Bucky Brooks
Friday July 25th, 2008

Typically, 29-year-old running backs don't merit a big investment from NFL teams. But what would teams do when that same RB led the league in total offense the past two seasons?

That is the dilemma facing the Philadelphia Eagles as Brian Westbrook contemplates sitting out training camp. The two-time Pro Bowler has averaged over 2,010 yards from scrimmage as the Eagles' top weapon in 2006 and 2007, and would like to see his contract reflect his new status as one of the top offensive players in the league.

Westbrook, who is in the middle of a five-year contract extension valued at $25.5 million, reportedly wants a contact that is in line with the $60 million contract inked by LaDainian Tomlinson four years ago. With Tomlinson's deal featuring $21 million in guaranteed money, Westbrook is reportedly looking for a deal that includes $30 million in guarantees from the Eagles. With Westbrook pressing for a big money contract, league officials believe the Eagles should pause before rewarding the ultra-productive back with a fat contract.

"Although he has put up big numbers for them, he is still a risky long-term proposition due to his size (5-foot-10, 203 pounds) and age," said an AFC personnel executive. "He is in the middle of a solid deal, and I would be reluctant to offer him a significant increase."

History shows that running backs fall off dramatically after turning 30, with former league MVP Shaun Alexander the most recent example. The Eagles would be wise to weigh that fact when deciding whether to appease Westbrook by appreciably improving his current contract. Despite his outstanding production over the past two seasons, Westbrook's workload and injury history (he has never completed a full season) makes it unlikely he can sustain his current pace over the next few years. "He can't shoulder the load," said an AFC scout. "When he has carried the load in the past, he has gotten hurt. The problem with paying him front-line money is that he can't give you the workload to justify that kind of compensation."

As the focal point of the Eagles' offense, Westbrook has led the Eagles in rushing yards and receptions in each of the past three seasons. Though he has been knocked for being a smaller back, he has averaged more yards per carry (4.7) than explosive runners Tomlinson (4.5) and Larry Johnson (4.5); and his 301 receptions since 2004 lead all running backs during that span. Westbrook has also put together back-to-back seasons with over 1,200 rushing yards while carrying the ball less than 240 times in each season.

Thus, the Eagles' offense faces a potential crisis with Westbrook contemplating holding out of training camp. Backups Lorenzo Booker, Correll Buckhalter and Tony Hunt possess some of Westbrook's skills, but they are unable to match the high level of versatility Westbrook provides when he is on the field. "They have attempted to find a suitable replacement for him for years," said an AFC scout. "But none of their current backups are close to his level."

The Eagles are in serious trouble if Westbrook's contract situation causes him to miss significant time in training camp. While five-time Pro Bowler Donovan McNabb has carried the Eagles' offense in the past, the increased reliance on Westbrook and the lack of explosive weapons at the other skill positions makes it unlikely that McNabb would be able to replicate that kind of offensive production with the team's ultimate playmaker out of the lineup. The lack of a true No. 1 receiver, coupled with the absence of Westbrook, would make it difficult for the Eagles to consistently move the ball. The Eagles need to somehow appease Westbrook while making a sound financial decision.

"He deserves to be compensated at a higher level," said an AFC personnel director. "But not to the level that he has requested."

When asked for a way to satisfy both parties, league officials pointed to the Redskins' handling of Clinton Portis' deal as a possible solution. Portis had the last three years of his contract guaranteed, and received a signing bonus ($9.3 million) as part of a restructured deal. If the Eagles chose to follow the Redskins' path, it would cost them roughly $11 million to guarantee the remaining salaries on Westbrook's contract, plus any additional money included as a possible signing bonus.

The Eagles typically haven't caved into contract demands of their stars, but Westbrook's importance to the offense makes it likely the Eagles will find a way to acquiesce his demand for more money.

Devin Hester's surprising decision to hold out of the early part of training camp clearly caught Bears' management by surprise and threatened to rob the team of its most explosive playmaker.

Hester, a two-time Pro Bowler with 13 return touchdowns in his first two seasons, is unhappy with his salary and staged the holdout to express his dissatisfaction with the progress of ongoing negotiations with Bears' officials. According to the Chicago Tribune, Hester said, "I felt like they weren't taking it seriously that I wanted to get a new deal done." (Though he reported to camp on Friday, it was not immediately clear if a new deal had been agreed to.)

In the Bears' defense, assessing Hester's market value is complicated by the fact he is slated to become a full-time receiver, in addition to continuing his role as an electrifying return specialist. As one of the top returners in the history of the game, Hester deserves to be compensated at a higher level than his current salary ($445,000), but his increased role as a receiver complicates the numbers of a new deal. Though Hester only has 20 career receptions, he has continued to display outstanding playmaking ability in his limited opportunities (two touchdown receptions and two receptions over 40 yards). Thus, the Bears have the unenviable task of gambling on an unproven commodity at the position.

"You have to treat him as a specialist," said an NFC personnel director. "Although he may be the best one in the game, there are too many uncertainties to go overboard with paying him. You don't know if he can continue at his current level, and you don't really know what kind of receiver he may become."

Although there has not been a market established for a player of Hester's caliber, one deal that may be of interest to both sides is the six-year, $27 million pact signed by Steve Smith in 2004. At the time, Smith had earned one Pro Bowl appearance as a returner, and was coming off two solid seasons as a starter. While Hester has clearly not established himself as a receiver of Smith's caliber, the deal would be a good starting point for both parties considering Hester's stature as the game's top returner and Bears' top offensive weapon.

Does the New Orleans Saints offense rank as the league's best with the addition of Jeremy Shockey to the lineup?

That's what league observers are wondering after watching the Saints acquire the four-time Pro Bowler from the New York Giants via trade earlier this week.

"This is a great move by them," said an NFC personnel director. "Adding a top notch tight end to a lineup that features Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Drew Brees and Deuce McAllister makes an already potent offense very scary."

Although Shockey's brazen attitude drew the ire of former teammates and coaches, few can dispute the fact he has been among the top players at his position since entering the league in 2002. "He may be a bit of headache in the locker room," said a NFC personnel director. "But there is no doubt he still one of the most talented tight ends in the league."

Shockey, who has 371 receptions and 27 touchdowns in his six-year career, gives the Saints a much-needed weapon at tight end. Last season, defensive coordinators used an assortment of two-deep coverages to diffuse the Saints' explosive offense and force Brees into a "dink-and-dunk" pass attack. As a result of seeing an increase in umbrella coverage, the Saints' number of explosive pass plays (passes over 20 yards) fell from 85 in 2006 to 55 a season ago. Thus, it was imperative for Sean Payton to find a playmaker that could punish defenses for vacating the middle of the field.

"They didn't have a threat down the middle of the field, so defenses were able to limit their big-play opportunities by using more two-deep coverage," said a NFC personnel director. "With Shockey running down the middle, Brees should have more chances to attack down the field."

The acquisition of Shockey also allows Payton to tap into his creative side to exploit the numerous mismatches created by the presence of a Pro Bowl tight end. As one of the few offenses with an explosive tight end and a talented, pass-catching running back, the Saints have the opportunity to match up their best offensive players against the defense's fourth and fifth best defenders when they open up the offenses with an assortment of spread formations. With all of the defense attention focused on stopping that formidable tandem, Colston, David Patten and Robert Meachum should see their yards per catch averages increase as Brees finds more opportunities to take shots down the field.

But the addition of Shockey should also impact a running game that averaged only 91.6 yards a game. Although McAllister's injury altered the Saints' running game, Shockey adds a solid blocker and gives Payton the opportunity to use more double tight end sets. Shockey is underrated as a blocker, but his ability to control the edge will allow Payton to call more perimeter-based runs to maximize Bush's skills.

"They may have the most complete offense in the NFC," said an NFC personnel director. "They have the ability to beat you a number of ways and Drew Brees is a patient enough to take what the defense gives him. If Deuce can give them something in the running game, they will be very difficult defend with all of the offensive firepower that they possess. "

The Saints' offense has finished ranked in the top five in total offense the past two seasons, but the new and improved version may emerge as the league's best in 2008.

Earlier this week, the Chargers wisely signed defensive tackle Luis Castillo to a five-year, $43 million extension. Despite being plagued by ankle injuries the past two seasons, Castillo has flashed Pro Bowl-caliber talent during his three-year career.

"He is a perfect fit in their defense," said an NFC personnel director. "He possesses great size and strength. Plus, he has great quickness and an exceptional motor."

With 13 career sacks in 33 starts, Castillo is an ideal complement to pass rushers Shawne Merriman and Shaun Phillips in the Chargers' 3-4. As Merriman and Phillips create pressure off the edges, Castillo dominates single blocks inside, and often provides the necessary push to disrupt the quarterback's rhythm in the pocket. Castillo also gives the Chargers another stout defender against the run, and teams with Jamal Williams and Igor Olshansky to anchor a formidable front line.

While the decision to sign Castillo to an extension with two years left on his existing deal can be considered slightly risky given his injury history (12 missed games in his three-year career), the benefit of doing the deal at this time allows the Chargers to lock up one of their core defenders at a reasonable salary while still leaving the team enough time and cap space to work out contracts with soon-to-be free agents Philip Rivers and Marcus McNeil.

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