Despite past, Burress has NFL future

NFL players claim they are suffering “irreparable harm” by the league’s lockout.

Plaxico Burress, though, shouldn’t be complaining.

The ongoing work stoppage is one of the best things to happen this offseason for the disgraced wide receiver.

Obviously, nothing will top Monday’s release from a New York state prison. The former Super Bowl star-turned-felon was incarcerated the past 21 months on a gun charge. Burress can now resurrect a personal and professional life torn asunder by a 2009 conviction for illegal weapons possession.

Doing the latter should be easier thanks to the lockout.

In a normal NFL offseason, most teams seeking a veteran wide receiver would have already filled that need with a free-agent signing. But with all personnel transactions banned, Burress is on equal footing with his peers. He also has clearance from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to immediately resume playing.

Burress, who turns 34 in August, won’t be in the same high demand as younger wideouts like Minnesota’s Sidney Rice or Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards of the New York Jets. Burress is likely in line for a one- or two-year contract laden with incentives. He falls in the same “rent-a-receiver” category as Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, two other controversial free-agent wideouts considered short-term fixes at this point in their likely Hall of Fame careers.

Burress’ stock, though, could rise depending on the ultimate NFL labor resolution for the 2011 campaign. If six accrued NFL seasons rather than four are required for unrestricted free agency like in 2010, appealing players like Rice, Holmes and New Orleans’ Lance Moore will have restricted status. They will be far more likely to remain with their current teams.

Interested suitors must consider Burress’ criminal past and his well-publicized disciplinary spats with New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin. But this is a league that has given players convicted of far worst crimes like DUI manslaughter (Donte Stallworth) and dog fighting (Michael Vick) shots at redemption.

Because damage from his 2008 crime was self-inflicted (an accidental gunshot wound when his firearm discharged in a New York City nightclub), Burress’ background won’t carry as much weight in team evaluation as this:

Can he still play at a high level?

“He looks great,” Burress attorney Peter Frankel told last week. “I think he’s going to surprise some people with how good he looks when he gets released.”

Such hype sounds more like something that would come from Burress’ huckster agent Drew Rosenhaus. But there are indications Burress will leave prison in better shape than an overweight Vick did after serving 21 months of his sentence in a federal penitentiary.

The New York Daily News reported last September that Burress was carrying a “hard-looking” 224 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame. Burress was lifting weights, sprinting in 50-yard increments and even running routes as fellow inmates threw passes.

Thanks to the lockout, Burress will have a chance to further get his legs back before free agency begins. While teams can’t officially scout Burress or have him conduct a workout, word will quickly surface about his physical condition after private training sessions begin.

Burress didn’t post spectacular statistics during his final NFL season in 2008. He caught 35 passes for 435 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games before being suspended. But his impact went beyond statistics. Thanks to the defensive headaches that Burress created, the Giants were 9-1 in games he played. Without Burress, New York finished the season 2-4 with an opening home playoff loss to Philadelphia.

The Eagles top the list of potential Burress landing spots. Because of his height and potential red-zone effectiveness, he would bring a different dimension to a receiver corps that features only one player (2010 fifth-round draft pick Riley Cooper) who stands over six-feet tall. Because the Eagles already have talented wideouts like DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin and Jason Avant — not to mention soft-handed running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Brent Celek — Burress would have time to shake any rust without being expected to immediately become the main focus of the passing game. Playing twice a year (at least) against the Giants also could be appealing.

And as the Vick revival has proven, the Eagles can provide a nurturing environment for a player with a troubled past and all the media attention that will come with his signing.

Five other intriguing options include:

St. Louis: Despite the midseason temptation to claim Moss off waivers, the Rams stuck with a young group of receivers and almost made the playoffs anyway. Burress, though, would provide an upgrade in what may become a more pass-happy offense under new coordinator Josh McDaniels. Burress also has a history with Rams head coach Steve Spagnuolo from when both were with the Giants. Spagnulo is a disciplinarian but not as heavy-handed as Coughlin, which may serve him well with a player of Burress’ temperament.

Washington: Although still listed on the team’s web site, Santana Moss reportedly became an unrestricted free agent before the lockout because his contract voided. Moss says he wants to re-sign. Even if he does, the Redskins could still use help. Excluding Moss and second-year starter Anthony Armstrong, the other six veteran receivers on the roster caught a combined 13 passes in 2010.

Jacksonville: After a spate of player arrests, the Jaguars have shied from signing anyone with a shady off-field history. General manager Gene Smith may want to make an exception to help two Jaguars on the hot seat: head coach Jack Del Rio and quarterback David Garrard. Jacksonville desperately needs receiving help, especially with Mike Sims-Walker hoping to test the free-agent market.

New York Jets: Giants running back Brandon Jacobs shot down the possibility of Burress re-signing with his former team last week. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Burress will leave the Big Apple. The Jets are unlikely to re-sign both Holmes and Edwards. Randy Moss has received such high praise from Jets brass this offseason that he may get targeted once Holmes and/or Edwards leave town. Considering how much Moss’ play declined in 2010, Burress may be a better option. The freewheeling nature of Jets head coach Rex Ryan also may appeal to Burress, who was fined “40 to 50” times during his three-plus seasons with the Giants according to NFL insider Jay Glazer.

New England: History has shown that if the Jets start sniffing around a player, the Patriots often do the same. Burress wouldn’t fill the exact same vertical receiving role that Randy Moss did in New England but he could be an effective situational player, especially inside the 20-yard line. If he has adopted a more business-like approach to football during his time in prison, Burress and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick could easily co-exist. Belichick also has a tendency to look fondly upon players who have given him fits in the past. Burress — who caught the game-winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLII that ended New England’s quest for a perfect season — fits the bill. His best chance for a second Super Bowl ring may be with the Patriots, but the most lucrative contact offer may be a bigger consideration after the financial hit Burress took with his legal woes.

This much we do know: Burress shouldn’t have to wait long to sign once the lockout is lifted. Until then, Burress should begin enjoying the freedom he was given once again and do everything possible to avoid the same kinds of mistakes that took away two-plus seasons of his NFL livelihood.