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Football Notes

Flood of moves once the gates were opened

By Greg A. Bedard
July 31, 2011

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We never should have called it the “NFL lockout.’’ Apparently, it was more like a dam.

Since the wall was cracked open by the players’ vote for settlement of the labor agreement and the NFL opened for business on Tuesday, it never has seen such a deluge of moves.

There have been trades, free agent signings, releases, and every other transaction you can think of.

The world of pro football has been like a spinning top, and hopefully someday soon it will stop so some actual games can be played.

What the compressed time frame has done was not unexpected. It has continued to separate the haves and have-nots when it comes to front offices. Those that are on point and had a strong game plan for the opening of business have taken advantage of the system. Others have been left in the wake, and their teams will suffer because of it.

There are still many moves to be made, but here is a look at some of the winners and losers so far in the Great Carousel of 2011:

Winners Eagles - Always one of the most astute front offices in the league, they busted the gate down. Adding underrated defensive end Jason Babin and trading backup quarterback Kevin Kolb to the Cardinals for cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick was plenty impressive. Signing star cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha was one of the biggest coups in recent memory. The offensive line is still a legitimate worry, but the Eagles have to be one of the preseason Super Bowl favorites now. The only losers in this could be coach Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo. If the Eagles don’t win big this season, a lot of their fans are going to put the blame squarely on Castillo, who is in his first year since switching from offensive line coach, and the head coach who decided to make that move.

Seahawks - Not sure if letting quarterback and Norfolk native Matt Hasselbeck go in free agency was the wisest thing for this season, but this is obviously Charlie Whitehurst’s team now, for better or worse. The Seahawks were able to retain several key players, especially defensive lineman Brandon Mebane, and were able to add rising receiver Sidney Rice and guard Robert Gallery, who will help settle a shaky line. General manager John Schneider showed he learned well under Ted Thompson and Ron Wolf in Green Bay.

Patriots - They didn’t have a lot of holes to begin with, but receiver Chad Ochocinco will give quarterback Tom Brady more options and will help the offense pressure defenses horizontally. Defensive lineman Albert Haynesworth will be the biggest reclamation project of Bill Belichick’s career. Haynesworth may be done, but at least he should be able to occupy some blockers. The three-man line of Haynesworth, Vince Wilfork, and Mike Wright is sure to open up pass-rushing lanes. And we expect that Belichick isn’t quite done. Keeping the left side of the offensive line intact with tackle Matt Light (re-signed) and guard Logan Mankins (playing nice with the franchise tag) could wind up being the most valuable moves of all.

Losers Bengals - Where to start. They forced franchise quarterback Carson Palmer into retirement when they refused to trade him. So the Bengals get nothing for a player who some team would overpay for. They let top cornerback Jonathan Joseph sign with the Texans, and traded Ochocinco for nothing. They signed two Raiders in quarterback Bruce Gradkowski and linebacker Thomas Howard. Oh, and the Bengals added former Cardinals guard Deuce Lutui. So, they’re going backward. That the Bengals, whose front office is run by owner Mike Brown, are five steps behind the rest of the teams coming out of the lockout surprises no one.

Ravens - We’re as surprised as anyone that they’re on this side of the list, and it could very well change in the second wave of free agency, but right now the Ravens look to be in a tough position. They still need upgrades at receiver, offensive tackle, fullback, backup quarterback, and pass rusher. The Ravens were tight with the salary cap, and had to let receiver Derrick Mason, tight end Todd Heap, defensive tackle Kelly Gregg, and running back Willis McGahee go. “We’re going to build the best team that $120 million can build,’’ coach John Harbaugh said about this year’s salary cap. “Everybody is on a budget in life. And the people that aren’t on a budget, they’re bankrupt. We don’t intend to file for bankruptcy around here. That’s not what we do.’’ The Ravens really need to sign Haloti Ngata to a long-term deal to take his $12.1 million franchise tag off the books. That would allow them to add some solid players, and there are still some good ones on the market.

Bears - Hard to figure what’s going on. Tight end Greg Olsen may not have fit in Mike Martz’s offense, but he was Jay Cutler’s only reliable target and one of his closest friends. The Bears brought in two Cowboys’ rejects, Sam Hurd and Roy Williams, at receiver, but they’re not going to scare anybody. The team still lacks an additional pass rusher, and the offensive line is below average. It’s puzzling why the Bears let solid punter Brad Maynard go, as well. Meanwhile, the Packers are the reigning Super Bowl champions and have their core intact, and the Lions keep improving. Could be a rough season in Chicago.

WAIT YOUR TURN
Rookies take a back seat About that new wage scale making it easier on everybody to get rookies into camp; yeah, it hasn’t really happened.

Patriots fans don’t have to be reminded because the team’s top three picks are unsigned: tackle Nate Solder (first round), cornerback Ras-I Dowling (second round), and running back Shane Vereen (second round).

So, what’s the problem?

For one, the compressed time frame for acquisitions has caused most front offices to prioritize their signings. Most have concentrated first on signing their own players, and scooping up the top free agents. So the rookies had to wait.

The same goes for agents. Those with a lot of veteran players in free agency are putting some of their rookie negotiations on the back burner.

But a few smart agents were able to see through some of the smoke left in the wake of the new collective bargaining agreement, and were able to get to work quickly.

Blake Baratz and Joey Hartman of The Institute for Athletes, because they didn’t have many free agents to get done, were able to get their top two rookies signed when rookie deals were allowed on Tuesday.

Defensive end Adrian Clayborn, taken 20th overall by Tampa Bay, became the first first-round pick to sign, and his contract was fully guaranteed.

Baratz and Hartman also got a deal done with the Chargers for linebacker Jonas Mouton to make him the first second-round pick (61st overall) to be signed.

Baratz and Hartman said the new rookie compensation system is essentially a “zero-sum game’’ because there’s only a finite amount of money that can be used by each team to sign their draft picks. But each player can negotiate above his allocation level. That leaves less money for each team’s draft picks that sign later.

“[Players] really don’t have anything to gain by holding out now,’’ Baratz said. “There is no more money for them to get. They took a lot out of the old collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s so obvious when you see it that the incentive is to get it done immediately. The longer you wait the less flexibility and leverage you have. It’s obvious, but it wasn’t obvious on Monday to everybody because they hadn’t taken the time to learn it.’’

But some battle lines have been drawn between agents and teams, and that’s likely holding up the Patriots’ picks from being signed.

First of all, since Clayborn was fully guaranteed at No. 20, Solder and his representatives at Athletes First rightfully feel that Solder, taken three spots earlier, should be guaranteed as well. That could be a problem.

For all draft picks, the issue of guaranteeing the fourth year of the contract has been a hang-up. Every rookie contract has an option for a fifth year, but it must be exercised after the third. If a team doesn’t pick up the option, why would it want to guarantee a fourth year for a player it would likely be cutting?

There is also haggling over yearly compensation, which is essentially a flat rate but can be put together differently. The easy thing to do would be to give it in base salary. But some teams are holding fast to tying the money into some sort of roster bonus, incentive, or both. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Patriots wanting their players to earn their salary in some fashion.

The bottom line is at the end of the day, the power resides with the team. That’s why it’s beneficial to the player to get the deal done early - before more money is allocated. In fact, some teams probably will reward the players who sign early by giving them more than their allocation, which happened in Clayborn’s case.

“My guess is this is going to be the only year under this system that it’s not going to be uniform,’’ Baratz said. “I don’t think you’re going to see teams next year give over the allocation like we did this year. We got lucky on the timing and we understood what we were doing.’’

TEAM PLAYER
Manning could have had more Colts quarterback Peyton Manning didn’t want to break the bank on his new contract, and he got what he wanted.

Manning received a five-year, $90 million deal yesterday, according to numerous reports. His average of $18 million a season matches Tom Brady for the league’s top spot.

Colts owner Jim Irsay had previously said he wanted to make Manning the top-paid player in the game.

“While I appreciate Jim Irsay offering to make me the highest-paid player,’’ Manning told The Indianapolis Star last week, “I told him I’d rather he save that money and keep whoever it is . . . Joe Addai, Charlie Johnson, whoever that may be.

“I’m willing to take less than they’ve offered if they are going to take that money to keep players we need to keep and go get other players.’’

Manning had urged Irsay, team president Bill Polian, and agent Tom Condon to get the contract done immediately.

Manning didn’t like that it was floated he was seeking a record-breaking deal.

“The numbers that are being floated out there, the rumors of what I’m asking for . . . that’s not from me,’’ he said. “I’ve never said one word about the contract. I told [Irsay and Polian] my cap numbers can be as low as they want them to be in being creative with the salary cap.’’

It’s believed Irsay wanted to offer Manning a multiyear deal worth approximately $20 million per year. Some reports had Manning requesting near $25 million a year.

“That was never from me,’’ he said.

ETC.
Dolphins to unleash Bush The Dolphins believe running back Reggie Bush, acquired from the Saints, can be an every-down back. “I think so, I really do,’’ said coach Tony Sparano. “There’s no question he has to have a caddie and we know that, and that’s why [rookie Daniel Thomas] is here and the other backs that we have right now. We have several backs that we think are good players, but that being said, I really have a strong belief that [Bush] can carry the ball on first and second down. Now, Reggie has a specific style that he excels best at, and from our end we’re not going to push square pegs in round holes here. So it’s our job as coaches to figure out what that style is and make that work.’’ Bush is a solid addition for the Dolphins if he stays healthy, but, as always for Miami, it will come down to the quarterback. The Dolphins picked up Matt Moore, but Chad Henne is still the guy. He hasn’t been good enough. “I want to see clear progress,’’ Sparano said. “I want to see the leadership skills that should be at the next level right now. I do know that as the players have come back [they said] this guy took charge of those [player workouts]. That was an outstanding period for him. So, a real giant step.’’

Slasher films As an assistant with the Steelers, current Bills coach Chan Gailey was able to use quarterback Kordell Stewart with success in the “slash’’ role, in which Stewart would line up at several positions. Gailey envisions the same role for Brad Smith, whom the team signed as a free agent from the Jets. Smith, a college quarterback at Missouri, will be listed as a quarterback with the Bills. “He did not have a lot of opportunities to be a receiver,’’ Gailey said of Smith’s time with the Jets. “He is a good enough athlete. I see him being used in a similar role as I used Kordell in Pittsburgh. He can play some receiver and quarterback. He gives you a lot of versatility. He can play special teams, cover kicks, and return kicks. He can do a lot to help a football team win games.’’ Gailey hopes the lockout doesn’t affect Smith’s assimilation into his multiple roles. “It will be tougher, but it is not insurmountable,’’ Gailey said. “It is our responsibility that we don’t throw so much at him that he gets frustrated. He needs to take things in increments and learn a little bit at a time. It won’t be comfortable for him for quite a while, but he’ll get it.’’

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @greg_a_bedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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