Dockett looking to avoid infamous pitfall
Around the league
It may not quite be a tradition as old as the NFL, but it stretches back a lot of years -- to guys like Dana Stubblefield, Daryl Gardener, Tim Bowens, Corey Simon and plenty of others before them -- and it's a dubious trend that Darnell Dockett of the Arizona Cardinals is attempting to avoid.
"When you sign for big money," said the six-year veteran defensive tackle, who last week received a four-year extension worth $48.5 million, "everybody is watching you. You get held to a higher standard. Everybody is waiting for you to make a mistake, so they can talk bad about you. A lot of people sign the big contract, and they get complacent."
Especially at the defensive tackle position, it seems. Technically, Dockett is an end in the Arizona 3-4 front, but most pro scouts consider him a tackle. And the recent history of the NFL is rife with examples of defensive interior linemen who pocketed big deals and then, at least relatively speaking, were big busts. Some of the failures -- among them Simon (undisclosed injury or illness) and Gardener (chronic back problems) -- were not the direct fault of the players involved. But the history of huge deals for the position is that paying big money for a defensive tackle can be like playing with fire.
One NFL general manager, in discussing tackles in general, told The Sports Xchange: "It's a big risk-reward position when you're drafting (a defensive tackle), one of the biggest 'reach' positions ever, and usually a gamble when you're paying them, too."
Albert Haynesworth received a $100 million contract from the Washington Redskins in spring 2009, had a disappointing first season with the club, skipped the offseason workouts this year and reportedly is on the trading block.
Jacksonville awarded big deals to its inside power, stuff-the-run tandem of John Henderson (six years, $36 million in 2006) and Marcus Stroud ($31.5 million for five years in 2005), and both are gone from the Jaguars.
Simon got $30 million from the Colts when they traded for him in 2005, and he was gone a year later, after playing one season of a five-year deal, and starting just 13 games. The Bucs paid Anthony McFarland a six-year, $34 million deal in 2003, and he started 28 games over the next three seasons, then was traded to Indianapolis.
And that long litany of flops doesn't even include the several tackles taken in the first round in recent years and who failed to approximate their college press clippings. Consider this: In the 10 drafts 2000 to 2009, there were 31 defensive tackles selected, and only 14 of them are starters, while seven are out of the league. Of the five defensive tackles chosen in the first round in 2003, the only starter is Ty Warren, and he is on injured reserve for the year. Dwayne Robertson and Johnathan Sullivan were taken fourth and sixth overall, respectively, that year, and aren't on NFL rosters or payrolls.
"You always want the (big) payday ... but there are some pressures that go with it," said Oakland six-year veteran Tommy Kelly, who got a seven-year, $50.5 million contract from the Raiders in 2007, and who has been steady but hardly spectacular since then. And more often than not -- and perhaps Dockett will be the player who stops the trend -- tackles fall far short of living up to those pressures and those contracts.
His hair is flecked with gray but, at age 27, New Orleans strong safety Roman Harper doesn't appear to be getting older, just better. The fifth-year pro is in his second season in a defense conducive to his diverse skills, and Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams seems to use the former Alabama standout as sort of a wild card in his scheme.
"I'm not sure people know what to make of me," Harper said late Thursday night, after the Saints won their season opener. "I get to do a lot of different things in this defense."
His performance in the 14-9 victory over Minnesota was certainly indicative of that. Harper finished the game with five tackles, a quarterback hurry and a pass defensed. He blitzed and hit Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre on a pass that was intercepted by middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma.
The Saints were burned on one Harper blitz in the second quarter, when tight end Visanthe Shiancoe caught a 20-yard touchdown pass, but such risk-reward plays are part of Williams' basic DNA. Harper also had two run blitzes on which he didn't make the tackle, but affected the play, and teammates held Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson near the line of scrimmage.
In summer '09, old buddy Bobby Hebert, the former NFL quarterback who now handles radio analysis on the Saints' network and also hosts a sports-talk show in New Orleans, noted that Harper would be a bigger force in the Williams-designed scheme. Harper registered a career-high 102 tackles and had 1.5 sacks, but didn't post an interception for the second season in a row and the third time in four league seasons. But there seems little doubt Harper is Williams' kind of player, and is on the fringe of Pro Bowl caliber.
It would have been interesting to see what kind of action Harper attracted as an unrestricted free agent this spring. But he was one of the veteran players who were victimized by the lack of a collective bargaining agreement and who were limited to restricted free agency when the ceiling for total freedom rose from four to six years. He ended up signing a one-year tender for $2.521 million, but he could end up costing the Saints a lot if he just keeps improving and he ever hits the open market.
The contract extension for New England quarterback Tom Brady, first reported by Peter King during Thursday night's opener and which various reports have pegged at $18 million to $20 million per year for four seasons, has piqued the interest of Indianapolis officials and the representatives for Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.
If the deal is officially completed Friday, it will have some bearing on the Manning negotiations. But it won't get them done, one person with inside knowledge of the talks told The Sports Xchange this week. There will eventually be a "domino effect," but probably not imminently. Still, the four-year extension that Brady gets will be a pretty good jumping-off point.
There have been some talks between Indianapolis president Bill Polian and agent Tom Condon, but neither side is particularly in a hurry to complete the contract, instead hoping for a new collective bargaining agreement. Colts president Jim Irsay, a man of his word, reiterated to The Sports Xchange in recent days that Manning will become the NFL's highest-paid player. Whenever that might be.
Late this week, Irsay told Indianapolis media he would have nothing more to say on negotiations, and he invoked the "code of silence" on talks. But Irsay has dipped into his personal fortune to keep players before and, while he might not talk about it, he'll do it again if that's what it takes for Manning to finish his career in an Indianapolis uniform.
Since the ignominious release of JaMarcus Russell, there hasn't been a whole lot of interest, as least publicly, in the defrocked Oakland quarterback. But two teams told The Sports Xchange this week (and there could be more) they are at least paying some casual attention to the first overall selection of the 2007 draft.
Russell pleaded not guilty in July to felony possession of a controlled substance. Police earlier discovered codeine syrup, used to mix a concoction known as "Purple Drank" in his home. But The Sports Xchange has confirmed Russell has been working out with a Houston trainer and has slowly dropped his weight to 260 pounds.
That's still heavy for a quarterback and the weight at which Russell was listed on the roster, although people close to the trainer conceded he was in the 290s when he originally showed up for the sessions. The same people suggest Russell has been diligent about his workouts and remains convinced he will eventually be back in the league. Russell is only 25 years old and still has a huge arm. If he can convince the right people he's serious about the game and he can demonstrate that his work ethic has improved, anything is possible.
A batch of Dixon
The decision by Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin to go with third-year pro Dennis Dixon over the more experienced Charlie Batch in Sunday's opener against Atlanta is at least mildly surprising. Part of the Steelers' plan in looking ahead to the Atlanta game a couple weeks ago was that Byron Leftwich would start and Dixon would get some action in specially designed packages.
The initial feeling, when Leftwich was knocked out by a knee injury, was not to alter the original script -- that Batch would start and Dixon would still play in certain situations. But Tomlin opted to go with Dixon, who has one start on his resume, instead. Dixon isn't a wildcat offense specialist by any means, but he does provide Pittsburgh with a running threat and a much more athletic quarterback than the Steelers have had since the Kordell Stewart days.
The Falcons aren't a big blitz team, but coach Mike Smith has always picked his spots well, and he's almost certainly going to have some things planned for the inexperienced Dixon.
The wildcat offense phase, which was supposed to move to new dimensions when the Miami Dolphins used a second-round choice on quarterback Pat White in the '09 draft, may be declining a bit in 2010. The Dolphins waived the little-used White, who registered just five pass attempts and 21 rushes for 81 yards as a rookie in 2009, last weekend. There aren't exactly teams clamoring to sign the former West Virginia star.
The release of White, who some suggest was no better passer than Dolphins tailback Ronnie Brown, essentially means there are no wildcat specialist quarterbacks in the league. That doesn't mean teams won't use a tailback in the single-wing spinoff formation or that the wildcat has run its course, but most defensive coordinators don't expect to see as much of it.
"I could be dead wrong, and guys like (Miami offensive coordinator Dan) Henning are still going to break it out ... but I think, in general, it's not nearly as hot as it was a year ago," said one NFC defensive coordinator this week.
In a zone
Just as the significance of the wildcat offense might be diminishing, the widespread use of the zone-blocking scheme could be reduced, as well, in 2010. And it has nothing to do with the "retirement" of Seattle offensive line coach Alex Gibbs (at least the third time Gibbs has walked away from the league) last weekend. Gibbs, of course, was regarded as the father of the zone-blocking method, which magnified the importance of the one-cut running back, during his Denver tenure. But the feeling of some, who have replaced Gibbs' blocking design with a more helmet-on-helmet approach, is that a power-based attack is the way to go. They feel that the power-blocking scheme is more effective in the red zone.
Feeling a draft
Teams did a great job of hanging onto their draft choices this year. The highest-drafted player released was New Orleans defensive tackle Al Woods of LSU, who on Tuesday was signed to the Pittsburgh practice squad. Woods was the 123rd player chosen in April, meaning that the first 122 players off the board 4 1/2 months ago either made it to teams' regular-season rosters or are on the injured reserve list. The Saints moved up in the fourth round to snatch Woods, dealing fourth- and sixth-rounders to San Diego, but he was fairly unremarkable in camp.
Centers of attention
Between 1979 and 2006, only three players -- Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, and Jeff Hartings -- started full-time at center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The trio, one of whom is in the Hall of Fame and another who should be (in the estimation of this Hall selector), combined for 18 Pro Bowl appearances.
Two years ago, Justin Hartwig took over the spot, and now that he was released last weekend, the starter will be Maurkice Pouncey. The Steelers' first-round pick and the highest drafted center in the entire league since Damien Woody (since moved to tackle) in 1999, Pouncey is well aware of the Pittsburgh legacy and what is expected of him.
"It's like a position of honor," the former Florida star told The Sports Xchange. "I've got to do more than just hold down the fort."
Actually, there will be three rookies -- the others are third-round picks J.D. Walton (Baylor) of Denver and Jared Veldheer (Division II Hillsdale) of Oakland -- starting in the opening week. It believed to be only the second or third time a trio of rookie snappers started in the opening weekend.
Veldheer began camp at left tackle before moving to center and unseating 2009 starter Samson Satele. The man for whom Satele was acquired in '09, Jake Grove, was also beaten out, by Joe Berger, for the Miami starting job.
One veteran center who bears some special scrutiny is Philadelphia's Jamaal Jackson. When he tore the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee Dec. 27, there was considerable doubt Jackson could make it back for the '10 season opener. The six-year veteran will start on Sunday against Green Bay, but coach Andy Reid and offensive line assistant Juan Castillo will closely monitor him because of some stamina concerns.
Isn't that special?
Keep an eye on the Cincinnati Bengals' kick coverage units the early part of the season.
Because of the shuffling of players, special teams, of course, tend to be in shakedown mode early in any year. But Cincy special teams coach Darrin Simmons, whose unit was ranked No. 23 in the league by Dallas Morning News NFL writer Rick Gosselin in 2009, lost three of his top four tacklers to cuts -- Rashad Jeanty, Kyries Hebert and Abdul Hodge -- and will have a major makeover to accomplish.
Rookies like defensive end Carlos Dunlap and linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy may have to contribute to the coverage units. Former first-rounder Reggie Nelson, acquired from Jacksonville in a trade to bolster the backup safety spot and a three-year starter who didn't have to play much on "teams" during his tenure with the Jaguars, might also be called upon.
It got lost in the shuffle of 12th-hour cutdown day deals consummated this week, but don't discount the seemingly minor acquisition of third-year veteran cornerback Justin Tryon by Indianapolis from the Redskins for an undisclosed late-round draft choice.
Tryon, a fourth-round pick in 2008 from Arizona State, appeared in 29 games (two starts) for the 'Skins in two seasons. He was an effective special teams player and a decent nickel or No. 4 cornerback and had one interception and three passes defensed in his two years in Washington. Most notable perhaps is that Tryon unofficially allowed only 5.8 yards per pass attempt, second-lowest in the league to Darrelle Revis, in 2009.
The Colts have six defensive backs, including third-round rookie cornerback Kevin Thomas (knee) on injured reserve, and needed a veteran at the position. It's believed to be the first time Polian traded for a player since he acquired McFarland from Tampa Bay in 2006.
Minnesota free safety Husain Abdullah, a devout Muslim who observed the month of Ramadan -- which means fasting from dawn to sunset -- didn't appear any worse for the wear on Thursday night.
"I don't think I lost much (weight), if any," said Abdullah, who played a key role, as the Vikings used a nickel secondary for much of the game against New Orleans' three- and four-receiver sets. "I felt pretty strong."
Abdullah played a strong game, too. Officially, he didn't have any pass deflections, but he did a mostly nice job of keeping Saints receivers in front of him and not allowing the deep ball. And he registered four tackles.
Keep an eye on Abdullah, a third-year veteran who could become an increasing presence in the Minnesota secondary. By the way, Ramadan, which is also a period of atonement for Muslims, ended on Thursday night.
Hard to believe that offensive lineman Tony Ugoh, waived injured by the Colts on Wednesday, started 23 games at left tackle for the team from 2007 to 2008. Even harder to believe: Ugoh is one of only eight of the 31 players chosen by Polian in the top three rounds of the draft 1998 to 2007 (the only years relevant to this note) who didn't make it into his fourth season with the franchise.
The others were notoriously injured wide receiver E.G. Green (1998), the late guard Brandon Burlsworth (killed in a car accident shortly after the '99 draft), defensive back Donald Strickland (2003), tight end Ben Hartsock (2004), linebacker Gilbert Gardner (2004), linebacker Vincent Burns (2005), cornerback Daunte Hughes (2007) and defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock (2007).
The Colts actually traded a 2008 first-rounder to grab Ugoh in the 2007 second round. Ugoh is only 26, and chances are he'll get a second shot in the league. The Colts were desperate to get him at the time because Tarik Glenn abruptly retired after the club's Super Bowl XLI victory.
Despite a miserable preseason, in which he worked a team-high 114 snaps but didn't throw a touchdown pass, some Cincinnati officials were opposed to the move to release seven-year veteran J.T. O'Sullivan this week. The much-traveled O'Sullivan subsequently was signed by San Diego, his 11th different franchise. ... Since selecting Sean Weatherspoon with the 19th overall pick in the draft, the Falcons have worked the former Missouri star at both outside linebacker spots. Now they've settled on one. Weatherspoon will replace Stephen Nicholas in the starting lineup at strong-side 'backer for Sunday's season opener at Pittsburgh. That is mildly surprising, since most observers felt it was weak-side linebacker Mike Peterson who was under the gun. But Weatherspoon will likely replace Peterson, a liability versus the pass, in nickel situations. And Nicholas, who started 13 games in 2009, will be used in some blitz packages. ...
Cincinnati defensive end Antwan Odom, who had eight sacks in the first six games in '09 before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tendon injury, faces a four-game league suspension for a violation of the substance-abuse policy. The suspension is under appeal. ... Reigning Super Bowl champions are 36-7-1 in the season openers following the year they won the championship. ...
A reminder: The rule that guarantees a "vested" veteran his full salary if he is on a roster for the first week of play disappears after the opener. So expect a pretty good complement of veterans to be signed next week. ... His four-game suspension aside, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green will be a top 10 selection in the 2011 draft if he enters, NFL scouts privately say. And a few scouts said Thursday night, after Green's suspension in full was announced, they expect the NCAA punitive action to have some effect on Green's decision about his future. League scouts can't speak for attribution about underclass players, of course, for fear of fine. More important, they would further damage the deteriorating situation between the colleges and the pros. ...
Terrific note by Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News: Dom Capers of Green Bay has been either a coordinator or head coach with six teams the past 18 years. Every one of those teams played a 4-3 front before Capers, a 3-4 disciple, converted all of them to the three-man line. ... With their offensive line ailing -- left guard Kyle Kosier and right tackle Marc Colombo could miss the season opener -- the Dallas Cowboys worked some more on two-tight end formations this week. ... Good news for Matt Leinart: Twelve of the projected 32 starting quarterbacks for this week have been cut or traded at least once in their careers. And of the 18 modern-day quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, nine played for at least two teams in their NFL tenures. ...
Special master Stephen Burbank will hear arguments on holdout wide receiver Vincent Jackson's grievance, on whether he should miss the first three games or six games, on Sept. 16. ... Part of quarterback Nate Davis' problems with digesting the San Francisco playbook the past two seasons is that he is dyslexic. That learning problem (of which NFL clubs were aware) and his inability against some sophisticated defenses at the end of the 2009 Ball State season, really dropped his draft stock into the fifth round. The 49ers' brass felt he would work harder to overcome his learning disability but saw very little progress this year. Davis' arm strength is too good to give up on, though, so the club on Wednesday signed him to its practice squad. ...
Despite having wide receiver Jordy Nelson (25.4-yard average in 2009) returning as their kickoff runback guy and cornerback Tramon Willams (104 yards per return in '09) on punts, Green Bay continues to look for an upgrade in the return game. The Packers worked out former Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith on Tuesday, but he signed in Miami a day later. ... Released by the Steelers, 2009 third-round guard Kraig Urbik might have been this year's waiver-claim champion. Five teams -- Buffalo, Cincinnati, Denver, Miami and the New York Jets -- submitted claims on the former Wisconsin star. He was awarded to the Bills because they had the worst '09 record of the group. ...
When he was surprisingly released by Denver last weekend, many felt that veteran defensive end Jarvis Green, who spent the first eight seasons of his career with the Patriots, would quickly end up back in New England. But the Pats, who will start Gerard Warren and Mike Wright at the end spots, never even made an exploratory call to him. Green, by the way, got $3.255 million in guaranteed money this season from the Broncos.
The last word
"It's very distracting. Because we're tired of talking about it. Albert's tired of talking about it. (Coach Mike) Shanahan is tired talking about it. Everybody is. We want to move on." -- Washington outside linebacker Brian Orakpo on the Albert Haynesworth situation