AFC East: Julius Peppers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Julius Peppers strolled through the Best Buy store in suburban Ashwaubenon, located just two miles down Oneida Street from Lambeau Field, looking for a new case for his iPhone this week.

No one stopped him for an autograph or asked to take a selfie with him.

[+] EnlargeJerry Hughes, Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Bills fans
Bill Wippert/Associated PressGreen Bay and Buffalo are similar in many ways, including player-fan celebrations.
He's not even sure if anyone gawked.

Such is life for a Green Bay Packers' player in the NFL's smallest city.

"These people around here are used to having Brett Favre here, Reggie White here," Peppers said. "They’ve got A-Rod [Aaron Rodgers] in their town, so it's not like it's anything special to see a high-profile football player out. I think people around here handle it pretty good. I don't get bothered at all really."

Peppers imagines it's much the same in Buffalo, New York, the NFL's second-smallest outpost. That makes this week's game between the Packers and Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium different from a normal NFL Sunday.

No, these aren't the one-stoplight, cow towns they're often made out to be -- Green Bay is home to 104,779 in the city proper and Buffalo has 258,959, according to 2013 U.S. Census Bureau figures -- but they're not Chicago or even Charlotte, North Carolina, where Peppers split his first 12 NFL seasons. In Northeast Wisconsin and Western New York, the NFL is either the only game in town or the biggest one.

"It's kind of similar to Green Bay's fanbase," Peppers said. "Small town. Those guys love their Bills. It's going to be one of those atmospheres that's going to be a challenge as well to go into an environment like that and perform."

Given their NFC-AFC affiliations, the Packers and Bills play just once every four years and go eight years between visits to each other's city. Only three players -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker A.J. Hawk and special teamer Jarrett Bush -- were with the Packers the last time they played at Buffalo in 2006, and Rodgers was still two years away from becoming the starter.

That's why on Wednesday, during his first address to the team this week, Packers coach Mike McCarthy talked his players through what to expect on Sunday in Buffalo.

"Talked about the small town, similar characteristics to Green Bay, the passion of their fanbase and really the type of environment that we're getting ready to go into," McCarthy said of his speech to the team. "It's an older stadium, small locker room. It's old-school NFL football. It's something I've always appreciated playing there in the past, and once again you have to make sure your team is ready for that."

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsPackers running back James Starks was raised in Western New York and went to the University at Buffalo, making Sunday a homecoming for him.
Few know how similar the NFL life can be in Green Bay and Buffalo better than Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. Van Pelt, who joined McCarthy's coaching staff in 2012, played all nine of his NFL seasons in Buffalo, where he was mostly a backup from 1995 to 2003 but started 11 games.

"Not just the similarities of the organizations, but the city," Van Pelt said. "It's a safe place. It's a good place to raise a family. The values and everything are good there. It reminds me of a Midwest town with the blue-collar workmanship. A lot of those are very similar here. When people ask me how's Green Bay? I'm like, 'Well, it's a little bit smaller than Buffalo but very similar.'"

Except perhaps for the fans.

Van Pelt called Bills' supporters "some of the best fans I've been around” in part because "they understand they can get loud when they need to. Quarterback starts to audible, you'll hear the crowd get higher and higher."

"But maybe a little rougher than say, the Green Bay crowd," Van Pelt added. "I remember coming here as a player and the fans telling you on the way out, 'Good job. Good luck the rest of the year.' You may not get that in Buffalo."

Independent of Van Pelt, Packers running back James Starks made a similar point. Starks grew up in Niagara Falls, New York, went to college at Buffalo and as a kid attended Thurman Thomas' football camps in Orchard Park, New York, where the Bills' stadium is located.

"They're very similar," said Starks, who has tickets for 20 relatives attending Sunday's game. "Real small. The football organizations bring in a lot to the community. Loyal fans. I think Green Bay's are a little more respectful and stuff. Their fans are a little more, I don't know ..."

Starks, wearing a Brooklyn Nets hat and a New York hoodie, didn't finish his thought on Friday afternoon. It was time to go home, first to his Green Bay locale and then to his real home this weekend.

"There’s no place like home," McCarthy said. "Obviously, everybody enjoys going back to their hometown, and I know this is special for James and his family. James is always smiling; his smile is bigger this week."
DAVIE, Fla. – Miami Dolphins starting offensive tackle Ja'Wuan James is getting the biggest test of his career on Sunday. He must block Pro Bowl pass-rushers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers.

Welcome to the NFL, rookie.

James, Miami's No. 19 overall pick, will have his hands full when the Dolphins (2-2) host the Green Bay Packers (3-2) at Sun Life Stadium. Peppers will start opposite James at left outside linebacker. But Matthews also moves around in Green Bay's defensive scheme and will get playing time against Miami's rookie right tackle. Peppers and Matthews have combined for 171 career sacks.

It will be up to James to see that those sack numbers don't increase this week.

“I see that as a great opportunity. I’m a competitor," James said of facing Peppers and Matthews. "That’s what I love to do. As offensive linemen, we don’t catch touchdowns. We compete against each other [in the trenches]."

Miami drafted James because general manager Dennis Hickey and his staff believed he was NFL-ready. James had 49 career starts at the University of Tennessee and has answered the call in Miami so far.

James played in all four games for the Dolphins and hasn't missed a snap. According to Pro Football Focus, James allowed just one sack and three quarterback hits this season. PFF rated James the No. 26 offensive tackle (right and left) in the NFL, which is a solid number for a rookie. Dolphins teammate and left tackle Branden Albert was rated the third-best tackle.

Miami has only allowed nine sacks in four games.

“He’s got good poise for a young player,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said of James. “I think he’s been good on the sideline. When he comes off the field, I think he can communicate what’s happening. If he did make a mistake, he can fix it.”

Peppers, 34, continues to make big plays in his 13th season. Last week, Peppers returned an interception 49 yards for a touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings in one of the most impressive defensive plays of the season.

James, 22, is a dozen years younger than Peppers but looks forward to the challenge of keeping him off Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill this Sunday.

“It’s really amazing. That’s one of the people I watched a lot growing up,” James said. “He’s a great player. I always thought he was a great player and very athletic -- even watching him as a basketball player at North Carolina.

“It’s going to be fun to compete against him. But at the same time, it’s kind of cool to think I’m going to be going against Julius Peppers.”

How many D players better than Revis?

July, 6, 2011
Herm Edwards and Skip Bayless didn't stop arguing after they compared their top five offensive players on "First Take." They debated the other side of scrimmage, too.

New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis made both lists. Edwards, a former NFL defensive back, rated Revis fourth, one slot ahead of Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha as the best of that position. Bayless ranked Revis third.

The eye-opener was Edwards' omission of Pittsburgh Steelers star Troy Polamalu (a technical gaffe notwithstanding), while putting Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed third. Polamalu was second on Bayless' list.

Cameron Wake apparently still a sleeper

March, 22, 2011
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 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.

Revisiting Cam Wake and the DPOY debate

February, 3, 2011
A couple days ago, I asked whether or not Miami Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake was slighted because he didn't receive any votes for the Associated Press 2010 Defensive Player of the Year Award.

In the comments section underneath, the discussion was entertaining and the opinions passionate on both sides. I thought it would be worthwhile to revisit the issue and share some of the thoughts that were hashed out.

As I posted there, one of my chief concerns about debating Wake's season was that readers were quoting all sorts of inaccurately inflated stats. Some claimed Wake led the league in combined sacks and tackles for losses and insisted he notched double digits in both categories.

That's difficult to declare. While sacks are an official NFL stat, tackles are not. They are open to interpretation and charted by each coaching staff while reviewing game film. Teams apply different criteria to TFLs. Must they be solo tackles only? Are assists counted? Is a half-sack worth a full TFL?

For the record, the Dolphins credited Wake with 21 tackles for losses. That includes his 14 sacks. But the Dolphins also count a half-sack as one TFL, and Wake had two half-sacks in his total.

That means Wake had six TFLs not related to sacks. The math: 13 full sacks plus two half-sacks equal 15 TFLs directly from sacks. Subtract that from his 21 TFLs.

Now for the assertion Wake led the league in combined sacks and TFLs ... Wake finished third in sacks behind Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali.

The Cowboys credited Ware with nine TFLs. The Chiefs pegged Hali with 6.5 TFLs, showing they don't subscribe to the Dolphins' policy of counting a half-sack as a full TFL. Either way, both finished with a higher combo of tackles behind the line of scrimmage than Wake.

And neither Ware nor Hali received any defensive player of the year votes either.

Now that we've cleared that up, what about the general idea that Ware deserved to finish among the seven who received a vote? A reminder:
Most criticism from Wake supporters focused not on Polamalu, but on Matthews. Some readers contended Wake was more dominant than Matthews.

Wake did have a half-sack more than Matthews, who played one fewer game and battled hamstring and shin injuries for a portion of the season. We can't say for sure how many TFLs Matthews recorded because the Packers don't believe in them. But he did have an interception return for a touchdown and two forced fumbles. Wake had no interceptions and three forced fumbles.

So it's an interesting discussion, I suppose. Wake is an elite pass-rusher. He dominated backfields at times. But I think the Associated Press panel simply valued defenders who were more forceful all over the field.

Plus, Wake steadily compiled sacks throughout the season and didn't hold his brief NFL lead until the Dolphins were out of the playoff hunt. By then, nobody was paying attention to the Dolphins anymore, including their fans based on all those empty Sun Life Stadium seats in November and December.

Matthews, meanwhile, generated a lot of buzz with his torrid start.

Longtime AFC East blog follower Lori Chase (aka LCHASE2249), maybe the most astute reader-analyst out there, also pointed out the following about sacks leaders:
Fourteen sacks -- which ties [Wake] for 96th on the all-time single-season list -- and Finfans are miffed that none of the AP voters thought their guy was the greatest defensive player in the league in 2010? Take off those aqua-and-orange-colored glasses, folks. Even if he had led the league (which he didn't), do you know how many times the NFL sacks leader has won that season's DPOY award? Five. Five times in the 29 years since the sack became an official statistic in 1982.

The five were Lawrence Taylor with 20.5 sacks in 1986, Reggie White with 21 in 1987, Pat Swilling with 17 in 1991, Bryce Paup with 17.5 in 1995 and Michael Strahan with 22.5 in 2001.

Chase pointed out all were first-team All-Pros (Wake wasn't). Three played on division champions, with the two exceptions White and Strahan. White registered his 21 sacks in 12 games. Strahan broke the single-season sacks record.

In summary, Wake had a brilliant season. He established himself as a pass-rushing fiend, one of the NFL's best and certainly worthy of his Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro selections.

All in all, I found the discussion in the comments section to be insightful and a great example of why I like to exchange ideas with readers there as much as possible.

Be sure to check the comments sections under my blogs and feel free to get involved. I try to visit as often as I can, and now that all four AFC East teams are done playing, you can expect to see me there quite a bit.

Was Cameron Wake snubbed for DPOY?

February, 1, 2011
Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu won the Associated Press 2010 defensive player of the year award by two votes over Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews.

Nothing untoward there.

But a Dolfans faction was riled up outside linebacker Cameron Wake didn't receive a single vote of the 50 cast and filed their grievances with me Monday night on Twitter.

Marc Serota/Getty ImagesCameron Wake didn’t receive any votes for defensive player of the year.
Wake had a phenomenal season, but I happened to agree he didn't deserve defensive player of the year consideration. I was called a fraud and accused of being on drugs. One of those allegations is completely false.

Let's take a look at who did receive votes. All seven went to the playoffs:
Wake had a breakthrough campaign after being ridiculed by former teammate Joey Porter at this time last year. Wake recorded 14 sacks, 21 tackles for losses, 28 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles.

But Wake didn't stand much of a chance for defensive player of the year. Although the Dolphins ranked sixth in total defense, they failed to make the playoffs and won a single home game. That doesn't necessarily reflect on Wake, but it's hard to think of a player as a difference-maker on a team that loses more often than it wins.

The other problem was the same AP panel didn't vote Wake first-team All-Pro, meaning he wasn't among the top two players at his position. Matthews and Harrison were. Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker and NFL sacks leader DeMarcus Ware received as many All-Pro votes as Wake did.

To vote somebody the NFL's best overall defender when he's not the best at his spot is difficult.

There also was a strong sentiment Wake was snubbed in DPOY balloting not because he didn't win the award, but because he didn't receive any votes. But it must be noted, the AP panel doesn't vote for first, second and third place on their annual awards. Each ballot includes one name. Therefore, the voter is going to choose the single most-deserving player. There are no bones to throw out to make the also-rans feel appreciated.

Unfortunately for Dolphins supporters, their guy didn't get a vote despite a terrific season. A lot of others stars weren't named either, including Ware, New England Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis and Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha. A lot of awesome players there.

What do you think? How badly was Wake snubbed?

Brady, Wake on my ballot for NFL's best

December, 31, 2010
I realize there's one game remaining on the schedule.

After four months of football, Week 17 shouldn't determine the year's best.

Many of the top teams will bench their players for significant portions -- if not all -- of the regular-season finales. There's a reason smart fantasy leagues held their Super Bowls last week.

So with that in mind and 2010 about to expire, here's my ballot for the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers Association annual awards:

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireTom Brady is the runaway choice for league MVP.
Overall NFL MVP: Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback. He's one of the greatest of all-time, and he's putting together one of the finest seasons of his career. You can argue he never has been better.

Offensive MVP: Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback. Some outlets will break up this award, listing different players for overall MVP and offensive or defensive MVP. In those instances, you'll probably see Brady for one and Michael Vick for the other. We don't do that here.

Defensive MVP: Julius Peppers, Bears defensive end. His sack numbers aren't inspiring, but his presence in Chicago's defense has forced other teams to game plan specifically to stop him, creating opportunities for teammates. He finished with eight sacks, three forced fumbles and 11 passes defensed. Nobody else among the top 85 sackers had more than eight passes defensed.

Coach of the Year: Bill Belichick, Patriots. The Patriots revamped their offense, traded Randy Moss and used several rookies on defense. And they own the NFL's best record.

Comeback Player of the Year: E.J. Henderson, Vikings linebacker. Vick will be a popular choice here, but I have two problems with choosing him over Henderson: 1) Vick's off-field actions are what removed him from the game to begin with; 2) Vick played last year. Henderson wasn't supposed to return at all from a broken femur in December 2009. He amassed over 100 tackles and three interceptions with a titanium rod in his leg.

Overall NFL Rookie of the Year: Sam Bradford, Rams quarterback. You can't dispute his impact on the Rams. Even if they don't go to the playoffs, Bradford has played like a seasoned veteran and posted respectable stats despite a raggedy receiver corps.

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Sam Bradford, Rams quarterback. Same policy as noted above for offensive MVP.

[+] EnlargeCameron Wake
AP Photo/J.Pat CarterDolphins linebacker Cameron Wake currently leads the NFL in sacks with 14.
Defensive Rookie of the Year: Ndamukong Suh, Lions defensive tackle. Some think he should be considered overall defensive player of the year. He has been that dominant.

Most Improved Player of the Year: Cameron Wake, Dolphins outside linebacker. Two months after being publicly ridiculed by then-teammate Joey Porter for not being good enough to take reps away from the veteran pass-rusher, Wake leads the NFL with 14 sacks. Porter has five for the Cardinals.

Executive of the Year: Scott Pioli, Chiefs general manager. He assembled a collection of coaches and players that quickly turned the Chiefs into a formidable franchise.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Charlie Weis, Chiefs offensive coordinator. His offense ranks ninth overall and first in rushing. He has put quarterback Matt Cassel in situations that make him look like a star.

Rapid Reaction: Bears 38, Jets 34

December, 26, 2010
CHICAGO -- A look at the New York Jets' loss against the Chicago Bears.

What it means: The New York Jets lucked out -- just like last season. They played Arena League defense and fell to the Chicago Bears 38-34, but they backed into the playoffs because the Jacksonville Jaguars lost to the Washington Redskins. It was a hollow way to make it for the second straight year, but Rex Ryan, no doubt, will say defiantly, “We’ll take it. We’re not apologizing to anyone.” Right.

The shoulder: Mark Sanchez, he of the ballyhooed sore throwing shoulder, played remarkably well under the circumstances -- until his final throw. At his own 33 with just under a minute to play, he broke a cardinal rule, trying to throw down the sideline against a Cover 2 defense. It was intercepted by Chris Harris, ending the game. His throws lacked some zip, perhaps because of his shoulder.

Too bad, because Sanchez had played wonderfully until then. He opened by hitting his first nine passes, and he finished 24-for-37 for 269 yards and one touchdown. He should’ve had two touchdown passes, but tight end Dustin Keller dropped a pass in the end zone.

Sanchez showed patience against the Bears’ Cover 2 defense, throwing short passes and finding seams in their zone scheme. The slant routes and in-cuts were there all day, and he consistently found Braylon Edwards (6 catches for 78 yards).

If Sanchez’s shoulder was bothering him -- he has minor cartilage damage -- it didn’t show. His improved play over the past two weeks is a positive for the Jets.

Weird call: The Jets got cute with a seven-point halftime lead, trying a fake punt from their 40 on the opening possession of the third quarter. Sanchez, the up-back in punt formation, rolled right and threw an incompletion to Brad Smith. It was a strange decision, to be sure, but it should’ve worked. Smith was open and had enough for the first down -- three yards -- but he dropped it. It was a huge momentum shift.

Where’s the D? Facing the league’s 30th-rated offense, the Jets’ defense sprung leaks everywhere -- no pass rush, porous coverage in the secondary and shoddy tackling. The Bears opened the second half by scoring on three straight possessions. The Jets made offensive coordinator Mike Martz look like the genius he thinks he is.

In the past two games, the Jets have allowed 700 total yards -- a major concern as they head into a likely postseason appearance. They prepared to stop the Bears’ running game, but the Bears adjusted and put the ball in Jay Cutler’s hands.

Cutler shredded them in the third quarter, throwing three touchdowns and passing for 117 yards. Naturally, he stayed away from cornerback Darrelle Revis and picked on everybody else, burning safety Dwight Lowery, cornerback Antonio Cromartie and nickel back Drew Coleman for touchdowns.

Greene day: Shonn Greene, not LaDainian Tomlinson, was the feature back. Very interesting. Tomlinson didn’t appear on the injury report, so this had to be a coach’s decision. Not only did Greene (12 carries for 70 yards) take a lot of reps for Tomlinson in the base offense, but he also replaced him as the third-down back in many situations.

Pick-six, burn-six: Lowery, starting his second game at safety for Eric Smith (concussion), was involved in three scoring plays -- two negative, one positive. He scored on a 20-yard interception return (his second of the season), but he also got torched by receiver Johnny Knox on a 40-yard touchdown and missed a tackle on a 22-yard scoring run by Matt Forte.

Brick wall: Bears defensive end Julius Peppers had a quiet game, and there was a reason for that -- left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson did a fantastic job in pass protection, locking down Sanchez’s blind side.

What’s ahead: The Jets close the regular season with a home game against the Buffalo Bills (4-11). They crushed the Bills in October 38-14, but Chan Gailey’s team has improved -- Sunday’s blowout loss to the New England Patriots notwithstanding.

Do Jets prefer to play away from home?

December, 24, 2010
The New York Jets are 4-3 in their new stadium and 6-1 on the road.

ESPN analysts Mark Schlereth and Tedy Bruschi give their thoughts on the discrepancy, and this week's events would seem to be a perfect example of Bruschi's theory. The Jets will play the Chicago Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field.

"It's New York," Bruschi said. "It's the bright lights and big city, and when they play at home they feel the pressure. That city is a pressure cooker. You feel it in the locker room. You feel it when you drive to the game. You feel it when you walk into that stadium. There's a lot of pressure, especially on the home team, to win because if you don't that's when you really hear it.

"When you go on the road, all of that's gone. It's you against that away team, the venue, the fans. You feel like it's you against them. All that pressure's gone and you play a little bit more free. I think that's why they're playing better on the road because I think Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez and a lot of those players, they feel that pressure in New York and they like to get away."

The Jets likely will have to win on the road in the playoffs because they have only a remote chance of winning the AFC East.

They did win their first two games on the road last postseason and took a lead into the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts before losing the AFC Championship game.

Trent Dilfer delivers NFL's 10 best

December, 7, 2010
ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer assembled his list of the NFL's 10 best players through Week 13, emphasizing "game-plan changers and game-plan breakers."

After watching him skewer the Jets on Monday night, there was no doubt who Dilfer would place atop the list:

1. Tom Brady, Patriots quarterback

2. Philip Rivers, Chargers quarterback

3. Clay Matthews, Packers outside linebacker

4. James Harrison, Steelers outside linebacker

5. Michael Vick, Eagles quarterback

6. Aaron Rodgers, Packers quarterback

7. Roddy White, Falcons receiver

8. Drew Brees, Saints quarterback

9. Peyton Manning, Colts quarterback

10. Julius Peppers, Bears defensive end

Five things to watch: Bears at Dolphins

November, 18, 2010
The Miami Dolphins are on the ropes. They're down to their third-string quarterback and have been bobbing at or barely above .500 for weeks. They're in third place in the AFC East and appear to be on the fringe of the wild-card chase.

The Dolphins need to win in a bad way Thursday night against the Chicago Bears in Sun Life Stadium. If the Dolphins can pull it out, what a lift it would give them (in addition to 10 days until their next game).

Here are five questions to consider for the Dolphins:

How does Tyler Thigpen respond as Miami's starter? Thigpen will make his 12th career start, but his first in two seasons after Chad Pennington and Chad Henne went down with injuries last week. Thigpen performed well in relief to nail down a victory over the Titans, but prior to this week, he hadn't taken a practice rep since training camp. Thigpen had three days to prepare for the Bears. He's known as an improviser. We'll find out how well he can wing it.

Will a QB change get Brandon Marshall more involved? The Dolphins clearly were unsatisfied with Henne's production and made the switch to Pennington last week to jolt a flat-lining offense. Thigpen can be a change of pace, too. He's more mobile and much more of a risk-taker than Henne. Marshall has been accumulating considerable reception and yardage numbers, but he's still stuck on one touchdown. Marshall's frustrations are becoming increasingly apparent by the game. Perhaps Thigpen will elicit more happiness.

Can the Dolphins' offensive line withstand Jake Long's bad shoulder? The two-time Pro Bowl left tackle has been limited in practice with a shoulder injury from last week's game. Bears right defensive end Julius Peppers is among the NFL's most dangerous pass-rushers. Peppers has just two sacks, but don't be fooled. He often faces double teams, which has helped left defensive end Israel Idonije collect five sacks. If Long needs assistance against Peppers, then there will be bigger cracks elsewhere along the O-line.

How much chaos can Cameron Wake cause for Jay Cutler? The Bears have surrendered a league-high 34 sacks. Wake ranks third with 8.5 sacks, and he'll need to get after Cutler, who's known for making costly mistakes. In three October games, Cutler was sacked 19 times, threw five interceptions and fumbled five times (lost two). The Bears went 0-3, with Cutler missing the other game that month because he was so battered. In two November victories, Cutler has been sacked three times, thrown two interceptions and lost a fumble.

Will the Dolphins' defense and special teams contain Devin Hester? He has been having a quiet season. But he'll be playing in his hometown for the first time and still possesses game-breaking speed at positions the Dolphins have had trouble defending. Their cornerbacks have been known to get blistered here and there, although free-agent signee Al Harris played well in his Dolphins debut last week. The Dolphins also have been prone to special-teams breakdowns. Hester has returned two punts for touchdowns and was reinserted on kickoffs in last week's win over Minnesota, returning one 68 yards. As a receiver, Hester came alive a little with four catches for 38 yards and his second receiving touchdown of the season.

Analyzing the Chris Kelsay extension

October, 8, 2010
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.

A peek inside Revis-Jets negotiations

August, 20, 2010
National Football Post president Andrew Brandt wrapped up his two-part analysis on the Darrelle Revis holdout.

In his first column, Brandt broke down all the particulars that have gotten us to where we are now in this soap opera. He provided background on Revis' current contract, a six-year deal signed as a rookie and on the relationship between New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum and Revis' agents.

In the last installment, Brandt uses his expertise to provide insight on negotiations. Brandt has experienced his share. He handled contracts and the salary cap for the Green Bay Packers from 1999 to 2008 and has been a contract consultant for the Philadelphia Eagles.

Brandt provides insight on what constitutes fair-market value for NFL cornerbacks.

The Revis camp, of course, is pointing to the outrageous three-year, $45.3 million contract the Oakland Raiders gave Nnamdi Asomugha. The Jets view that deal, which includes a clause that forces the Raiders to pay him the franchise-tag figure for a quarterback if they want to keep him next season, as a deviation.

Brandt explains Revis' agents, Neil Schwartz and Jonathan Feinsod, regard Revis among the best players in the NFL at any position and believe he should be valued alongside all elite players, including quarterbacks.

Brandt writes:
Some of the recent three-year values for top non-quarterback deals have been the following: Nnamdi Asomugha ($45.3 million), DeMarcus Ware ($45 million), Terrell Suggs ($43.4 million), Julius Peppers ($42.3 million) and old friend Albert Haynesworth ($41 million).

Revis thinks he is deserving of more than any of these numbers, looking in the range of over $65 million guaranteed over the next four years. Although he and his agents may believe he is worth it, that will not happen, especially for a player three years from free agency.

Brandt predicts there won't be any significant movement until the regular season is about to start and foresees Revis back in uniform by Week 3 with a short-term deal that allows Revis to take a shot at free agency relatively soon while allowing the Asomugha contract to expire and, therefore, clarifying true fair-market value for the Jets.

Bills quiet on first day of free agency

March, 5, 2010
I feel badly for my Buffalo Bills readers because I haven't had much to share Friday.

The rest of the AFC East has been publicly active.

What happened at One Bills Drive?

All we've heard is a report Kansas City Chiefs free-agent offensive lineman Wade Smith is in town for a visit.

While this might be disappointing to Bills fans who were hoping for big transactions at the start of free agency, this wasn't unexpected. New general manager Buddy Nix said from the moment he was hired the Bills would rebuild through the draft, not free agency.

Here is what Nix had to say at his introductory news conference on New Year's Eve:

"I've seen it done both ways over a number of years," Nix said, "but free agency to me should be middle-priced to below-priced guys, not the high-dollar guy that's going to bring you the big bang when you sign him.

"That money ought to go to our guys that played good and you reward them by extending them and keeping them around. We know what we got. Let's build that way. Let's make that team know that we're going to do that.

"Then we take places that we're weak after the draft and plug in guys. They don't have to be star players."

Report: Patriots make Peppers an offer

March, 5, 2010
The Chicago Bears appear to be way out in front in the race to land pass-rusher Julius Peppers, but the New England Patriots reportedly are somewhere on the track, giving them a chance to close.

NFL Network reporter Jason La Canfora writes the Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles have offers on the table for Peppers.

Peppers is in Chicago on Friday and there's a strong belief he won't make another visit, that he will leave with a signed contract. Bears coach Lovie Smith was with Peppers in North Carolina shortly after midnight and flew with him to Chicago.

"Of the teams that have called us, there are two other possibilities that could be worth visiting," Peppers' agent, Carl Carey, told La Canfora earlier. "When the Bears called, they said enough to entice us to get on a plane to Chicago. Beyond that, I don't know what's going to happen."