Chiefs RB Johnson among possible holdouts
As the NFL hits vacation mode, John Clayton looks at five story lines that will play out between now and training camp.
Except for Mike Shanahan's post-July 4 minicamp, the NFL has hit the vacation mode.
Rookies will spend their time at an educational symposium this week. Coaches are off to vacation cottages. Players have to juggle a few hours of lifting and running along with their vacations. Some players will stray from the law and get themselves in trouble.
Still, the NFL doesn't sleep. Front office executives will stick around long enough to sign unallocated NFL Europa players. Although NFL Europa is under review this summer and might not be back in 2008, teams get an extra roster exemption by signing players who played overseas. So expect a busy couple of weeks of signings.
Teams continue to negotiate rookie deals. Approximately 50 of the draft choices between Rounds 3 and 7 have reached agreements and more will sign this week. Scouts have to make plans for a July 12 supplemental draft, and the list of eligible players will continue to filter in this week.
Though the NFL agenda might not be overloaded, lots of things have to be figured out before camps open in late July. Here are five of the hottest topics.
1. Holdouts: This might be the first time in recent memory that every restricted free agent and every exclusive rights free agent signed his contract this early. That leaves only rookies and franchise players to reach agreements, but expect a few more holdouts this year. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, whose contract voids after this season, is contemplating a holdout. He turns 28 this fall, and Johnson knows that NFL teams are hesitant to give big contract extensions to backs who reach that age. Johnson is coming off a 416-carry season and realizes his biological clock is ticking. If he plays out his contract at $1.9 million this year, the Chiefs could franchise him in 2008 and he might have a difficult time getting that big contract with guaranteed money over $10 million.
Steelers guard Alan Faneca, who failed to get a trade as he enters his final year with the team, has to decide whether to show up for camp. Most people believe he will show and hit the free-agent market next year. Draft choices such as JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn have to wrestle with the reality of possibly needing a holdout to secure the right contract guarantees. Russell is one of the few top picks to slip out of draft day without a contract. Quinn faces a tough negotiation because the Browns want him to be the franchise quarterback of the future, but they might try to lock him into money equivalent of the 22nd slot in the first round.
Other veterans, hoping to cash in on the big dollars being paid in free agency, might think about holding out for bigger rewards. Franchise players Dwight Freeney of the Colts and Josh Brown of the Seahawks have until July 15 to get long-term deals or face the choices of either holding out or signing their one-year tenders. Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and Bears linebacker Lance Briggs are franchise players whose minds are set on holding out.
2. Behavioral study: How will players react to commissioner Roger Goodell's new conduct policy? Goodell made a strong statement with the support of the NFL Players Association. He's coming down hard on players who repeatedly have run-ins with the law. Titans cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones seems set for a one-year suspension, knowing he's probably going to need the fall to fight a double felony charge in Las Vegas.
Former Bears defensive tackle Tank Johnson might have blown a chance to shorten his eight-game suspension by two games after being stopped by police in Phoenix for a possible DUI. Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry hopes he doesn't get anymore scares by governmental authorities leaking information about his drug tests. Henry has an eight-game suspension. The rules are plenty clear. A player convicted of a crime can expect to be suspended. A player who repeatedly puts himself in position to be arrested or questioned by police can get a long suspension.
Goodell wants good behavior and accountability, and so far the majority of players have supported his position. The next month is the true test. Players will have time on their hands. With 2,833 players under contract, odds favor several players' screwing up. But how will they react knowing the severity of the consequences?
3. Gray area: An arbitrator really needs to rule on what becomes of a player when he's stuck on a team that refuses to release him. A year ago, Steve McNair had to fight to train at the Titans' facility after the team told him he was no longer wanted as the quarterback. Even though McNair had to wait until last June to get his trade to the Ravens, the situation remains unsettled. The Dolphins, who no longer want Daunte Culpepper as their quarterback, ordered him out of the quarterback reps and told him he's not going to see the field in practice. Still, they won't release him until they get the right trade value. Culpepper has a hearing on Friday in which he is going to push for his release. The Jaguars are interested, but they aren't going to offer a draft choice if they sense Culpepper could be available for free if he's released.
Contracts are contracts, but these situations are getting ridiculous. The Dolphins didn't help matters. After months of complaining how the Chiefs were unreasonable in demanding a fourth-round choice for Trent Green, they ended up trading a conditional fifth that could become a fourth for him. Culpepper just wants out and the team doesn't want him. It's too late for getting true trade value with all the starting jobs filled. These things are usually determined on a case-by-case basis, but there need to be better guidelines for these nasty exits. Culpepper is a man without a team, but the team that owns his contract won't let him go.
4. Trial by fire: New Falcons coach Bobby Petrino probably needs more of a break than any other coach in the league. Has any team had a worse offseason than the Falcons? Michael Vick, the franchise quarterback, is being investigated by two governmental authorities to see if he's involved in dogfighting. Wide receiver Brian Finneran, linebacker Demorrio Williams and defensive tackle Rod Coleman suffered serious offseason injuries.
Petrino has done a great job of keeping Vick's focus on football during this offseason, but can he carry it through the summer? Vick wisely has gone into hiding. He's canceled his football camp and he's making very few public appearances. Once camp starts, though, Vick will be under the microscope, and Petrino will have to do his best to keep Vick focused on the game. This is Vick's most important season. He has to be a winning quarterback to counter the growing criticism about him.
5. Retirees on a mission: The battle between NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw and retired players won't go away, but it could have a big impact on the future. Mike Ditka and Joe DeLamielleure are leading a heated attack on Upshaw to improve pensions and benefits for retired players. A major breakthrough came last week when the union adopted an easier standard for players to receive disability payments. That won't stop Ditka and DeLamielleure.
Goodell is working with Upshaw to find ways of taking better care of the players of the past. What will be interesting to see is whether it has an impact on settling budding problems on the labor front. Owners didn't like the 2006 collective bargaining extension and are threatening to start to end the deal after the 2008 season. For that to happen, the owners will ask the union for givebacks, which is usually a problem. Still, with the NFL growing into a $10 billion sport by 2010, there should be enough money to keep owners and players happy and somehow reach into the past to take care of the players who built the league. Stay tuned.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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