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Football Notes

Merriman feels he’s getting legs back under him

By Albert R. Breer
March 7, 2010

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Julius Peppers had 30 sacks in his first three seasons as a pro. After signing his blockbuster deal with the Bears Friday, Peppers virtually assured himself a $71 million windfall in the five years following the expiration of his rookie deal.

DeMarcus Ware had 33.5 sacks in his first three years. With his first contract set to expire in 2010, Ware re-upped with the Cowboys for six years and $78 million, $41 million of which is guaranteed.

Once upon a time, Shawne Merriman inflicted every bit the terror the aforementioned two have on NFL offenses. His three-year sprint into the league produced 37.5 sacks, and when that period ended, Merriman was still 23.

Two years later, everything has changed. There has been no bank-breaking second contract for Merriman, and there are probably as many people doubting him now as there are dollars (3.268 million) on the one-year restricted free agent tender he’ll likely play under in 2010.

Perception is that Merriman is a shell of his former self.

He tore the posterior cruciate and lateral collateral ligaments in his left knee in 2008, after fighting through pain in 2006 and suffering an injury to the knee in 2007 that led to arthroscopic surgery. Reconstructive surgery followed, and a difficult 2009 season for Merriman brought some to the conclusion that his best days are behind him.

That’s an idea Merriman is looking to blow up the way he used to so many quarterbacks.

“I just think it’s foolish to think like that,’’ Merriman said. “Ask anyone who has come back off a major knee injury. It’s ridiculous for anyone to think you’re going to be the same right away. But the biggest thing for me is I can’t just say what I’m going to do, I’m more anxious to get back doing it.

“It’s beyond the importance of just playing football. What’s important to me is that I get back to transforming the game.’’

The last few days could have been difficult ones for Merriman.

One of the 212 fourth- and fifth-year players with expiring contracts who are restricted in the uncapped system but would have been unrestricted in the past, Merriman was tendered by San Diego at the first- and third-round level, given the one-year, $3.268 million offer.

Considering that he and Ware were drafted back-to-back in 2005, and were for their first few years in the league considered comparable, it would be easy for Merriman to bemoan a $75 million gulf between his deal and the Cowboys superstar’s. But he won’t.

“At the end of the day, I’m not retiring, and I’m not walking away from anything,’’ Merriman said. “This is what we all signed up for when we started playing football. I’m one of 212 dealing with the CBA thing. It’s something where I want to get back on the field playing, and get another shot at it.’’

He’s optimistic this shot will be different than the last one.

As many pro athletes would, he heard doctors’ prognoses of a 16-month recovery and summarily dismissed them. But the truth all along was that he’d never dealt with that serious an injury.

“I had the mind-set I couldn’t be stopped,’’ he said, “and I did everything possible. But the doctors were right.’’

Additionally, the last two offseasons, Merriman has been held back by rehab on his knee. And last year, he acknowledges now, he wasn’t all the way back until the seventh or eighth week of the season, and after that he suffered from plantar fasciitis that hampered him down the stretch.

Even considering that, an orthopedic surgeon who watched him late in the year said that all the signs of recovery were there. Because of the complexity of the injury, there are serious risks that those coming back from it will suffer damage to the joint surface that can lead to post-traumatic arthritis, and never return to form.

The doctor saw continued improvement over the last weeks of the season in the areas - backpedaling and lateral movement - where those still affected would normally regress.

“He’s done very well,’’ the doctor said, “better than most.’’

So for the first time since coming off his 17-sack campaign of 2006, Merriman entered an offseason with football, and not rehab, as his main concern.

It has given him time to work on flexibility, balance, core strength, and explosion, things Merriman once took for granted. Soon enough, he’ll be able to do the on-field work that he wasn’t capable of doing full-bore the last two springs. And all of it, he thinks, will be aided by his experiences in fighting back.

“I’ve learned to handle a lot of different things,’’ Merriman said. “I feel like I can use all of that to make myself better, doing it in the weight room, working on my explosion, doing all those things. People forget that I’m 25 - that’s how old some guys are coming out of college, and I have five years experience.

“That’s a blessing. I have a lot of football left.’’

A sign that showed Merriman was improving was how opponents started to block him late in the year. As he describes it, as the Chargers’ 13-3 season wore on, he saw more backs staying in to chip him, more double teams, and more lines sliding to his side.

Getting that presence back is now the goal. And he doesn’t think he’s far off.

“Your time in this game is short, it doesn’t wait for you, you have to maximize your opportunities,’’ Merriman said. “You don’t just step on the field and knock out 17-20 sacks a year. That’s never happened in history. But do I think I can be disruptive and dominant again? Absolutely. That’s the main goal.’’

A JET ALL THE WAY
Cromartie move isn’t seen as risky business
In San Diego, cornerback Antonio Cromartie (left) had issues with his coaches and in playing the run. Off the field, the problems were worse, and they include his fathering of seven children by six mothers.

The Jets inherited all of that Thursday in trading for him, but if people around here are honest, they’ll see the deal as another example of the Jets capitalizing on opportunity and loading their roster with playmakers.

Among their 11 defensive starters, the Jets now have five who have been All-Pro (not Pro Bowl, All-Pro).

Fact is, the reward could be just as great as the risk.

“We knew he was talented, and had his inconsistencies, but the price and risk was reasonable,’’ said Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. “We just felt really good about the information we had, and the chance he’ll have here with the organizational structure we have.

“He can be successful on and off the field, and that starts with his participation in the offseason program.’’

On the field, the long-limbed, super-athletic Cromartie fits the Jets’ scheme, heavy on blitzing and man-to-man coverage. He’ll be pushed by coach Rex Ryan to play more physical, but the idea of what he can bring in pass defense is tantalizing: With Darrelle Revis opposite him, Cromartie will likely see a lot of bad balls thrown his way, and he showed in 2007 (11 interceptions) what he can do with those.

Off the field, the Jets hope the high football character on their roster will absorb Cromartie.

“The No. 1 job requirement we have here for players is that you have to love football,’’ Tannenbaum said.

“That was a factor in it. We really have a lot of people here who love football, and that means they love being here, whether it’s lifting, running, training in the offseason.

“And that environment becomes infectious.’’

RUSH OF EXCITEMENT
Another Frog could leap into first round
Over the last 12 years, the last 10 as head coach, Texas Christian’s Gary Patterson has built dominant defense after dominant defense, but it has been nine years since a truly elite defender (Aaron Schobel) has emerged from his program.

Jerry Hughes (above) could be next. In a draft loaded with the edge-rushing “conversion’’ types, the Horned Frog All-American and two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year found a way to distinguish himself at the combine, posting a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash at 6 feet 2 inches and 255 pounds.

Where Schobel was Patterson’s first Pro Bowler, Hughes could be the program’s first first-round pick since LaDainian Tomlinson, a point of pride for the 21-year-old.

“When you’re from TCU, that’s considered nothing compared to Texas or Oklahoma,’’ Hughes said. “You play with that chip on your shoulder, that’s what we do as Horned Frogs. We’ve built a tradition of pushing to work harder.

“You get tired of hearing you’re not as good, when you know you can be right there, just as athletic, fast, and strong as guys at other schools, and with more drive.’’

The question Hughes had to answer the most in Indianapolis was the predictable one: Are you a 3-4 rush linebacker or a 4-3 end? And he’ll provide the stock answer: That’s for the team that drafts him to decide.

“I have to say I’m more prepared to play in a 4-3, because I had my hand on the ground for four years in college,’’ Hughes said. “But I can do both. I know I’m athletic enough to drop and do what the coaches need me to do.’’

Hughes, in a way, is the prototypical Patterson player. He arrived in Fort Worth as a running back, but his explosive first step and mind-set prompted the coach to move him to defense. Hughes grew, literally and figuratively, into his new home on the defensive line.

With such a premium on rushers in the pros, and the short shelf life of tailbacks, the move has proven to be a blessing in disguise.

Etc.

Cash is up at the top but won’t trickle down
For all the fuss about teams tightening purse strings on the first weekend of free agency, new standards were set for contracts for edge rushers (Julius Peppers), 3-4 nose tackles (Vince Wilfork), and safeties (Antrel Rolle), while deals for linebacker Karlos Dansby and cornerback Dunta Robinson trumped blockbusters signed by positional counterparts Bart Scott and Asante Samuel. So is everyone surprised? “I wasn’t surprised by the top-tier guys at their positions getting paid; those guys are always going to get paid,’’ said agent Jason Chayut, who negotiated Robinson’s deal. “The second-tier guys were the ones who will suffer. In the past, when those guys weren’t the best at their position, just the best available, they’d get overcompensated. That didn’t happen.’’ The best example is at receiver, where the top unrestricted free agents to sign early were Nate Burleson, going from Seattle to Detroit, and Kevin Walter, staying in Houston. Burleson got $11 million guaranteed, and Walter took home $8 million guaranteed, showing teams displaying a bit more restraint in filling holes or looking for that “final piece.’’

Fiscal responsibility in Washington
Hiring Mike Shanahan as coach was about bringing substance to the Redskins organization, and it might have come at the cost of the splashy move Washington is known for. The club cut 10 veterans on the eve of free agency, most prominently guard Randy Thomas, running back Rock Cartwright, and receiver Antwaan Randle-El, and many thought they were setting the stage to drop another cannonball on the free agent pool. Rumors that they were moving in on Peppers followed. Then, nothing. GM Bruce Allen said last week the Redskins were searching for “more and more depth for competition at every position.’’ This is the surest sign yet that owner Dan Snyder has ceded influence in the football operation, and placed trust in Shanahan and Allen. Instead of pursuing Dansby or Peppers, the team was looking at Lions free agent linebacker Larry Foote to pair with London Fletcher on the inside of new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s 3-4. And that says everything about how much things have changed at Redskins Park.

Colts’ horseshoe is lucky for Brackett
The Colts’ team-building approach is unique in its focus on the draft. That’s where Indianapolis has acquired just about every key player on its roster, with the exception of Adam Vinatieri, over the last decade. From there, the Colts identify core players and pay them, while cycling young drafted players through at other positions. And so it should be obvious, by way of his five-year, $33 million contract, that Indianapolis views Gary Brackett as part of that core. “I’m honored to be one of those lucky guys,’’ said Brackett. “It’s just a testament to how they view me as a player, not only on the field, but what I bring to the team in the locker room sense. This is a great place to play.’’

Many helping hands for Tebow
Florida quarterback Tim Tebow (below) may lack some things in his game, but he’s not hurting for advisers. Team Tebow has assembled a four-man coaching team - ex-Bengals coach Sam Wyche, CFL coach Marc Trestman, Arizona State offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, and ex-NFL coordinator and quarterback Zeke Bratkowski - to help overhaul his delivery and footwork in advance of his St. Patrick’s Day Pro Day in Gainesville, Fla. An interesting dynamic here is that Trestman and Wyche coached two of the most prominent lefthanded quarterbacks in league history, Steve Young and Boomer Esiason. And as if he didn’t have enough help, Tebow got a one-day crash course with ex-Raiders and Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden last week. Gruden asked the Tampa Tribune, “How can you not root for Tim Tebow? He’s a courageous, competitive, playmaking, undeniable force. I think he’s going to be a great success.’’ And if all this doesn’t work, and, as some believe, he can’t play quarterback? Well, the 4.70 40-yard dash he ran at the combine is likely to have some teams wondering what Tebow might be capable of in an H-back type of role.

Three and out
The restricted free agent market should heat up in the coming days, with players tendered at the second-round level and below likely to garner interest. Carolina cornerback Richard Marshall (second round), Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrison (third round), and New Orleans tailback Pierre Thomas (second round) are among those that might have other teams sniffing around. The biggest deterrent is the depth of a draft that many league observers feel is the strongest in years . . . The Ravens’ trade for Anquan Boldin, and the Patriots’ interest in the ex-Cardinal Pro Bowler, brings into focus New England’s misfire on Derrick Burgess. Burgess cost New England third- and fifth-round picks. Boldin cost the Ravens third- and fourth-round picks, with a fifth-round going to Baltimore with the receiver. Both players promised to fill glaring needs. Which one would you rather have? . . . Rolle’s career revival has to be among the most interesting under-the-radar stories of the last few years. The former first-round pick was benched in 2007, and his move to safety in 2008 was necessitated by his shortcomings at corner. To his credit, he remade himself as a safety, picked off four passes in 2009, and now has a five-year, $37 million deal with the Giants to show for it.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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