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 English.
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 future.
"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 camp.
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 starts.
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 opponents.
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.
Click here for more coverage of your favorite NFL team.