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Football Notes

Adept enough to adapt?

Players feel the effect of coaching changes

By Mike Reiss
May 10, 2009
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The only thing that seems to stay the same in the NFL is change. Of the league's 32 teams, 11 named new head coaches this offseason, and for many of those clubs, that means a change in offensive and/or defensive style.

In Denver, Josh McDaniels will install a Patriotlike, three-receiver offense and a New England-based 3-4 defense.

In Detroit, Jim Schwartz plans to model things after what he learned from Bill Belichick in Cleveland and Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. That means getting bigger from the inside out.

In New York, Rex Ryan wants the Jets to play an attacking 3-4 defense, so things will look different from Eric Mangini's more conservative 3-4 approach.

Ditto in St. Louis, where Steve Spagnuolo will use parts of the Giants' attacking 4-3 blueprint to add some spark, and size, to the Rams' 4-3 alignment.

Even clubs that haven't had a head coaching change, like Green Bay, are in construction mode. First-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers is transitioning the team from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense.

Keeping up with the scheme changes is an important job, and it's one reason the position of pro personnel director is key. Sometimes a talented player is miscast in a new system and can be available in a trade, or a player is being asked to do things that don't fit his skill set, and while he's still talented, his production dips.

With this in mind, here are some highly touted players who will have to adjust to new systems:

Glenn Dorsey, DT, Kansas City: Dorsey was considered a steal as the fifth overall pick in 2008. At 6 feet 1 inch, 297 pounds, he fits best as a "3" technique, playing over the outside shoulder of the guard in a 4-3 alignment and shooting gaps. But with first-year general manager Scott Pioli on the case, the Chiefs would like to transition to a hybrid 3-4 defense with bigger players up front. Dorsey isn't big enough to be a nose when the Chiefs go 3-4, so he'd likely move to end, where he doesn't have the length to be a natural fit.

Matt Hasselbeck, QB, Seattle: Since entering the NFL as a sixth-round choice of the Packers, Hasselbeck has played solely in a West Coast offense that sets up the run by throwing the ball. The Seahawks, under first-year coach Jim Mora, are switching to a zone running scheme and plan to be more of a run-first team. The hope is that the passing game benefits with more play-action. Hasselbeck will have to prove he can connect on a consistent basis.

A.J. Hawk/Nick Barnett, LBs, Green Bay: With the Packers moving to a 3-4 scheme under Capers, Hawk and Barnett project to play inside linebacker, which will mean playing more downhill instead of sideline-to-sideline. Hawk played weak-side backer in the Packers' 4-3 defense, with Barnett in the middle, and they'll need to be physical enough to hold up in that role.

Adam Carriker, DT, St. Louis: Since selecting Carriker in the first round in 2007, the Rams have experimented with him at nose tackle and at the "3" technique tackle in the 4-3 defense. With Spagnuolo set to bring a Giants-like attacking 4-3 defense, combined with a bit of what first-year coordinator Ken Flajole knows from his time with the Panthers, the question remains whether Carriker is a better fit at the run-stuffing nose or the more pass-rushing "3" spot. He might find he's best as an end in a 3-4 defense.

Brandon Marshall, WR, Denver: McDaniels's offense is dynamic and demanding, requiring receivers to learn all spots, make mental as well as physical adjustments, and accept that the ball is going to the open man, not just the No. 1 man. Marshall, one of the game's most dynamic young pass-catchers, will be challenged to adapt.

David Harris, LB, NY Jets: A strong, disciplined inside linebacker in the Jets' old 3-4 alignment, the downhill-playing Harris will be teamed with Bart Scott in the middle of the new attacking scheme. Considering how Scott played with Ray Lewis in Baltimore, will Harris be the right complement in a similar 1-2 tandem?

Geoff Hangartner, C, Buffalo: Hangartner was signed as a free agent from Carolina with one primary thought in mind: The other three teams in the AFC East play a 3-4 defense and have big, sturdy nose tackles, so importing an intelligent, tough player in the pivot was imperative. Hangartner didn't see much 3-4 in the NFC South, but he'll have to learn quickly.

Tamba Hali, DE, Kansas City: The 2006 first-round pick has played end in the 4-3 his first three seasons, although he didn't look as explosive without Jared Allen on the opposite side last season. At 6-3, 275, he wouldn't be strong enough to play end in the 3-4 the Chiefs hope to transition to, so he's a candidate to make a Willie McGinest-like switch to outside linebacker.

Larry Foote, LB, Detroit: After starting the last five seasons at inside linebacker in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, Foote projects to middle linebacker in the Lions' 4-3. Foote was a two-down player last season - replaced by Lawrence Timmons in passing situations - but he'll have a chance to prove he can be a three-down option in Detroit.

D.J. Williams, LB, Denver: One of the NFL's most productive weak-side linebackers in recent years, the versatile Williams projects to move inside in the Broncos' 3-4 scheme. It will be a transition similar to what Roman Phifer, now a Broncos assistant, made when he signed with the Patriots in 2001. Williams won't have as much space to operate in the 3-4, and will have to play more downhill, but talented players like him usually find a way to make it work.

Costly change for assistants

Three questions for Larry Kennan, staff director of the NFL Coaches Association, on a story that resonated throughout the league's coaching ranks last week:

For the common fan, explain what has taken place with the league's assistant coaches that has them concerned.

LK: "At the league meetings about six weeks ago, the owners decided to make our pension, supplemental pension, and our 401(k) plans non-mandatory. What they said was that if a team wanted to keep the plan as it is, they could. If they wanted to keep any part of it as is, they could. Or if they wanted to opt out of any part or all of it, they could, and they could have their own plans or not . . . We felt really betrayed because there had been no advance warning of any kind that this was a possibility. We were also miffed that the decision was made after everybody in the league had signed their contracts for 2009, and all the staffs were in place. One of the reasons we coach in the NFL, rather than college, is because the NFL has a wonderful retirement plan."

How does this affect coaches in New England?

LK: "There are nine teams to my knowledge that have opted out of the NFL pension as we know it, and New England is one of them. We don't know what to expect. Some of the owners have said, 'We will give you a pension plan that is every bit as good as what you had.' So we're not passing judgment on them because maybe they will. We don't know how the new plan will affect Patriots coaches, but what we do know is that it's going to make portability in the league, and going from team to team, a different deal now because you have to check and see what type of retirement plan they have."

Where do you see this headed?

LK: "I don't know. In all the time I've been doing this, I've never seen coaches this upset . . . They don't trust the owners as a group. I'm not going to say there aren't owners we can't trust because there are some wonderful owners . . . But when the 32 owners allow this to happen and pass this resolution and allow this to change, it's hard to trust the league and the owners as a group. If we are valuable employees like they say we are, they shouldn't treat us like second-class citizens. My words, it would seem to me like it's a total lack of respect for the people who work for the organizations."

Patriots should be coming to a Wilfork in the road

The update on a contract extension for Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork looks like this: No update.

The sides have yet to reopen talks.

The Patriots presumably wanted to devote their attention to free agency and the draft, and now that those have passed and the pace of the offseason has slowed, there is an opening to address other pressing business matters.

Wilfork, who enters the final year of his contract, is one of their top priorities.

When factoring in his strong performance as an anchor in the team's 3-4 defense, and the contract situations of other 2004 first-round picks, Wilfork brings a convincing case to the negotiating table.

A review of NFL Players Association documents shows that of the 32 first-round draft choices in 2004, only three are still playing under their original rookie contracts: Wilfork, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, and Patriots tight end Benjamin Watson.

Eighteen first-round picks have either had their contracts extended with their original team, were traded and had their contract extended with a new team, or reached free agency and signed a new deal with their original team.

One player, Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, has been assigned the franchise tag this year.

As for Wilfork, he signed a six-year deal as a rookie, which meant that he received more up-front signing bonus money than players who signed five-year deals. While that must be factored into the equation, it's still hard to imagine the sides won't agree that now is the time to strike a deal.

It's just a matter of carving out the time to meet.

Etc.

Thinking back . . .
Five quick-hit thoughts on the week that was in the NFL: 1. Titans running back LenDale White reported to minicamp in good condition after admitting that he weighed as much as 260 pounds last year. Nothing like a contract year to whip an overweight player into form; 2. Great note from Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times that Bears running back Matt Forte participated in a whopping 83.9 percent of the team's offensive snaps last season. The Bears need that number to go down, and if Forte wants to have a long, productive career, he needs it to go down, too; 3. While the Eagles have been lauded in many circles for their offseason moves, in the end it will come down to what it always does with them: Can Donovan McNabb take them where they want to go?; 4. In his first minicamp with the Eagles, former Patriot Ellis Hobbs rotated with Sheldon Brown at right cornerback. At this point, Hobbs looks like the Eagles' first corner off the bench; 5. If Levi Jones passes a physical, he'd be a natural fit in Buffalo to fill the void at left tackle left when Jason Peters was traded to Philadelphia.

Quick with a quip
Much the way Bill Parcells filled reporters' notebooks with witty one-liners when he was Patriots coach from 1993-96, the Jets' press corps must be having a blast with first-year head coach Rex Ryan. Like his father, Buddy Ryan, architect of the great attacking Chicago defenses of the 1980s, Ryan doesn't hold much back. Take, for example, his thoughts on hard-charging rookie running back Shonn Greene, who struggles as a receiver. "I like the way guys bounce off him," Ryan said. "Unfortunately, some of the passes bounce off him, too."

Everyone is covered
What is it about Brett Favre and his seemingly annual flirtation with retirement or returning to play that turns media coverage of the NFL on its head? Last Thursday, a reporter from NFL Network delivered a live report from Favre's front lawn in Hattiesburg, Miss., and told viewers, among other things, that he watched Favre's wife leave to run errands. Left unsaid was that Favre was one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks down the stretch last season.

Substance over flash
One leftover from a recent chat with Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck: Asked to name an offensive teammate who might be overlooked because Seattle isn't a major media market, he chose second-year tight end John Carlson. "He's not flashy," said Hasselbeck. "There are some tight ends around the league who are flashy and they're picked in everyone's fantasy football drafts, so everybody knows about those guys. But John Carlson is a real quiet, great guy. He just goes about his business, does his job, and that's it. He was one of the bright spots we had last year. Especially in our new scheme, he'll kind of become what Alge Crumpler was for [offensive coordinator] Greg Knapp in Atlanta. I think he'll catch a ton of balls, and probably a lot of touchdowns. He's probably not going to come off the field."

Is he up for it?
The Redskins are banking that first-round draft choice Brian Orakpo makes the transition from playing with his hand in the dirt on the line to standing up at linebacker, as they plan to play him at strong-side linebacker on early downs. Orakpo would then move to end on passing downs. Look for opponents to test Orakpo early to see how he responds in the passing game, which is usually the toughest adjustment for players making that switch.

Crunch time
Crunching some numbers when it comes to the most important position, quarterback:

  • Twenty of the league's 32 teams currently have four quarterbacks on the roster.
  • Nine teams currently have three quarterbacks on the roster.
  • Three teams have loaded up with five quarterbacks (Steelers, 49ers, Buccaneers).
  • Top options for clubs looking for a veteran option include Gus Frerotte, Charlie Frye, Trent Green, Rex Grossman, Brad Johnson, and J.P. Losman, all of whom remain free agents.
  • Did you know?
    A quarterback has been chosen with the No. 1 overall choice in nine of the last 12 drafts.

    Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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