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Turns out big names still got big bucks amidst labor unrest

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Bill Kostroun / Associated Press
Labor uncertainty didn't affect Tom Brady, who has reason to smile after becoming the NFL's richest player.


For so long we heard how difficult it would be to sign players to extensions in this unique, uncapped offseason of 2010. Teams wouldn't be willing to spend as much, remember? And with so many players losing the opportunity to become unrestricted free agents and the 30 percent rule in play, there were too many hurdles to overcome. Turns out, however, that not much changed.

It certainly took longer for some deals to get consummated and, indeed, there were more complications to navigate. But once again teams were plenty willing to reward their very best players with new deals, often in situations where they didn't have to. Over the last few weeks, the extensions came at a steady pace. Then last week, in a flurry, we saw one-year wonders like 49ers tight end Vernon Davis become the highest-paid player ever at his position with $37 million over five years ($23 million guaranteed), and Cowboys receiver Miles Austin get $18 million in 2010 money as part of his new deal.

On the same day Austin cash in, 33-year-old corner back Charles Woodson, who still had three years on his deal, got an extension from the Packers, with the opportunity to double his earning potential in the first three years of the deal. Then, on that same Thursday night, with the NFL season kicking off, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady became the highest paid player in NFL history with a four-year extension that will pay him $18 million a year and nearly $50 million guaranteed.

Make no mistake, things are still robust at the top of the pay scale -- challenging labor climate or not. Ultimately, it still makes sense for clubs to tie up their premier talent long term, with or without a new CBA, and that's what we saw to a large degree.

Over the last few months, we've seen record new contracts for Jahri Evans (guard), Nick Mangold (center) and Patrick Willis (linebacker).

The number of players still refusing to sign their tenders is down to three: San Diego's Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson and New England's Logan Mankins. While the Chargers are holding a hard line with their two holdouts, the team did reward Antonio Gates with a long-term extension back in July that, before the Davis deal, made him the highest-paid tight end, despite having time left on his current deal.

Last Thursday alone, Woodson, Brady and Austin combined to earn $90 million in guaranteed money. And at some point this season Peyton Manning will top Brady's deal, and Drew Brees will also sign a monster extension after that. Donovan McNabb will probably fall in the $15-$16 million-a-year range when he inevitably re-ups with the Redskins.

So times aren't all that tough. Are there some young stars still playing out their rookie deals who ended up getting handcuffed? Of course. But when you examine why some guys didn't get paid (Shawne Merriman, for instance), it has more to do with off-field issues or injury concerns or waning production (all of the above, in some cases).


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Sure, there are still players like Eagles receiver DeSean Jackson, who is having to play things out for now -- while both sides in this instance were very interested in the details of the Austin contract I am told there is nothing cooking towards a new deal just yet. Chris Johnson, in search of a long-term deal, also took a one-year pay increase that won't solve that potential impasse with the Titans.

But even in this quirky year, plenty of big business got done. Heck, the Jets alone went from a team where people wondered how they'd address their young core to securing Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Darrelle Revis well into the future.

It hasn't been ideal, and I suspect that agents and players will look back on the final year of this CBA and cringe at all they agreed to as it pertains to 2010 (raising of the service time for unrestricted free agency for one). Still, when the desire was truly there, even these unusual rules didn't preclude a bevy of huge deals from getting done. Fewer than in the past, perhaps, but every bit as big.

Can't dink and dunk your way to the Super Bowl

Mark Sanchez flashed his potential in the playoffs, but any talk that he is truly ready to lead the offense need to be put on hold. The Jets win despite their quarterback, and not because of him.

That' just the reality of where he is in his development. Against quality defenses in particular, the Jets remain perhaps the most conservative offensive outfit in the NFL. I don't see that changing any time soon. Sanchez was a wreck against the Ravens on Monday night. He was harried and ill-at-ease dropping back in the pocket, especially when being asked to roll out. It was obvious from the start that the staff feels he must remain heavily incubated, even when facing a secondary as maligned and potentially vulnerable as Baltimore's.

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» What's holding back Jets?

While the Ravens are undoubtedly a rugged defense, the degree to which Sanchez was max-protected surprised even some people I spoke to in Baltimore's locker room. They expect a lot of two-receiver sets and heavy backfields, but for Sanchez to attempt just three passes beyond 10 yards the entire game against the likes of Fabian Washington and Chris Carr -- and with no Ed Reed on the field -- sent a clear message to the rest of the league.

"They were going to do everything they could possibly do to protect their young quarterback," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs told me after the game. "They didn't take any chances."

Sanchez was all about the checkdown in going 10 of 21 for 74 yards. He threw as many passes behind the line of scrimmage as he did more than 10 yards downfield (3). He threw 18 passes of 0-10 yards in length, and even then missed on some critical drop-offs, including a key one to LaDainian Tomlinson that helped explain the Jets' abysmal 1-for-11 success rate on third down.

It's obvious he has been coached to avoid mistakes at all costs, and I'm sure he wishes some of the shackles were off, but at some point, the Jets will need to have more gusto to their attack. The running game, minus Alan Faneca and Thomas Jones, might not be as good, and I can tell you the Ravens' game plan was to put someone over Braylon Edwards deep and have the other safety eyeball Dustin Keller, figuring the Jets couldn't move the ball on them. They figured correctly.

"We had a very good idea of what they were trying to do," Ray Lewis said.

Breaking from this uber-conservative, vanilla style will be tough. The return of Santonio Holmes in Week 5 will help, but you can't help but question the offense, and it's why I targeted the Jets for eight wins at best.

Their best is still to come

Something to keep in mind with the Ravens: That 45-man game day roster that bested the Jets on Monday night is hardly their best 45. They have a slew of players on the cusp of coming back, particularly in the secondary, where many believe they are vulnerable.

Reed, their All-Pro safety, is intent on returning by Week 7, and in the meantime, the team's most-athletic corner, Lardarius Webb, was on the verge of being active for Week 1 and could make his return from knee surgery at Cincinnati this Sunday. Depth corner Cary Williams, coming off a strong preseason, returns from suspension in Week 3. The team's two best right tackles, Oniel Cousins (concussion) and Jared Gaither (back) are both a week or two away. And receiver Donte' Stallworth, who provides the element of speed, should be back around Week 7.

The Ravens' front office is looking at that influx of talent as better than anything they could have obtained via trade or free agency at this time of year, and they feel very good about their young depth. If the Ravens manage to win again on the road this week (at Cincinnati), they'd be 2-0 and having completed arguably the toughest stretch in their schedule, with the Browns, Steelers (minus Ben Roethlisberger), Broncos, Patriots and Bills on tap before a Week 8 bye.

Miss them already?

I'm scoring Round 1 of the Jackson/McNeill bout against Chargers general manager A.J. Smith in favor of the players. Losing to a rebuilding Chiefs team was tough, and the manner in which they did was particularly brutal.

With four cracks just outside the end zone in the final minute, the Chargers failed, with Philip Rivers unable to find an open man in a spot that would have been Jackson's. Rivers could not connect with any of his wide receivers with any regularity, and while being without McNeill, his Pro Bowl left tackle, didn't result in him getting roughed up, remember the Chargers were facing one of 2009's worst defenses and a team that played an awful lot of coverage while not risking much.

Those who opt to unleash heavy pressure against this offensive line just might be rewarded.

Rivers was just 10-of-24 on his passes to receivers for 186 yards and one touchdown. That TD came on a 59-yard bomb to WR Legedu Naanee, which was the result of a ridiculously blown coverage. Otherwise, Rivers and his receivers suffered.

In talking to those who faced the Chargers in the preseason, it's clear opponents will focus on Gates in every critical situation and force someone else to step up. Many will attack the immobile quarterback with the blitz as well, gambling that, without McNeill protecting his blindside, Rivers won't have time to hit the outside receivers on vertical routes.

I have a hard time seeing San Diego as nearly the juggernaut it once was without Jackson and McNeill.

Panthers will wait on Moore

Much like the Eagles with Kevin Kolb, don't expect the Panthers to abandon young QB Matt Moore right away. Moore, like Kolb, is dealing with a concussion, but not as severe. Moore's poor performance in Week 1 against the Giants, however, was worse than Kolb's limited stint.

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The Giants' pass rush began to overwhelm Moore in the second half. He was repeatedly throwing into heavy coverage, putting the ball up for grabs in the red zone, throwing off balance and off the back foot. Still, I have continued to get the sense from the Panthers brass that they will show patience with him -- remember the loyalty to Jake Delhomme? They believe the kid can manage games for them and be an asset.

Talking points

»There has to be some concern about the Giants' lack of depth at tight end. Kevin Boss was the only natural TE on the roster, and he suffered a concussion on the first drive of the season.

»I expect the Giants' defense to be much improved. Kenny Phillips made a remarkable return from microfracture surgery on his knee, and I have a feeling Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tick will return to form. Umenyiora seems at ease with some of the rotation that will come up front, unlike in the past.

"Anything I'm asked to do to the help this team, that's what I'm going to do," he said after the Week 1 win.

»I was surprised to see pockets of empty seats at the opening of the New Meadowlands Stadium, as were the Giants. Running back Brandon Jacobs called it "heartbreaking" to see, though he understood how prohibitive the costs of tickets can be for many in this economy.

"We could use a little more noise," he said of what, at times, was a stale environment on Sunday.

»Some coaches I spoke to found it humorous that Mike Shanahan was suddenly extolling how "hard" Albert Haynesworth played on Monday night after excoriating him for months. The tape and eye-test told a different story, and it certainly read to some around the league like the coach was trying to drum up a little interest in the suddenly back-up defensive tackle. If you're making me guess, I say he ends up back in Tennessee before the trade deadline for a fourth or fifth-round pick.

The picks are in

Didn't get a chance to include my picks here last week with the Thursday night game, but trust me, I went 11-5 (you can look it up on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora). And, at the risk of further inciting Lions fans, I'd mention that I came one Megatron controversial moment away from opening 12-4. I went with Miami as my, you-can-only-pick-them-once lock of the week.

This week I like the Packers, Vikings, Browns, Cowboys, Falcons, Panthers, Eagles, Ravens, Titans, Seahawks, Raiders, Texans, Patriots, Chargers, Colts, and Saints. I'm getting a little risky early with my locks, but also trying to save some elite teams for later. So I'll go with the Falcons this week.

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