Labor uncertainty limits player deals
To be honest, this uncapped year could have been worse for teams.
I thought more restricted free agents who were robbed of the chance of getting a huge, career-defining contract would have held out of offseason team activities in protest. As training camp approaches, the list of unsigned restricted free agents is around three dozen. When you study the small list of huge contract extensions this offseason, you'd figure there would be more players like Reggie Wayne, Robert Mathis, Chris Johnson and others withholding their services from OTAs just to make a point.
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As interesting as the offseason has been, it's been an off year for doing deals because of the potential labor problems of 2011. Only 21 players received contract extensions worth more than $4 million a year. That's less than one player per team. Teams have instead used the rope-a-dope strategy of retaining players on short-term deals, hoping a break in labor talks provides a plan for the future.
Sure, there will be some extensions. Expect the Redskins to do one with quarterback Donovan McNabb in the next week or two. The only holdup was the contract McNabb did with the Eagles on June 12, 2009. Players have to wait one year before re-doing a renegotiated contract. On Friday, McNabb would be free to do a new deal, and you know Redskins owner Dan Snyder won't let him hit free agency next year.
There will be some extensions. Just don't expect a lot of them.
From the inbox
Q: How come when teams hire a new coach, sometimes the argument is made that the coach doesn't have the players to run his offensive or defensive scheme and then takes two to three years changing the roster and releasing good players. In the end, shouldn't a coach try to find the best scheme that fits the current roster and maximize the talent at hand rather than spending two to three seasons changing the roster?
Eric in Montreal
A: Eric, I agree with you 100 percent. It's driving me crazy watching all these 4-3 teams bring in new coaches and try to switch to the 3-4. Head coaches with Cleveland, San Francisco and the New York Jets lost their jobs while they tried to rebuild their rosters to fit the schemes instead of fitting the schemes to the talents of the players on the current roster. One thing you know about head coaches is they like to pick the players and that's why most new head coaches have 20 or more new players on their roster during their first season. The NFL doesn't give enough time for complete reconstructions of the roster. A team with a top quarterback could buy the coach the time to survive but most teams that hire new coaches don't have that quarterback. That's why teams such as Detroit and Buffalo have been down for as long as they have.
To Don in Charlottesville, Va., the loss of Marlin Jackson for the season will put the Philadelphia Eagles in the market for a safety, but don't expect them to move quickly. They might have a starting safety in second-round pick Nate Allen. If he continues to look good in the offseason program, that would put the Eagles only in the market for backups to help depth. I don't see them moving on Oshiomogho Atogwe. He turns 29 on June 23. I like the fact the Associated Press had a re-vote on Defensive Rookie of the Year after Brian Cushing of the Houston Texans was suspended for four games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing drugs. I voted for Cushing in the original balloting; in the re-vote, I changed my vote to Clay Matthews of the Packers. Justin of Sacramento, Calif., brings up the very popular topic of Terrell Owens and his next team. Justin wonders why the Dolphins don't add Owens. Simple answer: Bill Parcells makes the roster decisions. He's not signing a player whom he struggled with when they were together in Dallas. Josh is wondering what game in Week 1 intrigues me. I know this isn't the best game, but I'm intrigued about the Colts at Texans game to see if the Texans can finally win a home game against the Colts. That game will tell if the Texans are ready to make a playoff run. Nat in New York wonders if there has ever been a time the NFC North has had this many good quarterbacks. Never. Say what you want about Jay Cutler, but he's the most talented quarterback in a Chicago Bears uniform in three decades. I think Matthew Stafford will be great in time. The Brett Favre-Aaron Rodgers battles will be classics. The Black-and-Blue days are in the past. Marcus in Superior, Wis., just wanted to tip his cap to the NFL officials. In light of the major league umpires' controversies involving Jim Joyce and Joe West, that's a nice thought on your part, Marcus. Overall, I think the NFL does a good job with officiating. Johnny from Brooklyn, N.Y., is a longtime New York Jets fan. He says he hasn't been this excited about the Jets since 1999. What worries him, though, is having Nick Folk as the kicker. Valid point. According to those who watched practice in the past couple of weeks, Folk hasn't wowed anyone. The good news is that if he struggles, the Jets can pick up someone right before the start of the regular season. Greg in Syracuse, N.Y., wanted to bring up a point from last week's mailbag about the NFL's television package. Greg wanted to know why the NFL doesn't come up with a third network for the Sunday afternoon games so that more games would be on free television. The reason is money. CBS and Fox wouldn't pay as much if they had to share an already-stretched schedule. Remember, they lose quality games to NBC on Sunday night and ESPN on Monday night. During the middle of the season, bye weeks further limit their options. There are only so many good games to go around each week. A third Sunday network could decrease the NFL's value on the television package. The NFL won't let that happen. Will in New Orleans offers an interesting suggestion. He wants the Saints to sign LenDale White now that Mike Bell has left. White and Reggie Bush back together? Interesting. Dave in Watertown, N.Y., wanted an explanation on how the umpire will now make calls from the offensive side of the line of scrimmage. This is a change that will protect the health of the umpires along with giving them a better look at offensive holding. The change starts this season.
Q: Many are saying some owners are not signing their core players to long-term contracts because of the labor uncertainty. Why not sign them, give them whatever bonuses they're due during an uncapped year, and if there is a lockout they don't get paid anyway. You're going to pay them now or later. I can't wrap my head around what pros there could be to waiting until the CBA is worked out. Can you explain please?
Ed in Cape Coral, Fla.
A: Owners are hesitant to do anything because they don't know if they are dealing with a 16- or 18-game schedule in the future. Salaries will be larger if there is an 18-game schedule and owners don't want to sign players to big deals and then have to fork over two additional game checks at the highest level. Remember, this battle by the owners over a CBA is to save money. The problem I see is that the owners don't seem to have a solid plan other than to use their leverage with a lockout to win the negotiation against the players. The smarter thing to do would be to find an acceptable settlement point and try to get there through intense negotiations. I'm as baffled as you are.
Q: With the stable of backs the Patriots have, do you feel they can maybe get a 1,000-yard rusher or legit workhorse type in the offense? Tom Brady is a year older, a year slower. They say it takes two years to fully return from his type of injury, but he probably will never get back to his form of old. Will the Pats get back to pounding the rock and using play-action and Brady's resiliency to bring another ring to my hometown?
Tommy in Foxborough, Mass.
A: The trend league-wide is to have backs get fewer than 250 carries, and the Patriots are one of the reasons for this trend. They spread the ball around to so many backs that no one gets 250 carries. Laurence Maroney is the team's youngest back, but he has never lived up to his first-round billing. He hasn't averaged more than 4 yards a carry since 2007. Last season was his busiest with 194 attempts. He finished with only 757 yards because of a 3.9-yard average. I take a different opinion on Brady. I think he will be fine. While you are right it takes two years to fully come back from an ACL surgery, the two years applies more to running backs, receivers and other players who run. Quarterbacks are back to normal after one season. Most of the top quarterbacks coming off ACL surgeries have decent seasons their first year back. Their biggest challenge is mechanics. During that first year back, quarterbacks spend so much time rehabbing, they don't get to work on their throwing mechanics. Brady's numbers should be even better this year.
Q: An interesting scenario just occurred to me: The Chargers' loss to the Jets in the divisional round of last season's playoffs prevented a San Diego AFC Championship matchup with Indianapolis. Since the Chargers seem to have had Indy's number for the past few seasons, it's not a huge stretch to infer that the Jets prevented San Diego from reaching the Super Bowl. So, my question: How do you think San Diego would have matched up against the New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV?
Michael in Los Angeles
A: You are 100 percent right to think that this league is all about matchups when you get to the playoffs. You have elite quarterbacks going against elite quarterbacks. You have elite quarterbacks who can get into the heads of the defenders they face or vice versa. A Saints-Chargers game would have been a good one. I would give Drew Brees an edge over the Chargers' defense. With Shawne Merriman not 100 percent, the Chargers' pass rush was suspect last year. Like most of these matchups, though, I wouldn't doubt Philip Rivers could stage a fourth-quarter rally to beat the Saints. Slight advantage, New Orleans, but ever so slight.
Q: Do you think the Packers can trade away one of their defensive linemen for an outside linebacker to complement Clay Matthews? They have tremendous depth with B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Cullen Jenkins, Johnny Jolly, second-rounder Mike Neal and unproven Justin Harrell, and quality 300-pound defensive linemen are hard to come by. Can you please tell Ted Thompson that Shawne Merriman would look great in Green and Gold!
A: I wouldn't make a trade. I think the Packers are deep enough at linebacker, and don't discount Dom Capers' ability to develop a pass-rushing linebacker. Plus, I wouldn't want to risk diminishing the Packers' depth along the defensive line. Jolly still has a drug possession case ongoing and Harrell has back concerns. It's not out of the question for a Brad Jones to develop. What helped everything was Matthews becoming a Pro Bowl-caliber outside linebacker as a rookie. Why push things when they are working?
Q: John, please defend your logic. You claim that Joe Flacco is an elite QB because he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game as a rookie. However, Mark Sanchez did the same thing last year and you do not claim that Sanchez is an elite QB. Will you please finally admit you are wrong and Flacco is not yet an elite QB?
Edward in Whiting, N.J.
A: Let's get it on. Flacco's body of work backs up his elite status. He has completed at least 60 percent of his passes in each of his two seasons in the league, and he's done it with an inferior receiving corps. His numbers should get better with Anquan Boldin and Donte' Stallworth added to the mix. In fact, watch him go over 4,000 yards this season. He has won three playoff games on the road. He's a leader. He has fourth-quarter comeback ability. Sure, he depended on a great running attack as a rookie, but when the team just wanted to pass the ball against tough, 3-4 defenses, Flacco put up big numbers. Plus, watch him play. I was at the Vikings-Ravens game where he had three fourth-quarter touchdown drives and then had a last-minute drive that should have resulted in a game-winning field goal. Once Sanchez gets his completion numbers into the 60 percent area and starts putting up big numbers, we can talk about him being an elite quarterback. But that conversation is for the future. The elite quarterback debate is a great one. Let's keep it going. Eventually, let's see if you come to my side on the Flacco debate.
Q: What do you think the Bears should do about their offensive line? Is there anyone in free agency who they might be able to plug in who would make a difference? I feel that without some new faces on the line we'll have more of what we had last year.
Anil in Elmhurst, Ill.
A: The best thing the Bears did was hire Mike Tice to coach the offensive line. He's going to bring toughness to the running game. I also like how he's moving bodies around to get bigger and stronger in the middle. The line will be a work in progress for the next couple of years. It got too old and it takes years to replace five older starters. The key will be how Chris Williams does at left tackle. Quarterback Jay Cutler should be fine because he gets rid of the ball quickly. The Bears must improve their run-blocking. Tice can handle that.
Q: Now that the Redskins have acquired Trent Williams to solidify the LT position, are there any moves the Skins should be considering in order to further improve their line? They definitely still need help, so would you expect them to sign a free agent like Flozell Adams, or maybe try to trade for Jared Gaither or some other starter on the line?
Adam in Alexandria, Va.
A: While the line still needs work and more talent, there isn't a right tackle out there who makes much sense to sign. The Ravens aren't giving up Gaither for anything less than a second-round pick, so that isn't going to happen. One option would be to take Jammal Brown from the Saints and make him a right tackle, but he wouldn't be coming to Washington under a long-term deal. Adams would only be an insurance policy in case Trent Williams suffers an injury. The key to the line is Williams and how he develops -- along with Donovan McNabb getting the ball off quickly. The Redskins' line got too old two years ago, so it will take time to build it back up.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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