- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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With no transactions allowed until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, coaches and general managers have a chance to take an unusual breather.
Normally, coaches and general managers end seasons and switch their attention to the combine and free agency without much chance to rest. The frantic pace has slowed to a crawl while owners and players try to bang out a CBA in the offices of mediator George Cohen.
Approximately 450 free agents still remain unsigned. But let's look at what has come off the market through franchise and transition tags and re-signings. Fifteen players have been tagged and roughly three dozen free agents have come off the market since the start of the year.
Although it looks like a solid, but not great, draft at linebacker, a surprisingly high number of linebackers -- particularly inside linebackers -- have been taken off the line. The draft pool for linebackers may have precipitated those moves. Outside linebackers Kamerion Wimbley (Oakland), Chad Greenway (Minnesota) and Tamba Hali (Kansas City) were franchised. As for inside linebackers, David Harris (Jets) was tagged and A.J. Hawk (Green Bay) and D'Qwell Jackson (Cleveland) were re-signed. Manny Lawson (San Francisco), Ben Leber (Minnesota) and Barrett Ruud (Tampa Bay) head a decent list of remaining linebackers, but the linebacker free-agency list is clearly down.
The hardest hit position has been defensive tackle, with Haloti Ngata (Baltimore) and Paul Soliai (Miami) getting franchised and Richard Seymour (Oakland), Shaun Cody (Houston) and Kevin Vickerson (Denver) getting deals. Only 29 defensive tackles are left in free agency, with Barry Cofield (Giants) and Brandon Mebane (Seattle) being among the best left.
What's surprising is that little has happened at some of the most expensive positions -- cornerback, defensive end and wide receiver. Champ Bailey (Denver) and Ronde Barber (Tampa Bay) were the only starting cornerbacks re-signed. Ben Obomanu (Seattle) was the only starting receiver to get a deal, other than the unsigned franchise tag of Vincent Jackson (San Diego). Mansfield Wrotto (Buffalo) and Will Svitek (Atlanta) were the only offensive tackles signed.
If owners and players get a deal, free agency might not start until the first of April. When it does start, it should be wild. This is the calm before the storm.
From the inbox
Q: I read a few weeks ago that Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy would be willing to move to the outside if need be; how should fans look at that? Does this mean the Lions are going to be looking at a middle linebacker in free agency or the draft? Or is this in response to Zack Follett's injury? While I understand that players say these things to voice that they are willing to do what the coach desires, I can't help but think that this means more than just he's willing to move if it helps the team.
Gary in Middlebury, Ind.
A: You can look at it as the Lions have only one true starting linebacker. They have to come up with two new starters in either the draft or free agency. This is a three- to four-year project rebuilding this team. They've rebuilt the offensive skill positions in the past two seasons. They rebuilt the defensive line last year. They have to work on the linebacking corps and the secondary for a third consecutive year. After that they will have to start restocking the offensive line.
Q: We are constantly hearing about the Carson Palmer situation in Cincy and I'm very curious about one aspect to this. No one has addressed what the rules are about a player retiring and re-signing with a different team; can he do this? Does he have to wait until the following season?
Adam in Seattle
A: The team controls all the cards here. If Palmer sits out the season, his contract tolls, which means it stays in place for another year. If he stays out of football for two years, his contract tolls for two years. Unless the Bengals release Palmer, he can't go anywhere. The team won't budge on this one.
Q: I believe there are several things the Bucs have going for them in the event of a lockout. First, they have a young, intelligent and hard-working franchise QB, and that cannot be overstated. Second, they will not be installing any new systems. This is pretty much the same coaching staff as last year, with the exception of a few position coaches. Just about half of the league has QB questions and major coaching changes. A lockout will inevitably have a negative effect on every team, but it will be less of a problem for a team that has a QB and no new systems to install.
Matthew in Streator, Ill.
A: I actually have another take on this. Because this team is young, it probably won't know how to handle an offseason with a lockout. Josh Freeman is a good leader, but entering his third season he and the rest of the offense needs instruction. The 10-win season could make young players on the team think they won't have to work as hard to get back to where they were last year. For everyone's sake, the best option is for a new CBA to get done by mid-March, giving players the chance to report in early April and get back to work.
Q: So the Redskins released Andre Carter because he didn't translate well into a 3-4 defense. What are the chances that the Redskins pick up a linebacker in the draft or in free agency?
Josh in Washington
A: They are going to have to do something. Carter didn't fit in a 3-4 defense. When the Jets went to a 3-4, he became expendable in New York. The problem with the Redskins' switch to a 3-4 is that it destroys the effect of Carter and Albert Haynesworth.
Q: The 2010 season ended as a disappointment for the Giants. I like the overall roster, but I think Tom Coughlin lost his team by the end of the regular season and Eli Manning is way too inconsistent. If the Giants miss the playoffs again next year, do you think Coughlin and Manning will be gone? Does Eli gives us the best chance to win?
John in Rock Hill, N.Y.
A: The Giants still won 10 games. Coughlin will get a contract extension, and Manning is firmly entrenched as a starter. Where the work is needed is along the offensive line and in the linebacking corps. The Giants have an experienced offensive line, but the organization has rolled the dice by letting the line get old and not grooming enough young starting replacements. The linebacking corps has been patchwork for years. Still, Coughlin is a winning coach. Eli is a winning quarterback.
Q: I think with the depth at D-line in this year's draft that the Cleveland Browns could be best served by drafting CB Patrick Peterson from LSU. This would allow them to fill the need for linemen in the later rounds. Would you buy that as a strong approach?
Theo in Akron, Ohio
A: If Peterson falls to them at No. 6, there is no question they draft him. He's at 219 pounds and runs a 4.34 40-yard dash. I can't see him falling to Cleveland's pick, though. The Browns are switching to a 4-3, so taking a defensive lineman would be nice. I'd rather see them take a wide receiver. They'd be lucky to get A.J. Green, but Julio Jones would work out well. They need speed and athleticism added to the offense.
Q: I would like to see Christian Ponder get the same amount of love as some of these other QBs in the 2011 draft. He is hands down one of the best QBs coming out, but because he is downplayed so much, I think it will result in him being drafted in the later rounds. Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker are getting a lot of press but are no way ready to come in a lead a team like Ponder, who is already familiar with the pro style offense.
Aaron in St. Petersburg, Fla.
A: I think he's moved close to Locker if not higher. He outperformed Locker at the Senior Bowl. Locker threw better at the combine than he did at the Senior Bowl, but Ponder also put on a strong performance. Ponder will drop no further than Cincinnati toward the top of the second round, and there is a good chance a team in the second round would trade up to get him. But his ability to fit into West Coast offenses could make him the third quarterback to be drafted this April.
Q: I was watching Cam Newton during his segment of the combine and noticed a striking similarity to Chad Ochocinco -- that he's entertainer first. If you watched the passing drills, there is a part where the coaches were explaining the next drill and he was seriously playing to the camera. Next thing you know his throws are way off. Now, instead of maybe listening intently to what is being instructed, he decided to walk over and get a Gatorade. Dude is going to have troubles come his way.
Rick in Cedar Rapids, Iowa
A: You may be on to something, but I'd still take a chance. His throwing mechanics can be fixed. Remember, he's only one month into becoming a dropback quarterback after taking all snaps out of shotgun. It will take him a couple of years to correct his mechanics throwing to his left. He'll be great on rollouts. He'll make plays on the run. But he has to be mature about how he learns the game and how he runs an offense. If he doesn't win teams over, he won't be a top-three pick.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
3dEric D. Williams
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