Something to prove

Jeresy City, N.J. – Among the several accepted definitions for the term pedestrian are these: Lacking in distinction. . . .Commonplace. . . . Dull.

Seattle three-year veteran Doug Baldwin figures to encounter Denver Broncos “sub” cornerback Kayvon Webster in Super Bowl XLVIII on Sunday evening. But for now, in the run-up/talk-up to the title game, the Seahawks wide receiver is challenging a Webster of a completely different ilk.

As in the Webster dictionary.</p>

“I know what the dictionary says about pedestrian and what it means,” Baldwin said here Monday. “I know it’s right in a sense, but I (respectfully) disagree . . . at least as far as we’re concerned.”

According to the Doug Baldwin Thesaurus, the term pedestrian, as used to describe he and the other Seattle wide receivers, means more about underappreciated. Or maybe even unappreciated. Because Baldwin made it clear, even before arriving here for the championship game, that he is more than a bit chafed at a perceived lack of respect afforded the Seahawks receiving corps. And his colleagues among the receivers seem to share that sentiment.

Dull? Commonplace? Lacking in distinction?

Baldwin doesn’t think so. Neither does teammate Golden Tate, the four-year veteran who registered career bests in receptions (64) and yards (896) in 2013. Throw in No. 3 receiver Jermaine Kearse as well.

Said Tate: “Definitely, we’re a great running team. It’s what we want to do. But I don’t think you can win as many games as we did without throwing it. Or without good receivers. People say we don’t get enough respect or we get a bad rap, or whatever. But we do the job. Ask the people who play us. We make plays when we have to make plays.”

Doug BaldwinBaldwin caught a career high five touchdown passes in 2013.

Indeed, the Seattle wide receivers have made more than their share of big plays this season, as evidenced by the NFC championship game victory over San Francisco, in which Baldwin had a 51-yard catch at a point in the game where the Seattle offense desperately needed a jump-start (and also a 69-yard kickoff return). Kearse had a 35-yard touchdown reception in the 23-17 win. The Seahawks statistically ranked No. 26 in passing offense during the season and only two teams completed fewer passes. “(But) when they need us,” Kearse said, “we seem to be there.”

Maybe part of the problem is that the Seattle wide receivers weren’t supposed to be there, or certainly here, at this point. In the offseason, the club made a blockbuster deal to acquire dynamic playmaker Percy Harvin from Minnesota, sending the Vikes a package that included a first-round pick, and signing the five-year veteran to a fat contract extension. In 2011, the Seahawks lured then-unrestricted free agent Sidney Rice to the Pacific Northwest, also from Minnesota.

But Rice has missed 15 games in three seasons in Seattle, including half a campaign in 2013, and has enjoyed just one healthy year (2012). He’s never caught more than 50 passes for the Seahawks. Harvin played in one regular-season game in 2013 and made a cameo appearance in the team’s first playoff contest. Coach Pete Carroll has said, and emphasized again Monday, that he expects Harvin to be able to play on Sunday. Unfortunately, the Seahawks have heard such assessments before.

It’s as if both Harvin and Rice – huge disappointments in their tenure with the club – have ceded the term oft-injured as a prefix to their names.

Carroll has been adept at deflecting “what if” hypothetical situations and praising the efforts of the wide receivers he’s had available to him. But make no mistake: The master plan in Seattle was to have Rice and Harvin aligned on opposite sides of the field and causing matchup nightmares for opponents. But what’s that they say about the best-made plans?

“I definitely don’t feel,” said Baldwin, who at best would have been the team’s No. 3 wide receiver had Harvin and Rice remained ambulatory, “like (the club) had to just ‘settle’ or whatever. We can all play ball. You don’t hear anyone in our locker room saying, like, ‘Well, what if we had (Rice and Harvin)?’ You might hear stuff like that from outside, but not around here. People here respect us as players. From the people who count the most, we get our due.”

Notable is that Tate and Baldwin both had more than 50 catches in 2013, and each averaged 14.0 yards or more per reception. Only the Cincinnati Bengals had a pair of wide receivers (A.J. Green and Marvin Jones) who could say the same thing.

Of course, the Seahawks’ wide receivers may take a bit of a back seat this week with the prolific Denver pass-catchers on hand. No one from the Seattle contingent has said that is an added motivation, the opportunity to demonstrate the worthiness of the receivers against the highly-touted Broncos’ brigade. But there are hints that the Seattle wide receivers harbor a grudge.

Not against the Broncos, but rather the naysayers.

“I’d say it’s more like a boulder, not a chip, on my shoulder,” Baldwin said. “It’s been there for a while.”

There was unmistakable animation when Baldwin said it.

Because dull and commonplace he is not.

NFP Sunday Blitz

Among the many old and hackneyed saws connected to the NFL are these two: There is nothing new under the sun in the league. And second, as noted hundreds of times already on NFP, the NFL is the consummate copycat league.

Combine the two and what do you get? Well, you get the Seattle Seahawks’ desire for big cornerbacks and the rest of the league’s sudden love affair to emulate that with coverage defenders who can not only knock down a pass but also knock a wide receiver off his route before he even has a chance to get to the ball.

Nothing succeeds quite like success in the NFL, and with the Seahawks having carved out the best record in the NFC and advanced to Super Bowl XLVIII next Sunday with safety- or even linebacker-sized defensive backs, they have unwittingly established the template for other franchises. And as evidence of that, despite the seemingly recent phenomenon of trying to unearth bullish cornerbacks, understand that Seattle coach Pete Carroll first became enamored of the idea more than 30 years ago.

Yeah, thirty-something years ago.

As a nondescript defensive assistant at North Carolina State, Carroll was watching a training camp practice matching the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers in the early 1980s, a joint session rare in those days. This was in an era in which San Francisco coach Bill Walsh, even in the earliest days of the West Coast offense, favored big receivers such as Dwight Clark. The Raiders, not necessarily because of the 49ers, but because owner Al Davis coveted size and speed, countered with cornerbacks Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes.

Watching the practice, and taking note of the difficulty the San Francisco receivers had in getting releases and moving into their routes, the synapses fired in Carroll’s fertile cranium. While he hasn’t always succeeded in finding bigger cornerbacks in his various incarnations as a head coach at the college and the professional levels, Carroll recalled that innocuous practice at every stop. He tied the adage that “bigger is better” to a position where it historically hadn’t always been applied.

For whatever reason – and despite the successes of teams like Pittsburgh, which had Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, a horse of a man at nearly 6-feet-4 – the notion of big cornerbacks was hardly a widespread one. But Carroll, who concedes he is hardly a visionary, saw the possibilities. “I just thought that adding another kind of physical (obstacle) that receivers would have to deal with was a way to go,” he said. “It was just obvious watching that (1980s) practice.”

Recalled the verbose Hayes, who has been considered in the past for Hall of Fame induction, and probably should keep company with his old buddy Haynes in the Canton shrine: “I remember that (wide receivers) didn’t like playing us. We were good. We were physical. And, man, we were big. I mean, you didn’t see guys who were 6 feet, 6-1, whatever out there at corner that much, you know?”

Thirty years later, the bigger cornerbacks aren’t as prevalent as some coaches likely wish they were – “Hey, try finding a 6(-foot) something guy that can run that well. It’s just not that easy,” one AFC defensive coordinator said this week – but perhaps the success of the Seahawks is changing the paradigm a bit.

Richard ShermanSherman stands 6-3 and was found in the fifth round of the 2011 draft.

If you want evidence of that, look no further than the Senior Bowl practices from last week. Even reviewing the sessions on television instead of in-person, and looking over the video of the practices, it’s obvious that size is definitely “in” at the cornerback slot. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said the collection of bigger cornerbacks wasn’t necessarily a conscious decision, and that’s true. But Savage has an NFL pedigree, keeps close tabs on what’s happening in a league where he was once a standout talent scout and general manager, and it’s not totally happenstance that the game included five cornerbacks of impressive size.

Perhaps were the Senior Bowl able to recruit underclass players (at which point it would no longer be the Senior Bowl, right?), the size component at cornerback would not have been so profound. Still, of the consensus top six cornerbacks cited by most scouts to whom NFP regularly speaks, three are 6 feet or taller. Oklahoma State standout Justin Gilbert, generally thought to be either the No. 1 or 2 prospect at the position, told NFP: “It’s kind of the old ‘tit for tat.’ The receivers have gotten bigger, so the (cornerbacks) had to as well.”

The Senior Bowl practices featured corners such as Utah’s Keith McGill (6-3, 215), Pierre Desir of Lindenwood (6-1 1/8, 195), Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-2 3/8, 214), Walt Aiken of Liberty (6-0 5/8, 205) and Dontae Johnson of North Carolina State (6-2, 199). Maybe given the origination of Carroll’s penchant for size at the position, it was fitting a North Carolina State player would be in the group.

“I’d like to think that size is just one of the reasons I’m here,” Nebraska’s Jean-Baptiste told NFP from Mobile last week. “But I do think that, with guys like (Seattle’s Richard) Sherman, the thinking has changed some. Maybe a few years ago, I would have just been pegged as a safety (and some scouts still think that might be where he best projects), and wouldn’t have even had the chance to line up (at cornerback). But that’s not how it is now. Teams are looking at you differently if you’re a corner with size. Receivers don’t necessarily like it, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s certainly the way it is for Carroll and the Seahawks, whose scouting department has been well schooled in the preferences of its staff. There are five cornerbacks on Seattle’s active roster heading into next Sunday’s title game. And all but Walter Thurmond are at least 6 feet tall; all weigh at least 190 pounds. The emphasis on size extends even to the cover guys on the team’s various reserve lists. Rookie Tharold Simon, for instance, is 6-3 and weighs about 205.

A fifth-round draft pick from LSU, Simon is on the physically unable to perform list, but the Seahawks quietly acknowledge they feel the youngster will be a player at some point. And it doesn’t hurt that he fits the “bigger is better” template.

“I’ve got some good size myself,” said Denver cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the biggest of the Broncos’ cover guys. “But their people are huge.”

Of course, the models for the template were to have been the tandem of Sherman and Brandon Browner until the latter was suspended indefinitely for a violation of the NFL’s illegal substance policy. Browner was a monster at 6-4, a thumper who reveled in mixing it up, whose size and strong hands could redirect a receiver, and who could run. When he was suspended, though, the Seahawks didn’t have to look very far for a corner to line up opposite Sherman. Not that the replacements were as good as Browner, whose future is uncertain, given his long suspension and pending status as a free agent. But the style of play didn’t have to change.

“You miss (Browner), sure. But schematically, It’s not like we had to go back to the drawing board or anything,” Sherman said.

That sai
d, scouts are going back to their draft boards and probably re-thinking some old philosophies about the cornerback position. It took 30 years, but Carroll’s idea seems to have gained considerable traction in the league.


*Arguably the guy who most dominated the Senior Bowl practices last week, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald, is also the player who has scouts most puzzled. There is no doubt that Donald, who won four major college awards for linemen or defensive performers, is a player. But he measured in at just a shade over 6 feet and was 288 pounds, and doesn’t quite fit the mold of an NFL tackle. But Donald did what he always seemed to do at Pitt, use his great leverage, ability with his hands and incredible quickness to wreak havoc and win most one-on-one battles with the offensive linemen. Donald is most often compared to Cincinnati star tackle Geno Atkins, but isn’t quite as big.

“(But) he might be, technique-wise, the best ‘three’-(technique tackle) I’ve seen in a long time,” one NFC scout with keen interest in Donald told NFP. “He’s just one of those guys who has it, whatever it is.”

The big consensus is that Donald almost certainly has to go to a 4-3 team where he can play the “3” spot. In a few drills, he was actually lined up at end, a position he played at times for Pitt when the Panthers coaches wanted to create a certain matchup, but he isn’t as effective on the outside. Donald regularly dominated good players such as Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, and he’s just a tremendous two-gap defender who can get his shoulders through openings and be disruptive. “You know how they say rats can get through the smallest openings?” one scout said. “He’s like that.” The question becomes whether some team, even at the end of the round, will invest a first-rounder in Donald. The guess is that he’ll go in the second round . . . and be more productive than a lot of players chosen ahead of him.

Greg HardyThe Falcons are more than familiar with soon-to-be free agent Greg Hardy's skill set.

*Atlanta will almost certainly dip into free agency for a veteran free safety to pair with strong safety William Moore in 2014, which means incumbent Thomas DeCoud could be in trouble. And while the Falcons’ brass has said it won’t necessarily make any big free agent splashes, expect Atlanta to go hard for a pass-rusher like Michael Johnson (Cincinnati, and former Georgia Tech player). If the Falcons wanted to spend really big, they’re pretty familiar with a guy from their division, Carolina’s Greg Hardy, who abused the Falcons’ tackles for four sacks in the season finale. The Falcons tried to pry then-free agent end Charles Johnson away from their NFC South rivals a few years ago, but he signed an extension. They could go back to the well again and hope for better results. Meanwhile, the team still hasn’t begun to address the defensive tackle situation, where its top three players, including standout Jon Babineaux, are slated for free agency.

*Denver mammoth defensive tackle Terrance “Pot Roast” Knighton, who figures to be a key as the Broncos attempt to slow Marshawn Lynch next Sunday, allowed that he didn’t have a lot of options in unrestricted free agency last spring. But when the phone rang and it was former Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio, the man who drafted him for the Jaguars, there was no hesitation about reuniting with the defensive coordinator of the Broncos. “The thing about Jack,” said Knighton, “is that, even when he got on me about my weight, he was trying to make me better. It was always about being a better player. I kind of knew, because of our familiarity, that he understood how to use me and put me in situations to succeed. He’s given me a second crack at things.” The Broncos may approach Knighton about a contract extension to the two-year, $4.5 million deal to which he’s signed. Knighton is earning only $1.5 million this season between salary and bonuses. And that makes him one of the best bargains in the league, given his performance. Denver would also like to keep end/linebacker Shaun Phillips, another one-year bargain who led the team in sacks in 2013.

*In announcing the hiring of Mike Pettine as their new coach, Browns officials played up big-time the fact he understands what it takes to win in the AFC North. Maybe so, since Pettine’s resume includes a tenure as an assistant at Baltimore for seven seasons (2002-2008). The bigger question: Do they? Pettine becomes the seventh full-time coach – not counting interim boss Terry Robiskie in 2004 — since the Cleveland franchise was taken out of mothballs in 1999. That’s seven head coaches in what will be the team’s 16th season in 2013. Chris Palmer, the initial coach of the reborn franchise, lasted two seasons. Butch Davis was around five games shy of four years. Romeo Crennel got four seasons, Eric Mangini two, Pat Shurmur two, Rob Chudzinski one. So since Crennel was hired in 2005, the Browns are working on their fourth head coach.

In the same stretch, the Browns’ division opponents have had an aggregate five head coaches. Extending things to the ’99 rebirth of the Browns, the team, as noted, is now on its seventh different full-time coach. Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, among them, have had seven coaches in that period. So perhaps one of the biggest elements a coach needs to win in the tough division is patience from his bosses. Clearly, Chudzinski didn’t get it. Hopefully, Pettine got at least the promise of more than one season. Team president Joe Banner and general manager Michael Lombardi said some of the same things of Pettine that they did of Chudzinski a year ago. They shouldn’t get a mulligan from owner Jimmy Haslam on the Chudzinski hiring. And if Pettine doesn’t work out, especially after the seemingly endless search, they certainly should be held accountable.

*The loneliest guy, or more accurately the least-used, on the Denver roster? Punter Britton Colquitt, who has one kick in two playoff games. Denver has registered 16 possessions in its two playoff victories and scored 10 times (five touchdowns and five field goals). In addition to the one Colquitt punt, the other five possessions have ended thusly: one missed field goal, one lost fumble, one interception, and two series that concluded in the end of the game. Besides the fumble, the Broncos have had just one three-and-out series and only two possessions in all in which Denver failed to register at least two first downs. “If my biggest concern (in the Super Bowl) is staying warm,” Colquitt said, “that’s fine with me.” Colquitt, by the way, will try to join his father, Craig, as a Super Bowl champion punter. The elder statesman of what is arguably the NFL’s greatest punting tree won a pair of Super Bowl titles (XIII and XIV) with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the ‘70s.

Mark RichtICONRicht (above) opted for Florida State's Jeremy Pruitt.

*A few weeks ago, we mentioned in this space that at least a couple NFL assistant coaches were “sniffing around” the University of Georgia defensive coordinator job, which came vacant when Todd Granth
am departed for Louisville. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through a Freedom of Information Act request, last week identified the two as Vance Joseph and Bob Slowik. The former, who had been the secondary coach for the Houston Texans but lost his job when the team hired Bill O’Brien, caught on with the Cincinnati Bengals in the same capacity. Slowik, a longtime league assistant and coordinator, who was the Washington linebackers coach until Mike Shanahan was dismissed, remains out of work. Both men sent letters of application to UGA coach Mark Richt, but there is no indication that they were interviewed before he hired Jeremy Pruitt of Florida State as the Bulldogs’ new defensive coordinator. It’s likely, though, that either was making (or will make) close to the $850,000 Pruitt will be paid. Which might be a

A different blueprint

It is probably not the optimum way to assemble an NFL roster. But if you’re looking for a reason why the Seattle Seahawks are arguably the toughest collection of SOBs in the league, consider this: Of the 53 players on the roster for Sunday’s conference championship game victory, 21 originally entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.

That’s a lot of players who came into the league hungry, desperate and motivated to prove themselves.

And, judging from the way the Seahawks play the game, they’ve pretty much stayed that way.

“There are a lot of guys here who had to battle for every inch, at every step of the way, to even have an NFL career,” acknowledged wide receiver Doug Baldwin, an undrafted free agent from Stanford in 2011 and a guy who has authored more than his share of big plays for the Seahawks (including on Sunday) in three seasons. “You don’t forget that; it sticks with you, OK? You take nothing for granted.”

It would be unseemly to suggest that the NFC champions, who will contend for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title in two weeks, are just a collection of spare parts and retreads and players no one else wanted. You know, a pack of mutts. But the Seahawks seem to take some satisfaction, perhaps even pride, in the reality that their roster does not possess the highest-level of collective pedigree. Maybe it’s not exactly a badge of honor for the Seattle players and coaches, but they certainly wear the mantle of underappreciated with a borderline swagger, even a chip on their shoulder pads.

And while the us-against-the-world (and against the odds) mentality can be brusque and overbearing and unrefined at times – witness the barely coherent ramblings of star cornerback Richard Sherman after Sunday’s victory over the 49ers – it’s who the Seahawks are. They are, as personified by Sherman, rapid and rabid at the same time. No one dare ever call them dogs. But underdogs who have risen above mongrel status? Well, it doesn’t seem the Seattle players mind that very much at all.

Richard Sherman153 players were selected before All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman during the 2011 draft.

Said defensive end Chris Clemons, whose itinerant resume in the NFL belies what a good player he has been, but who entered the NFL undrafted in 2003: “It’s like so many of us have been through all the other (stuff), pressure doesn’t really get to us very much. We have a lot of players who were kind of unwanted. Not drafted, traded and cut, or whatever. You always feel like you have to prove yourself, no matter how long you’ve been around.”

Purposely or not, head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider, whose roster includes just a handful of players who were employed by the franchise before they arrived together in 2010, have made the club a kind of daily proving ground. Their shared blueprint for success four years ago might not have been to take a wrecking ball to the former model but, wittingly or otherwise, they have. They not only expect competition, it’s almost as if they demand it. “They make you earn your keep,” Sherman told NFP earlier this season.

The popular term in foreign policy is nation-building. The popular notion with the Seahawks is roster-building. And that comes from building character. And that really is derived from not making things easy. It’s also notable that the Schneider-Carroll regime has utilized virtually every manner of personnel acquisition at its disposal. Under the tandem, the Seahawks have made big trades and little trades; claimed guys, including a few starters, on waivers; signed veteran free agents, and, of course, attempted to draft well.

In fact, since arriving in 2010, Schneider has made over 900 personnel moves.

Some of the gambits have worked beyond expectations. Others, like the additions of wide receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, have been busts. “But the thing you have to admire most about them,” said one rival NFC personnel chief, “is that they just keep trying. They’re not afraid to put their hands over the stove again, even if they got burned a little the last time. Give them credit for their conviction. They don’t worry a lot about what other people think.”

That was evident when Carroll turned the starting quarterback spot over to Russell Wilson, the undersized (not even 6 feet tall) third-round rookie in 2012. Despite all the concerns about Wilson, he’s been a winner and answered back the critics. And he is hardly the only one on the Seattle roster.

Besides the 21 undrafted guys, there are 16 players who originally were drafted after the third round. That means nearly 70 percent of the players who were on the roster Sunday were taken with what now would be the equivalent of third-day picks or not chosen at all in the draft.

Just consider the secondary, the self-styled “Legion of Boom,” and probably the most conspicuous (in part because of Sherman’s verbosity) unit on the team: There were eight secondary players who dressed for and participated in Sunday’s game, and just one of them, first-round free safety Earl Thomas, was chosen before the fourth round. Two of them came into the NFL as undrafted free agents.

Of the 13 defensive backs employed by the Seahawks, counting all of the league’s various reserve lists, six were undrafted free agents. It has created a tough-minded, scrape-for-everything paradigm, one that extends throughout the roster.

Truth be told, the Seahawks are kind of like the Frankenstein monster of football teams: a piece from here, another from there, a jerry-rigged contraption of sorts. And just like Frankenstein, they’re pretty scary, which is how they like it.

NFP Sunday Blitz

Let the games(manship) begin.

It’s still 3.5 months until commissioner Roger Goodell steps onto the stage and behind the podium at Radio City Music Hall to announce the initial selection in the 2014 draft. But typical of the kind of rhetoric and “Liar’s Poker” that everyone plays in the months preceding the lottery, the annual rhetoric already has been ramped up over the last few weeks.

First, Houston owner Bob McNair kicked off the posturing two weeks ago with his very public (and intentional) suggestion that the Texans, who own the top overall selection in the 2014 draft by virtue of their 2-14 free-fall, will think about dealing that No. 1 choice. Even though Texans insiders were adamant in discussions with NFP last week that the team will choose a quarterback at No. 1, McNair has hung out the “For Sale” sign, real or ersatz. It’s as if McNair, who made his remarks to the club’s website, was screaming to his ownership brethren: “Make me an offer!”

And then, to follow that up, it seems the scrutiny of Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has escalated as well.

The presumptive top pick for nearly a year now, Bridgewater hasn’t been on the field since his team’s romp over Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl on Dec. 28. But in the three weeks since the 36-9 victory, in which Bridgewater threw for 447 yards and three touchdowns (while running for another score), he’s certainly been the subject of a lot of talk. There are rumblings that Bridgewater might be too slightly built for the rigors of the pro game, that his arm isn’t strong enough, or that he played against mediocre competition in a bad

Of course, the talk isn’t emanating from the Texans, who theoretically want teams to covet Bridgewater enough to be interested in exploring a trade. All the talk that guys like Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles
might be superior to Bridgewater could help the Texans in the long run, if the consensus becomes that they are better, but the Houston brass is not about to knock Bridgewater, except maybe in its most internal pre-draft deliberations.

Teddy BridgewaterDoes Bridgewater make sense for the Texans at No. 1?

Picking apart a highly-regarded prospect, especially one with the kind of profile that Bridgewater has largely possessed, is almost as much a part of the draft process as getting exact heights, weights and 40-times. In the NFL, they build you up and then they tear you down. Right now, Bridgewater is in the deconstruction phase of the evaluations, and the scouts have taken out their microscopes, and every wart will be magnified in the coming months.

Still, most of the gamesmanship gambits in the next few months really figure to originate with the Texans, and McNair has started the ball rolling. In truth, McNair was doing what all owners with the top choice do at this point in the process. In an effort to determine the value of possibly swapping the pick for additional slots that might benefit a needy team, one has to advertise a little bit and try to attract some buyers. It’s not quite the equivalent of being a snake-oil peddler, but there definitely is a huckster-ish sales pitch mentality to it all.

“It’s almost expected of the (top drafting) team,” one front office executive whose team owned the No. 1 pick in recent years, said last week. “It’s straight out of the manual, you know?” Said another owner: “If (McNair) didn’t do it, whether people believe he’s dangling the pick or not, it would be an upset if he didn’t advertise a little bit. It’s all part of the (posturing) that is an element of the draft. Nobody tells the truth, from the top (team) on down. Let’s face it, it’s a game you have to play.”

That said, recent history indicates that talking about trading the first overall pick and then doing it are two different things. There have been blockbuster first-round trades the last several years, but none involving the top choice. Fact is, there has not been a trade of the No. 1 selection since San Diego dealt the top choice to Atlanta in 2001, for the Falcons to select quarterback Michael Vick. The historic 2004 trade of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, while a signature move, doesn’t count. That deal, remember, came after the Chargers had actually exercised the first choice on Manning, and the trade didn’t occur until 30-45 minutes into the round, when San Diego landed Rivers from the New York Giants. In the 12 drafts since the Vick trade in ‘01, there has been almost annual discussion – like the talk that McNair obviously is attempting to generate — of potential trades at the outset of the draft.

As far as action, though, there’s been zilch. And despite McNair’s best efforts, it’s doubtful there will be this year.

It’s entirely possible that McNair, a University of South Carolina alum, is sold on Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Most scouts rate Clowney as the top prospect in the talent pool, even if he isn’t necessarily the first overall player many expect to go off the board. The consensus seems to be that Clowney projects best to a 4-3 defensive end. But McNair is accurate in suggesting that teaming Clowney and end J.J. Watt in the 3-4 front the Texans have played, and likely will continue to employ under new coordinator Romeo Crennel, could be a terrific marriage.

McNair called Clowney “a once-in-every-10-years kind of physical specimen.” And he reminded that, when the Texans had the first choice in 2006, they went against popular opinion, taking defensive end Mario Williams over more celebrated tailback Reggie Bush. Said McNair: “That worked out pretty well.”

Still, the Texans and rookie head coach Bill O’Brien have to find a quarterback. And if they opt to go with a quarterback a little later, maybe in the second round, then it behooves them to find a team desperate to move up to the top spot in the May draft, presumably to choose a quarterback. Or to locate a team that desperately wants to add the enigmatic Clowney.

There are as many as four teams in the top 10 who arguably might take a quarterback. But it also seems at this point that there are enough quarterback prospects to go around. As far as Clowney, for as talented as he is, teams might be reluctant to part with the bounty they’d have to ship the Texans when there are questions about the South Carolina star’s effort and maturity, and when he had only three sacks in 2013.

Let somebody else take that gamble, clubs might conclude.

So it will be interesting to see if McNair’s blatant sale pitch has any effect. Again, he had to make the effort. And he and general manager Rick Smith – who claimed with a straight face that he doesn’t “think you take a particular position just because you need a particular position” – will probably repeat the pitch several more times in coming months. But to what avail?

In the past 25 drafts, the top choice was traded five times. But four of those times came during an eight-year stretch from 1990-97. Since the ’97 swap in which St. Louis got the rights for offensive tackle Orlando Pace from the New York Jets, the Vick trade in 2001 is the only one at the top of the draft. Owners have tried hard at times to generate interest in the initial choice, but it simply has not been a seller’s market the past dozen years.

As McNair may discover.


*Whether t
he concerns about Bridgewater are true,
or simply the kind of pre-draft propaganda and rhetoric that typically arises every year, there seems to be a viable consensus that Manziel definitely is growing on some teams. Said one area scout who has watched Manziel closely for two years and who spoke to NFP last week about underclass prospects at length: “In some earlier meetings, I probably had to sell (Manziel) much harder than I have to now. The more people look at him, with the way offenses have changed now, the more they see he can be an impact player. I’ve always been sold on him, because I’ve seen him up close and seen the effect he has on teammates. Not everyone was as close to the situation as me. But I notice now that I don’t have to jump up on the table to get guys’ attention about him now. I’m still
not ready to say he’ll be the top guy. But top five? Yeah, I’ll take that bet.”

Johnny ManzielUS PRESSWIREFor the moment, it appears as if Johnny Manziel's stock is on the rise.

The ancillary benefit, of course, is that the team that lands Manziel will benefit from the “Johnny Football” persona, the Heisman Trophy, all the attention that he has gotten (good or bad) from his tenure at Texas A&M. But teams don’t make draft picks to sell tickets, we’re constantly reminded by people in the game, and they are correct. But they draft players to win. And winning sells tickets. And there is a mounting suspicion that, his character warts aside, Manziel is a winner. And can be a winner at the NFL level as well.

*While the stock of the aforementioned Manziel is on the rise, the status of one of his teammates, offensive tackle Jake Matthews, may be suffering a few dents. Make no mistake, the standout lineman still figures as a sure top 10 pick, maybe even top five or higher. And, really, no one seems to think lesser of him. But there are some now who might think more of Greg Robinson and have nudged the Auburn early-entry prospect slightly ahead of Matthews at the tackle spot. The order will still be shuffled at tackle in the months of evaluation that remain, but Robinson has made a significant impression on scouts to whom NFP has spoken. As for the tackle spot in general, it probably has taken a step back with the decisions of some players – such as Cameron Erving (Florida State), La’el Collins (LSU) and Cedric Ogbuehi (Texas A&M) – to stay in school. And certainly Alabama’s Cyrus Kouandjio did not finish the season very strong, either. Still, while there might not be as many tackles chosen in the first round as anticipated a few weeks ago, the depth remains good and it still is viewed as a position of strength.

*The addition of Ray Horton as defensive coordinator for Ken Whisenhunt’s new staff in Tennessee, a deal apparently completed Friday and which surfaced Saturday morning, is a good one and it reunites two guys who have always worked well together. But it will be interesting to see if Horton, who projects as a man who someday could be a head coach, moves the Titans to a 3-4 front. Horton’s resume does include a couple stints as a secondary coach with 4-3 defenses. But he primarily has been known as a 3-4 proponent since joining the Pittsburgh staff in 2004, and was brought to Arizona by Whisenhunt in 2011, replacing Clancy Pendergast, to convert the Cardinals from a 4-3 to a 3-4. As the coordinator in Cleveland last season, Horton was also charged with transitioning the Browns to a 3-4 front.

But the Browns already had a few players who had worked previously with the team in the 3-4. With the Titans, the remake might not be as facile. Going back to their former incarnation as the Houston Oilers, the Titans haven’t deployed full time as a 3-4 defense in at least 22 seasons, possibly more. The personnel isn’t exactly a snug fit for a three-man front, so the conversion may actually have to take place over a couple seasons. Tennessee’s top defensive lineman, Jurrell Casey, who had 10.5 sacks in 2013 (only Dallas’ Jason Hatcher, with 11, had more among interior linemen), is a 4-3 tackle. He’ll probably move to end, or a hybrid tackle-end position as Darnell Dockett did in Arizona, but finding a space-eating nose tackle and some stand-up “edge” rushers will be a challenge. Whisenhunt seems to prefer a 3-4 front and that’s likely why Horton was at the top of his defensive coordinator wish list.

*As an unrestricted free agent last spring, the phone of Shaun Phillips didn’t ring nearly as much as he felt it might. Or, perhaps, as much as it should have. “I just felt that, with the things I had done (in San Diego) for nine years, teams knew me and knew what I could bring,” Phillips told NFP last week. “It was disappointing, really. But then, I guess, it worked out OK, right?”

Right, indeed, for Phillips and the Denver Broncos, who signed the 10-year veteran to a one-year contract. It turns out that Phillips has been a Godsend for the Broncos, who lost top pass rusher Von Miller to an ACL injury and needed someone to fill his presence off the edge. Phillips has been that someone. He had 10 sacks during the season, then two more in the division-round victory over the Chargers, his former team. Talking to some Patriots coaches about the AFC championship game, Phillips was a guy whose proven track record for getting to the quarterback (79.5 career sacks) was a concern. The irony is that it’s usually the Pats who benefit from one-year reclamation projects; this time they will face such a player. Phillips was more than worth the Broncos’ investment in him. His basic contract was worth $1 million, but he earned an additional $800,000 in sack-related incentives, usually lining up as an undersized 4-3 end instead of as a standup 3-4 linebacker, as he was in San Diego.

“He’s been everything we thought he would be, and probably more,” defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio said. “We really needed him and he came through for us.” There are rumblings that the Broncos want to keep Phillips around, but the veteran might want to test the market again, since he might be attractive to both 4-3 and 3-4 teams now. The caveat is that Phillips will be 33-years-old in the spring and, once again, teams may be reluctant to offer more than a one-year deal.

Russell WilsonWill Russell Wilson's struggles carryover into the NFC Championship game?

*There’s little doubt that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson hasn’t put up the same kind of numbers in the past five or six weeks as he did earlier in the season, but the Seattle coaches still feel strongly that he has played pretty well and that he lends a lot of intangibles to the position. And there’s no arguing his 16-1 record over two seasons at CenturyLink Field. But some staffers and Wilson spent some time in recent days poring over tape, not only of the San Francisco defense, but also of the quarterback’s mechanics and decision making in some circumstances. The general feeling was that the second-year veteran wasn’t doing much different than from earlier in the year. But it will be interesting to see if the extra review works out in Sunday’s NFC championship game.

*New York Jets owner Woody Johnson didn’t amass a fortune by doing stupid or hasty things. The great-grandson of the founder of the Johnson &
Johnson empire landed a spot on the annual Fortune 400 list, with an estimated worth of $3 billion-$4 billion (and about $13 billion for the Johnson family), by making savvy business calls. So one can surmise that there was considerable thought invested in last week’s decision to give coach Rex Ryan a contract extension. There was no doubt – and had not been since Johnson announced nearly a month ago that his coach would be back – that Ryan was returning. The question became whether Johnson and general manager John Idzik would force Ryan into a “lame duck” year in the final season of his contract. Under that scenario, Ryan certainly would have protested, although he also would have had no place else to go. And so the compromise was a complicated deal, believed to be for two years, but with just one season guaranteed and plenty of money dependent on performance (like
playoff berths).

We’ve always been big on stability and continuity – like lauding Oakland for retaining coach Dennis Allen and much of his staff after years of a revolving door policy under the late Al Davis – and understand the rationale for keeping the bombastic Ryan around. But let’s put his record in some perspective: In his five seasons with the franchise, Ryan’s record, counting the playoffs, is 46-40. But he hasn’t taken the Jets to the playoffs since 2010. Ryan led the club to the AFC championship games in his first two seasons on the job, ’09 and ’10, both times as a wild card. Yet the Jets haven’t had a winning record in any of the past three seasons. They are just 22-26 in that stretch. For the five regular seasons Ryan has been with the franchise, the Jets are 42-38. That’s less than one game above .500 per season. It’s an average of 8.4 victories per year, a hair above the definition of mediocre. Under Ryan, the Jets have never won a Super Bowl. They’ve not appeared in one under his leadership. New York has never won a division championship with Ryan as head coach. So while the extension was understandable, and may help the Jets land some veteran free agents, Ryan’s status still may be revisited after the 2014 season if the franchise doesn’t reach the playoffs for a fourth straight year.

*The number of underclass prospects in the draft will likely fall shy of the 100 that NFP predicted a few weeks ago – the league hasn’t yet released the final list, since players who had not signed with agents
had a three-day window to withdraw after last Wednesday’s declaration deadline – but is still expected to be in the 96 range. That would easily eclipse the previous record of 73, established last year. There are several positions that will benefit from the underclass influx, but one of the positions in which scouts are most interested is running back. It’s expected there will be 16-18 underclass tailbacks in the pool and most of them haven’t had huge workloads. Even with the NFL skewing so much toward multiple backs and time-sharing backfields – away from the so-called “feature back” concept – everyone likes fresh, young legs. And there figure to be plenty of those at every level of the talent pool.

And on the subject of rating the tailback talent, scouts certainly seem split. There probably are 4-6 tailbacks vying for the top spot and which back goes first is definitely a matter of personal preference and style. “I don’t think a lot of people felt (Giovani) Bernard would be the first (back) called last year,” new Washington coach Jay Gruden, the former Cincinnati offensive coordinator, said. “But he was the perfect fit for what we wanted in a (back).” The same could be true this year. It could also be the second year in a row in which a back is not selected in the first round.


*Most scouts were very surprised that Clemson linebacker Vic Beasley, who had 13 sacks in 2013, decided not to enter the draft. Beasley was certainly on the radar screens, big-time, of 3-4 teams in the second half of the first round. . . . Good move by Scot McCloughin, who is responsible for scouting, recommending or drafting many of the players for both teams in the NFC championship games, for not talking all week. No matter what he said, he probably couldn’t win. . . . Part of the reason that neither Miami nor Tampa Bay have filled their general manager spots yet is because both teams are weighing the strengths of the candidates to whom they have spoken, and framing the jobs appropriately. . . . New England officials have made some quiet overtures to cornerback Aqib Talib about an extension that would keep him out of the free agent market. Talib is said to like the situation in New England, but might want to test the market…By the way, there are plenty of former Bucs players in the Sunday games – like Talib, Pats tailback LeGarrette Blount and defensive end Michael Bennett – who new coach Lovie Smith probably wishes were still around. . . . There isn’t a scout or personnel man to whom NFP spoke about A.J. McCarron who thinks the Alabama quarterback made a wise decision in choosing not to play in the Senior Bowl game. . . . New Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier hinted that, if the team is to deploy the “Cover 2” scheme he and Smith favor, there are going to have to be personnel upgrades and switches. . . . No one should probably read too much into linebacker coach Keith Butler’s decision to stay in Pittsburgh, but some will suggest it’s an indication that defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau may depart in another year or so. Butler is the longtime heir apparent, and the Steelers have blocked him from interviewing for positions in the past. But they were prepared, it seemed, to allow him to depart if Whisenhunt had offered the job that subsequently went to Horton. . . . Many felt one of Whisehunt’s first moves would be to bring in Russ Grimm as offensive line coach, but that didn’t happen. . . . Tailback Chris Johnson may not be back in Tennessee in 2014, as some have speculated, but the reality is that Whisenhunt really has an open mind about the speedy back so far. . . . New Orleans officials feel they have pretty solid analytics on their side if they are forced into a grievance battle over whether Jimmy Graham is a tight end or a wide receiver. The preference is to avoid a franchise-tag fight by getting Graham signed to a long-term deal. That said, the Saints have some cap issues. . . . NFP is told that a few NFL defensive position coaches sniffed around the defensive coordinator vacancy at the University of Georgia after Todd Grantham bolted to Louisville last week. And why not, given that the job pays $850,000 annually. But the Bulldogs hired Jeremy Pruitt away from national champion Florida State and, we hear, never really spoke to any of the interested NFL assistants. . . . San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh is the first man to take his team to a conference championship game in his first three years on the job. . . . Peyton Manning is said to be gaining a lot more confidence in rookie tailback Montee Ball, especially as a clutch, short-yardage runner, but still prefers the veteran Knowshon Moreno in protection situations. . . . People close to Michael Vick have quietly begun to try to gauge where there might be opportunities for him in 2014. And while they haven’t concluded yet that Vick may have to settle for a No. 2 job, that seems to be the increasing impression. . . . It sure sounded from Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson last week that the Colts will try hard to upgrade the secondary in the offseason. The first move may be to try to keep safety Antoine Bethea off the free agent market. . . .


*Dating back to 2011, San Francisco has had at least one individual 100-yard receiver in all seven postseason games under Harbaugh, with eight such games total in t
hat stretch. That’s a league record for consecutive playoff contests with a 100-yard receiver. Tight end Vernon Davis has four of the games, and wide receivers Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin have three and one, respectively. In the six games Harbaugh has coached against Seattle, the 49ers have never had an individual 100-yard receiving performance. The best outing was on Dec. 8, 2013, when Boldin had 93 yards.

Back to the future

What’s next, some team coming out in the conference championship games and running a play or two from the single-wing or the T-formation? The ol’ “Flying Wedge” employed on a kickoff return? Receivers being jammed 15 or 20 yards down the field, like they were before the “Isaac Curtis Rule?” How about the head coaches wearing suits and ties, huh?

Heck, even in this era of so much concussion awareness, keep an eye out for some player in a leather helmet next weekend.

Rampant hyperbole, for sure. But in a league that has skewed so much toward the pass anymore, it was stunning to see the running game make so big a comeback in the weekend’s divisional round. Stunning, but also a little refreshing. Even for some of the players who generally are more accustomed to pass protection than they are drive-blocking.

“It was fun out there, having the game on us so much,” said New England left tackle Nate Solder, whose team rushed for 234 yards and six touchdowns, fueled by Tampa Bay throwaway LeGarrette Blount (provide your own “Blount-force trauma” pun here) and his four scores. “Linemen love that kind of stuff. You do what you have to do to win. This was a little different for us, but it was great.”

Over the past few weeks, the Patriots have evolved into the poster boys for running the ball. Could have something to do with the fact Tom Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the most since his first season as a starter. Or perhaps that a receiving corps depleted by free agency defections, releases, injuries and murder allegations simply isn’t all that good. Whatever the reason, Bill Belichick—who doubtless has uttered the “do what you have to do to win” mantra so many time that Solder doesn’t mind parroting it – has gone retro.

And for one weekend, at least, so did the rest of the NFL.

Marshawn LynchLynch rushed for 140 yards and two scores on 28 carries in Saturday's win over New Orleans.

There was some hint of a return to the run in the wild card games, certainly, but not to the point where most observers felt the divisional round would be transformed into trench warfare. What’s the military saying about “boots on the ground?” Well, league teams put their cleats on the ground, and their Super Bowl aspirations on the ground game, over the weekend.

“It’s kind of what you do this time of year, I guess,” one Seattle Seahawks receiver, who grudgingly acknowledged the effectiveness of the rushing game, told NFP. “I mean, you always want to be the tougher team. We certainly always want to be the aggressor. But at playoff time, it’s even more (pronounced).”

One could almost hear Olivia Newton-John, and her “Lets Get Physical,” anthem in the background. In videotape preview sessions, coaches didn’t substitute “Back to the Future” for actual game reels. But offensive game plans could have been devised by Dr. Emmett Brown, ably assisted by Marty McFly.

“It was,” allowed Denver guard Louis Vasquez, “a little bit of throwback football.”

A little?

The four winning teams from the weekend, which will now play for the right to move on to Super Bowl XLVIII, averaged 37.35 rushes and 166.8 rushing yards in their victories. By comparison, they averaged 25 pass “dropbacks’ (including sacks) for the games. Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who essentially became the equivalent of a pedestal by which tailback Marshawn Lynch could run by and snatch the teed-up football, had 21 passing attempts. The four losing clubs averaged 22.25 carries for 83.8 yards.

Obviously, an element of the disparity had something to do with the scores and the conditions, since none of the games were close toward the end, except for the San Diego comeback. But just from a few conversations NFP had Monday with players from the winning teams, the game plans from the outset dictated more runs. The scores had something to do with the big weekend for the run, but there seemed to be a collective approach from some coaches that they were going to rely much more on the infantry than on their air forces.

Notable is that this isn’t the first time – not even the first time in a long time – that all four divisional-round winners were the teams that ran the ball more. It was the case as recently as in 2010. In fact, since the NFL adopted its current alignment and playoff format in 2002, it’s occurred now six times in 12 seasons – in 2002, 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2013.

Given that kind of history, maybe it was predictable. But it didn’t seem that way to some of the defenses that got trampled over the weekend. “I didn’t think any team could run over us that way,” Indianapolis end Cory Redding said.

In hindsight, maybe the Colts should have seen that Mack truck – cleverly disguised as Blount – coming at them. Belichick relishes a hard-nose game and very physical football and he began gearing up his team for the “second season” a few weeks ago. No, not at the midpoint of the season, as the TV analysts suggested during the rout. But definitely with a couple weeks remaining in the regular season.

“Maybe our mindset changed a little,” Solder said.

And maybe it became contagious.

NFP Sunday Blitz

As of Saturday, the NFL had only three African-American head coaches—Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Mike Tomlin (Pittsburgh) and the newly hired Lovie Smith (Tampa Bay)—pending the resolutions of four remaining vacancies.

It would seem that, of the known candidates for the still-open positions, Jim Caldwell arguably has the best chance of landing one of the jobs, although guys like Ray Horton and Todd Bowles certainly have chances as well.

At the same time, there are six African-American general managers (a record in 2013), and that number may be expanded, given the current candidacies of people such as Lionel Vital, Ray Farmer, Marc Ross and perhaps a few others as well. John Wooten, the respected chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which advocates for minority candidates for coaching and high-ranking executive positions, and who typically is a voice of reason in such matters, told NFP last week that he is pleased overall with the level of interviews, but, obviously, hopes for better results on the coaching front.

“We’ve always maintained that one of our goals is to get more people ‘in the pipeline,’ and I think we’re doing just that,” Wooten said. “It’s not just teams wanting to comply with (the Rooney Rule); people have been serious candidates, we feel. But we can always do better.”

Lovie SmithICONAt the moment, Lovie Smith is one of just three African American head coaches in the National Football League.

Wooten said he is especially pleased with the increased interest in minority candidates for the GM jobs. The successes of men such as Ozzie Newsome and Jerry Reese, both of whom have won Super Bowls as general managers, he conceded, has something to do with it. “But I just also think there are more qualified people coming (up through) the ranks . . . and that owners are paying more attention to them,” Wooten said.

Certainly the recent increase in the number of minority general managers reflects the initiative to improve diversity in the league. All of the African-American general managers have considerable clout with their respective franchises, and control of roster and draft decisions, and that’s been a definite plus in raising the profiles of minority candidates for upper-echelon jobs. But as Wooten noted: “In most cases, the face of the franchise, the ‘out-front guy,’ is still the coach. And so we need to do better on that front.”


*League vice president of officiating Dean Blandino tried his best last week to suggest that the referees call playoff games the same way they do regular-season contests – in essence, the theory that a penalty is a penalty regardless of the situation – but few were buying it. Including many of the players in the postseason and several not in the playoffs. The numbers indicate there are fewer flags in the playoffs and have been for years. “They think we don’t notice that?” one NFC player still involved in the Super Bowl chase told NFP. “Everybody knows you can get away with more (in the postseason). You see games where the announcers say, ‘Oh, they’re letting them play and that’s good.’ You think the league doesn’t hear that? Yeah, it’s a game, but it’s entertainment, too. And people don’t want to see flags all over the place in the playoffs. That’s not entertainment.”

Five of the 14 teams that drew 100 or more penalties in the playoffs made the postseason. The top seeds in each conference, Seattle and Denver, ranked among the most penalized clubs during the season. So the old excuse that there are fewer penalties in the playoffs because of the quality of the teams involved doesn’t quite wash, either. Last week, former New York Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride, recently retired, suggested Seattle defensive backs had raised pass interference to an art form. Said one opponent of the Seahawks: “He’s right. They’re the experts at it.”

*They’re not quite shouting “good riddance” in Cincinnati with the departure of offensive coordinator Jay Gruden, the new Washington head coach. But there definitely are some players, team officials and fans (perhaps even a few assistants), who felt that, for all the positives Gruden brought to the Bengals offense, he frequently was too enamored of the passing game and sacrificed some degree of balance. In just three of 17 games, including last week’s wild card defeat, did the Cincinnati offense have more run than pass plays. Of the team’s 1,176 snaps, only 43 percent were running plays. In the passing-skewed NFL, that’s not outrageous, but it’s still a bit lopsided.

Daniel SnyderICONDid Redskins owner Daniel Snyder make the right hire in bringing Jay Gruden on board?

Case in point: In last week’s loss to San Diego, a one-score game for much of the contest, Gruden ordered up 54 pass plays on 79 snaps. For a quarterback as potentially shaky as Andy Dalton, that’s a lot, as we all saw. Gruden did some terrific work in Cincinnati, especially with the development of Dalton, and it’s not just coincidence that the club advanced to the postseason in each of his three years there. But he also bears some of the culpability for the Bengals being a playoff one-and-done team each year. And some of that was an over-reliance on the pass. New coordinator Hue Jackson has already said all the right things about wanting to run the ball and be more physical, and the players seem to believe in that, even though there’s a healthy dose of skepticism. Jackson, though, seems to understand the need to be different, because he knows that much of the criticism toward Gruden was coming from the Bengals’ locker room, where many felt that rookie Giovani Bernard needed the ball in his hands more in 2013.

*There definitely have been mixed reviews about Atlanta’s hiring of Mike Tice last week as the new offensive line coach, replacing the dismissed tandem of Pat Hill and John Dunn. Forget the charges of “cronyism” raised in some quarters, since Tice and Falcons coach Mike Smith worked together in Jacksonville, and the only other known candidate Atlanta sought out was Jeff Davidson, who was denied permission to interview by Minnesota, even though Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was fired. Let’s be honest, most NFL head coaches hire guys they know, right? It’s not like Smith is alone in that regard.

But a bigger issue, despite glowing endorsements from some of his former players in Chicago, is whether Tice is the guy to fit an offensive line that sorely underperformed in 2013 and was one of the major components of Atlanta’s historic collapse. In 16 seasons as an NFL assistant or head coach, Tice presided over running offenses that finished in the top 10 eight times. But his protection schemes – and, let’s face it, the Falcons are a finesse passing team now, and Matt Ryan is their main guy – have been shaky. In three seasons
in Chicago as either the line coach (2010-2011 or coordinator (2012), Tice’s lines permitted an average of 49.7 sacks. His lines have allowed 42 or more sacks in five straight seasons and in 10 of the last 12. Some of the Tice apologists note that he wasn’t always the line coach in all 16 seasons, or that he was hamstrung by the Mike Martz offense for part of his Bears tenure. The second point has some credence. The first? No matter what Tice’s title was, his fingerprints were on the line and its blocking schemes. If the Falcons brought him in to make the line tougher, well, any familiar with Tice’s personality and coaching style will agree that’s likely to occur. How much better he makes the unit, though, remains to be seen. And that’s the question being asked in Atlanta right now.

Greg HardyHardy has been on an absolute roll this season in Carolina.

*Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, who has 24 sacks in his last 25 starts and has been on a roll getting into opponents’ backfields, has tempered earlier comments about how he might afford the Panthers some “home discount” when he hits the unrestricted market. “It’s about the money,” Hardy allowed. “I love the (Panthers) and my teammates . . . but I’ve got to take care of me, too.” Hardy has been in the spotlight with Carolina’s rise to prominence, and can elevate his profile even more against San Francisco and left tackle Joe Staley, one of the NFL’s best blockers. “It’ll be a test . . . but for him, too,” Hardy said.

*The 439 yards allowed at Cincinnati last week notwithstanding, the San Diego defense has been excellent over the second half of the year. In the regular season, the unit allowed 400 or more yards in four of eight games. In the second half of the season, it surrendered 400 yards zero times. The difference? Well, one of the biggest improvements was with the San Diego linebacker corps. Jarrett Johnson got healthy, rookies Manti Te’o and Tourek Williams (a sixth-rounder from Florida International of all places) improved, and Donald Butler, arguably one of the most underrated all-around ‘backers in the NFL, asserted himself.

“You could just see, watching the tape, how much better they were, how they kept making strides,” one Denver player told NFP last week. “The whole defense got better, but the linebackers really jump out at you.”

Second-year veteran Melvin Ingram, the team’s first-round pick, who pretty much had a disappointing debut season, really picked up the pace as well. Ingram was an absolute monster in the wild card win against the Bengals and, at times, was close to unblockable. “It gets contagious,” Ingram said. “We feed off each other, and we’ve been playing hungry lately.”

*Since Indianapolis and New England will have already played on Saturday night by the time the Sunday Blitz is published, this is interesting more as a retrospective. But it is worth noting, that going into the game, Colts star linebacker Robert Mathis, the NFL leader in sacks this season (19.5) and probably the favorite to claim defensive player of the year honors, had never sacked Tom Brady even once in Gillette Stadium. Of his 111 career sacks, five had been against New England, the most versus any team outside of the AFC South. But four of those were at home. His lone sack against New England in Gillette Stadium actually came against Doug Flutie, of all people, who relieved Brady in a lopsided 2005 home loss to the Colts.

So while the Pats coaches spent much of last week designing protection schemes meant to thwart Mathis, he hadn’t really hurt them much in New England home games. For his career, Mathis had 69.5 sacks either in the Hoosier Dome or Lucas Oil Stadium, the Colts’ two home stadiums in his 11 seasons with the franchise, and eleven more in other domed stadiums. So, like most great pass rushers, he’s been less effective on grass.

*Credit new Houston coach Bill O’Brien for mixing in some experienced assistants for his first staff. Word is that O’Brien will probably bring with him 6-7 aides from his Penn State staff to the Texans. But his prior NFL stint likely demonstrated to O’Brien the need for league veterans as well. Thus the hire of Romeo Crennel as defensive coordinator and the retention of Bill Kollar, arguably one of the NFL’s top defensive line assistants and the lone member of Gary Kubiak’s staff who was kept on the payroll. O’Brien is also trying to hire recently fired Tennessee Titans coach Mike Munchak as his offensive line assistant.

BillUS PRESSWIREO'Brien left Penn State to take over for Gary Kubiak in Houston.

Too many coaches who come to the NFL from the college ranks overlook the importance of an experienced staff. O’Brien, by the way, has told Houston officials that he is not as enamored of Central Florida quarterback Blake Bortles as some have claimed. That’s not to say he doesn’t like Bortles, who led UCF to an upset win at Penn State this season, who those who have suggested he prefers him to Teddy Bridgewater of Louisville are perhaps reading too much into one game and trying too hard to connect the dots. The truth is that O’Brien barely has his feet on the ground, hasn’t dug in yet to draft personnel, and is still an open book. And that, say people inside the organization, includes the possibility of trading the first overall selection.

*In most years, wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who had over 100 receptions in 2013 and established new SEC records for catches and yardage, would be a certain first-round draft choice. But the Vanderbilt star, who is a cousin of Jerry Rice, may have to wait until the second day, because of the influx of underclass receivers. There could be 5-7 wide receivers chosen in the opening round, and it would not be surprising if all were underclass players. Guys like Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mike Adams (Texas A&M), Marqise Lee (USC), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) and others lead an incredibly deep wideout class. In ’09, there were six first-round wide receivers, and all of them were underclassmen. The 2014 draft could offer an encore of that.


*Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, who frankly was embarrassed by the ham-handed handling of the Rob Chudzinski situation (both hiring and firing after only one season), is taking a much more hands-on approach to interviews with prospective coaches this time around. . . . Under the tandem of general manager David Caldwell and coach Gus Bradley, who just completed their first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, the club has made a mind-boggling 246 roster moves. . . . Question: Has Washington owner Dan Snyder, noted for making the big splash, realized yet that he didn’t hire Jon Gruden to coach the Redskins? . . . San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick is 2-0 on the road in the playoffs. He's the first San Francisco quarterback in history to win two road playoff starts. Amazingly, Hall of Famers Joe Montana (1-3) and Steve Young (0-3) were a combined 1-6 on the road in the playoffs. John Brodie was 1-1 and Jeff Garcia was 0-2. . . . Since 2002, when the league implemented its current alignment and playoff format, the four top-seeded teams – two from each conference – have all advanced to
the conference title games together just twice, in 2002 and 2004. . . . Crazy, esoteric stat: Jim Nantz and Phil Simms will broadcast the Denver-San Diego game on Sunday for CBS. The Broncos are 6-0 this season with the Nantz-Simms tandem in the booth. . . . Look for the Carolina Panthers to take some fairly extreme measures to check San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree on Sunday night. Not only will Crabtree draw double coverage in the secondary, but the Panthers may try to bump him around some with linebacker Thomas Davis. Notable is that Crabtree, whose return from an Achilles injury has dramatically boosted the San Francisco passing game, did not play in the regular-season meeting between the clubs. . . . In a league where the number of 3-4 defenses has declined a bit the past couple years, this weekend’s games (and maybe the postseason in general) has brought some relevance back to the scheme. Seven of the 12 teams that qualified for the playoffs employed the 3-4 as their “base” front. And in a real quirk, all four of this weekend’s matchups featured a 3-4 road club against a 4-3 home team. New Redskins coach Jay Gruden has already announced he plans to keep the 3-4 and probably coordinator Jim Haslett. The improvement of teams like New Orleans – long a 4-3 team, but a defense that switched to a 3-4 under Rob Ryan – could prompt some people to rethink the defense. . . . The decision by Oakland owner Mark Davis to keep coach Dennis Allen will lend some stability to an organization that desperately needs it. Allen becomes the first coach since Jon Gruden (1998-2001) to begin three straight seasons with the Raiders. Certainly if the team doesn’t do better than its consecutive 4-12 finishes, Allen (and possibly GM Reggie McKenzie as well) could be in some trouble in 2014. But continuity counts in the NFL and, for now at least, the Raiders have a modicum of it. . . . Career points leader Morten Andersen on Thursday became the first kicker to be named as a finalist for the Hall of Fame since 1991, when Jan Stenerud was inducted. We’ve lobbied in this space for Andersen’s inclusion, and perhaps this will be the year selectors decide a kicker is chosen for the class of inductees. . . . Kansas City is into negotiations to extend the contract of quarterback Alex Smith. . . . New England is developing considerable depth at defensive tackle with the play of youngsters Chris Jones, Joe Vellano and Sealver Siliga, a trio that’s been forced to log plenty of snaps with starters Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly on I.R. The Pats acquired veteran Isaac Sopoago from Philadelphia in late October but, after starting his first two games with New England, he didn’t even dress for the past two.


*C.J. Spiller. OK, you’re right, the Buffalo tailback isn’t a number. But if he was, it would be 1, since he’s the only player in the league to register an individual 100-yard rushing performance against either the San Francisco or Carolina defenses, which meet Sunday in the division round. In the second game of the year, a 24-23 Buffalo victory over Carolina on Sept. 15, Spiller carried 16 times for 103 yards. That was the lone 100-yard game against a Panthers unit that was second in overall defense and also in defense versus the rush during the season. The 49ers, who were No. 4 in rushing defense, obviously didn’t surrender a single 100-yard rushing game to an individual. Including the 49ers’ playoff victory at Green Bay last week, the two defenses have allowed only 12 games of 100 yards or more by an opponent in 33 outings. Ironically, both teams’ offenses had 100 rushing yards – San Francisco 105 yards and Carolina 109 yards – when they met November 10.

Run, baby, run

In the Nov. 10 Carolina-at-San Francisco matchup during the regular season, a 10-9 upset victory for the visitors, quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers and Cam Newton of the Panthers combined for only eight rushes and 31 yards.

Only four times in 26 career starts (including playoff games) has Kaepernick posted fewer rushing yards than the 16 he squeezed out that day. Newton, who is in the playoffs for the first time, started all 16 regular-season games his first three years in the league, and played just six of 48 contests in which he rushed for fewer than the 15 yards that he managed against the stingy 49ers’ defense.

But there’s a good chance, given the stakes involved in the game and the ability of both of the quarterbacks in Sunday’s rematch to win games with their feet, that the two signal-callers could each have single runs longer than the 31 yards that they totaled in that game eight weeks ago. It’s hard to imagine Kaepernick and Newton subjugating their rushing skills on Sunday afternoon.

Unless, of course, those running abilities are subjugated for them.

As defensive coordinators Vic Fangio of San Francisco and Sean McDermott of the Panthers began installing the rudiments of their respective game plans Monday, limiting the out-of-pocket forays by the opposing quarterback was almost certainly one of the top priorities for both men. Both coordinators are stop-the-run-first guys. That’s their shared mantra and their charges have bought in to the mindset. But stopping the run in this case also means slowing the opposition quarterback. And that’s probably going to be a challenge.

Cam NewtonICONNewton led all quarterbacks with 585 rushing yards during the regular season.

“You don’t want (Kaepernick) getting loose,” said Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis, who had an outstanding season. “We’ve seen what our guy (Newton) can do, and how frustrating it can be to other teams when they’ve got everything covered and he takes off and makes a play (on the ground). We know, from getting ready for them the last time how dangerous Kaepernick is. We’ve got to be just as disciplined in the (Sunday) game as we were that last time.”

This is not, it should be noted, the first “Zone Option Bowl” in the NFL. Last season, in the wild card round, Seattle (and Russell Wilson) topped Washington (and Robert Griffin III). That was, remember, the game in which RG III injured his knee. The two quarterbacks that day had an aggregate 88 rushing yards. But 67 of those yards belonged to Wilson, who ran the option well but also scrambled for yards.

There have probably been other playoff matchups that featured excellent running quarterbacks – heck, last Saturday’s wild card game with Kansas City’s Alex Smith and Andrew Luck of Indianapolis included two of the league’s underrated runners at the position – but likely only a few that had the potential for both quarterbacks to have such a profound effect with their legs.

Newton led all quarterbacks in rushing during the season with 585 yards and a 6.9-yard average. Kaepernick averaged 5.7 yards and his 524 yards were the fourth most for a quarterback. In truth, neither quarterback has run quite as much lately, and both franchises have reduced the exposure of their stars by cutting back on the zone option reads. Said one San Francisco defensive veteran on Monday afternoon: “You don’t see as many planned runs (by Newton). But he’s always going to be a big ‘red zone’ guy for them. And you won’t want him running all over the middle of the field, either.”

In Sunday’s victory at Green Bay, Kaepernick rushed for 98 yards, the best rushing total of the weekend, but most of that real estate came on scrambles and not option plays. It was a big departure from last season’s win over the Packers when the San Francisco quarterback exploded for 181 yards, with more than 170 of those yards on zone option calls. The difference for both quarterbacks is that Sunday’s game is one in which a victory leaves his team one win shy of a Super Bowl berth. And so it will not be surprising if the teams’ offensive coaches install more options, and if the quarterbacks respond well to the increase.

What will be interesting is how the defensive coordinators, whose teams are among the best pass rushing groups in the league, devise their pressure packages. How, for instance, will McDermott attempt to keep upfield rushers Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy disciplined in their lanes and still have them key against the option? “It’s going to be a huge part of the game,” one Carolina defensive lineman allowed.

It’s difficult to divine how much the two defenses utilized a “spy” or similar shadow defender in the Nov. 10 game. It certainly appears, in review, that was the case on some of the snaps, but hardly all the passing downs. But rest assured that, come Sunday, Fangio and McDermott will pull out all the stops and perhaps even a few wrinkles to try to keep the other team’s quarterback from bolding upfield.

It’s definitely one of the keys to the game.

NFP Sunday Blitz

Less than a week into the NFL’s annual firing-and-hiring cycle (forget that the Houston Texans got a jump on things, canning Gary Kubiak nearly a month ago, since the real purge-and-splurge doesn’t begin in earnest until the season ends), and the momentum may be swinging back, ever so slightly, toward the old days.

With two of the half-dozen vacancies filled, the hiring scoreboard shows a 1-1 tie between the new guys (Bill O’Brien of Houston) and the old ones (Tampa Bay and Lovie Smith). On face, that’s not as insignificant as it might seem. The league has skewed dramatically toward fresh faces and new ideas, as owners try to attract a younger demographic, and the result has been a divergence from the long-held practice of bringing back “retreads” for second and even third chances.

Case in point: At the outset of the 2013 season, only seven of the league’s 32 sideline bosses had the entry “previous NFL head coach” on their resumes. One of them, the vastly overrated (at least without John Elway around) Mike Shanahan, was fired. Of the other six, half of them have their teams as No. 1 or No. 2 playoffs seeds. John Fox, in his second incarnation, owns the top seed in the AFC. The best record in the NFC belongs to Seattle, coached by Pete Carroll, in his third go-round. Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots are second-seeded in the AFC.

It hasn’t exactly gone ignored that, after winning only two games a year ago, Kansas City rattled off a 9-0 start and finished with an 11-5 mark under Andy Reid, in his first season after a14-year tenure in Philadelphia. “Retreads” are still more popular in tire stores than with league owners, and recycling remains the domain of tree-huggers and not the guys who sign NFL paychecks, but the successes of former coaches who were brought back for encores isn’t unnoticed, either.

Said one veteran Chiefs’ defender: “We’ve mostly had veteran guys here and it seemed to work better than when we had (Todd) Haley. I don’t know why. They just sort of know their way around, you know. There’s no breaking in period. There isn’t a big adjustment. They may be new (to the franchise) but they know the landscape. Andy came in here and it was like he just picked up where he left off in Philly.”

Lovie SmithDuring his nine years in Chicago, Lovie Smith won 10 or more games four times.

And so, it seems, experience counts for something. Even if owners the last few years could have included “experienced need not apply” on the want-ads when seeking to make a coaching change.

Certainly the quick successes and speed turnarounds the last several seasons by first-timers helped to fuel a “fresher is better” mindset. It didn’t hurt that four of the past six Super Bowl champions were led by first-time coaches, with Tom Coughlin the lone interloper. But with the quick hiring of Smith in Tampa Bay – and the sense that the Glazer family desperately placed a premium on experience (the only other “candidate” is said to have been Jon Gruden, who was not interested) after the failed experiments with Raheem Morris and Greg Schiano), momentum may be changing just a little.

Owners tend to be inveterate copycats and, if the new-coach approach remains the prevailing trend, they aren’t just going to ignore, either, the turnarounds enacted by experienced coaches like Reid. Nor will some players. Peyton Manning, poised to win a fifth most valuable player award after his record-setting season, allowed last season that Fox’s presence was “a factor” in his decision to sign with the Broncos when he was a free agent.

Former Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt, currently San Diego offensive coordinator, seems to be in demand. In fact, some feel that “Wiz” is the top candidate in Detroit, where general manager Martin Mayhew is a onetime NFL teammate. Jim Caldwell, who had the unenviable task of following Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, is also on the “short lists” of a team or two. New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was head coach in Denver for two seasons (2009-2010) before Fox, is one of the favorites for the Cleveland vacancy. There were even whispers to NFP from one franchise executive that, on the heels of a report that Jim Mora of UCLA could be a candidate in Texas, his owner asked about the onetime Atlanta and Seattle coach.

There are, as well, several longtime coordinators who will merit interviews. Almost as many as candidates with no prior league experience.

OK, so it’s not quite a groundswell for returning to the “good ol’ boys” network once so prevalent in the league. But just the return alone of Smith, who also interviewed for the Houston opening, suggests at least a small dent in the recent mindset that saw owners become infatuated with newcomers.

Over the past three hiring cycles, just four of 20 head coach openings went to men with previous NFL experience. Not since the 2010 cycle – when Carroll, Shanahan and Chan Gailey in Buffalo filled all of the vacant slots – have there been more than two experienced coaches hired. In the last 10 seasons, only about one-third (18 of 53) jobs were filled by experienced coaches. There certainly seems a chance this year that Smith won’t be the only experienced coach to find a job.

That doesn’t represent a wholesale change in the thinking – and, it seems, supply will outdistance demand for a while longer – but the pendulum may at least have been nudged a bit.


*Sources suggested to NFP this week that one of the reasons the Minnesota Vikings officials have demonstrated such interest in experienced coaches with offensive backgrounds (Caldwell and Whisenhunt), besides the preference for a guy who can fix the team’s quarterback situation, is the belief that the club needs to emphasize wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson even more in 2014. The club’s first-round pick in 2013, Patterson was a scintillating performer at times, in just about every way possible. The former University of Tennessee standout registered four receiving touchdowns, but also added three scores on the ground, and two more on kickoff returns.

Patterson led the league in kickoff runbacks, with a 32.4-yard average. His 10 runbacks of 40 yards or more also led the NFL. But he also averaged just 10.4 yards per reception, on 45 catches, and Minnesota executives feel the numbers can be dramatically improved in his second season. Not simply with better, more consistent play at quarterback, but also with a design that emphasizes Patterson more and takes advantage of his enormous play-making talents. The club will interview defensive-oriented candidates as well (like Dan Quinn, Todd Bowles, Ray Horton and possibly Mike Zimmer), but seem to be leaning toward a coach with more offensive expertise. That could bode well for Whisenhunt or Caldwell, or for current coordinators such as Darrell Bevell (Seattle) or Jay Gruden (Cincinnati).

*Patterson was one of the two underclass wide receivers chosen in the first round in 2013, but that number will be dwarfed in 2014, with non-senior pass catchers such as Sammy Watkins (Clemson), Mi
ke Evans (Texas A&M), Marqise Lee (USC), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State) and Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), among others, having either declared for the draft or expected to be in the talent pool. Vanderbilt standout Jordan Matthews, who could still sneak into the first round but is likely a second-day prospect, figures to be an outlier – a senior wide receiver projected in the first three rounds. Despite a lack of first-year numbers historically, all but four of the 18 receivers chosen in the first round over the past five drafts were underclassman.

In 2009, all six first-round wideouts were non-senior prospects and that could be the case again in 2014. A guy like Pitt’s Devin Street, who is one of the top four or five seniors at the position and was highly regarded before the season began has “fallen into the middle rounds now,” one area scout said. Noted the scout: “There might not necessarily be immediate impact, because the guy like (A.J.) Green and Julio (Jones) are still rare. But if you look at most of the underclass (receivers), they end up as players in their second or third years and that’s enough (to make them first-rounders).”

Sammy WatkinsWatkins took a big step forward both on and off the field in 2013.

*Speaking of Watkins, who was exceptional in Friday’s Orange Bowl victory over Ohio State, with an incredible 16 catches for 227 yards and two scores, scouts have noted that the Clemson standout is not only a more complete player on the field but also significantly more mature off it. On the league’s radar screen since his debut in 2011, Watkins has developed his route repertoire and the Clemson offense has made him more than just a short and intermediate receiver. The Tigers still throw the ball sideways to Watkins a lot – a ton of screens designed to get the ball into his hands and take advantage of his explosiveness and running skills – but emphasized “verticals” more in 2013. It’s paid off for Clemson and Watkins, who now could be a top five choice in May. The other notable element is that Watkins has grown up a lot the past year, after a 2012 marked by problems on and off the field. He was arrested on drug charges, suspended two games, saw then-teammate DeAndre Hophins eclipse him in the offense, struggled to get back to form, and probably was out of shape as well. All of it was motivation for Watkins to work on conditioning and on his study habits, the Clemson coaches said.

*Overshadowed a bit in the “Bear market” of the last couple weeks – with Chicago signing quarterback Jay Cutler, cornerback Tim Jennings, guard Matt Slauson, kicker Robbie Gould and fullback Tony Fiammetta to extensions – was the likelihood that Devin Hester will not return for the 2014 campaign.

Gearing up to cash in

With a half-dozen franchises seeking new head coaches following another “Black Monday” purge, one might assume it was difficult for team officials from at least a few franchises to see the future beyond planning candidate interviews. But contacted at team facilities on a bloody Monday morning, a couple front office guys who retained their jobs despite an exorcism in the coach’s office down the hall actually told NFP they were in the very early stages of planning for veteran free agency in the spring.


“We haven’t started watching tape yet . . . but it won’t be long until we do,” said a top personnel executive from one of the clubs that dumped its coach. “It doesn’t matter who the (new) coach is, the legwork still has to get done. It takes time, you know?”

As our good deed for the day, we’ll save the personnel man, and all of his colleagues around the league, some of that precious time. No sense, guys, spending even a few minutes poring over the highlight reel of Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy.

The guy can flat-out play, and when the “league year” commences on March 11, in roughly 2

NFP Sunday Blitz

There is the usual number of worthy contenders for the NFL’s “Comeback Player of the Year” award for the 2013 season, but Julian Edelman probably isn’t one of them. After all, while the five-year veteran New England wide receiver was a serviceable player during much of his previous four-season tenure, he hadn’t enjoyed a singular standout year, followed by a slump, and then the requisite “comeback.”

Truth be told, there wasn’t much memorable about Edelman from 2009-2012, except perhaps for his three punt return touchdowns or his Troy Brown-like rescue duty on defense when the Patriots were perilously thin in the secondary a few years ago.

Not much on his resume to come back from, right?

But if you want to debate unappreciated players or unsung heroes or any manner of those kinds of figurative titles for this season – the NFL doesn’t officially recognize such imaginary honors – then Edelman clearly belongs in the discussion.

It would be hard not to cite quarterback Tom Brady, who has led New England to another AFC East title with most of his prolific pass-catching corps from a season ago either released, defected, injured or in jail on murder charges, as the team’s most valuable player. But it would likewise be pretty difficult to imagine the Pats securing another division title, their fifth straight championship and 10th in the past 11 seasons, without a significant Edelman assist.

The guy flat-out rescued Brady and the New England passing game.

“Obviously, he’s had a tremendous year for us,” coach Bill Belichick told area reporters last week. “There are a lot of things to like about Julian: his toughness, his speed, his quickness, his ability to run with the ball after he catches it, and break tackles, and be elusive and have good run skills in the secondary. He’s a tough kid who can come in and block. He’s smart. He’s got versatility.”

He’s also got 96 receptions and, barring an injury on Sunday or uncharacteristically tight coverage from the Buffalo secondary, he will finish with 100-plus grabs. If you had Edelman tabbed in the preseason as a guy who might catch 100 balls, or you scrambled to snatch him for your fantasy football team, raise your hand.

Uh, yeah, we thought so.

Julian EdelmanICONEdelman currently ranks fourth in the league in receptions, with 96.

Edelman came into the 2013 season with 69 total receptions, had 20 or more just twice previously in his career, and hadn’t approximated the 37 he registered in ’09 as a rookie. And so he’s already caught nearly 40 percent more passes in one season than he did in his first four.

He’s also got 991 yards after entering ’13 with 714; and six touchdown catches, two more than he’d managed his first four years. Heck, he’d had almost as many scores on punt runbacks (three) as he did on receptions prior to this year. Edelman has six catches of 20 yards or more and two catches of 40-plus yards; his first four seasons, he registered nine of the former and two of the latter. And he has four 100-yard performances, something Edelman hadn’t accomplished since the final game of his rookie season in the league.

OK, the former Kent State standout isn’t Calvin Johnson, but there’s a reason that Brady has dubbed him “Minitron.” For starters, Edelman isn’t particularly big (5-feet-10 and 200 pounds) or physically imposing, and certainly big things were not expected of him this season. But he’s come up huge in a season when the Patriots needed him the most.

“It’s been gratifying,” Edelman said. “It feels good to have people rely on you and be able to contribute.”

Remember, Belichick and the New England front office had remade the wideout corps in the offseason, cutting ties with Brandon Lloyd and allowing Wes Welker to defect to Denver as an unrestricted free agent. Deon Branch wasn’t re-signed. The Pats drafted wideouts Aaron Dobson (second round) and Josh Boyce (fourth) and signed undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. The trio of youngsters, plus unrestricted free agent Danny Amendola, signed to supplant Welker in the slot, were supposed to comprise the new wide receiver group. They would presumably buttress a receiving corps that featured tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.

But then Hernandez got arrested and Gronkowski got hurt. Amendola did what he always seems to do, which is sustain injuries, too. Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce, while contributing, suffered the usual rookie breaking-in struggles, and each had a case of the “dropsies” at some point. Shane Vereen, who was supposed to take the place of departed third-down tailback Danny Woodhead, was injured as well. And that pretty much left Edelman, who had started 13 games his first four seasons. He responded by becoming not just Brady’s familiar security blanket, but his go-to guy.

“He’s been tremendous,” Brady said. “He stepped up. The opportunity was there and he obviously made the most of it.”

And now one would think that the 27-year-old Edelman, who was a quarterback at Kent State, although drafted as a potential wideout in the seventh round in 2009, will make some money as well. As a free agent after the 2012 season, Edelman attracted scant attention in the unrestricted market, and ended up re-signing with New England on a one-year, $765,000 contract. He received a roster bonus of just $40,000 and a $10,000 workout bonus, with a base salary of $715,000. None of it was guaranteed. It should be fairly noted that Edelman has earned a $250,000 performance bonus, because of his 96 receptions (the bonus maxed out after his 70th catch), but his contract has topped out now at $1.015 million.

After missing an average of four games per season 2009-2012, Edelman, who had been plagued by foot injuries, demonstrated in 2013 he could stay healthy. That has been, Belichick acknowledged, a major factor in his success.

“A lot of times (because of injuries), you’re just kind of playing catch-up there, whereas this year I think he’s really been able to continue to build on all those practices and games, and it’s gotten ahead and gone to much higher ground,” Belichick said.

“Fundamentally, I think he’s still the same player, but the consistency and the ability to build on where he’s been has really been impressive this year.”

And while Edelman’s average of 10.32 yards per catch could be one of the lowest ever for a wide receiver with 100 receptions in a year– just T.J. Houshmandzadeh (10.2 yards in 2007) and Hall of Famer Cris Carter (10.29 yards in 1994) are lower among wide receivers – one would think there should be some team out there willing to pay, and to offer a multi-year contract in unrestricted free agency. Edelman has led New England in receptions seven times and in receiving yards in four games. He has caught five or more passes 11 times in 2013, seven or more passes on eight occasions.

Not only has Edelman been one of the most unappreciated players in the league, but also one of the most underpaid as well. Both distinctions should end soon, given his clutch performance this season.


Teddy BridgewaterLouisville standout Teddy Bridgewater should be one of the
first signal-callers to hear his name announced this spring.

*It’s a fairly astounding number, but there could be as many as 11 teams—more than a third of the league—with different quarterbacks in 2014 than the ones who started the 2013 regular-season openers for those clubs. At a position that once was all about creating stability, that’s a lot of potential turnover. So many changes figures to have an impact on the 2014 draft, because five of the franchises potentially seeking new quarterbacks currently hold choices in the top 10 of the lottery. That could mean that, for the first time in history, there might be four quarterback prospects among the first 10 selections. That’s especially true since teams no longer are concerned about putting young quarterbacks on the field immediately. The old “it takes three years to develop a quarterback” mindset is pass