Here's a literal million-dollar question: Is Terrell Suggs a defensive end or an outside linebacker?
Suggs recently filed a grievance against the Baltimore Ravens, claiming himself to be a defensive end after the team labeled him an outside linebacker when it slapped the franchise tag on him. As a franchised OLB, Suggs will earn $8.065 million in 2008, about $800,000 less than a franchised DE ($8.879 million).
The value on a long-term contract is ultimately where the decision will have the biggest impact. Dwight Freeney's six-year, $72 million contract is the highest deal received by a defensive end, and it contains over $30 million in guaranteed money. Meanwhile, the top contracts for outside linebackers average a shade over $7 million per year and fall in the range of $38-42 million over the life of the deal.
Obviously, Suggs wants to be compensated as a defensive end because his pass-rushing skills will command top dollar on the open market. With teams splurging on less established pass rushers such as Antwan Odom, Travis LaBoy and Calvin Pace, Suggs could easily command over $9 million annually as a defensive end when he hits the open market in 2009.
The resolution of Suggs' grievance will greatly impact the financial future of premier pass rushers in 3-4 defenses, including the Chargers' Shawne Merriman and DeMarcus Ware of the Cowboys. Suggs' strongest argument is, as a "hybrid" defensive end, he plays over 70 percent of the game with his hand on the ground and has a scope of responsibilities closely resembling the assignments of pass rushers.
But several league officials have their doubts. "I don't know how he can win the case regarding his position," says one AFC scout. "He is listed as an outside linebacker in their 3-4 and he spends time in coverage like other linebackers. ... Regardless of how he views himself, when you look at the tape, his role is not different than other top pass rushers who play in 3-4 defenses."
The Broncos dismissal of general manager Ted Sundquist, which came as a surprise to him, was not viewed that way in league circles. The Broncos had been to the playoffs three times in Sundquist's six-year tenure as GM, but a series of questionable personnel moves have kept the Broncos from reaching the ranks of the elite in recent years.
Though the deals to acquire Champ Bailey, Dre Bly and John Lynch significantly upgraded the Broncos' talent, they couldn't offset the disappointing tenures of Daryl Gardener, Gerald Warren, Sam Adams and Simeon Rice. Additionally, the Broncos' drafts under Sundquist's direction only produced one Pro Bowl player (Clinton Portis in 2003) in the past six years.
One league insider said, "They repeatedly gambled on character risks, and none of those moves paid off for them. ... You wonder if they began to feel the pressure after failing to sustain success after their Super Bowl runs."
While some league executives feel that coach Mike Shanahan is absolving himself from responsibility for the Broncos' recent failures, the move to dismiss Sundquist will ultimate leave Shanahan in the crosshairs if the Broncos fail to make significant progress next season.
The Seahawks' recent signings of running backs Julius Jones and T.J. Duckett may have been a surprise to Shaun Alexander, but the former league MVP should have seen the writing on the wall when Seattle hired a new offensive line coach this offseason.
Mike Solari was part of an offensive staff in Kansas City that relied on a power running game, built around the physical Larry Johnson. Solari's addition to Seattle's offensive staff will change the types of runs featured by the Seahawks, who repeatedly failed to convert short yardage situations the past two seasons. Previously, with Alexander as the feature back, the Seahawks utilized a perimeter running game that allowed him to bounce outside when running lanes were clogged. Jones and Duckett are straight-forward runners who do the majority of their damage between the tackles and thus are better suited for Solari's new schemes.
By handing Michael Turner a six-year, $34 million deal, the Falcons are gambling that the former Chargers backup running back will become one of the few second-stringers to make it big as a feature back on another team.
At least one AFC scout, who watched skeptically as Turner struggled against the Patriots in the playoffs, thinks Atlanta is taking a huge risk. "His production is a little skewed because he was running behind arguably the best offensive line in the league, and he was surrounded by playmakers at the skill positions," the scout said.
Not everyone shares that opinion on Turner, who averaged over five yards per carry as LaDainian Tomlinson's backup in San Diego. Says an NFC scout: "Of course there is some risk involved because of his inexperience as a feature back, but of all the running backs available in the free agent market, he was the one worth gambling on."
Still, the numbers are hard to ignore. Turner has never logged more than 80 carries in a season and has yet to have a game with more than 15 rushing attempts. Though he has three 100-yard rushing games to his credit, Turner has never started a game in his five-year career. He may indeed go on to have a career like Priest Holmes, but history suggests that Turner is more likely to follow the footsteps of free-agent flops LaMont Jordan and Dominic Rhodes.
Larry Fitzgerald's four-year, $40 million extension has led to questions about the Cardinals' ability to keep their all-star receiving duo together for the long term. Pro Bowl receiver Anquan Boldin has three years remaining on the six-year, $23 million contract extension he signed in 2005, but Fitzgerald's deal creates such a huge disparity in pay between the two standouts that Boldin's contract will need to be addressed in the near future.
However, several league officials believe that the Cardinals will be able to keep both stars happy while fielding a competitive team. When asked about having money tied up to multiple players at the receiver position, one front office executive said, "You can do it with two, but you must draft around those guys. ... If you tie your money up at receiver, your running back, quarterback and top offensive linemen must come through the draft."
By correctly identifying the starters through the draft, the Cardinals will be able to use a cheaper economic model to build their offense. The Indianapolis Colts mastered this strategy and have been able to keep their offensive nucleus together for years by wisely spending their cap money while adding quality young players through the draft. If the Cardinals can make good decisions with their draft picks, they should be able to keep both of their Pro Bowl receivers together for a long time while building a competitive team.
Staying out of trouble off the field will be the key for wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. Bryant, a former second-round pick of the Cowboys in 2002, has been a productive player in the league, but run-ins with coaches and off-field distractions have prevented him from reaching his full potential as pro. Bryant sat out all of 2007 partially due to a league-imposed suspension stemming from a violation of the substance abuse policy.
On the field, however, Bryant has the skills to be a starter opposite Joey Galloway. Bryant hauled in 40 receptions for 733 yards with three touchdowns for the 49ers in 2006. An NFC scout said, "He is a good player with solid all-around skills. He is not a blazer, but he is a crafty player with good hands. If focused, he could be an impact player in their offense. ... He is an upgrade over Ike Hilliard and Michael Clayton."