NFL Nation: Cadillac Williams

Trent RichardsonAP Photo/David KohlTrent Richardson's bruising running style might help finally turn the Browns around.

Teams shouldn't spend a top-five pick on a running back in this pass-happy age of football. Two knee surgeries in less than a year reveal that Trent Richardson is damaged goods. Even Jim Brown, the greatest runner in Browns -- and perhaps NFL -- history, took a shot at Richardson, labeling the first-round pick as "ordinary."

Two weeks into the regular season, all of this criticism seems laughable. While it's correct not to make any sweeping conclusions after a couple of games, no one can consider the Browns' drafting of Richardson a mistake at this point. His power, speed and jaw-dropping moves in the open field prove he's the key piece in turning around the NFL's worst offense over the past decade.

Richardson's attitude is the perfect jolt to a Browns franchise that has accepted last place as a way of life since returning to the league in 1999. He runs angry. Knocking off the helmet of would-be tackler Kurt Coleman in the season opener -- it flew five yards after the crushing collision -- is a great example of that. He gets ticked off. Delivering a breakout game following Rey Maualuga's lukewarm assessment of him is another warning that you don't want to challenge him.

Richardson is a violent right hook for the usually punchless Browns, who have ranked 28th or worse in offense nine times in the previous 13 years. Relying on a running back like Peyton Hillis, who missed a game because of strep throat, wasn't going to cut it. Drafting a hard-nosed playmaker like Richardson is Cleveland's best hope to change its culture of losing, even if it has yet to provide immediate results for the winless Browns (0-2).

For entertainment purposes alone, Richardson made a Browns game worth watching Sunday. Richardson totaled 109 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving against the Bengals on Sunday. Those numbers don't illustrate how impressive Richardson looked. On his 32-yard touchdown run, he took a delayed handoff and raced to the end zone without being touched. On what will go down as a 23-yard touchdown reception, Richardson caught a short pass before running through two tackles and spinning out of another to reach the end zone.

"He’s a special player," Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "He’s a difference-maker."

Richardson became first NFL rookie to record 100 yards rushing, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game since Samkon Gado seven years ago. He also scored two 20-yard-plus touchdowns for a team that had seven of them all of last season.

"I think I was just more comfortable with myself that, ‘Hey, I'm still able to run like I used to' and do it much better," Richardson said of his improvement from Week 1. "In my head, [I was thinking] ‘I've got to run much stronger because these guys are much stronger than the guys in college.' Hopefully I'll come out stronger next week."

Five months ago, everyone christened Andrew Luck as the next great franchise quarterback and applauded the Redskins for moving up to take Robert Griffin III. The Browns received mixed reviews when they jumped one spot up to make sure they landed Richardson.

Teams have gotten burned in the past by taking a running back that high. Before Richardson, there were five running backs selected in the top five over the previous 10 drafts: Cadillac Williams (2005), Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). Only Brown has reached the Pro Bowl and only McFadden is still with the team that drafted him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Frank Victores/US PresswireTrent Richardson celebrates his 23-yard catch-and-run TD in the third quarter against the Bengals.
Richardson's stock didn't rise when a second procedure on his left knee in less than a year sidelined him for the entire preseason. In his NFL debut, he managed 39 yards, which prompted Bengals linebacker Maualuga to say "he didn’t do nothing spectacular." Maualuga was wrong. Exactly one month after knee surgery, no matter if it's minor or not, Richardson carried the ball 19 times. In terms of toughness, that is spectacular.

Richardson can be a top-five running back in the NFL as early as next season. That isn't to say he's the next Adrian Peterson right now.

"I still think he can do some things better when he doesn’t have the football, which means we probably ought to give him the ball every time he’s in there," coach Pat Shurmur said.

Richardson still has a ways to go before he convinces everyone about his talent. Jim Brown, who was critical of Richardson after the Browns drafted him, told The Plain Dealer that he was impressed with Richardson's performance against the Bengals. But he stopped short of fully endorsing the former Alabama star.

"Richardson has to show he can consistently carry a team," Brown told the paper. "The Browns have had some players that looked like they could, and it didn't work out. (Peyton) Hillis had a lot of talent."

Brown is right in that respect. It doesn't matter how many 1,000-yard seasons Richardson records. He was drafted to turn around a franchise that regularly loses more than 10 games a season and hasn't won a playoff game since 1994. Losing hasn't been easy on Richardson, who went 36-4 in three seasons at Alabama and won two national championships.

“At some point we have to put up more points than the other team is putting up,” Richardson said. “If they score on special teams, we have to come back and score. We did a good job (offensively), but I think we can do an even better job. When we start winning, it’s going to be much better."

Based on the first couple weeks of the season, Richardson is at his best when faced with a challenge.
The Arizona Cardinals were pleased when more than 10,000 fans turned out for their 2009 camp scrimmage, held six months after the team's Super Bowl appearance.

Drawing an estimated 14,500 fans on Saturday appears more impressive after two less inspiring seasons.

The trend is heading in the right direction, for sure.

"Back in 2004, we had to pay people to watch us," receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, according to the team.

The Cardinals could joke after getting through practice with no reported injuries to key players, notably second-year running back Ryan Williams, whose 44-yard run signaled a milestone in his return from a torn patella. Backup Javarris James will miss time after injuring an abductor muscle, further depleting the ranks at running back while Beanie Wells rests his surgically repaired knee. But Williams' continued progress is key.

Williams, one of the Cardinals' most exciting players in camp a year ago when the injury struck him down, passed another test Saturday when he absorbed a hit from strong safety Adrian Wilson and came away OK.

The injury Williams suffered during an exhibition game against Green Bay last Aug. 19 was an unusual one.

Cadillac Williams provides the recent precedent for an NFL running back. He suffered a torn patella during a 2007 game. About 14 months -- 420 days, to be precise -- elapsed before he played in another game. If Ryan Williams followed the same timeline, he would return for an Oct. 14 matchup against Buffalo, 422 days following his injury.

The timetable for Ryan Williams appears ahead of that pace.

Cadillac Williams provides the precedent for an accelerated pace as well. He suffered a second torn patella, this one to the other knee, during the final game of the 2008 season. He returned in time to start the 2009 opener, a span of only 259 days. At that pace, Ryan Williams would have been ready for game action in early May. Instead, he continued to rehab all offseason, participating in minicamps on a limited basis.

Williams has said he hopes to return for Week 1. The Cardinals haven't set a date. I'd be surprised if they hurried him onto the field during the first couple exhibition games.

Note: The Cardinals generally hold their scrimmage later in camp, but with the team playing in the Hall of Fame Game next week, that wasn't feasible. Scrimmaging with only a few practices could explain why the offense seemed sloppy, according to initial reports. Kevin Kolb tossed the only touchdown pass. He also threw two interceptions.
» AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East » NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

Any team with Steven Jackson at running back should be set. But for the first time in too long, the Rams have promising young depth behind the only NFL running back riding a seven-year run of 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

Second-round choice Isaiah Pead provides badly needed speed and energy in a change-of-pace back. Seventh-round choice Daryl Richardson also impressed during organized team activities and minicamp practices.

The Rams had their reasons for employing veterans Cadillac Williams and Jerious Norwood as Jackson's backups last season. Reliability and experience meant more during a lockout-shortened offseason, particularly with the Rams' expectations surging some after posting a 7-9 record in 2010. Even this offseason, re-signing Williams or making a run at free agent Cedric Benson might have invited favorable reviews on those players' reputations.

Youth will be served under first-year coach Jeff Fisher. It should almost always be served at running back, anyway. Pead and Richardson offer speed and shiftiness. They give the Rams something they haven't had in the backfield: variety and depth with upside.

My first inclination was to profile the Rams' wide receivers for this piece. We've gone over that ground. Running back was another position with the potential to exceed expectations, at least from a depth standpoint. Now, it's up to the players to prove it.
Frank Gore and Marshawn Lynch topped 1,200 yards rushing last season. Steven Jackson (1,145) and Beanie Wells (1,047) also exceeded 1,000 yards for NFC West teams.

With LaDainian Tomlinson set to retire, I've put together a chart showing how many 1,200-yard seasons 10 current and former NFC West backs would need to match him in career rushing yards (13,684).

For example, the St. Louis Rams' Steven Jackson has 9,093 career yards. He would need 4,591 yards to catch Tomlinson. Jackson would need 3.8 seasons (61.2 games) to catch Tomlinson if Jackson were to average 1,200 yards per season from this point forward.

Tomlinson was pretty impressive, in other words.
Ryan Grant, Thomas Jones and Joseph AddaiGetty ImagesRyan Grant, Thomas Jones and Joseph Addai are the top running back options left on the market.

We are in the eighth week of NFL free agency, and the position to which it has been most unkind is running back. Due to the ever-increasing emphasis on passing offense and the punishing nature of the running back position, teams see less and less value in investing big money in the position. So as the calender flipped to May, a number of veteran running backs with pretty good résumés remained on the open market.

All four teams in our division could conceivably still be in the market for a veteran running back. The Washington Redskins continue to negotiate with Tim Hightower, who was last year's starter before he tore his ACL, and would like him to come back to front an otherwise young running back corps that leaned on 2011 draft picks Roy Helu and Evan Royster over the final weeks of the season. The New York Giants, having lost Brandon Jacobs to free agency, picked David Wilson in this year's first round, but given the youth of their backup plans behind starter Ahmad Bradshaw, it wouldn't be ridiculous for them to bring a veteran back into camp.

The Philadelphia Eagles whiffed on Ronnie Brown as LeSean McCoy's backup last year and have plenty of intriguing youngsters at the position now, but they don't know what to expect from Dion Lewis or Bryce Brown or Chris Polk. And even the Dallas Cowboys, with DeMarco Murray as the starter and veteran Felix Jones as the backup, could stand to add some depth.

So here's a look at the top 10 remaining free-agent running backs and what they might bring if one of our division's teams were to sign them.

Ryan Grant. Rushed for a total of 2,456 yards in 2008 and 2009 as the Packers' starting running back, but an injury in the 2010 season opener cost him that whole season. Showed flashes of his old form in 2011, averaging 4.2 yards on his 134 carries, and he's 29 years old. Might be looking to start somewhere. He was talking to the Lions this week.

Thomas Jones. The graybeard of this group, Jones will turn 34 in August, and his days as a full-time starter are behind him. Might still be able to help in the passing game, but as a runner he'd be well down the depth chart. Well-regarded veteran locker room presence who might help the development of the younger guys who are getting the carries in a place like Washington.

Joseph Addai. Another 29-year-old who's struggled with injuries and probably needs a part-time role to better his chances of staying healthy. Even in his prime as an Indianapolis Colt, Addai was never a 20-carry-per-game guy. His value there was mainly as a receiver and as a blocker in the passing game. But there are some teams in this division that might be looking for a part-time guy who's good at that stuff.

Cedric Benson. He topped 1,000 yards in each of the past three seasons as the workhorse back in Cincinnati. Some say he chafed at the part-time role that developed for him as the 2011 season wore on, but at this point in the market he must see that a part-time role is his only option. Has had off-field issues that could scare teams away, but aside from that he might be a nice fit with Bradshaw in New York.

[+] EnlargeTim Hightower
James Lang/US PresswireThe Redskins would likely welcome Tim Hightower back if it weren't for concerns over the knee injury he sustained last season.
Tim Hightower. The Redskins loved him as a runner, receiver and pass-blocker, and would have him back in a second as their starter if they were sure about his knee. But he hasn't signed yet, and a recent visit to New England indicates he's looking for more than the Redskins are willing to offer.

LaDainian Tomlinson. One of the best ever at the position and a possible Hall of Famer, Tomlinson could be looking at retirement as he comes up on his 33rd birthday next month. But if he wants to play and can approach the level he showcased in 2010 with the Jets, he's the kind of guy who'd get a young running back's attention.

Cadillac Williams. Another 30-year-old for whom injuries have been the dominant story in recent years. He can be a more than productive backup with starter potential if he can stay on the field, but he generally can't.

Ronnie Brown. Only twice in the past five years has the 30-year-old Brown had 200 carries in a season. He was never able to assert himself as the starter in Miami, and as the Eagles' backup last year he was pretty much a complete disaster. It's going to be tough for Brown to sell himself as a reliable backup with what he showed in 2011.

Justin Forsett. He's small and quick and doesn't have a lot of miles on him. He won't turn 27 until October. The question is how much you can get out of him, and in what role. He's not a power runner, but he's good at finding holes. He accelerates well but doesn't have great top-end speed. He catches the ball well but isn't much help as a blocker in the passing game. Someone will sign him, and if they find the right role he could be a good change-up back for someone. It just feels as though each NFC East team already has someone like him.

Maurice Morris. Morris is 32 but has never been a regular feature back. He's been under 100 carries in each of the past three years, and of all of the backs on this list he has the most experience in the kind of part-time role we're talking about. He can catch the ball out of the backfield and doesn't mind playing special teams. He will find a home.

BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns couldn't hide their enthusiasm for Trent Richardson.

The Browns wanted him so badly that they gave up three picks to move one spot to make sure they got the only elite running back in this draft. Then, even before the Washington Redskins made their pick at No. 2, Cleveland turned in its card with Richardson's name on it.

Richardson brings new life and enthusiasm to one of the worst offenses in the NFL. He also brings something equally as important -- a physical identity.

Cleveland's long-plodding offense is now tougher, rougher and meaner. With all due respect to Jim Brown, Richardson is far from "ordinary." Richardson is the type of no-nonsense running back that a team needs when colliding with the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens.

In the SEC, one of the best college conferences in the country, Richardson set Alabama season records for rushing yards (1,679) and touchdowns (21) by showing no hesitation when running in between the tackles. He was fearless in bulling past defenders and stiff-arming them. What makes him a playmaker is his ability to also make players miss in the open field. His power and elusiveness is a special combination.

This is a draft where the Browns must rebuild their offense. It started by finding the centerpiece for it.

"We’re thrilled. He’s one of the guys who’s passionate, productive and durable," Browns coach Pat Shurmur said. "He’s the kind of runner that we feel is going to help us to put an offense together to score the points that we need to win the games that we’re going to win."

Shurmur added, "If you don’t sense the excitement in my voice, then you’re missing it."

What the Browns were missing last season was a spark on offense. Cleveland ranked 29th in yards and 30th in scoring. That's why trading up to secure Richardson wasn't just the right move. It was the only one.

It was an aggressive move for an aggressive player. Outside of quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, Richardson was the only other player in this draft who could immediately affect an offense.

Problem: The Browns scored the second-fewest rushing touchdowns (four) in the past 15 NFL seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Solution: Richardson is one of three players in SEC history to score 20 or more rushing touchdowns in a season.

Problem: The Browns' running backs averaged the fewest yards after contact (1.77) last season.

Solution: Richardson thrives on contact and talked openly Thursday night about crashing into Ray Lewis and Troy Polamalu.

There's a risk in taking a running back so high in the draft, which is why few teams do it. There have been five running backs taken in the top five in the previous 10 drafts: Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Cadillac Williams (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). They've combined for one Pro Bowl.

Shurmur indicated that if the Browns didn't take Richardson in the top five, another team would have. This prompted the Browns to give up picks in the fourth (118th overall), fifth (139th) and seventh (211th) rounds to move up one spot to get Richardson. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams reportedly were thinking about trading up for him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe Browns couldn't contain their excitement over getting Alabama's Trent Richardson.
Why were so many teams interested in Richardson? As Shurmur describes him, Richardson is virtually flawless.

"He can run with power. He can make you miss when he gets in the open. He can score," Shurmur said. "I like the fact that when he’s asked to pass protect, he will do it aggressively. And, when you throw him the football, he catches it. Unless I’m missing something there, that’s what runners got to do."

The Browns needed a playmaker at running back. Perhaps just as important, they needed a running back who will show up every week. That was a major problem last season, when Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and Brandon Jackson missed a chunk of the season with injuries.

"The other guys on this team, the coaches and our fans need to know that our players are going to show up," Shurmur said. "I’ve seen this in this player. We feel like that’s what we’re getting."

Richardson has his skeptics, namely the best running back in Browns history. When asked Thursday afternoon about the possibility of Cleveland taking Richardson, Jim Brown said, "I'm not overwhelmed with it. The problem is that he's ordinary. I think he's ordinary." Asked what about him is ordinary, Brown said, "the size, the speed, his moves."

You have to admire how Richardson responded to the criticism. Like his style of play, he attacked it head on.

"I got a lot to prove," he said on a conference call with reporters. "I'm going to make sure they all mention my name and compare people to me."

Shurmur couldn't say at what point during the draft process that the Browns knew Richardson was going to be their pick.

It could have been during his pro day in late March, when he knocked down Cleveland running backs coach Gary Brown in a blocking drill.

It could have been when he took 17-year-old cancer survivor Courtney Alvis to the senior prom 10 days before the draft.

Richardson acknowledged he didn't know he was going to be taken this high. But he's as excited as the Browns that it happened.

"It's bigger than winning the national championship game," Richardson said.

In a perfect scenario, the Browns would've been able to trade up last month in order to get RG3. They didn't get their quarterback, but they were determined not to lose out on their running back.

But Richardson is more than a running back to the Browns. He's their cornerstone and their new identity.

"He’s going to be what we think is going to be a really, really fine addition to the Cleveland Browns team," Shurmur said. "He’s going to be one of those players that our fans and our community will be able to watch run the ball for a lot of years. That’s what we’re excited about."

AFC West: Free-agency primer

March, 7, 2012
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Denver Broncos

Key free agents: K Matt Prater (franchised), DT Brodrick Bunkley, S Brian Dawkins, TE Daniel Fells, FB Spencer Larsen, WR Eddie Royal, QB Brady Quinn, DT Marcus Thomas, LB Wesley Woodyard, P Britton Colquitt (restricted).

Where they stand: The Broncos will have plenty of salary-cap room. For a team that went from 4-12 with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft to winning the AFC West and a playoff game in John Fox’s first season as coach, the Broncos are in position to improve through free agency. With Prater franchised, the team’s only priority unrestricted free agent is Bunkley.

What to expect: Don’t expect a huge spending spree. The Broncos are cash conscious and I think the franchise is still recovering from some undisciplined spending during the Mike Shanahan era that ended in 2008. We will see the Broncos try to add several pieces at lower prices. Denver could address needs at safety, running back, receiver, tight end, linebacker and quarterback. Keep an eye on players such as Washington safety LaRon Landry, Seattle tight end John Carlson, quarterbacks Chad Henne (Miami), Dennis Dixon (Pittsburgh) or Josh Johnson (Tampa), running backs Michael Bush (Oakland) and Mike Tolbert (San Diego), and defensive lineman Jonathan Fanene Cincinnati.

Kansas City Chiefs

Key free agents: WR Dwayne Bowe (franchised), CB Brandon Carr, QB Kyle Orton, RB Jackie Battle, LB Jovan Belcher, S Jon McGraw, C Casey Wiegmann, RB Thomas Jones, DE Wallace Gilberry, DT Kelly Gregg

Where they stand: The Chiefs are in great shape on cap space even after signing cornerback Stanford Routt and franchising Bowe. They have already done a nice job in free agency with these two moves and have a good, young roster. Kansas City can become a serious playoff contender with the right moves. It is likely Carr will leave in free agency, but the Chiefs should be able to re-sign most of their other free agents if they wish.

What to expect: I’m not sure we will see the Chiefs break the bank for any of the super-hot free agents, but I expect them to do some significant shopping. I think we could see Kansas City look for help at nose tackle, linebacker, safety, tackle, running back and quarterback. Of course, the intrigue could start if the team gets in on the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. But they could also look at several other quarterbacks, including Orton, Henne, Jason Campbell (Oakland) or even Quinn. They could also be in the mix for Miami nose tackle Paul Soliai, Saints guard Carl Nicks and running backs BenJarvus Green-Ellis (New England), Bush and Tolbert.

Oakland Raiders

Key free agents: S Tyvon Branch (franchised), RB Michael Bush, QB Jason Campbell, LB Quentin Groves, C Samson Satele, WR Chaz Schilens, DE Trevor Scott, FB Marcel Reece (restricted).

Where they stand: The Raiders are one of the few teams that must get under the salary cap. Oakland coach Dennis Allen recently acknowledged the team has work to do. The Raiders have some contracts that can be easily restructured, but they also may have to cut some players, particularly on defense. Linebacker Kamerion Wimbley and defensive tackle John Henderson are among the top candidates.

What to expect: The Raiders likely face some limitations once they get under the cap, but they can add two or three starting-quality players under the right circumstances. Their primary needs are on defense, starting at cornerback and linebacker. The offensive line could be upgraded as well. I think they can be in on the second wave of cornerbacks. A player to watch is New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter, who previously played for Allen. There are some solid second-tier cornerbacks Oakland could be interested in other than Porter. There will be some good players available on both sides of the ball after the initial wave of free agency for short-term deals. Expect the Raiders to do some bargain picking during that time. I think Oakland will be interested in signing several of its free agents, but I expect Bush and Campbell will leave.

San Diego Chargers

Key free agents: WR Vincent Jackson, C Nick Hardwick, RB Tolbert, DT Antonio Garay, OT Jared Gaither, FB Jacob Hester.

Where they stand: The Chargers will be in decent shape and they are getting even better after cutting Luis Castillo, the retirement of guard Kris Dielman and the expected release of tackle Marcus McNeill. But San Diego still has a lot of work to do. They have the most priority free agents of any team in the division. Signing Jackson, Hardwick, Gaither, Tolbert and Garay will be a challenge.

What to expect: The Chargers will likely stick to their usual plan and concentrate first on their own free agents. But they also have other needs and they will likely spend more in free agency than they have done before under general manager A.J. Smith. I get the sense from some agents that the Chargers may spend wildy in an attempt to win back the fan base’s trust after the unpopular contract extensions for Smith and coach Norv Turner. The pair were brought back even after missing the playoffs for a second consecutive season. I also get the sense from inside the organization, however, that the Chargers will not act out of desperation. Look for the team to consider pass-rushers, nose tackles, safeties and offensive linemen if Hardwick and Gaither aren’t brought back. A receiver will also become a major need if Jackson goes. The Colts' Reggie Wayne could be an option in that case. A running back such as Cadillac Williams (St. Louis) reportedly will be in the mix if Tolbert walks. Soliai could interest the team as well. Chicago special teams ace Corey Graham may also be a target. If the Chargers want to make a huge splash, they could try to get in on Houston pass-rusher Mario Williams, who is widely considered the best player on the market.
The injury Ryan Williams suffered during his second NFL exhibition game was relatively unusual for football players.

"My kneecap was in my thigh," the Arizona Cardinals' running back said during a team-produced video on his rehabilitation. "It was just kind of like, 'What?' "

A torn patella tendon ended Williams' rookie season before it officially began.

The running back expects to return for training camp and the 2012 regular season. Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham returned from similar injuries, but each situation is different. The Cardinals cannot know how the knee will respond. No one can.

Cadillac Williams returned, only to injure his other knee. Suffering a second injury so quickly complicated comparisons to other running backs returning from a single torn patella.

Ryan Williams is not yet even 22 years old, however.

"He has youth on his side, for sure," ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said Thursday. "What you worry about is, it takes a lot to get any kind of explosiveness or power back. You're not talking about strength, but quickness."

Williams, a second-round choice from Virginia Tech, impressed the Cardinals with his ability to change directions without losing much speed.

"It is reasonable he could be back when the season starts," Bell said, "but will he really be back? That is going to remain to be seen and like these guys coming off ACL surgeries, it may take a while to see what his max is that he can return to."

The Cardinals need Williams in part because their primary back, Beanie Wells, has struggled with injuries, fighting through knee trouble last season after undergoing surgery.

Four additional injury situations to monitor, one per NFC West team, as the offseason continues:
  • Arizona: Kevin Kolb, quarterback. Concussion problems have sidelined Kolb each of the past two seasons. Symptoms lingered last season. Quarterbacks are going to take hits unexpectedly, sometimes to the head. Can Kolb stay on the field?
  • Seattle: Sidney Rice, receiver. Rice has undergone surgery on each shoulder. One surgery repaired damage suffered during training camp. The other repaired damage incurred during college. The hope is healthier shoulders will allow Rice to improve strength throughout his upper body.
  • San Francisco: Josh Morgan, receiver. The 49ers were relatively healthy last season, but losing Morgan to a broken ankle cost them as the season progressed, particularly late. Morgan is without a contract for 2012. He has been working out at the 49ers' team facility. Getting him back would help the offense.
  • St. Louis: Rodger Saffold, pectoral. The Rams had injuries throughout their roster, especially at cornerback. Saffold's ability to play four positions on the line, including left tackle, makes him more valuable than members of the secondary. Saffold has said he hopes to be ready by April or May, according to Howard Balzer. He suffered a torn pectoral while lifting weights in mid-November.

First look at Rams' 2012 free agents

February, 7, 2012
The St. Louis Rams have 20 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents.

I'm not sure any of them qualify as players the Rams absolutely must bring back, particularly with a new coach and new schemes on both sides of the ball.

Receiver Brandon Lloyd would help fill a need, but at what price? Would he fit as well in a new offense after producing at disproportionate levels to this point when paired with former coordinator Josh McDaniels, now in New England?

Guard Jacob Bell played for new coach Jeff Fisher in Tennessee. He might have more value to the new staff than he had to the old one; McDaniels wanted more powerful guards, such as Harvey Dahl.

This item, like the previous one for Arizona, expands upon Brian McIntyre's lists. I've added columns for offensive and defensive snap counts from 2011, courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information. The final column shows how much each player's previous contract averaged.

Update: Punter Donnie Jones is also an unrestricted free agent. His previous contracted averaged not quite $1.2 million.


Receiver Danny Amendola, listed with the restricted free agents below, has not played since suffering an elbow injury in the 2011 season opener.

NFC South awards time

January, 25, 2012
Newton/BreesChuck Cook/US PresswireCam Newton, left, was the AFC South's top rookie; Drew Brees was its MVP.

The 2011 season was memorable across the NFC South for many reasons, both good and bad. We saw the Saints go 13-3 while setting all sorts of records and we saw Tampa Bay fall apart about as completely as any team ever has.

We saw the Atlanta Falcons, at times, look like a great team and, at other times, look very ordinary. We saw the rebirth of the Carolina Panthers, who ended the season as a team very much on the rise.

So let’s take a look back at the season with a lists of awards and “bests’’ and “worsts’’.

Most Valuable Player: This one’s as easy as it gets. New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees carried the Saints and set a new single-season record for passing yardage.

Most Valuable Player (non-quarterback): This one’s not all that difficult either. New Orleans’ Darren Sproles set a new NFL record for all-purpose yards. He also made it impossible for opposing defenses to match up with the Saints.

Defensive Player of the Year: This one’s difficult because the NFC South isn’t known for strong defense. It also didn’t help that Carolina linebacker Jon Beason, who might be the division’s best overall defensive player, missed almost the entire year with an injury, and New Orleans middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was slowed by a knee injury most of the season. That’s why I’m going with Atlanta’s Sean Weatherspoon. Look around the division and tell me if there’s a guy who makes more big plays. I couldn’t find one.

Rookie of the Year: This is almost as easy as giving Brees the MVP. Carolina’s Cam Newton wins easily. He set a rookie record for passing yards and had more rushing touchdowns in a season than any quarterback in NFL history. His “Superman’’ celebration truly fits.

Defensive Rookie of the Year: This one’s not as obvious as Newton. But when you give it a little thought, Tampa Bay defensive end Adrian Clayborn easily was the best rookie defender in the division. Clayborn was one of only about two or three bright spots for the Bucs. He showed he’s a complete defensive end — one who can rush the passer and play the run.

Best Performance by a Second-Year Player: Weatherspoon was a candidate for this, but the nod goes to New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. He had one of the best seasons ever by a tight end. I know the Saints have a lot of pressing contract issues and Graham is under contract for three more seasons. But at some point this offseason, they should give Graham an extension and a huge pay raise. Graham’s only making minimum wage. If ever a player has outperformed his contract, it’s Graham.

Coach of the Year: I respect the job Ron Rivera did in Carolina, but I’ve got to go with New Orleans’ Sean Payton. He got his team to 13 wins, despite having his knee shattered in a sideline collision.

Assistant Coach of the Year: Prior to Payton’s injury, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael had lived in the shadows of the head coach. But Carmichael started calling the plays when Payton went down. Payton let that continue the rest of the season and the Saints kept winning.

Executive of the Year: It has to be Carolina general manager Marty Hurney. In one offseason, he hit two home runs on two of the biggest challenges a general manager can face. He hired Rivera, who is well on his way to being a good head coach. More important, Hurney found a franchise quarterback in Newton. Many doubted Newton prior to the draft. Hurney did his homework and it paid off.

Best Turnaround: The Panthers might have won only six games, but that’s triple what they won last year.

Worst Collapse: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had one of the biggest collapses in NFL history. They started 4-2, then lost their final 10 games while appearing totally out of control on and off the field.

[+] EnlargeDarren Sproles
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezDarren Sproles was the best offseason signing the NFL, to say nothing of the NFC South.
Best Offseason Move: There’s no doubt it was the signing of Sproles. He was the best free-agent signing in the entire NFL. And for those Tampa Bay fans who like to bash their ownership and front office for not bringing in Sproles, the fact is you never had a chance. The Bucs and other teams made inquiries about Sproles, but were told it wasn’t going to happen. All along, Sproles was headed nowhere else but New Orleans, for a reunion with former San Diego teammate Brees. They continued spending their offseasons together. Brees was recruiting Sproles throughout the lockout and, in New Orleans, Brees gets whatever he wants.

Worst Offseason Move: That would be Tampa Bay not finding a running back to pair with LeGarrette Blount. It didn’t have to be Sproles and the Bucs weren’t wrong in letting Cadillac Williams go. But they should have gotten a legitimate NFL running back who could catch passes out of the backfield and pass-block. Blount can’t do either — and the Bucs made a severe miscalculation by thinking he could be an every-down back.

Best Bounce-Back Season: The winner here is Carolina receiver Steve Smith. In the offseason, he wasn’t sure he wanted to stay in Carolina. Once he caught a few passes from Newton, everything changed. Smith was back to being the dominant receiver he was a few years back.

Worst Disappearing Act: Soon after signing with the Atlanta Falcons, defensive end Ray Edwards proclaimed himself the "missing link.'' Instead of leading the Falcons to a Super Bowl, Edwards simply was missing most of the season. He played the run all right, but Atlanta’s pass rush didn’t improve and that’s why he was signed.

Best Off-Field Decision: You can accuse Tampa Bay’s ownership management of being inept all you want. After a 4-12 season, it’s fair game. But someone very high hope with the Bucs made an excellent decision when the team turned down the opportunity to appear on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.’’ Whoever that wise person was realized that it might not be such a great idea to open the organization to cameras around the clock. Those cameras could have captured things wouldn’t have looked great – things like assistant coaches trying unsuccessfully to explain the uncomplicated art of pass-blocking to Blount or a gregarious former coach taking the camera crew on a late-night tour of Tampa.

Equipment Manager of the Year: That’s Carolina’s Jackie Miles, of course. I used to say Derrick Brooks was the best player in NFC South history. Now, I’ll admit Brees has at least caught up to Brooks and maybe surpassed him. But, if I had to pick a third guy who’s the best at what he does in the history of the division, it would be Miles. To those who know him, the man’s a legend in many ways and could end up being the first equipment manager in the Hall of Fame.

Rams find way to protect Sam Bradford

December, 4, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO -- Picture-perfect California weather only marginally improved the St. Louis Rams' view from the visitor's sideline at Candlestick Park.

The Rams watched backup quarterbacks A.J. Feeley and Tom Brandstater warm up, but there was no sign of starter Sam Bradford. The more time passed, the clearer it became Bradford would not play Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

Bradford, slowed by an ankle injury, was among the players St. Louis declared inactive 90 minutes before the 4:15 p.m. ET kickoff. Feeley, 1-1 as a starter for the Rams this season, will start against San Francisco. The Rams also declared safety Darian Stewart, running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Josh Hull, guard Kevin Hughes, tackle Mark LeVoir and defensive end C.J. Ah You inactive.

The 49ers' list featured quarterback Scott Tolzien, receiver Braylon Edwards, cornerback Shawntae Spencer, fullback Moran Norris, guard Daniel Kilgore, guard Mike Person and nose tackle Ian Williams.

Bradford missed practice during the week after aggravating the high-ankle sprain he suffered this season. There was no sense risking his physical well-being behind an offensive line playing without both starting tackles, in my view.

Cam's a slam for Rookie of the Year

November, 17, 2011
Cam NewtonStreeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton made a statement early, accumulating 854 passing yards in his first two games.

On the surface, it looks like there’s a great argument brewing out there about who should be the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year.

The names Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and DeMarco Murray are getting tossed around. It makes for great conversation, but let’s face reality.

Newton won the award a long time ago. This race was over two weeks into the season. Despite some really nice deeds by Dalton and Murray, nothing really has changed and it’s not going to.

As the first overall pick in the draft, Newton came with all sorts of flash and glitter. He was a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on a national championship team at Auburn and that made him a strong favorite to win Rookie of the Year before the season ever started.

Newton settled it in two weeks. He threw for more than 400 yards in each of his first two games. No rookie quarterback had ever done that, and that’s the kind of thing that’s going to stick in the mind of voters.

Speaking of voters, let’s be very clear. We’re talking about the Associated Press NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. There are other rookie honors out there and they matter. Just not as much as the one by the Associated Press.

If you don’t believe me, consider this: If a player gets an incentive clause in his contract for winning a Rookie of the Year award, it almost always is stipulated that he only gets paid if it’s the one from the Associated Press.

[+] EnlargeCarolina's Cam Newton
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesCam Newton has passed for 2,605 yards this season and 11 touchdowns, and has also rushed for 374 yards and seven more scores.
The way it works is the voters are writers from every NFL city. Majority rules and, unless Newton suffers a season-ending injury very soon, he’s going to win.

Yeah, I can hear the arguments coming from Dallas and Cincinnati and I respect them. But those folks can save themselves some pain later by realizing now that Murray and Dalton aren’t going to win the award.

I know everything is bigger in Texas and that’s why Dallas fans are going crazy about Murray. He has been incredible since Felix Jones went down with an injury in mid-October. Murray has 674 rushing yards this season with 618 of them coming in the past four games.

And I understand that the Cowboys are “America’s Team,’’ and Dallas is a much bigger media market than Charlotte or Cincinnati. But that actually could end up working against Murray. For a long time, there have been grumbles that it’s harder for Cowboys to get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame because voters feel saturated by anything to do with Dallas.

A lot of those voters are the same ones who select the Rookie of the Year. The Cowboys haven’t had one of those since Emmitt Smith in 1990.

Murray is good, but he’s not Emmitt Smith. You could make the case that we saw Murray last year. Tampa Bay’s LeGarrette Blount rushed for 1,000 yards in basically half a season (and for his next trick he’s trying to learn how to pass block) and he didn’t even come close to winning the award.

Sam Bradford did.

That’s because Bradford is a quarterback. Let’s face it, quarterbacks generally are going to win popularity contests simply because they’re quarterbacks. Four of the past seven winners have been quarterbacks. Heck, even Vince Young won it in 2006.

Once in awhile, as happened in 2007, an Adrian Peterson comes along. And in the years when no rookie quarterback does much, the award goes to a Percy Harvin or a Cadillac Williams. This isn’t one of those years.

That brings it down to Dalton and Newton.

Dalton is doing what Bradford did last year and what Matt Ryan did in 2008. He’s come in, played very well and his team is winning. The Bengals are 6-3 and Dalton has thrown for 1,866 yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s smart, doesn’t make big mistakes and there’s no doubt Dalton is a big reason Cincinnati is one of the league’s most surprising teams.

But he’s not the only reason. Cincinnati’s defense has been shockingly good. Dalton really hasn’t been shocking. He has only had one 300-yard game, and only one game in which he’s thrown more than two touchdown passes.

Is anybody really ready to call Dalton a franchise quarterback? Yeah, I know it might be a little tempting because it’s been tough to even call the Bengals a franchise for most of the time they’ve been in the league. But Dalton is not Newton. He’s not even close.

By about halftime of the opener, the world knew Newton was a franchise quarterback. He threw for 422 yards that day in Arizona. Then, he came back the next week and threw for 432 against Green Bay, and, suddenly, the Panthers had hope for the first time in a long time. They've still got it.

Yeah, both those games were losses, and, despite Newton’s play, the Panthers have continued to do a lot of losing. They’re 2-7 and we are talking about a game that’s supposed to be the ultimate team sport.

But Rookie of the Year isn’t a team award, which is significant because if you factored in the play of Carolina’s defense, Newton would be wearing heavy anchors on both his legs.

Rookie of the Year is an individual honor, and even if it wasn’t, Newton still would have the edge. He’s thrown for about 800 yards more than Dalton. Oh, and since we mentioned Newton’s legs, let’s take a look at rushing stats. Newton has rushed for 374 yards and seven touchdowns.

Dalton has run for 26 yards. If you really want to pad his stats, you could say he’s run for 78 feet, which is nice. But we’ve seen Dalton before. He compares nicely to guys like Ryan, Bradford, Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez as rookies.

We’ve never seen anything like Newton before. You could say he runs like Tim Tebow or Michael Vick. Or you could say he throws like Dan Marino or Peyton Manning. You’ve never been able to say both things about any single quarterback. Until now.

Yeah, Newton’s not perfect. He has thrown 10 interceptions (but Dalton has thrown nine on 40 less attempts). It also would be nice to see Newton get some wins. But those will come next season when the Panthers have had time to rebuild a defense that got shredded by injuries.

This is about this year. There’s no question Newton and Dalton have turned heads. But Newton is the only rookie who has had heads spinning.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

November, 16, 2011
Josh FreemanCliff Welch/Icon SMIWhile his statistics may not reflect it, Josh Freeman says he's a better quarterback than he was a year ago.
Moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got thumped 31-9 by the Houston Texans on Sunday, quarterback Josh Freeman shared this thought with the media.

"I think I'm a better quarterback than I was last year," Freeman said.

OK, are you done laughing yet?

I’ll gladly give you some more time -- and a few statistics. Through nine games, Freeman has thrown 13 interceptions (the second-highest total in the league) and just nine touchdown passes. That comes after Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions all of last season.

And he’s now a better quarterback than he was last season?

This is where the laughing should stop. There’s been nothing funny about Tampa Bay’s 4-5 start because this was a team that went a surprising 10-6 last season and was supposed to be very much on the rise. Freeman’s claim may sound delusional, but it’s not.

I’ll take the Freeman of this season over the Freeman of last season. Seriously.

He’s a year older and a year wiser than he was in his first full season as a starter last year. The statistics don’t show improvement, and I’m not going to suggest that Freeman has taken a big step forward. But I will say I don’t think he’s regressed. The rest of the Bucs have, though, and that’s the problem. Some of Freeman’s teammates, and maybe even his coaching staff and front office, have done the quarterback an injustice and that’s why the statistics and the team’s record aren’t looking very pretty.

Go ahead and put some blame on Freeman. And it is fair to wonder about that thumb injury that had the New Orleans Saints so excited a few weeks ago. Freeman might not look like the same quarterback he was a year ago, but I think that has a lot more to do with the team around him than anything else.

The Bucs found out they had a franchise quarterback last season. But the mistake they made -- and this goes to the coaching staff and the front office -- was that they also thought they found a big-time No. 1 wide receiver and a true feature running back.

That’s Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, and I have no problem saying each of them has taken multiple steps back from last season. They were two players who fell in the 2010 draft, Williams to the fourth round and Blount all the way through the draft.

There were reasons for that and they’re playing out now. The coaches and front office might have let the performances of Williams and Blount last year go to their heads. Williams and Blount might have done the same thing.

When the rest of the offensive skill-position players were working out together in Tampa during the lockout, Williams frequently was hanging out at his home in Buffalo. He’s back now and playing more like a No. 3 or 4 receiver and no one else has stepped up. His route running hasn’t been precise and he’s tied for third in the NFL in dropped passes. The Bucs lead the league in dropped passes.

But that’s not the only problem. Blount may be the player most responsible for throwing Freeman and the offense completely off kilter. Blount came in and rushed for 1,000 yards in half a season as the starter last year. He did that with Cadillac Williams helping out as the third-down back.

The Bucs let Cadillac Williams leave in the offseason, largely because they thought Blount was ready to become an every-down back. That hasn’t happened. Blount has crippled the offense because he hasn’t shown the coaches he can be an effective pass-protector. If you're one of the biggest and strongest running backs in the league and you can't figure out how to pass block by the second half of your season, it probably never is going to happen. The Bucs used Earnest Graham in passing situations until he suffered a season-ending injury and now they’re going with Kregg Lumpkin.

That’s made Tampa Bay’s offense incredibly predictable. Defenses basically know that the Bucs will run the ball when Blount’s on the field and throw it when Lumpkin’s in the game. That takes away the play-action game and it has made Freeman look bad.

But the fact is, Freeman’s pretty close to the same guy he was last year. It’s just not showing because the guys around him are nothing close to what they were last year or what the Bucs thought they could be this year.



The latest on Rams' Sam Bradford

November, 6, 2011
Chris Mortensen says the St. Louis Rams are "optimistic" quarterback Sam Bradford can return from a high-ankle sprain Sunday.

The Rams listed Bradford as questionable on their Friday injury report. Bradford has not played in 21 days. High-ankle sprains generally take longer to heal, but Bradford has a better chance because his left ankle is the injured one. He plants on his right ankle when throwing.

I've had a hard time projecting a winner for the Rams' game at Arizona, in part because the quarterback situations have been muddied. I went with the Cardinals because they're home and I suspect Arizona should be able to run the ball well, but even that's tough to know for certain with Beanie Wells less than full strength and the Rams coming off a strong showing against New Orleans.

Bradford's availability at less than full strength adds another variable that is difficult to quantify.

The St. Louis Rams have listed quarterback Sam Bradford as questionable for the second time this season.

Recovery times for high-ankle sprains can be unpredictable, coach Steve Spagnuolo has repeatedly said, but if Bradford returns Sunday, he'll beat reasonable expectations.

Three Cleveland Browns quarterbacks suffered high-ankle sprains last season. The youngest of the three, Colt McCoy, played in a game 28 days later. The oldest, Jake Delhomme, was forced into action prematurely after a 28-day recovery period. He played two quarters and still wasn't right a month later. The Browns' other quarterback last season, Seneca Wallace, returned to practice 31 days after suffering his high-ankle sprain.

Bradford was injured during an Oct. 16 game at Green Bay. Bradford did not play the next week after the Rams listed him as questionable. In retrospect, the team's optimism that week could have reflected Bradford's determination to play more than his realistic chances for getting onto the field so quickly. The team reassessed the injury and held out Bradford against New Orleans in Week 8.

Bradford practiced on a limited basis Friday.

There has been no clear pattern for players the Rams have listed as questionable. Seven of 13 did not play after appearing as questionable on previous Fridays this season. An eighth, Steven Jackson, was limited to only 14 offensive snaps after being questionable for Week 3.

The chart shows the players St. Louis has listed as questionable on Fridays previously this season, their injuries, whether they played and how much they played.



Thursday, 10/16
Sunday, 10/19
Monday, 10/20