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Adding Russell is a gamble, but one a team should take

Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press
JaMarcus Russell wants another shot in the NFL, but his on-field struggles aren't the only issues facing him.


If I'm running an NFL team, then I'm signing JaMarcus Russell. There, I wrote it. And I believe it.

In a league where second and third chances are the norm, and where other players have had more serious transgressions yet benefitted from the NFL's forgiving culture, I'm finding room on my 80-man roster for Russell. Assuming he gets cleared of the codeine-related charges he's facing in Alabama -- and many people close to Russell expect him to be exonerated -- then Russell is at worst third on my depth chart.

Mike Stone / Associated Press
JaMarcus Russell failed to find any success last season, but his numbers to start his career show there still might be something to salvage.
Russell's year-by-year numbers
Year Games/Starts Yards TDs/INTs Passer rating
2009 12/9 1,287 3/11 50.0
2008 15/15 2,423 13/8 77.1
2007 4/1 373 2/4 55.9

You can't convince me Russell isn't among the top 96 quarterbacks in the league. The opportunity to sign a developmental passer, on the cheap, just a few years removed from being the first overall pick in the draft, doesn't come along all that often. To get a crack at that kind of talent before his 25th birthday is too much to pass up. It's a gamble I'm taking.

I have been no Russell apologist. He was a supreme bust in Oakland, and his attitude, work habits on field and off, dedication and professionalism were all questioned almost daily -- and for good reason. I'm disputing none of that. It was an absolutely toxic situation with the Raiders and a change had to be made. No way I'd have kept him around there, either, and paid him another $9.45 million on top of the $30-plus million he'd already been paid since 2007. It was over, broken beyond repair, and Russell was never going to prosper in Oakland at that point.

But there is no reason why the Raiders' loss can't be someone else's gain. No longer will Russell have to be judged against the framework of that massive contract, no longer must he necessarily perform at a level befitting the top overall pick (that's not a commitment his next team will have made, in terms of draft status or money).

Again, if what his lawyer is claiming about the Purple Drank case is true -- and the liquid in question did not belong to Russell -- I'm signing him to a contract very similar to the one-year deal with an option the Eagles gave Michael Vick. I'm not looking for an immediate return, and Russell might not even play for me in 2010. But I want to start finding out how motivated this player, now truly humbled, can be. I want to start getting my staff to tap into that talent, cull whatever is possible from him, and even if the short-term upside is no more than a solid backup, it's worth the look. And if he acts the fool or screws up, you cut him. The guaranteed money committed would be minimal, so you move on.

It's an avenue worth exploring, and I continue to believe it's a commitment someone will make. There is too much potential for 31 teams to pass on. He can't be over at 24. It doesn't work that way. Make no mistake, teams have been monitoring him closely. The Washington Redskins, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers are among those who have been keeping tabs on him, from what I hear. There are enough teams without a standout backup quarterback to consider Russell if he puts his legal issue behind him.

He deserves ample criticism. But he's also a small-town kid who has had a lot thrust his way, lost some loved ones and has a very limited set of world experiences to fall back on. His worldview was shaped by the acute poverty of Mobile, Ala. He isn't particularly articulate and isn't well equipped to make the case for himself.

That's not an excuse for being lethargic, missing meetings or not putting in the time required to master his craft. But if he were making less money, I doubt the vitriol would be as intense, and it shouldn't mean his career is over after just three seasons. Let's not forget that for as troubled and horrible as Ryan Leaf was after three seasons in San Diego, he still got a shot with the Cowboys and started three games for them.

There's a finite quantity of potential NFL quarterbacks on this planet, and even fewer with the skillset to warrant being selected first overall. So you tend to be granted an exemption or two for bad behavior. And it's also not unusual for a young quarterback to need a change of scenery (I'm not equating Russell to Brett Favre here, but it's worth noting that when Favre left Atlanta for Green Bay his reputation for partying was notorious and there were questions about his maturity and grasp of the game). It's also not unusual for passers to take into their mid 20s to blossom (again, not saying he will ever match Tony Romo's production, but it can take several years for a QB to be truly ready).

There's no way to explain the abomination that was Russell's 2009 season (passer rating of 50). It was as lost as any campaign can be. That said, he showed some promise in 2008. If you compare his stats in his first full season as a starter with that of some others, the results might surprise you:

Quarterback A) 77.1 rating, 13 TDs, 8 INTs
Quarterback B) 72.2 rating, 19 TDs, 24 INTs
Quarterback C) 63.0 rating, 12 TDs, 20 INTs

Quarterback A is Russell, surrounded by a chronically bad Raiders team. Quarterback B was Favre's first full season as a starter with the Packers in 1993. That team went 9-7 in 1993 and reached the playoffs. Quarterback C was Mark Sanchez with the Jets last season, a player who earned accolades for his poise and production despite having numbers far worse than Russell's from one year prior. Sanchez also had the benefit of a dominant defense and running game on a team that came within a win of reaching the Super Bowl. Russell also didn't have a Mike Holmgren or a Brian Schottenheimer guiding him along, either.

Despite his litany of issues in Oakland, there are some in that building who still believe Russell can be an NFL success. They know the lack of infrastructure and culture of chaos had at least some role in Russell's failures there. Several personnel evaluators have been in contact with the Raiders as they mull an eventual move for Russell, and one put the situation this way:

"We're getting some positive feedback from former teammates and coaches. Not everyone felt he was a zero. It was a bad situation and not much was done to make it better. He needed to meet them halfway on some things, too. I guess we'll see."

It's not a ringing endorsement, but it's not a kiss of death, either. Russell is in no rush to sign, his agents wisely hoping they can get him in the right situation with elite coaching and a stable organization where he can grow.

In Oakland it was clearly too much, too soon. From the contract to the expectations to everything else. Somewhere new, it very well could be just the opposite. Call me crazy, but I'd want to find out firsthand.

WESTBROOK WAITING IT OUT

Brian Westbrook is in no hurry to sign, either. Obviously. It's been months since the running back made his circuit of visits and the free agent is still taking his time deciding as training camps are opening up.

In talking to teams interested in him -- and St. Louis and Washington are the two most serious -- the sense is he could take several more weeks to decide. At this point in his career, given the injuries and concussion issues Westbrook has had, a limited training camp makes sense. Neither team is pressing the issue and would not be surprised if he took until the middle of training camp to decide.

There's a sense by some in the Redskins organization that, although the Rams might offer more money, Westbrook's heart is with them and he will ultimately sign there, barring another team suffering an injury and entering the mix with a lucrative offer. Washington's interest is sincere, and Westbrook is a Maryland native whose brother Byron is on the team, as is Donovan McNabb, his longtime quarterback in Philadelphia. Westbrook has some strong ties to the Rams as well, but that team is in deep rebuilding mode and the veteran already knows the NFC East inside and out.

If I have to pick, I like Westbrook landing with the Redskins. If/when that happens, if Willie Parker hasn't been released already, I suspect he's gone. He was the least effective veteran back in Washington this spring and will have to turn things around early in camp to stick. I'd also look for coach Mike Shanahan to ride the hot hand between Larry Johnson and Clinton Portis, with whomever looks the best and healthiest in practice to be given first crack on Sunday.

BENGALS COULD GET BARGAIN IN T.O.

The Bengals deserve kudos for a job well done in handling the Terrell Owens saga. They slow played it for months, resisted the urge to spend big at the start of free agency, and ended up getting a possible bargain.

Getting Owens for a $2 million base salary and up to $2 million in incentives makes sense. It's about what I figured all along. They didn't bid against themselves, they didn't get caught up in all the Chad Ochocinco/Owens drama and they didn't let some of the inflated information about the market for T.O. impact them. Ultimately, the Bengals called his bluff, being willing to yank things off the table if he didn't get a deal done soon.

Well played.

Now, I only wonder how much buyer's remorse is already going on regarding Antonio Bryant, who received around $9 million guaranteed at the start of free agency (at the same time they were bringing in Owens for his initial visit). Given Bryant's health history, and the fact some in the organization are at least somewhat concerned about how his knee responded through offseason work, that might be a deal they would revisit in hindsight. And a year ago they struck out big time with Laveranues Coles, spending considerably more than this modest investment in Owens.

NEWS AND NOTES

» By the end of the weekend, we'll likely see a good chunk of the top 15 picks signed.

» For all the talk about the added weapons in Baltimore, and for good reason, keep an eye on rookie receiver David Reed. The fifth-round pick opened a lot of eyes during the offseason and is quickly earning the respect of the coaching staff. Some in the organization believe he could be the heir apparent to veteran Derrick Mason next year.

» On the other end of the spectrum, the Redskins' 2008 draft continues to look like a possible all-time flop (check it out if you don't believe me). Of the few players from that draft still in Washington, guard Chad Rinehart is trying to stick around as a reserve and two of the three second-round picks from the class are both legit candidates to get cut during preseason, according to sources.

Receivers Malcolm Kelly and Devin Thomas still don't know what they're doing on routes nearly as often as they should, have done little to standout on special teams and haven't endeared themselves to the new regime under Shanahan. If veterans like Mike Furrey and Joey Galloway stay healthy and continue to make plays, both youngsters could be on the outs.

"The worst thing about it is those two (Kelly and Thomas) don't even see it coming," one member of the staff said. "They just don't get it."

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