NFL Nation: Marcus McNeill

Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones is a perfect fit for the Browns' new 3-4 defense. Jones is the exact pass-rush terror the Steelers need to eventually replace James Harrison.

But the Browns and Steelers could both pass on the FBS leader in sacks in the first round because he's one of the biggest medical risks in the draft. Jones has stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column.

Diagnosed with this condition at USC as a freshman, Jones transferred to Georgia when doctors wouldn't clear him to play for the Trojans. He went on to record 28.5 sacks in 26 games at Georgia.

Jones got a favorable report from neck and spine specialist Dr. Craig Brigham, who's examining players at the combine, various teams told ESPN's Chris Mortensen. But it's been reported that some teams have taken Jones off their draft board because of his medical condition.

Stenosis has cut short the careers of Sterling Sharpe and Chris Samuels. Former Chargers offensive tackle Marcus McNeill slid into the second round in 2006 because teams were worried about spinal stenosis. McNeill played six seasons, going to two Pro Bowls, before retiring prior to the 2012 season.

Jones said he has no concerns about playing with this condition in the NFL.

"Anybody who steps on that field has a chance of getting hurt," Jones said at the NFL combine. "If you think about it like that, nobody would ever play football. For me, I'm just taking advantage of the opportunity. I love this game. I'm passionate about it."

NFL teams have a couple of months to make their final decision on Jones.
Once upon a time, left tackle was a position of strength and stability for the San Diego Chargers.

That is no longer the case.

For the second straight season, the Chargers have seen their left tackle have his season end because of an injury. San Diego put Jared Gaither on the injured reserve Friday with a groin injury. Thus, undrafted rookie Mike Harris, who has played six games this season, remains the starter, which won’t help turnover-prone quarterback Philip Rivers, who has not been protected well much of this season.

Gaither, who signed lucrative four-year deal with the Chargers in the offseason, was hampered by back and groin injuries all season. He played just four games. He played well late last season after he was claimed off waivers from Kansas City. In San Diego, Gaither replaced Marcus McNeill, who suffered a career-ending neck injury last season. McNeill was considered a top left tackle early in his career, but health ruined a great career and put the Chargers in a tough spot.

They thought Gaither was the answer, but now they are back to Square One.

The massive 6-foot-9 Gaither is talented, but he has never been able to stay healthy. U-T San Diego reports tackle Kevin Haslam is expected to be promoted from the practice squad this weekend.

Meanwhile, receiver/returner Eddie Royal (hamstring) and linebacker Larry English (calf) are out Sunday against Baltimore. Starting guard Tyronne Green (hamstring) is doubtful, and nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin (knee) is questionable.

Falcons: One big question

May, 3, 2012
Did the Falcons do enough to get tough enough up front?

The Falcons went hard after offensive linemen in the draft. They took Wisconsin guard/center Peter Konz in the second round and Southern Mississippi tackle Lamar Holmes in the third. They also added guard Vince Manuwai in free agency.

The plan seems to be to throw Konz and Manuwai out there with guard Justin Blalock, center Todd McClure, guard Garrett Reynolds and guard/center Joe Hawley. The Falcons will let them all compete in training camp and and then decide which combination gives them the best interior. Konz probably will emerge as a starter, and either he or Hawley could replace McClure, who is aging fast. That should improve the interior of the offensive line, but what about the outside? Left tackle Sam Baker struggled last season, and the fact that Holmes was sitting there in the third round is a pretty good indicator that he’s not ready to step in and be a stud left tackle.

If the Falcons really are serious about throwing downfield more, they have to give quarterback Matt Ryan more time. The Falcons still may have to add a left tackle (Marcus McNeill) to compete with Baker if they really want to solidify their offensive line.

Speaking of solidifying lines, the Falcons haven’t done much on the defensive side, and that also was a problem area last year. They brought back veteran defensive end John Abraham, but they don’t have any other especially strong pass-rushers. I wouldn’t count on an immediate impact from fifth-round pick Jonathan Massaquoi. Guys like Ray Edwards, Kroy Biermann and Lawrence Sidbury have to step up, or the Falcons have to go try to find a pass-rusher in what remains of free agency.

Falcons add more O-line depth

April, 27, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons just drafted an offensive tackle, but I don’t think you can go ahead and pencil in Lamar Holmes as an instant replacement for Sam Baker at left tackle.

The Falcons took Holmes out of Southern Mississippi with a third-round pick (No. 91 overall) -- and that’s not where you find rookie left tackles who can make an immediate impact. The scouting reports on Holmes suggest he’s a project. He’s a big guy, a former basketball player with some athletic ability. But scouts say Holmes has decent run-blocking ability right now, but is very raw as a pass blocker.

I don’t think that sounds like the scouting report of a guy you want protecting Matt Ryan’s blind side right off the bat. Maybe Holmes develops into something down the road.

But, for now, it looks like the Falcons are preparing to go to training camp and let Baker compete with Will Svitek. But don’t be surprised if the Falcons bring in someone with experience (Marcus McNeill?) sometime after the draft.

One of the topics our man Adam Schefter addressed in his regular SportsCenter spot Monday morning was the Philadelphia Eagles' effort to replace left tackle Jason Peters, who ruptured his Achilles tendon last week and could miss the entire 2012 season. Adam notes that free-agent Demetrius Bell was in for a visit this weekend but didn't sign, and that Bell also has visited the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, and he says the Eagles might not be willing to pay him what he seeks.

Schefter also discusses free-agent Marcus McNeill, but he says injury concerns have knocked him out of the picture for Philadelphia.

Schefter indicates he believes the Eagles could address the tackle position in the draft, which is an interesting idea. We did our bloggers' mock draft last week, and it'll be posted soon. I gave the Eagles Mississippi State defensive tackle Fletcher Cox at No. 15 in the first round, and then after the Peters news broke I was going to change it. But I don't think the Peters injury, as devastating as it is, changes the Eagles' approach in the first round. Stanford's Jonathan Martin or Georgia's Cordy Glenn are options, but if I'm the Eagles, I don't feel I need to solve this problem with my first-round pick.

The Eagles have two second-r0und picks, first of all. And it's important to remember that offensive line coach Howard Mudd seeks specific types of linemen. He found his starting center, Jason Kelce, in last year's sixth round, and afterthought free-agent signing Evan Mathis became a star at left guard. It's entirely possible the Eagles could find a viable starting tackle in the middle or late rounds if they strike out in free agency, trusting in their system to get the best out of a player on whom other teams passed.
Below are a few award-winning thoughts on the Saturday evening return of left tackle Jeff Backus and backup quarterback Shaun Hill to the Detroit Lions.
  • Both players signed two-year deals. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that Backus' contract is worth $10 million. We don't yet know what Hill received.
  • The Lions never gave an indication they planned to move on from Backus, who will turn 35 during the season and had surgery immediately after the season to repair a torn biceps muscle. They know they will have to replace him sooner than later, but long-term answers at left tackle rarely are available in free agency. They almost always come through the draft, and it's something to keep an eye on next month. The Lions now have the flexibility to draft a possible replacement without needing to insert him immediately into the lineup.
  • Veteran Marcus McNeill visited earlier this week, and his situation is a perfect example of how left tackles who are available often are damaged goods in some way. McNeill is a two-time Pro Bowler but has had two neck surgeries and suffers from spinal stenosis. It would have been hard to count on him for more than a year-by-year basis.
  • Backus had trouble with some of the NFC North's elite pass-rushers last season, but he is nothing if not reliable. His streak of consecutive games played is 176, and there is every reason to believe his biceps will heal in time for the 2012 regular season.
  • Barring an unexpected offer to start for another team, it was difficult to imagine Hill leaving the Lions. He has a long history with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and quarterbacks coach Todd Downing and would have been starting over had he signed with the St. Louis Rams.
  • The Lions chose Hill, 32, over Drew Stanton, 27, who departed Friday for what could be the No. 2 job with the New York Jets. Both players had some success during the 2010 season, but Hill was an acquisition of the Lions' current regime while Stanton was a draft choice dating back to the Matt Millen era. I would feel more comfortable with Hill, but there is also an undeniable comfort level between the sides.
  • Barring any late Saturday evening news, I'll check in with you Sunday. Night-night.
Eric Winston is a Kansas City Chief.

Agreeing upon a contract with the former Houston right tackle is a big move by the Chiefs. Winston solidifies a real weak spot in Kansas City.

The Chiefs have added running back Peyton Hillis, tight end Kevin Boss, cornerback Stanford Routt and now Winston. This is arguably the biggest move.

Winston, who was a surprise salary-cap cut, was one of the better offensive linemen on the market. He replaces Barry Richardson, who was the weak link on the Chiefs’ line.

Winston is known as a strong run-blocker, so this will help an already-good running game. He had other trips planned, but the Chiefs kept him in town until a deal was finalized.

Former San Diego left tackle Marucs McNeill said Friday he will visit the Chiefs next week. It will be interesting to see if he still makes the trip. He could have been backup plan had Winston not signed there.

I doubt the Chiefs would replace left tackle Branden Albert with McNeill.

I think most of the Chiefs’ remaining moves in free agency may focus on depth. With Winston signed, expect the Chiefs to focus on either an inside linebacker or a defensive tackle with the No. 11 pick in the draft.
Marcus McNeill said he is planning to visit the Kansas City Chiefs. He was cut by the Chargers earlier in the week.

Marcus McNeill
McNeill broke the news on his visit with the Detroit Lions. He is also scheduled to visit the Falcons and he said he won’t sign until he weighs all of his options. The news of the Kansas City visit begs some questions. The Chiefs are visiting with right tackle Eric Winston on Friday.

If Winston signs, the only way McNeill would join the Chiefs is if they want to replace Branden Albert at left tackle. I wouldn’t think they would want to replace Albert right now. If Winston doesn’t sign in Kansas City and McNeill does, McNeill would play left tackle and Albert could slide to right tackle. An Albert move to the right side has been discussed for a few years.

McNeill maintains he is now healthy following last season, which was cut short due to a neck injury last season. The Chargers cut him because he was owed a huge signing bonus. Interestingly, McNeill’s replacement is Jared Gaither, who was cut by the Chiefs during last season.

In other AFC West news:

NFL Network is reporting Oakland receiver Chaz Schilens is close to signing with the Jets. He was once a promising player for Oakland, but injuries derailed his Oakland career. UPDATE: Schilens is officially a Jet. He signed a one-year deal. He reunites with former Oakland position coach Sanjay Lal, who has the same job with the Jets.

ESPN’s Suzy Kolber reports the Cardinals are exercising a huge option for quarterback Kevin Kolb, so the Cardinals are out of the running for Peyton Manning. However, the 49ers have joined the race. For now, it appears the Manning chase is down to Denver, Tennessee and San Francisco.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports pass-rusher John Abraham is staying in Atlanta. Denver had been interested. Denver is also interested in Baltimore linebacker Jameel McClain, Tampa Bay linebacker Geno Hayes and Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant.

Falcons have their pass rusher

March, 16, 2012
The Atlanta Falcons have their new pass-rusher. It’s their old pass-rusher.

John Abraham has agreed to a contract that will keep him with the Falcons, Adam Schefter reports.

The deal is for three years, and financial terms have yet to be disclosed. But I think it’s safe to assume the yearly average is somewhere less than the $12 million or more Abraham said he was looking for before free agency.

The Falcons let Abraham test the market a bit and it didn’t seem like he was a red-hot commodity. Understandable because he’s about to turn 34.

That’s why I’m not sure that this was the best possible move the Falcons could have made. They could have pursued Mario Williams, who signed with Buffalo. I’m not sure if the Falcons even poked around on Williams or any other pass-rushers, but they obviously don’t have a ton of salary-cap room, so that may have prevented a flashy move.

I think Abraham’s been a very good player for the Falcons, but you have to worry about a decline in play because of his age. Abraham had 9.5 sacks last season, but 3.5 of those came against a hapless Jacksonville team.

But the Falcons are going with what they know. Their coaching staff is very familiar with Abraham and their medical and training staffs probably have a good idea if he has anything left in the tank. The Falcons must believe Abraham has something left. But it sure would be nice if the other starting defensive end, Ray Edwards, who signed a big contract last year, is more productive in the pass rush next season.

In one other bit of news that should make Atlanta fans, who have been critical of the team for staying quiet in free agency, very happy, the Falcons reportedly will visit with former San Diego left tackle Marcus McNeill next week. Aside from defensive end, left tackle might have been Atlanta's biggest need entering free agency.
The Detroit Lions' decision to bring free agent left tackle Marcus McNeill for a visit reminds us that, if nothing else, the return of veteran Jeff Backus is not a foregone conclusion. So does the fact that Ohio State offensive tackle Mike Adams is taking a visit to Detroit on Thursday as well.

Backus had surgery in January to repair a torn biceps muscle and is a 34-year-old free agent. The Lions know they will have to move on at some point, but most indications suggested that it wouldn't happen this year. Given his age and recent surgery, Backus doesn't figure to be swamped with offers in the coming days, and for now the Lions are at least reviewing their options.

McNeill is an intriguing player with a long medical file whom the Lions almost certainly would want their medical staff to check out. A top prospect in 2006, McNeill's draft status fell because he had been diagnosed with spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine. He didn't miss a game in his first two NFL seasons, making the Pro Bowl in 2006 and 2007, but he has now had two fusion surgeries to repair injuries in his neck. The last, to correct an injury that cost him the final seven games of 2011, came in December.

That history would give any team reason for pause, and it's why the Chargers released him earlier this week. But players with the physical attributes to play left tackle are hard to find, and McNeill has them. Given their precarious situation at such an important position, the Lions owe it to themselves to make their own medical judgment on his future.

Adams, meanwhile, is ranked as the fifth-best tackle available in the draft by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Insider.
Three weeks ago, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said that the team’s offensive line situation was keeping him up at night.

While there still could be some change on the unit charged with protecting star quarterback Philip Rivers, there will be some continuity.'s John Clayton reports that left tackle Jared Gaither has agreed to a four-year extension with the Chargers.

He joins center Nick Hardwick who re-signed with the Chargers on Tuesday. Unless the Chargers make a change and draft someone like David DeCastro or delve into the deep guard free-agent class, key backup Tyronne Green is expected to replace the recently retired Kris Dielman.

Gaither was an injury replacement for Marcus McNeill last season. The Gaither re-signing means the Chargers will not look to bring back McNeill at a lesser price unless he is desperate and comes back as a backup when he is medically cleared to return from a neck injury.

Gaither is an interesting player. The massive 6-fot-9, 350-pound Gaither was a standout in Baltimore, but he missed all of the 2010 season with a back injury. Oakland tried to sign him last summer but it had injury concerns. He later signed with the Chiefs.

He was slow to get into the groove with the Chiefs and he was cut after making a critical mistake in a game. The Chargers, who were ravaged by injuries on the offensive line, claimed Gaither and he instantly became the player he was in Baltimore prior to his injury. San Diego is counting on him being that player moving forward.

It’s been a busy early free-agency period for San Diego. The team lost star receiver Vincent Jackson to Tampa Bay and replaced him with New Orleans’ Robert Meachem. The team will also try to re-sign running back Mike Tolbert and defensive tackle Antonio Garay. Tolbert is visiting the rival Chiefs on Wednesday. San Diego will also want to add some more help in free agency, perhaps adding another receiver, and it wants a pass-rusher. But the offensive line issues are now solved and that was Smith’s biggest worry.
As expected, the Chargers are in the process of cutting left tackle Marcus McNeill.

UT-San Diego is reporting that McNeill’s agent has said McNeill will be cut Tuesday. The Chargers will have about $6 million in salary-cap room with the release.

McNeill is being cut because he has still not been medically cleared to resume playing. Because the Chargers owed him a bonus in the coming days, San Diego had no choice. McNeill spent last season on injured reserve with a neck issue. There is a chance McNeill could come back to San Diego with a lesser deal.

McNeill is the second starting offensive lineman in San Diego to leave this team in the past couple of weeks. Guard Kris Dielman retired because of health issues.

Center Nick Hardwick is a free agent, as is Jared Gaither, who replaced McNeill. The Chargers badly want to re-sign both players. If not, there will be dramatic change on the team’s offensive line. Nearly three weeks ago, at the NFL combine, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith said it was the team’s biggest current issue and it remains the team’s biggest issue as we are closing in on the start of free agency.

In other AFC West news:

San Francisco signed former Denver cornerback Perrish Cox. He was recently found not guilty in a sexual assault case in Denver that could have resulted in him being in prison for the rest of his life. He was with the Broncos when he was arrested, but the Broncos later cut him.

My thoughts on the decision of Denver’s D.J. Williams and Ryan McBean to sue the NFL over their recent six-game suspension for using a banned substance: Why not? The players have nothing to lose, and the Ryan Braun situation in MLB shows it’s a worthwhile try for the players.

Former Denver receiver Brandon Stokley explains in a radio interview his involvement in Peyton Manning's trip to Denver last weekend.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes, but still would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all-in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made some nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but it’s likely the Panthers will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a mid-level free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (exclusive franchise), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has come to an end this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the top priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This is a team without a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a very unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they’ve got between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. It’s possible Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be an unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside and the new staff may want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly stated the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham or Eddie Royal. The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or may opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan.

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 San Diego Union-Tribune – which reported Monday that San Diego Chargers guard Kris Dielman was expected to retire – now says Dielman will announce his retirement at a press conference Thursday.

Some thoughts on the decision:

Great career: Dielman was an underrated player. He was big, nasty and tough, a reason the Chargers were considered perennial playoff contenders. He set the tone for the line and leaves the game as one of the NFL’s better guards.

Bigger focus on concussions: Concussions have become a lightning rod in the NFL recently. Dielman’s retirement at age 31, in the prime of his career, will be subject of further discussions on the topic. Dielman went on injured reserve after he suffered a concussion – which caused him to stagger on the field – on the road against the New York Jets last October. Dielman suffered a seizure on the flight home that night and had to be hospitalized.

Dielman is reportedly retiring because physicians warned him of potential long-term effects. Concussions are a very real issue in the NFL and this case is more proof that they can prematurely end careers.

What’s next for the Chargers? The Chargers’ offensive line is in flux. In addition to the hole at left guard, the Chargers face potential holes at center and at left tackle — in addition to big needs on defense. Center Nick Hardwick is a free agent. Hardwick wants to return and the Chargers want him back. The team wants to re-sign left tackle Jared Gaither, who excelled after replacing the injured Marcus McNeill. McNeill is expected to be cut in the next week.

The Chargers will have to replace Dielman in-house, in the draft or in free agency. The Chargers will likely look at Stanford guard David DeCastro with their 18th overall pick in April's draft. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay thinks DeCastro is a special talent and could still be on the board when the Chargers select. If not, they could trade down to get another guard; they could also find one in free agency or insert a veteran backup such as Tyronne Green at the spot.

The good news for San Diego is Dielman’s retirement saves the team $5.5 million this season, so it will have more money to spend in free agency. Yet, the reality of seeing a leader and offensive-line anchor like Dielman leave early in his career because of a concussion has to sting.

Congratulations to Dielman on a terrific career and here’s hoping he enjoys retirement in good health.




Sunday, 2/2