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NFP Sunday Blitz

Aaron Hernandez, the 49ers and more in Len Pasquarelli’s debut at the National Football Post. Len Pasquarelli

Print This June 30, 2013, 05:30 AM EST

It’s a move that pretty much flew under the radar, but it wasn’t just coincidence that the Denver Broncos recently turned to 11th-year veteran center Dan Koppen when starter J.D. Walton underwent a second surgery to address problems with a left ankle injury that forced him out for all but the opening month of last season and could potentially sideline him for the first half of 2013.

An unrestricted free agent, Koppen was signed last year by the Broncos when Walton first sustained the ankle injury, and he ended up starting the final 12 regular-season games and Denver’s one playoff contest.

Even with the adjustments that first-year coordinator Adam Gase figures to make to the offense, Koppen, 33, knows the basic Denver system now, and his experience will allow him to quickly pick up any tweaks.

Dan KoppenKoppen returns to Denver after an injury to starter J.D. Walton.

But, beyond the fact Koppen was probably the best center still available in free agency, there’s another reason it’s a very good choice and makes perfect sense: Having played the first nine seasons of his career in New England, and with Tom Brady, Koppen is eminently familiar with an offense in which the quarterback makes many of his play-calls at the line of scrimmage. And he’s well-versed as well with the extraordinary demands of a no-huddle attack, and an offense where the center is counted on so heavily to make the blocking-assignment adjustments.

Essentially, he was the best fit.

The familiarity with the no-huddle and “check with me” systems that Peyton Manning employs definitely were a factor in the Broncos’ decision to bring back Koppen on a second straight one-year contract. He’s an upgrade over the alternatives, Manny Ramirez or Philip Blake. And at a veteran-minimum salary, he could have maximum impact. Barring complications, the Broncos could get Walton back for the second half of the season. But Koppen, if in shape and able to withstand the rigors of camp, should be able to hold the fort.

Koppen and Manning became quickly comfortable with one another in ’12, and part of that synergy, ironically enough, was the center’s past experiences with Brady. The bond between Manning and Koppen probably isn’t as notable yet as the one that the quarterback had in Indianapolis for so long with Jeff Saturday, but Koppen does offer some similarities.

Manning and Brady will be inexorably intertwined for long after their Hall of Fame careers have concluded. Koppen, unwittingly, is just another link in the chain.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*In light of the Aaron Hernandez situation in New England, the attempted murder charges against former Cleveland rookie Ausar Walcott, and some of the other off-field problems experienced by players the past few months, several NFL teams are revisiting the “vetting” processes they use. One team’s personnel director and the security chief for another franchise acknowledged to NFP this week that they were advised by ownership to review their procedures. At least two teams have discussed the possibility of bringing aboard staffers expert in digital technology to research the backgrounds of prospective players. Which doesn’t mean there’s an opening for leaker/hacker Edward Snowden if he ever re-enters the country.

*Despite their shared success, one key area in which the Atlanta tandem of general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith hasn’t yet drafted and developed a player into a solid starter, besides pass rusher, is cornerback. In the pair’s five drafts, the Falcons have chosen three cornerbacks – Chevis Jackson (2008), Christopher Owens (2009) and Dominique Franks (2010) – and none ever started more than six games in a season. Two, in fact, are no longer with the franchise. All that could change this year, with the back-to-back choices of corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford in the first and second rounds, respectively. One of them, likely Trufant, will start, and the Falcons need him to be good. Atlanta released big-money free agent flop Dunta Robinson and Brent Grimes left in free agency, leaving just Asante Samuel as a truly experienced starter. The Falcons prefer to keep Robert McClain, who blossomed as a “nickel” corner in 2012 after a reclamation project, on the inside in “sub” packages. McClain has only one career start in non-nickel situations, and is far better on the inside.

Jarvis JonesUS PRESSWIRESteelers coaches hope Jones will develop into the next James Harrison.

*Pittsburgh coaches and officials weren’t exactly thrilled when first-round linebacker Jarvis Jones showed up for early offseason workouts with a hamstring injury, a problem that cropped up, he said, during his “pro day” at Georgia, and which caused him to miss some field-time with the Steelers. But the team has seen enough of the 17th overall pick since then to privately acknowledge that he could be that rarest of commodities: a rookie who actually starts for the Steelers at the prized outside linebacker spot. There’s apparently a decent chance now that Jones can bump fourth-year veteran Jason Worilds (10 sacks in three seasons) as the heir apparent to James Harrison’s old spot on the right side.

One big reason: Unlike most of the players Pittsburgh has developed at outside linebacker, Jones is a pure linebacker. The standard paradigm for the Steelers is to take an undersized college defensive end, then develop him for a year or two as a 3-4 linebacker. Jones will have some rough patches, for sure, but he won’t have to make the switch that so many Steelers’ stars have in the past.

“He’s got (linebacker) instincts,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “You don’t have to (wean) him off the end stuff.”

Jones was primarily a straight-ahead, rush player at Georgia, with 28 sacks in two years for the Bulldogs. But even though he posted just one interception and six pass breakups in college, he did have some pass-drop responsibilities in the 3-4 scheme of Georgia coordinator Todd Grantham.

*There’s no doubt that San Francisco coaches are concerned about the absence of wide receiver Michael Crabtree (Achilles) from the passing game. But the suggestion that the Niners are considering moving Vernon Davis full-time to wide receiver, based on his extensive “reps” at the position in recent sessions, are overblown, the 49ers tell NFP. There are some new wrinkles planned for Davis, who can stretch the field like few tight ends and who possesses unique abilities, but he won’t morph into a full-time wideout. The coaches note that, while it took Colin Kaepernick a while to develop the same chemistry that Alex Smith had with the tight end – Davis had 29 receptions (and 41 targets) in the nine games Smith started and just a dozen receptions (and 20 targets) in Kaepernick’s seven regular-season starts – the two hooked up 11 times in San Francisco’s final two playoff games. Although the Kaepernick-Davis tandem connected only six times in the last six regular-season outings, Davis was targeted 14 times in the NFC championship game and the Super Bowl. And he had over 100 yards in both those contests.

*The notion that a player’s draft status can be enhanced (or even diminished) because of his choice of representation, most feel, is greatly overblown. That said, there is little doubt that St. Louis weighed the role of agent Pat Dye Jr. in selecting linebacker Alec Ogletree with the 30th pick in the first round. Dye and Rams’ general manager Les Snead are very close, and St. Louis officials felt comfortable enough that Dye will keep Ogletree in line that they didn’t hesitate to snag him. And to sign him to a four-year, $7.03 million contract that not only fits the No. 30 slot, but doesn’t include a lot of safeguard-type caveats like the ones in Janoris Jenkins’ contract from last year. Ogletree has had a problematic past – a February DUI, a four-game suspension at Georgia, some off-field indiscretions as a freshman – but the Rams are counting on Dye, in part, to keep him toeing the line.  

*Fourth-rounder Matt Barkley likely won’t figure into the Philadelphia Eagles’ competition for the starting quarterback job, a battle that should play out between Michael Vick and Nick Foles into training camp. But the former USC standout, who began last season as the presumptive No. 1 overall pick in the eyes of many, has been fairly impressive in offseason workouts, and could loom as a key piece in the club’s long-term future. One reason is that Barkley has at least a cursory familiarity with Chip Kelly’s offense, having seen it from the sidelines in the Pac 12. 

“Watching it, you at least get a feel for what they’re trying to do, and with the tempo,” Barkley said.

Although he fell down draft boards, and was only the fourth quarterback selected in April, there remain some talent evaluators who still suggest that Barkley could be the best quarterback, over the long haul, from the 2013 class. By the way, the Oakland Raiders were of such a mind, and planned to jump on Barkley with their fourth round pick, before Philly took him with the first selection in the stanza. The Raiders then opted for a fallback, Tyler Wilson of Arkansas.

*For the first time since at least 1960, there wasn’t a single player drafted from the historically black college and university (HBCU) programs. The shutout of HBCU schools culminates a death spiral of sorts for programs that, through the years, produced greats like Jerry Rice and Walter Payton, and 23 other members of the Hall of Fame. Yours truly is actually working on a book on the legacy, and unfortunate decline, of the HBCU programs. Not since 2000 has the draft featured double-digit players from the HBCU schools, and there have been only 11 total in the past five drafts. There hasn’t been a first-rounder from the historically black programs since cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in 2008. Part of the reason is obvious, the integration of major college programs, particularly in the South, where most of the black schools are located. But there are other social and economic reasons as well.

“Progress is great and you sure don’t want to turn back the clock. But the (black) schools probably have paid a price for the progress,” noted former Jacksonville cornerback (and current free agent) Rashean Mathis, a second-rounder from Bethune-Cookman in 2003.

*Given the unusually large number of players who were sanctioned in 2012 because of Adderall, we’ve long contended that the drug and its use could be the next great battleground between the league and the NFLPA. It hasn’t happened yet, at least not to the extent we predicted, but there have been a few discussions, given the perception that so many players use a drug that addresses attention deficit disorders. “It’s cone up, and will continue to be (an issue) raised,” one league official confirmed to NFP. Of course, the league is dealing with a union that keeps offering lame excuses for its reluctance to agree with HGH testing, so not much may come yet from the talks.

Chris JohnsonWill Chris Johnson produce another 2,000+ yard season in Tennessee?

*Tennessee tailback Chris Johnson has told people he could become the first player in league history to post a pair of 2,000-yard rushing seasons, and that’s because he feels the Titans’ guards will be so much better than they were last year. The club signed Andy Levitre, arguably the premier guard in free agency, and drafted Alabama’s Chance Warmack in the first round. Levitre has missed some time while he recovers from offseason knee surgery, but is making good progress. Warmack was probably the top “roadgrader”-type blocker in the draft. Beyond the pair’s noted in-line prowess, though, both are good at getting to the second level, and that’s key to Johnson’s success.

“It looks like, besides (mauling) people at the line of scrimmage,” Johnson assessed, “those guys can get up the field.”

*Victor Butler has never had more than three sacks in a season, but the linebacker, signed by New Orleans as a free agent, was critical to the Saints as new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan moves the unit to a 3-4 in 2013. But with Butler suffering an ACL injury that will sideline him the entire season, Ryan and the Saints are scrambling for a rush linebacker. Former end Will Smith probably isn’t athletic enough, which could catapult the relatively inexperienced Junior Galette into a prominent role. Galette has 9 ½ sacks in three seasons as a backup, including five last year, and he arguably best fits the profile Ryan is seeking. 

*When you wear just a size 9, it’s pretty difficult to fill anyone’s big shoes. But that’s particularly true in attempting to fill the oversized clodhoppers of ol’ buddy Dan Pompei, the regular author of “The Sunday Blitz.” Dan is taking a few weeks of well-deserved time off with his family, was kind enough to ask us to pinch-hit during his hiatus, and we’re only too happy to step in. Hopefully, by the time Dan returns, we’ll have sufficiently satisfied your NFL offseason fix. We make no pretense about trying to be Dan – who, in case you missed it, was recently named as this year’s McCann Award winner, an overdue honor for his “long and distinguished” contributions to our profession – but we’ll do our best to hold your attention.

SHORT YARDAGE

For yet another year, there are a number of league personnel chiefs and coaches who would prefer the NFL do away with the rule that precludes a rookie from participating in his team’s offseason workouts until his university has its graduation. But the archaic rule is one of the more conspicuous olive branches the league extends to its built-in farm system, so, despite its unpopularity, it’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Green Bay coaches are cognizant of the fact that Aaron Rodgers is the only player in NFL history to twice throw for 4,000 yards in seasons where he absorbed 50-plus sacks. Better protection is the primary reason the Packers have flipped tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton from the right to the left side. But the staff also thinks the switch will benefit a running game that hasn’t ranked higher than 20th in the league since 2009.

Oakland officials seem relatively optimistic that first-round cornerback D.J. Hayden, who underwent abdominal surgery four weeks ago to address scar tissue, will be ready for training camp. From what the Raiders have seen of Hayden to far, they feel the former University of Houston standout will be a terrific cornerback. That said, there were a number of Raiders’ scouts who pressed hard to choose Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert, a guy they felt will be an immediate impact player, with the 12th overall pick. Eifert went off the board, to Cincinnati, in the No. 21 slot.

Chip KellyA new era begins in Philly when the Eagles and Redskins square off on Monday night football in Week 1.

When some teams were debating the merits of then-Oregon coach Chip Kelly months ago, there were nearly as many questions about the allegedly-grueling practices he had with the Ducks as about his unconventional offense. But in talking to a few Philadelphia veterans, there haven’t been any complaints about the workout Kelly has convened for the Eagles so far.

The Broncos and franchise left tackle Ryan Clady resumed negotiations on a potential long-term contract extension earlier this month, but aren’t close to a deal. The representatives for Clady, who is key to the protection of Manning, are preparing a counter to Denver’s offer.

On the subject of contracts, Kansas City has yet to begin substantive negotiations with tackle Eric Fisher, the top pick in the draft. But the two sides should start serious bargaining in the next week or so.

The Falcons love the skills-set of Pro Bowl wide receiver Julio Jones. But there are some coaches and others in the organization who would like Jones to develop more leadership and even brashness qualities, or “more dog,” as they refer to it, much like wideout partner Roddy White possesses in large doses.

BY THE NUMBERS

New England wide receivers and tight ends totaled 346 of the team’s 402 receptions and 27 of its 34 receiving touchdowns in 2012.  Because of free agency defections (primarily Wes Welker), and releases (the aforementioned Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd), the Patriots will be without guys who accounted for a good deal of those catches and scores. In fact, if tight end Rob Gronkowski isn’t ready for the start of the season, the Pats could start 2013 without tight ends and wide receivers who accounted for more than 90 percent of the receptions and nearly 80 percent of the touchdowns. Without Gronkowski, the leading returning receiver from the ’12 team would be Julian Edelman, who had 21 catches. 

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