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Steelers' Ike Taylor ready to cash in?

Sports Xchange LEN PASQUARELLI
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Given their uncanny ability to draft, develop and advance players, the Pittsburgh Steelers rarely lose a veteran for whom they don't have a ready and able replacement. But the AFC champions might be out of luck in supplanting corner Ike Taylor if he departs via free agency.

Taylor's agent, Joel Segal, told The Sports Xchange this week that there have been "zero negotiations" to date and that he expects the eight-year veteran to be "a very hot guy" in free agency.

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He might be right.

It could be time to break out of the closet those old, dusty, "I Like Ike" campaign buttons from the 1950s and polish 'em up.

Taylor has some of the poorest hands in the league among cornerbacks, and drops more than his share of would-be interceptions. But coaches, particularly defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, regard him highly. He is the closest thing Pittsburgh has to a "shutdown" cornerback and is a terrific fit for the Steelers' system, a guy who is rarely out of position in coverage and plays the run well.

It's hard to say what the Steelers would do without Taylor, who will be an unrestricted free agent no matter the resolution of CBA discussions, and who seems destined to test the open market.

"I've been (in Pittsburgh) my whole career, and I'd like to finish with the Steelers," said Taylor, a fourth-round pick in 2003. "It's my home, and I really don't know anything else. But (stuff) happens, so we'll see."

Taylor signed a five-year, $22.5 million extension just before the start of the 2006 season, but that deal will expire, and it will likely cost the Steelers a lot more to keep him. Despite the success of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers in last week's title game, Taylor played pretty well in Super Bowl XLV. Rodgers clearly targeted corners Bryant McFadden and William Gay throughout the game. On one of the game's biggest plays, a third-and-10 completion to Greg Jennings up the seam, Taylor had excellent coverage, but Rodgers lofted the ball just over his finger tips.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert acknowledged last week the Steelers are "definitely behind" on some negotiations because of their appearance in the Super Bowl, but emphasized Taylor is a priority for the club. However the team is expected to use a franchise tag on linebacker LaMarr Woodley, so retaining Taylor could be a stretch.

As of Thursday night there were no discussions planned as the Steelers, like many teams in the league, wait for CBA negotiations to play out.

Pittsburgh has drafted four cornerbacks in four years — Gay (fifth round, 2007), Keenan Lewis (third round, 2009), Joe Burnett (fifth round, 2009) and Crezdon Butler (fifth round, 2010) — and none seems ready enough yet to step in. Gay started 14 games in 2009, but was inadequate enough that the Steelers re-acquired McFadden in a trade. Gay is seen more as a nickel defender than a starter in the "base" defense.

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Corner market: So why might Taylor have a healthy market, even though he has just 11 interceptions in eight seasons, and has only once posted more than two in a campaign? For starters, Taylor is very durable, having missed just one start the past four seasons, and averaged 14.8 starts over the last six years.

And then there is the free agency cornerback class: Nnamdi Asomugha, who voided his contract with the Raiders, is going to cost a ton. Champ Bailey is 32 years old and at some point in the next three or four years will move inside to safety. Ronde Barber is 35 and everyone figures he's headed back to Tampa Bay. Antonio Cromartie is, well, Antonio Cromartie.

At 30 years old, set to turn 31 this spring, Taylor is a viable alternative who is a low-maintenance guy and one who knows how to win.

Two other corners on whom to keep an eye, according to one league pro scout: Carlos Rogers of Washington and Buffalo's Drayton Florence. Said the scout to The Sports Xchange: "(Florence) could be the surprise guy. He just turned 30, he's really pretty mature, and he's become a good player."

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The veteran has only 14 interceptions in eight seasons, but has six years with double-digit passes defensed and plays good run support.

Tag, you're "it": League teams can now begin designating would-be unrestricted free agents with the "franchise" tag, and several teams seem prepared to exercise the marker. Given the stance of the NFLPA, which contends there are no franchise tags available if a collective bargaining agreement isn't in place, the issue almost certainly is headed to a fight. And officials from both sides of the negotiating table told The Sports Xchange this week that the franchise tag will be yet another issue in the already sticky discussions.

In fact, one labor boss termed the franchise marker "the next battle ground ... if (the league) goes through with it." There were only a half-dozen franchise tags exercised in 2010. It might be a stretch to see double that many this month, but some observers feel it could happen.

Keep it simple: Even though three of the members were with the team in 2010, the Philadelphia Eagles essentially have a new defensive coaching staff, and the revamped assemblage has one notable attribute in common: It believes greatly, it seems, in simplicity.

"There's not a lot of fooling around," said new defensive line coach Jim Washburn, essentially pilfered from the Tennessee Titans, and long one of the NFL's best at the position. "The (approach) is pretty straightforward."

That will benefit a unit that is, compared to some recent Philly defenses, younger and less experienced than its predecessors. While no one in Philadelphia will say it publicly, deposed coordinator Sean McDermott perhaps didn't respond as well to the retooling of the Eagles' defense in 2010, and in his two seasons as the boss attempted to retain much of the design and verbiage created by the late Jim Johnson.

One veteran Philadelphia defender told The Sports Xchange after the season: "A lot of the stuff was the same, but the players weren't, and some guys were (confused)."

The result was a defense that was statistically ranked the same as in 2009, No. 12 in the league, but wasn't nearly as good on the field. McDermott is gone. So is assistant head coach Dick Jauron, who moved to Cleveland as coordinator. Ditto linebackers coach Bill Shuey and line coach Rory Segrest.

In what some considered an unusual move, coach Andy Reid elevated longtime offensive line coach Juan Castillo to defensive coordinator. Mike Caldwell (linebackers) and Mike Zordich (secondary) were promoted from within. And the salty and tough-as-nails Washburn was brought aboard. The charge is to not make things too confounding for a young team and to be aggressive without being too complex.

Right said Fred: When the St. Louis Rams added veteran defensive tackle Fred Robbins last spring, not much was made of it, and some people attributed the move to little more than the familiarity of the player and a former boss.

But at the Super Bowl last week, Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo, who formerly served as Robbins' coordinator with the New York Giants, cited the 11-year veteran as one of the principle reasons for the improvement of the St. Louis defense.

"He gave us solid veteran presence and a great performance in the middle of the line," Spagnuolo said, unsolicited, of Robbins. "I really think he made a difference."

In Spagnuolo's second season, the St. Louis defense improved 10 spots, from 29th in 2009 to No. 19 in 2010. Also notable was the increase in sacks, from 25 to 43.

Robbins, who signed a three-year, $11.25 million contract with the Rams as a free agent, started all 16 games and posted 28 tackles and six sacks. Only three interior linemen in the league had more sacks.

Spagnuolo also noted that Robbins "made the people around him a lot better" as well, and that seems fairly obvious. End Chris Long had 8.5 sacks, up from five in 2009, and only one-half sack less than the former first-round choice registered in his first two seasons. Fellow end James Hall notched 10.5 sacks, after getting 6.5 in '09, his most since a career-high 11.5 in 2004.

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Bridging the gap: Foiled by the decision of Andrew Luck to remain at Stanford for another season of eligibility, the Carolina Panthers, with the first pick in the draft, are exploring alternatives at the quarterback spot. There doesn't seem to be much likelihood that second-year pro Jimmy Clausen will land the No. 1 job, although the former Notre Dame star isn't as much out of the Panthers' long-term plans as some have indicated in recent weeks.

One option might be to sign a veteran as a "bridge" to Clausen or someone else. And one possibility, although still a long shot at this point, is 11-year veteran Billy Volek. The longtime backup is an unrestricted free agent, and is 34 years old, but might consider the opportunity to start for a season or two before turning the job over to a younger player he has helped prepare for the jump to the top of the depth chart.

Having spent the past five seasons as the San Diego backup, Volek is certainly familiar with/to new Panthers coach Ron Rivera. Almost as important, he knows the design that will be implemented by offensive coordinator and former Chargers assistant Rob Chudzinski. Volek has started just 10 games in 11 seasons, only one time logging more than one start in a campaign, hasn't started a game since 2005, and has only one season with more than 10 pass attempts since '05. But the Panthers, who would likely be "reaching" if they were to select a quarterback with the first overall selection, don't have a lot of options.

And the odds are, it's going to take a few seasons, anyway, to get things turned around.

Foot faults: It is expected, people close to Demaryius Thomas suggested to The Sports Xchange late this week, that the former Denver first-round pick (2010) will have some sort of examination of his feet and ankles in coming weeks to determine if his rash of injuries are simply a fluke or perhaps attributable to a basic defect in those areas.

The second-year veteran, who was the 22nd choice overall in the '10 draft, suffered an Achilles injury this week while working out in the Atlanta area, and the setback could sideline him 8-10 months. Last year, the former Georgia Tech star sustained a broken foot that kept him out of the Combine workouts. He also had an ankle injury and, unrelated, a concussion.

Regarded as potentially one of the most athletic receivers in the NFL for a big man, Thomas played in only 10 games, with two starts, and had 22 catches, 282 yards and two touchdowns.

"But we've got to keep him on the field," one member of new coach John Fox's staff told The Sports Xchange this week. "It's frustrating."

In addition to Thomas, three-year veteran Eddie Royal recently underwent hip surgery, and the Broncos figure to go through much of the spring in Fox's first go-round without two of their three top wideouts.

Local ties: Several of the early "mock drafts" have the Atlanta Falcons grabbing Georgia underclass linebacker Justin Houston in the first round. If that turned out to be the case, it would mark the first time in franchise history that the Falcons took a Bulldog in the opening stanza. Atlanta did take former Georgia Tech linebacker Keith Brooking in the first round in 1998. One caveat: While the Falcons love Houston, and feel he could provide the pass rush opposite end John Abraham that the team has been missing, there are some scouts who feel Houston may be better suited to a 3-4 front than Atlanta's 4-3 alignment. That won't stop the Falcons, though, from performing a lot of due diligence on Houston.

Experience counts: It may be only coincidence, but it's certainly a mini-trend worth monitoring over the next few years: Five of the league's new coaches for 2011 - Leslie Frazier (Minnesota), Jason Garrett (Dallas), Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco), Mike Munchak (Tennessee) and Rivera (Carolina) — all played in the league. That more than doubles the number of former NFL players, including guys who were just in a training camp, who are head coaches. "It's certainly not a (prerequisite), that's obvious," Dallas owner Jerry Jones said last week. "But it's one factor you take into account. They know players, the language, the background."

Punts: Super Bowl postscript: The team that commits the fewest turnovers in the title game — and Green Bay had zero giveaways, while Pittsburgh suffered three — is now 33-3 in Super Bowl contests. Teams that return an interception for a score, as the Packers did via free safety Nick Collins' first-quarter touchdown last Sunday evening in the first quarter, are 11-0 in the Super Bowl. There were three interceptions run back for touchdowns in the 2010 playoffs, and the Packers had all three of them.

Minus a contract restructuring this week, which sliced his scheduled 2011 salary of $5.5 million to less than half that, with the ability to earn back some of it in incentives, 10-year veteran cornerback Will Allen definitely would have been released by the Miami Dolphins. Instead, the former first-round draft pick, 32, will have an opportunity to vie for the nickel corner spot behind starters Vontae Davis and Sean Smith.

For about the umpteenth time, Dallas officials at the Super Bowl last week debunked a report that the team will consider inquiries about wide receiver Dez Bryant. Cowboys officials did concede in the days before the game that, while tackle Doug Free had a solid if unnoticed season on the left side in 2010, he is probably destined for a move back to the right side in 2011.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

 
Len Pasquarelli
Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.
 

There are several agents who have asked teams to release their fringe veteran clients in the next week, if possible, so that the players might seek out new contracts before a moratorium on signings when the CBA expires on March 4. Speaking of the CBA and the lack of progress toward a new one, rumors persist that some franchises are making plans to essentially close their offices on May 1 if a new deal isn't struck by then. The rumor is that those clubs would basically furlough staff employees and get by with a "skeleton" crew.

As reported last week, there was an initiative that was forwarded by the NFLPA to have agents instruct their clients to boycott the Combine workouts at the end of this month. But at least in private discussions with The Sports Xchange, most prominent agents insist such a boycott won't occur.

His strong Thursday workout notwithstanding, there are still a lot of scouts with a lot of homework to do, they tell The Sports Xchange, on Auburn quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. The questions seem more about his ability to assimilate a pro-style offense than about his physical skills.

Bengals officials aren't exactly ignoring the threats by quarterback Carson Palmer that he will consider retirement if not traded, and reports this week that he has put his Cincinnati-area home up for sale got their attention, but team management feels a switch of coordinators, from Bob Bratkowski to Jay Gruden, will ameliorate some of the hard-feelings.

By voiding his contract with the Oakland Raiders, five-year veteran Kamerion Wimbley is a pending free agent, and 3-4 teams likely will take notice. There has always been some debate about whether Wembley is an end or a linebacker, but there has been little disagreement that the former Cleveland first-rounder (2006) can rush from the edge. Wimbley is only 27 years old and is coming off a year when he notched nine sacks, the most since he had 11 as a rookie.

The Bengals are excited by the potential of defensive end Carlos Dunlap, who had 9.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011, despite playing in only 12 games, with no starts. But the team is somewhat worried that Dunlap, a second-round pick who couldn't get on the field early because of his deficiencies in practice tempo, could backslide. Dunlap recently switched agents, to the ubiquitous Drew Rosenhaus, and that's usually a sign a guy wants to talk about renegotiation. With just one season under his belt, there is no chance that will happen anytime soon. But the Bengals remain wary. After Robert Geathers registered 10.5 sacks in 2006, in what was supposed to be a breakout season, Cincy signed him to a six-year, $33.7 million extension. Geathers has just 10.5 sacks in the four seasons since.

The last word: "Yes, I'm going into (movies). I think I'm versatile. I can definitely go into action (movies), but action is probably the easiest one. (Maybe) drama, suspense. But I don't like nothing about horror and that mess. When you talk acting, that's kind of what I do." — Baltimore inside linebacker Ray Lewis, who confirmed he will return in 2011, but also discussed potential plans for the future.

Tagged: Falcons, Bengals, Cowboys, Broncos, Packers, Raiders, Rams, Dolphins, Giants, Panthers, Steelers, Chargers, Billy Volek, Fred Robbins, Will Allen, John Abraham, Ike Taylor, Will Allen, Aaron Rodgers, Nick Collins, Bryant McFadden, William Gay, Doug Free, Chris Long, Carlos Dunlap, Demaryius Thomas

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