Bush league: A few weeks ago, Yahoo! Sports reported that New Orleans tailback Reggie Bush has been given permission by Saints officials to seek a deal that will land him with another team. No one questioned the validity of the report and the lockout essentially precluded New Orleans officials from discussing it, but it is essentially accurate.
One reason: The Sports Xchange has confirmed the Bush camp pushed for the right to explore outside options and that — regardless of the views expressed by the tailback in an interview this week, in which he insisted his preference is to return to New Orleans — he has no intention of accepting a big hit to his contract.
"(Bush) has basically forced the issue," a league source told The Sports Xchange.
The deal, entering its final season, is scheduled to pay Bush $11.8 million. His original contract, negotiated in 2006, has been reconfigured once, and neither side seems keen on restructuring again.
Even with the moratorium on discussing players during the lockout, the suspicion is that Bush and his advisors have nonetheless identified a subset of potential suitors, have some feel for the price they can elicit and have determined there will be some attractive free-agency opportunities if the tailback is released by the Saints.
New Orleans coach Sean Payton genuinely likes Bush, and his committee approach at tailback has nicely defined his role, but the five-year veteran might be a luxury at this point. For the Saints, Bush is a potentially explosive receiver in space, a terrific player in a screen-heavy offense and a superb punt return man. But he wants a bigger profile and, with first-round draft choice Mark Ingram further bolstering an already crowded tailback spot in New Orleans, it will be hard to justify paying nearly $12 million to a guy who is basically a role player.
The bet remains here that, between signing bonus and 2011 salary, Bush will be ‘made whole’ on the $11.8 million, or close to it, but the odds are it won’t be in New Orleans.
Harrison’s time numbered: His rant earlier this week aside, Pittsburgh outside linebacker James Harrison can probably start the countdown to the end of his career with the Steelers, especially given the history of the team and its football people.
Forget the fact that the league’s defensive player of the year in 2008 became the latest to provide a black eye for the Black and Gold. The Steelers will take the accompanying public relations hit and, while hardly satisfied with Harrison’s attempt to apology and explanation, move on.
In time, probably another season or so, they’ll move on without Harrison. A passionate defender whose effort and play-making skills are much admired by coordinator Dick LeBeau, the late-blooming Harrison is 33, and will be 34 before the start of the 2012 campaign.
Harrison has demonstrated none of the performance drop-off typical of players at that age, and certainly no loss of energy, but the Steelers have a way of phasing out older outside linebackers, spinning the revolving door, and moving in new guys who previously apprenticed in their 3-4 system. Tagged with the franchise marker earlier this spring, LaMarr Woodley is 5 1/2 years younger than Harrison, and the Steelers will make it a post-lockout priority to hammer out a long-term agreement that extends the one-year tender he signed earlier this spring.
If they succeed, the deal is sure to rival the six-year, $51.75 million contract Harrison signed in 2009. While the success of the Pittsburgh defense depends in part on having two terrific outside ‘backers, the club might not want to invest such a big part of its salary cap on the position. Harrison’s base salary for this season is just $3.67 million. Even in 2012, it’s a palatable $5.315 million. But there is nearly $19 million left in base salaries for the three-year period 2012-2014, and the bet here is that Harrison won’t be around to cash much of it.
The Pittsburgh system is built on bringing in former college defensive ends, taking a season or two to convert them to 3-4 linebackers and then moving them up the playing-time chain. The team invested a second-round pick in 2010 on Jason Worilds and a fifth-rounder this year on Chris Carter, and the club expects both to be players in the future.
Perhaps eventual contenders, in fact, for Harrison’s spot.
Bridge men: One of the priorities for some teams when the lockout ends — especially for those clubs who drafted quarterbacks expected to start early in their careers (Newton of Carolina, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder of Minnesota, Tennessee’s Chris Rocker, and perhaps Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco), is finding a veteran ‘bridge’ at the position. An inexperienced, non-threatening passer who could perhaps log a few starts while the rookie prepares to step into the lineup, or who might provide a temporary alternative/willing mentor if the youngster falters.
One guy who fits that description, and who might have generated a nice group of suitors in free agency, particularly with the Bengals, is five-year veteran Bruce Gradkowski, who played in Oakland the past two seasons and who is a pending unrestricted free agent. There are certainly more high-profile passers who figure to be available, especially via trade, but Gradkowski is a steady player with an in-check ego, and will get surprisingly good play.
Gradkowski, 28, has a resume that includes 20 regular-season starts. Not a huge body of work, granted, but 11 of those starts came under Gruden’s nose. Gradkowski might not know all the newer wrinkles of Gruden’s playbook, but he has a basic familiarity with the design and desires of the team’s first-year coordinator, having spent 2006-2007 in Tampa, when Gruden was an offensive assistant there.
There figure to be some other teams with an interest in the unheralded Gradkowski, think Tennessee, for instance, but his is a name that has been mentioned internally by Cincy officials. Guys of his ilk like Trent Edwards, Kyle Boller and Matt Moore, among others will merit a lot more attention in free agency than they might in most seasons. By the way, the Bengals’ brass is still set against putting their reluctant starter, Carson Palmer, on the trade heap.
At least for now.
Rolling stone: There has been some interest in Randy Moss expressed to The Sports Xchange in conversations with personnel officials from a few teams. But the set of potential suitors isn’t expected to be large, despite the contention this week from agent Joel Segal that his client is in "freakish" shape, and the potential payday might be considered an affront of sorts by the 13-year veteran.
At age 34, Moss might be impacted by the perceptions that he has lost some deep speed and the reality that he is hardly a middle-of-the-field option. Said one NFC general manager of Moss, who had only 28 combined receptions with three different teams in 2010: "If all he’s going to do is run up the boundary, you can get younger and cheaper guys who can do that for you."
There’s also this factor: Moss doesn’t play special teams, never has, and as a fourth or fifth receiver, he would have to.
"He’d be a luxury," said the NFC general manager. "And there aren’t a lot of teams that can afford a luxury … not from a money situation, but more from a personnel standpoint."
Tackling free agency: In what some personnel people have assessed as only an average year in free agency, even with the inclusion of four-year veterans in the pool, there figure to be a few healthy positions. And defensive tackle, traditionally a difficult position to fill, might be one of them.
There will be a few big-name tackles, and the group will be bolstered by Kris Jenkins, who has been released by the New York Jets, and Jamal Williams, cut by the Broncos, and the likely availability of Washington’s Albert Haynesworth via trade. Teams that deploy in a 3-4 might want to chase San Francisco’s Aubrayo Franklin.
But there will also be a very nice group of what in some years might be judged a ‘middle level’ pool of tackles, but which this season figures to draw plenty of attention. At or near the top of that group probably will be Anthony Adams of Chicago, an unrestricted free agent. Bears officials have noted that re-upping Adams will be a priority for them, and the eight-year veteran recently indicated that his preference is to remain in Chicago, if possible.
But the Bears got Adams for the relative bargain price of $4.3 million for four years in 2007, and the veteran inside defender, who made a base salary of $900,000 in 2010, probably won’t come this time at anything close to that modest price. Adams, 31, started all 16 games in 2010, only the second time in eight seasons he has started 16 games and he proved to be a productive performer, with 37 tackles and two sacks.
Adams can play at both of the inside spots in a 4-3 front, although he isn’t quite as effective on the nose, and he is going to be in surprisingly solid demand.
There are several other solid tackles available for a change in free agency: Remi Ayodele (New Orleans), Barry Cofield (New York Giants), Derek Landri (Carolina), Brandon Mebane (Seattle) and Daniel Muir (Indianapolis), among them, but Adams might get more play than any of them if he doesn’t re-sign with the Bears before testing the market.
No Ordinary Joseph: Keep an eye on Cincinnati cornerback Johnathan Joseph in free agency. Although the Bengals often note his injury history, and point out that the former first rounder (2006) has started all 16 games only once in his career, the five-year veteran has been whispered by several teams as a far less expensive (although his price won’t be cheap) alternative to fellow free agent Nnamdi Asomugha.
Joseph is only 27 and, if he can stay healthy, is a solid cover guy who may not be as physical as some teams like, but who has benefitted from playing in the AFC North. The Bengals aren’t going to spend the $8-$10 million per year Joseph likely could command somewhere else. Compounding the situation is that Cincinnati prefers to try to keep cornerback Leon Hall, who is entering the final season of his contract.
On a side note, people in Cincy have told The Sports Xchange that, even though recent surgery to address the neck injury suffered last season by Pacman Jones isn’t considered serious by some, there remain reservations in the organization about whether the veteran corner will be able to play in 2011.
More supplemental: Former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor remains the biggest name in the supplemental draft likely to be held later this month, but he was joined this week by onetime Georgia tailback Caleb King, and could soon find a few others in the summertime lottery. Indications are that former North Carolina defensive end Michael McAdoo, who was ruled permanently ineligible by school officials and recently lost his court appeal to have that judgment overturned, is at least considering the supplemental option. So are a couple of Pryor’s onetime OSU teammates who were suspended for the first five games of the 2011 season.
Meanwhile, King, whose three-year tenure at Georgia was marked by turbulence and irresponsibility before he was declared academically ineligible last week, will begin hard training next week for the supplemental draft. King rushed for 1,271 yards in a disappointing career with the Bulldogs and will be represented by Atlanta-area agent Kevin Conner, who will meet with people to help him prepare for any interview sessions with NFL teams, and also will work out in front of some folks with NFL-level expertise.
Bills due: Given that they play in one of the league’s toughest divisions, it’s hard at times to discern any progress achieved by the Buffalo Bills, who haven’t been to the playoffs since gaining a wild card berth in 1999. But the Bills have assembled what might be one of the NFL’s best young receiving corps.
"We have some guys who can go and get (the ball), and they’re just going to get better," quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick told The Sports Xchange. "There are guys who can run, who can come underneath, work the edges, work out of the slot, you name it."
The veterans are Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish, two players whose names have been raised in the past in trade rumors. But of the nine wide receivers currently listed on the Buffalo roster, six have three or fewer seasons of NFL experience. And the group includes 2010 leading receiver Steve Johnson (three years), along with Donald Jones and slot man David Nelson (both rookies in 2010), along with 10 rookies Marcus Easley (who missed his entire rookie season because of injury) and Naaman Roosevelt, who has great potential.
It might be hyperbole to suggest that the Bills had put together the best young group in the league, but Fitzpatrick thinks the young wideouts can develop into a real force.
The last word: "It’s hard to talk to a person when they have millions, man, because there is so much noise in their life. Everybody around them is employed, and they have "yes men." You got to start hiring a "no man." — Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders in an interview with an Atlanta radio station, on cutting ties with troubled Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant, whom he once mentored.
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.