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Perhaps unwittingly, the NFLPA didn't make a whole lot of friends among the franchise players in the league with last week's letter to commissioner Roger Goodell seeking an investigation of New Orleans' negotiations with "exclusive" franchise quarterback Drew Brees.
First reported by CBSSports.com, the letter suggests that the Saints haven't bargained in good faith, and that perhaps Brees has been a victim of his outspoken stance from last year's lockout. The problems are that the Saints have made Brees competitive offers that would make him one of the NFL's highest paid players, even if he hasn't signed them yet, and that there are other franchise players whose negotiations have gone far worse.
In essence, some of the franchise players or their representatives feel the NFLPA has granted Brees a kind of "favored nation" status. "Nothing against Drew, but he's kind of become (the union's) fair-haired boy," one franchise player noted. The agent for another of the franchise players said the NFLPA is treating the New Orleans quarterback "like some kind of a Messiah or something."
In fairness to Brees, it should be noted that he had nothing to do with the union's letter, as the NFLPA continues to grasp at straws, but his standing among some peers could be affected by it.
Of the 21 players designated as franchise free agents in the spring, six of them, beyond Brees, remain unsigned. This week, Jacksonville kicker Josh Scobee and agent Ken Harris said there haven't been any negotiations with Jaguars officials in months. Scobee allowed that the situation has been frustrating.
It's been more than a month since there were reports that Denver kicker Matt Prater was close to a deal with the Broncos, but, again, no deal.
Tailbacks Ray Rice and Matt Forte, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and defensive end Cliff Avril are all without deals. Eight other franchise players have signed just one-year tenders.
So it would seem there's been a lack of progress on more than just the Brees front, yet the NFLPA has requested that Goodell look only into his case. Little wonder some of the other players with either no deals at all or just one-year tenders, are privately wondering why that is.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
--The four-year, $13.2 million extension that franchise player Connor Barth signed to remain with the Tampa Bay Bucs last month was a pricey deal that was hailed by many kickers in the league.
And why not, given that the contract made Barth the third highest paid kicker in the league among those with multi-year contracts. On a per-year average basis, he trails only Sebastian Janikowski of Oakland ($4 million per season) and New England's Stephen Gostkowski ($3.4 million), at $3.3 million annually.
But the contract, through no fault of Barth, is causing a few problems in negotiations for the four other kickers who were designated by their teams as franchise players. That's because Barth, who has developed into one of the NFL's most consistent kickers the last couple seasons, doesn't handle the kickoff duties for the Bucs.
Instead, punter Michael Koenen kicks off and Barth, who did kick off as recently as 2010, takes care of just the placements.
Barth, who has converted 63 of 75 field-goal attempts since signing with the Bucs about midway through the 2009 season, is the lone "franchised" kicker to sign a multi-year deal so far.
Josh Scobee of Jacksonville and Denver's Matt Prater haven't signed at all. Phil Dawson (Cleveland) and Mike Nugent (Cincinnati) signed just one-year franchise tenders with their teams.
All four of those guys kick off for their respective clubs and are very cognizant of the fact that Barth landed his big deal without the kickoff responsibilities attached. It didn't seem like a very big impediment when Barth first signed, but it has definitely become a point of contention in recent weeks. Barth handled kickoffs the first three seasons of his career, in Kansas City in 2008 and Jacksonville 2009-2010, but didn't have a single kickoff last year.
Of the four other franchise kickers, all but Dawson had at least 36 touchbacks last season and averaged 64.4 yards or more per kickoff.
It might not seem like a major sticking point, especially with placements so critical in a league where more than 25 percent of the outcomes are determined by three points or fewer, and such an emphasis on field goals. But the four franchise kickers without multi-year contracts and their agents have made the kickoff element a principle bargaining chip in their contract discussions.
--It pays, literally, to be a quarterback. Especially one who has at least been publicly touted by his head coach as a contender for the starting job in Seattle's alleged three-way competition for the top spot on the depth chart.
Although he was chosen only 12th in the third round, Seahawks rookie Russell Wilson of Wisconsin arguably has gotten the best deal in the round so far. Of course, that's partly because the gridlock at the top of the third stanza continues, with none of the initial nine picks having completed contracts.
Wilson, though, has been the only player of the 19 signed in the round to maximize his base salaries under the so-called "25-percent rule" - the primary deterrent to agreements in the top nine spots - and his four-year contract has a better total compensation and better average per year than the two prospects who have signed right above him.
Wilson will earn $749,194 per season, compared to the average for the No. 10 choice (San Diego safety Brandon Taylor, $691,594 annually) and the 11th pick (Kansas City tackle Donald Stephenson, $703,125) in the third round. The reason for the advantage: While Wilson received the allotted signing bonus for his No. 75 overall slot, $619,472, his deal includes base salaries that are larger than the usual minimums paid out to most third-rounders.
Instead of the minimums -- $390,000 (for 2012), $480,000 (2013), $570,000 (2014) and $660,000 (2015) - Wilson received the maximum 25-percent bumps that are being sought by the agents for the first nine players in the round.
According to the 25-percent formula, Seattle could give Wilson increases of $136,217 per year, and it did. His base salaries are $390,000 (2012), $526,217 (2013), $662,434 (2014) and $798,651 (2015). Instead of total base salaries of $2.1 million, the aggregate minimums for 2012-21015, Wilson is scheduled to earn $2.38 million.
Wilson's contract doesn't have the offseason workout bonuses included in some of the third-round contracts - there are deals with such bonuses ranging from $22,500 to $140,000 - but none of those add-ons fully compensate for not having maxed-out deals. Maximizing the minimum salaries remains an impasse in the third round and the representatives for the players involved are all citing Wilson's contract as an example.
--Seattle head coach Pete Carroll has said that Tarvaris Jackson, Matt Flynn and Wilson will wage a legitimate competition for the No. 1 spot, but it was reported in recent days that the incumbent would go to camp next month atop the depth chart.
The reaction that Jackson will get the No. 1 snaps, at least at the outset of camp, has generated mixed reactions both inside and outside of the Seattle organization. The six-year veteran definitely has supporters in the locker room and on the staff as well, but even some people in his corner privately question if Jackson can elevate his game at age 29.
Jackson was 7-7 as a starter in 2011, is .500 in his 34 career starts, has a sub-60 percent completion rate, a passer rating of only 77.7 and only a few more touchdown passes than interceptions (38-35).
Also notable is that Jackson has been with the same coordinator for all six years of his career, Darrell Bevell - five seasons in Minnesota and one in Seattle - and hasn't demonstrated marked improvement in that time. In general, the kind of continuity Jackson has enjoyed at coordinator leads to improvement, but that hasn't been the case.
To Carroll's credit, it doesn't look like finances will play a big part in the competition, even though Flynn will make twice as much ($8 million in total compensation as part of his three-year, $19.5 million free agent deal, to Jackson's $4 million) for 2012. But even with Carroll's run-first philosophy, the NFL has become a quarterback league, and Jackson might be little more than just a No. 2 guy.
In fact, The Sports Xchange has confirmed that at least one free agent pursued this spring by the Seahawks dropped the team from consideration because of his questions about the team's quarterback situation moving forward.
--Former San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill, released in March by the Chargers after having signed a six-year, $49 million deal in 2010, is certainly one of the more interesting players still unsigned as the calendar turns to July and the start of training camps at the end of the month.
And teams increasingly are conducting more due diligence on the six-year veteran, who appeared in a career-low nine games in 2011 because of a neck injury that landed him on injured reserve. McNeill is only 28 years old, is a two-time Pro Bowl pass protector and arguably the top "name" player still available.
But while some franchises have taken a closer look at McNeill in recent weeks, teams remain wary of his past back problems and of the neck injury that curtailed his '11 campaign. McNeill's agent said early in the spring that he has been cleared to return to the field, and the former Auburn star reiterated that at a camp for youngsters in Atlanta last week, but it appears that some skittish teams are going to have to be more convinced.
In the wake of the loss of left tackle Jason Peters for the season, Philadelphia poked around McNeill in the spring, but the Eagles ended up signing Demetress Bell instead. Some Philly officials hinted broadly that they weren't certain McNeill was ready/able to play.
He is on the radar screen, though, of clubs seeking to bolster their offensive lines with camps approaching, and a few teams might be curious enough to peruse physical records and perhaps have McNeill in for a physical. McNeill has started just 20 games the past two years after averaging 15.5 starts his first four seasons in the league.
--Much of the attention for the anticipated improvement of the Dallas secondary in 2012 is pegged to the addition of new cornerbacks Brandon Carr (free agency) and Morris Claiborne (first-round pick), and deservedly so. The reshaping of the position, which will allow Mike Jenkins to move to the key No. 3 cornerback spot, provided he is not traded (and Dallas officials continue to contend, convincingly, that he won't be), should be the prime component that permits the Cowboys to improve over their No. 23 pass defense rating of a year ago.
But in discussions with Dallas coaches, they have also emphasized that the team's play at safety figures to be dramatically improved as well. Gerald Sensabaugh, a heady and aware player who started all 16 games last season, seems better. Free agent addition Brodney Pool should bolster the position as well. And the coaches seem to feel that two-year pro Barry Church is making strides.
But the guy the coaches bring up as a possible starter, even though he missed much of the offseason because if the silly rule that precludes a rookie from practicing until his college has its graduation exercises, is fourth-round pick Matt Johnson of Eastern Washington. Even though the staff's exposure to Johnson was limited in the spring, the coaches like his toughness, grit and instincts, and think he can push for playing time.
A revamped cornerback corps will obviously contribute to the progress of the safeties, but the coaches feel, too, that the interior secondary spot is better on its own, as well.
--At a one-day camp for kids, and also on an Atlanta-area radio station, Denver third-year wide receiver and former first-round draft choice Demaryius Thomas conceded that he must continue to hone his route-running skills, and rookie wideout and fellow onetime Georgia Tech standout Stephen Hill can relate.
A second-round pick, the 43rd player chosen overall in April, Hill played in the same triple-option offense Thomas did with the Yellow Jackets, and faces a similar learning curve in picking up the nuances of patterns.
"We had all the same (routes) in college, but it's still a lot different," Hill, projected to start right out of the chute for the New York Jets, told The Sports Xchange. "There are adjustments, reads on the run, all the fine-tuning stuff, and you've got to develop a connection (with the quarterback). You can have all the (physical) skills in the world, but you have to get the mental and technique things down even more."
One of the fastest risers in the weeks preceding the draft, Hill posted just 49 career receptions at Tech, never more than 28 in a season, but averaged 25.5 yards for his career and 29.3 yards in 2011, and also averaged a touchdown every 5.4 catches.
He made some dazzling grabs in minicamps and OTA sessions, but also displayed some rawness, but the Jets need him to develop fast, given their lack of depth at wide receiver. The only proven veteran is the moody Santonio Holmes, and someone is going to have to step up opposite him. Of the 11 other wide receivers on the current roster, three are rookies and five are first-year players, and the other wideouts total only 21 regular-season starts.
--Chicago middle linebacker Brian Urlacher doesn't seem all that concerned by the possibility the league could use replacements game officials during the season. Said the 12-year veteran this week: "Were the refs that we had before good? Seriously, it doesn't really matter. Yes, there are officials that have been around for a while, and you know their names and have relationships. But at the same time, it doesn't matter." Urlacher might be reminded of that assessment the first time he argues that a replacement zebra has blown a call.
PUNTS: It will be a very quiet gathering, but The Sports Xchange has learned that family members and longtime friends and associates will get together in Las Vegas next week for a memorial to late Oakland owner Al Davis, who died Oct. 8. ... Miami on Thursday promoted Brian Gaine, a five-year veteran of the Dolphins' personnel department, to assistant general manager. Gaine, who interviewed for the St. Louis general manager post in the offseason, could be a personnel executive worth watching over the next few years. ... A few teams have poked around free agent offensive lineman Vernon Carey in recent weeks. The eight-year veteran, a longtime starter in Miami, remains unsigned. Carey will be 31 in July but started 15 games for the Dolphins in 2011, and clubs view him as a potential guard-tackle swingman at the right price. ... Houston officials haven't commenced substantive discussions yet about an extension for quarterback Matt Schaub, who is entering the final season of his contract at a base salary of $7 million-plus, but likely will do so before the end of the summer. The Texans seem satisfied that Schaub is well recovered from last year's foot injury. ... Buffalo coaches are guardedly optimistic over the progress the Bills' offense made in the offseason, but still would like to locate a viable No. 2 wide receiver in camp. Finding a complement to Steve Johnson would allow the Bills to play third-year veteran Donald Jones more in the slot, where the staff feels he could be a play-maker. Jones has good size and speed and seems to have recovered pretty well from an ankle injury that limited him to eight games last season. ... Despite his contention this week that there is an 80 or 90 percent chance that he will play in 2012, quarterback Donovan McNabb hasn't gotten any meaningful nibbles in the offseason, personnel people in the league say. ... The position is trending toward near-extinction, and the traditional role of lead blocker has been decreased in recent years, but it's still notable that all but one team has a fullback on its current roster. The only club without one right now is Indianapolis. ... Regarding the aforementioned state of the Jets' wide receivers: One veteran who did jump out in the spring was free agent addition Chaz Schilens, formerly of Oakland. But the speedy four-year veteran, who has 19 career starts and 72 catches, suffered through a long injury history in his time with the Raiders. ... Although Pittsburgh this week released former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Davis, leaving longtime and aging veterans Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch as the presumptive backups to starter Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers don't seem interested right now in re-signing Dennis Dixon. The four-year veteran, who felt confident he could improve his situation in free agency, hasn't drawn much interest at all. ... The Dallas coaches are excited by their newfound depth at inside linebacker. Emerging star Sean Lee returns for a second season as a starter, and the Cowboys feel that Bruce Carter, a second-round pick in 2011 who appeared in only 10 games while he recovered from a knee injury sustained in his final year at North Carolina, can be special as well. Plus the Cowboys signed former Carolina Panthers part-time starter Dan Connor in free agency.
THE LAST WORD: "I think we're starting to tap out in the United States. If you look at the last Super Bowl we were in this past season, we had over 180 million people watching. That's almost two-thirds of America. So for us to grow the game, we have to expand globally. Having seen the kind of support we have received in London, it is the intention of the owners to get two games here, starting next year." - New England owner Bob Kraft, on the possibility of having a London franchise, a move that he said he supports.