May and June are considered the quiet months in the NFL, but there are still plenty of interesting developments to ponder and look forward to. Lets' tackle a few…
Will bigger be better?
As we continue to see defenses get faster and more athletic to handle all the matchup problems offenses throw at them, perhaps it is time for offenses to try a different tact. The trend is to use 230-pound middle linebackers who can get to the deep middle, 250-pound defensive ends who are best known as pass rushers, safeties with corner skills who are a bit undersized from the old-school 6-foot-2, 225-pounder, in-the-box strong safeties, weakside backers who are converted safeties, and extra defensive back packages based on down and distance. The defenses did what they had to do -- build units based on speed.
I get the feeling that a few offensive coordinators are starting to see a new opportunity emerging from these defensive tactics.
It was suggested to me that a few teams may be considering an old-fashioned offensive mentality that might be more from the Vince Lombardi school than the spread offense of 2007. It just might be time to send two big in-line tight end types out on to the field with a big old-fashioned fullback and a power runner. It might just be time to punch these quick defenses right in the nose with some smash-mouth power football.
One coach told me his team's divisional opponents dictate this switch -- tighten the line splits down so quick defensive linemen can't penetrate a gap, and roll a short-yardage philosophy out in the middle of the field.
It's still in the formative stages, but here's the plan as I understand it: Force the undersized weak linebacker to play on the line of scrimmage; make the hybrid safety play in the box, make the undersized pass rusher play over the offensive tackle with a tight end able to block down on him and send a fullback, who is bigger than the middle linebacker, right at him. It might not be exciting football but it would be a very interesting way to attack speed defenses.
The first team that came to mind when I had the discussion about attacking defenses this way was the Miami Dolphins. Picture the right side, with Justin Smiley at guard, Jake Long next to him and tight end Anthony Fasano next to Long. In the backfield, 250-pound FB Boomer Grigsby is leading Ronnie Brown. There would be some running room over there -- and it might look just as inviting going to the left.
The Dolphins could shorten the game, not expose their quarterbacks and keep the team in games a lot longer. Everyone knows Bill Parcells always loved big defensive players; when he sees all of the undersized defenses popping up around the NFL, he knows they will struggle with bulk and power offense.
The true test will come when a team uses this philosophy when they are down by six or seven points, deciding not to panic and throw more than they are capable of, risking turnovers. Last year, we saw the Raiders stick with the run when they were down in games and at times they were able to climb back in games by staying committed to the run. They had no other choice at the time; a team like Miami could be in the same boat this year.
It's too early to tell if it will be a trend in 2008, but I do know offenses are getting very tempted to bring a power game to the undersized defenses around the NFL. As one offensive coordinator said to me: "Everything that goes around comes around, and it just might be time to dust off the tight splits and heavy personnel."
80 is not enough
Teams around the league actually have more than 80 players floating around the facility right now for the OTAs and minicamps. Until the rookie draft picks are signed, they don't count in the 80-man roster. But sooner or later a team like Kansas City, with 86 players on the roster and 12 draft picks, is going to have to cut players.
Keep in mind NFL teams have been going to camp with more than 80 players for years because they got an exemption for every player they sent to NFL Europa. It was not uncommon for 86 players to head off to the long month of two-a-days. "Eighty is going to be tight, very tight this summer," is how one coach described what's ahead.
The extra five or six players would allow teams to load up on extra receivers and defensive backs to offset the number of strained hamstrings that occur every summer. It's possible we will see practices cancelled around the summer camps this year. Check your team web site before you get the kids in the car to go watch your favorite team practice.
Another issue here is coaches worried about getting players injured while pulling double duty. Here's an example: A team takes 12 defensive linemen to camp instead of 13 or 14. Eight of them are the probables to make the team while the other four are there to act as the scout team; if they flash any talent, one or two might make it to the practice squad. A few days into camp, one of the scout-team tackles goes down with an injury. A year ago, because of the Europa exemption, there is an extra tackle to step in as a replacement. Now a player expected to make the team has to pull the extra duty as a scout-team player while also taking reps with his own defense. The risk of injury to him goes way up.
If that happens, roster depth for the season is affected and an older starting tackle who may be going just once a day through camp to keep him fresh for the season has to take more reps in camp and that creates even more risk of injury.
Protests mean little
The months of May and June are slow when it comes to breaking news in the NFL and it should be a great time for fans to learn more about the Xs and Os -- but instead it has become the protest season. Every year, there are more and more players upset with their contracts who decide to show their unhappiness by not showing up at the club facilities.
For the most part, there is very little financial risk or punishment for players who stay away this time of year, but very little gets accomplished by handling issues this way.
The more I talk with GMs and contract negotiators, the more I get the feeling they have developed a tolerance to this behavior and they know the protesting players will show up for camp in late July.
Does anyone in Chicago think Brian Urlacher is going to pass up any of his weekly, $235,000 game checks? Do Earnest Graham (Tampa Bay), Chris Baker (Jets), or Paul Spicer (Jacksonville) have any leverage at all at this point in their careers? Not really, but it's easy to understand their frustration. As one GM said, "All the money thrown around on average players during free agency and all the money first-round draft picks will make before ever lining up for a play in the NFL has locker rooms unsettled."
But this GM also went on to say that teams just don't react to the protest season anymore. Pete Kendall might be one of the last guys to get his way by protesting, when he finally got the Jets to trade him last year. Don't expect much real action for any of the players who have decided not to show up in the months of May and June.
More cuts coming
Already this week, CB Duane Starks got cut in Oakland and Kenny Wright in Cleveland. It looks like Greg Wesley is right behind them in Kansas City. With the OTAs getting ready to start, it is time to release players that are not in the plans for 2008. Teams can't afford to let such a player participate and incur an injury -- making the club liable for his salary. Wesley is scheduled to make $2.8 million, Wright $730,000.
Personnel directors around the league all take a look at the high-salaried players on other rosters and predict which guys will be let go very soon -- and be prepared to go after one or two of them if need be. How long can LaMont Jordan remain on the Raiders roster when they drafted Darren McFadden, extended Justin Fargas and have Michael Bush looking healthy? No team is going to trade for Jordan and his $4.7 million salary when they believe he can't go on the field for the June 3 mandatory minicamp.
Look for a steady flow of terminated players over the next few weeks.