- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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At their meetings in March, the NFL team owners tabled seven bylaw proposals, four that would have significant impacts on the 2012 season.
Although free agency goes on every day of the year, the league unofficially closed the books on 2012 unrestricted free agency Friday.
On June 1, unsigned unrestricted free agents no longer count in the formula for figuring out compensatory picks for the 2013 draft. Basically, teams that lose more free agents than they sign are eligible to receive a compensatory pick. A team can receive as many as four, but the NFL management council doesn't figure out the 32 picks until after the season.
With 143 players moving to other teams, this was the fourth most active free-agency period in league history. Like most years, the majority of actions were in the first two weeks when most of the money is spent.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were the 2012 free-agency winners by grabbing Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. The Buffalo Bills changed perceptions of their franchise by grabbing the prize of 2012 free agency, defensive end Mario Williams.
But who won the second phase of free agency? Free agency started on March 13 and the market slowed by April 1. That's where the bargains came in. Ninety-four of the 143 free agents were signed in March. Of the list of 49 signings from April 1 until May 31, 33 signed for the league minimum.
Give the St. Louis Rams the best grade for free-agency bargain shopping. They signed five of the 11 unrestricted free agents after April 1. From that group, linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar (two-years, $3.05 million) could end up starting on defense. Mario Haggan, Trevor Laws and William Hayes could add depth to the defense. And Barry Richardson could make the team as a backup tackle.
Despite being strapped regarding cap room, the Oakland Raiders might have done the next best job. Linebacker Philip Wheeler (one-year, $1 million) could be a starter and Dave Tollefson could help out at defensive end. Plus, Owen Schmidt could make the team as a backup fullback.
Finally, the Washington Redskins were the most active in the post-April 1 market, signing six of their nine free agents. The Redskins hope Jonathan Goff and Bryan Kehl bulk up the depth at linebacker. James Lee could be a fourth offensive tackle and Neil Rackers is an insurance policy as a place-kicker. Plus, Madieu Williams could make it as a backup safety. On Friday, the Redskins released cornerback Leigh Torrence, who signed on April 10.
From the inbox
Q: It seems more teams are returning to the 4-3 defense. Why the change? Do you feel they don't have the personnel for the 3-4 or are they making their defense simpler?
Frankie in Stamford, Conn.
A: Part of the reason is personnel, and then there's also the salary cap. From the personnel standpoint, it's hard to find 3-4 defensive ends and pass-rushing linebackers when more than a dozen teams are looking. The Steelers had an easier time in the 1990s when they were one of a few teams looking for pass-rushing linebackers because only a handful of teams were looking for those 3-4 linebackers. Trying to figure out a pass-rushing linebacker from a defensive end coming out of college is one of the biggest challenges for a general manager.
The cap reason is it costs more to run a 3-4 defense. You need to pay two pass-rushing linebackers, at least two defensive linemen, pay bigger corners who can tackle and pay a hard-hitting safety. In a 4-3, you can go young with linebackers and corners. Young can mean inexpensive. The cap is going to be tight the next few years. It's no accident 3-4 defenses changed through the 90s when the cap was tight.
Q: Is it possible that part of Jason Babin's success can be attributed to the fact that he was playing with an Eagles secondary that had three Pro Bowl-caliber cornerbacks who gave him more time to pursue the QB on each down? And, if so, do you think that Dallas' Anthony Spencer could see a similar surge in sack totals?
Marshall in Austin, Texas
A: I believe it's more he found the right scheme to be in, not necessarily the corners. First, he got together with Jim Washburn, the defensive line coach who coached him in Tennessee. Babin played in the "wide-nine" scheme that allowed him to play on the edge of a tackle and use his quickness to elude blockers.
It helps a pass-rusher to have a good secondary, but it helps more if his team plays more man-to-man to force quicker decisions by quarterbacks or expose them to sacks. I do think the additions at corner could help Spencer get more sacks, but he also needs to pick up his game.
Q: Can you articulate why kickers get so little respect from analysts?
Andrew in Saskatoon, Canada
A: Kickers get total respect from me. I marvel each year how the numbers keep improving on field goals. They're kicking longer field goals more accurately than at any time in history. If you can't make 80 to 85 percent of your field goals, you may be looking for a new job. Position players may grumble about how kickers are paid without having to take too many hits, but teammates sure celebrate with them when they win games with last-second kicks.
Q: I wanted to ask a question about the Pro Bowl. Could you see flag-football a possibility?
Luke in Newcastle, Australia.
A: I can't see it because I don't see it drawing the ratings. A small segment of loyal football fans might watch it for the novelty, but I don't think it would last. You can see what Roger Goodell did with the Pro Bowl. He gave the players everything they wanted. He let them have the game in Hawaii, the players' vacation place of choice. He got an assurance the game will improve from participation and from the way the game is played. If the game doesn't improve, they will eliminate the Pro Bowl.
Seth in Honolulu, Hawaii
A: It's done in basketball because of cap reasons. There is no reason to do it in football, particularly with the new collective bargaining agreement. In the NFL, the team trading down can't trust it is going to get the player it wants, which would be an embarrassment. Second, draft choices are precious. The third reason might be how fast information spreads. If a team drafts a player, reporters and fans want an immediate news conference to explain the decision. It would be hard to explain drafting a player for another team.
Q: Which way do you think our new Steelers' offense will lean more toward this year? Back to the old ground-and-pound way, or stay in the shotgun and air it out? Todd Haley has proven he's comfortable doing both.
Big Dan in Bartonville, Ill.
A: Expect more running, but they might have to do it out of more three-receiver sets. It's hard to go back to ground-and-pound when fullbacks aren't part of the equations.
The Steelers have one of the deepest and most dangerous receiving groups in football. Haley will take advantage of it. He'll use tight end Heath Miller more. That might mean less shotgun plays, but not fewer passes. Ben Roethlisberger won't simply be a guy handing off. Haley will take advantage of his skills.
Q: I can't believe Drew Brees is having so much trouble getting a proper contract from the Saints. My question involves his leadership, however. Brees has steadfastly said he had no knowledge of the bounty system -- and I have heard no one questioning that. With his leadership of the entire team (defense too) and his union involvement (if multiple warnings were given by the NFL), how could a reasonable person think he didn't have substantial knowledge of this transgression?
Doug in Atlanta, Ga.
A: Brees is the leader of the team, but he's not in the defensive meetings. The multiple warnings weren't given to him. They were given to the Saints' management and coaches.
A quarterback goes from meeting room to locker room to field to locker room to meeting room. Thrown into that are interviews with the local media. It's a busy day.
If Brees says he didn't know, I would believe him. As for his contract, you can see he'll end up getting $20 million a year. It's unfortunate it's taking so much time.
Q: Does a two tight-end set help or hurt the running game?
Jacob in Cuiaba, Brasil.
A: It helps the running game because defenses can't figure out which is the strong side or the weak side. Teams usually run to the strong side because of the extra blocker. If the tight end lines up to the right side of the right tackle, the opposing team reconfigures its defense. If the two tight ends can get downfield, it puts the safeties in a tough position to come near the line of scrimmage. If the safety isn't inside the tackle box, then it opens up more running room.
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