AFC South: Scot McLoughan
INDIANAPOLIS -- The numbers flying around the scouting combine are baffling, but we shouldn't be surprised.
After Oakland signed cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a deal averaging $15 million a year, the scouting combine buzz has been that a free-agent package for Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth could come in the form of a six-year contract technically worth $100 million.
Chicago's Tommie Harris currently ranks as the NFL's highest-priced defensive tackle at roughly $10 million a year. It's a big jump to go from the $7.25 million franchise tag to the top paid player at the position, never mind the top paid player on defense in the league.
And consider this element of the potential leap Haynesworth could make: the franchise number for tackles, which is the average of the 10 highest paid players at the position, ranks last among the five defensive positions.
Franchise numbers on defense:
At the scouting combine, I asked a variety of front-office guys some of these questions: Could a defensive tackle be worthy of being the highest-paid defender? Would a deal that makes him so screw up salary structures? What sort of impact would it have in terms of precedent?
No one really regarded it as a doomsday scenario, which surprised me a bit. I guess everyone has come to terms with the giant contract to the biggest free agent, and learned to simply brace for the next one.
Thirty-one teams may wind up thinking the franchise that backs up a Brinks truck to the Haynesworth residence has gone overboard. But the rest of the league won't be able to wall themselves off from its impact, as they will all feel a ripple effect in time -- and probably not a very long time.
OK, then. Here's a sampling of what some NFL power brokers think about all that. Most talked about a hypothetical defensive tackle rather than Haynesworth specifically.
Thomas Dimitroff, GM, Atlanta: "I think free agency in general throws a lot of things off. When you look at it from a business perspective and you look at our cap, ultimately that's not how we want to personally build. We want to stress the draft. To throw double-digit millions in guaranteed money and a high average-per-year money into a player who is not a part of your system and coming from another situation, that really has me back on my heels a little bit to be honest with you. We would have to do a lot of work when evaluating that. Again, I think there are some fine football players in the draft that you can continue to develop. Ray Hamilton, in my mind, is a top defensive line coach. I think he gets the most out of those guys. Let's let him coach football. Let him coach the young players. That's my position."
Kevin Colbert, director of football operations, Pittsburgh: "I don't think you can ever limit the salary structure to a position. If you feel a player is that good, then you better pay him. People talk about, 'Well, traditionally you don't draft safeties real high,' I think that's been proven wrong as well. If they are great players, it doesn't matter what position they play, they can help your team in some form or fashion. And if they're that great, they're probably going to change the salary structures as well."
Jim Schwartz, coach, Detroit: "I think when you talk about high-priced players anywhere, you talk about people who can impact the game. Maybe not just from a fan standpoint, but from a coaching and a scheme standpoint. Left tackles get paid a lot of money, not because it looks real pretty on TV or in the media, but because of what he does for an offensive coordinator and his protects and things like that. You've got to have ability to impact the game -- corners who can shut down somebody, pass-rushers who can win one-on-ones, those guys impact the game. Running [backs] who can run against eight-man fronts, they impact the game. Quarterbacks impact the game. Hypothetically, if there's a defensive tackle who dominates the game, there's no reason he wouldn't be the highest paid player."
Ted Thompson, GM, Green Bay: "In terms of just a generic position thing, quite frankly, the defensive line position -- I know the defensive end position is a little bit more glorified, more sacks and things -- but defensive tackles, since the onset of free agency, have always made quite a bit of money. They might not have been right at the top in terms of the groupings, but no, that wouldn't be a remarkable surprise."
Scot McCloughan, GM, 49ers: "You know what? It wouldn't surprise me at all. That's the one thing about free agency, and that's the one thing about organizations that have done a good job, they have some cap room, and all of a sudden it gets to the point where they think that one guy can make them be a Super Bowl contender. I think it's proved out especially at the corner position. All it takes is one team to say, 'Listen, we're doing it.' Then it sets the market for the future. It's a scary business. ...
It's going to affect the long term, all of the sudden it set a precedent. Here it is: 'My guy is as good as him.' Or, 'My guy is half as good as him, so I get half the money.' Seriously. You can see it with [Oakland punter Shane] Lechler. What we got there, that sets a precedent -- $4 million a year for a punter. ...
Holy smokes, here we go. You better draft a good one. We've got one locked in [Andy Lee]. But agents are calling. I don't blame them, would you? I've got [a punter] that was in the Pro Bowl two years ago, was an alternate for the Pro Bowl this year a
nd he makes a quarter [of that]. What's wrong with him? Well, he signed the deal.
You can't stop the market from being set, teams are going to set it. But once it's set, you've got to stay in it. If you want to dance with the good-looking girl, this is what you're going to have to pay. It's scary. That's why the draft's so important, you've got to be able to draft those young guys and know they're going to play and maybe not have the All-Pro, but have a good football player next to a good football player and be able to win a lot of games with them."