Tip Sheet: Can Pats keep Moss long-term?

August 20, 2010

Around the league

No Moss: The contract situation getting the most attention in New England, and deservedly so, is that of quarterback and two-time Super Bowl most valuable player Tom Brady. Following close behind is the impasse surrounding starting left guard and two-time Pro Bowl blocker Logan Mankins, who hasn't signed his restricted free agent tender of $3.268 million, is seeking a long-term deal, and remains out of camp.

But a situation not to ignore is that of wide receiver Randy Moss, who is scheduled to earn $6.4 million in the final season of the three-year, $27 million deal he signed after the 2007 campaign, would like an adjustment or an extension, and can become an unrestricted free agent next spring. Yeah, Moss will be 34 next spring, but the man who ranks 10th in NFL history in career receptions and fourth in touchdowns can still play. Just ask members of the Atlanta secondary, whom he torched twice (effortlessly) on deep balls during dual practices between the two teams this week.

But there is no movement toward a new Moss deal. "Haven't heard a thing, nothing," said one member of the Moss camp this week.


Probably won't, either, The Sports Xchange has confirmed. The approach of the Patriots' brass is that Moss can stew over his deal, and will probably, at full simmer and with money on the line, have a monster season. Then the Pats will make a determination about his future. Moss mused this spring that this likely will be his final season with the franchise.

But if New England allows Moss to escape, it might do so at some peril. Moss has at least one touchdown in 28 of his 48 games with New England, two or more in 14 games. It's no coincidence that slot receiver Wes Welker has caught 100 or more passes in each of his three seasons playing with Moss lining up on the outside. Just ask Welker about the importance of Moss, who has averaged 15.7 touchdown receptions per year in New England.

Replacements? The Pats love the body control of Brandon Tate and the overall athleticism of rookie Taylor Price. But the former has played in two games (coming off a knee injury) and has zero regular-season catches, and the latter is still learning the game and the system. Sam Aiken has 47 catches in seven seasons, and until registering a career-best 20 catches in '09, and never had more than 11 in a season.

Tarvaris won't seek trade: Unlike last season, when he reacted to the signing of Brett Favre by quickly seeking a new address, Minnesota quarterback Tarvaris Jackson won't request a trade this time around. In fact, while he chafed some last year and allowed Favre's presence to be a distraction, Jackson will continue to work hard and ready himself to be the No. 1 guy in the event Favre doesn't stay healthy in his 20th season in the league.

Make no mistake, Jackson is frustrated by the events of this week, and he even vented that, at age 27, he "isn't getting any younger." But the fourth-year veteran and former second-round draft pick better understands, The Sports Xchange has been told by people close to him and some Vikings officials, that the team will probably be his someday, and that quarterbacks often don't flourish until they are in their 30s.

Also, Jackson has matured quite a bit. Like Troy Smith in Baltimore -- who in the spring asked for a trade but then backed off when the Ravens signed Marc Bulger -- he has come to comprehend that, if you're going to eventually play, it's much better for a quarterback to play with a good team rather than one with which he only absorbs a beating.

Manning money: Despite the reiteration by owner Jim Irsay that the Indianapolis Colts still plan to make quarterback Peyton Manning the NFL's highest-paid player, both sides seem willing to wait until there is a clarification of where the CBA (which we assume will get done someday) extension will put teams financially when it is completed.

Agent Tom Condon told The Sports Xchange that he had Colts' team president Bill Polian have "stayed in touch and discussed some (models)," but that nothing is imminent.

It will be surprising now, given the parameters of the club's salary cap, if anything is consummated during the season. The Colts almost certainly will gamble that a "franchise" tag will be available under the tenets of any new CBA -- people from both sides agree that some mechanism will be in place that will allow clubs to protect some players -- but the franchise level for Manning in 2011 figures to be about $23 million.

Meanwhile, Colts management is definitely taking a wait-and-see attitude with wide receiver Reggie Wayne and defensive end Robert Mathis, the other two prominent players under contract and who sat out spring practices in an attempt to get new deals. The two may have their contracts adjusted next spring, but not before then.

Harvin hurting: Offensive Rookie of the Year Percy Harvin, who collapsed on the practice field Thursday and was transported to a local Minneapolis medical center via ambulance, spent the night in the hospital. The Minnesota Vikings star was released Friday.

But folks close to Harvin and the team would love to get to the bottom of the chronic and debilitating migraine headaches that have beset him since he was 10 years old. Vikings officials are somewhat frustrated that no treatment has worked so far and could push for another visit to the nearby Mayo Clinic. At the least, Harvin is likely to have an extensive neurological workup in the next few days.

Tackling the tackle spot: There are at least nine linemen who in camp are making a switch at tackle -- from the eight to the left side, or vice versa -- and many of them are struggling early on.

Most fans feel that, if you're a tackle, then you're a tackle. No matter the side you're asked to play. But the first returns indicate that, like a lot of fan-driven perceptions, that's not an accurate one.

"You do something the same way for so long, and muscle memory kind of takes over," said Flozell Adams, who is playing right tackle in Pittsburgh after having spent 12 seasons in Dallas on the left side. Noted Michael Oher of Baltimore, who is moving to left tackle after starting on the right side his rookie season: "The name (of the position) might be the same, but actually (italic)playing(end italic) the position is a lot different."

Not-so-paper Lions: The Detroit Lions, who ranked last in the league in defense in 2009, figure to have five or six new starters on the unit in 2010. And coach Jim Schwartz, a former defensive coordinator, might not be done yet with the overhaul.

The Lions are still interested in four-year veteran safety Jarrad Page, who has yet to sign his one-year restricted tender of $1.759 million in Kansas City, and who might work well in tandem with rising star Louis Delmas (currently sidelined by a groin injury) in the revamped secondary.

And with the Lions thin at linebacker, with the season-ending knee injury to backup Jordon Dizon, there could be some interest in Chiefs former first-rounder (2005) Derrick Johnson. After averaging 14 ½ starts his first four seasons, Johnson logged only three starts in '09, as the Chiefs switched to the 3-4. Always regarded as a 4-3 defender, Johnson might be a better fit for the Lions now.

Detroit coaches should be familiar with the ups and downs of converting linebackers to new systems. Last year, they took a lifelong 3-4 guy, Larry Foote, and tried to turn him into a middle ‘backer in a 4-3 front, and it didn't work very well. Johnson is scheduled to make about $2.6 million in 2010, probably too much for a backup.

Anderson in trouble: The Falcons were beginning to see some flashes, in spurts, from 2007 first-rounder Jamaal Anderson, but that was before he suffered a left knee sprain this week.

Still, the former Arkansas standout has essentially moved from end to tackle and, while he may have some matchup advantages inside over some slower guards, Anderson might struggle to even make the team.

Earlier this week, when the Seattle Seahawks shipped end Lawrence Jackson to Detroit, we noted how hard it is to unearth solid defensive line prospects in the NFL, and pointed to the first round of the 2008 draft as an example. Well, Anderson might be an example that the 2007 draft was pretty shabby, too. Consider the d-linemen taken in the first round that year: Gaines Adams (by Tampa Bay, No. 4 overall), Anderson (No. 8), Amobi Okoye (Houston, No. 10), Adam Carriker (St. Louis, No. 13), Justin Harrell (Green Bay, No. 17), and Jarvis Moss (Denver, No. 18). All respect to the late Adams, but he was an underachiever. Ditto Anderson and Moss. Okoye is still fighting to keep his starting job. Carriker was hurt last year and traded this spring. Moss was dangled in trade talks last year. Harrell is always hurt, it seems, and his chronic back problems have flared up again in camp. A pretty poor year by anyone's standards.

Cowher's future: It is probably too insensitive to mention it so soon after his wife's death -- so we'll apologize now for doing so -- but folks have wondered if the recent passing of Kaye Cowher at just 54 will result in Bill Cowher returning sooner to the sideline or spending another year or two with his three daughters. The very educated guess here is that Cowher -- who is extremely devoted to daughters Meagan, Lauren, and Lindsay -- will remain away from the game for a while. Cowher, who is only 53, has plenty of time. And if he decides to coach again someday, Cowher will have no trouble at all finding an intriguing job.

Only a year ago, Cowher was intrigued by the Buffalo Bills, feeling a lot of things, with the exception of a quarterback, were in place there. The bug will doubtless bite him again, but probably not for a year or two.

Pitt is it: Good buddy Dan Pompei recently suggested in his National Football Post column two weeks ago the schools NFL scouts most love to visit, and cited my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, among them.

We'll take it a step further: Three scouts -- the first was an NFC personnel director -- told us this week that tapes of Pitt games were among those they reviewed when they wanted to judge a prospect's toughness in draft preparations. "You always know (coach) Dave (Wannstedt) will have a physical team," said one scout. Another evaluator noted he watched the tapes of the Pitt-South Florida game from last year in assessing USF defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. "I knew he'd face a physical challenge that game," the scout said of Pierre-Paul, chosen by the New York Giants with the 15th overall pick.

Eddie still ready: Once among the NFL's elite kick returners, Eddie Drummond hasn't played in a game since 2007,when he spent 12 contests with the Kansas City Chiefs.

But Drummond is still hoping that some team might look beyond his inactivity, and perhaps give him at least a tryout opportunity, even at this late date in camp. Drummond, 30,was a productive two-way return man and led the league in both kickoff returns (more than 40 runbacks) with a 26.6-yard average, and punt runbacks, with a 13.2-yard average, in 2004. The former Penn State star has six combined returns for touchdowns.

Punts: Baltimore officials insist, although not all that convincingly, that they are not in the market for a veteran cornerback, and are not dangling tailback Willis McGahee in an effort to land one. But Pro Bowl fullback Le'Ron McClain has played tailback in the past, would like more carries, and could serve as Ray Rice's backup if need be. That could make McGahee, a pretty pricey for a No. 2 guy, somewhat extraneous. . . .

He might not be in the Patriots' starting lineup for the Sept. 12 regular-season opener, but rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez has had a terrific camp. The fourth-round pick, who had some off-field problems at Florida, and got a contract that provided the Pats with plenty of protection against any relapses, is going to be a factor in New England's passing game in 2010. He has seven catches in the first two exhibition contests. . . .

One fourth-round receiver who (italic)could(end italic) wind up starting in Week 1 is Tampa Bay wideout Mike Williams. The former Syracuse standout, who left the team last season and was suspended the year before that, might be the steal of the draft. The consensus is that he's been the Bucs' top receiver in camp. . . .

Some Jacksonville officials are mildly concerned about the soft tissue injuries (a strained calf the latest) suffered so far by first-round defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, but no one is reaching yet for the panic button. . . .

Based on his camp performance, and improved poise in his second season, quarterback John Parker Wilson could oust veteran Chris Redman for the Atlanta Falcons' No. 2 spot behind Matt Ryan. . . .

Arizona coaches are now worried that inside linebacker Gerald Hayes, a solid tackler who underwent back surgery in the offseason, might not be ready for the start of the season. . . .

There continue to be rumblings that Carolina coach John Fox, in the final year of his contract and with no extension imminent, would be interested in the New York Giants' job if Tom Coughlin isn't back in 2011. . . .


With Favre having returned, there are rumors again (as there were in the spring) that the Vikings will consider trading No. 3 quarterback Sage Rosenfels, who played a league-high 55 snaps in the preseason opener, and threw for 310 yards. . . .

Despite having gotten quarterback Aaron Rodgers absolutely brutalized in 2009, observers are surprised Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy hasn't put more pressure on his offensive line in camp. Those same observers, though, laud the Packers' blocking unit as much improved. Rodgers is one of only seven players in NFL history to be sacked 50 or more times, and still throw for 4,000 yards. . . .

Retired quarterback Trent Green has for the second time rebuffed Chicago Bears attempts to return to the game as Jay Cutler's backup. Chicago offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who worked with Green in both Washington and St. Louis, led the recruiting efforts.

The last word: "I don't think he had applied for a job with ‘what's his name,' either." -- Former NFL coach Buddy Ryan, on Tony Dungy's assessment that he wouldn't hire Rex Ryan after the New York Jets coach's F-bomb barrage during the first episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks"

Running backs are just for running

(Flowery Branch, Ga.) In his eight years as a head coach or an offensive coordinator, Mike Mularkey has had only one season, the 2002 campaign, in which a running back had more than 40 receptions.

That could change, by design, this season for the Atlanta Falcons' offensive coordinator. And if it doesn't, even if the Falcons don't have a back with the 30 receptions that Jason Snelling posted in 2009, the team wants to consciously stress more effectively and efficiently getting the ball via the pass to its runners.

"It's a philosophy, and one that we want to drill home," acknowledged quarterbacks coach Bill Musgrave earlier this week. "It's probably more exciting to throw the ball to your Pro Bowl wide receiver (Roddy White) or to your Hall of Fame tight end (Tony Gonzalez), but we want (quarterback Matt Ryan) to be more conscious that he can check down to the backs when it's there for him. It's the higher percentage throw sometimes, and it's going to improve our overall completion rate."

In a league where it's suddenly become commonplace, it seems, for quarterbacks to complete 65 percent or better of their throws, it is hardly happenstance that just two of the top eight quarterbacks in terms of completion percentage last season didn't have at least one back with 40 or more catches. Brett Favre of Minnesota, in fact, had two of them, Chester Taylor (44 receptions) and Adrian Peterson (43).


Neither was it a fluke that the NFL leader in completion rate, Drew Brees of New Orleans (70.6 percent), engineered an offense that had two backs with 39 or more receptions, and three runners with 10 or more grabs. Or that only two franchises had more receptions by running backs than the 108 the Saints registered.

Super Bowl champion New Orleans rated seventh in the league in percentage of overall completions (28.6) made to its running backs in 2009.

"We believe in getting the ball upfield (to the other receivers), but, when that isn't there, we'll just throw it short to other guys who can make plays with the ball in their hands," said tailback Reggie Bush, who had 47 catches in 2009 and who has averaged 65.0 receptions (including 88 as a rookie in 2006) in four NFL seasons. "We even have (personnel) packages where certain guys are on the field because of passes to the backs."

The Saints are also a big screen-pass team.

In terms of distribution, the league average for completions to running backs in 2009 was 24.2 percent. Baltimore led the NFL in percentage of distribution (35.8 percent) and the New York Giants ranked lowest (14.2). There were 15 clubs below the league average, five clubs above 30 percent, and nine teams worse than Atlanta (20.8 percent). The individual leader was the Ravens' Ray Rice, at 78 receptions. In all, there were 18 backs with 40 or more receptions, nine with 50 or more. The Ravens led the league in completions to backs (115), and there were six clubs with more than 100.

"(But) a team has to be committed to it plus, and this just makes sense, you've got to have guys who can catch the ball," said Brian Westbrook, the eight-year veteran who signed with the San Francisco 49ers this week, and who caught 90 passes for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2007.

Clearly, at a time when most offenses are utilizing three or four wide receivers in obvious pass situations, the employment of the running back as a pass-catcher has waned somewhat. But it remains an important component and Mularkey, whose top receiving back has averaged only 30.5 catches in his eight years as coordinator or head coach, wants to assimilate that more into the Atlanta passing game in 2010.

The league will probably never again see a back as prolific as Larry Centers -- the gold standard of receiving backs, who leads the NFL in career receptions by a back (827), had 101 catches in 1995, and posted five seasons of 75-plus catches -- but that doesn't mean the evolution has made the art extinct.

"Especially on first and second down," Musgrave said. "We think we can be better. It's all a matter of spacing in the passing game and we want to do better."

If the Falcons are to be better throwing the ball to their backs on the early downs, it means more of a role for Michael Turner in the passing game. But Turner caught just five passes in 2009, has only 11 in his two seasons with the Falcons, 22 in his six-year NFL tenure, and a career best of six in 2008.
Little wonder it merited headlines (literally, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) when Turner had a six-yard reception on the third snap (a first-and-10 play) of the club's Aug. 13 preseason opener. Turner caught two more passes, both on second down, in Thursday night's second preseason game.

Turner insisted this week he can catch the ball and Musgrave confirmed that the Atlanta standout -- still the fulcrum of the club's offense despite the presence of Ryan -- is a good receiver. But Musgrave was also adamant that, despite the emphasis on throwing the ball to the backs in '10, the Falcons won't force things.

"It's a mentality," he said, "and it has to come naturally. Your quarterback has to know that it's OK to do it."