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Young MLBs have big holes to fill

FOX Sports Len Pasquarelli
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Of the 16 teams that played a 4-3 defense in 2010 and will again this season, six are projected to start new middle linebackers, and two of the newcomers will be rookies.

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Third-round pick Mason Foster replaces Barrett Ruud in Tampa Bay and Philadelphia's fourth-round selection, Casey Matthews, is in for the departed Stewart Bradley.

The move will mark a bit of a transition for Foster, who played only sparingly in the middle during a very good college career at Washington, but who was privately earmarked for the "Mike" position as a contingency, in the event that Ruud (who signed with Tennessee) went elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.

"The big thing is that you can't necessarily get caught up with making huge plays," Foster told The Sports Xchange. "You've just got to make plays, period. Be steady. You know, stay at home, take care of the detail stuff, do what you're supposed to do, and do it well. You can't try to do too much, you know? Just (do) your job. Be kind of like a tackling machine and be proud of that."

Actually, Ruud made more "big plays" — five sacks, six interceptions, six forced fumbles, and five recoveries, in his four seasons as a starter — than most middle linebackers do, or more than a lot of folks realized. Foster likely won't be as effective, but will be asked to turn and cover the deep center of the field at times, a prerequisite for any 4-3 middle linebacker in a Cover-2 scheme.

Nonetheless, neither Foster nor Matthews, who played middle linebacker at Oregon, are known for their flashiness. Both are regarded as smart, instinctive defenders and solid tacklers, guys who play by the book, but in a positive sense.

Said one veteran Eagles defender of Matthews: "He won't jump out at you, and he'll pretty much mostly play tackle to tackle, but he'll be at the bottom of a lot of piles."

Ironically, Matthews wasn't credited with a single tackle in the official statistics from the Eagles' preseason opener on Thursday night, but coaches seemed generally satisfied by his performance.

Although drafted outside of the top 50 players, Foster and Matthews seem to be typical of the rationale that has become prevalent among 4-3 franchises anymore. In the past 10 drafts, only four "pure" 4-3 middle linebackers were chosen in the first round, the latest being Rolando McClain of Oakland in 2010. Not only are 4-3 clubs reluctant to invest high-round picks on middle linebackers, players who line up for just the first two snaps and then jog to the sideline in "sub" situations, but they're also moving younger players into the position, as well.

Talk about cutting out the middle man.

With only a few exceptions, middle linebacker has become a run-stuffing specialist position, the antithesis of what it used to be when it was the glamour spot for a lot of defensive units. Of course, the evolution of the position doesn't matter much to Foster or Matthews.

"It's still a lot of responsibility, which I don't take lightly at all," Foster said. "There's a lot to learn, like get people (lined up) in the right place, calling all the changes for the defense, and a lot of pressure on you."

It's also a position, it seems, where youth is being served.

Five of the linebackers from the 16 teams with returning 4-3 fronts in 2011 figure to have starters at the "Mike" spot with two seasons or fewer of NFL tenure, and seven with three years or less.

Around the league

*Status quo, status no: The public pronouncement by Tennessee team president Mike Reinfeldt on Thursday, that the Titans are prepared to make holdout tailback Chris Johnson the highest paid player at his position, isn't apt to be enough to get the three-year veteran into camp.

Johnson told local media that, Reinfeldt's public stance aside, he hasn't yet been offered a contract. A member of the Johnson camp confirmed that to The Sports Xchange. Said the source: "Nothing has changed. Talk is cheap; (Johnson) won't be."

The franchise shuffled CJ's contract to get him into camp last summer, moving some of the "escalator" money he had already earned forward into the deal, and raising his salary for this year from $800,000 to $1.07 million. But as Reinfeldt and the Titans know, bookkeeping legerdemain this year isn't going to be enough to get a deal done. Or to get Johnson to abandon his boycott of camp.

Said the source: "The funny thing is that Chris actually believes Bud (Adams, owner) wants to win. He really does. But he thinks they have a funny way of showing it." Or, perhaps, not showing it.

*Pryor commitment: The situation could change before Wednesday but, as of Friday morning when this column was filed, quarterback Terrelle Pryor had yet to be cleared for the supplemental draft, and there were serious doubts among several league personnel directors that the former Ohio State star will be.

The NFL, sources told The Sports Xchange, is in part closely studying a fairly incendiary letter sent to Pryor and agent Drew Rosenhaus from OSU officials in which the quarterback's alleged indiscretions are outlined, and in which the university essentially cuts ties with Pryor.

The Sports Xchange reported several weeks ago that, if Pryor is blocked from inclusion in the supplemental draft, he would consider suing the NFL, but people in his camp have since backed away from that possibility, although a source close to Pryor insisted on Thursday night it's still "under discussion."

As of Friday morning, there were four players approved for the supplemental draft, and former Georgia tailback Caleb King, who will audition for NFL scouts next Monday, seemed to be the best known of the bunch. And even he is a long shot to be selected.

Since 2000, there have been four years, most recently in 2008, in which there were no picks exercised at all.

*Reggie ready: It was news to Reggie Kelly, and to agent Jimmy Sexton (who responded with incredulity when a reporter apprised him his client had opted to walk away from the game), that there were reports the 11-year veteran tight end was retiring. Not true.

Kelly visited the Pittsburgh camp this week and, while the contract offer of a one-year deal for the league minimum base salary of $910,000 wasn't enough to make him jump immediately, he had a good meeting with coach Mike Tomlin and club officials and is considering the proposal.

The Steelers, who last week failed to lure veteran free agent Daniel Graham, are still seeking a veteran blocking tight end to complement Heath Miller, who will line up more at H-back this season as the Pittsburgh offense has expanded his receiving responsibilities, and Kelly is a guy who is attractive for a lot of reasons, not the least of which that he knows the AFC North.

Kelly has only 194 receptions in 11 campaigns, and has only thrice caught more than 20 balls, and just twice more than 30, but he is a terrific and selfless in-line blocker. And, maybe most important, despite reports to the contrary, he wants to play in 2011.

*Leadership drain: Assuming he doesn't return to the Bengals for '11 — and there has been a kind of mutual/unofficial understanding that the two sides will part ways — the loss of Kelly will be one felt more in the Cincinnati locker room than on the field.

With good reason, the "retirement" of quarterback Carson Palmer has garnered most of the headlines. But Palmer always suggested publicly that Kelly was one of the club's unquestioned leaders and at one point referred to the tight end as the "best teammate" he'd ever had in the NFL.

The losses of Palmer, Kelly, middle 'backer Dhani Jones, and to a lesser but still significant sense, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, leaves a veteran leadership void in the Cincy locker room.

*Got their back(ers): Second-year linebacker Jason Worilds has demonstrated more intensity in camp this summer than a year ago, but word out of Latrobe, Pa., is that Steelers coaches are really excited about the way that fifth-round rookie Chris Carter of Fresno State has taken to the transition from undersized college defensive end to outside 'backer in the Pittsburgh 3-4 scheme.

Carter is generously listed at just 6-1, but plays with notable leverage and lots of heart.

The Steelers would like to reduce some of the workload of starters James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, each of whom logged roughly 150 snaps in '10, but need to develop some depth behind their two Pro Bowl-caliber edge defenders.

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For now, the improving Worilds, who had two sacks in limited playing time as a rookie, is the No. 3 guy. But even though the Steelers rarely push their first-year players, especially at outside linebacker, where they prefer to apprentice a guy for a year or two, keep an eye on Carter, who figures to get plenty of opportunity in the first couple preseason games.

*Running on empty: Through Thursday evening, 18 unrestricted free-agent tailbacks had either signed with new teams or re-signed with their incumbent franchises. The contracts those players received, either from new teams or holdover clubs, seemed to offer a pretty graphic illustration of how the tailback position is now regarded by a lot of teams. Disposable.

Teams draft a player, run him into the ground for five years or so, then draft a replacement. It's become one of the most fungible positions in the NFL, and the effect of the prevalence of the time-sharing plan at the running back spot has become obvious. Only five of the 18 received multi-year contracts, and just four — DeAngelo Williams (Carolina), Ahmad Bradshaw (Giants), Darren Sproles (New Orleans), and Joseph Addai (Indianapolis) — got agreements for more than two years.

Back in February, at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, Sexton suggested that the Panthers would "pay (Williams) a lot of money (to stay)." They did, with a five-year, $43 million contract.

But there are some personnel guys around the NFL who question the investment in the 28-year-old Williams, especially since Carolina already has Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson on board.

Fact is, almost as many fullbacks (four) as tailbacks earned multi-year contracts. Think about this: Three onetime top 10 first-rounders — Cedric Benson (Cincinnati), Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) and Ronnie Brown (Philadelphia) — all got one-year contracts.

*Sharper focus: Certainly among the most high-profile of the original unrestricted free agents still available, not counting the veteran players released over the past two weeks, free safety Darren Sharper definitely wants to play a 15th season in 2011, and has had a few nibbles.

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In fact, The Sports Xchange has learned that Sharper received an inquiry from a fairly prominent team as recently as Wednesday, and there were serious conversations with officials from the club.

But Sharper, who will be 36 in November, is holding out hope that a viable Super Bowl contender will still call.

Despite the "name status" of the team involved this week with Sharper, he is uncertain of its playoff readiness. Sharper's 63 career interceptions are tied for sixth most in league history. He is tied with Ronnie Lott for second most among pure safeties, behind only all-time leader Paul Krause.

*No sense (kicking): In a trend that isn't likely to thrill guys like Devin Hester if it continues, there were 51 kickoffs in the five Thursday night games, and 40 were into the end zone, and 16 were for touchbacks.

But don't loom for the competition committee, which endorsed moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line this year for safety purposes, to have any kind of knee-jerk reaction to the numbers.

"One night (of preseason play) is a pretty small sample," one committee member told The Sports Xchange on Friday morning.

"Let's give it a while, let everyone get used to it, and get a bigger body of work to examine. . . . But do I think, just based on Thursday and what guys see and are reading on the stats page, that there are a lot of return guys (complaining)? Yeah, I'm sure there are."

*Punts: For at least the past three seasons, matching the tenure of Mike Smith as head coach, Atlanta has been a team that preferred a cornerback as its "nickel" player in the secondary. That will probably remain the case in 2011, with young veterans Christopher Owens and Dominique Franks battling for the No. 3 job behind Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes. But second-year safety Rafael Bush, who spent most of 2010 on the practice squad, is in the hunt as well. If he wins the job, it will mean at least a philosophical and schematic tweak for the Falcons.

--Over the past few seasons, the safety spot has been a problem area in Chicago, but that doesn't appear to be the case in 2011. Not only do the Bears have a solid pair of starters in strong safety Chris Harris and free safety Major Wright, but backups Craig Steltz and Chris Conte, the latter a rookie third-rounder, have been early camp standouts. Look for Harris, traded to Carolina in 2007 and then re-acquired via trade last year, to be offered a contract extension. The unheralded Harris, who has been among the NFL leaders in fumbles forced/recovered the past three years, is scheduled to make about $1.6 million in bonuses and salary for '11, the final year of his contract.

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--As for the Bengals' tight end situation cited above, the team really likes what it has seen so far in camp from undrafted college free agent Colin Cochart of South Dakota State. The Bengals have solid receivers at the position — Jermaine Greshman caught 52 passes as a rookie in 2010, and veteran Bo Scaife, signed this week as a free agent, is a proven intermediate-range guy — but has to unearth a blocker to replace Kelly. It's still very early, but Cochart might be that guy.

--In case you missed The Sports Xchange column earlier this week, the league expects that HGH testing will be part of the drug screening administered to draft prospects who attend the NFL combine starting next February. On a related note, The Sports Xchange founder Frank Cooney passed on that Bodog.com has established odds on what position will be the first to have a player test positive for HGH. The odds: defensive line, 5-2; offensive line, 3-1; wide receiver, tight end, safety, and cornerback, all 4-1; running back, 5-1; quarterback, 7-1; kicker and punter, 10-1.

--Although he has proven to be one of the NFL's top offensive line coaches, Mike Tice of Chicago is under the microscope this year, particularly with the Bears' decision not to re-sign six-time Pro Bowl snapper and acknowledged team leader Olin Kreutz, who signed with New Orleans. In the Bears' reshuffled line, Roberto Garza becomes the new starting center, a spot he hasn't played since 2001, and his third different starting position in five years. Left guard Chris Williams, originally chosen as a left tackle in the first round in 2008, is the only projected starter to have been at his current spot for more than four regular-season games.

--Former Indianapolis starting cornerback Kelvin Hayden might be the most attractive free agent still available in the estimation of a few teams. But there remains some concern about the neck injury Hayden suffered in 2010, and about his contract expectations as well.

--The additions of veterans such as Ben Leber, Zac Diles and Brady Poppinga in free agency have forced three-year veteran linebacker David Vobora out of a job in St. Louis. Vobora, who won a landmark $5.4 million judgment against a supplements company this spring, was waived on Friday morning. Vobora has yet to collect a cent of his judgment award.

--The good news for the Oakland passing game is that the light bulb seems to be at least flickering for 2009 first-round wideout Darrius Heyward-Bey, and that third-year veteran tight end Brandon Myers and rookie fifth-round wide receiver Denarius Moore could contribute to the passing game. The bad news is that oft-injured wide receiver Chaz Schilens suffered a knee injury in Thursday's preseason opener. The injury may not be serious but it continues a run of injuries for the star-crossed three-year veteran.

--The Raiders may intensify their efforts to re-sign veteran tackle Langston Walker, who is drawing interest from a few other teams, after Thursday night. Khalif Barnes, who was re-signed for depth after Baltimore free agent Jared Gaither failed his physical because of back problems, was flagged for three false starts.

--Sure, it's only one preseason game, but New England seems to have developed another solid and capable backup quarterback in Brian Hoyer.

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--Oft-injured in Denver, four-year veteran right tackle Ryan Harris has not only provided depth for the Eagles, but might be pushing for a starting job, especially with Winston Justice still rehabbing from offseason knee surgery. Philly may have a logjam at tackle, and it will not be all that surprising to see the Eagles deal off one of their right tackles. Three-year veteran King Dunlap, long on potential but shy on playing time, isn't exactly a good fit for the smaller, quicker model new line coach Howard Mudd historically seems to have preferred.

--Despite never winning a game as a starter in his five seasons in the league (0-10), unrestricted free agent Brodie Croyle of Kansas City may be one of the better backup quarterback types still available, and he's had some modest interest. But the former third-round draft pick is likely to wait to see if someone is injured in the first few weeks of preseason play before jumping at an offer.


*The last word: "Could I cover him? That's like asking Martha Stewart if she could cover a bed." -- Newly inducted Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders, when asked if he could cover Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, whom he cited as the NFL's best wide receiver
 

Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Bengals, Titans, Colts, Raiders, Rams, Saints, Eagles, Buccaneers, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Texans, Reggie Kelly, Olin Kreutz, Darren Sharper, Ben Leber, Carson Palmer, Andre Johnson, Barrett Ruud, Bo Scaife, Chris Harris, DeAngelo Williams, Ryan Harris, Stewart Bradley, Jonathan Stewart, Chris Williams, King Dunlap, David Vobora, Mike Goodson, Chris Johnson, Mason Foster, Chris Conte, Casey Matthews, Chris Carter, Mike Smith

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