Blank could reel in Mario Williams

Should he make it to unrestricted free agency Tuesday — and there was no evidence the Houston Texans were close to working out a new contract before he hits the market — defensive end Mario Williams will clearly be the most coveted veteran this side of Peyton Manning.

So where will the six-year pro end up playing?

Don’t count out the Atlanta Falcons, we keep hearing, as do some team officials around the league.

Let’s call it, for lack of a better term, a semi-educated guess.

Maybe for some it’s nothing more than an exercise in connecting the dots, always a dicey pursuit in the free agent game, but the Falcons have a need for a pass rusher.

And, while Williams will have his share of suitors, expect the Falcons to be in the hunt.

Owner Arthur Blank certainly has a history of making free agent splashes, the team plays Williams’ preferred front, a 4-3, and Atlanta might be emboldened some by the current problems confronting arch rival New Orleans, and try to steal the NFC West.

New defensive coordinator Mike Nolan could use Williams in a variety of ways in an attempt to create pressure on the pocket.

Williams is going to command a ton of money, but Blank, obsessed with winning a Super Bowl, has never been shy about pursuing high profile veteran players.

Witness the free agency signings of tailback Michael Turner (six years, $34.5 million in 2008), cornerback Dunta Robinson (six years, $57 million in 2010) and defensive end Ray Edwards (five years, $30 million in 2011). Robinson and Edwards so far have provided pretty disappointing returns on the investments, but that probably won’t be enough to dissuade Blank from chasing Williams, if his personnel people target him.

Plus, the Falcons are leery about shelling out too much to retain end John Abraham, their lone legitimate pass rusher who is also 34 years old.

The Falcons may not land Williams, who is said to be somewhat enamored of the Falcons’ possibility, but it’s a pretty good bet they’ll be interested.

Said one team official whose team is also expected to pursue Williams: "(Blank) is a hell of a closer. And he isn’t afraid to spend."

Around the league

• If for no other reason than the fact some general managers, personnel directors and scouts saw the note and called in response, it’s probably worth reprising an item from a "draft notes" column that appeared on The Sports Xchange earlier this week: No word yet on possible failed drugs tests at the combine, an annual story, it seems, but several scouts pointed out to The Sports Xchange that about four to five draft prospects were diagnosed with different degrees of learning deficiencies, varying from dyslexia to attention deficit disorder to ADHD.

Some of the players spoke openly in interview sessions about the disorders, and others were discovered during the interview process. The consensus is that most of the players handled themselves fairly well in the interviews and "at the blackboard" in discussing plays and strategies, and one personnel director said no player should be "too hurt" by the disorders.

In 2009, however, it’s generally believed the draft stock of Ball State quarterback Nate Davis was impacted somewhat by a learning disorder.

Davis was chosen by San Francisco in the fifth round that year.

"It’s probably true every year, but the (awareness) is so much better now," one general manager said.

"I don’t know that we’re any better trained for it, or to understand it, but it’s certainly good to know about."

• One of the knotty problems confronting New York Jets executives in their not-so-quiet pursuit of quarterback Peyton Manning is the psyche of starter Mark Sanchez and how it might affect him.

The Jets privately allow that Sanchez has to play better, especially coming off a 2011 performance in which he was inconsistent; drew some criticism (even if unattributed) from teammates; and was subjected to an in-huddle tirade by wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Sanchez has started all but one game in his three years with the Jets, who made a daring move up in the 2009 draft to land him, and he took the franchise to the AFC championship game in each of his first two seasons.

One Jets official conceded the team "is walking a little bit of a tightrope" in the public flirtation with Manning, and is concerned about Sanchez’s reaction to the affair. As well it should be.

• Another Manning-related note: It’s interesting, even if many Colts players aren’t in Indianapolis, that just one veteran, center Jeff Saturday, turned out for the quarterback’s farewell press conference. The Colts, by the way, are serious about having Saturday accept a position in the organization, but for now at least, his preference is to play in 2011.

The Dolphins, looking ahead, have already had some internal discussions about the possibility of moving center Mike Pouncey to guard if Saturday would want to join Manning with the Dolphins.

• As reported by The Tip Sheet at least twice in the offseason, length-of-contract continues to be the biggest sticking point between San Francisco and the representatives for quarterback Alex Smith. The 49ers have stuck for months now to a three-year model.

• Those close to Cleveland officials, including general manager Tom Heckert, are not surprised by the Browns’ stance that they won’t invest a ransom in moving up to the No. 2 spot for Robert Griffin III. There could be some posturing involved, of course, but the insiders suggest there’s just as good a chance the Browns will deal down from the fourth choice if Griffin or another player they target isn’t available.

• Despite the close relationship between Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and Hines Ward, the Cardinals will not make a play for the former Pittsburgh star.