Chad Johnson's absence from the Bengals' offseason program has garnered its share of attention, but it is the absence of T.J. Houshmandzadeh that should have Bengals' observers concerned.
Houshmandzadeh, who tied for the league lead with 112 receptions last season, is in the last year of his current deal and is seeking a significant pay raise after earning his first Pro Bowl nomination. Houshmandzadeh's loss would have a significant impact on the Bengals' offense as he has become Carson Palmer's top target in the clutch. "He is the glue to their offense. Johnson gets all of the attention, but Houshmandzadeh is the one who makes the critical plays," says an AFC North scout.
As a precise route runner with exceptional quickness, Houshmandzadeh does most of his damage from the slot in the Bengals' spread offense, and the Bengals currently lack a suitable replacement on their roster. But the Bengals must be careful not to overpay Houshmandzadeh for his role as their No. 2 receiver. A former coach of a divisional rival says, "Houshmandzadeh is a great slot receiver, but he benefits from having Johnson on the outside. Without Johnson commanding double teams, T.J. wouldn't be able to feast off single coverage from the slot."
If the Bengals are looking for a precedent for handling a Pro Bowl receiver who is considered a No. 2, they should closely examine the contract signed by Reggie Wayne two seasons ago. Wayne's six-year, $39 million deal made him the highest paid complementary receiver while keeping him near the annual compensation earned by top receivers at the time.
• League observers are also carefully monitoring how the Bengals handle Johnson's trade demands. The Bengals have repeatedly stated they have no desire to move the disgruntled four-time Pro Bowl receiver, but his critical barbs in the media have clearly been an attempt to force the team's hand. "We have seen Terrell Owens and Randy Moss use similar tactics to force their way out," says an AFC personnel executive. "But I hope that they don't reward Johnson for his spoiled brat behavior. If they cave to his demands by giving him more money or a trade, it sets a bad precedent for their team."
That opinion wasn't shared by another personnel executive for a NFC team, who said, "At some point he embarrasses the franchise and creates a major distraction, and you are better off moving him now while his value is still high."
History indicates the Bengals will not be swayed by Johnson's theatrics as the Bengals weathered similar storms with Corey Dillon, Carl Pickens and Takeo Spikes without budging. Therefore, expect Johnson to don a Bengals' uniform in 2008, in spite of his unhappiness.
The Jaguars and David Garrard are in the midst of contract negotiations on a new deal, but reportedly remain far apart on the overall value of the contract. Garrard's representatives reportedly would like to work off two-time Pro Bowl QB Tony Romo's six-year, $67.5 million deal while the Jaguars have initiated negotiations with a deal similar to the six-year, $48 million contract inked by Matt Schaub.
The problem for both sides is finding a deal that makes sense for where Garrard ranks at this stage of his career. Although he has won more playoff games than Romo (1), his passing statistics pale in comparison to other top passers, including the Cowboys' star, and critics view him as a one-year wonder after his surprising performance in 2007.
Garrard's supporters will single out his impressive efficiency (65 percent completion percentage with 18 touchdowns and three interceptions) and winning percentage as a starter (.625) as validation for a big payday.
The Browns faced a similar dilemma with Derek Anderson before reaching an agreement on a three-year, $24 million contract with $13 million in guarantees. The Jags may ultimately use that deal as the basis for a new contract that will likely average around $9 million annually.
After studying Clinton Portis on tape during the offseason, Redskins coach Jim Zorn is preparing the seven-year vet for a bigger role in the offense.
Portis, who finished sixth in the league in rushing with 1,262 yards, is spending his offseason training at the team's complex. "We think that he can be a 1,800-yard back this season," assistant head coach/running backs Stump Mitchell said. "Running behind that offensive line, he should average four-and-a-half to five yards per carry."
The Redskins are keeping their blocking schemes intact and believe that continuity will allow Portis to thrive as their feature back. Furthermore, the Redskins are contemplating expanding Portis' role as a receiver after the vet hauled in a career-high 47 passes last season.
"We know that he was productive as a receiver last season, but most of his receptions were of the 'check-down' variety," Mitchell said. "We will see how he runs routes during mini-camps and O.T.As (Organized Team Activities) and determine if we can make him a bigger part of the passing game. He is a complete player with an unbelievable set of skills and we must find a way to maximize his talent."