Peyton could be highest-paid player
Since we reported in this space three weeks ago that Indianapolis owner Jim Irsay reiterated his stance that he planned to make Manning the game's highest-paid player — a claim first made to us in the days before Super Bowl XLIV and then reiterated three weeks ago at a league meeting in Atlanta — his remarks about the deal earlier this week were hardly a surprise.
What was surprising, though, is the intimation that Irsay could go well beyond the $18 million-per-year extension that Tom Brady received from the New England Patriots.
At the league meeting last month, Irsay allowed that the Brady deal would be the foundation for a Manning extension and hinted he would not go dramatically beyond its average.
Said Manning: "One dollar more, and note, I said one dollar, would be higher." But it seems now that Irsay will go to $20 million per year, and perhaps beyond, for Manning. And that the contract's term could be for five or six seasons, beyond the four years Brady got — and both the average and the length would be newsy, indeed.
• All-inclusive: We've written at length for The Sports Xchange about the diminishing impact that the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have had on the NFL draft, and the predraft evaluation process in recent years, and next week's combine workouts offer a pretty graphic reminder of that. Only two HBCU players, Fort Valley State wide receiver Ricardo Lockette and defensive tackle Kenrick Ellis of Hampton (a South Carolina transfer), have been invited to Indianapolis for the auditions. That's believed to be the lowest number in at least the last 20 years. There were just two players from HBCUs — Morehouse offensive lineman Ramon Harewood (Baltimore, sixth round) and defensive back Phillip Adams of South Carolina State (San Francisco, seventh) — selected in the 2010 draft. That was tied with 2004 for the fewest HBCU players chosen since the combined draft in '67. The last time the historically black programs reached double digits in a draft was in 2000, with 13 prospects taken. In the 10 drafts since then, there has been an average of 4.7 players from HBCUs selected. A former Division II 200-meter champion, Lockette is a sprinter who caught only 42 passes for a 12.8-yard average and four touchdowns in two seasons, but scouts are intrigued by his speed and kickoff return ability. He averaged 24.2 yards last year on kickoff runbacks. Ellis might be the more highly regarded of the pair, and he notched 95 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, two sacks and two forced fumbles in 2010. He began his career at South Carolina, then transferred and totaled 184 tackles in three years at Hampton. "Some things aren't exactly the same (at HBCU schools), but it's still football and you still get an opportunity," said Green Bay free safety Nick Collins, a second-round pick from Bethune-Cookman in 2005. "It's up to you a little more. The facilities, the size of the program . . . you can't let it matter."
• Worilds of talent: The biblical term "begat" seems altogether fitting for Pittsburgh Steelers' 3-4 outside linebackers and, while it isn't likely to be appropriate this year if the Steelers use the "franchise" tag to retain LaMarr Woodley, it shouldn't be forgotten that the club is pretty confident it has another potential 10-sack guy down the road in second-year veteran Jason Worilds. The former Virginia Tech star is typical of the gestation process for Pittsburgh outside 'backers — take an undersized college defensive end, let him apprentice for a year or two, then move him up the ranks and elevate him to the starting lineup — and seems mentally ready at least to lay claim to a position once foreign to him. "It (whetted) my appetite," the 2010 second-round choice told The Sports Xchange. "I'm still learning, but I'm ready to get after some people." In limited snaps from scrimmage, Worilds had two sacks in '10. But like guys like Joey Porter, James Harrison, Woodley and others — all of whom replaced big-time pass-rushers who left the team — Worilds seems ready to go. "He's got the natural (rush) instincts," said Harrison. "It's just a matter of time."
• Upward mobility: In case you missed it earlier this week, we authored a column discussing the upward spiral of coaching staffs and of salaries for assistant coaches. Nothing may represent the latter more appropriately than the case of Chris Palmer, who was hired by the Tennessee Titans this week as offensive coordinator. The Sports Xchange learned Palmer, who last season served as the head coach and general manager of the UFL's Hartford Colonials, signed a three-year contract at roughly $1 million per year. On an annual basis, that's about the same as Palmer earned when he was the inaugural Cleveland Browns' head coach in 1999. First-time head coaches now, according to an agent who represents several of them, make about $2.5 million per year. That has certainly lowered the league average for head coaches over the past five years — in large part because 25 of the 32 franchises employ coaches in their first NFL jobs and 16 of them have been with the current clubs for three seasons or less — but salaries for assistants have mushroomed. So has staff size. For 2011, the average team will have 16.3 hands-on assistants — not counting "quality control" aides or clerical coaches — and that's an average of one coach for every 3.74 players. A number most principals would love to have for a teacher-student ratio. In 1990, the average staff size was 10.9 assistant coaches, and in 2000 it was 13.1.
• Northern exposure: Count Miami Dolphins' linebacker Cameron Wake among those who feel former CFL star Phillip Hunt, signed by Philadelphia this week to help boost a floundering pass rush, can be a good NFL player. "There are a lot of big differences (between the CFL and NFL)," said Wake, who has noted 19.5 sacks, including 14 in 2010 in two seasons with the Dolphins, after two campaigns with the CFL's British Columbia Lions. "But one of the similarities is getting to the passer . . . and that's as critical in the CFL, maybe even more so, than in the NFL. There's an emphasis on upfield (quickness in the CFL) and that translates pretty well to the league. And from what I've seen, Hunt can really corner." A former University of Houston standout, Hunt registered 16 sacks for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in 2010. Although undrafted in 2009, Hunt had a school-record 34 sacks at Houston and was the Conference USA defensive player of the year in '08. In 2009, he had only three sacks for Winnipeg, but became a force last season. There were at last four other teams seriously interested in signing him. At 6-feet-1, 248 pounds, the likelihood is that Hunt will be a situational player for first-year coordinator Juan Castillo, the longtime Eagles' offensive line coach who takes over a unit that had only 39 sacks last season, Philadelphia's fewest since 2007.
• Transition defense: Last week, we wrote in this space that Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor would be one of the hottest players in the league at his position when the NFL finally got around to free agency. The eight-year veteran, who is arguably the most irreplaceable pending unrestricted free agent on the Steelers' roster — in large part because of the team's uncharacteristic inability to develop and ready a young replacement — is highly regarded by the Pittsburgh staff, is as close as the club comes to a "shutdown" corner, and has played his entire career with Pittsburgh and knows coordinator Dick LeBeau's defense well. But hold the phones. Some Steelers officials have mused that the team might actually use a "transition" tag to limit Taylor in free agency. The "franchise" marker as noted earlier, likely will go to Woodley, and the Steelers will attempt to work out a long-term contract with the four-year veteran. But Philadelphia exercised the "transition" marker on kicker David Akers, after slapping quarterback Michael Vick with the "franchise" designation, and the Steelers could do the same with the Woodley-Taylor combo. It would be unlike the Steelers to tie up so much money at two positions — the "franchise" tag at linebacker alone is projected at about $10 million — but the team might not have much choice. Of course, the Steelers could rescind the tags if/when they know how any CBA affects the 2011 salary cap, but the philosophy of the organization is that such a move is counter to the spirit of the "franchise" and "transition" rules. By the way, there has still been no contract discussion between the Steelers and Taylor's representatives. There was, The Sports Xchange has learned, a casual remark to Taylor from a high-ranking Pittsburgh official, that the club will do anything within reason to keep him. But what was mistakenly construed by some people as contract dialogue was little more than a verbal aside.
• Well-Heeled: There are 15 schools with more than five players each invited to the combine and, not all that surprisingly, North Carolina leads the way, with a dozen players, three more than anyone else. Why is it not surprising that Butch Davis' team, despite a rather pedestrian 8-5 record in 2010, would have 12 guys invited? Because the NFL scouts didn't get to see many of them play very much, and some not at all, last season. Two highly regarded defensive linemen, Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn, didn't log a snap because of season-long suspensions. Another two defenders, safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Deunta Williams, were suspended for three and four contests, respectively. Two more players are coming off serious surgeries, and two more switched positions in 2010. Linebacker Quan Sturdivant missed five games because of a hamstring injury. Said one AFC area scout to The Sports Xchange: "We think they've got a lot of (draftable) guys . . . but we have a lot of what you might call 'incomplete' grades on many of 'em." The other schools with more than five players invited to Indianapolis: Iowa, Ohio State, Miami and Nebraska (nine each); Georgia, LSU and Southern Cal (eight); Clemson, Florida and Wisconsin (seven); and Pittsburgh, South Carolina, UConn and West Virginia (six).
• Punts: Word is that Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, who missed the final 10 games of last season with a broken left clavicle, has been playing golf again and doing some light throwing, and is pain free. . . . It was not all that surprising that Atlanta hired former Cincinnati offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski to replace quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave, who left to become the Minnesota Vikings' offensive coordinator. Falcons coach Mike Smith and Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who gave Bratkowski a strong recommendation, are close friends. Just as important, so, too are Bratkowski and Atlanta offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. In fact, there were early offseason rumblings that the beleaguered Bratkowski could join a Mularkey staff if the latter landed a head coach job. . . . Of the 56 underclass players who applied for inclusion in the 2011 draft class and were approved, only two were not invited to the combine. Those two are Georgia Tech offensive tackle Nick Claytor and defensive end Zane Parr of Virginia. . . . The Steelers did not place defensive end Aaron Smith on injured reserve, after he suffered a torn left triceps after six starts, because they hoped he might return for the playoffs — worth noting, he didn't. It appears the team might have had more luck with offensive right tackle Willie Colon, who went on IR in the spring after tearing his right Achilles in an offseason incident. Colon, whose rehabilitation is going very well, told agent Joe Linta he felt well enough to have played in December. The team's best lineman in 2009, Colon might be an unrestricted free agent, depending on the CBA resolution. But Linta has not heard a word about an extension, and surmised this week there "is about a one-tenth of 1 percent chance" the five-year veteran will return. A lot of people in the league feel that the 340-pound Colon, despite his success at tackle, might be even better if he moves inside to guard. . . . One major reason the NFLPA initiative for a boycott of the combine never got too far off the ground: The union heeded the collective voice of the agents, who were adamantly opposed to it. There is a good chance, though, that rookies will decline to attend any draft-related activities. . . . On Friday morning, a couple hours before Irsay announced via Twitter that the Colts released strong safety Bob Sanders, three general managers/personnel directors told The Sports Xchange they would have no interest in the 2007 defensive player of the year if he were jettisoned. Said one: "His body is just falling apart." Sanders, who turns 30 next week, appeared in only nine games the past three years because of injuries. But even with those three opinions, don't bet against Sanders being in someone's camp in 2011 (if there are training camps) on an incentive-laden deal. In seven seasons, Sanders has missed more games (64) than he's played (48). That's the equivalent of four full seasons on the sideline. . . . There remains a chance that, if Detroit doesn't add an outside linebacker in the draft, two-year veteran DeAndre Levy could move over from the middle, to take advantage of his playmaking potential. . . . The Falcons quietly extended the contract of defensive tackle Trey Lewis. In three seasons, Lewis, a sixth-round pick in 2007, has appeared in 18 games, with seven starts. He played in just one game last season, the opener, and then was inactive for the rest of the season.
• The last word: "If they told me, 'You know what, Ryan, whatever your salary is, we're going to give it to you even if you don't come to work,' what's your incentive to come to work? And, essentially, that's what the owners have done. When you make deals with (television) networks that say, 'We're going to pay you, even if you don't play' . . . what's (the) incentive to play? When, if I'm not playing, I cut my biggest overhead out, which is my players, and I still make my money." — Pittsburgh free safety Ryan Clark, on the fact the owners will be paid by the networks (although they will have to repay the fees with interest) if there is a lockout.