NFL Nation: 2012 NFL Free Agency


The St. Louis Rams have signed a slot receiver in free agency. Jared Cook is his name. He's a tight end, but as the chart shows, Cook made 36 of his 42 receptions last season after lining up in the slot -- a consideration as we weigh contingencies for the Rams possibly losing slot receiver Danny Amendola in free agency.

Amendola made 51 of his 62 catches from the slot, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He's much smaller, quicker and shiftier than Cook, discouraging across-the-board comparisons. But it's important to differentiate the receiving production Cook offers from the production a traditional in-line tight end would typically offer.

The key question: To what degree does Cook's addition cover the Rams if Amendola signs elsewhere? We should note that Rams receiver Austin Pettis had 25 receptions for 228 yards and two touchdowns from the slot last season. Tight end Lance Kendricks had 15 receptions for 156 yards and a score from the slot.

None of those players is likely to give the Rams exactly what Amendola gave them on third down in particular. But with the flexibility Cook provides, I can see why the Rams aren't breaking the bank to keep Amendola, especially in light of injury concerns.

UFA market revisited: How NFC West fared

February, 28, 2013
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Those eagerly awaiting the start of NFL free agency March 12 with visions of your favorite team loading up on accomplished veterans should revisit the list of unrestricted free agents NFC West teams signed last season.

St. Louis, badly in need of a talent infusion following the worst five-year run in NFL history, opened its checkbook to sign a long list of veteran players, some of them at high cost.

That was the exception in the NFC West and I'd be surprised if St. Louis took a similarly aggressive approach this offseason. The Rams have stabilized their roster and positioned themselves to build around young talent.

With that in mind, I'll take a team-by-team look at the unrestricted free agents each NFC West team signed last offseason. UFAs are defined as veterans who reached the market when their contracts expired. Teams also acquired players by other means.

Arizona Cardinals

2012 UFA signings from other teams: cornerback William Gay, linebacker Quentin Groves, safety James Sanders and guard Adam Snyder

Comment: Gay started and played 93 percent of the defensive snaps as a replacement for Richard Marshall, who left in free agency. He wasn't a star, but the defense was solid. Gay gave Arizona the snaps it sought. Groves played 43 percent of snaps as a situational pass-rusher. The Cardinals needed him when an injury sidelined O'Brien Schofield. Sanders played 11 percent. Snyder started 14 games and played much of the season with an injury for a line that was among the NFL's least effective for much of the season. Arizona's young tackles made progress. I thought the team overspent for Snyder, a player San Francisco eagerly replaced with the undrafted Alex Boone, who provided a clear upgrade. Note that three of the four UFA additions last offseason played defense. Arizona needs to target offense this offseason. New coach Bruce Arians and new general manager Steve Keim have praised the existing talent. Arizona might not load up on free agents the way some teams do when new leadership takes over.

St. Louis Rams

2012 UFA signings from other teams: linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar, cornerback Cortland Finnegan, linebacker Mario Haggan, defensive end William Hayes, defensive tackle Kendall Langford, defensive lineman Trevor Laws, guard Quinn Ojinnaka, tackle Barry Richardson, receiver Steve Smith, center Robert Turner and center Scott Wells

Comment: The Rams were major players in the UFA market. Results were mostly positive. Finnegan gave the Rams the production and veteran presence they sought. He was instantly a playmaker for St. Louis. Dunbar was much better than I had anticipated and well worth his contract, which included a $1 million signing bonus and $1.5 million annual average. Hayes provided good depth on the defensive line, and at a reasonable cost ($900,000 for one year). Langford needed time to transition from the 3-4 scheme he ran previously in Miami. The Rams signed him after Jason Jones signed with Seattle instead. Injuries prevented Wells from stabilizing the offensive line, a major disappointment and a reminder of the risks associated with signing older players from other teams.

San Francisco 49ers

2012 UFA signings from other teams: fullback Rock Cartwright, quarterback Josh Johnson, receiver Mario Manningham

Comment: Does this look like a team poised to strike for Darrelle Revis in the trade market? Does this look like a team ready to throw around cash in free agency? Not based on the list of signings last offseason. The interest San Francisco showed in Peyton Manning doesn't apply here. Indianapolis released Manning. Manning was not a UFA. I'd put him in a separate category, anyway. Teams make exceptions for Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Back to the 2012 UFA list. Cartwright and Johnson never played for the team. Neither earned a spot on the 53-man roster. Both served a purpose by initially increasing competition at their positions. For example, Anthony Dixon moved fro halfback to fullback and became a more valuable player, including on special teams. Johnson provided early insurance, but in retrospect, Colin Kaepernick was obviously ready to serve in the No. 2 role before becoming the starter. Manningham provided sufficient value before a knee injury ended his season. The 49ers missed him late in the season, including during the Super Bowl.

Seattle Seahawks

2012 UFA signings from other teams: quarterback Matt Flynn, defensive lineman Jason Jones, guard Deuce Lutui and linebacker Barrett Ruud

Comment: Flynn would have started if Russell Wilson hadn't emerged unexpectedly as the clear choice. Seattle invested $6.5 million per year in Flynn, a sum the team could live with even if Flynn became the backup. It's tough to fault the Seahawks for signing Flynn. They had no idea Wilson would be available in the draft, or that Wilson would perform at such a high level so early in his career. Jones finished the season on injured reserve. That made it impossible for him to provide the interior pass-rushing push Seattle sought when signing him to a one-year deal worth $4.5 million. Lutui and Ruud never earned roster spots. Neither was a liability financially. Both were low-cost insurance policies. Seattle parlayed Ruud into a 2013 draft choice by trading him to New Orleans after the Saints lost Jonathan Vilma.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 1, 2012
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey are not afraid.

Both know this is a huge year in Buffalo. On paper, this is the best Bills team Gailey has coached and the best group Nix has put together. Many are expecting a playoff year from the Bills, who haven't made the postseason in 13 years.

This is new territory for Buffalo. For more than a decade, the Bills have been lovable losers. They finished 6-10 and last in the AFC East in 2011. But a stellar offseason has breathed new life into the franchise and created new expectations.

"We're not backing off from [expectations]. We expect to win and we expect to contend," Nix told the AFC East blog. "I think sometimes when you're afraid to say you expect that is because you're preparing yourself to lose. We're not afraid to say it. We've laid some groundwork for two years, and we're to the point now where we need to take the next step."

The groundwork included landing the top free agent not named Peyton Manning: defensive end Mario Williams. Buffalo also signed 10-sack defensive end Mark Anderson, re-signed No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson and drafted highly touted cornerback Stephon Gilmore and potential starting left tackle Cordy Glenn.

Buffalo did a great job putting a deep and talented roster together. The front office bought quality groceries. Now, it's time for Gailey and his coaching staff to cook a good meal.

"That's exactly right," Gailey said, responding to the metaphor. "That's my job: to get us to a winning program and playoffs and a championship."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMario Williams
AP Photo/David DupreyMario Williams, the Bills' largest contract acquisition in franchise history, has some high expectations to live up to in his first year in Buffalo.
1. Will Mario Williams live up to top billing? Williams and Gailey have a lot in common. Both are under pressure to produce in 2012. But Williams is also under the microscope due to the $100 million contract ($50 million guaranteed) he signed in March, the biggest contract in Bills history.

With that comes the expectation of double-digit sacks and game-changing plays. That is what Williams does best, and he said he's "ecstatic" to wreak havoc in Buffalo this year. But Williams, a former Houston Texan, is returning from a season-ending pectoral injury and must stay healthy.

Williams certainly looks the part. He checked in at 292 pounds and is a mountain of muscle. He adds an intimidating presence to the Bills' defense.

In many ways, the Bills have built their defense around Williams. They switched back to a 4-3 scheme, which better suits Williams' strengths. Buffalo will plug Anderson in on the other side to take some of the pressure off Williams.

2. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be consistent? Fitzpatrick’s career has been marked with inconsistency. He is one of the streakiest quarterbacks in the NFL, one who can get really hot or really cold at any moment. Fitzpatrick led the NFL with 23 interceptions last season.

Bills quarterbacks coach David Lee believes the streakiness is due to inconsistent fundamentals. Lee and Fitzpatrick worked extensively on mechanics this offseason to reduce the number of bad games.

"At this point I feel like it is easy to have better mechanics, but it is when you get into the games that it is really going to be the test for me," Fitzpatrick said. "And not just Week 1 through Week 5. It is going to be the whole season."

Fitzpatrick's streakiness was on display in practice Tuesday. On one play in team drills, he threw a beautiful deep ball to receiver Derek Hagan for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick then threw an interception into coverage on the next play.

By nature, Fitzpatrick is a gunslinger. But reduced turnovers will put the defense in better position and it could produce more wins for the Bills. A lot is riding on Fitzpatrick this season. The Bills recently gave him a $59 million contract, and it's time to prove he can lead a franchise.

3. Can Buffalo win in the AFC East? The biggest thorn in the side of the Bills has been their division rivals. Buffalo is just 2-10 against the AFC East the past two years.

The Bills can't quite put a finger on the reason. Part of it was inconsistency, part was lack of toughness. Another part was missed opportunities.

"They were better than us, but we gotta change that," Nix said candidly. "We hadn’t measured up in the two years we’d been here, even though if we could’ve stayed healthy I thought we could’ve been in contention at the end. I felt all along we could win nine or 10 games if we could keep everybody healthy. But we didn’t have a lot of depth anyway, and the ones we lost were our best leaders."

The gap between the New England Patriots and everyone else in the AFC East appears wide. No team outside of New England finished with a winning record last year. However, the Bills are confident they did enough this offseason to close the gap. Part of that confidence is due to splitting with New England last season.

"We still feel like we should win the division -- every team does," Gailey said. "Miami feels that way. The Jets feel that way. The Patriots feel that way. That's the goal going in."

Reason for optimism

Buffalo's defensive line should be one of the best in the NFL. Defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams are paired with defensive ends Mario Williams and Anderson. That's a lot of money and high draft picks invested in rushing the quarterback and winning in the trenches.

But the starting defensive linemen aren't the only quality players. Buffalo has a deep bench, led by backup defensive ends Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman and backup defensive tackle Dwan Edwards. The rotation along the defensive line should wear down many opposing offensive lines.

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
AP Photo/David DupreyStarting QB Ryan Fitzpatrick has the position locked up, while Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen fight it out for the No. 2 spot.
"I feel like everybody on our defensive line could be a starter one way or the other, whether it is here or somewhere else," Mario Williams said. "Our competition level is extremely high. Every day we are pushed and we push each other. We hold each other accountable. I think that is the biggest thing."

Reason for pessimism

Buffalo is a team still learning how to win and is fighting plenty of bad history. As noted, it's been 13 years since Buffalo qualified for the postseason, a playoff run that was ended by the Music City Miracle.

It takes a lot of focus, maturity and consistency to win throughout a 16-game season. Past Bills teams lacked those traits. Once things went downhill, it was too easy for Buffalo to fall back into the "same old Bills" mentality.

Buffalo had a little taste of success last year. The Bills started 5-2 and were in first place in the AFC East. But things turned sour quickly and the losing snowballed. Buffalo lost eight of its last nine games and finished last in the division.

The Bills were the unexpected media darlings of the NFL for a couple weeks before things fell apart.

"You learn how to take that with a grain of salt, because it’s what you do on Sundays that count," Gailey said. "I hope we learned that lesson. I hope we learned not to let that affect our play and our thought processes in any way."

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bills said they have a better plan for tailback C.J. Spiller this season. He was mostly ignored as a running back until starter Fred Jackson was put on injured reserve with a broken leg. But Spiller, a former first-round pick, is getting more carries in practice and looks sharp heading into his third season. He broke a couple of big runs in Tuesday's practice. Expect Spiller to get more carries this season, but it's still going to be a major challenge taking Jackson off the field.
  • The early reviews are in, and Gilmore looks legit. He's fluid and a good athlete. But perhaps the best thing about Gilmore, the No. 10 overall pick in the draft, is his competitiveness. Gilmore has lined up against Johnson, Buffalo's No. 1 receiver, at every chance in practice. The rookie wants to go against the best the team has to offer, and at times things have gotten physical between the two. Gilmore might already be Buffalo's best cornerback.
  • Speaking of cornerbacks, I would be surprised if longtime Bills corner Terrence McGee makes this team. McGee has been a leader and a consummate professional in Buffalo for nine years. But a youth movement at cornerback and many injuries could mean McGee's days are numbered. He's missed at least five games in each of the past three seasons. A season-ending knee injury forced McGee to miss 10 games in 2011 and he's still not 100 percent. He could bring leadership and depth to the secondary when healthy, but he may not get enough time on the field in camp or the preseason to show he's worthy of making the 53-man roster.
  • The Bills are definitely a bigger team. They have 23 players on their roster who weigh 300 pounds or more; at 292 pounds, just misses making the 300-pound club. Not all are going to make the team, but Buffalo has made it a point to get quality depth in the trenches.
  • I didn’t really see much separation between the backup quarterbacks. Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen are battling for the No. 2 spot, and the loser of this battle may not make the team because Brad Smith also is getting a lot of work at quarterback. Young and Thigpen made some good and bad throws Tuesday. This duel likely will be decided in the preseason.
DAVIE, Fla. – During Tuesday's minicamp, Chad Ochocinco sprinted up the right sideline as fast as he could.

After the Miami Dolphins' newest receiver gained a step on cornerback Sean Smith, quarterback David Garrard threw a back-shoulder pass deep that forced Ochocinco to make a quick adjustment. Ochocinco spotted the ball, stopped on a dime and leaped over Smith while keeping his feet in bounds to make an acrobatic catch. It was one of several great plays the 34-year-old receiver made in Miami's first day of minicamp.

"He definitely has 'it,'" Smith said of Ochocinco. "I know a lot of people wrote him off. If you look at his numbers last year, they weren't productive. But he's out here, his routes are crisp and he's coming out of his breaks. He looks good. He's definitely going to be one of those guys who turns heads this year."

Although it's just one practice, Ochocinco was the best receiver on the field for Miami on Tuesday. It's been awhile since that was the case.

[+] EnlargeChad Ochocinco
AP Photo/J Pat Carter"He definitely has 'it'," new teammate Sean Smith said after getting beaten by Chad Ochocinco.
The six-time Pro Bowler spent most of his 2011 season on the bench with the New England Patriots. Ochocinco recorded a career-low 15 receptions for 276 yards. He fell as low as fourth or fifth on New England’s depth chart before finally being released June 7. It was the first time in the NFL that Ochocinco was ever cut.

Now, for the first time in a long time, Ochocinco has something to prove. Ochocinco was very business-like in his approach this week, and he looks determined to show his critics he still has something left in the tank.

"I'm getting back to what we're all used to seeing, the basic fundamentals of how I came to what I am," Ochocinco said. "I think I kind of lost that. Now, I'm looking to go back to Chad Johnson, just making it live again."

Sometimes it takes going back home to get back to your roots. Ochocinco grew up in Miami and went to Miami Beach High School. As soon as he was cut by the Patriots, he came back to South Florida to work out with his friend and fellow free agent Terrell Owens.

The receiver-deprived Dolphins worked Ochocinco out a few days later and signed him to a modest one-year contract. It’s a team he always rooted for growing up. Ochocinco cited “The Marks,” as in Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, and quarterback Dan Marino as some of his favorite players.

More importantly, the Dolphins are more accepting than the Patriots to let "Ocho be Ocho." He is charismatic and has a unique personality. At any moment, Ochocinco can say something funny, something from way out in left field. It's a big part of who he is, and the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick took that away from him. Ochocinco had the muzzle on his mouth from the day he arrived until the conclusion of the Super Bowl. It was an uncomfortable year to say the least.

But Ochocinco is back to having fun again in Miami. He's already chirping to the defense and his quarterbacks, which is something he was scared to do in New England. Ochocinco was that way earlier in his career, and that's when he was confident and played his best football.

"Chad thinks he's open on every play," said Garrard. "Even when it's the punt team [on the field], he's open. So it's been great. He will remind you that whoever he's got on him, he's open."

Smith said he wants Ochocinco to let his personality show this season, because that will help the receiver be more comfortable as a player.

"As a player and a teammate, I would like for him to go out and be him," Smith said. "Let it loose, and give it everything you got. If you have to talk when you play, talk when you play, as long as you back it up."

Ochocinco is winning over his new teammates and coaches in Miami. That's a great first step. No one has ever questioned Ochocinco's work ethic. He's always been a hard worker and showed up for Dolphins camp in great shape.

Miami rookie head coach Joe Philbin told a story this week displaying Ochocinco's dedication to getting back to his old form.

"Last Wednesday we had a team meeting and we called off practice to go and perform some community service," Philbin said. "This is my 10th year in the NFL and I have been around practices that have been canceled and I've never been around a player that wanted to practice, but Chad wanted to practice, so he’s been good. So far it seems that he is fitting in well."

At the end of Ochocinco's meeting with the media Tuesday, he said "enjoy the show."

Perhaps Ochocinco has something in store for 2012 that will surprise a lot of people.
Sometimes you can gauge a player's standing with a team based on his contract. Vince Young signed a one-year, $1,987,500 million contract with the Bills this offseason.

Young
Here are the particulars and what it means for Young and Buffalo:
  • Young received a $350,000 signing bonus. That is the only guaranteed money in the contract.
  • Young's 2012 salary is $1.25 million if he makes the team. That's about average for a backup quarterback. The Bills are getting good value for a former No. 3 overall pick and a player with a 31-19 record as a starter. Young actually has many more wins than Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is 17-31 in his career.
  • The Bills put an interesting wrinkle in the contract. Young can earn incentives of just over $24,000 a game for being on the active, 46-man roster this fall. The third, emergency quarterback rules no longer apply after the new collective bargaining agreement in 2011. Therefore, Young has a good chance to earn this weekly bonus if he stays healthy. The Bills also have the option to make Fitzpatrick and the versatile Brad Smith active on game days, and potentially use Young's roster spot for another position and not pay Young the bonus.

Overall, signing Young to a modest contract was a smart play for Buffalo. It looks like Fitzpatrick and Smith will take up two quarterback slots this year, while Young and Tyler Thigpen battle it out for the final roster spot.

If Young doesn't make the team and is beat out by Thigpen this summer, Buffalo is only on the hook for Young's $350,000 signing bonus because his salary isn't guaranteed. That is not a steep price for the chance to see what Young can do.
The first workout is booked for free-agent receiver Chad Ochocinco. According to Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports, the former New England Patriot will work out with the Miami Dolphins next week.

The AFC East blog brought up the topic of Ochocinco being a possible target for Miami last week. Here are some additional thoughts on the reported workout:
  • I think the workout is a solid idea. I've been saying that talent and depth at wide receiver have been major issues for the Dolphins since they traded Brandon Marshall this offseason. The Dolphins haven’t found anyone to replace Marshall’s production (81 catches, 1,214 yards in 2011) and surprisingly skipped over receiver after receiver in the draft. There is no harm in a workout. Considering Miami’s need, the Dolphins rightfully should be one of the first teams to see what Ochocinco has in the tank.
  • On the flip side, you wonder if this reported interest in Ochocinco sends mixed messages from the organization. All we've heard from new Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland is that you don’t need big-name receivers in a West Coast offense and they are fine with the group they have. Going after Ochocinco seems to contradict both. Sure, Ochocinco is not the star receiver he was a few years ago, but he is a big name, and he carries star power in the locker room. The Dolphins seemed to be going against that when they traded Marshall. In fact, if they wanted to keep a high-maintenance receiver, at least Marshall is still a productive Pro Bowler. Looking to replace Marshall with Ochocinco would seem like a weird exchange in terms of both talent and message.
  • Finally, I have questions of whether Ochocinco could fit into a West Coast offense. The scheme requires timing, precision passing and crisp routes. Ochocinco has never been a disciplined receiver. That is what got him cut by the Patriots after one season. Ochocinco is at his best when he’s allowed to freelance and use his athleticism, which was often the case with the Cincinnati Bengals. Freelancing in the West Coast offense doesn’t work and often leads to turnovers, because quarterbacks are taught to throw to spots and receivers are expected to be there. Overall, I like the idea of Miami working out Ochocinco because there is certainly a need there. But I think other teams are a better fit.
Here are four important players to keep an eye on who are returning from injuries suffered last season:

Williams
Buffalo Bills: Defensive end Mario Williams

Injury: Pectoral

Thoughts: Williams was on his way to a dominant 2011 after he recorded five sacks in his first five games. Then he tore his pectoral muscle and was sidelined for the rest of the season. That didn't scare Buffalo away from making Williams the richest player in franchise history. The Bills gave Williams a $100 million contract in free agency to improve their pass rush. Williams will join teammates Mark Anderson, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams to make up one of the NFL's most formidable defensive lines. There's no reason to think Williams won't be successful with this group as long as he avoids injuries.

Long
Miami Dolphins: Left tackle Jake Long

Injury: Bicep

Thoughts: Long missed two of the final three games last season and was placed on injured reserve last December with a torn bicep. The perennial Pro Bowl left tackle went four straight years without missing a start but played hurt much of last season. Long is entering the final year of his contract, and the rebuilding Dolphins need a healthy season from their best player. Miami general manager Jeff Ireland says he wants to keep Long in a Dolphins uniform for a long time. The team may not extend Long's contract happen this summer, but look for the Dolphins to offer Long a huge extension by next year -- especially if he shows his durability in 2012.

Gronkowski
Gronkowski
New England Patriots: Tight end Rob Gronkowski

Injury: Ankle

Thoughts: Gronkowski didn't miss any games last season. But he suffered a major ankle injury in the AFC Championship Game against the Baltimore Ravens that hindered his effectiveness in New England's Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants. Gronkowski opted for surgery after the Super Bowl and is in the recovery phase. There is no reason to believe he won't be the same dominant player who set an NFL record for tight ends with 17 touchdown receptions in 2011. Gronkowski is 23 years old. But sometimes with youth comes the propensity to rush back on the field. It will be up to the Patriots' medical staff to make sure "Gronk" takes his time getting back to 100 percent.

Landry
New York Jets: Safety LaRon Landry

Injury: Achilles

Thoughts: The Jets signed Landry to a one-year, $3.5 million contract despite knowing he wasn't 100 percent. Landry has already missed organized team activities. The Jets hope his Achilles can be fully healthy by training camp. Landry, when healthy, is a big and physical safety who can blow people up. That would fit in well with New York's defense. But Landry can't help the Jets unless he's on the field. The former first-round pick missed 16 games the past two seasons with the Washington Redskins.

Bills: Dream/nightmare scenarios

May, 24, 2012
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AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Buffalo Bills in 2012.

Dream scenario (11-5): It would be a dream for Bills fans to see their team back in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. The last time we saw Buffalo make the postseason, the Bills were the victim of the “Music City Miracle” in 1999. It has been a long line of disappointments and underachieving since that historic play. (Many Bills fans still contend that was a forward pass, by the way.) This year’s team looks poised to break the streak. This is the best team, on paper, that Buffalo has had in a long time. The offense will be dangerous if quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick improves his consistency in the passing game and Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller and the running game stay consistent. Buffalo also made improvements to the defense, including drafting corner Stephon Gilmore in the first round and adding stud defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. Chances are, everything won’t fall into place for Buffalo. But this is a sleeper team that does have a chance to make a jump and contend for the playoffs.

Nightmare scenario (5-11): Despite all the additions, there is no guarantee the Bills and their coaching staff can bring it all together in one year. What if Fitzpatrick continues to play like the second half of 2011 and is not the long-term solution? What if the defense struggles to make the transition to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt? What if big injuries again decimate this team? A lot can go wrong for the Bills, especially in a division where the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots are expected to dominate. The Bills are trying to catch up and cannot afford to make many mistakes in the AFC East. They were 1-5 against division foes last year. Bills head coach Chan Gailey is only 10-22 in his first two years in Buffalo. He has more talent than he has ever had with the Bills. There are no excuses for Gailey this year. It’s still somewhat of a mystery whether Gailey can coach. But we will find out in 2012.

Pressure point: Bills

May, 18, 2012
5/18/12
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NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Bills and why.

Things are looking up for the Buffalo Bills. A team that finished 6-10 and in last place in the AFC East in 2011 had arguably the league's best offseason. The Bills acquired defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency, drafted first-round cornerback Stephon Gilmore, and gave contract extensions to in-house stars Fred Jackson and Steve Johnson.

But each move adds more pressure to third-year Bills coach Chan Gailey, who is 10-22 in his first two seasons in Buffalo.

Is Gailey a good NFL head coach? It's hard to say. Gailey was 18-14 in two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys before he was abruptly fired. Gailey still carries that sting after getting relieved without ever posting a losing season in Dallas. Gailey has struggled in Buffalo, but hasn't had nearly the same talent that he had with the Cowboys.

Talent is no longer a question this year in Buffalo. The Bills spent to the cap to nab top free agents, and many in-house players are coming into their own. Buffalo now has enough talent to make a playoff push. The question is, can Gailey and his staff put it all together?

This is a no-excuse year for Gailey. It's time to finally show what he can do in Buffalo with a bevy of talent at his disposal.
The running back class was one of the slowest to develop in the early stages of free agency, and there are still a few capable players available on the market.

Don’t be surprised if some of the AFC West teams look into the position now that the draft is complete. Denver drafted San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman in the third round, and San Diego draft Michigan State’s Edwin Baker in the seventh. Oakland didn’t draft a running back. Kansas City, which drafted Cyrus Gray of Texas A&M, appears set at the position.

Yet, I could see the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders looking for a veteran with Oakland being the most likely to add a veteran as they try to replace Michael Bush, who left for Chicago in free agency. As of now, Taiwan Jones and Mike Goodson are backing up the great, but oft-injured Darren McFadden

Among the best names available are Cedric Benson, Ryan Grant and Joseph Addai. Other running backs available include Tim Hightower, Justin Forsett and Ronnie Brown.

I think Benson can help any team, and I think he’d be a great fit in Oakland. He had 1,067 yards last season. He’d be a strong insurance policy for McFadden. Finances are an issue for Oakland, but, at this point, Benson would likely take what he can get.

The Addai-Peyton Manning connection from Indianapolis always makes it possible that Addai could join Willis McGahee and Hillman in Denver’s backfield. San Diego could add a veteran, and they have talked to Kansas City free agent Jackie Battle.
Interesting little transaction of NFC East interest today as the Washington Redskins announced the signing of former New York Giants linebacker Jonathan Goff. Nice pickup for the Redskins. A year ago, before tearing his ACL in the preseason, Goff was slated to be the starting middle linebacker for a team that would go on to win the Super Bowl. Now, he comes into Washington as insurance (assuming he's healthy) at a position at which the Redskins suddenly have some interesting depth.

Goff won't be a starting inside linebacker for the Redskins, as those two spots in Washington's 3-4 defense belong to London Fletcher and Perry Riley. But Fletcher's quite old and Riley's still quite young and so you never know when you might need help at one of those spots. Adding Goff to a backup mix that includes Lorenzo Alexander, recently signed Bryan Kehl and fourth-round draft pick Keenan Robinson is a low-risk, high-upside move.

From Goff's perspective, it appears he misread the market. The Giants would have had him back (at their price, which was what they told all of their own free agents), but he wanted to see if he could find greener pastures. But while he visited places like Cleveland and Miami, the Giants went out and traded for linebacker Keith Rivers, likely costing Goff a chance to go back to New York and reclaim his starting middle linebacker job. Now, if he'd like to be an NFL starter again, he'll have to work his way back into such a role from a backup spot. At least the Redskins' linebacker group is a good one around which to spend time. Prolonged exposure to Fletcher is the kind of thing that can help a guy's career if he pays attention.
While most of the attention focused on the Steelers getting the best guard available (Stanford's David DeCastro), they quietly made an important addition even before the draft began. Pittsburgh agreed to terms on a one-year deal with quarterback Byron Leftwich.

Leftwich
Leftwich
Bringing back Charlie Batch less than two weeks ago was an insurance policy if the Steelers couldn't keep Leftwich. Now, Leftwich is the favorite to be the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger, as long as he remains healthy. He has started 49 games and passed for 10,260 yards and 58 touchdowns.

Leftwich, 32, is five years younger than Batch, and is a more viable option to lead an offense if Roethlisberger went down for an extended period. The Steelers have always preferred Leftwich to Batch. Leftwich was supposed to start for the suspended Roethlisberger in 2010, but he hurt his knee in the final preseason game. He was also projected to be the team's No. 2 quarterback last season before breaking his arm in the preseason.

The Steelers now have five quarterbacks on the roster: Roethlisberger, Leftwich, Batch, former Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, and Jerrod Johnson. Striking a deal with Leftwich decreases the chances of Pittsburgh drafting a quarterback in the later rounds.
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Just a quick post here to pass along that, yes, the Minnesota Vikings have agreed to terms with receiver Jerome Simpson on a one-year contract. ESPN's Adam Schefter has confirmed the original report by Fox Sports' Jay Glazer.

As luck would have it, I'm heading into a news conference with Vikings general manager Rick Spielman to discuss this week's NFL draft. I'm sure Simpson, who was released from jail Friday after serving a 15-day sentence on a felony drug charge, will come up.

I realize I said in Tuesday morning's SportsNation chat that there was no rush to get Simpson under contract and that perhaps the Vikings would wait until after the draft. But clearly they wanted him under contract before that. Back in a bit.
Bengals free-agent wide receiver Jerome Simpson received a three-game suspension from the NFL for violating the league's substance abuse policy, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.

Relatively speaking, Simpson couldn't have asked for a better resolution to his legal situation or his discipline from the NFL.

Simpson fared better than most expected after having about two pounds of marijuana shipped to his northern Kentucky home in September. Many presumed the NFL would suspend Simpson at least four games.

This comes in the same month he was sentenced to 15 days in jail and three years' probation for a felony charge. Simpson had struck a plea agreement for 60 days before a judge reduced the jail time.

While the Bengals should part ways with Simpson because of this baggage, his future with the team likely will be determined by the draft. The Bengals have three of the first 53 picks in this week's draft and could use one on a wide receiver to take Simpson's role as the No. 2 wide receiver. If the Bengals don't draft a wide receiver early in the draft, it should increase his chances of coming back to them.

Simpson, 26, recently visited the Minnesota Vikings, but this doesn't rule out his return to Cincinnati. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis sent a letter in support of Simpson to the judge before he was sentenced to 15 days in jail. The Bengals said in a statement after the hearing that they believe Simpson "has, and will continue to, deal accountably with the consequences of his actions."

He has been a disappointment as the Bengals' second-round pick in 2008, but he is coming off his most productive NFL season. After 21 catches in his first three seasons, Simpson set career highs in catches (50), yards (725) and touchdowns (four), which included a sensational somersault flip into the end zone.

Saints bring back John Kasay

April, 23, 2012
4/23/12
7:25
PM ET
A little bit of news on the Saints and, this time, it’s not controversial.

Kasay
The Saints have re-signed veteran kicker John Kasay to a one-year contract. Kasay, who spent much of his career with the Carolina Panthers, joined the Saints last season after Garrett Hartley suffered a preseason injury. Kasay, 42, went on to set franchise records with 147 total points and 63 extra points last season. He connected on 82.4 percent of his field-goal attempts.

Hartley injured his hip last year and all indications have been that he’ll be ready for this season. The Saints may have brought Kasay back as insurance or they might want to put Hartley in a competitive situation during training camp.

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