Signing top-10 picks could be complicated

When it comes to signing first-round draft choices, especially those among the top 10, it seems every summer is a long, hot one.

So given the esoteric yet significant quirk in the collective bargaining agreement that figures to play some role in 2005 negotiations, will this summer be even longer and hotter than most? Is the annual negotiating mating dance going to be reduced to a waiting stance, as the parties try to determine who will blink first?

There seems to be no consensus yet, according to a casual survey from both sides of the bargaining table, about the potential effect on an already ponderous process of continuing without a CBA extension.

Because the NFL and the Players Association have yet to agree to the long-overdue extension, which most pundits felt would have been accomplished last year, teams can currently prorate signing bonuses over just five years. That represents a severely brief amortization period compared to the recent past, when the impact of signing bonuses could be stretched over six or seven seasons, a mechanism that enabled agents to maximize up-front money and allowed teams to limit the cap charges in the early years of a long-term deal.

Under the current terms, bonuses can be prorated for only three years beyond the last capped season of the CBA. That means, with 2006 as the last capped season, teams can use only 2005-09 for amortization purposes. That results in the conundrum of trying to factor in the normal increases that every draft class anticipates (especially the players at the top of the lottery) and trying to squeeze them into a shorter time frame.

The fit, to be sure, will be a tight one. And nerves will be taut.

"It's like you had a gallon of water to start off with, and a gallon container in which to pour it," said veteran agent Eugene Parker, who represents Chicago Bears tailback Cedric Benson, the fourth overall player selected. "No problem there, right? But now, you add a few ounces of water and also reduce the size of the container by a few ounces. There's no way to make it fit."

Regarded as one of the most creative agents around, and an adept negotiator who has created innovative contract structures to address problems in the past, Parker likely will divine a way to make it work this time around as well. So will other agents, and team negotiators, because we're essentially talking about very bright men here, whose business is cleverly crunching digits and solving problems.

Still, it won't be easy, and much of the negotiating time figures to be spent more on the formula than on the finances.

Case in point: Tom Condon and Ken Kremer of IMG Football, the representatives for top overall choice Alex Smith, probably already have a good feel, as do San Francisco 49ers officials, for the total dollars that will be involved in the former Utah quarterback's first NFL contract. Structuring the payout on such megadeals, however, is always a challenge. And that challenge is increased now by the five-year proration limit.

Perhaps an even better example, since the signing bonus for Eli Manning's top deal last year was just $3 million (there was plenty more, of course, in option bonuses), is the No. 2 slot. The second player chosen in the 2004 draft, Oakland Raiders offensive lineman Robert Gallery, received an initial signing bonus of $8 million. Since the Raiders could amortize that amount over six seasons at the time, the annual impact was approximately $1.33 million. The same $8 million signing bonus this year, prorated over just five years, would cost a team $1.6 million annually. The difference ($266,667) might not seem like a lot. But for teams dealing with the parameters of their rookie pool allocation, and for whom every dollar counts, it is significant.

"I think what you're going to see are contracts where you determine the money first and then work backwards to get the structure that is required to make the deal work," Sportstars agent Brian Mackler said. "There are going to be a lot of gimmick-type things this year, because both sides are going to need them."

If there was one surprising element in the survey of agents and team negotiators, it was that many have yet to really consider in depth the potential problems they will confront in the next few months. That said, enough have begun to offer some possible solutions.

Among them: In some contracts, the size of the original signing bonus and the second-tier option bonus (which is typically smaller) might be inverted. That could lead to some problems with the so-called "Deion Sanders Rule," which limits the size of the signing bonus in terms of percentage of the total contract value. Teams will have to decide if they want to deal with the "Sanders" rule. There could be contracts that will include "buy-back" clauses, a mechanism typically limited to deals for quarterbacks. In such contracts, latter years of the deal void, but the team has the option to reinstate those seasons with a bonus payment. And look for more "one-time" bonuses, which reward a player for achieving predetermined playing time or performance levels just once during the contract. Expect, too, a few more "straight" contracts, without voidable years.

Seem like we're speaking in tongues, here, folks? Well, imagine the degree of rhetoric that is going to ensue when first-round negotiations really begin in earnest.

There is a guarded optimism in some quarters that first-round deals will eventually be struck because, well, they always are. Noted the cap manager for one AFC team: "It's going to be a tough road, no doubt about it. But are we losing sleep over it? Has it cast a pall over our building? No, not really, because we feel like we'll figure it out."

Minnesota Vikings vice president Rob Brzezinski, one of the NFL's top cap managers, faces the prospect of signing two of the top 18 players chosen in the first round. He agreed all of these contracts will eventually be consummated, but conceded that negotiations could be long and some clubs will pay a steep price.

"There's always an inherent pressure to get those high-round rookies into camp on time," Brzezinski said. "And because of that, I'm not so sure we've been as good or efficient at this as have the agents. I mean, pursuant to the CBA, and how it's supposed to work with the rookies, we haven't been as good. The rookie pool goes up, what, about 4½ percent, yet the agents come in and get 8, 9 and 10 percent increases annually. It's not supposed to work that way. But more specifically about this year, yes, it will be more challenging."

Because his team's top choice was the 27th selection overall, a level of the first round at which the permutations are far easier to decipher, Atlanta Falcons president/general manager Rich McKay probably won't struggle nearly as much to get first-round pick Roddy White into camp on time. McKay is much relieved, in fact, that he's not dealing with a top-10 selection.

"I think, typically, you'd get to July, and the agent would say, 'OK, I'll go high with my proposal.' And you'd say, 'All right, and I'll go low with mine,'" McKay said. "And you both kind of understood you'd meet somewhere in the middle. I don't know that it's going to be so cut-and-dried this year. I think it's going to be more daunting that that."

Around the league
• Ron Hill still has a pulse, and still has one year's worth of paychecks remaining on his contract, and so we don't want to get too maudlin about the former Atlanta Falcons vice president of football operations. But when the Falcons abruptly canned Hill earlier this week, the NFL lost a good football man, although probably just temporarily. Some smart team will hire Hill for its personnel department, not just because he's a good guy, but because he is a good judge of football talent.

Trust us on this one: The Falcons, and more specifically former coach and executive vice president Dan Reeves, never would have made the 2001 trade to acquire the rights to quarterback Michael Vick had Hill not orchestrated the terms and then pestered all of the skeptics in the Atlanta front office into submission. When the Falcons advanced to the NFC Championship Game last season, it was with a roster largely assembled through Hill's efforts.

It's reminiscent, to some extent, of when the Falcons shocked the world and themselves when they played in Super Bowl XXXIII. Reeves got a lot of credit, most of it justifiable, but the club he piloted to the title game was mostly put together by former Falcons vice president Ken Herock. Since he wasn't a very popular figure in Atlanta, and allowed guys like Jerry Glanville to dispense their brand of revisionist history about many of the team's decisions (like trading Brett Favre to Green Bay), people in the city conveniently forgot about the role Herock played in the '98 NFC championship team. Here's hoping, if the Falcons take the next step in the playoffs in 2005, that Hill gets some credit.

In '97, when Reeves took over as the Falcons' grand poobah, insiders knew Herock's days were numbered. Even as Reeves preached a party line that included Herock's remaining in the front office, the writing was on the wall. It didn't take long for Herock to be shown the door, replaced by what became known around the Falcons' offices as the "Reeves Mafia." When McKay was hired by owner Arthur Blank as the Falcons' team president and general manager late in 2003, it was widely assumed Hill was a goner. That he lasted as long as he did in the new administration was in equal parts a factor of his abilities, and that former Blank consultant Bobby Beathard recognized his expertise and championed his cause. But even when the Falcons rewarded Hill with a one-year contract extension, you wondered how long he would stick around, especially after McKay got all his lieutenants in place. The answer: Not too long.

That's not a knock on McKay, as able an administrator as there is in the entire league. Heck, there are a lot of folks who have speculated McKay will one day be the NFL commissioner. What he has promulgated in Atlanta in a very short period is nothing shy of miraculous. A one-time laughingstock franchise is suddenly a model team, a winner, carefully built for the long haul. But the NFL is all about protecting your turf, surrounding yourself with your own people, and McKay certainly understands that reality. It's about diminishing any kind of threat to your authority. And while Hill really wasn't a threat, the fact remains that he wasn't a McKay guy. Hill suggested in an interview with the Associated Press that he was let go because of too much overlap in the Atlanta personnel department. If that's the legitimate reason, and there's nothing untoward that earned him a pink slip, then a lot of people in other departments of the Falcons' operation had better not respond if summoned to McKay's office.

You want to talk about overlap? To say there's a little ambiguity in the football operation is an understatement. Let's flash back to the Tampa Bay personnel department of, say, 2001, when it included McKay, Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell and Mark Dominik. That was a whole lot of people sporting a whole lot of fancy titles. The big thing, though, was that they were all McKay guys. The big thing in Atlanta, alas, is that Hill wasn't.

• Honest, this isn't pick-on-Rich-McKay week, but "You're fired, Ron," actually might not have been the most questionable words spoken by the Falcons' GM this week. Nope, those came Wednesday, when McKay was the guest on the first-ever streaming video chat session on the team's Web site. During a pretty enjoyable and edifying 40 minutes or so, McKay suggested that the legion of Falcons fans who have spent much of the offseason bashing underachieving wide receiver Peerless Price might do well to leave the financial element out of the equation. Said McKay: "I think with Peerless, you've got to get out of your mind what [his] contract was, and what he was paid, and you've got to focus on [whether] he can help us win games. … Let's not get all caught up in rating him on what he was paid. Let's get caught up on what he can do for us this year."

Uh, nice rah-rah sentiment, but totally unrealistic in today's NFL, and McKay is plenty smart enough to realize it. In the era of the salary cap, performance and paycheck are now inalterably linked for every player, and that's a fact of life. It's both easy and convenient for the current football regime in Atlanta to suggest such things about Price, because these guys aren't responsible for bringing him to the Falcons. It was Blank – and, yeah, Hill, in one of his most grievous errors of judgment – who pulled the trigger on the 2003 trade that sent a first-round pick to Buffalo for Price.

On most days, McKay would be the first to allow that finances are a part now of every football decision. Clearly, the Wednesday chat session was a day when he lost sight, we're guessing just temporarily, of that.

In two seasons, Atlanta has paid Price about $12.5 million in total compensation, including a $10 million signing bonus, and the franchise certainly hasn't reaped much reward for that investment. In two seasons with the Falcons, he has 109 catches, 1,410 yards and six touchdowns. In Price's final season in Buffalo (2002), he posted 94 receptions, 1,252 yards and nine scores. Price has played in 32 games for the Falcons and has scored in just five of them. He has one multiple-touchdown game. He mopes when he doesn't get the ball, doesn't work hard to get open and, at age 28, has lost some speed.

The Falcons can talk all they want about how Price was victimized last season by a new offense and how hard he is working this spring to fit in, but the numbers still don't add up. If, as McKay suggested this week, it's time to stop worrying about the size of Price's paycheck, then why have Falcons officials approached him about restructuring his contract? Price still has $20.3 million left in base salaries on his deal. He didn't earn the first $12.5 million, and chances are, he'll never see the balance of the deal.

• Good move by Miami coach Nick Saban to hire ESPN.com analyst Randy Mueller as general manager this week. And, yeah, Randy, we know you're a little surprised to see those words in print. But here's why, despite whatever debate exists over Mueller's merits, Saban needed such a guy: Because the coach can't do all the legwork himself. He can't maintain an inventory of potential veteran free agents, assign all of the scouting chores to the college bird dogs and run a personnel office with the efficiency and detachment that is required. Mueller has demonstrated in the past, despite making a ton of character gambles in New Orleans that often blew up in his face, he can do all of those things. There were a lot of able administrators on Saban's radar screen – we're guessing that some of them included people like Jets assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum or Brzezinski – but some of them weren't quite as well-steeped as Mueller in the scouting end of things. Saban didn't need another top-flight front office guy. He's already got one in place in Bryan Wiedmeier. No, he needed a list maker, a person to keep tabs on personnel, to make recommendations, but not too forcefully. And in Mueller, he got just that.

• It will be interesting to see just how the contract dispute that precipitated the unexcused absence of defensive lineman Richard Seymour from New England's minicamp this week affects the Patriots in the next couple months. There has been no better-run organization than the Pats, from top to bottom, over the last half-decade. Doubtless, there have been more contract squabbles and internal bickering, but the Pats have presented a remarkable public veneer that suggests there is never a glitch. Other teams win Super Bowls and there follows unrest. The Pats keep collecting Vince Lombardi trophies and move on, swimmingly, it seems.

With seven weeks until training camp opens, it's way too premature to think Seymour's snit over the final two years of his contract will keep Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli up all night. That said, the absence of Seymour from the minicamp represents at least a minichink.

New England won down the stretch last season without Seymour, who missed the final regular-season game and the first two playoff contests with a sprained knee, and the Patriots have incredible depth and young talent on the defensive front. No reason to believe they won't win a game or two early in the season if Seymour's contract situation isn't resolved and he opts to miss some paychecks. But the four-year veteran is a special player and you'd just as soon go to battle every week with him in your army.

Seymour has two years left on his original contract and, like most teams, New England usually isn't inclined to address deals with more than a year remaining. But the Pats broke from precedent this spring when they signed quarterback Tom Brady, with two years left on his contract, to a new deal. And while management can justifiably note that quarterbacks are always treated differently, and that Brady needed to be brought up to financial speed, you can bet Seymour and agent Eugene Parker will raise that point if they ever go public with their grievances.

• One longtime, knowledgeable personnel director reiterated this week he feels the most consistently productive unit in the NFL over the last several seasons has been the Kansas City offense, and its most consistent component has been the offensive line. Pretty tough for us to counter his argument. That said, his opinion led us to wonder just how much longer the Kansas City offensive line can continue its long and admirable skein of excellence. Thanks to the diligence of team president and general manager Carl Peterson, solid drafting and terrific coaching, the Kansas City line has been among the NFL's premier quintets for a lot of years. Players departed – standout blockers such as Tim Grunhard, Dave Szott, John Alt, Glenn Parker and John Tait – but it seemed there was always someone ready to step up into the breach.

But are the current Chiefs youngsters ready to play? We're apt to find out about one of them, third-year pro Jordan Black, in 2005, as it appears he will take over at right tackle, a spot where he had four starts last season. A former fifth-round pick, Black has to deliver, but he'll soon be followed by guys like Brett Williams, Kevin Sampson, Jeremy Parquet and Will Svitek in that regard. What do Black and the four others have in common? All were chosen in the fourth round or lower.

None of this is to suggest the Kansas City offensive line is on the cusp of impending doom, not given the manner in which it has been able to replenish itself. But consider the current starters beyond Black: In left tackle Willie Roaf, left guard Brian Waters, center Casey Wiegmann and right guard Will Shields, the Chiefs have a foursome that averages 31.8 years of age and 9.5 seasons of NFL tenure. At 28 years old, and with five years of experience, Waters is the baby of the bunch. Roaf is 35 now. Shields is 33 and still considering whether he wants to play in 2005. Former Eagles guard John Welbourn, acquired in a trade last spring to start at right tackle, hardly distinguished himself at the position and was moved back inside this offseason.

Then again, the line isn't the only part of the Kansas City offense getting up in years. Of the projected starters, only Black (25) and second-year wide receiver Samie Parker (24), who is slated to replace the recently released Johnnie Morton, are under 28. The offense, even with those two youngsters, averages 30.5 years and 7.9 seasons. Four of the starters are 33 or older.

• Look for the Philadelphia offensive line to gradually phase out some starters over the next year or two. Fact is, the reshaping of the Eagles' line has already commenced. Just a couple years ago, the starting guards were Welbourn and Jermane Mayberry. The former was traded to Kansas City last spring and the latter was allowed to depart as an unrestricted free agent, to New Orleans, two months ago. That paves the way for Shawn Andrews, the Eagles' first-rounder in 2004 and a starter in his opening game as a rookie until he sustained a season-ending knee injury, and Artis Hicks.

Of course, Hicks could move from left guard to left tackle, where he has worked much of this offseason, if incumbent blind-side protector Tra Thomas can't overcome the blood clot that has sidelined him this spring. Hicks played some at left tackle in the past and has impressed coaches while playing the line's most critical spot in the offseason. Thomas, 30, struggled at times in 2004, and is due $16.4 million in base salaries during 2005-08. Bet the mortgage he never sees the end of his current contract. Right tackle Jon Runyan is entering the final season of his deal and his future is uncertain. The Eagles, who are the league's best franchise in terms of exercising foresight, have, of course, added 11 young offensive linemen over the past three seasons through draft picks, undrafted college free agents and players who were released by other clubs.

The coaches are convinced Andrews, the former Arkansas star who was a bit of a surprise selection by Philadelphia in 2004, is a star in the making, and he could eventually move from guard to tackle to replace Runyan. The staff also likes young blockers Trey Darilek, Scott Young and Dominic Furio. And Steve Sciullo, who started as a rookie for Indianapolis in 2003 and then mysteriously fell out of favor with Colts coaches and was released last year, has worked much of the spring at left guard with the first unit. The Eagles feel they got a real steal in Sciullo.

Here's a name to watch for in about two years: Todd Herremans, a fourth-rounder this year from Saginaw (Mich.) State, a huge tackle who was one of the fastest risers on draft boards league-wide in the last few weeks before the lottery. Herremans will take a little while to adjust to big-time competition, but there are a lot of teams that kicked themselves when the Eagles plucked him with the 126th overall selection. Plus, mentioning him provides us an excuse to report that on Thursday, he agreed to his first NFL contract (four years, $1.788 million). The contract includes a $403,000 signing bonus and minimum base salaries of $230,000 (for 2005), $310,000 (2006), $385,000 (2007) and $460,000 (2008).

• Take it to the bank, at some point before the start of the regular season, Buffalo Bills tailback Travis Henry will be traded. To whom? Uh, we'll get back to you on that one. This much we know: There remain multiple teams interested in securing Henry, still a quality back despite losing his starting job to Willis McGahee last year, and a guy who has a couple 1,000-yard campaigns on his résumé. Sooner or later (probably later), some team is going to meet the Bills' asking price, believed to be a third-round draft choice, and pull the trigger on a deal.

That team probably won't be Houston, which continues to consider upgrading the No. 2 spot behind Domanick Davis, but doesn't appear as interested in Henry as a few other teams. That's notable because a report indicated this week that the Texans are the only club still talking with Buffalo about a Henry deal. Not true. A league source tells us Tennessee and Jacksonville are still in the mix for Henry and there have been "extensive" discussions between Titans officials and Henry's agent. That makes sense, since Henry is entering the final year of his contract, and no team is going to trade for him just to rent him for a season and then have him depart next spring in free agency. Tennessee absolutely has to land a tailback to play behind the talented but often-injured Chris Brown. The Jaguars remain concerned about Fred Taylor's knee and might want someone with a little more real-game experience than LaBrandon Toefield, who has just 104 carries in two seasons, or impressive rookie Alvin Pearman.

There were reports last week the Jaguars had discussed a trade for Seattle tailback Shaun Alexander, but Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio was pretty convincing in debunking such talks. It would be difficult to have Taylor around in 2005, at a base salary of $1.55 million and be able to afford the kind of long-term contract Alexander desires. But we do hear that, in the Henry matter, Seattle is still a dark-horse landing spot, should the Seahawks ever find someone to take the unhappy Alexander off their hands.

• In response to the item in this space last week, which reported that former NFL Players Association president Trace Armstrong had appointed a committee to study the potential for reducing the maximum fees agents could charge from 3 percent to 2 percent, Richard Berthelsen e-mailed us. Wrote Berthelsen, who has had a long and distinguished career with the union: "It is not accurate to say that Trace Armstrong asked the committee to consider it, and it is not accurate that it is something being done off the radar. The facts are that one of the [player] reps proposed a reduction of the maximum fee … and Gene [Upshaw] and Troy [Vincent] pointed out that the board should give the agents a chance for input before any reduction was done. The resolution was thus changed to say that the matter should be studied and there should be a report back next year. Since the meeting, we have brought it up at both agent seminars, which have occurred since our rep meeting, and we have encouraged the agents to make their feelings known."

We've got way too much respect for Berthelsen to use his response, which certainly deserved an airing, as an excuse for launching into a debate on the NFLPA and its stance on the agent community. That will come at a more appropriate time.

• The smart money is on the Pittsburgh Steelers's doing the right thing and signing wide receiver Hines Ward to a pricey contract extension right around the time training camp opens. How do we know that? Because the Rooney family indicated that Ward is a priority and Steelers ownership almost always does the right thing. But it's not as if the negotiations are surging ahead yet. "The Steelers do things at their pace and, when they are ready, I'm confident we'll get it done," agent Eugene Parker said.

In the meantime, at a period when there are a lot of wide receivers skipping offseason practices because they are seeking new contracts, Ward is typically unflappable. "My performance will take care of my contract," said Ward, who is scheduled to earn $1.7 million in 2005. That said, Ward recently took out a $5 million injury protection insurance policy.

• Judging from the verbal bouquets being tossed around by Marvin Lewis, it appears second-round draft choice Odell Thurman will be the Cincinnati Bengals' fourth different starting middle linebacker on opening day in the last four years. He'll also be the fifth different starting MLB overall – Kevin Hardy all of 2003, then Nate Webster, Caleb Miller and Landon Johnson in 2004 – under Lewis' stewardship. Lewis said this week he will be surprised if Thurman and former Georgia teammate and first-round pick David Pollack aren't in the Bengals' opening day lineup at two of the linebacker spots.

The sudden ascension of Thurman, who might actually be further along the learning curve than Pollack (who is making the transition from college defensive end), should not be that surprising. Most scouts felt Thurman possessed some of the top pure football skills in the 2005 draft class and he always played with great instinct and intensity. But the reality is that most teams do not invest first-round choices on middle linebackers, and that Thurman's off-field problems at Georgia probably conspired to keep him out of the top round. Still, plenty of personnel people realized that, in terms of a terrific football player, the Bengals got a steal by grabbing Thurman with the 48th overall selection. Lewis' flattering words about Thurman this week only confirmed that.

The new defense installed by first-year coordinator Chuck Bresnahan is similar to the one in which Thurman played at Georgia, and that, too, has helped. It doesn't hurt, either, that Thurman has an undeniable presence and an air of confidence. The unsolicited concession by Lewis that Pollack and Thurman likely will be starters is further indication that he is anything but reluctant to use young players. And why not? In Lewis' first two seasons, the Cincinnati defense statically ranked 28th (in 2003) and 19th (in 2004) overall, and 25th and 26th versus the run, respectively. Sometimes you're just better off putting kids on the field and allowing them to grow, even if it means an aggressive mistake, right?

Of the team's projected starters on defense for 2005, the Bengals figure to have a pair of second-year veterans (right end Robert Geathers and free safety Madieu Williams) along with Pollack and Thurman. The defensive lineup probably will have just two players – weak-side linebacker Brian Simmons and right corner Tory James – starting at the spots they did for Lewis' regular-season debut in 2003.

• On the offensive side of the ball for the Bengals, the agent for right tackle Willie Anderson, who is second on the club's list in years of continuous service, met with Cincinnati officials last week to propose an extension for his client. In the wake of the deals signed by tackles Orlando Pace (St. Louis), Walter Jones (Seattle), Ryan Diem (Indianapolis), Jonas Jennings (San Francisco) and Kareem McKenzie (New York Giants) this offseason, agent Terry Bolar is seeking similarly big dollars for Anderson, a nine-year veteran who has played his entire career in Cincinnati.

But there doesn't figure to be a quick resolution to this negotiation. Anderson is still rehabilitating from offseason knee surgery and isn't scheduled to get onto the field until training camp. Given that Anderson turns 30 next month, the Bengals are inclined to wait until camp, and then assess his recovery. Plus Anderson has two years remaining on his current contract, at base salaries of $3.85 million for 2005 and $4.75 million for 2006 and Cincinnati doesn't usually discuss an extension with a player who has more than one year on his deal.

Bolar, who is looking for a five-year extension that would take Anderson through the 20ll campaign, when he would be 36 years old, makes some good points: Anderson has been a Pro Bowl player and an All-Pro, no small feats in Cincinnati, and is a guy who has embraced a franchise some peers have shunned. Signing Anderson to a long extension, in essence making him a Bengal for life, would send a positive message to some of the club's younger players. For now, though, Bengals officials aren't biting on the five-year model. They have floated a three-year deal with guaranteed money in the $10 million range (not exactly what Bolar had in mind, but still a positive starting point), and are likely to stick to an offer in that area.

• In Atlanta, it's called the Plank and Blank Show, and they transported it to Las Vegas this weekend for the Arena Football League title game. Blank is, of course, Arthur Blank, who also owns of the Georgia Force of the indoor game. Plank is head coach Doug Plank, the former Chicago Bears hard-hitting safety, and the man best recalled by some for having Buddy Ryan's famed "46" defense named for his uniform number.

Before taking over the Force this season, Plank had never been a head coach at any level. He served three seasons as the defensive coordinator of the Arizona Rattlers of the AFL, a club he helped guide to three straight Arena Bowl contests. But for most of his post-NFL career, Plank ran his own business interests, primarily a Burger King franchise. With Blank writing the checks, though, and Plank motivating a young and previously undistinguished team, the rookie coach demonstrated this season that he eventually could wind up on an NFL sideline.

"I never thought it was something I wanted to do," said Plank, who started eight seasons for the Bears in the late '70s and early '80s. "But now I've got the bug a little bit. I've been involved, from the business standpoint, in having to lead people, make difficult decisions, create an environment in which people could and would succeed, planning ahead and exercising foresight. What I discovered this year is that's what coaching essentially is about, right? So, yeah, it's something I suddenly find myself interested in maybe."

Plank has done a remarkable job, for sure, and maybe down the road, when he has a little more experience, Blank could find a place for him on his NFL staff.

• If you're so inclined to tune into Arena Bowl XIX Sunday, keep an eye on Georgia Force wide receiver Troy Bergeron. People talk about players who might be good enough to make the jump from the indoor game to the NFL, but truth is, there aren't many such guys around. But Bergeron, the league's rookie of the year, might be the rare prospect who has a legitimate chance to play in the NFL someday. He is 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, has run a sub-4.4 time in the 40, and seems to have great explosiveness. At age 21 this year, the youngest player in the league, Bergeron had 77 catches for 1,220 yards and 26 touchdowns and was named the AFL rookie of the year.

His agent, Mark Bloom, confirmed for ESPN.com that Bergeron, who was ineligible for the 2005 draft, will file the necessary paperwork in January to be included in the 2006 lottery. NFL scouts, you can bet, are going to give Bergeron a real look. The guy never played a snap of college football – despite having enrolled at various times at Auburn, Middle Tennessee State and Columbus (Ga.) State – in part because of academic reasons and some family responsibilities. But there's an outside chance such a circuitous path could lead Bergeron to an NFL training camp next summer.

Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Charlie Frye, the third-round choice from nearby Akron, put the ball out of sight last week. No, not the football. A golf ball. At the team's annual long-drive championship, Frye smoked a drive 351 yards. And the guy is loyal, too. A Nike client, he used the new Nike Igniter driver for the winning shot. Frye, by the way, has enjoyed a nice offseason on the football field, too, and the Browns staff really feels it got a keeper. That said, no one should be overly surprised if Cleveland signs a veteran backup behind Trent Dilfer before camp begins.

• It's been a mixed bag so far for the two former NFL first-round picks who recently went to the CFL to try to resurrect their flagging careers. Former Panthers cornerback Rashard Anderson, out of the NFL since 2001 because he had so many problems kicking a marijuana habit, had an interception for the Calgary Stampeders in a preseason game this week. Anderson has been impressive in camp and is a lock to make the team.

The future isn't as certain for former Minnesota Vikings first-round defensive lineman Demetrius Underwood. The Ottawa Renegades apparently have considerable depth on their defensive line, and Underwood, who has been playing out of position at tackle, might not make the team. Underwood's NFL career was cut short by bipolar disorder. He is hoping the Ottawa coaches move him back to end, and soon, because he feels he has a better chance to make the team as an edge defender.

• If for no other reason than one of need, the stock of former Southern California defensive tackle Manuel Wright, who is available in the league's July 14 supplemental draft, has probably risen a bit. Green Bay, which sorely needs more bodies on its thin defensive line, is said to be interested, as is Philadelphia. The consensus is that Wright might be worth a third- or fourth-round gamble. But if enough teams are interested, it could definitely push him to the higher of those levels. Wright is scheduled to work out for NFL scouts July 8.

• Punts: The Seattle Seahawks added enough veteran wide receivers in the offseason, most notably the classy duo of Joe Jurevicius and Jerome Pathon, that the club should be able to withstand the release of Koren Robinson, the character-flawed former first-round pick. In truth, it might be tougher for the Seahawks to replace wide receiver Alex Bannister, the team's standout special teams ace, who suffered a fractured collarbone in practice this week and could be sidelined for much of camp. … We may not agree with the assessment of our ESPN.com colleague John Clayton, who this week wrote about the importance of having the NFL Europe League survive. The league, after all, has not developed quarterbacks, even solid backups, at the rate it once did. One exception: Dave Ragone, the Houston Texans' third-year signal-caller, who really used the European stint this spring to his advantage. Ragone might challenge Tony Banks at some point in 2005 for the No. 2 job behind David Carr. … Carolina's coaches have been impressed with the work of rookie tailback Eric Shelton, a second-round pick from Louisville, over the last few weeks. With tailbacks Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster still iffy, Shelton could see a lot of playing time in '05. … Although Chad Pennington did not throw with any degree of velocity in minicamps, the New York Jets are confident that their star will be fully rehabilitated from shoulder surgery by the start of training camp. … Nice pickup by the Patriots this week, signing free agent safety Antuan Edwards. The former first-rounder, who started for the Rams over the final month of the 2004 season, is a more solid player than people think. If he's healthy, he could do well in New England, where the coaches always seem to create a role for good, veteran players. … Since it's just a minicamp, it doesn't mean much, but Pats outside linebacker Mike Vrabel got a lot of work at inside linebacker during this week's practice sessions. … Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon has yet to officially retire, but in advance of the announcement, has cut his base salary to the $765,000 league minimum to help the Raiders' cap situation. Gannon won't retire until he speaks in person with Raiders owner Al Davis, to thank him for the opportunity to play in Oakland. … Condolences to veteran agent Robb Nelson and his family on the death of son Hunter following a long battle with Sturge-Weber syndrome, a severe neurological disorder. … The Kansas City Chiefs, who auditioned Freddie Mitchell earlier this week, have apparently decided not to pursue the former Philadelphia wide receiver. It appears the Chiefs instead will try to sign Az-Zahir Hakim.

• The last word: "It's disappointing, especially since every time I turn on the TV, Martha Stewart is all over the country doing something. Evidently, she has a different furlough guy than Jamal." – Ravens coach Brian Billick, after the Federal Corrections Bureau denied a request by tailback Jamal Lewis that he be permitted to leave a halfway house in Atlanta to participate in the team's mandatory minicamp next week

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.