The end of the season gives me a chance to spend some time with NFL people and potential NFL players. Whether it's talking about a promotion, a termination, a retirement or the upcoming draft, the conversation is much different then it is during the season. The offseason is the business season and it is when clubs are torn down, built up and prepared for the 2008.
Here are a few of the most interesting conversations I had in the past week. I will share the best of each week as the offseason continues through February, March, and April. As you can tell as you read through these it's easy to see I like conversations with 'team' guys who work hard and are bright.
- Zach Thomas. Thomas was a causality of Bill Parcells' major reconstruction in Miami. Thomas knew his dismissal was a possibility after his concussions this past season and the amount of money he was scheduled to make in 2008. I was so impressed with the way he handled this setback considering how much he gave of himself to the Dolphins. "I will always consider myself a Dolphin and was very appreciative to the owner Wayne Huizinga and the coaches who gave me a chance to become a Dolphin," Thomas told me.
Thomas is competitive, not bitter. He still wants to play and knows he may have to sign a contract significantly different from the ones he had played under during his time with the Dolphins. When discussing suitors, Thomas said he doesn't feel limited by the 4-3 defense, and his time in a 3-4 defense speaks for itself. The injuries, he says, will not be a problem but understands that teams may want protection against recurring head issues.
I sure would like this guy on my team. His passion for the game and the sacrifices he's willing to make to contribute to a team reminds me of Junior Seau, who many people had written off after his stint in Miami. Thomas believes that Junior is the greatest linebacker to ever play the game. I wonder if they will ever be reunited?
- Jonathan Stewart. I never talked with Stewart before our phone conversation last week and the running back struck me as a high-character kid. Stewart sees himself as a "Jamal Lewis" type player at 235 pounds. He pointed out that he had only one fumble in 280 carries during his career at Oregon. Stewart also wants to return kicks and is anxious to prove to NFL people that he can catch the ball out of the backfield (he had 49 receptions in his college career).
Stewart surprised me when he said that his game against USC, because of the competition he faced, and not the Washington or South Florida games when he rushed for more than 200 yards, was his most memorable. He may not be the first running back on some draft boards and he may not even be the second back on other boards but some team in the first round is going to get a very talented player who has his head screwed on right.
- Vernon Gholston. Some would say this junior defensive end/linebacker should have stayed in school another year. I usually agree that an extra year is a big plus, unless the player is a running back. Gholston had 22.5 sacks and 30.5 tackles for a loss in the past two seasons and only received a projected second-round grade from the NFL. There seems to be a wide range of interest in Gholston at this point in the process. Some teams are thinking he's a top 10 prospect, while others see the bottom of the first round. Gholston will help his cause this week at the combine when he interviews with teams. He will do a good job of convincing coaches and personnel people that he is a versatile player who is the 4-3/3-4 hybrid. He is bright, articulate and will be comfortable discussing zone drop techniques as well as counter pass-rush moves.
- Billy Devaney. Devaney is the new vice president of player personnel for the St. Louis Rams. He comes to the team after time with the Falcons, Chargers, and Redskins. Devaney was great last week at discussing how important it is to work with the coaches to give them the best chance to succeed. Translation: He will try to understand what Scott Linehan and Jim Haslet are trying to do on the field and go find the players who do it the best. Devaney will give the Rams a team atmosphere and one common purpose heading into the business season.
- Shannon Sharpe on Rod Smith. I talked to Sharpe about his old teammate, Smith, who was put on the reserve/retired list by Denver last week. Sharpe couldn't stop talking about Smith's work ethic, route running and, most of all, his humble approach to the game. As Shannon said "Rod is a guy who never wanted to go home a failure or a guy who blew his chance to be a good pro."
Both players came from small colleges and saw a number of big-time college players come into the league and squander their opportunities. "Rod didn't have great speed but he got the most out of his God-given skills with hard work and attention to detail," Sharpe said.
As I listened to Shannon describe Rod, I couldn't help but think great team players beat talent almost every time. The Broncos will miss Smith and I can't help but wonder why he didn't wear off on Javon Walker a bit more than he did. Walker should follow Smith's lead and work on getting better instead of asking for his release.