, Ma'ake Kemoeatu, Brentson Buckner, Shane Burton, Kindal Morehead, Jordan Carstens, Hollis Thomas and Louis Leonard. In Carolina, especially the last few years, it seemed like general manager Marty Hurney was always trying to locate and acquire a few warm bodies to fill out the tackle complement. Now, with the injuries to Warren and Thomas, the Broncos are trolling around already for tackles. Kevin Vickerson and Brodrick Bunkley are the new starters for now, but the Broncos claimed journeyman DeMario Pressley on waivers from Indianapolis this week, and are likely to continue shopping when rosters are reduced around the league. Fox will eventually get things turned around in Denver. But it will help if Fox, who has long been noted for developing ends, has the interior help his defensive requires.
In the wake of the surprising release of starting right tackle Jon Stinchcomb by New Orleans this week, no fewer than five teams contacted agent Pat Dye Jr. about his client, a guy who had started 80 straight games for the Saints and who was regarded by management as a real team leader. But it's pretty obvious to all that watched him struggle in last week's preseason opener that, despite the month-old reports that Stinchcomb was completely healthy after offseason surgery, the eight-year veteran and 2009 Pro Bowl blocker still needs about 2-4 more weeks of rehabilitation on his surgically repaired left quad before he is back up to game speed. Just a week or so shy of his 32nd birthday, Stinchcomb isn't quite ready to retire yet, and he'll eventually listen to other suitors, but he isn't ready yet, either, to completely give up on a return to the Saints, who have to pay him a $2.25 million guaranteed base salary for 2011 anyway. It's a longshot, for sure, but New Orleans officials, who agonized over the decision to cut Stinchcomb, have told the former second-rounder they could call him if Zach Strief or Charles Brown flops in their quest to replace him. The door may have opened a crack on Thursday, when the Saints placed tackle Alex Barron on IR because of a knee injury. But the Saints still have recently signed journeymen tackle Jordan Black and George Foster around, so the odds for a Stinchcomb return are pretty long. Plus, the reality is Stinchcomb just isn't ready to play yet. The more likely scenario is that another team signs Stinchcomb, possibly after the first week of the regular season, as an insurance No. 3 "swing" tackle. Stinchcomb never was the prototype right tackle and, despite not lining up on the left side, might be able to play some snaps there in a pinch. But it doesn't sound like Stinchcomb is going to play anywhere, or for anybody, for at least a couple more weeks.
Cornerbacks Johnathan Joseph (2006) and Leon Hall (2007) came to the Cincinnati Bengals as back-to-back first-round picks. The Bengals are trying not to lose what some once regarded as the league's best young cornerback tandem in consecutive years. The Bengals have kicked off extension talks with Hall, who is entering the final season of his original contract, and eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, if there is no add-on. An extension might be tough, though, since most people know the Bengals' brass feels Hall is the better player. That's no slight of Joseph, but the truth is that Cincy officials felt he was hurt a little too much. Hall, on the other hand, has started all 16 games each of the last three seasons. Joseph got a five-year, $48.75 million deal to sign with Houston as an unrestricted free agent. There was no way the Bengals were going to pay that kind of money. But it might cost even more to retain Hall, a guy the Bengals feel is better. It's early yet, but the Bengals may have to use a franchise tag to keep Hall from bolting.
Reversal of fortunes:
Funny how fates get twisted sometimes. Veteran quarterback Daunte Culpepper signed for a second season with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL because he hoped the alternative league would provide him a possible avenue for returning to the NFL. On the flip side, journeyman passer Josh McCown conversely eschewed a second UFL season with the now-defunct Hartford Colonials this spring because he was certain, agent Rick Smith told The Sports Xchange at the time, that he would land in an NFL camp. This week, both players auditioned for the No. 3 job in San Francisco, behind starter Alex Smith and rookie backup Colin Kaepernick, and it was McCown who was signed. Another connection: Culpepper was brought into the NFL in 1999 by then-Minnesota coach Dennis Green, his UFL coach at Sacramento. McCown started 19 games in three seasons in Arizona, when Green was the coach there.
One would have to be a conspiracy theorist of the highest order to suggest that 10-year veteran fullback Heath Evans remains unsigned because of some less- than-flattering comments he made on Twitter shortly following the CBA accord between the league and its players. The guy, after all, is 32 years old and fullback isn't exactly a high-priority position. But this much we know: New Orleans officials, who signed the younger (by four years) Korey Hall as an unrestricted free agent fullback, were more than a little hacked off when Evans tweeted that the CBA included some provisions the league had "slipped in," without being negotiated. And there were a few other teams, too, that took note of the outspoken Evans' opinion.
Agent Albert Elias confirmed he has exchanged contract proposals with Buffalo officials on a potential extension for five-year veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but said the two sides "are just getting started." Williams, who signed a four-year, $14.5 million extension in 2008, is under contract through 2012 at bargain basement salaries of $1.75 million for this season and $1.805 million for next. "The good thing," Elias said, "is that they want him and he wants to be in Buffalo. So there's at least that common ground." Williams, 28, is one of the best unknown inside defenders in the league. Despite being a bit undersized, he made the transition to a 3-4 front in 2010, and went to his first Pro Bowl game.
—The aforementioned Strief, a seventh-round afterthought from Northwestern in 2006, is a guy the Saints have really liked for the past several years. Although he has started only seven games in five seasons, and never more than two games in a year, Strief is nasty and physical and perhaps better suited to the strong side than was Stinchcomb. It wasn't as if the Saints were trying to force Strief into the lineup, but the lingering rehab by Stinchcomb created an opportunity, and the club feels Strief's time has come.
—It's rare that a team keeps four tight ends on its regular-season roster, but New England might have do just that. Second-year veterans Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, who virtually remade the slumping position for the Pats in 2010, are locks. But the Pats might also have to keep rookies Lee Smith (a fifth-rounder from Marshall) and Will Yeatman (undrafted). Some observers actually feel Yeatman, from Maryland, has outplayed Smith in camp.
—Speaking of tight ends, former Bengals stalwart Reggie Kelly signed a one-year deal in Atlanta, choosing it over a similar offer from Pittsburgh. Originally drafted by the Falcons in 1999, Kelly has lived in the Atlanta area for years, and didn't want to disrupt the lives of his school-age kids.
—The Ravens are excited by the big-play potential that newly acquired wide receiver Lee Evans brings to their passing game, and they should be. The seven-year veteran has averaged 15.7 yards per catch in his career. Since 2000, Baltimore has had only two wide receivers — Travis Taylor in 2003 and Mark Clayton in 2008 — average better than 15 yards a catch with 30 or more receptions.
—Pittsburgh second-year tailback Jonathan Dwyer has averaged only 2.8 yards per carry in two preseason games. But the Steelers are happy with the way that Dwyer has reshaped his body and feel that the 2010 sixth-rounder, who played in only one game his rookie season, is running tougher inside. He said he's down about 20 pounds. Dwyer played in a triple-option offense at Georgia Tech and wasn't asked to run between the tackles often.
—Another former Tech standout, option quarterback Josh Nesbitt, may be switched to safety by Buffalo. The Bills signed Nesbitt as an undrafted free agent and while they really like his athleticism, doubt he can be an NFL-caliber quarterback.
—Good line by former NFL quarterback Joey Harrington, who was recently struck by an automobile while bicycling in Portland. "I was laying in the ER," Harrington said. "I'm in the neck brace on the board, and just saying, 'Get me out of here.' I kind of whispered to one of the trauma docs, 'I played four years in Detroit. I can handle (getting hit by) a car.'" The third overall pick in the 2002 draft, Harrington took quite a beating in his final two seasons with the Lions, getting sacked 60 times in 27 starts. In his first two years, though, Harrington remarkably was sacked only 17 times in 28 starts.
—Baltimore has an intriguing competition, between Jameel McClain and Dannell Ellerbe, to see who will start next to Ray Lewis at inside linebacker.
—The thumbprint of new Philadelphia offensive line coach Howard Mudd, who historically has preferred much quicker players for his system, can be seen throughout the Eagles' blocking unit. But perhaps nowhere is the impact greater than at center, where veteran Jamaal Jackson is fighting to hold off a challenge by rookie Jason Kelce. A sixth-round pick from Cincinnati, Kelce weighed only 280 pounds at the combine. There were some extenuating illness-related circumstances for Kelce, who was the lightest lineman in Indianapolis, but there's no denying his quickness and ability to get out to the second level.
—Jacksonville coaches feel their rebuilt linebacker corps, where the club invested heavily to acquire free agents Paul Posluszny and Clint Session to team with holdover Daryl Smith, will improve as the three players get more time together. They concede, though, that progress hasn't come yet as quickly as they thought it would.
—Because his contract runs through 2013, offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth isn't a priority yet for Cincinnati officials. But make no mistake, the five-year left tackle and team leader is already on the radar as a guy the Bengals want to keep around for a while.
—It was noted in this space last week that Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt has been at least considering changing agents. It now appears Britt will keep the status quo with Todd France as his representative. The league has all but finished reviewing Britt's trifecta of offseason indiscretions, and is likely to impose some sort of punitive action by the season's start.
—Detroit officials have seemingly tapped the brakes, at least for now, on the potential contract extension talks for left tackle Jeff Backus. They want to see how the 10-year veteran comes back from his current pectoral strain before moving forward.
—Under the late Jim Johnson, and then Sean McDermott for the past two seasons, Philadelphia relied on creating pass-rush pressure on the edges. New coordinator Juan Castillo wants to see the pocket compressed more from the inside this season, and the early results appear to be encouraging. Free agent acquisitions Cullen Jenkins and Anthony Hargrove, both of whom have lined up some at end in their careers, seem to have the ability to press quarterbacks from the interior.
—On the downside, the refurbished linebacker corps in Philly could be a problem area. The Eagles immediately installed rookie Casey Matthews as the starter in the middle, and he has looked overmatched so far in preseason action.
—As of Thursday night, only 98 of the original 440 members of the unrestricted free agent class — not counting players who were released — were left unsigned. Also, as of Thursday evening, 23 former first-round picks had been cut.
—With the release of linebacker/defensive end Aaron Maybin this week, eight of Buffalo's last 11 first-round picks are no longer with the team.
—Indianapolis has now signed four former first-round free agents — defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Tyler Brayton, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, and linebacker Ernie Sims — in an effort to create better defensive depth. Of course, the Colts, who prefer to build from within, also have nine of their own first-rounders on the roster.
—The Browns, whom it was noted above are converting to a 4-3 defense in 2011, are on the hunt for some linebacker depth.
—Dallas has received a few inquiries about the availability of fourth-year veteran tailback Tashard Choice, but isn't of a mind to deal the former Georgia Tech standout, who only a few months ago looked like he might be the odd man out in the club's running back pecking order. The Dallas coaches really like third-round choice DeMarco Murray of Oklahoma, but he's been hurt, and there is little depth behind oft-injured starter Felix Jones.
—Philadelphia may be willing to part with six-year veteran cornerback Joselio Hanson, who looks to be no better than No. 4 on the depth chart, unless the Eagles first deal Asante Samuel. The offseason acquisitions of Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie have pushed the very serviceable Hanson down the depth chart.
The last word:
"As far as communication goes, I tell him 'good ball' when he throws a good ball, and I tell him 'terrible ball' when he throws a terrible ball. I want him to understand, I'm not here to kiss (his) butt, I'm here to tell (him) the truth." — Chicago wide receiver Roy Williams, on his relationship with Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, per Don Banks of SI.com