Bengals owner, coach at odds over player choices
While his 2009 season with Buffalo marked just the second time in the past 10 years that Owens failed to surpass 1,000 receiving yards, there was no doubt that he was the team's top pass-catcher. The 14-year veteran led the team in both catches (55) and receiving yards (829) while scoring five touchdowns.
Here are five teams who who could benefit the most from his talent in 2010.
- Buccaneers: One look at Tampa Bay's depth chart at wide receiver and it's obvious that Owens would be their No. 1 wide receiver. And if they want second-year quarterback Josh Freeman to continue his progress, they have to give him better targets.
- Jaguars: Mike Sims-Walker posted 869 yards in his second NFL season while paired with veteran Torry Holt, but Holt's no longer on the roster. Owens would be not just a replacement but an upgrade for a team that needs to keep up with the Colts' offensive firepower in the AFC South.
- Panthers: Carolina has a slew of unproven wide receivers on the depth chart behind Steve Smith. To make matters worse, they also have unproven, young quarterbacks competing for the starter's role. Owens could help both groups in a big way.
- Chiefs: While Dexter McCluster was a terrific addition to the Chiefs roster during the NFL Draft, he's best suited for the slot. If Kansas City paired Owens with Dwayne Bowe, Matt Cassel would start to resemble the guy who stepped in flawlessly for Tom Brady a couple of years ago.
- Rams: St. Louis drafted wide receiver Mardy Gilyard to give rookie quarterback Sam Bradford another talented target in addition to Donnie Avery. But imagine the challenge the Rams would create for opponents if they put Owens, Avery and Gilyard in a three-wide formation with running back Steven Jackson as a quick-hit option out of the backfield.
Point No. 2: The Marvin Lewis countdown has begun in Cincinnati.
The 2009 NFL Coach of the Year has made it clear over the past couple of years that he's not happy with the front office's bad habit of forcing problem-child players down his throat. And who can blame him? Lewis has only been able to put together two winning seasons and a 56-55 regular-season record during his seven years in Cincinnati — and it's not because he lacks the skills, football intelligence or work ethic to put a consistently high-performing team on the field.
As a result, there's been a stare-down brewing in Cincinnati between Lewis and team owner Mike Brown. And based on the actions of both men in recent months, I don't believe that either one of them is going to blink.
Two years ago, after a string of player arrests had taken its toll on the team, it appeared that Lewis and Brown were finally on the same page regarding players with off-the-field issues.
"I think we've tried to work through that this spring and I think we're over it, because we've had that kind of attitude we're not going to waste time or fool with you if you're a knucklehead," Lewis said.
A week earlier, Brown had sent a similar message.
"We'll try to go forward with the kind of guys we can count on, the kind of guys who are not just good players, but good citizens," he said.
However, Brown also referred to himself as a "redeemer" who believes that people can "be made better and right."
"If that's a fault, so be it," he said.
Brown's commitment to only adding good citizens was short-lived. Over the past few months, the team signed former Jaguars receiver Matt Jones, who had been charged with cocaine possession in 2008, and former Titans wide receiver Chris Davis, who was charged with a DUI last August. In the second round of the NFL Draft, they picked Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who has a DUI arrest in his history and a questionable work ethic. Then they signed Adam "Pacman" Jones this week, a player who's been arrested so many times that he was suspended for the entire 2007 season. And when the Cowboys offered him a second chance at an NFL career in 2008, he thanked them by earning a four-game suspension.
Looks like a new wave of "knuckleheads" to me. All hail the redeemer.
Back in February, Lewis mentioned at the NFL Combine that the Bengals had made two attempts to extend his current contract since he has entered the final year of his deal. But they haven't been able to reach an agreement, and based on the 51-year-old coach's statement, it doesn't appear to be a money issue.
"I'm talking about structure, decision and how we do things — and how I have the ability to do things that give us an opportunity to win football games," he said. "Hopefully it is something that gets worked out. If it doesn't, it doesn't."
Mike Brown apparently can't help himself, but Marvin Lewis can. He should let his contract expire at the end of the season and move on to a team that will support his efforts rather than make his job tougher.
Eleven quarterbacks were selected during the 2007 NFL Draft and three years later, Kolb is the only one assured of a starter's role with an NFL club.
The former University of Houston star wasn't picked until the early stages of the second round of that draft. Some teams feared that his experience working primarily out of the spread offense would limit his success as an NFL quarterback. Two quarterbacks came off the board before Kolb — JaMarcus Russell, who was released this week by the Raiders, and Brady Quinn, who was traded to Denver during the offseason to compete for a backup role behind Kyle Orton.
Buffalo's Trent Edwards, a third-round pick that year, will be involved in an open competition for the starter's role in Buffalo after losing his grip on the spot last season. But he's the only other signal-caller from the draft class of '07 who has a legitimate shot at being named his team's starter by opening weekend this September.
Point No. 4: The news of Brian Cushing's four-game suspension is a huge disappointment on a number of fronts.
On Friday, the NFL announced that the Texans linebacker was being suspended without pay for the team's first four games of the 2010 season for violating the NFL policy on performance enhancing substances. That's undoubtedly disappointing for Cushing, his teammates, team officials and Texans fans.
The former USC player, who was Houston's No. 1 draft pick in 2009, earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors after logging 133 tackles, four sacks, four interceptions and two forced fumbles. So after the suspension was announced, some media outlets started talking about how Cushing had violated a "steroids policy" with some suggesting that Cushing should be stripped of his award because he had artificially enhanced his strength and speed by using steroids. And that was disappointing as well because if those media people had done their homework, they would have realized that Cushing's suspension didn't necessarily have anything to do with steroids. Cushing violated the league's "Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances," not just a "steroids policy."
It's the same policy that the Vikings' Pat and Kevin Williams inadvertently violated when they bought an over-the-counter supplement called StarCaps in hopes of achieving rapid weight loss before training camp in 2008. But there was just one problem with the supplement. It contained an ingredient that is a diuretic, which makes you urinate more frequently. And since diuretics can also help a player mask steroids use, they are a banned substance by the NFL even though they aren't steroids.
It's also the same policy that tripped up squeaky-clean running back Sammy Morris a couple of years ago, when he took Sudafed for cold symptoms, not realizing the over-the-counter drug was on the banned list as a stimulant. He got a four-game suspension for his oversight as well, even though Sudafed clearly isn't a steroid.
I interviewed Cushing last year face-to-face at the Senior Bowl and by phone while he was training for the NFL Combine. He was mature and focused while projecting a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude and an unshakable commitment to his training, body, work ethic and to football. He was living at home with his family and was working out in an old warehouse with the same trainer he'd used since his sophomore year in high school. So when I saw the news of his suspension, steroids just didn't make sense because it seemed to go against the grain of who I had seen Brian Cushing to be as a person. And on Sunday, Cushing confirmed that assessment to FOXSports.com's Jay Glazer.
"I did not take a steroid," Cushing said. "I'm very disappointed because I thought we would've won the appeal. I'm still stunned by the decision. It'll be tough not being with my teammates."
The second-year linebacker needs to pay the price for his rookie-season blunder, even if it wasn't for steroids use. But based on what I've learned about Cushing over the past year, people who think that his rookie season results were inflated by steroids are really going to be disappointed when they see how he takes his frustration out on the rest of the league beginning in October.
Point No. 5: Don't overlook these five undrafted players who line up on the defensive side of the ball.
Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, Steelers linebacker James Harrison, and Titans cornerback Nick Harper are just a few of the league's undrafted players who have evolved into NFL starters. While it's hard to say if the five players listed below from this year's undrafted free agents will rise to that level, they should at least have a job with an NFL team this September.
- LB Mike McLaughlin — The former Boston College linebacker landed in Baltimore, where his blue-collar, hard-hitting style of play gives him a legitimate chance at a roster spot. McLaughlin put up the third-best 3-cone time (6.85 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle time (4.11 seconds) among all linebackers at the NFL Combine.
- DT Ko Quaye — According to an NFL source, the Jaguars are so high on the former University of South Dakota lineman's potential that they offered him a $20,000 signing bonus — a sum well above the typical $5,000 or less that most undrafted rookies receive. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound defender is stout against the run and physically strong. He benched 35 reps at his school's pro day.
- CB David Pender — The Eagles grabbed the former three-year starter out of Purdue. Although he needs to work on his man-coverage skills, Pender is a smart, athletic player who could contribute right away on special teams.
- S Barry Church — At 6-foot-1, 222 pounds, the former Toledo defensive back has the physical stature and toughness to get noticed during the Dallas Cowboys' training camp. He needs some development time as a pass defender, but Church has the raw skills and nose for the ball to land a spot as a contributor on special teams as a rookie.
- S Kyle McCarthy — As a two-year starter at Notre Dame, McCarthy displayed a balanced skill set, good field intelligence and a dedication to film study, giving him a firm foundation to build upon as he competes for a roster spot with the Denver Broncos.
Point No. 6: With a little help from their quarterbacks, Randy Moss and Calvin Johnson could have posted better numbers in 2010.
Don't get me wrong, Moss and Johnson had plenty to be proud of based on their accomplishments last season. Both were among the NFL's most frequently targeted receivers and put up some nice numbers.
The Patriots' pass-catcher had 138 balls thrown to him, which he converted into 83 catches (60.1%) for 1,264 yards. Meanwhile, during Johnson's first season of work with rookie quarterback Matthew Stafford, he saw 136 balls sail in his direction. He nabbed 67 of them (49.3%) for 984 yards.
But when compared to the NFL's other eight most targeted wide receivers, Moss and Johnson had the highest percentage of bad throws tossed their way. Johnson had no chance of catching 35 errant balls — 25.7% of the passes thrown to him by Stafford. And Moss suffered a similar fate on 29 throws — 21.0% of the passes thrown to him by Tom Brady.
The rest of the top ten only averaged 14.3% bad throws in their direction, giving them a chance to make more catches and roll up more yards.
Point No. 7: The Jaguars took a big step this year towards improving their pass rush ... for the 2011 season.
After tumbling to last place in the league with only 14 sacks, Jacksonville used their first four picks in the 2010 NFL Draft on defensive linemen. Tyson Alualu and D'Anthony Smith, a pair of top-notch defensive tackles, were pulled in during the first two rounds. Defensive ends Larry Hart and Austen Lane were added in the third and fifth rounds, respectively.
While the team made some smart selections on players who should help them move out of the bottom third in sacks, expecting anything more than that in 2010 is a bit unrealistic.
The technique and athleticism required to get pressure on an NFL quarterback takes more time to learn and refine than most people realize. Look back at the 2009 draft class and the talented pass rushers who entered the league last year versus the results they achieved. Apart from a spectacular performance by Redskins rookie Brian Orakpo, who logged 11 sacks, other top picks such as Packers defensive tackle B.J. Raji, Chiefs defensive end Tyson Jackson and Bills defensive end Aaron Maybin failed to tally a single sack.
Hart was quick to note the challenge that lies ahead for him and the other Jaguars rookie pass-rushers as he worked through his first NFL mini-camp.
"The players up here are a little bit better than Central Arkansas," he said with a laugh. "It's definitely tough, it's a lot more technique that you've got to learn.
"If I took a false step at UCA, I could probably get away with it with my athletic ability. But up here, I can't get away with it. So my steps have to be better, my hand placement has to be better."
Head coach Jack Del Rio was understandably optimistic about the influx of young talent. And he talked about how Alualu and Smith will help the Jaguars in a division that includes a couple of the league's top passers — Peyton Manning and Matt Schaub — and Vince Young, a highly mobile quarterback.
"They're active, disruptive, athletic defensive tackles. One of the things we really wanted to do in going back to a 4-3 is to become a more penetrating, disruptive front, and I really believe that with these two young men that they'll give us some athleticism and some push in the middle and make the quarterback uncomfortable," Del Rio explained.
All four of the rookies have a proven track record for rattling opposing quarterbacks at the collegiate level, and they have the potential for successful NFL careers. But it's not going to happen overnight. So Jacksonville might not really know how well they patched-up their dysfunctional defensive line until the 2011 season.
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