7 Points: Mason needs to decide on future in NFL

Point 1: Derrick Mason isn’t doing much to show he’s serious about retiring.

When I first heard that the veteran wide receiver was walking away from the game shortly after learning of former teammate Steve McNair’s death, I was both stunned and empathetic. Despite being paired up with a rookie quarterback, Joe Flacco, Mason snared 80 balls for 1,037 yards, moving the chains for his team 60 times in 2008. And he showed that he could still be a medium-range threat at the age of 34, gaining 20-39 yards on 12 occasions.

Bottom line, he still has enough gas in his tank to be the Ravens’ No. 1 receiver for at

least another year.

“In my career, I have been able to do everything but win a Super Bowl,” Mason said through a press release at JOCKlife.com on July 13. “I’ve had the opportunity to play on great teams and with great players. After 12 years, I have seen it all and done it all.”

Then came the most interesting statement.

“Right now, I am content with the decision I am making. All good things come to an end, and I am ready to see what else life has to offer.”

At the time I read his full statement, the words “right now” didn’t leap off the screen at me. But now they nag at me a bit since Mason hasn’t taken five minutes to type up and submit a one-paragraph resignation note. The delay makes no sense while Mason and his agent continue to posture the situation as a bona fide retirement. After all, Smith said in a

statement that Mason notified him of his decision to retire back on July 10.

After hearing of McNair’s death, it certainly would make sense that a man like Mason would reflect on his own life and decide that he’s made enough money and may want to start spending more time with his own family. And if that’s the case, I applaud that decision and wish him much happiness.

But if Mason is using his retirement announcement, launched through a website domain owned by Smith, to land the contract extension he was seeking during the offseason, the timing of it right after McNair’s death will make him look like a greedy and despicable man who, by his own admission, has little reason to be seeking another huge payday at this stage of his career.

“This decision has nothing to do with the contract situation; I have made enough money, more than enough money,” Mason claimed in his statement.

Well, if that’s true, Mason has two honorable options at this point — send in the resignation letter to the NFL or agree to play out the final year of his current deal with the Ravens. If he returns now with a contract extension, he will be seen as a person who leveraged his friend’s death for personal gain since the timing will inevitably link the events, whether that’s totally fair or not.

Mason is scheduled to make $3 million as a 35-year old wide receiver, and that’s not chump change by any means. If he retires, the Ravens would gain $1.6 million in cap space since they would have to absorb $1.4 million in prorated bonus money against the salary savings.

I hope he comes back and plays out the final year of his deal. The Ravens certainly need him, he still has the talent and skills to bring a crowd to their feet and he could dedicate his 2009 efforts to the memory of his friend.

But if he’s serious about retiring now, he needs to fax that letter to the league office — now.

Point 2: A pair of second-round draft picks will have a bit more to prove in their training camps this summer due to the price their teams paid for them.

Making the leap to the NFL as a cornerback is a huge task, but expectations may be a bit higher for the Patriots’ Patrick Chung and the Broncos’ Alphonso Smith in training camp.

Chung became the Patriots’ draft compensation pick — No. 34 overall — as a result of the team trading quarterback Matt Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel to Kansas City back in February. And Denver surrendered their No. 1 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft to Seattle in exchange for the opportunity to grab Smith in this year’s draft at No. 37 overall.

That certainly adds to the pressure for both men to make an immediate contribution. But what’s a reasonable expectation for a second-round selection who will be attempting to cover pro receivers he’s only seen on TV for the past few years?

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Well, you could take a quick look at the five cornerbacks who were selected in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft as one measuring stick. The only one who truly got into the flow right away was the Chiefs’ Brandon Flowers, who was picked at No. 35 overall. He started 13 contests for a young Chiefs team, picking off two passes and defending 13.

Tracy Porter, No. 40 overall last year, started in five games for the Saints.

The other three — the Packers’ Pat Lee, the Patriots’ Terrence Wheatley and

the Giants’ Terrell Thomas — had a combined total of just three starts but gained some limited game experience as rookies that should help their chances during their sophomore campaigns.

Point 3: Contract negotiations were so much simpler 50 years ago.

I’m currently reading Paul Hornung’s autobiography, “Football and the

Single Man,” a book I stumbled upon during a recent one-day visit to Jim Thorpe, Pa.

The book on the life of the Packers’ great and Hall of Famer was published back in 1965 with a pre-printed price of $4.95. Nearly 45 years later, there it sat on the shelf of a store in the historic coal-mining town for $3.50.

I couldn’t walk out without it.

Hornung, also known as “The Golden Boy” was one of the most versatile players of his era. A Heisman Trophy winner who played quarterback, fullback, left halfback and safety during his college career, he also handled kicking duties for Notre Dame.

While he admits that his NFL team of choice at the time would have been the Chicago Bears since he liked the city and knew lots of people there and since the Bears had “a helluva football team,” Hornung’s fate was decided by a coin toss. The teams that had finished in a tie for last place the previous year were the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Cardinals (who moved to St. Louis in 1960).

After the Packers won the toss and made him the first overall pick 1957, the team sent their business manager and six members of the Packers’ board of directors to meet with Horning and his agent, Julius Tucker. It took the group just eight minutes of discussion before Hornung picked up the pen and signed the deal — a three-year pact for $15,000 a year, plus a $3,000 signing bonus.

When was the last time you heard of a top pick signing his deal that quickly?

During his nine-year career, the Packers’ halfback and kicker led the NFL in scoring three times. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986.

Point 4: There are plenty of reasons to believe that Eli Manning will have a big year in New York.

Watching Eli Manning mature as a quarterback in this league has been really intriguing and entertaining.

Before he entered the NFL, Manning appeared to be his own man, a player at the collegiate level who wasn’t phased by adversity and who maintained the refreshing perspective that he was playing a game. Don’t get me wrong. It was very apparent that he had a burning desire to win, but it was with the relaxed body posture and outlook that you’d expect to see among kids who were playing football in the backyard on a cool autumn day.

Manning lost that perspective a bit when he crossed over into professional football. Earlier in his career, all you had to do was look into his eyes during game action and you could see that he had lost some of the cool, relaxed mental state that had helped him excel at Ole Miss. But over the past few seasons, Manning has settled in. And I think he’s poised for his best year of his pro career to date for four reasons.

One of the most significant factors in a quarterback’s success is the level of protection provided by his offensive line, especially when he’s made his grade primarily as a pocket-passer. Manning’s entire offensive line and both of his top tight ends return from last season, which reduces breakdowns in communication and miscues as defenders shift their positions and angles just prior to the snap of the ball.

Manning will also benefit from the return of a potent rushing game led by Brandon Jacobs, who earned an $8 million signing bonus as part of a new four-year pact worth $25 million. And while the team lost backup Derrick Ward to free agency, second-year back Ahmad Bradshaw and rookie Andre Waters are capable of filling the gap.

While the Giants no longer have Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer penciled-in as starters, they’ve done a terrific job of selecting receivers with a wide variety of skills. The training camp battle between Steve Smith, Domenik Hixon, Mario Manningham, Sinorice Moss and rookies Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden is going to be fierce. And Manning will emerge from camp with a strong set of wide receiver targets along with third-year tight end Kevin Boss.

Last, but certainly not least, this is Manning’s contract year. If the club is smart, they’ll get a new deal wrapped up with their star quarterback prior to the start of the season so it doesn’t become a distraction for the team. And when Manning sees the numbers in that contract, it will be further proof to him that he’s made his mark in the NFL — and he can play the game even more relaxed than ever before.

Add it all up, and you’ve got bad news for the teams who are on the Giants’ 2009 schedule.

Point 5: The AFC South is going to be a real slugfest this year.

The Titans and the Colts are both poised to contend for the title once again, but Houston and Jacksonville should both be improved over last season.

The key for the Texans will be keeping quarterback Matt Schaub healthy. He’s completed 66 percent of his throws during 22 starts over the past two seasons, and with Steve Slaton providing a more respectable rushing attack for the team, the offense should really hit its stride. Defensively, the Texans bolstered an already talented front seven with the addition of aggressive rookie linebacker Brian Cushing and pass rushing defensive end Connor Barwin to the mix. Expect to see the Texans putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year.

Meanwhile, the Jaguars added talent to their battered offensive line through the addition of Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton to help repair one of their weak spots. Maurice Jones-Drew has a new contract and is ready to take the reigns as the team’s lead running back. Torry Holt, Troy Williamson and Mike Walker provide plenty of capable targets for quarterback David Garrard, but the key to success will be getting them in sync before September.

I like the Colts’ chances of reclaiming the title this year since they should get improved play from their offensive line and a boost to their running game with the addition of rookie Donald Brown. But in any case, I don’t expect to see the AFC South wrapped up before the final weekend of action.

Point 6: If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers struggle this season, fans should put the owner and the team’s front office at the top of their list of those to blame.

The Buccaneers have some holes in their depth chart, but it’s not because they are strapped for cash. I’ve been told that the team is currently $38 million under the cap as they prepare to head to training camp.

The only other team that is even close to that figure is the Kansas City Chiefs at $30 million. Rounding out the top five are the Green Bay Packers ($21 million), the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings ($19 million) and the Atlanta Falcons ($18 million).

The fact that the team is sitting on that much cash is unbelievable. It’s not as though the team is coming off of a championship season with no room for improvement. They finished at 9-7 last year, but this is a team that may not even win half of their games this year in an NFC South that is improving more rapidly than they are.

It’s not as though the team suddenly became opposed to overpaying players this offseason. That became evident when they re-signed wide receiver Michael Clayton to a deal that will hit their cap for $8 million in 2009. I’m not sure how you justify that move when Clayton hasn’t caught more than 38 passes since his sensational rookie season in 2004. Based on the average payout per year of his new deal, he’ll be the fourth-best paid player on the Tampa Bay roster this year at $4.7 million.

Try to explain how that makes sense.

And the team’s truly bold move of the offseason created a high-risk, high-reward situation. The addition of former Browns tight end Kellen Winslow through a trade will hit their cap for $5 million in salary for a player who has started just 40 games in five seasons, including just eight last year. But they are obviously banking on him keeping his attitude in check and returning to his 2007 level of performance when he caught 82 balls for 1,106 yards. The good news is that the early word out of Tampa Bay is that Winslow is happy with his change of scenery and that the team could use him as a third receiver as well — similar to what the Colts do with Dallas Clark — increasing Winslow’s opportunities to make catches.

The biggest areas of concern that I see for this team are the quarterback position — until Josh Freeman develops — the running back depth chart that is topped off with talented players who have experienced some serious injury problems during their careers, lack of talent depth behind Antonio Bryant at the wide receiver position and some uncertainty at linebacker following the release of starters Derrick Brooks and Cato June.

And the shame of it is that the Bucs had the cash to be a major player in free agency and address more of these deficits, but they weren’t aggressive enough, or couldn’t convince free agent prospects that there was a bright future in the near term in Tampa Bay.

In fairness, the news wasn’t all bad for the team in terms of offseason moves. They designated wide receiver Antonio Bryant as their franchise player, holding onto their best pass-catcher. Former Giants running back Derrick Ward was a nice addition to the running game if he can stay healthy. And adding kicker Mike Nugent to the roster should also pay off well, especially if the Bucs’ offense struggles to score touchdowns this season without a strong, established leader at the quarterback position.

Point 7: When Bruce Smith is inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,

he’ll be one of the few No. 1 draft picks to receive that honor.

With the work that goes into scouting the top overall draft pick each year, you would think that a good number of them would end up in the Hall of Fame. But when former Bills and Redskins defensive end Bruce Smith is inducted on August 8, he’ll only be the 13th top pick to achieve that status.

Smith’s induction was a no-brainer. He completed a 19-year pro career that was highlighted by 200 sacks. A quick and physical defender, Smith’s consistency also made his career highly memorable. In 13 of his NFL seasons, he posted 10 or more sacks. And in 1990, he notched a career-high 19 sacks.

Quarterbacks Troy Aikman of the Cowboys (1989) and John Elway of the Broncos

(1983) are the only other No. 1 picks from the 1980s who have made it to the Hall of Fame so far. Running back Earl Campbell, defensive end Lee Roy Selmon and quarterback Terry Bradshaw were top picks in the 1970s who were inducted. Running back O.J. Simpson (1969), offensive tackle Ron Yary (1968), defensive tackle Buck Buchanan (1963), halfback/kicker Paul Hornung (1957), center/linebacker Chuck Bednarik (1949), halfback/quarterback Charley Trippi (1945) and halfback Bill Dudley (1942) are also members of the elite group.

A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson’s player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and

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