AFC East: Dwight Freeney

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC East:
  • The Buffalo Bills are reportedly one of several teams interested in Seattle Seahawks backup quarterback Matt Flynn.
Morning take: You can’t count the desperate Bills out of any quarterback chase. The Bills know Tarvaris Jackson is not the long-term solution. But Buffalo doesn't have many picks in this draft and may be hard-pressed to trade quality selections to Seattle.
  • Free-agent defensive end Dwight Freeney reportedly wants $6 million per year. Is that too much for the New England Patriots?
Morning take: I do not see New England paying that kind of money. The Patriots are looking for bargains at this stage and Freeney apparently will not come cheap.
Morning take: I'm not big on logos and jerseys. I care much more about how a team plays, not how the uniforms look. But I'm sure many Dolphins fans will feel one way or the other about the changes.
  • Could the New York Jets consider former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o?
Morning take: It's doubtful. The Jets hold the No. 9 overall pick, which is too high for Te'o. New York needs to focus on safer picks early in the draft.
The New England Patriots got off to a slow start to free agency. They didn’t sign anyone on the first day, but made the reactionary signing of receiver Danny Amendola after Wes Welker's departure.

But New England has been busy during Day 4 of free agency. Here are the latest developments:
  • The Patriots are meeting with a variety of free agents Friday. Earlier we mentioned safety Adrian Wilson and defensive end John Abraham. But New England also is reportedly meeting with former Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney. All three fall in the same category of aging veterans the Patriots want to examine and perhaps sign on the cheap. The free-agent market has settled, with most of the major signings done. If New England signs any of these veterans, it will be for short-term, team-friendly contracts.
  • The Patriots made a minor signing Friday by adding former Buffalo Bills starting receiver Donald Jones. He has good speed but injuries consistently derailed Jones in Buffalo. The Patriots are not deep at receiver and Jones will compete for a roster spot in New England this summer.
  • Another interesting development is the Patriots are looking at Steelers receiver Emmanuel Sanders, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. He is a restricted free agent who caught New England's attention. Sanders is a good player who caught 44 receptions last season. If New England makes an offer, Pittsburgh has the right to match. If the Steelers do not match, they would get New England’s third-round draft choice.

Dwight Freeney to Jets is a pipe dream

February, 22, 2013
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Former Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney says it would be great to play in New York, either as a member of the Giants or the Jets.

"Big Blue" seems reasonable, considering the Giants’ love for pass-rushers. But Freeney to the Jets is nothing more than a pipe dream.

The Jets just barely got under the cap this week by cutting five veterans. How are they going to afford a seven-time Pro Bowler like Freeney? The Jets most likely can't afford their own free-agent Pro Bowler: safety LaRon Landry.

In addition, Freeney doesn't fit well in a 3-4 defense the Jets mostly run under head coach Rex Ryan. That is one of the reasons the Colts let go of Freeney.

Freeney says he's likes Ryan. That's par for the course with many players, because Ryan is charismatic and very much a players' coach. However, new general manager John Idzik is making the Jets' decisions, and the money and scheme don't match.

The Jets are in the middle of a long, hard rebuild. Spending the little cap room they currently have on an aging pass-rusher doesn't make a lot of sense. The Jets need to get younger, not older.

Did 'Madden 12' snub Mannings, Brady?

March, 25, 2011
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If there truly is a "Madden" curse, perhaps it's not reserved for the player who appears on the video game's cover each year.

Maybe the real curse is in choosing him.

"It's very polarizing," said Anthony Stevenson, senior product manager for EA Sports, the game's manufacturer. "No matter what we do, half the people will be really, really happy, and half the people will hate it."

Not even turning the process over to the people will solve EA Sports' annual problem. For the first time in the game's 23 years, fans can vote for their favorite team to be on the "Madden NFL 12" cover.

A representative for each of the 32 clubs has been seeded in a single-elimination tournament. A weeklong vote will be held for each round until a champion is announced April 27 on ESPN. Fans also can participate in a March Madness-style bracket challenge to predict the outcome.

Funzo democracy at work, right?

Turns out, folks aren't entirely thrilled with the individual nominees. Reigning MVP Tom Brady and perennial fan favorite Peyton Manning aren't in the field. The Miami Dolphins and Carolina Panthers are represented by offensive tackles. The Seattle Seahawks' option isn't a player at all.

One of the rumors making the rounds is that unusual nominees were required because some stars declined an invitation, that they were afraid of the so-called "Madden" curse.

Eddie George, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick, Vince Young and Brett Favre are among the supposedly doomed honorees.

Stevenson doesn't buy the connection, although fans have started Facebook campaigns for their favorite players not to get votes.

"People do believe there's a curse with Sports Illustrated covers or 'Madden' covers," Stevenson said. "As an NFL player, you cannot believe in that. If you believe in something like that, then you concede when you step on the field, and something bad happens it's not in your control.

"If you believe in a curse, you're probably in trouble. You're asking to get hurt. Athletes want to believe their well-being and their success or failure is 100 percent in their hands."

In fact, Stevenson sees the opposite of a curse when it comes to the "Madden" video-game franchise.

"All of our past cover athletes get together every year, and it's almost like the '72 Dolphins," Stevenson said. "They get together, and it's literally a fraternity."

This year's pledge period is a tournament bracket.

Stevenson called Thursday to explain why a few of the more interesting nominees were chosen.

[+] EnlargeDanny Woodhead
EA SportsDanny Woodhead's story was one reason he was picked over league MVP Tom Brady.
On the decision to nominate New England Patriots running back Danny Woodhead instead of Brady:
"Tom Brady has been there and done that, and certainly he's very deserving of a 'Madden' cover. But Danny Woodhead is such a unique story people fell in love with. He was on 'Hard Knocks.' We followed the emotional cut from the New York Jets. We know Rex Ryan didn't want to let him go. And then to see that division rival pick him up and how integral he was to that Patriots offense ... if you wanted to put a campaign around him from cut to cover, that's just tough to pass up. Everybody loves an underdog."

On choosing the 12th Man for the Seahawks:
"It's the only team that doesn't have an actual player. It's the 12th Man, and the simplest explanation I can give for that is to see the Saints-Seahawks playoff game. That's really all you need to know. They have this unique fan element to it. The 12th Man is legit."

On bypassing Manning for Dwight Freeney for the Indianapolis Colts:
"Like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning is justified to be on the cover any year. But it almost feels that while [Manning] had a very good year, it wasn't his best year. Statistically, it probably was his least successful year in the last five or six. To do it this year seemed a little bit off.
"Dwight Freeney is one of the most feared defenders in the league. We just thought this was something Dwight Freeney could get excited about and get behind and be a brand ambassador."

On choosing the Green Bay Packers' nominee, Aaron Rodgers:
"Green Bay was really difficult. Clay Matthews is a very compelling personality right now. That was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, if you win Super Bowl MVP, you're going to get the nod. But it was a struggle."

On the New York Giants' decision:
"There's Eli Manning. There's Ahmad Bradshaw. But in the end we went with Hakeem Nicks because I felt like he's really the game-changer on that team. He's an up-and-coming wide receiver. I don't think anybody would be shocked if he was a top-three wide receiver at the end of next season. I thought he was fresh blood that would be very interesting."
[+] EnlargeJake Long
EA SportsJake Long is the Dolphins' representative for the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament.
On selecting left tackle Jake Long over a Dolphins skill-position player such as receiver Brandon Marshall:
"Jake Long's play on the field speaks for itself. But having that lineman -- along with [Carolina Panthers tackle] Jordan Gross -- is something we've never had. We wanted to give fans options. If there wasn't an absolutely obvious choice, and for the Dolphins there wasn't, why not give fans an opportunity to vote for an offensive lineman?"

Controversial nominees only help in getting fans enthused about the process.

In addition to creating buzz for the product, the "Madden NFL 12" cover tournament provides a distraction from an otherwise depressing time for the NFL.

"We thought it was really important to give our fans something to be excited about, put a positive spin on the NFL offseason," Stevenson said. "We're making a concerted effort to engage our fans and let them know that there's still going to be a new, innovating game coming out in August. And, if anything, football fans and 'Madden' fans can take solace in that.

"'Madden' potentially could help fill a void this year. Just because Tom Brady can't lead the Patriots to the Super Bowl doesn't mean you can't. You can still do that in 'Madden' and get your football fix."

Cameron Wake apparently still a sleeper

March, 22, 2011
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Seven weeks ago, I disagreed with the notion some readers supported, that Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake deserved to be considered a legitimate candidate for the Associated Press 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

I don't believe he was a complete enough defender for that prestigious accolade. But the one thing Wake does supremely well is rush the passer.

Even so, Wake barely cracked this week's ESPN.com positional power rankings -- for pass-rushers. We didn't rank players based on run-stuffing or pass-coverage. Just pass-rushing.

Wake didn't get as much respect as I thought he should've.

Wake came in 10th in our power rankings because I rated him fourth. Three panelists didn't put him on their ballots at all. One ranked him ninth. Three ranked him 10th.

For the record, this was my ballot:
  1. DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker
  2. Tamba Hali, Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker
  3. Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers outside linebacker
  4. Cameron Wake, Miami Dolphins outside linebacker
  5. Jared Allen, Minnesota Vikings defensive end
  6. John Abraham, Atlanta Falcons defensive end
  7. Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears defensive end
  8. Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts defensive end
  9. Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens outside linebacker
  10. Chris Long, St. Louis Rams defensive end

Wake finished third in the NFL with 14 sacks. He was the most dangerous edge rusher in the AFC East by a big margin. Opponents had to game plan to stop him.

While I don't lean too heavily on stats while putting together my weekly positional power rankings, there are a handful of numbers you want to look for when it comes to pass-rushers. Sacks are the NFL's only official stats that are applicable. Other figures such as quarterback hits and hurries must be tracked by analytical outfits such as Football Outsiders.

Football Outsiders charted Wake third in the NFL with 15 quarterback hits (not counting sacks) and fourth with 38 hurries.

What more can you say?

Other divergences on my ballot included rating Freeney lower than any other panelist, omitting both Steelers outside linebackers, James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, and being the lone voter to include Long.

The reason Long made my list was because he was always around the quarterback last year. He had a respectable 10 sacks, but he led the NFL with 41.5 hurries and was tied for sixth with 14 QB hits in the Football Outsiders data.

Double Coverage: Jets at Colts II

January, 6, 2011
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Double CoverageESPN.com IllustrationWho has the advantage in the wild-card game between the Colts and the Jets this Saturday? Our bloggers debate.
In last season's AFC Championship Game, the upstart New York Jets were on their way to scoring their third straight road upset in the playoffs. They'd already knocked off a pair of division champions and led the Indianapolis Colts in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium.

But the Colts outclassed the Jets in the second half and won easily to advance to the Super Bowl. The Jets had to regroup, knowing that to attain their Super Bowl dreams, they had to figure out a way to get past the Colts.

They won't need to look for them in the playoffs this year. The Jets and Colts will meet in the first round Saturday night, again in Indianapolis.

ESPN.com AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham break down the rematch.

Tim Graham: The first thought I have about the Colts is that Peyton Manning isn't going to win this game with his aura. Aside from past experience, the Jets don't have much reason to quake in their cleats Saturday night. They can beat this guy. Manning has proven to be a mortal without tight end Dallas Clark and receivers Austin Collie and Anthony Gonzalez to target. Seventeen interceptions? Almost knocked out of the playoffs by the Jacksonville Jaguars? These Colts are a shadow of what we've come to know.

Paul Kuharsky: How about with his chakra, then? You've been spending too much time with Ricky Williams, dude. Has Manning been perfect? Hardly. But as Colts blogger Nate Dunlevy points out, and our ESPN Stats & Information confirms, Manning threw for 4,700 yards, tossed for more than 30 touchdowns, connected on 66 percent of his throws, had an interception rate of 2.5 percent and won 10 games. If that's a shadow of what you've known, you must really know Tom Brady’s 2007 season then. Because that was the only other time it has happened.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets' Mark Sanchez
AP Photo/Kathy WillensJets quarterback Mark Sanchez reached 10 wins two games faster than former league MVP Peyton Manning.
TG: Yeah, Manning won 10 games. So did Eli Manning and Josh Freeman. They didn't make the playoffs. The Colts' shadow doesn't have much to do with Peyton Manning slinging the ball all over the yard and racking up yardage. He's still great, but he's not a one-man show. If I were a Colts fan, my concern would be how they needed to close with four straight wins to avoid the embarrassment of being edged out of the playoffs by the Jaguars. The Jets, on the other hand, have shown to be a more complete team. That's how an erratic quarterback like Mark Sanchez can win one more game than Manning did and clinch a playoff berth weeks in advance.

PK: Well, Manning's always been crushed for being great in the regular season and not good enough in the playoffs. Congrats on being the first to hammer him for winning "only" 10 games and the division while throwing to Jacob Tamme and Blair White.

TG: That's what I mean. The Jets can contain those guys much easier than Clark and Collie. Plus, the Jets have been preparing for this matchup since last season's AFC Championship Game. They helplessly watched Manning carve the center of the field against them and realized immediately -- even though they had Darrelle Revis -- they needed more cornerbacks. Specifically with Manning in mind, the Jets traded for Antonio Cromartie and drafted Kyle Wilson in the first round. Previous starting cornerbacks Dwight Lowery and Drew Coleman gave them depth in nickel and dime packages. The Jets' biggest issue is at safety, where injuries have made them vulnerable.

PK: Manning has a bit of experience against teams with poor safety situations. His numbers against Houston and Jacksonville? Just nine touchdowns, one pick and a 101.5 passer rating. On the other side is the unspectacular Sanchez. I doubt Sanchez will be able to attack Aaron Francisco, the Colts' fourth-string strong safety, in a similar fashion, but we'll see. The Sanchize was near perfect in the first half of last season's AFC Championship Game. But the Jets asked him to throw only seven passes. After intermission, Indy greatly reduced his potency. The Colts didn't sack him and were credited with only four hits that day. The Colts' big-play potential from their Pro Bowl defensive ends was neutralized, and they still rolled to a 30-17 win. Of course, it might have had something to do with Manning throwing two-second half touchdowns to Sanchez's zero (and one interception). What happens this time if Dwight Freeney and/or Robert Mathis are able to introduce themselves to him a few times?

TG: Sanchez absolutely is the pivotal figure for the Jets on Saturday night. But, much like the personnel adjustments head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum made on the defensive side to thwart Manning, they made changes on offense with the playoffs in mind. Sanchez might not have progressed much in his second season, but he didn't have a sophomore slump either. He has gained another 11 months and 16 games of NFL experience since the last time he faced the Colts. Plus, the Jets' offense has the ability to come from behind, something it couldn't do before. Last season's Jets were all ground-and-pound, and if an opponent took a two-score lead, the Jets' chances to win were slim. Sanchez showed several times this year he can strike in crunch time. Santonio Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson out of the backfield give him much better weapons to go along with Braylon Edwards and tight end Dustin Keller.

PK: The most dramatic on-the-field difference in the Colts this year as compared to last is how they finished up running the ball and defending the run. Indianapolis enters the playoffs coming off four games in which they ran for 4.5 yards a carry and held opponents to 3.5 yards. Last year in their final four meaningful regular-season games, they were getting 3.5 yards and allowing 4.1 yards.

TG: Maybe the Colts will morph into the 1972 Miami Dolphins before our eyes.

[+] Enlarge Indianapolis Colts running back Joseph Addai
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezColts running back Joseph Addai is averaging 4.3 yards per carry in an injury-plagued season.
PK: A month ago the Colts defense recommitted to playing fast and having fun. It's funny how a team can get away from such simple themes, especially when a return to them produces such fine results. Gary Brackett's been great. Fellow linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have been quite good, even as rookies. Veteran Clint Session could return to take time from Conner. Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen's willing to send in whichever back is best suited for a situation or a matchup, so we could see any sort of mix of running backs Joe Addai, Dominic Rhodes and Donald Brown on Saturday night. They are running more than well enough to give the Colts a balance that makes Manning's play-action super effective.

TG: Momentum on the ground has been a concern for the Jets since their bye in Week 7. Tomlinson went from MVP candidate to looking like the worn out player the San Diego Chargers thought they were bidding farewell. But Shonn Greene and Tomlinson found some traction in the closing weeks. Let's not even factor in what the Jets did against the Buffalo Bills in the regular-season finale, even though their backups trampled the Bills' first-stringers for 276 yards.

PK: I’m always willing to toss out Buffalo. I don’t even really like wings.

TG: Yeah, but I know you still have a cache of Rick James 8-tracks. Anyway, the Jets ran the ball well against three of the NFL's best run defenses late in the year. They surpassed the Pittsburgh Steelers' league-leading average by 43 yards and the Chicago Bears' second-rated run defense by 34 yards. As for stopping the run, the Jets pride themselves on it and improved statistically this year. They ranked third this year at 90.9 yards a game and 3.6 yards a carry. But -- and this is a big one -- they allowed more than 100 yards in each of their games before the finale. The Steelers averaged 5.8 yards a carry. The Bears averaged 4.4 yards. That said, I would be willing to bet if the Colts wanted to try to run the Jets to death and not have Manning throw so much, then the Jets would be thrilled.

PK: Give me a little impersonation of Rex Ryan thrilled after winning this game.

TG: It probably would go a little something like this ... "Well, shoot, doesn't feel much better than that, to be honest with ya. We played like Jets today. It was a dogfight out there; I'll tell ya that much. Those Colts are sunthin' else. One thing I'll say about them: I saw Joseph Addai running like Lydell Mitchell out there and was, like, 'Whoa! Wait a second! We could be in for a long day here.' But our defense was flying around and eventually found a way to wrestle him down out there. I said earlier in the week this was personal with Peyton Manning, and they do a great job. He's great, and it's hard to get to him, but I just feel like we knew what to expect and were able to find a way to bear down and put all our chips in the center of the table and beat him. That guy's had my number and it feels good to know I can beat the guy when it counts. But I gotta give a ton of credit to our offense out there, too. Mark Sanchez played great and showed why we traded up to draft him. That right there's what we saw when we scouted him and just knew this guy was going to be a special player. Their crowd was tough with the way they were roaring at the opening kickoff I was, like, 'Whooo! Here we go!' It was full speed ahead. But one thing I should point out is that I broke out my lucky sweatshirt with the pizza stain this week." ... How would Jim Caldwell react to a Colts win Saturday night?

PK: I can hear him, his voice just the same as if they'd have lost: "We're pleased to have beaten a good football team, a quality football team. It's gratifying that our work this week paid off. I shared with you some of the examples of the studiousness I encountered during the preparation week. You saw the rewards of that. We'll enjoy it, we should enjoy it, it was hard-fought and we’re fortunate. We will have to do those same things to prepare for Pittsburgh. It’s a tough place to play, an excellent football team. It's a new challenge. It will be fun to see them get out there and see what they can do."

TG: In that case, I'm glad I'll be covering the Jets' locker room, win or lose. It'll be more interesting. I think the Jets have a better chance to win the game than a lot of prognosticators are giving them credit for. But even if they can't pull off the upset, they'll face a lot of questions as an organization. With all of the negative attention they've generated this season, a loss against the team they spent a year preparing for should lead to considerable introspection in Florham Park. Should we make picks?

PK: Sure. I pick St. Elmo. Make a reservation.

Video: Colts at Patriots 'Field Pass'

November, 20, 2010
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ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth, Tedy Bruschi and Matthew Berry break down the key matchups for Sunday's game between the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium.

Double Coverage: Pats vs. Colts in 2015

November, 18, 2010
11/18/10
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Colts and PatriotsESPN.com IllustrationPeyton Manning and Tom Brady have been at the center of arguably the best rivalry of the past decade. Who will carry it on when they step away from the game?
The annual AFC showdown is upon us, and with it come the recurring storylines.

That's right, the Indianapolis Colts will meet the New England Patriots on Sunday for an eighth straight season. The NFL's greatest ongoing interdivisional rivalry showcases two of the great organizations of this generation and renews the discussion about Peyton Manning's stats versus Tom Brady's championships.

We've decided to rekindle the debate, but before you throw your head back and groan in anticipation of the clichés, hold your horseshoes.

The purpose of this debate is to eliminate Manning and Brady and look into the future.

Which team has the better long-range outlook once Manning and Brady move on?

For the purpose of this discussion, we've set the target for 2015 -- one year beyond the length of Brady's latest contract extension -- to examine which team has the better infrastructure to cope with life minus its iconic quarterback.

Tim Graham: Time to get after it, Paul. But no weapons this time, please. I've just recently completed the physical therapy from our last debate.

Paul Kuharsky: Well, this back-and-forth will be less physically taxing, and since there is so much forecasting, you may actually be able to put your Jedi training to use.

Graham: Get this debate started we shall, hmmm?

Kuharsky: So what do the Colts and Patriots have now that's going to be a big factor for them in five years?

Jerry Hughes
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesWill 2010 first-round pick Jerry Hughes develop into a cornerstone on the Colts' defense?
I count eight guys who are in their first, second or third year with the franchise who I expect will still be prime contributors in 2015. But only three of the eight fit into the framework of the four most important positions on the field -- quarterback, left tackle, defensive end and cornerback. Those players would be corners Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey and defensive end Jerry Hughes.

Hughes is still unproven, but it's early and Colts president Bill Polian saw the potential for him to ultimately replace a Dwight Freeney or a Robert Mathis.

Others who may still be staples when Manning is gone: receiver Austin Collie, linebacker Pat Angerer, tight end Jacob Tamme, tight end Brody Eldridge and punter Pat McAfee. Can that group be the core of a team that continues to win? I wish I could offer a solid yes or no instead of a tepid maybe.

Beyond that, we've got five drafts to consider, right? And Polian regularly finds undrafted gems. I don't doubt the Colts will have talent. But they'll need new Freeney-, Dallas Clark- and Reggie Wayne-caliber stars, plus the replacement quarterback.

Graham: Patriots overlord Bill Belichick has drawn deserved criticism for his draft failures. He has swung and missed at his share of Terrence Wheatleys and Kevin O'Connells and Chad Jacksons in the early rounds.

But when you accumulate as many picks as the Patriots have and have elite football minds evaluating the talent, those bad decisions are going to even out eventually. The Patriots appear to be warming up when it comes to successful drafting.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hernandez
AP Photo/Paul Spinelli Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez ranks second on the Patriots in catches and receiving yards.
The Patriots went into Heinz Field and manhandled the Pittsburgh Steelers with four rookies in their starting defensive lineup (defensive end Brandon Deaderick, outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes and left cornerback Devin McCourty) and a rookie tight end (Rob Gronkowski), who caught three touchdowns. Another rookie tight end (Aaron Hernandez) ranks second on the team in catches and receiving yards. Their punter is a rookie.

They don't have as many second- and third-year contributors, but inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was defensive rookie of the year in 2008. Among the sophomores are starting right tackle Sebastian Vollmer and receivers Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman, who also handle return duties.

Without question, there will be a drop-off at quarterback when Brady retires, but the Patriots are loaded with core youth.

Kuharsky: The Colts may draft better, but they also draft less. Polian's not the draft pick wheeler-and-dealer Belichick is. Are those the guys who will be lining up the Manning and Brady successors?

It's a quarterback-driven league, and teams minus Manning and Brady will have major voids. We've got to talk about the replacements for the iconic quarterbacks, but it's hard to offer much conjecture on what kind of guy that will be without talking about who will be finding him.

Polian is 67 years old, and the last time I asked him about any sort of plan for retirement he gave me a head tilt and an uncomfortable expression.

Graham: I've noticed a lot of people do that around you.

Kuharsky: If things are neat and tidy, the suspicion is he and Manning -- the guy he hit the jackpot with when he picked him over Ryan Leaf -- will exit together. The next generation is waiting in the wings. Chris Polian is Indianapolis' vice president and general manager.

Chris Polian
AP PhotoCurrent Colts VP Chris Polian is likely play a key role in finding Peyton Manning's successor.
I'd expect Bill Polian will have a strong hand in selecting the Colts' quarterback of the future. But it will ultimately be Chris Polian who's connected to that signal-caller the way Bill Polian is connected to Manning. The younger Polian has a good reputation and good football genes, but it's hard to know how much of his father's personnel judgment he's inherited and how much he's learned. And having to replace a guy many will argue is the greatest quarterback of all time will be an awfully difficult assignment.

Graham: I don't know how long Belichick plans to coach, but even if he were to get tired of the week-to-week grind of getting his boys ready to play, it's fathomable he'll stick around to run the operation, handpicking his successor and overseeing football operations.

It would be silly to give Belichick more than a smidgen of credit for drafting Brady in the sixth round a decade ago. If Belichick truly knew what Brady was capable of, the Patriots wouldn't have passed on him until the 199th pick. So it's not like Belichick will simply wait until Brady's on the verge of retirement and automatically snag a replacement.

Kuharsky: True. But they knew more than everybody else when they finally did take him.

Graham: Belichick trusted his scout, and they unearthed a gem.

I believe Belichick's support staff is stronger than Polian's. Senior adviser Floyd Reese oversaw the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans' drafts when they picked Steve McNair and Vince Young. Player personnel director Nick Caserio, like a lot of Belichick's sidekicks over the years, will develop the tools to run his own show someday.

Kuharsky: I don't know that Belichick's got better support. It's just more well known and visible support.

Graham: And a high-profile owner who is willing to trust his front office, will spend money and doesn't dare meddle. That's another key component to New England's success over the past decade.

Kuharsky: Moving onto the replacement quarterback himself, Curtis Painter is Manning's current backup. But based on his work in a couple of regular-season games the team didn't care about winning at the end of last season and some preseason work, most people aren't forecasting anything special from him. And that would amount to quite a lengthy apprenticeship anyway.

Graham: You wouldn't think the Patriots have Brady's successor on the roster either. Brian Hoyer is an undrafted sophomore with virtually no experience so far. But you never can tell how these guys will develop while working alongside Brady for a few years. This is the team that identified Matt Cassel, a seventh-round draft choice who hadn't started a game since high school, as its top backup for 2008. He ended up going 11-5 when Brady blew out his knee.

Kuharsky: The Colts will need a guy for a super-tough replacement job. It would be awfully difficult for them to land in a Aaron Rodgers for Brett Favre or Michael Vick for Donovan McNabb replacement situation.

After hitting a grand slam with the No. 1 pick in 1998, odds would suggest that it will be tough for them to line up with the right guy at the right pick at the right time. The way they build, odds are Manning's heir will be a guy who plays a full college career. So he's a college freshman or a high-school senior right now, depending on their plan for easing him in.

Graham: The Colts and Patriots finish too high in the standings every year and don't get to pick until the 20s. That will make it nearly impossible to snag some golden-armed top prospect in their assigned draft positions. But the Patriots frequently go into drafts with other teams' picks -- and an abundance of them. They often have copious draft assets to move up if they want to. Or maybe the Patriots will obtain that big-ticket pick waaaaay in advance. A year ago, Belichick traded Richard Seymour to the Oakland Raiders for their 2011 first-round selection. That's the kind of creative investing that could pay off with a high-quality quarterback prospect down the road.

Kuharsky: It will definitely be more difficult for the Colts to get to the top of a draft to get a premier guy. And there may need to be a post-Manning down-cycle for the team to get up there and find the guy. Scribes in Indianapolis often wonder aloud what happens to the Colts' crazed support if they turn into a 5-11 rebuilding project. The rest of the AFC South certainly hopes that's how it works, and that the division is a lot more wide open once Manning's not in it.

And while we're forecasting five years out, I have two questions: Will Manning still be a deadpanning TV commercial superstar? And will Brady have had a haircut?

Graham: There's one unwavering prediction I can make about hair, Paul, but it's not about Brady's.

Analyzing the Chris Kelsay extension

October, 8, 2010
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The Buffalo Bills have made some controversial personnel moves over the past two weeks.

They dumped quarterback Trent Edwards, their opening-day starter.

They traded Marshawn Lynch, their leading rusher, for a fourth-round draft pick.

They're perhaps the worst team in the league, but their top prospects can't get on the field.

[+] EnlargeChris Kelsay
Tim Steadman/Icon SMIChris Kelsay's contract extension takes him through the 2014 season.
They didn't feel rookie quarterback Levi Brown was worthy of their practice squad but re-signed him to the active roster.

One of the moves that really flummoxed Bills followers had nothing to do with the lineup. The Bills last week signed outside linebacker Chris Kelsay to a four-year contract extension worth about $24 million. In addition to the extension, he received an immediate $2 million bonus.

Kelsay has been a nice player for the Bills, but nothing phenomenal. He's a standup guy in the locker room. He has been a starter for seven seasons and has missed only two games since the Bills drafted him 48th overall in 2003. He has 22 sacks in 114 career games.

Readers have asked for my take on the contract, but I decided to hold off until I could gather enough information on how the deal was broken down.

With help from NFL Players Association documents and the Elias Sports Bureau, I can give you a look at Kelsay's deal with league-wide context and then ask: How would you choose to spend $5 million a year on a defensive player?

The way the math is done, Kelsay's per-year average works out to $5 million. The average consists of base salaries plus what the league calls "likely to be earned bonuses" divided by the length of the deal.

"Likely to be earned bonuses" are incentives that are easy to reach or that a player has a history of achieving. "Unlikely to be earned bonuses," such as winning the Super Bowl MVP or leading the league in kickoff return yardage (don't laugh; these types of things actually appear in some deals), are not factored into the annual average.

To determine whether Kelsay was worth the new contract, I did what a lot of agents would do when it's time to negotiate a contract for a specific client. They research for comparable players, using key criteria such as age, games played, statistics and team success.

I asked the Elias Sports Bureau to run a crosscheck of its data base to find all of the 4-3 defensive ends and 3-4 outside linebackers who are 30 or 31 years old (Kelsay will turn 31 on Halloween) and have played at least 100 games.

The list is surprisingly small. The attached chart gives the complete rundown of 10 players who fit the description with their sack totals and average annual salary.


Of that group, Kelsay is the highest-paid 3-4 outside linebacker and fourth overall, behind superstar defensive ends Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney and three-time Pro Bowl defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch. All three have at least twice as many sacks as Kelsay.

"The thing you don't want to do is take your core guys and your leaders out of your system," Bills general manager Buddy Nix said Thursday, the first time he commented on Kelsay's extension. "We decided, obviously, that we've got four, five or six guys like that. They maybe are not great players, but good players that set the tone for what you want everybody else to be.

"Chris Kelsay is a good player. He exemplifies what we want players to do and how we want them to be. So that's the reason he's here."

Strange as it might seem, Kelsay's average per year actually went down with his new deal. The NFLPA still had him categorized as a defensive end heading into 2010 because that's the position he played his entire career before the Bills switched to a 3-4 scheme.

His average salary was $5.75 million, making him the 15th highest-paid defensive end regardless of age or experience. He was listed ahead of Robert Mathis, Shaun Ellis, Trent Cole and Chris Long, who received a gaudy contract as the second overall draft pick in 2008.

With all that in mind, I ask again why the Bills needed to sign Kelsay to an extension, and why now? Who else would have paid Kelsay this much? Did the Bills feel like they would be in danger of losing him as a free agent?

I think those are good questions.

Wake dominates Porter as a pass-rusher

February, 3, 2010
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Joey Porter contends he's unquestionably the best outside linebacker on the Miami Dolphins' roster.

That might be true.

But when it purely came to generating pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Cameron Wake blew Porter away.

Wake


Porter


That's what data compiled by the analysts at ProFootballFocus.com shows. Wake was a dominant pass rusher, ranking among the NFL's elite, right there with Dwight Freeney.

Porter on Tuesday criticized the Dolphins for giving too many of his snaps to Wake, but the numbers indicate coach Tony Sparano was plenty justified.

ProFootballFocus.com breaks down game film and calculates various stats to evaluate the otherwise unquantifiable. One of its stats is called "pass rushing productivity," a measurement of the three main quarterback-chasing elements: sacks, hits and pressures.

The equation adds all three and divides by the player's number of pass-rush snaps to come up with a PRP rating. ProFootballFocus.com credits half sacks as full sacks to not penalize a player for reaching the quarterback at the same time as a teammate. Hits and pressures are assigned a value of .75 apiece.

Now that we've gotten the math out of the way, let's take a look at how Wake and Porter compare.

For ranking purposes, Neil Hornsby and Sam Monson of ProFootballFocus.com explain they consider Wake a 4-3 defensive end based on how the Dolphins used him. Wake dropped into pass coverage three times all season.

Among all NFL players, Wake ranked first with a 19.78 PRP rating. Wake didn't play enough snaps to qualify for the NFL leaderboard, but for comparison, Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney led the league with a 13.7 PRP.

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker Lamarr Woodley was second with a 12.4 PRP, followed by Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware at 12.0, Colts defensive end Robert Mathis at 11.2, Denver Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil at 10.9 and Steelers linebacker James Harrison at 10.8.

Wake's PRP rating was nearly triple that of his closest teammate. Jason Taylor led full-time Dolphins with a 7.62 PRP rating.

Admittedly, it's difficult to compare Wake and Porter straight up. Porter is considered a 3-4 outside linebacker because he played against the run and would drop into pass coverage.

But that's the beauty of PRP rating. It measures only snaps in which the defender rushes the quarterback.

ProFootballFocus.com credited Wake with 20 pressures, six hits and seven sacks (5.5 actual sacks) on only 134 rushes.

Porter tallied 11 pressures, five hits and nine sacks (nine actual) on 354 rushes.

Porter had a 5.93 PRP, fifth on the team behind Wake, Taylor, Kendall Langford (6.42) and Randy Starks (6.34).

"As it turns out Wake was actually generating more pressure, period, than Porter, let alone on a per-snap basis," Monson said. "Given all those numbers, someone might want to suggest to Porter he watch the tape and think himself lucky he wasn't losing more snaps to Wake."

Video: Light says Pats must get tougher

January, 26, 2010
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video

New England Patriots left tackle Matt Light stopped by "Mike & Mike" to talk about his team's early exit from the playoffs, the dislocated kneecap he suffered earlier in the season and what the next two weeks will be like for the Super Bowl teams.

Double Coverage: Jets-Colts

January, 21, 2010
1/21/10
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Double CoverageGetty ImagesQuarterbacks Peyton Manning and Mark Sanchez are expected to play different roles in their respective offenses in Sunday's AFC Championship Game.
No matter what style of football gets your blood pumping on Sunday afternoons, the AFC Championship Game should quicken your pulse.

The New York Jets call their approach "ground and pound." The Indianapolis Colts own one of the NFL's more prolific aerial attacks.

In that spirit, AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky and AFC East blogger Tim Graham tried their bloggerest to break down Sunday's matchup in Lucas Oil Stadium. It’s a quasi-rematch of what transpired in Week 16 between the sorta Colts and the full-go Jets. New York prevailed 29-15 over what amounted to Indianapolis’ reserves in the second half.

Paul Kuharsky: OK, we have to start with the Jets' identity, and that's not just defense, but an attacking defense. Rex Ryan's guys blitz more than anyone in the league.

That isn't a good match against the Colts. I know New York just dispatched the Chargers and a quarterback in Philip Rivers who is quite good against the blitz. But Rivers is a neophyte compared to Peyton Manning, and it's long been held that the quickest way to get beat by Manning is to send people at him. ESPN Stats & Information says he posted a 101.4 passer rating when teams sent five or more pass-rushers during the regular season.

He simply won't hold the ball long enough to be sacked, and with fewer numbers in coverage, he will find the favorable matchup to attack. (Shameless plug: I wrote about how quickly the ball is out of his hand earlier this week.)

I know the Jets don't have any give-up in them. Still, I think the longer you go at the Colts in that fashion without success, the more dispiriting it can be. That’s the case even if the Colts have to dink and dunk. Let Manning hit a home run to Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon or Austin Collie and it's even worse.

Tim Graham: All right. Everybody knows I don't like you, and you don't like me. But let's see if we can get through this without any name-calling.

There's a myth about the Jets' defense that because defenders always go, go, go after opposing quarterbacks, they rack up a lot of sacks and get quarterbacks rattled. Not so. The Jets registered only 32 sacks all year, more than only 10 other teams. The Buffalo Bills had 32 sacks.

[+] EnlargeDarrelle Revis
Kirby Lee/US PresswireThe Jets moved Darrelle Revis around in coverage last Sunday against the Chargers.
What makes the Jets' attacking defense work is the confusion it creates. Quarterbacks don't know where the pressure will come from or which defenders will handle which receivers. Against the San Diego Chargers last week, Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis would be on No. 1 receiver Vincent Jackson one play and tight end Antonio Gates the next. The Jets' defensive mission is to get a quarterback to second-guess what he's seeing. They're just as interested in forcing an incomplete pass as they are in the big quarterback hit.

That's why the Jets are so masterful at managing down and distance. They routinely get teams into unfavorable situations. No defense allowed a lower percentage of third-down conversions or overall first downs, a measly 14.8 a game.

PK: Manning didn’t win MVP No. 4 by getting confused. If Revis is on Wayne, Manning will look to Clark or Garcon. If Revis is on Clark, Manning will look to Wayne or Collie. He’s not going to put his hands on his helmet and called a panicked timeout over the sort of switcharoo that sent Chad Henne or Josh Freeman into a spiral. The Jets weren’t that masterful while losing seven games.

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Jets wary of Colts pass-rushers

January, 21, 2010
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- As if the New York Jets needed another reason to prefer running over passing.

The Jets own the NFL's most prolific run offense and enter a wobbly realm when rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez must throw. The Indianapolis Colts, meanwhile, have the league's 24th-ranked run defense.

Freeney
Mathis
It's quite obvious what the Jets plan to do Sunday in the AFC Championship Game.

Jets right tackle Damien Woody mentioned another reason they need to establish the run: Take "the sting" out of Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

Woody will match up against Mathis, who didn't play when the Jets beat the Colts in Week 16.

"We didn't see Mathis," Woody said. "He's a heck of a player. They have the two best bookends in the National Football League. Those guys get to the quarterback well.

"Our running game's going to be even more prevalent this week to take the sting out of those guys as far as rushing the passer. We're going to have to get physical because those guys really get up the field."

If the Jets run well enough that Sanchez doesn't have to drop back, they generally win. In their past seven victories, he hasn't completed more than 13 passes.

Mathis recorded 9.5 sacks in 14 games. Freeney also missed two games but finished with 14.5 sacks, second only to Denver Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil in the AFC.

Handing off to Shonn Greene and Thomas Jones to keep Sanchez out of the crosshairs never looked like a better strategy for the Jets.

"We feel like we can do it against anybody," Woody said. "The numbers speak for themselves. We've been running the ball all year long.

"We're consistent and we stick to it. We're going to run the ball the same way in the first quarter that we do in the fourth quarter. Our team knows that you might stop us for the first quarter, but we're going to keep coming at you the whole game."

Colts-Dolphins halftime observations

September, 21, 2009
9/21/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham


MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts enter halftime tied at 13 on "Monday Night Football."

Some observations from the Land Shark Stadium press box through two quarters:

The Wildcat gets frisky: The Dolphins ran the Wildcat four times in the first quarter for 33 yards, including Ronnie Brown's 14-yard touchdown to tie the score on their opening drive. The offense needed a spark after last week's performance in the Georgia Dome, and the Wildcat seemed to provide it.

Brown gains one fewer yard on Miami's first possession than he had all last week: Brown looked like a superstar, running for 42 yards on the opening drive. He went into the half with 83 yards. He eclipsed the 100-yard barrier three times last year, topping out at 125 in Week 5.

Dolphins tackle Jake Long has done well against pass-rush specialist Dwight Freeney: Long had a rough opener against the Atlanta Falcons, giving up two sacks, half a sack less than the total he gave in his Pro Bowl rookie season. Freeney recorded a sack in the second quarter, but it was due to the Colts' coverage on a play that forced Chad Pennington to scramble.

Peyton Manning seems to be completing passes at will: Manning has completed 7 of 14 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. His percentage isn't that great, but he's hitting them when they count. He connected with Dallas Clark for a 20-yard pickup to put the Colts in field goal range with two ticks left in the second quarter. Adam Vinatieri kicked a 48-yard field goal to tie the score.

The Dolphins must figure out how to contain Clark: He scored an 80-yard touchdown on the game's opening play, and three of his four receptions have been for first downs.

Dan Carpenter has made two difficult kicks for Miami: He nailed 45- and 44-yard kicks in the second quarter, both of them off the Florida Marlins' infield dirt.

Finally, O-line least of Jets concerns

June, 8, 2009
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Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- There's a load to discuss when it comes to the New York Jets.

Their ostentatious new head coach is generating headlines. Grandiose expectations have been placed on a revamped defense. Fans wonder who their quarterback will be and wring their hands about the receivers he'll throw to. Running backs are unhappy with their contracts.

For a change, nobody is talking about the Jets' offensive line.

 
  Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
  D'Brickashaw Ferguson is part of an offensive line that had the same five starters in every game a year ago.

All five starters are back after an admirable season in which nobody missed a start. And on a coaching staff that has experienced considerable turnover, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and line coach Bill Callahan remain.

"It's always good when you have that cohesion," Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson said Saturday afternoon during a break at receiver David Clowney's youth football clinic. "Everybody's been the same, all our players, even the guys who don't start, our core is firm."

New York's offensive linemen were a strength in 2008, maybe the strength. For the first time in a long while, the front office didn't need to commit significant offseason resources to O-line restoration.

Three years ago, the Jets dedicated a pair of first-round draft picks toward re-establishing the line. They selected Ferguson fourth overall and center Nick Mangold 29th.

They fortified the unit through free agency last year, spending big bucks on perennial Pro Bowl left guard Alan Faneca and the versatile Damien Woody, who they inserted at right tackle. That gave them four first-round picks to go along with undrafted right guard Brandon Moore, a starter the past five seasons.

Mangold emerged as one of the league's best centers and made his first Pro Bowl. Faneca went to his eighth straight.

"It's interesting because even though the spotlight might've changed a little bit, every year is a new year," Ferguson said. "You're only as good as what you can do today.

"If we don't go out there and produce as a unit" -- he began to rhythmically slap the back of his right hand into his left palm to hammer home the point -- "you guys are going to be 'Hey, what's wrong with the line?' It's always a constant reminder that you might not have the spotlight on you right now, but that doesn't mean that you're not being watched, that people are not analyzing what you do."

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