Inexperienced RTs will be put to test
Right tackles could be in the spotlight in 2005, with a larger number of teams projected to start rookies or players with little experience.
Despite a dossier that includes 142 starting assignments, and a nicely highlighted 10-year résumé as one of the league's sturdiest, if unheralded, offensive right tackles, Scott Gragg doesn't have a job yet, nearly a month after the San Francisco 49ers jettisoned him for salary cap and age reasons.
Gragg, 33, might want to hold off, though, on filing his retirement papers. Because in a season of wholesale renovation at the right tackle spot, it's a pretty good bet there are a lot of nervous offensive line coaches who've got Gragg's home number on speed-dial. And at some point, with so many unproven young right tackles currently penciled in as starters around the league, a panicked general manager is going to reach for the phone.
There are at least 15 teams in 2005 with new starters at right tackle -- or at least someone who didn't open the 2004 season as the starter at the position. That number, over the course of training camp and the preseason, could actually grow to 17 or 18 teams.
For many franchises, it should be noted, the right tackle turnover represents an upgrade.
Getting back stalwart Jon Jansen, after a season-ending Achilles injury sidelined him for all of 2004, should make the Washington Redskins' line significantly better. The free-agent acquisition of former New York Jets starter Kareem McKenzie bolsters and solidifies the Giants' blocking unit. By signing Fred Miller, the Chicago Bears are now able to move John Tait to left tackle, a maneuver that should enhance the offense. Oliver Ross will bring toughness and veteran leadership to the young Arizona Cardinals. And in Carolina, Jordan Gross gets back in his comfort zone this year after struggling on the left side for much of the 2004 season.
Those changes, it seems, all represent offensive line exclamation points for the respective teams involved. There are, though, considerably more question marks at right tackle as clubs prepare for training camp. And after years of playing second banana to the more high-profile, weak-side pass protection position, the right tackle spot, because of all the young faces moving in as starters, will grab a bigger piece of the spotlight in '05.
Consider this: There are at least seven teams in 2005 whose projected top player at right tackle has fewer than five starts at the position.
See why Gragg, who has started all 16 games in eight of his 10 NFL seasons (mostly on the right side), might want to stay in shape and stay close to the telephone? At some point, there is going to be an S.O.S. signal, because the odds are not every young right tackle who goes to training camp as a starter will survive long enough to open the regular season.
"You look around, and there are a lot of us [young right tackles] who are going to play right away, who they are immediately putting into the fire," said New Orleans Saints first-round choice Jammal Brown, a tough-minded blocker who should survive the crucible. "There is a lot of responsibility and young guys are going to have to measure up."
Indeed, it won't take very long to assess Brown's worthiness, since he will spend his first regular-season game matched up against Carolina left defensive end Julius Peppers, who is coming off a monster 2004 campaign and is poised to emerge as the league's premier player at the position.
|“||You look around, and there are a lot of us [young right tackles] who are going to play right away, who they are immediately putting into the fire. There is a lot of responsibility and young guys are going to have to measure up. ”|
|— Jammal Brown, Saints right tackle|
Saints coach Jim Haslett, who surprised a lot of pundits when he grabbed Brown instead of a defensive player in the first round, is fond of comparing the former Oklahoma star to perennial Pro Bowl tackle Willie Roaf. People forget Roaf played right tackle as a rookie in 1993 before moving to the left side. More a road-grader than a finesse blocker, Brown figures to follow the same career course. However, for this season, the Saints will feature more of a power running game in 2005 and need him to cement the right side. And while he remains an unknown at this point, Brown's obvious physical gifts suggest he could be a quick success.
The odds of getting solid play from young right tackles are a little more suspect for some teams, including a few clubs with legitimate Super Bowl chances.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, who lost both starters from the right side of their offensive line, are counting on second-year veteran Max Starks, who played in only 10 games in 2004 and logged but a handful of snaps from scrimmage, to replace the departed Ross. The New York Jets will supplant McKenzie with second-year veteran Adrian Jones, a superb athlete, but a kid with zero regular-season starts.
Kelly Butler, who didn't even get on the field as a rookie in 2004, could be the Detroit Lions' starter at right tackle. Tennessee, which desperately needs to keep oft-injured quarterback Steve McNair perpendicular, might ask rookie Michael Roos to help protect its prized commodity. St. Louis used its first-round selection this year on Alex Barron, and while he struggled mightily in mini-camps, the Rams still want the former Florida State star to win the starting job. Jordan Black, with four career starts, is the new No. 1 right tackle on the vaunted Kansas City unit. Seattle may allow a pair of young but inexperienced veterans (Sean Locklear and Wayne Hunter) to fight it out in camp for the right to start.
There was a time when the right tackle position might not have been so critical. Traditionally, it was the power side, and talent scouts looked more for prospects whose run-blocking skills were more developed than the pass protection techniques. But defenses have countered with left ends -- players such as Peppers, Michael Strahan of the Giants, Atlanta's Patrick Kerney and Adewale Ogunleye of Chicago, to cite a few -- who can rush the passer even better than they anchor against the run. And so the era of the big lug right tackle, the "grunt" who did a lot of the heavy lifting while their left-side counterparts grabbed most of the headlines, seems to have ended.
The prototype at right tackle has undergone an evolution during the past decade. Whether or not the wholesale changeover at right tackle in 2005 can keep pace with that evolution, with so many young players being asked to step into critical roles, remains to be seen. The odds are a few of the projected young starters will falter.
Which is why Gragg almost certainly won't sit idle through the season.
Around the league
• Adam "Pacman" Jones probably isn't a history buff, but the Tennessee Titans first-round cornerback should consider boning up on the story of Lawrence Phillips, the former Nebraska tailback who was chosen by the St. Louis Rams in the first round of the 1996 draft.
How come? Given his off-field track record of the last few months, Jones is likely to get the kind of contract that Phillips received after the Rams' brass swallowed hard and invested the sixth overall pick (coincidentally, the same slot in which Jones was chosen) on the troubled Cornhusker. Phillips essentially received no real signing bonus. The Rams fashioned a kind of pay-as-you-play (and stay out of trouble) that protected them and owner Georgia Frontiere's bank account.
And now the Titans, reeling at this week's incident in which Jones was charged with assault and vandalism after an alleged altercation at a Nashville nightclub, are apt to do the same thing. You can bet the Titans, whose offseason has been rocked by a series of off-field indiscretions by several players, will use every ounce of leverage in negotiating a contract that basically forces Jones to behave if he wants to be paid. Default language in NFL contracts, the kind with which Cleveland tight end Kellen Winslow's contract is fraught, are becoming more commonplace, especially for first-rounders. Insiders from the Titans acknowledged this week that Jones' rookie deal will grant the team considerable protection against the possibility of losing big money to a player whose recent record makes him look like a shaky pick.
Not surprisingly, Jones' agent, Michael Huyghue, said the charges against his client are a setup, an example of what he has termed "an opportunist" attempting to score a higher profile (or perhaps some money) at the expense of Nashville's newest celebrity. But Robert Gaddy, the manager of the nightclub who filed charges against Jones after the alleged incident, is a friend of several Titans players. He is buddies with some of the club's biggest names, like McNair and linebacker Keith Bulluck, and is said to go out of his way on most occasions to curry favor with his Titans friends. So why take on the first-round choice of his favorite team without some legitimate reason?
There is way too much smoke around Jones (pun intended), who was also party to a June incident in which some of his friends were found with marijuana in a Nashville hotel room. Somehow, the Titans managed to sweep that one under the rug, and Jones skated as well on a spring incident in his hometown of Atlanta, in which authorities investigated a report that Jones was involved in a fight in a nightclub. Suffice it to say, even though Jones has yet to sign his first NFL contract, he's already lost money in the deal. There were all kinds of character flies buzzing around Jones before the draft, but the Titans ignored them, and made him the first defensive player off the board. They bypassed similarly talented but less caustic cornerback prospects like Miami's Antrel Rolle and Auburn's Carlos Rogers to do so. And now they, along with Jones, might pay the price. Want some insight into Jones? Consider this: One of the first people he attempted to reach after his latest round of trouble was prominent player agent Gary Wichard. Yep, the same Gary Wichard Jones fired right after the draft. Tennessee officials suggest privately that, when he is on his own, Jones is OK. But it's when his entourage of hangers-on from Atlanta arrive in Nashville, all hell breaks loose. The problem: It's only a three to four-hour drive from Atlanta to Nashville, and the entourage figures to be hanging around the Music City a lot.
For virtually the entire offseason, the Redskins made no pretense of their plans to dump Gardner, their first-round choice in the 2001 draft. First they afforded Gardner and agent Joel Segal the right to seek out possible trade scenarios with other teams. When no market developed for Gardner -- most suitors figured he would eventually be released, so none were inclined to surrender even a late-round draft choice for him, since he might be had for free -- the Redskins excused the four-year veteran from all their workouts. The inference was that, barring a trade, he would be cut. And the team did not want to risk an injury, one that would force it to retain Gardner and put him on injured reserve.
But with camp openings looming around the league, Gardner remains Redskins property, and the team still has his base salary of $2.097 million (the highest on the 2005 payroll) on its books. Chances are good Gardner, who has averaged 56.8 catches, 749.3 yards and 5.5 touchdowns in his career -- and might make a solid No. 2 receiver for some club despite his inconsistent hands -- will be jettisoned. The consensus is the Redskins will need the cap room he is currently eating up to sign their two choices in the first round.
But there is a suspicion, too, that Washington is going to hold onto Gardner for as long as possible. Why? Because team officials are still holding out hope someone will offer at least a low-round pick for him. Club officials have noted that nearly every team in the league will have been on the field for a few days of practice before the Redskins' initial camp session on Aug. 1. If a team suffers an injury to a wide receiver in the early going, it could create a market for the 27-year-old. No matter when Washington finally gets around to granting Gardner his freedom, there figure to be three to four clubs legitimately interested in the former Clemson standout.
• It's no surprise the Indianapolis Colts figure to have another changing of the guard(s) this season. The Colts, after all, have begun the regular season with a different guard tandem in each of the past four years and that unusual streak is guaranteed to be extended in the Sept. 11 opener at Baltimore. It's also no surprise one of the starters in that prime-time matchup is likely to be rookie Dylan Gandy, a fourth-round choice from Texas Tech. The other probably will be Jake Scott, a second-year veteran, and a fifth-round pick in the '04 lottery. The 129th player selected overall, Dylan was only the 24th offensive lineman and the ninth guard to go off the board. But he was impressive in offseason workouts, demonstrated the combination of toughness and mental acumen the Colts want at the position, and will go to camp penciled in as a starter.
Because the Colts are able to consistently unearth solid guard prospects -- Indianapolis has used 11 different starters at the position since 2001 -- they can commit major finances to retaining starting tackles Tarik Glenn and Ryan Diem (one of the former starting guards), even while shuffling the interior deck. It's also a testament to several convergent elements. Among them: a personnel department that knows precisely what kind of profile the coaches want at the position and keeps replenishing the roster with viable candidates; the ability of Howard Mudd, one of the NFL's top assistants, to prepare youngsters to play quickly and competently; and a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who gets rid of the ball and does not take sacks.
Since '01, the Colts have employed a dozen different starting combinations at guard, and the Gandy-Scott tandem would be the 13th. The duet that logged the most starts during that stretch -- Rick DeMulling, who signed with Detroit as an unrestricted free agent this spring, at left guard, and Diem at right guard -- opened 15 games together. The turnover at the position is reflective of the Colts' confidence they can develop solid yet affordable guards and the organization isn't reluctant to plug in new and often younger players there.
In 2003, Steve Sciullo started 13 games. But he was released only a year later, after he came to camp overly confident about his status. This spring, Indianapolis allowed DeMulling to exit, preferring to invest its money in retaining Diem rather than also allowing him to depart in free agency. None of the team's top four guards going into camp -- Scott, Gandy, Ryan Lilja and Trevor Hutton -- was drafted higher than the fourth round. Hutton was an undrafted free agent and Lilja was claimed on waivers. In 2005, none will earn more than the minimum base salary. Assuming Gandy gets a rookie contract in line with the corresponding player from the '04 draft, the club will spend only about $1.5 million on its guards this season. That's good cap planning, and one reason the Colts can afford to redirect big money to some of their big-name stars.
• Speaking of the Colts, kudos to the team's personnel department for moving quickly to sign former Clemson wide receiver Roscoe Crosby Thursday, after he went undrafted in the supplemental lottery. Maybe the Colts think lightning will strike twice for them in signing another talented wide receiver who slipped through the supplemental lottery. In 2003, Indianapolis added wideout Brad Pyatt of Northern Colorado after no one took him in the special-cases draft. When healthy, Pyatt is a productive return man, especially on kickoffs, where he has averaged a robust 26.7 yards per return. The problem is, Pyatt has missed a season's worth of games in two years, sitting out 16 contests in 2003-04 with a variety of ailments.
Crosby certainly possesses more raw talent than Pyatt, and in rebuffing the overtures of at least three other franchises to sign with the Colts, he gives Indianapolis a young and gifted player who doesn't have to be forced onto the field as a rookie. The Colts already have the game's most potent wide receiver trio and some solid young receivers like Troy Walters and Aaron Moorehead playing behind Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley. So Crosby can essentially "redshirt" for a year or so, learn the ropes, and hone the receiving skills that have essentially been dormant for the last three years.
And there's this factor, too: The "Big Three" could be reduced by one next spring. Harrison is under contract through 2011 and Stokley through 2009, but Wayne is entering the final year of the contract he signed as a first-round choice in 2001 and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring. He has a great situation in Indianapolis, where Harrison still draws most of the double coverage, even at age 33. And there aren't many places Wayne could go and still figure to put up the kind of numbers he did in 2004. But like a lot of No. 2 wide receivers before him, Wayne could decide he wants to be the top banana, and head elsewhere. So getting Crosby signed to a multi-year contract Thursday is excellent foresight on the part of the Colts and maybe a bit of a hedge on the future.
In 13 starts, McGee demonstrated not only good cover skills (three interceptions, 15 passes defensed), but also a knack for tossing himself into the thick of the action. He totaled 95 tackles, which ranks fourth on the team and is an impressive figure for a 5-foot-9, 195-pounder. In fact, according to the tackles reported by individual teams, only three cornerbacks in the league -- Tampa Bay's Ronde Barber (111), St. Louis' Jerametrius Butler (100) and Minnesota's Antoine Winfield (99) -- had more tackles in 2004.
Winfield, the former Bills star who signed with the Vikings as a free agent last spring, is the player McGee compares himself to most. He might be giving himself a few too many props there, since Winfield is among the best and feistiest players in the game, but McGee is definitely a corner on the rise.
One other very pragmatic reason the Bills hope to secure a long-term deal with him: Their other starting cornerback, Nate Clements, is entering the final year of his contract. The Bills could use a "franchise" tag next spring to retain Clements, but that would be a costly proposition. If he hits the open market at just 26, Clements is going to extract a big payday from someone. Locking up McGee could help ease some of the sting of a potential Clements departure. McGee is also entering the final year of his rookie deal, but in just his third season, is only eligible for restricted free agency after this year. The Bills should be able to keep him for at least one more season with a middle-level qualifying offer. The club, however, would prefer a reasonable long-term contract for an improving, young player with just one year as a starter.
• The much-reported trade that sent Denver cornerback Willie Middlebrooks to San Francisco in exchange for defensive end John Engelberger continues two dubious trends for Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. First, it represents the admission of another first-round flop at cornerback for the Broncos under Shanahan's stewardship. Second, it extends the team's penchant for collecting defensive ends from other teams, in part because the Broncos can't develop many of their own players at the position.
During Shanahan's tenure in Denver (1995-2004), the Broncos chose eight cornerbacks. Five of the choices were first-day picks, two were first-rounders, and none were chosen lower than the fifth stanza. The swap of Middlebrooks means that just two of the eight (2004 draft choices Jeremy LeSueur and Jeff Shoate) remain with the team. The other six -- Middlebrooks (first round, 2001), Tory James (second round, 1996), Darrius Johnson (fourth round, 1996), Chris Watson (third round, 1999), Darwin Brown (fifth round, 1999) and Deltha O'Neal (first round, 2000) -- totaled just 16 seasons and 49 starts in a Denver uniform. And 36 of those starts were by O'Neal, who fell so far out of favor by 2003 that Shanahan attempted to convert him to wide receiver, failed, and traded him to Cincinnati.
The dismal track record pretty much defines abject failure, doesn't it? There has been a lot of positive press for the three cornerbacks chosen by the Broncos this year -- Darrent Williams (second round), Karl Paymah (third) and Domonique Foxworth (third) -- and it's probably well-deserved, given the individual potential of all the prospects. But if any of them are to succeed, they are going to have to snap a long stretch of Denver draft pick futility at the position.
As for acquiring Engelberger, a pure 4-3 end who didn't fit into the 49ers' transition to a three-lineman front, well, why not? After all, Shanahan collects defensive ends like the bottom of a pocket collects lint. Counting Engelberger, the Broncos now have eight veteran defensive ends on the roster. Just one of them -- Trevor Pryce, who Denver attempted to trade this spring then retained when he accepted a pay cut -- is home-grown. The Broncos acquired Ebenezer Ekuban in a trade. They signed Courtney Brown, Marco Coleman, Raylee Johnson, Chukie Nwokorie and Anton Palepoi as veteran free agents.
That's a lot of defensive ends, by the way, and not all of them can make the regular-season roster.
• There was an intriguing development in Washington this week, as Redskins linebacker LaVar Arrington, apparently at the urging of NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, very quietly postponed a grievance hearing scheduled for this coming Monday. At issue, of course, is Arrington's contention that the Redskins excluded a $6.5 million bonus payment from the eight-year, $68 million deal he agreed to late in the 2003 season. The grievance hearing had already been moved back at least twice, and this time seemed set in stone, with at least one prominent Redskins staffer ready to cut short his vacation so he would be available to testify.
Hard to say what the postponement means (there has been no new date set for the hearing) but one implication seems to be that Upshaw may attempt to intercede. There is also the possibility that Arrington, who recently hired a new attorney to investigate the case for him, realizes he will have a difficult time winning the grievance. Especially since his agents, Carl Poston and Kevin Poston, have already publicly acknowledged they did not review the final document before Arrington signed it. The Redskins claimed to be "disappointed" by the delay. In a statement, director of football administration Eric Schaffer, who negotiated the contract from the Redskins' side, also noted: "I also feel strongly that the business ethics of the agent should be questioned and looked into."
• A sad story, indeed, was the conviction of former NFL linebacker Darion Conner this week, and a subsequent 15-year prison sentence, after he was found guilty of DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide. Sadder still, of course, was the death of Jonathan Conklin, the bicyclist Conner ran down Sept. 4 while driving with a blood-alcohol level that registered .273 on the breathalyzer test.
Conner was an unquestionably talented player, a second-round choice of Atlanta in the 1990 draft, and a guy I covered during his entire four-year Falcons tenure. But there were always demons for Conner, many of them the result of the death of a younger brother, and the biggest problem of all was alcohol. During his stint with the Falcons, Conner had four DUI arrests, and was sentenced to probation each time. In 1998, a year after his NFL career ended way too prematurely, Conner served a year in jail for violating probation.
Maybe Conner wasn't gifted enough to have been a star, but he should have been more than a journeyman, and shouldn't have had to scrounge for a paycheck in the Arena Football League. But the inability to avoid alcohol essentially meant that Conner squandered a career. And now, at age 36, it appears he has squandered a life, too, not just a livelihood. According to an expert in such matters who testified at his trial, Conner would have had 16-21 drinks in his system for the 250-pound linebacker to register such a high blood-alcohol level.
• The 2006 draft won't take place for another nine months, but the cornerback position may have already suffered a couple of critical hits. The latest came this week, when Florida State junior Antonio Cromartie sustained a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament tear to his left knee during a voluntary workout. At 6-2 and 210 pounds, Cromartie has the kind of size that makes scouts salivate, and while teams can't acknowledge it because of his underclass status, he was already looking like a coveted player. There were rumors that if he had a good 2005 season, Cromartie, who had four interceptions and six passes defensed in 2004, might skip his senior year. Now with the knee injury, he will have no 2005 season at all. The injury to Cromartie follows last month's indictment of Georgia Tech cornerback Reuben Houston (who was rated by both scouting combines as a first-day prospect) on drug charges. Suspended from the team and university, Houston faces a 20-year prison sentence if convicted.
• Former Nebraska quarterback and 2001 Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch, released four times now by NFL teams, isn't ready to retire yet. Crouch, who owns an Omaha-based company that distributes equipment for playgrounds and parks, knows the odds are longer than ever following his most recent release by Kansas City, which had attempted to convert him to safety. "The only way to keep playing is to go for it, until either your drive is gone or until the opportunity is depreciated," Crouch told the Lincoln (Neb.) Journal Star this week. "You never know, though. The way you go out in your career is not always the way you want to." As noted here a few weeks ago, Crouch could probably go to the CFL, but so far has rebuffed those advances.
• Punts: The phone isn't exactly ringing off the hook for free-agent offensive tackle Ross Verba, who forced his release by the Cleveland Browns a month ago, and is finding life in the open market to be something less than he expected. One hope, though, is the Buffalo Bills might have some interest. Buffalo officials touched base with Verba's representatives this week, inquiring about his status and his plans, thus keeping him on their radar screen. Bill Flutie, 17, the nephew of New England quarterback Doug Flutie, has verbally committed to attend Boston College, his famous uncle's alma mater. The younger Flutie turned down offers from Maryland and Wisconsin. Bill Flutie played at Natick (Mass.) High School, where Doug Flutie also prepped. Kramer Largent, the son of Hall of Fame wide receiver and former Oklahoma congressman Steve Largent, spent the offseason as an assistant to the Seattle Seahawks training staff. Despite suffering from spina bifida, Kramer Largent, 19, hopes to eventually become a full-time athletic trainer. There were 31 players chosen in the 2005 draft who were not invited to the February combine workouts. That group, though, included just one first-day selection: linebacker Matt McCoy of San Diego State, chosen by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round. There were 107 players who attended the combine but were not chosen among the 255 drafted players. Former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs and his wife, Charline, this week donated $30 million to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. The donation was the largest ever to the world-famous cancer research center. The Miami Dolphins remain interested in free-agent safety Lance Schulters, who hasn't garnered nearly as much attention as he thought he would since being cut by Tennessee for salary cap reasons. Titans general manager Floyd Reese said this week he would be interested in re-signing Schulters for the right price, but hasn't heard from his agent. Drayton Florence, who replaced former first-rounder Sammy Davis at right cornerback for the final month of last season, will go to San Diego's training camp with the top spot on the depth chart. Florence gained considerable confidence last year, a commodity Davis seems to lack. Any team still looking for a kicker would do well to consider 15-year veteran Steve Christie, who converted 22 of 28 field goals for the New York Giants in 2004 but was not re-signed.
• The last word: "It's not an incident unless it has some teeth to it and both of those (incidents) had no teeth. If you string together a series of no-teeth incidents, it's just a series of no-teeth incidents." -- Michael Huyghue, agent for Adam "Pacman" Jones, on reports the Tennessee Titans' first-round cornerback was linked to two altercations this spring previous to his arrest this week.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .
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