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Little leverage: Texans' Johnson shouldn't expect contract makeover

Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson's decision to stay away from OTAs this week based on his contract certainly caught me by surprise. His decision to return Thursday after the brief hiatus did not.

At this point Johnson doesn't have much to gain by staying away. He's always been the anti-diva receiver, and this was unusual coming from him.

And before anyone hammers Johnson too much about this week's minor tempest, let's remember this is voluntary work that he chose to skip.

Johnson has always been a tremendous ambassador for the Texans and is in impeccable shape. He's a perennial Pro Bowl receiver who knows the offense and understands how to flourish in it. So missing a little football in May isn't going to make or break his season.

But, implicit in every big signing across the league is the hope/expectation that the highest-paid players will be around for offseason work. And surely when the Texans tore up Johnson's rookie deal in 2007, with two years remaining on it, to make him one of the game's top-paid receivers, they didn't foresee this happening in 2010.

Rick Smith, the Texans' astute general manager, played a perfect game of verbal dodgeball this week when asked about Johnson's absence, showing a keen grasp of the feelings involved and going out of his way to show Johnson respect. But that doesn't mean he's going to set a bizarre precedent by making alterations to a contract with five years remaining. The sides will continue to talk, but the likelihood of any major alterations being made to this contract is scant.

The reality for Johnson is that he willingly signed his current deal for eight years and $60 million with $15 million guaranteed. It wasn't a slotted, rookie contract born more out of where he was selected than how he had actually performed. No, this was his deal -- the caveat being that it might be wise to use a more seasoned agent -- and for the first three years of the contract his average yearly compensation was more than $7 million, which put him among the top three in the NFL at his position.

Now the pendulum has swung some, certainly, with him set to earn $5.8 million this season. And, in the meantime, guys like Brandon Marshall got massive paydays and will earn about $11 million per season. But that's the nature of the contract. There is a reason why many agents will use the average of the first three years of a deal as a selling point; because inherent in there is the fact that teams generally prosper on the back end.

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Unless Johnson wants to start sitting out regular season games -- and thus costing himself major bucks -- he has no real leverage here. Maybe adding in some more performance-based incentives will smooth everything over, but short of that there is not much more the Texans can or will do.

This situation is nothing like what the Titans are dealing with regarding Chris Johnson. There, you can understand why a 2,000-yard rusher, who has outperformed his contract and every running back in his draft class, would be upset about what he's making based on a contract generated off the fact that he was selected 24th overall. In this case, Johnson is signed through 2012 without the chance to earn $1 million in base salary in any of those seasons.

Where Chris Johnson is now is much more akin to where Andre Johnson was in 2007.

With the 30-percent rule complicating things, the Titans are in a bit of a different situation. The potential for a true protracted holdout and stalemate is very real in Tennessee, while this most minor mini-controversy in Houston is now essentially already over.

Cushing better be cautious

Brian Cushing's suspension has faded away a bit this week with other stories in the news (what a week for Rick Smith in Houston, by the way, with the normally low-key Texans embroiled in two controversies). But make no mistake, it has the potential to continue to haunt him, and from here on out Cushing will be subjected to a degree of random testing unlike anything he's experienced before.

After his defiant, borderline petulant, performance at his press conference last week, Cushing would best stay perfectly clean for the rest of his career. Watching Cushing essentially ask fans and the entire league to suspend all disbelief and simply accept that his failed test was some kind of anomaly, with scant science to back it up, left many observers speechless.

It reminded me of Rafael Palmeiro wagging his finger at Congress during baseball's steroids hearings, lecturing about how clean he was, almost taunting. Now, of course, Palmeiro is seen as a clown of sorts, having later tested positive for banned substances, overshadowing any of his accomplishments and likely keeping him out of the Hall of Fame.

Cushing faces the same sort of backlash if this incident is anything but completely isolated. A second failed test would have obvious ramifications on his playing career, but the longer suspensions might pale to the damage done to his character and his word.

Arians has Leftwich's back

Byron Leftwich's greatest support in Pittsburgh is coming from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who is about the best source possible. Arians' future in Pittsburgh is murky following the team's poor 2009 season, and he must now operate without Ben Roethlisberger for at least four games, and possibly more.

Sources say Arians is the primary reason why Leftwich is working with the starters in Pittsburgh. Arians feels more comfortable with a veteran passer and one who has played in the system before. Others in the organization are very high on prospect Dennis Dixon and believe he could handle replacing Roethlisberger. But given Arians' precarious position, one could understand him preferring the most seasoned option.

All that being said, I would not be surprised if, come training camp, the job is Leftwich's to lose, with it taking quite a bit for him to lose it. But Dixon's support from the front office shouldn't be entirely overlooked, either. If he shines in the preseason, then Steelers coach Mike Tomlin might end up having to make a difficult decision.

This and that

» The Rams have yet to decide whether or not they will pay safety O.J. Atogwe roughly $7 million in 2010 to retain his exclusive rights, according to a league source. They have until June 1 to do that or sign him to a long-term deal, otherwise he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Rams continue to speak regularly with Atogwe's agent in an attempt to find a long-term resolution to the issue.

» I'm not hearing that either Cowboys wide receiver Miles Austin or Broncos outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil are particularly close to getting extensions at this point, but I can't see either leaving their respective teams any time soon.

» The market for running back Brian Westbrook was heating up last week, and it could continue in that direction. This week, however, Westbrook's agent, Todd France, is on his honeymoon, and with Westbrook in no great hurry to pick a team, the process to find him a new team is on hold. In this case, for good reason.

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