INDIANAPOLIS – For the second straight year, the opening day of the NFL's annual scouting combine was overshadowed by pending free agency.
Thanks to an astronomical three-year deal given to Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha – and a total of 14 players being hit with the franchise tag – the majority of winners and losers on Thursday had little to do with NFL prospects. Instead, Asomugha walked away as the league's biggest winner, thanks to a whopping three-year $45.3 million deal doled out for the league's best cornerback. And the guaranteed money rippling from the deal – two years and $28.5 million – should help make at least one other big winner: Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth.
Haynesworth's dreams of a record payday appeared to be flagging on Thursday, as high ranking personnel sources from several teams expressed doubts about how the defensive tackle would perform once he receives a massive contract. But that was before the numbers in the Asomugha deal spread through the NFL community, basically resetting the salary floor for elite defensive players to work from. In one afternoon, $40 million in guaranteed money for Haynesworth went from outlandish to a realistic possibility.
Here is a look at the other big winners and losers on the first day of workouts at the NFL's scouting combine …
• Agents Tom Condon and Ben Dogra. Aside from Asomugha's huge windfall, the pair also got a record four-year $16 million deal for Raiders punter Shane Lechler. And there is talk that Eli Manning's coming extension could be in excess of $20 million per year. Recession proof doesn't begin to describe the job the pair are doing.
• Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman Max Starks. He got paid under the transition tag last season – a season in which he suffered a demotion and then regained his starting job just in time for a Super Bowl run. With the Steelers facing some free agent hemorrhaging on the offensive line, Starks was hit with the franchise tag Thursday. Should he play under it in 2009, he'll clear $15.35 million in two years. Not bad for a player that might barely be on the fringe of the top 20 offensive tackles in the league.
• The Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs added assistant coach Maurice Carthon to their coaching staff. A source close to coach Todd Haley said Thursday the move is expected to help the new staff engage and maximize the talent of running back Larry Johnson. Johnson said following the season that he wanted out of Kansas City, and he has yet to back off that stance. But the source pointed out that Carthon was instrumental in repairing the damage with Cardinals running back Edgerrin James last season, in which James was benched but eventually emerged to be a key part of the team's playoff run. Carthon would be expected to play a similar role with Johnson.
• USC quarterback Mark Sanchez. His decision to go through all the major passing drills this week delighted coaches and personnel men. Particularly considering Sanchez has the tools to move up in the draft.
"It's like running," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who will be considering Sanchez at the top of the draft. "Guys who have confidence in their ability to run, will run. You want to see guys who have that confidence to go out. I know a lot of quarterbacks typically haven't thrown [at the combine] simply because they want to throw to familiar receivers. But, yeah, that does speak a little bit to a coach as the guy who has the confidence to go out and throw at 7 in the morning or throw at midnight or 'Hey, whenever you want, Coach, I'll do it.' It probably does mean a little bit."
• Schwartz. For a day that wasn't all that compelling outside of what was happening with players already in the league, Schwartz was the belle of the ball. His news conference drew a packed audience, and he continued chatting and making the rounds with various reporters for hours after his media session. But his best moment may have come when he was relating a story about his relationship with New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whom Schwartz worked with as an intern for the Cleveland Browns.
As Schwartz tells it, he had the typical intern grunt job, which was comprised of all the little tasks nobody wanted. It paid nothing, aside from food and accommodations. With that in mind, he told this story:
"I'd been hired for a job that paid zero," Schwartz said. "They gave me an apartment and I could eat food in the office. They always had stocked kitchens and things like that. Well, they brought me up for a mini-camp. What happened is Bill [Belichick] did the old NFL trick of, 'Hey, if you have a good practice on Thursday I'll give you off on Friday.'
"Well, my plane ticket didn't go home until Friday so he gave the team [the day] off and all the coaches and players were out of there.
"Well, I don't have anything to do for a full day, so I'm around the office literally like the entire day and don't see another soul and I'm waiting for my flight that's leaving at like 6 o'clock. So I go in and grab some lunch and I use the rest of the turkey [in the refrigerator] and eat it. And I'm literally getting some crackers and I take a bite of the sandwich and in walks coach Belichick. And he had been working out and he's rooting through the refrigerator, looking for a bunch of stuff, and I'm eating. And he looks over at me and he said, 'Have you seen the turkey?' And literally I had used just the exact last thing. And I got like a mouthful of turkey and I was like, 'Um. I just used the last … ' And he was like, 'Oh, what the … '
"Really that was my first meeting [with Belichick], so I called home and said this might be a one-way ticket home."
• Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith. Smith surprised many by saying he may not work out at the combine, which won't win over teams sitting at the top of the draft. Already a concern because of his weight (he is at 332 pounds but has been as high as 345 in the past) Smith indicated that he's not in his best shape.
"I just want to get my numbers lower than what they are," he said. "I was pretty consistent in certain areas and not as consistent in others. I just want to give the greatest performance I possibly can. … I just picked my agent like two weeks ago. I haven't been down to API [Athletic Performance Institute] for three weeks, maybe four weeks."
• The free-agent pool. The franchise tag has rocked the free-agent talent base once again, clipping six players who would have been ranked in the top 10 of this year's offerings: Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby, Houston Texans cornerback Dunta Robinson, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel and New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs. Add in two other top 10 free agents who signed new long-term deals this week – Panthers tackle Jordan Gross and the Raiders' Asomugha, and the elite portion of free agency is almost gone.
• Peppers. All the blowing steam and acting like he was in control was for naught. Now he'll go to the highest bidder via trade or be forced to return to Carolina with his tail between his legs. Don't expect the Panthers to let him dictate any course of action in the trade market, either.
• The NFL's salary structure. In an offseason when some wondered if spending might be curtailed, early deals have once again indicated that contracts will only become bigger and carry more guaranteed money. One question that hasn't been answered, however, is whether or not mid and low priority free agents will be impacted. There is still the possibility that huge deals at the top of the free-agent pool only create a vacuum for lower-level free agents, who then in turn settle for more mediocre contracts. But considering how some mid-level free agents cashed in last offseason (take a look at Jerry Porter's absurd deal), it's likely they'll see a huge economic windfall this year, too.
• Indianapolis Colts wideout Marvin Harrison. Colts coach Jim Caldwell had every opportunity on Thursday to give an indication the team was working hard to keep Harrison. Instead he danced around the subject and avoided making a definitive statement. All indications are Harrison will be cut in the next few days, creating a little more than $6 extra million in cap space.
• The Ravens. Remember that hometown discount Suggs was talking about? It's not going to happen. With Suggs under the franchise tag and still looking to ink a long-term deal, his agent Gary Wichard is aiming for a package that rivals one of his other clients – Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. That one averaged $12 million per year and included $30 million guaranteed. So much for that discount coupon.
• A possible rule change for overtime. There didn't appear to be great support from coaches and executives when it comes to altering the NFL's overtime rules. Some had voiced opinions in the past that new rules should be considered that would allow both teams an opportunity to touch the football in the extra period. Any rule changes would take place next month at the league's annual owners meetings.
- Nnamdi Asomugha
- Jim Schwartz
- Maurice Carthon