By Charles Robinson, Yahoo Sports
November 16, 2005
For two weeks, Romeo Crennel has been fending off the questions, swatting away every inquiry that had anything to do with rookie quarterback Charlie Frye.
The Denver Broncos' first-year cornerbacks – Darrent Williams and Domonique Foxworth – started alongside All-Pro Champ Bailey against Oakland in a five-man secondary last weekend and paid major dividends. Two of the most impressive defensive rookies this season, Williams and Foxworth helped hold Oakland's high-powered tandem of Randy Moss and Jerry Porter to nine catches for 114 yards and one touchdown. Williams made one of the game's pivotal plays, returning a Kerry Collins interception 80 yards for a touchdown and a 31-10 lead.
Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk came into the season ranked as the No. 1 defensive player on some draft boards, and he hasn't disappointed. Hawk is leading the Buckeyes with 102 tackles through 10 games, including 12 tackles for a loss, 7½ sacks and one interception. Against Texas, Hawk recorded 12 tackles (three for a loss), two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He's expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2006 draft and the first linebacker taken.
|BEHIND EVERY GOOD COACH
While head coach Lovie Smith gets some of the credit, Chicago Bears players have taken to the aggressive style of coordinator Ron Rivera. Chicago now has the No. 1 defense in the league, despite a defensive line that has yet to live up to expectations. Rivera has done a spectacular job with linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, who are both on pace for the best season of their careers.
1. Chad Johnson is making guarantees again.
2. People are starting to speculate whether Donovan McNabb may be done for the season.
3. Ahman Green is upset he isn't getting any love from the Green Bay Packers.
4. New Orleans has turned into the No. 1 topic of conversation for NFL owners.
5. A former Cleveland Browns employee is under house arrest for his role in a ticket scam.
Then came Monday, and even Crennel had to submit to reality. With his Cleveland Browns sitting at 3-6 and out of the AFC playoff picture – and quarterback Trent Dilfer mired in a slump – it might be time to turn the team's focus to developing players.
"We have to take a look at Charlie at some point to see what he can do," Crennel said of Frye, whom the Browns chose in the third round of the 2005 draft. "Whether that's making him the starter or giving him a series here or there, I'll have to make the decision."
Asked why Frye hadn't gotten some playing time, Crennel pointed at Sunday's 34-21 loss to Pittsburgh and perfectly illustrated the struggle that pains most coaches in mid-November.
"Do you want to throw the kid in there (against Pittsburgh) in that situation?" Crennel asked. "I don't either. I would rather try to pick and choose my time when I can give this young kid who has some talent and has some ability an opportunity to go play and have a chance for some success. In time, it will happen. It's just my time. It'll be my time."
When it comes to young players, November is a month where a common struggle begins between head coaches and general managers, particularly on teams that have fallen out of playoff contention. While the goal of most coaches is to continue winning games – and maintaining the locker room by remaining loyal to veterans – GMs often force the broader picture into focus.
You can feel that undercurrent in Cleveland, where Crennel continues to rely on Dilfer even as elements in the personnel department (notably GM Phil Savage) are getting the itch to see some positions turned over to younger players. The Browns already are trying to appease first-round pick Braylon Edwards, who has been vocal about wanting a larger role in the offense.
Edwards also hasn't been bashful about who he would like to see starting at quarterback, saying that he doesn't feel the offense (read: Trent Dilfer) is incorporating his playmaking skills enough on deep routes. Asked two weeks ago whether he thought a quarterback change might benefit the Browns, Edwards supported Frye, saying he thought the rookie would "bring a little more life" to the unit.
And the Browns aren't the only ones grappling with the question of age versus youth. Several teams across the league are on the verge of having to make decisions with rookies, particularly on offense. Here are five others who should get increased looks as the second half of the season wears on:
Matt Jones, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars have gone to great pains to coddle last season's first-round pick, Reggie Williams. But with Jones showing unique playmaking skills and building a rapport with quarterback Byron Leftwich over the last four weeks (14 catches for 196 yards and three touchdowns), Williams could see his time diminish. The team already has increased the role of second-year wideout Ernest Wilford, which means that a larger offensive investment in Jones is likely to eat into the playing time of struggling No. 1 wideout Jimmy Smith as well. Williams already has lost his starting spot to Wilford, and if Smith can't rebound soon (he hasn't scored a touchdown in five straight games), Jones and Wilford could be Jacksonville's starters by the end of the season.
J.J. Arrington, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Arrington actually started his first two games this season but was benched when coach Dennis Green became displeased with Arrington's inability to make tough yards. Arrington, who is averaging only three yards per carry, finally scored his first touchdown of the season last week, but his ineffective play hasn't been entirely his fault. Arizona's offensive line and inconsistent quarterback play hasn't helped the running game. Arrington's replacement, Marcel Shipp, hasn't done any better, averaging 2.4 yards per carry. With the 2-7 Cardinals out of playoff contention, Arrington will get a second chance at the starting job before the season ends.
Frank Gore, RB, San Francisco 49ers
With bruising runner Kevan Barlow in front of him, Gore's chances at getting a start before the end of the season are sketchy. But he showed in the first half of the season that he's a better breakaway threat, posting a 72-yard run against Washington. That helped inflate his 5.0-yards-per-carry average a tad. Still, Gore's role steadily has increased as the season has gone along, with a season high of 15 carries against Chicago last week. Chances are, he'll continue to dip into Barlow's carries.
Mike Williams, WR, Detroit Lions
Nobody has benefited more from the injuries to Roy Williams and Kevin Johnson and the meltdown of No. 2 wideout Charles Rogers. What has hurt Mike Williams this season is his lack of speed – to the point where some scouts are gloating about their evaluations that Williams' size made him more of a tight end than a wideout. Before he injured his foot against Minnesota, though, Williams looked like he was ready to take and hold onto Rogers' starting spot. In the five games Rogers missed to suspension and deactivation, Williams had 15 catches for 199 yards. Even with Rogers back, only Williams' foot injury can keep him from playing a bigger part in Detroit's offense.
Courtney Roby, WR, Tennessee Titans
Injuries to Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico have opened the door for Roby, whose role had been limited because of injuries and his play on special teams. But Roby has shown flashes of the speed that made him a third-round pick in the draft. Roby had seven catches for 83 yards against the Raiders two weeks ago, but he was limited to only a 29-yard catch at Cleveland last week. While he's not as physically gifted as Calico, he has had a bigger impact in two starts than Calico has had in nine injury-plagued games the last two seasons.
If the San Diego Chargers choose Philip Rivers over Drew Brees as their starting quarterback this offseason – which still is a slight possibility – they might have a serious locker room mutiny on their hands. Brees has earned the respect of all of the veterans, including team cornerstones LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates, Donnie Edwards and Jamal Williams. Still, there continues to be a belief in other personnel departments that San Diego may choose to part ways with Brees after the season, largely because the Chargers haven't been negotiating a new deal for him.
"There's two doors there," one NFC personnel man said. "Behind one, maybe you already have a framework for a deal with Drew Brees, and are waiting (for the offseason) to create the illusion that you are undecided – (to) keep the trade value of (Philip) Rivers at its highest perceived point. If a deal was in place (with Brees) right now, that could conceivably pull the rug out on Rivers' market value, because then you know they have to unload him. The other door that's still there, (Chargers general manager) A.J. Smith might think Rivers is the better long-term choice."
For all the talk about coaches on the hot seat, one name that suspiciously is absent is Arizona's Dennis Green. Barring a catastrophic scandal, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill is committed to Green through at least next season, even though the team has failed to meet expectations this year. A string of injuries has helped Green's case, along with his contention that he and vice president of football operations Rod Graves have stocked the roster in a relatively short time span.
But Green's line of credit with ownership isn't going to extend beyond 2006, fueling a lot of speculation in league circles that the team isn't interested in drafting a quarterback like USC's Matt Leinart and prefers to land a veteran in free agency or trade if possible.
There are more than a few personnel departments shaking their heads over the deactivation of 49ers offensive tackle Jonas Jennings. Jennings was put on injured reserve last week after undergoing shoulder surgery, putting an early end to the first year in his seven-year, $36 million contract. That deal raised plenty of eyebrows across the league, particularly the $12 million signing bonus the 49ers gave Jennings. Even though he was considered a quality offensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills last season, many critics thought Jennings was too big of a risk after missing parts of his last three seasons due to injuries.
Now that David Boston's knee pain has shelved him for the second straight season, don't be surprised if his days as an NFL player have come to a close. Despite playing in five games this season with the Miami Dolphins, Boston never was able to ascend the team's depth chart and has made almost zero impact when he did get opportunities. After he got almost no attention as a free agent last offseason, it would be surprising if Boston earned anything more than a one-year deal at the veterans' minimum when he becomes a free agent this offseason.
Cross running back off the list of needs for the Cleveland Browns. The team is satisfied with the production of Reuben Droughns since he became the team's starter, and the Browns think the 27-year-old will get better as the team continues to add talent around him. The team expects Droughns once again will seek a new contract this offseason, and if he continues at his current state of production, the Browns would like to get an extension in place before next season, which will be the last on his current deal. Droughns is slated to make $1.15 million next year.
Don't assume that Houston Texans quarterback David Carr is a lock to receive his $8 million bonus this offseason – even if team owner Bob McNair has made some statements to suggest Carr is safe. Should Houston end up with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft, Carr is going to have to make some measure of progress by the end of the season to ensure his job. And with change looming over the coaches, Carr also is expected to undergo some intense scrutiny from the new staff.
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
You have to wonder if owners, coaches and general managers pay any attention when it comes to what players think about a guy such as Terrell Owens. It says something when prominent stars such as Michael Vick, John Lynch and Randy Moss publicly express reservations about Owens landing with their respective teams. Interestingly, those three guys have vastly different personalities and reputations, providing a pretty good cross-section of opinions we're likely to hear when Owens hits the open market this offseason. No matter where the blame falls for this mess – Owens, the media, Drew Rosenhaus or the Philadelphia Eagles – it's clear that a healthy percentage of players on other teams are leery at this point. It will be interesting to see if the franchise that signs Owens actually asks the opinions of its players before doing so.
Charles Robinson is the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Charles a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Thursday, Nov 17, 2005 12:16 am, EST
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