NFL Nation: Tank Johnson

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The pick: Will Sutton, defensive tackle, Arizona State.

My take: The Bears poured a massive amount of resources into repairing the interior of the defensive line with Sutton and second-round pick Ego Ferguson of LSU. Sutton, a two-time Pac-12 defensive player of the year, had 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss for the Sun Devils in 2012 and likely projects to line up at three-technique in the NFL.

Sutton's numbers dropped last year when he registered only 48 tackles, four sacks and 13.5 tackles-for-loss. Many draft analysts believe Sutton's decline in production was due to his being overweight. Sutton said he is currently at 290 pounds but can continue to drop weight if the Bears want him to.

The defensive tackle was declared academically ineligible in 2010.

Sutton obviously made a positive impression on the Bears and defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni during his pre-draft visit to Halas Hall.

Double-dip: The last time the Bears went back-to-back at defensive tackles in the early rounds was 2004 when former general manager Jerry Angelo selected Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson. When Harris and Johnson were healthy and focused, they comprised one of the best defensive tackle combos in the league. The Bears would be absolutely thrilled if one day Sutton and Ferguson can grow into that role.

Both players are expected to be part of a rotation in 2014, but Sutton and Ferguson could be the future starters at three-technique and nose tackle, respectively.

What's next: The Bears hold four picks Saturday (Nos. 117, 156, 183, 191) but none in the seventh-round due to last year's trade with Dallas for tight end Dante Rosario. But the Bears do have an extra choice in the sixth round, courtesy of sending former first-round choice Gabe Carimi to the Bucs.

With cornerback and defensive tackle addressed, the Bears are expected to target help at linebacker, running back and perhaps safety, although the consensus top-five safeties are all off the board.
One of the least heralded engines of the Chicago Bears' run to the Super Bowl in 2006 was a pair of well-matched defensive tackles. Tommie Harris was the quick playmaker who had five sacks in 12 games. Tank Johnson was a 315-pound run-stuffer who kept centers and guards away from linebacker Brian Urlacher.

[+] EnlargeHenry Melton
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireThe Bears are counting on defensive lineman Henry Melton, 69, to be a disruptive force this season.
That duo came to mind the other night as I watched the Bears' first-team defense practice with Henry Melton at Harris' former position and Matt Toeaina at Johnson's nose tackle spot.

Veteran Anthony Adams was sidelined by a minor injury and could ultimately supplant Toeaina, and it's also possible that rookie Stephen Paea could work his way into the rotation. But based on recent personnel moves, and the lack thereof, it seems clear the Bears are counting on Melton to provide the interior disruption at the so-called "under tackle" position that is considered a fundamental building block of the Bears' scheme.

Fans who follow the Bears closely know that Melton flashed a few signs of promise at the end of last season, collecting 2 1/2 sacks over the final two months of the season, but no one can credibly stand up and say he is indisputably ready to take on a such a critical role on the defense.

"I'm just trying to establish myself right now," Melton said. "It's time for me to go out there and prove something."

Melton's relative inexperience at the position is stunning. He began his college career at Texas as a 280-pound running back, scoring 16 touchdowns during his first two seasons. He transitioned to defensive end midway through his career, actually losing 15 pounds to meet the program's size requirements, and didn't become a defensive starter until his senior year.

The Bears made him a fourth-round draft choice in 2009, and after a year on injured reserve, Melton played in 16 games last season as a reserve defensive end and occasional inside pass-rusher.

Is that the type of pedigree a Tampa-2 defense should be looking for in its under tackle? It's true that you can't have a proven veteran at every position, and the Bears can put All-Pro defensive Julius Peppers next to him. But they are without question taking a leap of faith with a player of unique athletic background but little seasoning at the position.

When I asked Peppers how he thought the Bears line was shaping up this summer, his answer was revealing.

"It hasn't shaped up," Peppers said. "It's still early. When we make the final team and see who we've got, we'll see what our expectations are. Right now it's kind of up in the air."

I don't think Peppers was implying the Bears will seek a new lineup via free agency or trades later this summer. He just put words to what is obvious: It's impossible to know if Melton is ready to take on this job. But the Bears have been talking up his candidacy for months, so I expect them to give him a long leash as the season begins.

To wit: In March, general manager Jerry Angelo said: "We feel, physically speaking, he's got everything you want in terms of size, speed, toughness. That's not any question. Now it's just a matter of learning the position and that will come with the repetition of more play."

To prepare for the role, Melton gained nearly 30 pounds and is now 295. He said the footwork he learned as a running back will help him because "you've got to position your feet around your opponent before you start using your hands" and suggested it is just a matter of time before he locks down the position.

"It's really just repetitions," he said. "You've got to really get in your groove. Once you get things going, the game really starts slowing down for you."

We'll see.

Rapid Reaction: Jets 26, Bengals 10

November, 25, 2010
11/25/10
11:54
PM ET
NEW YORK -- Thoughts from the Jets 26-10 victory over the Bengals:

What it means: This will be remembered as The Brad Smith Game. Smith scored two huge touchdowns -- rushing and a kickoff return -- the signature moments in an otherwise sloppy game by the New York Jets. They didn't need a last-minute miracle to beat the lowly Cincinnati Bengals but they still have a lot of areas to clean up as they head into the toughest part of their schedule – i.e. the New England Patriots.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets' Brad Banks
Aristide Economopoulos/THE STAR-LEDGER via US PRESSWIREBrad Smith celebrates after returning a kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Smith also had a 53-yard score against the Bengals.
Shoeless Brad: Smith enhanced his reputation as a Bengals killer, scoring two long touchdowns -- a 53-yard run on an end-around and a 89-yard return on a kickoff. On the kickoff, he ran the last 50 yards or so with one shoe. The Bengals will have nightmares of Smith, who ran for 92 yards and a touchdown in last season's final game.

Not bad for "average": The anticipated Darrelle Revis-Terrell Owens showdown didn't produce any fireworks, mostly because Bengals QB Carson Palmer stayed away from Revis Island. Revis was in man-to-man coverage on Owens almost every down, and he limited the Big Mouth receiver to three catches for 17 yards. Owens, who famously called Revis "just an average corner" earlier in the week, was targeted only six times while covered by Revis. Bottom line: Revis made T.O. eat his words.

Amped D: After a few days of intense, high-decibel defensive meetings, with the coaches yelling, the Jets' beleaguered defense responded in a big way. They recorded two interceptions and three sacks, including one by Trevor Pryce in the end zone for a safety. They used more blitzes than in recent games (and they worked), perhaps an indication that Rex Ryan got more involved in the play calling.

'Tone Time: Receiver Santonio Holmes scored for the third straight week, burning newly signed cornerback Jonathan Wade on 13-yard slant in the third quarter. The coverage was terrible and Wade had no safety help. Brilliant move by the Bengals. The Jets should've been hitting that all night, but you know, sometimes it takes them a while to figure things out.

Lucky break: Holmes' touchdown was made possible because Bengals coach Marvin Lewis failed to challenge the Jets' recovery on a muffed punt. It was ruled on the field that the bouncing punt hit Andre Caldwell, but replays showed that it didn't. Where was the red flag? Lewis seemed to have problems getting the flag out of his pocket.

Off day for Sanchise: This wasn't one of Mark Sanchez's smartest games. He threw a horrible interception in the third quarter, forcing a pass while being chased out of the pocket. A few minutes later, he nearly took an intentional-grounding penalty, foolishly flipping a pass to no one while being sacked at the 1-foot line. He also missed several open receivers, including a wide-open Braylon Edwards on what should've been a long touchdown.

Non-starters: Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer needs to take a hard look at how he scripts his plays to start games. They've gone seven straight games without a first-quarter touchdown. Schottenheimer tends to be too preoccupied with trying to outsmart the opponent instead of attacking their obvious weaknesses. The Bengals secondary was decimated by injuries, yet the Jets completed only five passes to wide receivers in the first half.

Pick 'em: The Jets snapped their streak of five straight games without an interception, with safety Jim Leonhard and cornerback Antonio Cromartie producing first-half picks. Before everybody praises the defense, let's be real: They were two horrible throws by Palmer. The latter was a throw to Owens into triple coverage.

Depleted Cincy D: Talk about an injury bug. The Bengals played without five defensive starters: defensive tackle Tank Johnson, defensive end Frostee Rucker, cornerback Johnathan Joseph, safety Roy Williams and safety Chris Crockett. Things were so bad in the secondary that Wade, whom they signed off the street Monday, started at cornerback.

Undisciplined Jets: They were penalized eight times, including six in the first half. This sounds like a broken record, by Ryan's crackdown is having no effect. The biggest penalty was unnecessary roughness on nickel back Drew Coleman, a questionable call that gave the Bengals a first-and-goal from the 5 instead of third down from the 11. The Bengals capitalized, scoring on a 5-yard pass to Jordan Shipley. Later, the Jets dodged a bullet after a fourth-down roughing-the-passer penalty on safety James Ihedigbo. It put the Bengals in field-goal range, but Aaron Pettrey missed from 27 yards.

What's ahead: Get ready for Armageddon, AFC East style. The Jets will make their highly anticipated trip to Foxborough, where they will face the New England Patriots (9-2) for sole possession of first place. The Jets won the Week 2 meeting 28-14, but the Patriots -- post-Randy Moss -- are humming on offense. They've scored 115 points in their last three games.


What it means: This will be remembered as The Brad Smith Game. Smith scored two huge touchdowns -- rushing and a kickoff return -- the signature moments in an otherwise sloppy game by the New York Jets. They didn't need a last-minute miracle to beat the lowly Cincinnati Bengals but they still have a lot of areas to clean up as they head into the toughest part of their schedule – i.e. the New England Patriots.

Shoeless Brad: Smith enhanced his reputation as a Bengals killer, scoring two long touchdowns -- a 53-yard run on an end-around and a 89-yard return on a kickoff. On the kickoff, he ran the last 50 yards or so with one shoe. The Bengals will have nightmares of Smith, who ran for 92 yards and a touchdown in last season's final game.

Not bad for "average": The anticipated Darrelle Revis-Terrell Owens showdown didn't produce any fireworks, mostly because Bengals QB Carson Palmer stayed away from Revis Island. Revis was in man-to-man coverage on Owens almost every down, and he limited the Big Mouth receiver to three catches for 17 yards. Owens, who famously called Revis "just an average corner" earlier in the week, was targeted only six times while covered by Revis. Bottom line: Revis made T.O. eat his words.

Amped D: After a few days of intense, high-decibel defensive meetings, with the coaches yelling, the Jets' beleaguered defense responded in a big way. They recorded two interceptions and three sacks, including one by Trevor Pryce in the end zone for a safety. They used more blitzes than in recent games (and they worked), perhaps an indication that Rex Ryan got more involved in the play calling.

'Tone Time: WR Santonio Holmes scored for the third straight week, burning newly signed CB Jonathan Wade on 13-yard slant in the third quarter. The coverage was terrible and Wade had no safety help. Brilliant move by the Bengals. The Jets should've been hitting that all night, but you know, sometimes it takes them a while to figure things out.

Lucky break: Holmes' touchdown was made possible because Bengals coach Marvin Lewis failed to challenge the Jets' recovery on a muffed punt. It was ruled on the field that the bouncing punt hit Andre Caldwell, but replays showed that it didn't. Where was the red flag? Lewis seemed to have problems getting the flag out of his pocket.

Off day for Sanchise: This wasn't one of Mark Sanchez's smartest games. He threw a horrible interception in the third quarter, forcing a pass while being chased out of the pocket. A few minutes later, he nearly took an intentional-grounding penalty, foolishly flipping a pass to no one while being sacked at the 1-foot line. He also missed several open receivers, including a wide-open Braylon Edwards on what should've been a long touchdown.

Non-starters: Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer needs to take a hard look at how he scripts his plays to start games. They've gone seven straight games without a first-quarter touchdown. Schottenheimer tends to be too preoccupied with trying to outsmart the opponent instead of attacking their obvious weaknesses. The Bengals secondary was decimated by injuries, yet the Jets completed only five passes to wide receivers in the first half.

Pick 'em: The Jets snapped their streak of five straight games without an interception, with S Jim Leonhard and CB Antonio Cromartie producing first-half picks. Before everybody praises the defense, let's be real: They were two horrible throws by Palmer. The latter was a throw to Owens into triple coverage.

Depleted Cincy D: Talk about an injury bug. The Bengals played without five defensive starters: DT Tank Johnson, DE Frostee Rucker, CB Johnathan Joseph, S Roy Williams and S Chris Crockett. Things were so bad in the secondary that Wade, whom they signed off the street Monday, started at cornerback.

Undisciplined Jets: They were penalized eight times, including six in the first half. This sounds like a broken record, by Ryan's crackdown is having no effect. The biggest penalty was unnecessary roughness on nickel back Drew Coleman, a questionable call that gave the Bengals a first-and-goal from the 5 instead of third down from the 11. The Bengals capitalized, scoring on a 5-yard pass to Jordan Shipley. Later, the Jets dodged a bullet after a fourth-down roughing-the-passer penalty on S James Ihedigbo. It put the Bengals in field-goal range, but Aaron Pettrey missed from 27 yards.

What's ahead: Get ready for Armageddon, AFC East style. The Jets will make their highly anticipated trip to Foxborough, where they will face the New England Patriots (9-2) for sole possession of first place. The Jets won the Week 2 meeting 28-14, but the Patriots -- post-Randy Moss -- are humming on offense. They've scored 115 points in their last three games.

Great Debate: Cowboys to the Super Bowl?

September, 6, 2010
9/06/10
12:33
PM ET

As part of our ongoing "Great Debate" series, ESPN.com's Matt Mosley and ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon were asked to discuss the Dallas Cowboys' chances of reaching the Super Bowl. You might have heard that it's being played at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

Will the prospect of becoming the first NFL team to qualify for a hometown Super Bowl give the Cowboys some extra motivation? We're about to find out over the next six months.

Now, let the debate begin:

Tony Romo
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesDallas quarterback Tony Romo won his first postseason game last season.
Mosley: Tim, let's dive right into this thing without exchanging too many pleasantries because the two of us have never exchanged a lot of pleasantries. I wish we'd had this debate before the preseason games, because the Cowboys' first-teamers were embarrassingly non-competitive in matchups with the Chargers and Texans. But since I don't put one ounce of stock into the preseason, I'll argue that the Cowboys will become the first team in NFL history to play host to a Super Bowl in their own stadium. It sort of makes me queasy to espouse that type of optimism for this franchise, but I honestly think they have a lot of the intangibles that are necessary to make this happen.

The most important ingredient is quarterback Tony Romo. I think winning his first playoff game last season against the Eagles was huge for his confidence. I think we both agree that he has the talent to lead a team to the Super Bowl, but he desperately needed to get the Seattle-New York monkey off his back.

In 2009, Romo learned to put his teammates before himself. It was an important lesson for a guy who forged a reputation based on his devil-may-care approach. As backup quarterback Jon Kitna explained it to me last season, Romo realized that decisions he makes on the field affect everyone in the organization. He ended up with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions and was able to strike a nice balance between his improv work and his willingness to throw the ball away. He remembered Bill Parcells bellowing in practice, "The throwaway's a good play!"

Oh wait, I need to take a break and let MacMahon say something.

MacMahon: Glad to see Parcells’ wisdom is still fresh in your mind, Matt. Perhaps you recall his oft-repeated line about putting away the anointing oil in regard to Romo.

You really think one playoff win is proof that Romo is ready to carry the Cowboys to a Super Bowl? What about the next weekend? He failed to get the Cowboys in the end zone during a lopsided loss to the Vikings.

Of course, it’s not all about the quarterback. The Cowboys’ biggest concern appears to be their aging offensive line, which got whipped by the modern-day version of the Vikings’ Purple People Eaters. The Cowboys have to cross their fingers that right tackle Marc Colombo and left guard Kyle Kosier can come back strong from knee injuries that could sideline them for the season opener and beyond.

It would be wrong to rule out Romo as a potential Super Bowl quarterback, but it’s foolish to consider him the favorite in a conference that features a couple of guys who have done it before and have great supporting casts (New Orleans’ Drew Brees and Minnesota’s Brett Favre). Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers is also arguably more likely to be a featured attraction at JerryWorld in February.

Perhaps I should pacify the New York branch of your Beast readership by mentioning Eli Manning, who has as many playoff wins on Texas soil as Romo.

Mosley: Tim, we both know that Wade Phillips let that Vikings playoff game get away from him when he opted for a long field goal attempt from a shaky kicker instead of doing the logical thing and going for it on fourth-and-1. And when Flozell Adams suffered an injury in the second quarter, the game was effectively over. But you're correct in saying the offensive line is a major concern. We've learned to appreciate the work of Kosier when he has been out of the lineup and his backup, Montrae Holland, hasn't exactly been a road-grader in the preseason. But wait, I'm arguing against myself.

As crazy as it might sound to longtime Adams apologists such as yourself, Doug Free will be an upgrade at left tackle. He's had a good preseason and the Cowboys' great offensive line coach Hudson Houck, who mentored future Hall of Famer Larry Allen, raves about Free's work on the left side. Once the season gets rolling, perennial Pro Bowlers Andre Gurode and Leonard Davis will return to form.

You talk about the Saints like they're invincible, but I seem to recall the Cowboys going into the Superdome last December and pushing them around. The Saints won a Super Bowl with someone named Jermon Bushrod playing left tackle. The Cowboys might be long in the tooth along the offensive line, but they have better units than the Eagles and Redskins for sure. The Giants have been just as banged up as the Cowboys throughout training camp, so those offensive lines are pretty close.

Last time I checked, Rodgers hadn't won a playoff game, so I'm not sure why every national pundit suddenly has him in front of Romo. And surely Favre's ankle can't hold a lot more lubricant. Without Sidney Rice in the lineup the first half of the season, Favre will be missing a major weapon. If the Cowboys can secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs this time around, I think they'll get a bonus game at their home stadium.

Obviously I'm winning the debate at this point, but I want to give you some more reps. Other than being worried about the offensive line and the talented players on other teams, what's your biggest reason for the Cowboys not going to the Super Bowl?

MacMahon: No wonder you dropped out of Baylor Law School all those years ago. You do a fine job of shooting holes in your own case.

You blame Phillips (1-5 postseason record as a head coach) for making a poor decision in a playoff loss. Does his new contract somehow guarantee that won’t happen again? You mention that the Cowboys had a shaky kicker situation last season. Has that changed? They’re crossing their fingers that David Buehler can get the job done. He’s money on kickoffs and sprints against disappointing draft picks, but he’s never attempted a field goal in the NFL and was erratic at USC.

Of course, you could point out that the Cowboys had no reason to be confident in their short-yardage offense instead of just pointing the finger at Phillips for not going for it on fourth-and-1. After all, your perennial Pro Bowlers couldn’t pave the way for Marion Barber to get a yard on four tries against the Chargers in December. I hate to use actual facts in this debate, but Barber’s conversion percentage on third- and fourth-and-1 ranked among the lowest of backs with at least 10 such opportunities last season.

And you totally lost me with the Flozell Adams turn. You begin by saying how much the Cowboys missed him in the Minnesota massacre and follow it up by declaring that Doug Free is a significant upgrade. Sort of a false start, which is fitting.

Free is certainly an upgrade, but Jared Allen was far from the biggest problem for the Cowboys in the playoff loss. That was Ray Edwards, the Vikings’ other end, who wreaked havoc from the first time that annoying horn blew. Which gets us back to whether Colombo can get completely healthy.

But the biggest reason I’m skeptical about the Cowboys’ Super Bowl aspirations? Because I remember what happened when they were supposed to be Super Bowl front-runners a couple of years ago. I can’t just hop back on the bandwagon. I’ve got to see it to believe it.

Keith Brooking
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesThe veteran presence of linebacker Keith Brooking has improved the Cowboys' chemistry.
Mosley: Tim, that's a fascinating conclusion you've reached. You need to see them reach the Super Bowl before you can be convinced they can get to a Super Bowl. And to compare this current group of players to the '08 "front-runners" is completely unfair. That locker room was home to Pacman Jones, Tank Johnson and Terrell Owens.

With those players "safely" in Cincinnati now, the Cowboys have a completely different team. The arrival of Keith Brooking in '09 via free agency was a huge thing for this team. He's an excellent linebacker, but more important, he's a tremendous leader. He and safety Gerald Sensabaugh were big-time additions to this defense.

The Cowboys had one of the top defenses in the league last season, and they have a chance to be better in 2010. The other three NFC East teams have major questions. And I think the Saints are about to go through a Super Bowl hangover season. Which NFC East team has a better defense than the Cowboys?

Which NFC team has a better quarterback than the Cowboys -- outside of the Saints? You could make an argument for Favre, but all that lubricant in his ankle is going to bring him down at some point. And Rodgers has more pressure on him than Romo, because the Packers have a suspect defense.

You're making a passionate case against the Cowboys going to the Super Bowl, but in your heart of hearts, you know they have an excellent chance. I'm going to give you a shot at a closing argument here. To this point, all of your statements have been summarily defeated by a man with half a law degree. Time to sound the retreat, sir.

MacMahon: The Cowboys’ cheerleading team has clearly lowered their standards to let you join the squad.

I’ll grant you that this is a much more mature team than the band of misfits that melted down in 2008. The Brooking-T.O. swap certainly worked chemistry wonders, and guys such as Romo and Jay Ratliff have grown into good leaders.

The Cowboys should certainly be considered NFC East favorites, having won the division two of the past three seasons and adding Dez Bryant to their talented core. They merit consideration as Super Bowl contenders, but with their difficult schedule, I don’t see the Cowboys claiming home-field advantage. And I wouldn’t bet on them winning a playoff game in Green Bay, Minnesota or New Orleans.

You declare that the Cowboys have an excellent chance to play a home Super Bowl. I’d downgrade that to a decent chance. Go ahead and crack the anointing oil if you wish. I’m keeping the lid on my bottle until February.

NFC North Hall of Fame debate

July, 5, 2010
7/05/10
12:00
PM ET
A weeklong look at current or former players or coaches with Hall of Fame potential in the division.

Chicago Bears: Brian Urlacher, middle linebacker

Claim to fame: Since joining the Bears in 2000, Urlacher has made six Pro Bowl teams and been named an All-Pro four times. He was the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000 and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
Tom Fluegge/US PresswireExtraordinarily athletic for a linebacker, Brian Urlacher has recorded 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks in his career.
Case for enshrinement: Urlacher was the best player on a defense that dominated the league during the middle years of this decade, one that overcame the Bears’ offensive woes and led them to the Super Bowl in 2006. As a middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme, Urlacher carried as much responsibility as any defensive player in the game -- calling defensive signals, chasing down ball carriers and covering the deep middle of the field during pass plays.

In that role, Urlacher has been an athletic playmaker unmatched in his prime, notching 17 interceptions and 37.5 sacks, while getting downfield faster than any linebacker in the game.

Case against enshrinement: Injuries have slowed Urlacher in the past three seasons and he might not have compiled enough Canton-caliber seasons before that point. Detractors also could suggest he benefited disproportionately from the play of defensive tackles Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, who kept blockers away from Urlacher more often than not. Hall Of Fame voters haven’t been kind to even the best of Bears defenders. Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton are the only Chicago defensive stars from the 1985 Super Bowl team in Canton. Their teammate Richard Dent is now a six-time finalist for Hall of Fame induction but still is waiting for his official invite.

Parting shot: As we noted last fall, Urlacher might not stand as the best linebacker of his era. Ray Lewis, Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks might have something to say about that.

Detroit Lions: Billy Sims, running back

Claim to fame: He was a dominant runner during the early 1980s. Sims became the Lions’ all-time leading rusher even though a knee injury ended his career after 4 1/2 years. (Barry Sanders later overtook him.) Sims was a three-time Pro Bowl player, still ranks as the Lions’ No. 2 rusher, and has the second-most rushing touchdowns in team history.

Case for enshrinement: It’s obviously a long shot, but it’s important to remember how brightly Sims’ star shined during his brief career. He rushed for 153 yards in his first NFL game, led the league with 16 touchdowns as a rookie and finished his career with 5,106 yards in 60 career games.

His career ended midway through the 1984 season, at a time when he was averaging a career-high 5.3 yards per rush. There is precedent for acknowledging Hall-worthy careers cut short by injuries. Did you know that Chicago Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, forced to retire at age 28, gained fewer career rushing yards (4,956) than Sims in more games (68)?

Case against enshrinement: Sayers was a special case who was also a dangerous return man. In reality, it’s difficult for voters to consider a running back who ranks No. 106 on the NFL’s all-time rushing list. But Sims was one of the NFL’s top players during the time he spent in the game.

Parting shot: Sims’ impact on the team also should be considered. The Lions were 2-14 the year before he was drafted. In 1980, they improved to 9-7. By 1983, they were division champions.

Green Bay Packers: Jerry Kramer, guard

[+] EnlargeKramer
David Boss/US PresswireThe Packers won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls during Jerry Kramer's career.
Claim to fame: During an 11-season career from 1958-68, Kramer was a five-time All-Pro. He was named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s and was the only guard selected for the NFL’s 50th Anniversary team. Every other player on that team has been enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Case for enshrinement: As with most successful offensive linemen, most of Kramer’s contributions came in a team context.

During his tenure, the Packers rushed for 21,637 yards -- the second-highest total among all NFL teams over that period. Kramer’s blocking was one of the reasons fullback Jim Taylor posted five consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Over that stretch, Taylor rushed for more yards than anyone but Cleveland’s Jim Brown. Overall, the Packers made the playoffs eight times in Kramer’s career and won three NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.

Case against enshrinement: Guard isn't usually a highly valued position. In the history of the game, only 11 players who were primarily guards have made the Hall of Fame.

Voters could also be split on the source of the Packers’ running success, from Vince Lombardi’s coaching to the individual talents of Taylor and running back Paul Hornung.

Parting shot: Kramer made one of the most famous blocks in history, clearing the way for Bart Starr’s quarterback sneak to win the 1967 “Ice Bowl” game.

Minnesota Vikings: Jim Marshall, defensive end

Claim to fame: Marshall set a then-NFL record by playing in 282 consecutive games, of which he started 270. He played in two Pro Bowls, four Super Bowls and recovered an NFL-record 29 fumbles.

Case for enshrinement: If “answering the bell” is one of the main prerequisites for NFL players, then Jim Marshall is one of the greatest of all time. Although some of the stories have been embellished a bit over time, suffice it to say that Marshall battled through enormous pain and legitimate injuries to play for so long and at such a high level.

A punter (Jeff Feagles) and a quarterback (Brett Favre) have since surpassed his record, but it’s doubtful a defensive lineman ever will approach it. It would take 17 seasons of starting 16 games to do it. (Or 15 years if the NFL moves to an 18-game season.)

The longevity mark sometimes overshadows Marshall’s skills as a pass-rusher. Although sacks weren’t an official statistic then, the Vikings credit him with 127 -- only three fewer than teammate and Hall of Fame tackle Alan Page and 13 more than newly elected tackle John Randle.

Case against enshrinement: Like it or not, one of those 29 fumble recoveries always will haunt Marshall’s candidacy. In 1964, he picked up a fumble against San Francisco and ran 66 yards in the wrong direction for what was ruled a safety.

Parting shot: Another factor that might not be fair but is worth considering: Two members of the Purple People Eaters, Page and Eller, are already in the Hall of Fame. Would voters agree that 75 percent of one defensive line should be enshrined?

AFC North fourth round recap

April, 24, 2010
4/24/10
12:05
PM ET
The fourth round of the NFL draft is in the books.

Here is a recap of the latest additions in the AFC North:

Baltimore Ravens

Pick: Dennis Pitta, TE, Brigham Young

Skinny: Pitta is the second consecutive tight end the Ravens selected in this draft, joining third-rounder Ed Dickson. It's apparent Baltimore is preparing for its future without former Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, who turned 30 in March and has a lengthy injury history.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Pick: Thaddeus Gibson, OLB/DE, Ohio State

Skinny: The Steelers have other needs (cornerback?), but that hasn't stopped them from taking as many pass rushers as possible. Despite an inconsistent college career, Gibson is another player Pittsburgh feels can convert from a college defensive end to outside linebacker.

Cincinnati Bengals

Picks: Geno Atkins, DT, Georgia

Skinny: The Bengals need depth on the defensive line and added another plugger in Atkins. Last year when Domata Peko was injured, it severely hurt the defense. Tank Johnson also battled injuries last season. Cincinnati also selected former Texas linebacker Roddrick Muckelroy with its compensatory pick at the end of the fourth round.

Bengals re-sign Tank Johnson

March, 8, 2010
3/08/10
6:41
PM ET
The Cincinnati Bengals retained free agent defensive tackle Tank Johnson on Monday. According to ESPN's John Clayton, Johnson agreed to a four-year contract.

Johnson started 13 games for Cincinnati last season and recorded 29 tackles and two sacks. He helped turn the Bengals' defense into one of the top units in the NFL last season.

The Bengals were the last AFC North team to make a signing or trade since the free-agent period began last Friday, but they likely aren't done. Cincinnati also has been linked with several big-name receivers recently, including Antonio Bryant, Terrell Owens and Brandon Marshall.

AFC North: Free-agency primer

March, 4, 2010
3/04/10
9:49
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Baltimore Ravens

Potential unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Potential restricted free agents: OT Jared Gaither, K Billy Cundiff, S Dawan Landry, CB Fabian Washington, P Sam Koch, OG Chris Chester, QB John Beck, QB Troy Smith, OT Tony Moll, FB Le'Ron McClain, LB Prescott Burgess, WR Mark Clayton, WR Demetrius Williams

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Ravens have a ton of quality free agents. It will be interesting because Baltimore is the only division team which has to abide by the "Final Eight Plan" for making the divisional playoffs. This will restrict Baltimore from making a lot of moves. Therefore, expect the team to keep most of its key restricted free agents while trying to explore the trade market. On the unrestricted side, the Ravens are negotiating with receiver Derrick Mason and are expected to keep him. But two players who could get some interest in the open market are defensive linemen Dwan Edwards and Justin Bannan. Baltimore likes both players but could lose at least one.

Cincinnati Bengals

Potential unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams, TE J.P. Foschi

Potential restricted free agents: LB Brandon Johnson, LB Rashad Jeanty, OL Evan Mathis, C Kyle Cook, DE Frostee Rucker, CB David Jones, LB Abdul Hodge, QB Jordan Palmer, TE Daniel Coats, DT Shaun Smith

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: The Bengals have yet to announce their tenders, so this list could change by Thursday evening. But traditionally they are not big spenders in free agency and will stay true to that even with an uncapped year. Cincinnati could make one or two decent outside signings that may help the team. Finding a receiver would be the most likely target. The most interesting in-house name is offensive guard Bobbie Williams, who likely will test the market. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer also would like to keep veteran Roy Williams and Tank Johnson. But the team hasn't made a major push for either player before they're let loose Friday.

Cleveland Browns

Potential unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Potential restricted free agents: RB Jerome Harrison, LB D'Qwell Jackson, FB Lawrence Vickers, S Brodney Pool, S Abram Elam, DE Matt Roth

Franchise tag: None

What to expect: Cleveland has the money to spend and the biggest talent deficit. So look for the Browns to attempt to make up ground in free agency. Major names like defensive end Julius Peppers and tailback Thomas Jones have been mentioned as possibilities for Cleveland, but that remains to be seen. Internally, the Browns should be interested in keeping Harrison and Vickers in their backfield. Jackson also has value. None of their unrestricted players are priorities for the team and will be allowed to hit free agency.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Potential unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, CB Deshea Townsend , FB Carey Davis, OG Darnell Stapleton

Potential restricted free agents: OT Willie Colon, CB William Gay, P Daniel Sepulveda, TE Matt Spaeth

Franchise tag: K Jeff Reed

What to expect: The Steelers are pretty predictable. Pittsburgh intends to keep all of its restricted free agents, get a long-term deal complete with Reed, who has the franchise tag, and let nearly all of their unrestricted free agents test the market. The exception is Clark, who the Steelers targeted as a priority but has yet to reach a long-term extension before Friday's deadline. Negotiations have been ongoing and should go to the final hour to decide whether both sides can come to an agreement or allow Clark to test the market.

Rosenhaus leads UFA agent scorecard

February, 18, 2010
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The NFL's list of projected unrestricted free agents for 2010 included one column showing agents and another showing starts.

This made it easy to see which agents had the most projected UFA clients, and how many starts those clients averaged in 2009.

The result is the chart below. Drew Rosenhaus has more than 100 clients across the league, more than any agent. The NFL lists 15 of them on its projected UFA list, including Terrell Owens and three NFC West players (Randy McMicahel, Anthony Becht and Olindo Mare).

Agents Peter Schaffer and Brian Mackler are next on the list with seven projected UFA clients apiece, but no agent with at least four players listed can match Tony Agnone for players with lots of 2009 starts. Agnone's list features 16-game starters Casey Rabach, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Bobbie Williams, plus seven-game starter Michael Gaines.

The NFL has no agents listed for Phillip Daniels, Tully Banta-Cain, Leigh Bodden, Mike Furrey, Damion Cook, Tank Johnson and Matt Ware.

Jeff Feagles, Jeff Zgonina, Daunte Culpepper, Paul Spicer, Clinton Hart and Vernon Fox are listed as representing themselves.

Free agency: AFC North

February, 15, 2010
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AFC Free Agency: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

An early look at the free-agent situation in the AFC North.

Note: These projected lists reflect notable unrestricted free agents for each team. The NFL will not issue an official list of free agents until the signing period begins March 5.

Baltimore Ravens

Mason
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireThe Ravens' already-thin receiving corps will take a big hit if Derrick Mason retires.
Unrestricted free agents: DL Justin Bannan, K Billy Cundiff, DL Dwan Edwards, CB Corey Ivy, WR Derrick Mason, TE L.J. Smith, WR David Tyree, CB Frank Walker, WR Kelley Washington

Key figures: Derrick Mason is contemplating retirement. But if he wants to play, the Ravens have every intention of keeping their leading receiver. Look for Baltimore also to make a push for another significant addition at receiver to assist the development of budding quarterback Joe Flacco. Sleeper players on this list include the two defensive linemen: Justin Bannan and Dwan Edwards. The Ravens like both players and will probably make a push to keep at least one on the roster. Baltimore also lacks cornerback depth and might elect to bring back Frank Walker, despite his penchant for giving up big plays and committing penalties.

Cincinnati Bengals

Unrestricted free agents: K Shayne Graham, FB Jeremi Johnson, RB Larry Johnson, DT Tank Johnson, TE Reggie Kelly, DT Shaun Smith, OG Bobbie Williams, S Roy Williams

Key figures: Bobbie Williams is an interesting name. He’s one of Cincinnati’s most consistent offensive linemen over the last several years, but he turns 34 in September. Kicker Shayne Graham, who was franchised last season, had a solid career in Cincinnati. But he missed kicks in big spots, potentially ending his run with the Bengals. Running back Larry Johnson was third string in Cincinnati and should get more playing time elsewhere in 2010.

Cleveland Browns

Unrestricted free agents: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, OG Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, OL Ryan Tucker, OG Billy Yates

Key figures: This is not an impressive list as most of Cleveland's key free agents -- such as Jerome Harrison, Lawrence Vickers and D'Qwell Jackson -- are restricted. Mike Furrey is a high-character player that coach Eric Mangini likes on his football team, and he might be retained. The remaining players on this list likely will hit the open market. The Browns have an interesting decision to make with Harrison, who led the team in rushing after a tremendous second half of the 2009 season. Harrison could garner some interest as a restricted free agent if the Browns do not offer a high enough tender.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Unrestricted free agents: QB Charlie Batch, LB Rocky Boiman, S Tyrone Carter, S Ryan Clark, DE Nick Eason, WR Joey Galloway, NT Casey Hampton, DE Travis Kirschke, RB Willie Parker, K Jeff Reed, CB Deshea Townsend

Key figures: The Steelers are aiming to keep most of their key veterans, while infusing some youth through the draft. All indications are the team will offer extensions to safety Ryan Clark and kicker Jeff Reed. Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton is the biggest name on this list. But he's a strong candidate for the franchise tag, because there is no full-time replacement on the roster. This offseason probably will mark the end of tailback Willie Parker's tenure in Pittsburgh. Parker, 29, helped lead the Steelers to two Super Bowl wins during his career. But various ailments since initially breaking his leg in 2007 hampered his production.

Cowboys' chemistry experiment pays off

January, 14, 2010
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Tony Romo/Terrell OwensAP PhotosQuarterback Tony Romo had arguably his best season as a pro after the Cowboys cut wide receiver Terrell Owens.
IRVING, Texas -- It would be easy to point to the removal of a certain wide receiver from the Cowboys' locker room as the impetus for this season's inspiring playoff run -- and it's not far from the truth. Quarterback Tony Romo wasn't going to reach his full potential as long as Terrell Owens continued to be a polarizing voice at Valley Ranch, and that's the main reason owner Jerry Jones bit the bullet and released the wide receiver last March.

I've talked to enough people within the Cowboys' organization to know that Jones' son, Stephen, is the one who finally got through to his father. Jones, who wasn't inclined to release T.O. at the end of the '08 season, listened to several voices. But I'm told that Stephen stubbornly fought to convince his father that Romo couldn't flourish until T.O. was extracted from the locker room. And once T.O., Tank Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones were gone, the owner introduced us to his catchphrase of the offseason, a "Romo-friendly offense."

[+] EnlargeStephen Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireStephen Jones was reportedly the one who convinced owner Jerry Jones to cut Terrell Owens.
I wrote in training camp that there was something different about this team, but it didn't matter unless the locker room chemistry experiment resulted in a playoff win. Now that the Cowboys head into Sunday's divisional-round playoff game in Minneapolis as the hottest team in the NFC, it appears that the experiment worked.

Against all odds and conventional wisdom, Jones retained Wade Phillips in the aftermath of a 44-6 beatdown in Philly. He soon announced that Phillips would be adding "defensive coordinator" to his job title, which is probably the way it should have been in the first place. Phillips made too many excuses for his players during his first two seasons and didn't hold them accountable at crucial moments along the way. But no one ever doubted the man's credentials as a defensive coach. Phillips' hands are all over a defense that has been dominant over the past four games and held opponents to 250 points during the regular-season, the second-lowest total in the league.

He also helped himself in the personnel department when he spoke on behalf of free-agent linebacker Keith Brooking, a player he coached when he was with the Falcons. The Falcons had a great young linebacker in Curtis Lofton and decided to move forward without the 33-year-old Brooking. The Cowboys' scouting department knew that Brooking was bigger than Zach Thomas and thought he'd be a much better fit at inside linebacker.

Thomas played well for the first six or seven games of '08, but his production started to fall off midway through the season. He never felt comfortable in Phillips' 3-4 and both parties were ready to move on. Brooking showed up for the Cowboys' offseason program and immediately started turning heads. Phillips said the linebacker tried to win every single sprint during conditioning drills and younger players such as Anthony Spencer and Bobby Carpenter began to notice Brooking's uncommon work ethic.

[+] EnlargeKeith Brooking
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesKeith Brooking has been a valuable leader on defense.
When I talked to Brooking on Tuesday, he said there wasn't one specific moment when he became a leader on this team. But other players have told me that he started to become more vocal as the season unfolded. During last Saturday's broadcast of the Cowboys-Eagles game, NBC's Cris Collinsworth told a story that Brooking had fought a defensive back in practice when the player was mouthing off after a play. Brooking confirmed the story Tuesday, though he chose not to add any details. But it's hard to miss the way players react to him when he breaks down the huddle before games. Running back Tashard Choice said earlier this week that Brooking reminds him of professional wrestler-turned-actor The Rock.

The Cowboys also added former Jaguars safety Gerald Sensabaugh during free agency. He solidified an area that had been in a state of flux since Darren Woodson retired because of a back injury in 2004. Sensabaugh has been a better player than Pro Bowler Ken Hamlin, who hasn't lived up to his big contract.

"When all hell breaks loose, you want Sensabaugh on your side," said one highly ranked member of the organization who asked not to be identified. "He's highly, highly respected by pretty much everyone in the organization. There's a toughness and a swagger to his approach that other guys just feed off of."

Of course, one of the biggest changes this season was the meteoric rise of Miles Austin. He's a younger, faster version of Owens -- without all the drama. And if you ever hear a scout say they knew Austin could be this good, they're lying.

Even when Romo was moving the ball down the field last season, it was always in the back of his mind that he needed to keep T.O. happy. I'm not sure that any quarterback can have long-term success with that type of scenario, and Donovan McNabb and Jeff Garcia would probably have my back on that statement.

With his words, Jerry Jones will still tell you that locker room chemistry is overrated. But his actions say something else.

Dallas poised for playoff win thanks to No. 9

December, 30, 2009
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Tony RomoIcon SMITony Romo seems to have found a balance between between protecting the football and using his ability to make big plays in the passing game.
IRVING, Texas -- We spent the majority of training camp talking about how this was a different Cowboys team. And it was a rather obvious point when you considered that polarizing personalities such as Terrell Owens, Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones had been banished from the locker room.

Unfortunately, though, they don't hand out Lombardi trophies based on improved locker room chemistry. For the '09 Cowboys to be truly different from the teams that have spent the past 13 years dealing with playoff futility, we knew they had to exorcise their December demons and then win a couple of games in January. The arrival of blue-collar players such as linebacker Keith Brooking and defensive end Igor Olshansky via free agency seemed to suggest a different approach. From the start of training camp, the sense of entitlement that was captured on film by HBO's "Hard Knocks" heading into the '08 season seemed to disappear.

The Sultans of September seemed better equipped to hold up during the harsh winter months (I know it's Dallas, but just go with me). Brooking, whose successful run with the Falcons came to an abrupt halt, bristled at any mention of the Cowboys' past failures and seemed to convince his teammates to focus only on the present. But a team that surged into December with an 8-3 record suffered back-to-back losses to the Giants and Chargers, and once again they were hounded by questions. What happened next could end up being the turning point in this organization's dubious playoff winless streak.

Special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who has become the hammer that the cuddly Wade Phillips so desperately needed, showed the team a clip of Tony Dungy saying the Cowboys had "no chance" of beating the Saints in New Orleans. For whatever reason, the thought that a former NFL head coach would show them absolutely no respect angered the Cowboys to the point where they wanted to shut everyone up. The Cowboys scored 14 points on the previously unbeaten Saints before Sean Payton knew what hit him, and their confidence began to grow. It was certainly the biggest win of the Phillips era and it sent a message that the Cowboys might be a team to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

In trying to identify what makes this Cowboys team better-equipped for a successful playoff run than some of the talented teams of the past ('07), I think you have to point first to quarterback Tony Romo and then to Phillips' defense. Romo is playing as well if not better than any quarterback in the NFC right now. And it's a good sign that he elevated his game when the stakes became higher in December.

For all his gaudy numbers, Saints quarterback Drew Brees has fallen off over the past month. And the same goes for Brett Favre, though he certainly made some huge plays in the second half of the loss against the Bears. Donovan McNabb and Aaron Rodgers are also operating at a high level, but neither of those quarterbacks has protected the ball as well as Romo.

You could attribute Romo's December failures in '06 and '07 to a lack of experience, but last season he simply didn't give his team a chance to win games down the stretch. And his infamous postgame news conference following a season-ending 44-6 loss to the Eagles made some Cowboys fans wonder whether he truly hated losing enough to make some much-needed changes.

When he threw three interceptions in a Week 2 loss to the Giants this season, Romo became the symbol for all that was wrong with the team. But while he took heavy criticism from both the media and fans, Romo stuck with a plan that he brought into the season.

He focused on becoming a better game manager and the following week he didn't have a turnover in a 21-7 win over the Panthers. Had we just met Tony the bus driver? But as his numbers reflect, Romo never stopped using his rare improvisational skills to create big plays. Heading into Sunday's NFC East showdown with the Eagles, Romo has played nine games in which he hasn't thrown an interception, and he's lost only four fumbles.

In '08, he threw at least one interception in 10 of the 13 games he started and lost seven fumbles. He did not trust offensive coordinator Jason Garrett and he felt the need to take unnecessary chances because the Cowboys' defense gave up too many points. Bill Parcells had left word that Romo needed to be coached all the way through games because of his habit of trying to do too much on his own. Although I don't think Romo would admit this publicly, I think he stopped listening to the coaches once Parcells and former quarterbacks coach David Lee left the building.

Honestly, I'm not sure it was a coach who finally got through to Romo this season. I think he finally came to the conclusion that the only way the Cowboys could be successful was for him to strike a proper balance between protecting the football and using his ability to make big plays in the passing game. Romo has been coy about the actual changes that he made heading into this season, but backup quarterback Jon Kitna has his own opinions.

"I think he came to the understanding that with every decision he makes, 52 other guys on the roster have to live with that decision," Kitna said Wednesday. "I think that's why he's been more willing to take a sack this season and not try to do everything on his own."

And here's where the defense ties into Romo's development as a quarterback. His willingness to throw the ball away or take the occasional sack has a lot to do with his trust that Phillips' defense will do its job. Earlier in the season, the Cowboys' defense played well for three quarters and then surrendered late leads. That hasn't been the case in recent games -- as evidenced by the defense's ability to end the Saints' frantic rally in a 24-17 win.

Only the Jets and Ravens have surrendered fewer points than the Cowboys (250), and remember that those teams don't face as many high-powered offenses on a regular basis. I remember late in '06, Romo felt like he had to make a play on every possession in order to give the Cowboys a chance to win. That Cowboys defense was getting lit up by teams such as the Lions who already had been eliminated from the playoffs. Now the quarterback of that Lions team is watching Romo take some very important steps.

"He's done a great job protecting the football," said Kitna. "His ball-handling skills in the pocket are excellent and you can see him tucking it away a lot more. More than anything, he doesn't feel the pressure to constantly make a play."

And that's why I think the Cowboys are poised to win their first playoff game in 13 seasons.

Posted by ESPN.com's Matt Mosley

Caught up in the euphoria of opening night at the new Cowboys Stadium, owner Jerry Jones apparently told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Clarence Hill on Saturday that he hasn't closed the door on a reunion with troubled cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones. Surely Jerry was simply making a bad joke.

After all, we've spent so much time this offseason talking about how Jones has gotten rid of all the locker-room drama caused by players such as Pacman, Tank Johnson and Terrell Owens. Now it sounds like Jerry is having second thoughts.

"Would you beat me up too bad if I brought back Adam?" Jones said to the Star-Telegram.

Jerry said bringing back Pacman is still a long shot, but I'm not sure why it's even a consideration. The cornerback played in only nine games and didn't have a single interception. I've heard all this talk about how he graded out better than the other Cowboys cornerbacks, but that's more of an indictment of them than some sort of tribute to Pacman. And honestly, that sounds like typical Jerry Jones hyperbole to me.

Again, why would he choose opening night at his palace in Arlington to drop this bit of news? Because he can't help himself. He got caught up in the moment and thought it might be fun to grab another headline.

Pacman was supposed to help this team return punts. How can we forget the scenes from HBO's "Hard Knocks" of an astonished Wade Phillips watching Pacman field a punt while already holding five footballs in his arms? Unfortunately, that's not a skill that comes in handy during the regular season. Pacman was awful on punt returns, averaging 4.5 yards per return on 21 opportunities.

I called Valley Ranch this morning to see what the reaction was to Jones' statement. Doesn't sound like anyone's taking the comments too seriously. The Cowboys have second-year players Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick involved in a nice little competition for the other cornerback spot. And they're hoping to have a healthy Terence Newman ready to go this season. Pacman would only serve as a reminder of the past -- and the Cowboys can't afford to keep looking back.

 
  ESPN.com illustration
  Which is going to be the stronger team next season: the Seahawks or the Bengals?

By ESPN.com's James Walker and Matt Williamson

Every season there is a sleeper team that comes out of nowhere and does major damage in the NFL. For the most recent example, look no further than the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were moments away from winning Super Bowl XLIII.

But picking this year's underdog in May could be a very difficult task.

That is why we recruited ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker and Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. to provide their sleeper picks for 2009  -- the Cincinnati Bengals and Seattle Seahawks, respectively -- who could most resemble last year's Cardinals.

Let's debate.

What makes the Bengals and Seahawks sleeper candidates for 2009?

James Walker: First of all, a sleeper is a team that very few people feel has a chance -- and the Bengals are certainly in that category. With one winning season since 1990, the Bengals have fallen off just about everyone's radar.

But when examining the Bengals closely, you notice they have two things that make for a dangerous club: a great quarterback and an improving defense.

Carson Palmer is still one of the league's top quarterbacks when healthy. In 2008, a season-ending elbow injury cut his campaign short and the Bengals quickly went in the tank with an 0-8 start and a 4-11-1 finish. Before that, he threw for more than 8,000 yards combined the two previous seasons.

Also, Cincinnati's defense is sneaky good. The Bengals finished No. 12 in the NFL defensively in 2008 during a season when the offense couldn't stay on the field or score points. Consider new additions such as defensive tackle Tank Johnson, rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga and veteran safety Roy Williams, and Cincinnati's D has the potential to crack the top 10 for the first time since 2001.

A No. 22-ranked strength-of-schedule doesn't hurt the Bengals, either.

Matt Williamson: Few teams were crushed by injuries like the Seahawks in 2008. The Seahawks won't be snakebitten like that in 2009. Also, overtaking Arizona to win the NFC West doesn't seem all that daunting a task. But, probably most importantly, I think that the Seahawks' passing game and defense should be vastly improved.

The Seahawks had just 35 sacks last season, but I expect that number to increase dramatically in 2009. It's possible the Seattle defense could record at least 45 sacks, as it did in 2007. The reason why is simple: This is a much-improved front seven. With the drafting of Aaron Curry, Seattle nabbed someone who is quite possibly the best and most NFL-ready defensive player from this past class. Now, there are few sets of starting linebackers in Seattle's class. But the Seahawks had a talented group of linebackers a year ago.

Where they are most improved is on the defensive line. Cory Redding is an up-and-down player, but he is versatile and could thrive in his new environment, especially in a rotational role. Colin Cole is more of a plugger in the middle than Redding, but that was an aspect that Seattle was lacking last year. It is imperative in allowing middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu to stay protected and attack ball carriers more freely.

Also in the middle, Brandon Mebane very well could take another step forward and another space eater, Red Bryant, could emerge in his second season. The defensive end situation also should be vastly improved. Lawrence Jackson, a 2008 first-round selection, could take a substantial step forward. His presence should help prevent Daryll Tapp from wearing down. Keeping with the theme of the Seahawks returning to health, defensive end Patrick Kerney also should log more playing time in 2009. He missed the last nine games of the 2008 season. 

While all of these projected leaps might not occur, all the Seahawks need is a few of them to materialize. The linebackers are exceptional and an improved front four will decrease the pressure on the secondary and allow the linebackers to make plenty of big plays.

 
  Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
  Seneca Wallace's future in Seattle may be dim with the return of Matt Hasselbeck.

How stable is the quarterback situation for each team?

Matt Williamson: Matt Hasselbeck missed quite a bit of time last year with a back injury. By all accounts, including from Hasselbeck himself, his back is doing very well. He is expected to be at full strength when the season arrives. However, the back ailment is worrisome and Hasselbeck's age doesn't help alleviate concerns. With the fourth overall selection in the draft, Seattle passed on a chance to pick USC quarterback Mark Sanchez in favor of selecting Curry. Clearly, the Seahawks are in win-now mode and also feel confident that Hasselbeck's back will not be a problem this season. 

The Seahawks seem much better set at the most important position on the field now. No offense to Seneca Wallace -- who substituted for Hasselbeck much of last season -- but there isn't a quarterback of the future presently on the roster and the backup situation is tenuous at best.

The Seahawks will go as far as Hasselbeck can take them and needless to say, in my opinion, that is much further than they went last season. He is surrounded with a now-exceptional group of pass catchers. The signing of T.J. Houshmandzadeh should be a steadying force in this regard and will open room up for Seattle's other receivers. Houshmandzadeh has caught at least 90 p
asses in each of the last three seasons. As a rookie, tight end John Carlson was the Seahawks' best pass catcher and should only improve in his second season -- especially with Houshmandzadeh in the fold. The chance that Deion Branch and Nate Burleson face as many injury problems in 2009 is slim, but still possible, given their history. But drafting Deon Butler looks like a prudent move; he's a dangerous slot option with rare speed. Hasselbeck could have a big season passing. 

James Walker: Similar to Hasselbeck, Cincinnati's quarterback situation is as stable as Palmer's throwing elbow. So it is certainly a topic for debate.

Palmer, who didn't have off-season surgery, says he feels 100 percent. Yet the team has him on a pitch count during off-season workouts, which means there is at least some level of concern and caution internally from the team's perspective.

Throwing is fine, Palmer says, but his elbow will not be tested truly until it gets hit a few times. I doubt even Palmer knows for sure how well his arm will respond to the physical punishment from defensive linemen and linebackers.

Similar to last season, if Palmer goes down Cincinnati's season is over. But this is why the Bengals' offensive line is so important.

They drafted offensive tackle Andre Smith No. 6 overall to make sure Palmer doesn't have another season-ending injury. Talent-wise, Smith is one of the best players in this year's draft. But it will be important for the coaching staff to push Smith and get the best out of him. Cincinnati is going to pay Smith a contract in the range of $50 million, most likely to protect Palmer's blind side.

(Read full post)

 
  Dave Stephenson/Icon/SMI
  Cleveland spent its first-round draft pick on California center Alex Mack.

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- There are two primary reasons center Alex Mack became the first pick of the Eric Mangini era with the Cleveland Browns.

Casey Hampton is one reason; Haloti Ngata is the other.

As the Browns try to play catch-up in the AFC North, they must first close the gap in the trenches with the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and AFC rival Baltimore. Cleveland was 0-4 against those two teams last season, losing by a combined score of 106-43, primarily because they were physically manhandled on offense.

Realizing this, the new regime in Cleveland had no reservations making a center its signature pick of the 2009 NFL draft. Mack was widely regarded as the best interior lineman available. The Browns coveted him so much that they opted to trade out of the No. 5 overall pick, then trade two more times before taking the University of California product at No. 21 -- a little higher than most projected.

If Mack begins his pro career by pushing around huge 3-4 nose tackles such as Ngata and Hampton next season and instantly brings smashmouth football back to Cleveland, no one will care how early he was picked.

"I pride myself at being an aggressive run blocker," said Mack, who is listed as 6 feet 4, 311 pounds. "I think that's a fun thing to do when you get to run the ball and really get to impose your will on a defense."

(Read full post)

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