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NFL: Players chief wants new bounty investigation

The SportsXchange

NFL

The head of the NFL Players Association called Friday for the re-opening of the probe that led to four players being suspended for their alleged roles in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said on NBCSports.com's Pro Football Talk Live that rather than close the investigation, he'd like to see the entire process re-opened for additional examination and scrutiny.

To that end, Smith plans to talk with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about not only reconsidering reopening the investigation, but also to illustrate the fact that Smith believes the investigation process was flawed and failed.

"Frankly, I believe that the investigators let the commissioner down," Smith said. "Our hope, and certainly it will be a message from me to the league soon, is that given all of the recantations and all of the contradictions and, as exemplified by the video, all of the things that are clearly not clear, shouldn't we be taking another hard look about where this investigation failed the commissioner?"

Smith believes some of the NFL's evidence supporting proof of a bounty system is flawed and that suspended players Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Jonathan Vilma is questionable at the very least.

"Virtually everyone is wondering whether this process has been fair and whether we've achieved our goal of finding the truth," Smith said. "We shouldn't be in a world where players are being punished for something that is inconclusive and unclear."

Smith also continues to maintain that the players did not intentionally seek to injure players on opposing teams for monetary gain, nor was the investigation fair and complete.

"It's inconsistent with what our players stand for," Smith said. "It's inconsistent with everything we've done to make this game safer."

--The New York Jets signed undrafted free agent defensive tackle Matt Hardison, the team announced Friday.

Hardison, 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds, participated in the Jets rookie minicamp as a tryout player May 4-6. In two seasons at Delaware, Hardison played in 24 games, recording 29 tackles, including 6.5 for a loss. Hardison spent his first three collegiate seasons at Rutgers, but did not see game action.

--Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier has a lot of decisions still to make about this year's team, but one of his biggest is a done deal.

Frazier has named Christian Ponder the Vikes' starting quarterback, according to a report by Fox Sports North late Thursday.

"We're going into it with Christian being our starting quarterback," Frazier said. "If something were to happen to Christian because of injury, we feel like we have a capable backup in Joe (Webb). But there's no competition as to, 'Joe has to do this to beat out Christian.' Christian, it's his job.

"We're trusting that he's going to be the guy to lead us to where we want to go this next season. And we think we have a capable guy if something were to happen to Christian, that Joe could step in and do a real good job for us."

Ponder replaced Donovan McNabb as the Vikes' starting QB last October and went on to complete over 54 percent of his 291 passes for 1,853 yards, 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Those numbers were still noteworthy, particularly with the loss of No. 1 running back Adrian Peterson to injuries, as well as back-up wide receiver Michael Jenkins (knee injury) and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe's struggles.

A healthy Peterson and the additions of wide receiver Jerome Simpson and tight end John Carlson will only help to improve Ponder's ability to run the team, giving him significant more options.

But Ponder has also been working on himself during the offseason.

"I've gotten bigger. I'm stronger. I'll try to keep my flexibility," Ponder told 1500ESPN.com Thursday. "There's a lot of different things we can do flexibility-wise with the yoga. Just trying to keep my body in the right condition and getting stronger."

--Oakland Raiders assistant trainer Chris Cortez is being hailed as a hero after reports began surfacing in the last two days that he saved a woman from drowning last Saturday night.

According to several media reports, Cortez, his wife and family friend Taryn Griffin were driving by an Oakland estuary when he spotted a car in the water.

The car was beginning to sink, so Cortez and Griffin, along with several other bystanders, leapt into the water to try and rescue the driver, who was still in the sinking vehicle.

"We got the woman to roll down her window and the car started going under," Cortez told Raiders.com. "Taryn, being the awesome swimmer that she is, dove right in and so I just went in right after her. And so did another individual, and we got her out of there without a scratch, which is pretty amazing."

The entire incident was captured on cellphone video by another passerby. The unidentified female driver of the car that went into the water suffered only minor injuries.

--It is kind of a curious segment of the NFL draft to pick a fight, but the negotiation battle line between agents and team salary cap experts seemingly has been drawn in the third round, and might end up being every bit as contentious and protracted as the looming tussle over first-round deals.

Through Friday morning, there were just as many unsigned selections in the third round (14) as in the first. And the impasse at the top of the third round, where none of the first nine choices has a deal yet, was even longer than that the stalemate at the outset of Round 1. No pick in the top eight of the first round has signed.

None of the other rounds includes more than three unsigned prospects.

A few weeks ago, the Tip Sheet cracked the code on the lack of action at the top of the first round, initially reporting that a disagreement over so-called "offset language" was the primary source for a logjam which still exists. The dearth of agreements at the top of the third round has nothing to do with "offsets" but might be a matter that is every bit as esoteric to most fans.

But it is clearly significant to the men on either side of the bargaining table.

The third-round gridlock has flown below the public radar screen so far -- with more than 85 percent of the 253 picks exercised in April having already come to contract terms well in advance of July training camps -- but the bone of contention is a remaining sore spot among agents and club negotiators.

The holdup, The Sports Xchange has confirmed through agents and club officials, is, instead, over the so-called "25-percent rule." Or, more accurately, over the agents' desire to maximize their clients' base salaries given the restrictions of the rule, and the reluctance of the top eight teams in the round to allow them to do so.

"It's just a crazy situation," veteran agent Eugene Parker, who represents Denver third-round running back Ronnie Hillman, told The Sports Xchange.

It's also, though, a situation that doesn't figure to be easily resolved.

Simply put, the 25-percent rule allows a team to increase a player's base salary by 25 percent every season. The formula for determining the 25 percent: Divide a player's signing bonus by four (the number of years for which a third-round pick must sign), add the first-year minimum salary ($390,000 for 2012), and then take 25 percent of that total. For tight end Dwayne Allen of Indianapolis, the first choice in the third round, for instance, the annual 25 percent bumps would be $141,456.50. That's one-fourth of Allen's signing bonus (slotted at $703,304), plus his 2012 base salary of $390,000 (total: $565,826), multiplied by 25 percent.

So, provided Allen was able to maximize his annual increases of 25 percent, his base salaries would be $390,000 (2012), $531,456.50 (2013), $672,913 (2014) and $869,369.50. That comes to $2,408,739 in base salaries. But the minimum base salaries for the four seasons are $390,000, $480,000, $570,000 and $660,000, a total of only $2.1 million. That's hardly to suggest the Colts have proposed just minimum salaries for the four years. Neither, though, have they agreed to offer the full 25 percent increases permitted by the CBA.

For agents, the differences are critical.

"With the (rookie) wage scale, there's not a lot of wiggle room or much chance for subjectivity," said the agent for one of the unsigned third-rounders. "The third round is kind of the beginning and also the end for subjectivity . . . and both sides seem to know that. It might be an unusual place for the kind of logjam we have right now, but that's where the battle is being waged."

Another agent even employed the "C-word" reference, alluding to "collusion," to describe the stalemate.

"How else would all eight teams be holding the line together?" he said.

Of the 18 choices signed so far in the third round, 10 have agreed to deals that pay them the minimum base salaries for all four seasons of the contracts. That is not unusual in the second half of the round. Six choices signed contracts that included some sort of additional funding, usually in the form of offseason workout bonuses, but very few have been able to "max out" the 25-percent increases.

Last year, four players among the top 10 in the third round received annual salary increases that either permitted the maximum 25-percent jumps, or close to them. But in 2012, despite the relative warp-speed at which draft contracts have been completed, the third round has been a difficult slog.

In fact, two first-round picks have signed since the last time a third-rounder agreed to terms a week ago. After an early flurry in the stanza, just four third-rounders have completed deals this month.

As noted in this space last week, the dramatically below-market contract signed last year by the third choice in the third round, linebacker Nate Irving, is causing some problems. It's not nearly the hang-up, however, as the continuing battle over the 25-percent rule.

Acknowledged one team negotiator: "The 25-percent (rule) is causing a 100-percent headache for the teams at the top of the round right now."

--One of the more obvious upshots from the Miami minicamp this week is that tailback Reggie Bush will be a lot more than a runner in the West Coast offense that new head coach Joe Philbin and coordinator Mike Sherman are installing.

On his way to the first 1,000-yard campaign of his NFL career, Bush logged 216 carries last season, not a lot by some standards, but still 59 more than he'd registered in any of his previous five seasons. That number figures to be reduced this season, in part because the Dolphins are expecting a lot more from second-year veteran Daniel Thomas, but more because Philbin and Sherman plan to align Bush in a variety of spots, it seems.

Bush has suggested he wants to win the league rushing title this season, but it won't happen in the new offense, which isn't to say Bush won't be an impactful player. The Dolphins don't have many real play makers, and the Miami coaches want to maximize Bush's ability to still make plays in space. So expect to see Bush more in the slot in 2012, catching some balls up the field, not just out of the backfield.

There were a few teams in the 2006 who felt Bush could actually be graded as a wide receiver. That might be overstatement of his receiving abilities, but during his stint in New Orleans, pass-catchers such as Robert Meachem and Devry Henderson suggested that Bush had some of the best hands on a team loaded with talent receivers.

The Dolphins want to utilize that skill, and not just on swing passes and screens. They feel Bush has the ability to catch the ball up the field, and may give him those opportunities. For his career, Bush has 337 receptions, including five years of 40 or more catches, and 161 grabs in his first two seasons. But the former Heisman Trophy winner has averaged only 7.2 yards per catch, solid enough for a back, but a number the Dolphins feel they can improve upon.

The low average is because Bush has principally been used as a third-down option, on swings and screens and passes in the flat. Of his 18 career receptions of 20 yards or more, and all three of his 40-yard catches, Bush caught the ball within eight yards of the line of scrimmage. Miami wants to get Bush the ball deeper at times, at least in the intermediate range, and has conjured up some possibilities for doing that. For years, a nightmare matchup for linebackers, Bush might evolve in '12 as a tough draw for safeties and slot cornerbacks as well.

--Since even close associates of Percy Harvin were confused this week by the wide receiver's one-day boycott of the Minnesota minicamp -- other than to say that the absence was not contract-related -- the source of the three-year veteran's unhappiness with his situation is curious.

Compounding the confusion was the Friday morning report for Twin Cities-area media outlets that Harvin, the 22nd choice in the 2009 draft, plans to spend time working out with Vikings' second-year quarterback Christian Ponder before camp opens next month. About the only thing clear in the whole episode is that the team has no plans to trade Harvin, whose reception and yardage totals have increased every season in the league, and who remains one of the NFL's most versatile offensive performers.

There was some thought originally that Harvin preferred to play one position, wide receiver, but two people close to him insists he likes the intermittent stretches he gets at tailback (52 carries in 2011) and enjoys kickoff returns as well. Harvin has two seasons remaining on his contract, at base salaries of $915,000 for 2012 and at least $1.55 million in 2013 (could climb to as much as $3.3 million with escalators and "reachable" bonuses), and Minnesota officials definitely are not inclined to sweeten the deal at this time.

Which means that Harvin's problem will likely remain just that, Harvin's problem, for now. He has hinted that he plans to be in camp on time and has, apparently, not spoken at length to his associates about any grievances with the organization.

--In his 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning became the face of the NFL, not only because of his brilliant performance on the field, but also the huge volume of marketing and endorsement money that the four-time most valuable player earned off of it.

Some team officials, and certainly players from other clubs, privately contend Manning was overexposed. The same level of endorsement work could eventually line Andrew Luck's coffers, but the Colts might have some degree of control over how often their new quarterback's mug is plastered across the TV or on billboards.

One of the stumbling blocks in negotiations between Indianapolis and the top overall choice in the draft, The Sports Xchange has learned, is the proposed inclusion of marketing language that Luck and his representatives, at least so far, regard as strident. One source with knowledge of the talks even suggested that Luck would "have to clear" marketing proposals with the club.

It's not believed that Manning's contract, at least early in his career, contained such a provision. Another hurdle, as noted here two weeks ago: The schedule for the payout of Luck's signing bonus, which will be $14,518,544, exactly the same as Cam Newton's in 2011. Newton was paid in two equal installments, but Luck and agent Will Wilson are said to be seeking something far more favorable. It's believed the Colts have improved the proposed bonus payout, but only by a little, with 55 percent due on execution of the contract and 45 percent payable next spring. Indianapolis has made similar signing bonus payout proposals to other draft choices.

--Some might call Michael Crabtree's performance in three seasons with the San Francisco 49ers a disappointment since being the 10th overall player chosen in the 2009 draft.

But his supporters on the coaching staff have pointed out that Crabtree hasn't yet played with a complementary wide receiver who had more than 52 catches in a season. And, in 2011, the second leading San Francisco wideout had just 20 grabs. The additions of free agents Mario Manningham and Randy Moss, and the choice of A.J. Jenkins in the first round, should render moot, the 49ers contend, all of the excuses about Crabtree's lack of big plays.

"They'll all make each other better," said offensive coordinator Greg Roman. "They can feed off each other." So far in the offseason, Crabtree appears to be the hungry man in the receiver corps. A pair of San Francisco coaches told The Sports Xchange that Crabtree -- who signed late as a rookie and has undergone foot surgeries in successive years -- appears poised for a breakout season. Of course, for Crabtree, who had career bests in receptions (72) and yards (874), the term "breakout" might be relative.

With Frank Gore around, San Francisco isn't likely to have a receiver with 85-90 catches, but the 49ers do feel that Crabtree can be more explosive and improve on his career-low 12.1-yard average of a year ago. The 49ers concede the former Texas Tech star is more quick than fast, but still has explosiveness, and can run away from people. "This could be a big year for him," said former offensive assistant Bobby Engram, the onetime NFL wide receiver who is now the wide receivers coach at Pitt.

--This week's concession by New York Jets' defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, that the team will employ more 4-3 fronts in 2012 not only continued a trend in the AFC East division, but around the league.

In the past two years, seven once-traditional 3-4 schemes have added some 4-3 wrinkles, or switched largely to a four-man front. On the flip side, only four clubs have either added or changed wholesale to 3-4 looks, most notably Indianapolis for this year under first-year coach Chuck Pagano.

The transformation is complete in the AFC East, which was once packed with 3-4 teams, all of which have now adopted some 4-3 principles. New England inside/middle linebacker Jerod Mayo acknowledged that the switch back and forth -- the Patriots often varied their predominant defense front from one week to the next -- is difficult, but remains more mental than physical.

"The different defenses demand some different things physically, but, more important, it's about study, getting things right in your head," Mayo said. New Atlanta coordinator Mike Nolan, who is often regarded as a 3-4 proponent, but who has coached both fronts in his long NFL tenure, allowed that the game demands more flexibility now. Said Nolan: "Diversity is a key. You want to play fast, no matter what defense you're in, but you don't want to get (pigeonholed), either."

--There is a common reason in common why the NFL draft picks from No. 22 through 25 remain unsigned -- a lack of guaranteed money in the final season (2015) of their mandated, four-year deals.

Those picks are, in order, Brandon Weedon (Cleveland), David DeCastro (Pittsburgh) and Don't'a Hightower (New England).

To this point, the teams involved with those slots have refused to include even partial guarantees for the fourth season of the contract. All 10 of the players signed in the top 19, with Chicago defensive end Shea McClellin the last of the group, have guarantees on all four seasons of their base salaries. The 20th choice, Tennessee's Kendall Wright, remains unsigned. In the 21st slot, New England provided full skill/injury/salary cap guarantees for the first three seasons of defensive end Chandler Jones' contract, and a 50 percent guarantee ($752,284 of $1,504,568) for the final year.

All of the seven choices Nos. 26-32 have the first three years of their contracts fully guaranteed, but no guarantees for the fourth season. All four of the choices in the 22-25 grouping want some type of guarantee for the final year. And the reluctance of the four franchises involved with those picks to do so has created one of only three "logjams" in the entire draft class. Beyond the stalemates at the top of the first and third rounds, the mini-logjam in the second half of Round 1 is the only other place in the draft with consecutive unsigned choices.

--There probably is some element of truth to the notion that head injuries, and all of the attention they have merited in recent months, played some part in the decision of Minnesota cornerback Asher Allen to retire last month at age 24 after only three seasons in the league.

The former third-round draft choice (2009) sustained a couple of concussions in his tenure with the Vikings and finished last season on injured reserve because of concussion-related symptoms. But two former teammates and an associate of Asher told The Sports Xchange this week that the onetime University of Georgia standout walked away from the game, and a scheduled base salary of $615,000 for 2012, more because of religious convictions than health concerns. It's believed that Asher is a devoted member of a denomination with which some aspects of the game simply didn't dovetail very well.

In his three years in Minnesota, Asher started in 21 of 36 appearances, including 20 starts in the past two seasons. It is not anticipated, either by Vikings officials or his friends, that Asher, who recorded 134 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defensed will have a change of heart about his football career.

--Dante Scarnecchia, the venerable New England assistant head coach/offensive line, could have his work cut out for him in 2012.

Left tackle Matt Light has retired after 11 seasons and will be replaced by second-year veteran and former first-rounder Nate Solder. The incumbent right tackle, Sebastian Vollmer, continued to be bothered in the offseason by a bad back that has plagued him much of his career.

The four other tackles on the current roster have combined for only seven games, with zero starts. No one should be surprised if free agent addition Robert Gallery, the eight-year veteran who began his career at tackle as the No. 2 overall pick in the draft in 2004, before moving to guard, gets some snaps at tackle in camp.

The situation isn't a whole lot better at guard. Perennial Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins figures to start the year on the physically unable to perform list, after sustaining an ACL injury in the AFC championship game. Right guard Brian Waters hasn't participated in offseason workouts, and while the Pats are publicly confident he will play in 2012, privately they aren't as certain. If Gallery is forced to play at tackle, it takes some of the depth away from the guard spot, where the team recently added veteran free agent Jamey Richard (11 career starts).

It could be that the loser of the Dan Connolly/Dan Koppen competition at center ends up playing some at guard. Tom Brady absorbed 32 sacks in 2011, the most he has suffered since 2003, so the blocking unit already had some concerns.

--Seven-year veteran safety O.J. Atogwe, added this week by Philadelphia, balked at suggestions his best football is behind him. Still, Atogwe, 31, hasn't been as productive in recent seasons, and there is a reason (or at least a perception) why the Eagles will represent his third team in three seasons.

That said, Philly coaches still feel that Atogwe, whose 25 career interceptions are the eighth most in the league since he entered the NFL in 2005, retains the ability and instincts to make some big plays. And they got a decent insurance policy on an affordable, one-year deal. "He's not the ball magnet he once was, but he still can jump on a mistake," one Eagles coach said Thursday.

In addition to his 25 interceptions, Atogwe has forced 16 fumbles in his career. His best seasons came in 2007-2008, when Atogwe totaled 13 interceptions, and he registered six forced fumbles in '08. But he's had five forced fumbles the last three years, and three interceptions each in 2010 and 2011, despite starting just 23 games. He might not push starters Nate Allen and Kurt Coleman for a No. 1 job, but could offer a better alternative than second-year pro Jai Jarrett, a disappointing second-round choice in 2011, for the No. 3 spot.

--Punts: Unrestricted free agent inside/middle linebacker Keith Brooking probably won't sign with a team that doesn't have legitimate playoff potential in his mind, but he has no current plans to retire, either. It might take an injury in training camp or early in the season to get Brooking, 36, a shot at earning a roster spot somewhere. But as recently as this week, a team placed a call to just stay in touch with Brooking, who started only three games in Dallas in 2011. That was the fewest starts for Brooking, who might have returned to Dallas had the Cowboys not added free agent Dan Connor, since his 1998 rookie season in Atlanta. ... There was no change this week in the contract impasse for Seattle defensive end Chris Clemons, whose situation with the Seahawks was laid out in detail by the Tip Sheet last week. With team officials expected to be on vacation the next few weeks, the talks may be fallow for a while. ... Speaking of the Seahawks, Coach Pete Carroll seems dead-set on making the team's starting quarterback situation a legitimate three-way battle in camp. Most feel free agent signee Matt Flynn will win the job, but incumbent Tarvaris Jackson and rookie third-rounder Russell Wilson got equal snaps in minicamp, and might at the outset of training camp as well. Just as big a question might be about the receivers, who reportedly have looked shaky. ... In addition to the 14 choices in each of the first and third rounds who remained unsigned as of early Friday, there were only eight draft picks without deals: three in the second round, two in the fifth, and one each in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. ... Twelve teams have each signed all of their draft choices, and only New Orleans, which has just five choices, has yet to sign any. The Saints have the lone remaining unsigned player in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds. ... Given the team's continuing problems at left guard, Baltimore's recent under-the-radar signing of free agent Bobbie Williams is looking a lot better. The 12-year veteran played on the right side during most of his tenure in Cincinnati, but the Ravens feel he can make the transition to left guard if necessary. ... The aforementioned Jenkins, a bit of a surprise with the 30th slot in the first round, has reportedly struggled at times in the offseason. The former Illinois standout provides the 49ers much-needed boundary speed, but might need to get more physical. Moss, though, continues to draw strong reviews. ... Nolan hasn't yet employed many 3-4 straight looks in Atlanta, but has blended in some wrinkles from the front. Most notable is that the ends will often stand up and rush from a two-point stance. It's not a style that's comfortable for John Abraham yet, but four-year veteran Kroy Biermann, who had only 5 1/2 sacks total the past two seasons after notching five as a part-timer in 2009, could fit nicely into the hybrid end-linebacker role. ... Three-year veteran Lawrence Sidbury and rookie fifth-rounder Jonathan Massaquoi could also be good fits for the hybrid spot. ... Tim Tebow and Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who have never met but are both from the Jacksonville area, will partner with Orlando Orthopaedic Center on a D1 Sports Training facility in Orlando. Tebow is part-owner of a similar facility in Savannah and Jones in Tampa. D1 has partnered in the past with current NFL players like Manning, Philip Rivers and Ndamukong Suh. ... Parker stopped short in confirming that he is involved in discussions with Oakland about having free agent tailback Cedric Benson sign as a backup to Darren McFadden, but acknowledged to The Sports Xchange that interest in the seven-year veteran has picked up lately. "Cedric is a patient guy, though, and he'll wait for the right situation," Parker said. "But he feels like it will come." ... In an effort to have him drop some weight, the Cleveland Browns have emphasized to second-year wide receiver Greg Little that he cut back a lot on sweets. To have Little drop fewer passes in 2012, Cleveland coaches have worked on the mental and the physical sides of catching the ball. They have stressed concentration techniques and film study for the former, and worked hard on nuances like hand/palm placement, watching the point of the ball all the way into your hands, for the latter. Little, who is down in the 219- or 220-pound range, after weighing as much as 230 in 2011, had 14 drops as a rookie, the second most in the league. The Browns feel, though, that the former North Carolina standout and second-round draft choice, can be a play maker.

--The last word: "I'm developing a 'Brokeback Mountain' chemistry with the players." -- Wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, per several media outlets, on the flourishing relationship with his new Miami Dolphins' teammates.
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