Point 1: 2009 could be "Lights Out" time for outside linebacker
Shawne Merriman in San Diego.
With the 16th pick overall in the 2009 NFL Draft, San Diego used their
first-round pick on 6-foot-2, 274-pound defensive end Larry English, who will
play outside linebacker in the NFL.
Did the Chargers front office lose their minds? After all, they already had
Merriman -- a player who had earned the nickname "Lights Out" for his
devastating hits -- and the highly-talented Shaun Phillips anchoring the outside
linebacker spots. Mock drafts across the internet had been projecting that San
Diego would use that pick on a true defensive end or an offensive tackle. What
in the world were the Chargers thinking?
Well, what you have to figure into the equation is that Merriman is in the
last year of his contract. And while the knee-jerk reaction would be to assume
that the club would simply slap the franchise tag on him, you'd be overlooking a
very important angle that could prevent the Chargers from doing that.
Quarterback Philip Rivers is also entering the final year of his contract.
If the team can't reach a new deal with either player prior to the start of
free agency, which one do you think they'd use the tag on? Sorry, but unless
Rivers contracts Ryan-Leaf disease during the 2009 season, that's a no-brainer.
Besides, I think the Chargers already cast their vote when they picked
You also have to figure that the team was hedging their bets in case Merriman
didn't make a successful return from the knee surgery that forced him to miss
nearly the entire 2008 season. From all that I've heard, and as long as he
doesn't re-injure the knee, the emotional and tenacious defender will likely
captivate NFL fans with a double-digit sacks performance for a fourth season.
But San Diego now has a safety net with English should Merriman falter.
The fifth-year veteran isn't phased in the least by all the buzz around his
"All that stuff to me is garbage. Whatever happens is going to happen.
If that's the case, I'm going to make the best of it, period," Merriman
said earlier this month when asked about the speculation that he'd be tagged or
playing elsewhere in 2010.
No matter how this season evolves for Merriman, the results will be costly to
San Diego. If he's not able to unleash chaos again, the Chargers will likely let
him hit the open market, losing a player who was once a dominant force for their
defense. And if he's able to bounce back, his price tag as a franchise player or
to prevent him from becoming a free agent would be staggering.
Last year the club inked defensive end Luis Castillo to a pact that was
valued in excess of $60 million with a $6.15 million signing bonus. That should
be peanuts compared to a Merriman deal if he's able to become one of the most
feared linebackers in football again.
Point 2: The only thing that will keep Aaron Kampman from being successful
at linebacker in the Packers' new 3-4 scheme is his head.
During the past three seasons, Kampman has averaged 12 sacks and 71 tackles
per year from the defensive end position.
Green Bay's Aaron Kampman sacks Vikings quarterback Tarvaris Jackson.
AP Photo/Morry Gash
But that was then. And this is now.
Green Bay fielded the 20th-best defense in the league last year and decided
to make the switch to a 3-4 defensive scheme. So they drafted the most dominant
nose tackle in the draft class of 2009, Boston College's B.J. Raji. And they
added a swift, instinctive outside linebacker in USC's Clay Matthews. But they
also needed Kampman to drop back from the line and make the switch to outside
linebacker to help pull it all together, and it seems as though the 29-year old
veteran hasn't yet bought into the change.
Kampman has been avoiding the media at every turn despite being very
accessible in past seasons. It appears that he's not ready to talk, perhaps
abiding by the old rule of thumb that if you don't have something nice to say,
don't say anything at all.
That's just nutty.
Kampman is such a versatile athlete that he might actually be more effective
as a 3-4 linebacker as soon as he polishes his pass coverage skills. Head coach
Mike McCarthy obviously feels the same way.
"I think this defense is going to help Aaron Kampman," he said.
"I think there is always a hesitancy when you are asked to do something
different. Aaron was very comfortable in the old scheme, but I think this is
going to create more opportunities for him."
Kampman will line up at the outside linebacker spot on most first and second
downs, but when the Packers put extra defensive backs on the field, he'll move
up onto the line.
I have no doubt that the Packers star will excel in his new role, but maybe I
should send that Cheesehead a copy of the book, "Who moved my cheese?"
to help him cope with the change.
Point 3: Don't overlook the undrafted rookie free agents during training
Last year, 12 percent of the league's undrafted rookies were on NFL team rosters
when the first regular season games kicked off. Although that number includes a
few who landed on the injured reserve list, it's still a significant number of
players who fans often dismiss as training camp fodder.
Last year, six NFL teams had at least four undrafted rookies on their roster
at the start of the season, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, who led the
league with five. The Baltimore Ravens, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks had four each, while nine NFL teams
-- the Falcons, Bills, Panthers, Cowboys, Texans, Raiders, Eagles, 49ers, and
Redskins -- didn't have a single one survive the 53-man roster cuts.
With 23 percent of the league's undrafted rookies earning practice squad
spots heading into Week 1 action, a total of 35 percent of the undrafted rookies
earned at least a practice
squad assignment by the end of camp.
So now is it worth giving those athletes a bit of your attention?
Just a few of the league's current undrafted players who have developed into
impact players are Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner, Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker,
Steelers running back Willie Parker and Chargers tight end Antonio Gates.
Point 4: This could be Jeremy Shockey's last year in The Big Easy if he
doesn't get his act together.
Last July, the New Orleans media was buzzing with excitement after learning
that Jeremy Shockey had been traded to the Saints. The New York Giants had
eagerly divorced themselves from the brash, outspoken tight end for the bargain
rate of a second-round and fifth-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
In case you're wondering how that turned out for the Giants, they added
Virginia linebacker Clint Sintim with the 13th pick in the second round and QB
Rhett Bomar out of Sam Houston State with the 15th pick in the fifth-round. But
they also ridded themselves of a disruptive malcontent, promoting the unselfish
Kevin Boss in the process. And that allowed quarterback Eli Manning to run his
team's offense without being challenged at every turn.
Meanwhile, Shockey was happy to be reunited with Saints head coach Sean
Payton. The two had worked together during the former Miami Hurricane's rookie
campaign while Payton was New York's offensive coordinator, and the tight end
posted career-best numbers that season with 74 catches for 894 yards during 14
But in his first year with the Saints, the 6-foot-5, 251-pound player managed
just 11 starts, 50 catches for 483 yards and no touchdowns in an offense powered
by Drew Brees, who led the league with 5,069 passing yards. In fairness, Shockey
was hampered early in the season by a sports hernia injury that required
surgery, but the end result for New Orleans was the same. They didn't get the
value they had paid for in both dollars and draft picks.
With plenty to prove to this season, Shockey turned-up in the headlines
recently after being hospitalized in Las Vegas. After he reportedly was found
unconscious during a pool party at the Hard Rock Hotel, the Saints released a
statement saying that Shockey was treated for dehydration. But with plenty of
beverages flowing at the party, speculation centered on the fact that he had
simply partied too much and had somehow forgotten that he was in a desert.
According to an NFL source, Shockey will eat up $3.2 million of the Saints'
salary cap this year -- a modest hit when you consider that top tight ends such
as the Colts' Dallas Clark and the Broncos' Daniel Graham are extracting more
than $6 million dollars of cap space from their teams' respective pools. But
next year, Shockey is scheduled to earn a base salary of $3.8 million and to
receive a roster bonus of $500,000. If he can't contribute more to the Saints'
success while paired up Brees this year, the Saints might decide to part with
him -- rather than $4.3 million, especially since they aren't on the hook for
any prorated signing bonus money.
Point 5: Barring injury problems, the Buffalo Bills should post
their first ten-win season of the decade.
When you look over the Bills roster and depth chart, they have the talent on
both sides of the ball to be a playoff team this year.
Despite losing defensive end Aaron Schobel and valuable reserves like LB John
DiGiorgio to the injured reserve list last year, the defense finished the season
ranked 14th in the NFL. And the good news for Buffalo is that they'll be able to
capitalize on improved teamwork and chemistry since most of the starters are
returning. The team also added some speed and depth to the defensive line when
they selected former Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin in the first round of
the NFL Draft.
But more importantly, the Bills added talent to the offensive side of the
ball that will give them a better chance to keep pace with their
Veteran wide receiver Terrell Owens will prevent defenses from double-teaming
Lee Evans like they did last year. Despite the challenge, Evans still managed to
snare 63 passes for over 1,000 yards, so imagine what he'll be able to do this
year. Slot receiver Josh Reed continues to improve, earning a career-high 13
starts last year while catching 56 balls. And if second-year receiver James Hardy can return from his ACL surgery by the end of training camp as
anticipated, Buffalo would add a another big target to the mix.
Quarterback Trent Edwards enters his third NFL season with 23 starts under
his belt and a trio of talented running backs to work with -- Marshawn Lynch,
Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes. So the only question mark left on offense is
the offensive line, which will also benefit from an influx of talent with
Louisville's Eric Woods and Oregon State's Andy Levitre competing for spots in
camp this summer.
Bottom line, if Dick Jauron and his coaching staff can use the talent that
has been assembled to it's full potential, the Bills will be awfully tough to
beat this season.
Point 6: Although Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney posted 10.5 sacks in
2008, he could be even better this year.
Quite frankly, I was surprised that Freeney was able to put up double-digit
sack numbers in 2008.
Colts DE Dwight Freeney tackles Buffalo RB Fred Jackson.
AP Photo/Tom Strickland
After foot surgery ended his 2007 season prematurely, the seventh-year
veteran wasn't able to participate in team practices full-time until mid-August
last year and only saw action in one preseason game. And when the season began,
it was clear that Freeney wasn't in his groove.
After the team's first seven contests, he had just three sacks, raising
speculation over whether or not he was ever going to regain his previous stature
as one of the league's elite pass rushers. Freeney answered that question by
rolling up four sacks in the next two contests and a total of 7.5 sacks during
the final nine games of the regular season for Indianapolis.
Getting an earlier jump on workouts and practices is just one of the reasons
Freeney could be poised for a huge year. The other factprs that should boost his
results are the addition of Larry Coyer as the team's defensive coordinator,
along with some added beef to the interior of the defensive line.
In a departure from the Dungy era, the Colts have added defensive tackles who
tip the scales at more than 300 pounds, including second-round pick Fili Moala
out of USC. That change, along with Coyer's tendency to deploy the blitz more
frequently than Meeks, should force quarterbacks to abandon the pocket more
quickly, allowing speedy players like Freeney, Mathis and the Colts' linebackers
to ratchet-up their sacks production.
Point 7: If Brett Favre doesn't jump into the mix, put your money on Sage Rosenfels to be the starter in Minnesota.
While some observers may be assuming that Tarvaris Jackson is the incumbent
starter for the Vikings, it's more likely that Rosenfels is the front-runner if
you look at the numbers. And I'm not just talking about their stats.
I've been told that when he agreed to a two-year contract extension to
complete the trade between the Texans and Vikings in February, Rosenfels
received a $1.4 million signing bonus. He's also being paid a base salary of $2
million this year, bringing his total compensation for season to $3.4 million.
Now consider that Jackson is in the final year of his deal which pays him a
base salary of $535,000 and that Rosenfels is scheduled to earn salaries of $2.6
million in 2010 and $3 million in 2011.
The reason that Minnesota was willing to make that kind of investment in
Rosenfels is a simple one when you do the math. He has a career 62.5-percent
completion rate versus Jackson's 58.4 percent mark. And over the past two
seasons, while Rosenfels made ten out of his 12 career starts, he completed 65.2
percent of his throws. The former Texan also has a 7.4-yards per attempt average
versus just 6.6 for Jackson.
Add it all up and you'll see that Rosenfels will have less passes hitting the
ground and will cover more ground through the air. That'll keep drives alive for
Minnesota that were previously cut short with Jackson at the helm. And that not
only provides the offense with more scoring opportunities, but also longer
breaks for a defense that was already scary without that much rest.
Jackson came under fire this week after defensive lineman Pat Williams raised
questions about the quarterback's work ethic during a radio interview. Vikings
head coach Brad Childress, whose support of Jackson has often appeared to be
based on blind devotion rather than reality, tried to diffuse the comments while
speaking to the media this week.
"Tarvaris Jackson is one of the hardest-working guys you're going to
find on this 85-man roster right now," Childress said.
Regardless of whether or not Jackson works hard, if Minnesota signs Brett
Favre, don't be surprised to see Jackson looking for another team to play for in
2009 when the final cuts are made. The Vikings aren't likely to eat up three
roster spots with quarterbacks, and Jackson is the most expendable.
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A member of the Pro Football Writers of America, Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the Scout.com network and at FOXSports.com.