NFL Nation: Drew Bennett

BrittAP Photo/Frederick BreedonKenny Britt now gives the Tennessee Titans a bona fide deep threat.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans have long searched for a dynamic downfield receiver. Sunday at LP Field, the Titans got the kind of game that says they finally have one.

Kenny Britt is big, physical and fast, but he’s also still growing up.

Early Friday morning, he was accused of throwing punches in a bar brawl at Karma Lounge on Broadway in downtown Nashville.

Late Sunday afternoon, his quarterback and coordinator were answering questions about how highly he ranks among the receivers they throw to and call plays for, respectively.

A seven-catch, 225-yard, three-touchdown game has a way of altering the focus of the conversation. Britt's performance keyed the Titans' 37-19 win over the Philadelphia Eagles.

“There is not much better that I’ve played with,” said Kerry Collins, the 16th year quarterback who played for the injured Vince Young. “…[Britt is] going to do everything he can to get the ball, he’s aggressive going after it. The guy loves to play, love to make big plays. As a quarterback, it’s nice to know a guy like that is on your team because like you saw today, there were some throws that weren’t exactly perfect, but the guy did whatever he had to do to get the ball.

“You can have all the physical tools in the world but if you don’t have that, it doesn’t make you a special player. And I think Kenny has the ability to be a special player.”

I asked Mike Heimerdinger, who’s overseen the Titans' offense for eight seasons in two separate stints, where Britt ranks among the guys he’s coached in Nashville.

“Ability wise, he has the most of anybody,” Heimerdinger said. “Derrick Mason did more with less ability than Kenny has. I wouldn’t put him ahead of Mase yet.”

Britt had the Titans biggest receiving day since Drew Bennett had 233 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas City on Dec. 13, 2004. The Eagles had never given up so many receiving yards to one player.

For the Titans, now 5-2, it should amount to more than a big day.

It should delineate two shifts: One where the teams that choose to stack things up to stop running back Chris Johnson pay the price in deep passing production; another in how the Titans deploy their receivers.

Britt was used primarily as the team’s third receiver through the team’s first four games this season. He started the two games before this one with Justin Gage out with a hamstring injury.

With Gage still out, Britt would have started against the Eagles, but coach Jeff Fisher disciplined him for the Karma Lounge incident. Britt sat until the middle of the second quarter; Fisher is relying on the crutch of "gathering facts.”

Britt has now caught a touchdown pass in five consecutive games.

So now, when Gage is ready, he should remain in the background.

Nothing personal against a nice guy who’s been productive in spurts and is signed through 2011. But it’s time to move on, and to do so the Titans need to play Britt and Nate Washington as the starters, with rookie Damian Williams as the No. 3.

Gage can dress, but he shouldn’t be on the field unless something is wrong with one of those three guys. He could be used as the fourth receiver rotating in once in a while to offer a breather.

A year ago, after four starts, the Titans scratched a healthy defensive end Jevon Kearse. He got hurt in practice after that, but clearly the team decided amid a poor start to move forward without the veteran. The Titans turned things over to guys with more upside like William Hayes, Jacob Ford and Dave Ball. Kearse appeared in only two more games before his contract ran out and he disappeared.

It’s time now for them to “Jevon Kearse” Gage in order to create sufficient room for Britt and Williams, who’s played well in increased chances the last few weeks.

I asked general manager Mike Reinfeldt about Britt earning a starting role.

“I think as you go along, people do things that demand more play time and I’m not sure what more you can do than he’s done,” Reinfeldt said. “That’s how it should work. You earn play time.”

Defensive coordinators are going to have to spent additional time formulating better plans against Britt. They have to be able to make better, quicker adjustments to him than Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott did.

Britt worked mostly against cornerback Ellis Hobbs, though several of his big plays turned out to be against safety Nate Allen.

He got to the corner for his first touchdown. Britt circled a ball that was under thrown as Collins got his arm hit to take the second one 80 yards for a touchdown. Britt caught the third score among three defenders in the center of the end zone.

Did Collins expect the Eagles to make an adjustment away from that safety-centric coverage?

“I did,” he said. “And they didn’t.”

“A lot of that was just me,” Allen said.

Only near the very end was cornerback Asante Samuel on Britt’s side of the field.

“About six, seven minutes left I was going to go over and cover him,” Samuel said. “But we didn’t have enough time.”

Fullback Ahmard Hall said he still expects Britt to address the team this week, perhaps apologizing for causing a distraction. Many of the Titans won’t consider it necessary after he did so much to lift them in such a big win. Two of his touchdowns were part of the team’s 27-point fourth-quarter, the franchise's most productive final quarter ever.

I suspect Britt will be in before too late Sunday night. He said his fiancée gave him grief over being out late when trouble is more likely.

“Don’t go to places after 12,” he said when asked what he’d learned. “Stay in the house. My fiancée actually yelled at me and I was like, ‘OK, I’ll stay home for the rest of the season.’”

Britt’s friend Jason McCourty, a Titans cornerback who was part of the same draft class out of Rutgers, joked he might go the other way.

“I told Kenny now if he’s trying to back to Karma this Thursday night, I’m with him, if that’s the type of game you’re going to have,” McCourty said, laughing.

Getty ImagesThere's no love lost between Philip Rivers' San Diego Chargers and Vince Young's Tennessee Titans.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Most teams have a historical trouble spot, and for the Titans’ entire life in Tennessee it’s been receiver.

They’ve struck out with high draft picks. They’ve failed to develop mid- and low- round guys they’ve selected in droves. They’ve missed on free agents. They’ve been unlucky with injuries.

In 2005 they liked Vincent Jackson, but watched him go late in the second round to San Diego, where he’s developed into a consistent threat. Eight picks later they took Courtney Roby in their third round. He’s now returning kicks in New Orleans while the Titans will have to defend Jackson Christmas night in a crucial game at LP Field.

ESPN Stats & Information says Jackson has been the targeted on more throws that have been in the air for at least 15 yards than any other receiver in the NFL. On those 52 chances, he had 27 catches for 715 yards, a 26.5 average and four scores.

The Titans try to spread it out and veteran Justin Gage has missed time with a back injury. Still, they don't have a pass-catcher close to Jackson in terms of long-pass situational production, let alone overall output (63 catches, 1,097 yards, 9 touchdowns). Rookie receiver Kenny Britt leads the Titans wideouts in both receptions (40) and receiving yards (674).

The hit rate’s been low, but Tennessee has produced some receivers, Derrick Mason most notable among them. And Mike Heimerdinger thinks a trio of Mason, Kevin Dyson and Drew Bennett at their peak together might have been his best group in his two terms as the Titans coordinator.

His trio now is productive with upside and seems to have a bright future with quarterback Vince Young, who replaced Kerry Collins as starter eight games ago.

Britt appears to be worth every bit of the first-round pick they spent on him; the inconsistent Gage has made more plays since the quarterback switch but has only caught 45 percent of the passes thrown his way according to ESPN Stats & Information; and though drops are a significant issue as well for free-agent addition Nate Washington, he has produced a team-best six touchdown catches. (Gage and Britt are tied for second on the team with three touchdown receptions each.)

In the eight games with Young as the starter, the Titans have the second-most prolific offense in the NFL. Their 398 yards-per-game average trails only the Saints (413.9). Tennessee's 29.5 points-per-game average is tied with Philadelphia for second behind New Orleans (30.6).

When those receivers have made plays for Young, it’s opened things up for the team’s featured player, Chris Johnson. That’s the goal No. 1 for the Titans, who are 7-7 and need to win out and get help to keep their AFC wild-card playoff hopes alive.

San Diego’s starting corners Antonio Cromartie and Quentin Jammer have three picks apiece for the league’s 13th-rated pass defense. They’re both 6-feet tall, but the Titans' three primary wideouts are bigger. Britt and Gage are certainly capable of going up over them to get passes.

A nationally televised game is a good place for Britt, Gage and Washington to perform if they want a broad audience to believe the Titans are figuring things out at the position.

Four other things I’ll be watching or wondering about Christmas night as Chargers-Titans unfolds:

Bad blood: Shawne Merriman is still, um, annoyed about a play in a 2007 game where he felt Kevin Mawae and David Stewart teamed up to try to hurt him. Two physical fronts here hardly have a love affair from their two games that season, Chargers wins in the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

Mawae doesn’t mind when opponents are worrying about him, and he will use it to try to use psychology as an aid on at least a couple plays.

Controlling Gates: Chargers tight end Antonio Gates causes a matchup problem for everyone. He can run over DBs and past linebackers. The Titans best coverage linebacker, Keith Bulluck, is out for the season. The Titans would be nuts to ask Gerald McRath or Colin Allred to handle him much. Nickel back Vincent Fuller’s physical, tough and responsible, but he gives up 70 pounds and three inches to Gates. I expect he will spend a lot of time on Gates, doing what he can to hold him up. Help better arrive quickly for gang tackling.

Making it hard for Rivers: Philip Rivers is gaining traction as the quarterback who should be talked about right after Peyton Manning and Drew Brees. How might the Titans have their best chance to limit the league’s third-rated passer who carries a league-high 8.76 average gain into the game?

Get him out of situations where he’s excelled. Rivers is gettable -- the Chargers have given up 24 sacks, which puts them in the bottom half of the league. The Titans need to rush well with their front four, because with the two kid backers on the field they can’t afford to bring any help.

Other pieces of the recipe for potential success against a good quarterback are hardly unpredictable: Get Rivers in third and long, because he’s got a 91.9 rating on third down. And don’t allow him to work with a lead in the fourth quarter. His passer rating in the fourth period is 98.8.

Punting contest: Brett Kern’s been a wonderful find for Tennessee, and his punts have helped out a great deal with field position. His 37.8 yard net isn’t among the league’s best numbers, but he’s been timely. His counterpart, Mike Scifres, is capable of controlling a game, as he did in the Chargers’ win over the Colts in the playoffs last season. The Titans' return game has been an abomination this year, so don’t expect it to handle Scifres' boomers very well. Remember, every fair catch amounts to a play that wasn’t a turnover. Chargers punt returner Darren Sproles, meanwhile, can be a major threat.
 
  File Photo/G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images
  Wide receiver Drrick Mason's decision to forego retirement should help out Baltimore's offense.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Baltimore Ravens received a shot in the arm offensively when No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason ended his retirement and joined the team for training camp Saturday. It was the best possible scenario for Baltimore, which spent weeks trying to find a replacement after Mason retired.

Mason had been dealing with both shoulder rehab and the passing of his longtime friend and teammate Steve McNair. But Baltimore was convinced Mason could have a change of heart if the organization gave him time, and the Ravens were right.

Mason led the team last year in both receptions (80) and receiving yards (1,037).

The Ravens were caught by surprise last month when Mason announced his retirement. In an effort to find a quick replacement, they signed Drew Bennett to a one-year deal. Bennett also retired two days later, citing a knee injury.

The team had flirtations with other veteran receivers such as Joe Horn and D.J. Hackett. But getting Mason back was clearly the preferred option. He already has good chemistry with second-year quarterback Joe Flacco, and teammates Mark Clayton and Demetrius Williams will not have nearly as much pressure on them to produce in support roles.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Saturday in the AFC North:

Morning take: Whether this counts as a holdout or the veteran report date of Aug. 1 is debatable. But not having your top four rookies in on time is not an ideal start for Cleveland.

Morning take: For one night at least, Roethlisberger was able to enjoy a slice of normalcy in what's been an extreme and abnormal week.

Morning take: It's a young group and a deep group that is expected to be an area of strength for the Bengals.

Morning take: Bennett is not a No. 1 receiver. But ideally the Ravens would like for Derrick Mason to return and for Bennett to provide quality depth at the position.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

The Baltimore Ravens made their first move in an effort to potentially replace No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason. On Friday the Ravens signed veteran receiver Drew Bennett to a one-year, $745,000 contract, according to ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton.

Drew Bennett
WR
Baltimore Ravens

CAREER STATS
REC YDS AVG LNG TD
307 4,412 14.4 55 28

This isn't a high-profile signing, but it's a safe move for the Ravens.

First, Bennett does not put the team in jeopardy in case Mason decides to return. "Mase," who unexpectedly retired last week, would rightfully return to his place as the top starter if he has a change of heart this summer. Bennett, in turn, would provide much-needed depth for the Ravens at wide receiver.

Second, if Mason stays retired Baltimore has a potential starter at a bargain rate. Bennett just recently had 46 catches for 737 yards in 2006. Injuries have hurt his production since, but the Ravens are making a calculated risk that he can bounce back for a veteran team coming off a loss in the AFC title game.

This signing likely means bigger names such as Marvin Harrison and trade possibilities for superstars Anquan Boldin and Brandon Marshall are out of reach for the Ravens. It's obvious that Bennett is not a No. 1 receiver. But taking a safe approach for now in hopes that Mason returns may not be a bad move for Baltimore.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Arizona Cardinals

Division Camp Previews
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Friday: NFC West | AFC West

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Camp battles: AFC | NFC

Schedule: Training camp dates
Training camp site: Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff, Ariz.)

Campfires: Coach Ken Whisenhunt isn't afraid to make first-round draft choices earn their starting jobs. He benched Matt Leinart coming out of camp last season, then made talented rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie wait until near midseason before becoming a full-time starter. The trend could continue this summer as rookie first-round choice Beanie Wells practices with the Cardinals for the first time.

Wells projects as the long-term replacement for Edgerrin James at running back, but Ohio State's late graduation prevented him from participating in minicamps and organized team activities. That means the adjustment period for Wells could take a little longer. Expect Tim Hightower to enter camp as the tentative starter.

Meanwhile, the situation at tight end remains a mystery. Arizona is carrying six tight ends on its roster, one behind the league high. Ben Patrick, the player coaches have tried to develop as a player versatile enough to help as a receiver and blocker, faces a four-game suspension to start the season. That could open the door for Anthony Becht, Leonard Pope or Stephen Spach to seize the starting job. I don't see a clear favorite, particularly with Patrick serving a suspension and Spach coming off knee surgery.

 
  Jeff Mills/Icon SMI
  Will Beanie Wells be able to avoid the injuries that plagued him in college?

Camp will be a downer if ... Wells doesn't immediately prove he can avoid the long list of injuries that affected him in college. Arizona needs a more dynamic runner to run its offense the way Whisenhunt and offensive line coach/running game coordinator Russ Grimm want to run it. Wells has the physical ability to provide that missing element. Can he stay on the field and will he fight through some of the ailments that await every running back in the NFL?

The preferred scenario would include Wells breaking a few long runs during the preseason, setting up the play-action passing game that worked so well for Arizona when the team showed more balance in the playoffs last season.

Camp will be a success if ... the reconfigured coaching staff takes control of the team and helps Arizona build on the momentum from its Super Bowl season.

Whisenhunt has stressed continuity during the first two years of his tenure. He kept the same five starters on the offensive line even though right guard Deuce Lutui had penalty problems and center Lyle Sendlein sometimes struggled while playing through a shoulder injury. While the approach worked, continuity wasn't an option for the coaching staff once the Chiefs hired offensive coordinator Todd Haley head coach.

Whisenhunt's decision to fire quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast shook up the staff considerably more.

Warner will miss the rapport he enjoyed with Haley. The two appeared inseparable at times and the relationship seemed to benefit Warner on the field. Can the newly configured staff fill the void or otherwise find ways to keep Warner and the offense rolling?

Money men: Key players Karlos Dansby, Anquan Boldin and Darnell Dockett want lucrative long-term deals.

Franchise player rules will force Dansby to wait, and he should be content "settling" for a one-year franchise deal worth nearly $9.7 million. The volatile Dockett has also committed to letting his play do the talking, a good sign for the team.

While Boldin put aside his concerns to produce last season, his situation bears monitoring. Another year without a new contract probably equates to a higher frustration level. Boldin, generally the consummate pro, might have a harder time dealing with the situation -- particularly if the team fails to meet expectations.


San Francisco 49ers
Training camp site: 49ers headquarters (Santa Clara, Calif.)
 
  Kyle Terada/US Presswire
  Can Shaun Hill distinguish himself to claim the starting QB job?

Campfires: The 49ers have quite a few position battles for a team that finished strong and feels good about its chances for contending within the division.

The quarterback race will rightfully command the most attention. Coach Mike Singletary said the players will know whether Shaun Hill or Alex Smith should be the starter, at which point Singletary will merely affirm what they know. That means Smith's status as the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2005 will not afford him any advantage in the competition. Hill's 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter over the last two seasons gives him the edge.

On defense, Dashon Goldson would have to flop or suffer another injury for the older and less athletic Mark Roman to take back his job at free safety. Dre Bly has the edge over Tarell Brown at right corner. Kentwan Balmer, the 49ers' first-round choice in 2008, could push for a starting job at left defensive end.

Camp will be a downer if ... both quarterbacks flounder and veteran Damon Huard appears to be the best option. Unlikely? Perhaps. But the scenario isn't as laughable as it should be. Neither Hill nor Smith distinguished himself during the competition a year ago. Even if Mike Martz was playing favorites when he installed J.T. O'Sullivan as the starter, the fact remains that O'Sullivan enjoyed the strongest preseason of the three.

The new offensive system should better suit Hill in particular, and the 49ers have declared this quarterback race a two-man affair, ruling out Huard as a contender. Still, after years of backing up Trent Green, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, Huard wound up starting three of the first five games in Kansas City last season when the unaccomplished Brodie Croyle and Tyler Thigpen were his primary competitors.

Camp will be a success if ... Hill validates his 7-3 record as the 49ers' starter, right tackle Marvel Smith makes it through training camp healthy and the push toward a full-time 3-4 defense validates Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson as promising pass-rushers.

Hitting on all three of those might be asking a bit much, but getting two of them right might be enough, particularly if the 49ers feel good about the quarterback situation.

On the receiving end: It's a little surprising to see the 49ers emerge with their deepest group of receivers in years after committing to Singletary's smashmouth approach. The change to Singletary and offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was all about making smarter use of the players general manager Scot McCloughan and former coach Mike Nolan had acquired in recent years.

That meant -- and still means -- forging an identity in the ground game. Yet, while receivers Michael Crabtree, Isaac Bruce, Brandon Jones and Josh Morgan will not be battling Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for Pro Bowl berths this season, they do give the 49ers better potential than they've enjoyed recently.

Singletary's smashmouth roots should not and likely will not dissuade the 49ers from making frequent use of those receivers.


Seattle Seahawks

 
  Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire
  The Seahawks must get Matt Hasselbeck through training camp unscathed.

Training camp site: Seahawks headquarters (Renton, Wash.)

Campfires: The Seahawks weren't going to pretend that first-round choice Aaron Curry would have to prove himself in camp to earn a starting job. They put the fourth overall choice in the lineup from the beginning. No suspense there.

Most positions in Seattle appear settled. The situation at receiver should produce intrigue with Nate Burleson, Deion Branch and rookie burner Deon Butler fighting to get on the field with T.J. Houshmandzadeh and tight end John Carlson. Injuries will probably help sort out the situation. Burleson is returning from ACL surgery. Branch is entering his first full season since undergoing his own ACL procedure.

Don't be surprised if rookie second-round choice Max Unger pushes for playing time somewhere in the interior of the offensive line. He projects as the long-term starter at center if Chris Spencer plays out his contract and leaves following this season.
If Spencer holds the job, Unger figures to find his way onto the field in one of the guard spots, perhaps this year.

Camp will be a downer if  ... quarterback Matt Hasselbeck's back injury flares up at any point along the way. Hasselbeck and the Seahawks say the quarterback has long since overcome the problems that helped limit him to seven starts last season. They didn't know the extent of the problem a year ago when they assured fans that Hasselbeck would be fine for the regular season. The issue is under control now, they say, but the very nature of back injuries should raise at least some concern heading into a pivotal season for the organization. 

Camp will be a success if ... Hasselbeck, left tackle Walter Jones and defensive end Patrick Kerney put to rest concerns about their long-term health. Beyond the obvious injury storylines, this camp becomes a success for Seattle if Curry validates coach Jim Mora's opinion that the linebacker's pass-rushing abilities are indeed far stronger than anticipated on draft day.

Seattle badly needs to restore its pass rush to better compete against the Cardinals' passing game in a broader effort to overtake Arizona in the division. Kerney is the key, but the Seahawks are also counting on pressure from other sources: Brandon Mebane, Cory Redding, Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp and possibly Leroy Hill. Significant pass-rush help from Curry would offset Julian Peterson's departure while making it easier for the Seahawks to justify having drafted a linebacker fourth overall.

Learning curve: By all accounts, the two years Mora spent in the background watching Mike Holmgren operate should leave him better prepared to handle his second head-coaching job. The way Holmgren handled everything from players to the media differed quite a bit from the more freewheeling approach Mora displayed with the Falcons.

Lessons learned? Yes, but it will be interesting to see how the Seahawks' leadership -- operating without Holmgren for the first time since 1998 -- will respond under pressure if things go wrong early.


St. Louis Rams
Training camp site: Rams Park (Earth City, Mo.)

 
  G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
  Will Marc Bulger be able to regain his old form behind a revamped offensive line?

Campfires: The Rams need to figure out what they have at receiver, linebacker and left cornerback after overhauling their roster.

Torry Holt, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green, Anthony Becht, Corey Chavous, Pisa Tinoisamoa, Brian Leonard, Gary Stills, Jason Craft, Ricky Manning, Fakhir Brown, La'Roi Glover, Dane Looker, Travis Minor, Dante Hall, Nick Leckey and Brett Romberg were among the former starters and role players cast aside in the makeover.

None was irreplaceable. Getting rid of them was the easy part. Identifying and developing adequate replacements will take time.

Camp will be a downer if ... top draft choices Jason Smith and James Laurinaitis aren't ready to contribute right away. Coach Steve Spagnuolo has taken it slowly with both rookies, but he likely will not have that luxury once the regular season gets going. Smith and Laurinaitis probably must play and play well for the Rams to avoid trouble.

Laurinaitis' development is critical because the Rams appear so thin at linebacker after releasing Tinoisamoa. Even if Laurinaitis plays well, the Rams' depth at linebacker could betray them. 

Camp will be a success if ... quarterback Marc Bulger finds comfort behind an upgraded offensive line. Bulger can be a highly accurate passer when opposing defensive linemen aren't pounding the confidence out of him. The player who topped 4,300 yards passing with 24 touchdowns and eight interceptions three years ago hasn't resembled even remotely the scared soul seen under center for the Rams too often over the last two seasons.

The Rams' should start to regain some swagger on the line with 320-pounder Jason Brown taking over at center and the personably intense Smith at tackle. Right guard Richie Incognito won't be the only starter with some snarl, in other words. That should help provide improved protection for Bulger and leadership for the offense.

Fantasy spin: Running back Steven Jackson should not hurt for opportunities now that the Rams have landed a 320-pound center (Brown, free agent from the Ravens) and a 258-pound fullback (Mike Karney, late of the Saints). The Rams will try to develop their young receivers, but rarely should any of them represent a more formidable option than Jackson. And if he gets some luck with injuries, look out.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Derrick Mason was largely a self-made player. The Tennessee Oilers had high hopes for him when they drafted him out of Michigan State with a fourth-round pick.

But they had high hopes for the other eight receivers they drafted during the span of his eight-season career with the franchise, too. None of them panned out to be anything close to what Mason was.

I don't know if there were signs that Mason was contemplating retirement. While he said in his announcement that he felt he didn't have the drive to work out like he used to, I wonder too if the recent death of his longtime teammate and friend Steve McNair may have been one of the final factors.

Mason has always seemed to be a devoted family man, and he pledged to McNair's sons he would try to fill the void in their lives.

Not blessed with great speed, Mason was well-suited for the Oilers/Titans and Ravens, playing with a grit and a toughness and was not afraid to jaw at defenders.

He could go over the top sometimes and had a little clubhouse lawyer in him.

But I found him to be a class act, a stand-up guy and an impressively productive player. His 73 receptions in 2001 ended a five-season streak in which tight endFrank Wycheck led the franchise in catches. Mason grabbed 95 passes in 2003 and 96 in 2004, the most for the franchise since Haywood Jeffries pulled in 100 as part of 1991's run-and-shoot Houston Oilers, quarterbacked by Hall of FamerWarren Moon.

Mason played for a second franchise not because the Titans didn't want him, but because his contract was drawn up like many others that collectively prompted Tennessee's 2005 salary-cap purge.

Perhaps the most impressive thing that can be said about him is that during his time in Tennessee, when the team failed over and over trying to find top options at the position, he developed into a Pro Bowl receiver. (He was a receiver for the AFC in 2003, a return man in 2000.)

The only other Titans receiver in the 12 years since the franchise drafted Mason that produced a big season by league standards was Drew Bennett, undrafted in 2001, who caught 80 passes for 1,247 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2004.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky
 
  AP Photo/George Walker IV, Pool
  Former Titans players, including Brad Hopkins, top left, and Benji Olson, top right, served as pallbearers at the memorial service.

WHITES CREEK, Tenn. -- For all who watched Steve McNair assisted off the field during his 13 seasons as an NFL quarterback, the conclusion of his memorial service was especially tough to digest.

Pallbearers who played with him surrounded his casket, lifted it and carried it out of Mount Zion Baptist Church, surely hoping they were also transporting at least a degree of the pain shared by the family, the franchise, the city and the league.

"That was tough, to carry his casket out," Eddie George said. "Right after they said those kind words, they said the eulogy, reality set back in again, that he has to go to his final resting place. Knowing that's Steve's remains, that's his shell in that casket, that's not Steve, and I'm not going to remember him in that capacity. This is a part of the process, this is closure for us, for me. Now the healing can begin, and I don't know how long it will take."

 
  AP Photo/George Walker IV, Pool
  Ravens wide receiver Derrick Mason takes part in a memorial service for Steve McNair.

In his eulogy at the conclusion of a service that included impressive versions of "Press On" and "God is Able," Bishop Joseph W. Walker III called McNair "a humanitarian, a philanthropist, a supreme athlete, a motivator, an entrepreneur." In citing the biblical instruction that one without sin cast the first stone, Walker said it was "time to have a stone-dropping service."

During the memorial, Jeff Fisher told a story of McNair considering giving up the game in 2000 after suffering a sternum injury and conveyed the condolences of a high-ranking military official he met just last week while visiting troops in the Persian Gulf.

Later, the Titans coach said he was sure even more of McNair's old teammates wanted to attend but could not. Fisher said that he might soon take McNair's sons fishing.

Asked about watching George, Samari Rolle, Zach Piller, Kevin Long, Frank Wycheck, Brad Hopkins, Benji Olson, Kevin Carter and Vince Young lift McNair's coffin and walk it out the door, Fisher said he couldn't put words to his thoughts.

"I can't describe that, no," he said.

Plenty of others leaving the church felt the same way.

Count me among them.

***

An add to the previous entry, which included a list of many of the most notable players in attendance. I later spotted several others, including Keith Bulluck, Bo Scaife, Young, Fred Miller, Drew Bennett and Kenny Holmes.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Rams owner Chip Rosenbloom's attempts to find a buyer for the franchise comes while "cash flow for the family is a problem" -- which invites scrutiny upon the team's decision to part with so many older, higher-priced players.

Every new coaching staff wants to reshape its roster. The Rams needed to get younger whether or not cash flow was a problem for ownership. Most of the players the Rams released were arguably scheduled to earn more than they proved to be worth. Salary-cap concerns were another factor. Still, cash-flow issues could have influenced some decisions.

The Rams saved $26.85 million in 2009 cash outlays by releasing the following seven players:

These are gross savings. Net savings are less. The Rams released Green, for example, but a contract for his replacement, Kyle Boller, cost $1.5 million in salary and bonus.

Bennett needed to go. Time appeared to run out for Green and Chavous. Holt's salary was inflated. I think the Rams would have been more talented keeping Pace, Tinoisamoa and probably even Becht. Those players found homes on winning teams. Pace commanded as much in 2009 money from the Bears as the Rams would have paid him.

Posted by ESPN.com's Paul Kuharsky

Chris Mortensen's report that Matt Jones has been fined but won't be suspended over a violation of a court-mandated drug program has set off quite a debate -- just check the comments.

 
  Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
  If given a chance with a new team, wide receiver Matt Jones could be a valuable role player.

Much of the conversation about the free-agent receiver is about race and whether the league treats a guy like Jones, who's white, the same as it treats African-Americans in similar situations.

I think the league, like drug test results, does well to be colorblind on such matters. It's not an unreasonable conversation to engage in, but let's be careful to compare apples to apples. That means Jones and Michael Vick, no matter their race, don't belong in the same conversation about league discipline, because the degree of their offenses is quite different in the eyes of American law enforcement and jurisprudence.

On to Jones' future.

He is an obvious risk for any team that would sign him. He's in the league's substance abuse program and served a three-game suspension at the end of last season. A new violation likely would mean a year suspension.

But I think he's a risk some team is going to take. It may not be until someone is hurt or a team decides its receivers are insufficient in training camp.

I recently asked a person with a large voice in personnel decisions in his organization about Jones. He said he thinks Jones might blossom in a second-chance destination, provided the right atmosphere.

The expectations certainly would be different and that can be a huge benefit for a guy. In Jacksonville, Jones always was going to be viewed as a first-round pick. His emergence last season an effective possession receiver was nice, but that description doesn't scream "first-round value" to many.

A receiver drafted 18th overall brings expectations of big plays, and Jones produced few of those in 55 games -- with only 166 catches and just a 13-yard average.

With a new team that likely will pay him a small bonus and the veteran minimum with incentives, he'll be looked to as a role player. Outside of North Florida, a free agent who can make the clutch 7-yard catch on third-and-7 could be viewed as a successful signing.

Sign him and he stays clean and he might just be an important contributor. Sign him and he gets suspended, you'll get hit hard for bringing him in at all.

Even with that risk, given a choice between tall, veteran, possession-type receivers, would you rather have Jones, who's 26, or Drew Bennett, who's 31?

If I have Jones in for a meeting and he convinces me he's on track, I might lean toward the first choice.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Len Pasquarelli's column about teams needing to clear the air with jilted quarterbacks brought to mind a part of the game Matt Hasselbeck mentioned to John Boyle of the Everett Herald:

"I experienced kind of a high-low in 2001. I got traded and talked to the coaching staff and they said, 'Hey, we want you to come be our starting quarterback.' And then during training camp, they go and sign Trent Dilfer, who had just won a Super Bowl. I think I learned a lot through that experience and through other experiences like that."

Quarterback commitments can indeed be fickle. Matt Leinart and Alex Smith have learned that the hard way. The Cardinals' decision to bench Leinart didn't need much explaining, in my view, because Super Bowl MVP Kurt Warner was the alternative.

The quarterback question I would have in St. Louis is how quickly the Rams might turn away from Marc Bulger if he were to struggle.

General manager Billy Devaney and the new coaching staff have not hesitated to push out established players, from Torry Holt to Orlando Pace to Drew Bennett to Corey Chavous to Pisa Tinoisamoa and others. Bulger probably wasn't going anywhere this offseason for a few reasons:

  • Bulger remained the Rams' most viable option.
  • The team invested heavily in Bulger before the 2007 season.
  • The team had too many other needs to draft a quarterback second overall.
  • Releasing Bulger would have carried negative salary-cap ramifications.

Kyle Boller, Brock Berlin and Keith Null are the alternatives to Bulger. If all goes to plan, the Rams will run the ball effectively, putting Bulger in better position to avoid punishment. Bulger will become comfortable again while re-establishing his career.

All bets are off if the season does not go to plan. The people who identified Bulger as the Rams' franchise quarterback no longer remain in positions of authority within the organization. That could make him more vulnerable than the typical franchise quarterback.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

Here are the most interesting stories Wednesday in the AFC North:

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to trade or release starting linebacker Larry Foote, and Foote says he's ready to move on.

Morning take: Now that the word is out, expects this to hurt Foote's trade value. But the time is now for reserve Lawrence Timmons to step up.

  • The Cincinnati Bengals released two punters after drafting Kevin Huber in the fifth round.

Morning take: That was fast. I was expecting at least one extra punter to stick around and compete, but it looks like Cincinnati has its mind made up.

Morning take: The Browns just drafted two rookie receivers and could still use veteran help. Could Bennett be that guy?

Morning take: No team is stacked in every area. We will see if the Ravens add depth at receiver in the coming weeks.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

DANA POINT, Calif. -- We'll have more Rams fans resurfacing if coach Steve Spagnuolo and the new leadership can turn around the organization.

In the meantime, Cardinals fan HornerJD50 provided a Rams-related question (see comments here) for the NFC coaches' breakfast media session Wednesday morning at the NFL owners' meeting.

HornerJD50: Much was made about the Cardinals' losing culture last year, and while the Rams don't have the long history of losing like the Cardinals, recently that's all they have been doing. What is Spags' step-by-step process in changing the culture of his franchise?

HornerJD50 also asked about what traits the Rams would value in a potential successor for quarterback Marc Bulger. I didn't get to that subject, figuring Spagnuolo would dance around it, anyway. I did ask about the culture part. Spagnuolo provided a thoughtful answer.

Spagnuolo: What it means to me is figuring out the character of the people that are in the building. And I'm not talking about just players and coaches, but the whole building. I think this will be a whole organizational effort [and] goal. And I really believe that the people in the building at Rams Park, everybody is headed in the right direction. It's easy right now. It's a honeymoon period. It's new. The test will be a year from now, depending on how the season goes. Will we still be able to feel that way? There is always an element of that throughout the building in order to get everybody headed in the same direction and have a chance at success.

It begins with the players. What I learned most in this league is veteran leadership is tremendously key. We'll try to identify those leaders on our team and hopefully they'll step to the forefront in those tough times that you know you are going to have on no matter what team in the league in a 16-game season. I remember vividly going through it in Philadelphia and I remember Brian Dawkins, Jeremiah Trotter and Donovan McNabb at a certain point in the season deciding, 'Hey, guys.' They did little things with the other players, very unseen things, but they made a big difference in us turning it around.

The Rams have parted with a long list of veteran players since Spagnuolo took over, including Torry Holt, Anthony Becht, Orlando Pace, Drew Bennett, Trent Green and Corey Chavous. The team has gone from being one of the five oldest in the league to being one of the five youngest.

I raised that fact with Spagnuolo. He said sometimes established players must leave before new leaders can feel comfortable emerging. I thought back to a recent conversation with cornerback Ron Bartell. We'll find out if he's one of the new leaders.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

The Rams' long-awaited decision to release Torry Holt, announced Friday, continues their trend toward youth with an eye toward the salary cap.

 Holt

The team has parted with eight players recently. Seven played offense. Most were aging players with higher salaries.

Before cutting Holt, the Rams released left tackle Orlando Pace, tight end Anthony Becht, receiver Drew Bennett and quarterback Trent Green. Strong safety Corey Chavous was a casualty on defense. All five were in their 30s.

The Rams also parted with center Brett Romberg, who signed with the Falcons. Another offensive lineman, restricted free agent Mark Setterstrom, did not receive a qualifying offer. He could conceivably return at a price lower than the $1 million minimum tender for RFAs.

Getting younger comes with a short-term price for the Rams. Despite being proactive in signing center Jason Brown and safety James Butler while re-signing cornerback Ron Bartell, the Rams will enter the draft with multiple needs.

Donnie Avery, Keenan Burton, Derek Stanley, Travis Brown, Joel Filani and Nate Jones are their receivers.

Without Pace, Alex Barron becomes the only established tackle on the roster. Guard Jacob Bell and second-year pro John Greco might be able to make the move to tackle if needed, but the Rams still need numbers, particularly if swing tackle Adam Goldberg leaves in free agency.

St. Louis is down to six offensive linemen: Brown, Bell, Barron, Greco, Richie Incognito and Roy Schuening. Expect the Rams to find at least two linemen in the draft.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic takes a big-picture look at the Cardinals in free agency. The team isn't saying whether it plans to strike aggressively. Meanwhile, Kurt Warner's agent says the quarterback will listen to other teams.

Scott Bordow of the East Valley Tribune uses the words crazy, ridiculous and unnerving to describe the Cardinals' standoff with Warner. Bordow: "Usually, it's easy to take sides in a contract negotiation. But in this case, both Warner and the Cardinals are standing on solid ground."

Revenge of the Birds' Hawkwind outlines which offensive free agents Arizona should re-sign, with predictions for each player.

Also from Hawkwind: a look at the Cardinals' running backs.

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle updates the 49ers' negotiations with quarterback Alex Smith. Crumpacker: "If the 49ers truly are not going to make a splash in free agency as McCloughan said, the kinds of players they might be interested in include tackle Stacy Andrews of the Bengals, fullback (and former 49er) Moran Norris of the Ravens, wide receiver Devery Henderson of the Saints, safety Jermaine Phillips of the Buccaneers and safety Sean Jones of Cleveland."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Smith will not practice with the 49ers until he reworks his deal. Barrows: "The 49ers do not want to risk another injury to Smith that would force the team to pay him his full salary. If a new deal is not complete by next month, the 49ers will hold Smith out of the minicamp, and he will fall behind in the quarterback competition against incumbent starter Shaun Hill."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Mike Singletary isn't the only important figure in a leadership role with the 49ers. Brown: "A sliver of spotlight must remain on general manager Scot McCloughan, who quietly enters his fifth season still searching for a winning roster."

Florida Danny of Niners Nation takes an in-depth look at free-agent safeties, with an eye toward the positions they've played in the past. On Mark Roman: "He's the only starting FS in the NFL who was signed as a free agent SS, started initially at SS with his current team, but then got moved to FS later. In other words, the Niners are the only current team that didn't intend to switch their free agent SS to FS when they signed him. How's that for planning?"

Flashback: what espn.com wrote about Roman when the 49ers re-signed him in 2006.

Clare Farnsworth of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looks at the Seahawks' search for receivers. Farnsworth on T.J. Houshmandzadeh: "The Seahawks are interested, but at the right price and if he's the right fit. They're anticipating a productive return by Nate Burleson from the knee injury he suffered in the season opener and hoping to get a full season from Deion Branch."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times takes a big-picture look at Seattle in free agency.

Also from O'Neil: a look at receivers available in free agency.

The Associated Press quotes longtime Seattle receiver Bobby Engram on the likelihood of him returning to the Seahawks. Engram: "I wouldn't say optimistic. It's going to be interesting how it turns out."

Eric Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune lists and comments upon each of the Seahawks' unrestricted free agents. He predicts a return for Engram.

John Morgan of Field Gulls looks at Raiders receiver Drew Carter as a potential acquisition for the Seahawks.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch thinks the Lions and Broncos could have interest in free-agent Rams cornerback Ron Bartell. A visit to the Saints could come first.

Also from Thomas: Free-agent center Jason Brown is scheduled to visit the Rams.

Steve Korte of the Belleville News-Democrat says the Rams' decision to release Drew Bennett should serve as a warning about the perils of free agency.

VanRam of Turf Show Times rounds up Rams-related stories online.

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