How much do you pay to the most valuable player on your offense?
With Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson staying away from Rams training camp in hopes of landing a lucrative extension, St. Louis must decide how much its most important offensive weapon is worth to the franchise. "He is their offense," said an NFC scout. "He sets the table for everything that they do, and they must have him in the fold to have any chance of succeeding this season."
Jackson, who is entering the final season of the five-year, $7 million contract he signed after being the Rams' first-round pick in 2004, has spent the offseason clamoring for a new deal that will reward him for posting three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The Rams have given every indication they want to keep the 25-year-old runner in the fold for a long time, reportedly offering Jackson a contract worth $7 million annually. However, Jackson's decision to miss the first few days of camp evokes memories of the hardball tactics used by fellow Show Me State running back Larry Johnson last summer to obtain a six-year, $45 million extension from Kansas City.
"There are definitely some similarities with Jackson's current situation and Larry Johnson's circumstances a year ago," said an AFC personnel director. "Both were entering the last year of their rookie contracts, and had outperformed those original deals from a production standpoint. As the focal point of their respective offenses, they were in a position to hold the team hostage due to their value."
To that point, the leverage is clearly on Jackson's side in these negotiations as his production has been off the charts since becoming the starter in 2005 (4,249 rushing yards, 190 receptions, and 36 touchdowns). His relatively young age makes it likely he will continue to produce at a high level for years to come. Although that may not be enough to convince the Rams to cough up big dollars on an extension, the fact he has outperformed several of the runners who signed monstrous contacts this offseason bodes well for Jackson in his renegotiation efforts.
Marion Barber III inked a seven-year, $45 million deal after earning his first Pro Bowl bid, but has yet to produce a 1,000-yard season, and can be considered a situational player based on his role with the Cowboys the past two seasons. Michael Turner's blockbuster free agent deal (six years, $34 million) also bolsters Jackson's case for a new contract. Turner, who only rushed for 316 yards last season, had only one career start for the Chargers during his four-year stay, and his career total of 228 carries are fewer than Jackson's season totals in each of the past three seasons. It only makes sense that Jackson is seeking a contract that significantly bumps up his $2.52 million salary for this season.
"He deserves to get paid," said an AFC personnel director. "As one of the top three backs in the game, he should be rewarded for the kind of production that he has and will continue to put up for them. ... Everyone else is taking a bite of the apple, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that he wants to take his turn."
The Rams don't feel pressed to get the deal done with the regular season still over a month away, but eventually expect the team to step up its efforts and make Jackson the highest paid player at the position.
After Randy Moss' rebirth last season, LaMont Jordan is hoping to be the next ex-Raiders veteran to resurrect his career in Foxborough.
"He landed in the perfect situation," said an NFC scout. "He will respond to their structured environment. Plus, he is going to play with a chip on his shoulder after being let go in Oakland."
Jordan showed flashes of becoming a premier back during his first season with the Raiders (1,025 rushing yards, 70 receptions and 11 touchdowns in 2005), but a spate of injuries limited his production and he eventually lost his starting job to Justin Fargas last season. With the Raiders adding Darren McFadden during the draft, Jordan was released July 25.
There are several reasons to believe Jordan will experience a revival as a Patriot. First, the Patriots are masterful at signing veterans with a specific role in mind, and Jordan's multitude of skills make him an ideal complement to their backfield. "He is the perfect fit," said an NFC scout. "He doesn't want to carry the load. He works best when he has 15 or so carries, and five or six receptions."
As a big runner with excellent power and toughness, he gives the Patriots another workhorse to use when Laurence Maroney is out of the lineup, and his ability to catch passes out of the backfield makes him an attractive option as a third-down back.
Furthermore, Jordan's final season in Oakland was not nearly as disappointing as it appeared. Jordan posted consecutive 100-yard games (159 rushing yards against the Broncos and 121 against the Browns) during the first month of the season, and was on his way to a third consecutive 100-yard game (15 carries for 74 yards in Week 4 against the Dolphins) before suffering an injury midway through the second quarter.
"He can still he play," said an AFC scout. "People forget that he was in the top five in rushing last season before his injury. The biggest question regarding him is whether he can stay healthy."
While much of the attention heading into Ravens' training camp focused on the quarterback situation, the biggest question during the initial days of camp has been the offensive tackle position. Jared Gaither and Adam Terry were expected to man the starting positions, but both have succumbed to injuries and the team has been forced to trot out a rookie (Oniel Cousins) and a former practice squad player (Mike Kracalik) with the first unit. Although the injuries to Gaither and Terry are not believed to be serious, the team's lack of depth and experience at the position has been exposed.
"They have gotten younger along the line," said an AFC coach. "But the unit as a whole is inexperienced, and you wonder if their guys are tough enough to play a 'smash-mouth' style of game."
With the quarterback situation in flux (Troy Smith, Kyle Boller and Joe Flacco are all vying to be the starter), the team hoped to build a strong running game featuring Willis McGahee. But the key to the running attack hinges on the offensive line controlling the point of attack, and consistently sealing the edges on the perimeter. Though Gaither and Terry have the size to win their respective matchups on the edge, neither has much in the form of experience.
Terry, the Ravens' second-round pick in 2005, has only 11 career starts and has split time at left and right tackle during his career. Gaither, a fifth-round selection in the 2007 Supplemental Draft, has only suited up for six games, with two starts coming at left tackle. While the Ravens hope their young duo will be up to the challenge, there are doubts about the tandem heading into the regular season.
Terry showed promise during a stint as a starter last season, but some wonder if he can stay healthy enough to last a full season. He missed part of last season with ankle injuries, and spent most of the offseason recovering from surgery. After only a few days of practice, he has been forced to the sideline to nurse a sprained ankle, and the missed time further delays his development at the position.
Meanwhile, scouts believe Gaither has the potential to be an outstanding player, but question his work ethic and commitment to become that player. "He has all of the tools to be an outstanding player," said an NFC scout. "But you wonder if he has the mindset and work ethic to make it happen."
Gaither's questionable work habits were an issue at the University of Maryland, and those issues ultimately led to Gaither's entry into the Supplemental Draft last summer. (Gaither entered after being declared academically ineligible during the summer.)
While he has reportedly improved his work habits since entering the pro ranks, Gaither also faces the pressure of filling in for a future Hall of Famer (Jonathan Ogden) at arguably one of the game's most difficult positions. Thus, observers are curious to see how Gaither holds up under the intense scrutiny of being a first-time starter during the preseason.
Although one of the Ravens' inexperienced signal callers will greatly determine the success or failure of the offense, it's the play of the team's untested tackles that will ultimately decide if the Ravens consistently move the ball in 2008.