How one team positioned itself to take advantage of free agency

Publish date:

On Thursday, I saw Albert Haynesworth jogging from drill to drill at Patriots camp. On Friday morning at Eagles camp, I saw Nnamdi Asomugha leap and pick off a pass from Vince Young; exactly a week earlier, neither had signed with the team. On Saturday, I saw a sight I never thought I'd see again -- the best 3-4 defensive end of this generation, Pittsburgh's Aaron Smith, jousting with and beating a good right tackle, Willie Colon, in a live scrimmage. On Sunday, it was this Bills weirdness: great pass-rush hope Shawne Merriman chasing great Wildcat hope Brad Smith in a small college town south of Rochester, N.Y.

In the magazine this week, I wrote about the strange, compressed week of free agent signings and team construction through the eyes of an NFL general manager, Atlanta's Thomas Dimitroff, and the haggling that went on in the final moments of a negotiation over guard Justin Blalock with agent Ben Dogra. "Come on!'' Dimitroff said to Dogra at 1:16 a.m. nine mornings ago. "We gotta close this deal!''

Now most of the deals have been closed, and I went out in search of how the players were adjusting to the odd year. After I tell you how the Eagles fit all those players under the cap, I'll go team-by-team with what I saw last week, and who I liked.

A preview, from Sunday at Bills camp: Last season, the Bills were not Wildcat-friendly. Now they have the master -- Smith, the run-pass threat who quarterbacked Missouri before going to the Jets. Buffalo pilfered him from the Jets while New York waited in vain for Nnamdi Asomugha.

On Sunday Smith stood in shotgun formation on a sweltering afternoon at St. John Fisher College, with four receivers spread across the line. At the snap he felt pressure, rolled right, took a step toward the line as if he'd run, then stopped in the face of a strong rush and flipped the ball ... 55 yards in the air. It fell shy of Stevie Johnson, but the message was clear, and the threat. Buffalo has a new toy.

"That guy's going to be so much fun to have around here, because he gives us such a different dimension,'' quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said afterward.

Weird story how he got here. The Jets wanted to keep him, he told me, "but they wouldn't do anything until the Nnamdi thing was over.'' The Jets wouldn't have cap room for Smith if they made Asomugha a $10-million-a-year roster piece. But they wanted him to wait to see what Asomugha did.

Smith loves the Jets. He wanted to wait. The Bills didn't want to wait. They saw Smith throw a touchdown pass against them last year in one game, and run for 60 yards against them in the other. By signing Smith, they'd help themselves and hurt a division rival.

"I love the Jets,'' he said. "Why would I have wanted to go somewhere with the role I had there? But they told me, 'We're just going to wait on Nnamdi.' It's just part of this whole year.''

The Jets didn't get Asomugha, of course, and I asked Smith if he had any regrets, leaving a Super Bowl contender for a much lesser team. "Not at all. And I saw what happened with them not re-signing Jerricho [Cotchery], Shaun [Ellis] and Braylon [Edwards]. Things were changing there. And here, this might be a Super Bowl team too.''

Everyone can dream in August.


Are you sitting down? The Eagles can redo the contracts for Vick and DeSean -- and STILL be under the cap.

Question I've gotten from tweeters, e-mailers and even one general manager I respect a lot in the last few days, in the wake of Philadelphia signing so many top free agents: How is it possible the Eagles are under the salary cap? Or, as the GM put it to me: "The cap for the rest of us is $120 million. It feels like it's $220 million for them. I really don't know how they did it, but I'm very curious.''

Be curious no more. Be stunned, though. The Eagles, as of this morning, still have $7.79 million of cap room available, easily enough to extend dissatisfied wide receiver DeSean Jackson and to turn the one-year franchise tender of Mike Vick into a long-term deal without severe cap ramifications.

Here's how the Eagles made it happen, according to a league source who has seen the Eagles' up-to-date salary cap configuration for the next two seasons.

Understand this principle to start: The Eagles were not in bad cap shape to begin with. When free agency opened they were at $99 million in commitments to veterans and draft choices. (More about those later.) They had shed big veteran salaries over the last couple of years -- including quarterback Donovan McNabb's -- and by opening day 2010 had the third-youngest 53-man roster in football. Young means salary manageable.

As of Sunday morning, the Eagles' projected roster (there's some guesswork here, but it's close) consisted of 35 players with cap numbers of $1.5 million or less. And only six players -- quarterback Mike Vick ($16.1 million cap number), cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha ($10 million), cornerback Asante Samuel ($9.34 million), tackle Jason Peters ($6.54 million), and defensive ends Jason Babin ($5.3 million) and Trent Cole ($5 million) -- had cap figures of $5 million or more.

Club president Joe Banner explained to me Friday how the market fit into the Eagles' modus operandi. "This was a massive buyer's market,'' he said. "There were something like 500 free agents, and we knew a lot of teams that normally might be in play for many of these guys wouldn't be able to spend much because of their cap situation. So we knew there'd be some spectacular opportunities.''

What's impressive about how Banner and GM Howie Roseman have worked the architecture of the team is that 24 of the top 26 players on the roster today are signed for at least the next two seasons. Only Vick and Jackson are not signed beyond this year from the 26 number.

I expect Vick will get done sometime this year. Jackson might and he might not; he'll report to camp today after a brief holdout, and he'll press to have the last year of his contract ($938,000) renegotiated into a long-term deal. We'll see. Point is, the Eagles may have chemistry issues with this All-Star team, but they won't have the sort of cap issues most people expect.

"This is not one of those Hail Mary passes for one year,'' Banner said. "If something doesn't work out, we'll be in position to adjust.''

Let's examine some of the contracts Banner and Roseman did. Here's where the opportunities came in.

Not including Asomugha, the eight free agent signings and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who came from Arizona in the Kevin Kolb trade, have zero dollars promised to them for 2012 and beyond. There are years remaining on contracts, yes. But guarantees, no.

Point is, this is the kind of cap situation that can absorb Vick at $16.1 million this year, and Asomugha at $10 million this year and $11 million next year. And the kind of cap that can accommodate a very good player like Cullen Jenkins, the best rush defensive tackle on the market, who never saw the market develop for him the way he thought it would.

Jenkins thought his first-choice team, Philadelphia, wouldn't sign him after giving Asomugha a four-year, $48-million contract. The Eagles convinced Jenkins they still wanted him badly, but just couldn't pay him what they'd been discussing pre-Nnamdi. After a night to think about it, Jenkins decided he'd rather play where he wanted for $4 million than to go to a Cincinnati-type team for more money. Jenkins figures he'll still have another payday if he outperforms this contract in the first year or two. The reputation of the Eagles helped -- as did some players' desire to play on Vick's team.

One more thing about the Eagles' cap. It's not the league's number of $120.38 million per team. It is actually $125.58 million. That includes $2.2 million in what the league calls "reallocation credits'' from the last capped year, 2009, when the Eagles didn't spend to the cap, and the $3 million every team can borrow from a future cap year to support veteran player costs this season

And, yes, they can fit in Jackson and Vick and not leave themselves hamstrung for the future. That's what happens when you have a guy the organization trusts to set the overall compass for personnel priorities in Andy Reid, two experienced cap and negotiation handlers in Banner and Roseman, a personnel staff led by Ryan Grigson, who can tell the front office the draft outlook a year ahead of time ... with a smart checks-and-balance business guy in Jeff Lurie, the owner. Even with a good football man and GM like Tom Heckert leaving to take the reins in Cleveland, the Eagles turned to Roseman and moved on. A continuum.

One last point for you capaholics: The logic for redoing Vick, at least part of it, would be to lower his cap figure from $16.1 million to some manageable figure maybe half that size. The same league source told me that won't happen. The Eagles will keep Vick's cap number at the same level as it is currently, because if they reduce it, that is money they'll have to include in some other year of the cap. Why not allocate it to the 2011 cap if they have room, so they can have maximum flexibility in future years with Vick on the payroll?

That's right -- the Eagles are in such good shape with their cap that they can afford to redo Vick's deal and easily afford to keep his number at a gargantuan level. That's a team with a plan.


Monday: Washington Redskins; Ashburn, Va.

Everyone think this is a bit harebrained, handing the starting job to a guy who's never done it in the NFL, who surrendered three seasons of college football training to go on a Mormon mission. "I guess that's expected,'' the confident and exceedingly well-spoken John Beck said after the morning practice. "I don't take the time to think about it. I have so much respect for Steve Young [they're both former BYU quarterbacks], and he told me, 'Don't try to figure out the why.' It's mental quicksand.

"Nobody thinks the red-haired freckled kid who missed three years of football for a mission is going to make it. But finally I feel a system in the NFL is right for me. This offense relies on the quarterback to make quick decisions, to have accuracy, to use your legs to get outside and make plays.''

I'm not sure after talking to Mike Shanahan and his offensive coordinator son, Kyle, who likes Beck more. Kyle: "My first year as a position coach in the league, Houston had me scout all the quarterbacks coming out that year,'' Kyle Shanahan said. "That was the JaMarcus Russell year, with Brady Quinn, Trent Edwards, Kevin Kolb and Beck. So they asked me who I'd pick if I had the 10th pick in the draft. I told them Beck. They said he's not worth the 10th pick in the draft. I was standing on the table for him. I've never seen a guy play that well in college.''

Beck turns 30 in two weeks. Mike Shanahan has implied that he'll get the starting nod over Rex Grossman. Beck's had some rough practices this summer. But knowing the Shanahans, they're not going to cave if they think Beck's good enough. I think he'll start that emotional season opener against the Giants on 9/11.

Tuesday: Baltimore Ravens; Owings Mills, Md.

You want new? I'll give you new. Coach John Harbaugh was talking to his team after a long, hot practice this afternoon. Harbaugh's no softy, but he was about to be seen as one. But in the distance, the ting-ting-ting of ice-cream-truck bells could be heard, and two trucks rumbled out to the practice field. This had been owner Steve Bisciotti's idea, and now Harbaugh looked at him and yelled (good-naturedly), "You're trying to turn me into a softy!''

"Soft serve,'' Bisciotti shot back.

Some vets have left, though there hasn't been a wholesale turnover. Todd Heap has turned over the tight end job to 2010 draftee Ed Dickson. Terrence Cody takes Kelly Gregg's nose job. Derrick Mason (Jets), Willis McGahee (Broncos) and Josh Wilson (Redskins), valuable all, got better deals elsewhere.

I wish I'd been able to see Jimmy Smith practice, but he missed it with a groin strain. He's the kid from Colorado so many teams bypassed in the draft because of his off-field problems in college; Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported he failed three drug tests at Colorado. But the Ravens picked him 27th overall in April because of his toughness, cover ability and size (6-2, 211).

He seems like a safety when you meet him, all the way down to the physical attitude. "I think out of all the cornerbacks in the draft, I'm the most NFL-ready,'' he said. "I used to watch the NFL when I was in college, and I'd think how crazy it'd be to play for the Ravens. This is where I wanted to be.'' Starting opening day against Pittsburgh, he'll have a chance to prove he belongs.

Wednesday: New York Jets; Florham Park, N.J.

The Jets don't sit still. Look out on the field: Old-timer assistant coaches Tom Moore and Jim McNally were out at practice; Isaac Bruce, of all people, was due in camp in a few days to give pointers to the wideouts.

This year, when Damien Woody retired and left a hole at right tackle, the Jets gave the job to journeyman Wayne Hunter, who nearly misbehaved himself out of the league after being a Seattle draft choice in 2003. It's not the most important position on the field, but over the years, particularly because so many quarterbacks like to roll right and throw from their right, and so many teams have been investing in rush ends from the defense's left side, the right tackle has taken on added importance.

"This is the first time in my career where I actually have had some security in a training camp,'' Hunter said. "For the most part, I've been on the ropes every year in this league. Hanging by a thread. This is a good feeling, but I can't let up for a second because I know what's at stake.''

Mark Sanchez's health. That's what's at stake. Last year was uncapped, and the Jets could have pursued help outside the organization for a tackle to pair with D'Brickashaw Ferguson. But not this year. Hunter is expected to beat out second-year tackle Vlad Ducasse for the starting job on the right side. And with ace line coach Bill Callahan in house, it's likely he'll be able to figure ways to give Hunter enough help to prevent much leakage there -- even with a tackle who's not very quick.

Whatever, this is a big year for Hunter, who was rewarded with a four-year contract one day after the league and players ratified a new CBA. Every team needs some middle-class long-term players like Hunter, and most players on the bubble have one shot in their career when they can grab a job or see it float away, never to have the same chance again. This is Hunter's shot and he knows it.

Thursday: New England Patriots; Foxboro, Mass.

On the field and off, a very interesting afternoon.

On the field: All eyes on number 85, Chad Ochocinco, and number 92, Albert Haynesworth, at the first practice after the CBA got ratified, which meant every player could practice. Ocho must have been tight. He dropped a 50-yard pass from Tom Brady when he got two long strides on a corner while running a post route. "OhhhhhhhHHHHHHH!'' the crowd said. He clanged a 15-yard cross from Brady -- again, right in his hands. Leigh Bodden broke up another ball that looked like it was right in his hands. Tom Brady threw him one in the end zone, the offense practicing against air in the red zone. Boink. Another drop. Awful practice for the Ocho. But I doubt there'll be many of those.

Haynesworth played right tackle and Vince Wilfork left. After a few drills, Haynesworth jogged to his next one. One source in Washington had said this about Haynesworth: "You watch. He'll practice hard for Belichick, and he'll play great for him. I don't know where else he'd do that.''

It's way too early to make a single judgment about Haynesworth, good or bad. He's got to practice hard all camp, then play the way he played his last season in Tennessee, when he convinced Washington he was worth the ridiculous contract. Which, of course, he wasn't.

But I expect you'll see the Patriots do just what they did a lot in this practice during the season -- play a four-man front with Haynesworth and Wilfork inside. Will teams double both? One? And who will they double if it's just one? Wilfork has done it all on the line, but he's probably best suited to take on and occupy two blockers at the point, freeing Haynesworth to penetrate. There are many ifs, and another big one is Haynesworth, who has never been Jack LaLanne in the offseason conditioning department, staying on the field.

I asked Wilfork about the potential of the line if Haynesworth stayed on the right path. "I tell you what, if he doesn't, he's out of here, and he knows it. He knows he has some baggage, and he wants to turn it around,'' Wilfork said.

But having Haynesworth around will mean Bill Belichick can do what he does best -- design ways to use Haynesworth best, not forcing him into the middle of a 3-4 and ticking him off.

"Bill runs schemes based on the players he has, not the other way around,'' said Vinny Cerrato, the former Redskin personnel man who pushed Dan Snyder to sign Haynesworth. "When Albert was a free agent, he didn't talk to any teams in free agency who played the 3-4. He wanted nothing to do with it. Things have changed now, but Bill's smart. He'll know how to use him.''

Off the field: Still a tough time for owner Robert Kraft, mourning the death of his wife, Myra. But he got a boost when, sitting shiva several days after her death (shiva is the Jewish mourning period when friends and family come to the home of the survivors and share fellowship), he looked up and who walks through the door? Randy Moss. He flew up from Florida for one reason: to tell the Patriots owner how highly he regarded Myra Kraft.

"Randy is a good friend of mine,'' said Wilfork. "He called me and said, 'Vince, I'm nervous about coming up. But I want to come. I shared a bond with her. I really want to be there.' Guys who don't know Randy, they'll say he's arrogant. But if he could have retired here, he would have. He came here for one reason and one reason only: He wanted to support the Kraft family.''

When Moss signed with the Patriots, Kraft brought him into his office and told him if he played for the Patriots, he'd always be in the Patriot family. So when he opened Moss' sympathy card, he knew Moss remembered the family speech. Moss signed his sympathy card: "Randy Moss Kraft.''

One other note: Kraft does not wear rings or most other jewelry -- except for one thing. He wears a silver circular pendant with a photo of he and his wife on their wedding day and the words "Cherish Love'' engraved on the back. It was a gift from the Wilforks when they learned Myra Kraft had cancer.

"Mr. Kraft always liked it,'' said Bianca Wilfork. "When he told us Myra was sick last year, we called our jeweler and had it made. It had a lot of significance, because he always told us, 'Always keep what's important close to you.' You can have a million dollars, but if you don't have love, you're broke.''

Friday: Split day. Morning: Philadelphia Eagles

Early in the first 7-on-7 team work of the day, Nnamdi Asomugha lined up on wideout Chad Hall. Vince Young was quarterback. Hall juked the cornerback coming off the line, and Young threw the ball maybe 12 yards downfield. It was a little high for both men, but Asomugha, 6-2 and taller than the other cornerbacks the Eagles employ, leapt high and snared the ball cleanly, racing up the right sideline. Crowd went wild.

Interesting thing about Asomugha. He told me that last year in Oakland he played about 15 percent of slot corner, and the rest of the time he played outside. But when he got here last week, he talked to Asante Samuel and Dominique Rogers-Cromartie, the normal starters, and asked what they preferred to do. Both said they preferred to play outside. Now, of course Asomugha is going to start outside, almost certainly opposite Samuel. But in three- and four-corner situations, he told Samuel and Rodgers-Cromartie he'd be happy to play the slot and let them play outside. It may not be up to him, of course, but the fact that he did that says something about Asomugha the man.

Should he play the slot? Certainly, any corner with great cover ability is going to be better out wide, where he's less likely to get caught in traffic and get bounced around. But I have a feeling, barring a trade of Samuel (I can tell you with certainty the Eagles are not planning to trade him, and likely won't seriously consider it unless they get an offer of a first-round pick for him), you'll see a lot of Asomugha in the slot.

Friday Evening: Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Dinner, Canton, Ohio.

The Friday night dinner at the Canton Civic Center is my favorite part of the weekend. If you haven't gone, you should. Old Hall of Famers come back and sit with the car dealers and insurance sales people and fans from all over the country.

I didn't expect Shannon Sharpe and his brother to steal the show. This isn't a night for speeches. It's a night when the old Hall of Famers welcome the new ones to the fraternity. Long-time enshrinees like Bob Lilly (who still looks like he could give the Cowboys 15 snaps a Sunday) and Paul Warfield and Willie Brown walk through the Civic Center and up on stage to be greeted by the Class of 2011. After that, the new class members get their yellow jackets. That's always a touching moment. And on this night Shannon Sharpe took his suit jacket off and brother Sterling helped him with the Hall of Fame coat. When Shannon Sharpe had it on he looked at it as if he couldn't believe it. How grateful he was.

Later, the two Sharpes hugged each other on stage in an embrace that must have lasted 30 seconds. I thought they were going to hug the wind out of each other, they were gripping each other so strongly. Everybody should have a relationship with a brother or sister like the Sharpes have.

I repeat: If you ever have a chance to go to the Friday night dinner at the Hall, you really should. It's not just a great night for the enshrinees and for football, it's a great night for football fans.

Saturday postscript: I loved my time at the Hall two years ago getting the writers' award, and Bob McGinn heartily deserved it this time. But if Jim Nantz gets to ride in the Saturday parade, the writers' winner should get to ride in it too, not sit in the crowd ... Tremendous job by Steve Sabol in presenting his dad. That could not have been an easy thing for him to do, after the brain tumor, the chemo and the radiation.

... I was a little uncomfortable, quite honestly, with Deion Sanders saying he was ashamed of his mother working her hospital job and saying one of his goals was to make sure his mother never had to work another day. A house, a car -- I get that. Never working again? Seems a little odd, unless she is ill ... Shannon Sharpe got me choked up when he voiced his wish for his grandmother: 'I want to go to bed one night. I want God to make it rain as hard as it possibly can. I want to wake up and not be wet.' All she wanted was a house that didn't leak.'' ... I would rather hear the Friday night honorees speak than see a video tape with them speaking.

Saturday: Pittsburgh Steelers, Latrobe, Pa.

When I last saw Aaron Smith, one of my All-Decade defensive ends for the last 10 years, he was sidelined at Steelers practice at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth before the Super Bowl. His recent run of injuries had been maddening. He'd missed parts or most of three recent seasons with biceps, triceps and shoulder injuries, and just when he thought he might be able to come back in time to play in the Super Bowl, he suffered a setback and was declared out for the game.

The Steelers have developed a good replacement and heir to his left end job, Ziggy Hood, but there's just something missing when the best 3-4 defensive end of the past 12 years is out of the Pittsburgh lineup. Quite honestly, I thought the frustration over always being hurt was going to knock Smith, now 35, out of the game forever. I thought he would retire.

But there he was Saturday afternoon with the first unit on defense, going up against Colon and not giving an inch. After practice, I asked him why. "I love playing football," he said. "I have no other explanation for it. There's nothing else I want to do with my life right now. It feels so good to be back out here."

Some 20 minutes after the Steelers workout ended on Chuck Noll field, Smith was almost glowing. When he talked, he smiled. I've always found him to be passionate about football and now you can see how much he's driven to play one more good season, at the least.

Several veterans had practiced Friday night when the Steelers made their annual trek to Latrobe High, and Mike Tomlin was giving them Saturday off. Not Smith. "I don't like missing practice," he said. "I never have. I have progressed faster than I thought I might have and I really don't need to be taking any time off right now.

No one knows how much Smith will be able to play or how effective he'll be -- or whether he'll survive the next month of the preseason so that he can make it to the opener at Baltimore on Sept. 11. I'm not betting against him.

"What do I expect?" Mike Tomlin said to me. "I expect him to be Aaron Smith. He's a shining example to everybody on this team about what a great football player is."

Sunday: Buffalo Bills, Pittsford, N.Y

Three quick practice observations on the Bills

1: Lots of teams can say when they spread the field that they're going to be difficult to handle. I saw it with my own eyes late Sunday afternoon. When the Bills line up in a five-wide formation, with Ryan Fitzpatrick in a shotgun, they go with Lee Evans and Stevie Johnson outside, David Nelson (second-year surprise from Florida), Roscoe Parrish and the heretofore unknown Donald Jones inside. (Jones, you can tell by being here, is a favorite of the coaches and the quarterback.) The reason this formation could be a major threat is because of the speed of Evans and Parrish, the over-the-top catching ability of Johnson and the physical nature of Jones and Nelson. Sometimes the Bills might use C.J. Spiller as one of the slot guys and they might line up Brad Smith in the shotgun instead of Fitzpatrick. Whatever they do, there are enough young weapons here to make the AFC East take notice.

2. Top draft pick Marcell Dareus might be one of the widest people ever to put on an NFL uniform. I was amazed to watch him from behind, next to one of my All-Pro defensive tackles from 2010, Kyle Williams. Williams, from the back, looks like 60 percent of Dareus, even though the weight difference is only about 50 pounds.

So far the two men whom the Bills hope will be playing alongside each other for the next six to eight years are getting along great. "I don't like guys who talk a lot before they do anything," Williams told me. "Marcell has come in with a great work ethic and hasn't asked for anything to be handed to him. Everybody here is really impressed with him. Plus, he's going to be very, very hard to move."

3. It looked to me like the Bills might be preparing to use Brad Smith more than the Jets did, if that's possible. Early on, the Bills have been highly impressed with the strength and accuracy of Smith's arm. "I don't know if he'll touch the ball four times in a game or 14," Chan Gailey told me. "All I know is he's going to get it a bunch."

Five guys I think you should really consider drafting:

1. Tim Hightower, RB, Washington, third round. Olandis Gary. Terrell Davis. Mike Anderson. Tim Hightower? Could be. He's got the one-cut running style and tackle-breaking ability Mike Shanahan loves. I'm not saying he'll turn into this year's Arian Foster -- he's going to have to beat out Ryan Torain first -- but I can tell you he's going to get every chance to win the job and be the main mail carrier for a team that's going to have to run the ball to have a chance.

2. Antonio Brown, WR, Pittsburgh, seventh round. Mike Wallace will have been drafted much earlier. You'll need depth at receiver, and the chemistry between Ben Roethlisberger and this speedster from Central Michigan is getting very good.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB, Buffalo, eighth round. He'll be the 21st quarterback taken, or somewhere in that vicinity, in your draft. That's too low. When you line up in a five-wide formation with the young talent the Bills have outside, you have a chance to put up good numbers. By the way, he averaged 231 passing yards a game last year, Tom Brady 243.

4. Donald Jones, WR, Buffalo, 12th round. The Bills are going to throw it a lot. Jones could be the second-most productive receiver to Stevie Johnson, with apologies to Lee Evans. Don't worry if you haven't heard of him. No one in your league has, either.

5. Jeremy Kerley, WR/KR, New York Jets, last round. At practice Wednesday, Kerley did an out-route right in front of me, caught the pass with his fingertips, diving, and got both feet inbounds, barely. What a catch. A Cris Carter, parallel-to-the-ground catch while making sure his feet touched green, not white.

The fifth-round pick from TCU, who made a lot of catches like that from Andy Dalton, is challenging for the slot receiver job, and kick and punt return gigs. He's a guy Rex Ryan loves, special teams coach Mike Westhoff loves more, and you can feel him getting a real shot to touch the ball and score touchdowns. "Jeremy Kerley's got a chance, I think, to be something special,'' Ryan said. Will he be in the regular offense enough to matter? Maybe not. I just feel something with him and Ryan.

"This is the greatest day of my life.''

-- Ninety-four-year-old Ed Sabol (how fitting is this: he turns 95 on the opening Sunday of the NFL season), the founder of NFL Films, upon being enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Saturday night.

"There's no way I'm going to wish him well.''

-- Jets coach Rex Ryan, on former New York defensive lineman Shaun Ellis, who signed with the Patriots as a free agent Sunday.

"I expect that we'll be testing for HGH by the start of the regular season."

-- Commissioner Roger Goodell, to Sirius NFL Radio on Friday.

"Beside the fact that it really makes me sick?''

-- Miami coach Tony Sparano, asked how he felt when fans at a Dolphins practice began chanting, "We want Orton.'' Miami was in failed trade discussions with Denver for quarterback Kyle Orton, which, by the way, I consider to be a terrible mistake by Miami. Not that they were in discussions with Denver, but that they have failed thus far. Orton would be a significant upgrade over Chad Henne.

"They're destroying that company. It's a cold-blooded killing. Bornstein and Katz are just cold-eyed network killers. They don't care about what we represented. Their approach is how much cheap crap can you turn out as quickly as possible so we can stick it on this godawful network that we've created.''

-- Former NFL Films Vice President Phil Tuckett, to Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News, on what has happened to NFL Films since the league put NFL Network and league broadcast czars Steve Bornstein and Howard Katz in charge of the company.

What the Jets offered Nnamdi Asomugha both stuns me and doesn't surprise me at all.

All along, I though the Jets offered Asomugha more than the Eagles, who signed him to a four-year deal worth $12 million a year. Not so.

The Jets, I've learned, offered the object of their cornerbacking affections a three-year, $30-million deal -- salaries of $8 million this year, $10 million in 2012 and $12 million in 2013. There was a fourth year to the deal, but an inflated, phony year neither side ever planned to honor. So the Jets, now paying Darrelle Revis $11.5 million a year over four years (there are three phony years on the end of that deal), would have capped Asomugha out at $10 million a year.

Stunning because the Jets wanted Asomugha so bad, and because they offered $10 million a year over three years in real money. Not surprising because the Jets didn't want to give another corner more than Revis gets ... and set the stage for both corners combining to make 20 percent of the team's salary cap in the coming years.

Interesting that the mega-market for Asomugha never developed. "I never believed the numbers people were throwing around about me,'' Asomugha told me at Eagle camp Friday. He was right: Some team may have offered more than Philly's $12 million annual deal, and I hear one team did. Maybe Houston. Maybe Dallas. I don't know. But I do think I'd be very surprised if the Jets thought they'd get Asomugha with a three-year, $30 million offer.

Buffalo defensive tackle Kyle Williams, a wide, 295-pound man with thick legs, shot a 66 at the University Club in Baton Rouge two summers ago. Seven birdies and an eagle.

Last year, Williams, who hadn't played organized baseball since his junior year in high school, took batting practice at Rogers Centre before a Blue Jays game. He hit a home run an estimated 400 feet.

And before Marshawn Lynch left the team last year in trade with Seattle, he challenged Williams to a swimming race in the team's rehab pool. Williams, a competitive swimmer growing up in Louisiana, beat him easily.

On Sunday, I asked him his golf handicap.

"Zero,'' he said.

Four of them:

THE LAND THAT TIME FORGOT. HAPPILY -- Ever been to Pittsford, N.Y.? It's a little suburb south of Rochester, and the site of St. John Fisher College, where the Bills have encamped since 1999. It's the land the recession forgot. Nothing's changed here. It has the preppy, Sunday morning churchgoers and Izod crowd (I didn't really fit in) at Starbucks -- one of whom left a yellow lab laying in front of the shop, not tied up, while inside.

Oak Hill Country Club, where the U.S. Open has been held (and the 2013 PGA will be played) is here. The city has the stately giant oaks and maples providing cover for the huge homes that I can only guess are the pads for old Kodak and Bausch & Lomb execs. The old-time Erie Canal runs through it. "It's a Norman Rockwell painting,'' said the Bills president, Russ Brandon, who met me for coffee with Bills PR man Scott Berchtold Sunday morning.

Brandon played baseball at St. John Fisher in the '80s and he pointed out the window to a white house across the street, next to a small restaurant. "That's the local bar -- Thirsty's. No sign on it. Everyone knows it's Thirsty's, the bar. Then Hungry's is right next to it. Thirsty's doesn't have food, but you can go get food at Hungry's and bring it into Thirsty's. They don't mind.''


JUNK FOOD NOTE OF THE WEEK -- We don't always eat the best food on the road (no!) here in the USO mobile, and so that's why I came across this little (Mc) nugget: In some markets -- I saw it in Gastonia, N.C. -- McDonald's has rolled out the Rolo McFlurry.

You know Rolos. If you're a proud American, you should. Caramel center, chocolate coating. They come six or seven to a roll. And McDonald's crushes them and embeds them in vanilla ice cream and whirls them around in a McFlurry kind of machine, and here comes the Rolo McFlurry. I just like saying that -- Rolo McFlurry. What's next in a McFlurry? Slim Jims?


THE ONLY ONE WE'RE MISSING IS BLUE BALL -- Five towns I have loved driving by/through over the past 10 days:

1. China Grove, N.C., north of Charlotte. No Doobie Brothers in sight, though.

2. Fair Play, S.C. A fur piece from Cheap Shot, S.C.

3. Pleasant Unity, Pa., near Latrobe. You drive through Pleasant Unity, and you just feel like hugging John Boehner.

4. Cairo, Ohio, which is west of Paris, Ohio; further west of Lisbon, Ohio; east of London, Ohio; north of Athens, Ohio; and southeast of Milan, Ohio.

5. North Chili, N.Y. Seems like there ought to be a Skyline or Gold Star there.


I AM OBLIVIOUS TO EVERYTHING WHILE ON THE ROAD -- Wife to me Saturday morning when I called home from Pittsburgh: "Did you hear the bad news from last night?''

"Yeah,'' I said. "Red Sox had a 2-0 lead and blew it. They lost. Saw that.''

Wife: "No!! Our credit rating got downgraded. We are in so much trouble as a country.''

Uh, yeah. The credit rating. Washington. The real world. Missed that one while watching Shannon and Sterling Sharpe hug each other on stage in Canton. You know, the important stuff.

If you can answer this question without googling it or somehow looking it up, you're a better man (and fan) than I: Who is the Buffalo Bills' offensive coordinator?

Answer in number 10 of Ten Things I Think I Think.

"News break: Senate, after listening to Marshall Faulk, decided to permanently eliminate the filibuster.''

@PatMcManamon, the writer, after listening to the 33-minute, 50-second speech by Marshall Faulk at the Hall of Fame enshrinement Saturday night in Canton.

"Deion Sanders thanked 109 people in his Hall of Fame speech last night.''

--@darrenrovell, the CNBC business reporter, on Sunday, obviously wanting to make Monday Morning Quarterback and knowing what a fan I would be of this factoid.

1. I think, from what I'm hearing (not from the horse's mouth, but from someone who would know), Brett Favre is being slightly tempted about playing football again. When I say slightly, I mean slightly. I don't think any team is going to come after him now, and I don't think he's going to pursue anything. But I do think if a starter gets hurt or stinks, and the coach has no faith in the backup, Favre is going to get a call. Depending on the team, he might consider returning.

2. I think Shannon Sharpe's speech was the best Hall of Fame speech I've ever heard. Yes, better than Michael Irvin's.

3. I think the Hall of Fame evokes so much passion, obviously, and there's no right and wrong with who gets in and who's on the outside, but that doesn't stop the tide of intensity when the subject comes up every year. My thoughts about how things look for 2012:

a. It's a cleanup year, with time to get some of the overdue guys in. Bill Parcells (two Super Bowl wins, led all four teams he coached to the playoffs) and Will Shields (12 Pro Bowls) are the best candidates in the new class.

b. There can be as many as five modern era candidates selected, and two Seniors Committee candidates. The senior nominees will be determined later this month at a meeting in Canton. For the moderns, I'd give Dermontti Dawson, Curtis Martin, Bill Parcells, Willie Roaf, Charles Haley, Cris Carter, Shields and Jerome Bettis -- in approximately that order -- the best shot.

c. But the fact that Dawson might have the best shot tells you there's absolutely, positive no slam dunks in 2012. Wide open.

d. Receivers continue to be the bugaboo for the 44 voters (me included). It's become hard for us to separate Carter from Reed, Reed from Tim Brown. I continue to be bullish on Carter, the best boundary receiver I've seen, and maybe the best of the sideline/endline catchers in history.

e. Just because I don't make any of the strong receiver candidates a lock in a relatively weak year doesn't mean I think they're not worthy. Just trying to read the tea leaves, knowing how the room works with the 44 voters trying to figure out which receiver with the very strong resume deserves it the most.

f. Want to see Jerry Kramer get one of the Seniors nods? That's the tenor of what I read and hear on Twitter. There are nine Seniors Committee members, and five of them meet every year in late August in Canton to determine who will get the two nominations. The best advice I can give those with the passion for Kramer is to write passionately to the Hall about his candidacy. Your voices will be heard.

4. I think if the NFL and the Players Association had a real concern for the people of Canton, they'd somehow cobble together $1 million and give it to the Chamber of Commerce in Canton to take care of some of the business there that got hurt by the cancellation of the Hall of Fame game between St. Louis and Chicago.

One hotel manager said his business was "devastated'' by the game getting called off at such a late date, because his hotel was filled with fans from Chicago who planned to spend three nights there -- to attend the Friday dinner, the Saturday enshrinement of Bears defensive end Richard Dent and the others, and then the Sunday night game with their Bears. Fans weren't going to drive six hours to see Dent get in without the game.

I don't care how it's done, but the league and players should see how much such a wonderful league partner as Canton is hurting and do the right thing. Go 50-50 on it. Whatever. Just provide relief to an area already economically devastated. When Roger Goodell was introduced to the crowd at the Canton Civic Center Friday night, he got a noticeable smattering of boos. One guy in the crowd behind me yelled, "Where's our game!''

5. I think this USO gig I'm on is one of the great things I've been involved in a while ... and I'll give you two stories from the last week to illustrate it. In New England, media relations czar Stacey James walked the 24 troops on hand to watch practice in front of the fans' viewing area in single file ... and fans gave the troops a standing ovation. Fans took photos of them, asked for autographs, shook hands and, in general, made the troops feel special. Robert Kraft thanked each one individually for his/her service, as did a handful of players after practice. In Pittsburgh on Saturday, 17 Steelers, including Ben Roethlisberger and coach Mike Tomlin, spent time with the troops after practice. They've been warmly received everywhere. They, and I, are greatly appreciative.

6. I think the defense is ahead of the offense in the camps I've seen. In some cases, far ahead. The Eagle D was devouring the offense in the Friday morning practice, two days after the Jets offense (minus a few first-teamers) could get very little done against the defense.

From what I hear, that's common around the league. It's easier to throw your body around on defense than it is to do something a little more in-sync, like have 11 people moving in the right direction on a pass play that might be complicated for players who haven't studied it very thoroughly yet.

7. I think it'll be interesting to see more of Kurt Warner this fall. NFL Network will announce this week that Warner will join the Sunday GameDay Morning crew, and will also be a part of the Thursday night pre- and post-game shows when the Network begins prime-time game coverage. Warner can't lie. He's not always compelling, but he'll always tell the truth.

I talked to him the other day and realized one thing he'll be very good at is telling it like it is with players' health. He told me he's still not totally right regarding his health -- he can't keep his weight up from what he lost in his final year, weight he lost because of the stress and pressure he felt from being a starting quarterback on a team with so much emphasis on the passing game.

And he won't succumb to the macho talk about sucking it up and staying in the game when hurt. He'll side with players, particularly on head injuries, because that's one of the big reasons he left the game. One final Warnerism that surprised me: Not only has no one called with an offer to lure him out of retirement, no one has even called to try. It wouldn't do any good. "I'm not going back,'' he said.

8. I think I'll miss Dave Solomon, the New Haven (Conn.) Register columnist who died in a one-car accident on I-91 south of Hartford Saturday evening. He was 59.

We covered the Giants together in the '80s, Dave for the Register, me for Newsday. Dave always called it the way he saw it -- sometimes stubbornly and against the grain -- and he ticked off Parcells more than once with a nettlesome question. But all you can ask for in a beat man or columnist is honesty, and that he calls 'em the way he sees 'em. Dave called them that way for years.

His widow requested that his final column run on Sunday, hours after his death, and his trademark "I was thinking ... '' column had the usual collection of interesting nuggets and opinions. Like this one: "New Haven's Tony Sparano, head coach of the Miami Dolphins, could use a mulligan for publicly allowing himself to be goaded by the fans who chanted Kyle Orton's name as an indictment of Dolphins starting quarterback Chad Henne in practice last week. Sparano said the chanting 'made him sick.' You know what really ought to make him sick? The fact that the team didn't rectify an unacceptable situation at quarterback for the second straight year. Good luck against the Pats and Jets.'' That's Dave.

9. I think there are some misconceptions out there about how this salary cap is going to work in 2011. Fact: Teams don't have to spend 99 percent of the cap in 2011 and 2012; rather, the 32 teams collectively must spend at least 99 percent of the cap. So the teams must spend an average of $119.2 million per club.

A league spokesman told me the other day league officials are confident the money will be spent, because of examples like the Eagles, who will end up spending about $125 million. Now, if the money is not spent, the league will come up with a plan to take money from teams to make up the difference and get to the 99 percent spending level. It could start with the first dollar coming from the lowest-spending team, but that's a decision that hasn't been announced.

As for future years (2013 through 2020) clubs must collectively spend at least 95 percent of the total cap; each team over that period must spend at least 89 percent of the cap. So don't believe it when you hear every team has to spend at least $119 million in 2011. Not true.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. Think we shouldn't do anything about gun violence in this country? Read this dispatch from Saturday's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

A woman still grieving the murder of her 12-year-old daughter three years ago lost a son to gun violence Friday and lay in a hospital bed, unable to speak with detectives, herself the victim of a shooting an hour earlier.

Those close to Kimberly Wade said she still struggled with the loss of her daughter, Jolesa Barber, whose killing in a hail of gunfire in January 2008 became emblematic of the ravages of gang violence. Ms. Wade, a mother of seven, moved to Koerner Avenue in Perry South, not far from the row house where Jolesa was struck by gunfire meant for her brother.

But harm followed her. Police said Ms. Wade, 45, was shot in the stomach while she sat on her porch just after 10 p.m. Thursday, by at least one gunman who riddled her house with bullet holes. A witness told police two young men darted away on foot. An hour later and less than a mile away, her son, Chris Michaux, 19, was shot in the head outside a friend's house on Leland Street.

"He was outside, crying, saying his mom just got shot," said Kenny Washington, whose house was struck by several rounds and who narrowly escaped injury himself. "I told him to sit down and get himself together. As soon as he got off my porch they lit him up."

I'm sick of stories like this getting ignored. We've got to do something to take guns out of the hands of gangs and other young criminals in this country. How many more of those idiotically horrible stories do there need to be on the front page of papers around the country before we do something tangible about gun violence?

b. Go ahead. Send me all the email you want about how stupid I am and how I know nothing about the problem and how I need to stop interfering with the Second Amendment. I welcome your feedback.

c. Congrats to the Oxford (Mich.) High Wildcats. You see the picture of their field, with the first practice ever on it, this morning shortly after midnight. Today is the first day that high school football teams in Michigan can practice, and the Wildcats wasted no time, kicking off the practice season at 12:01 a.m. The turf, loyal to the local college team, is maize (end zone) and blue (100-yard field). Great-looking field, and great source of community pride ... and also only 25-percent funded. Contact the fund drive (248-802-9905) if you'd like to help.

d. Just what we thought, those of us who care about Sox-Yanks. Started the weekend tied. Ended the weekend with the Red Sox one game up, with two games decided by a run. Interminable games, though I saw nothing except half-an-inning Sunday night in the van on USO driver Mike's iPhone. Three games left in Boston, three in New York, both teams bound for the playoffs. Nothing to see here folks. Move along.

e. Answer to NFL Quiz: Curtis Modkins is Buffalo's offensive coordinator. The Curtis Modkins.

f. It's amazing, when traveling, to see all the drivers who don't have EZ Pass, or whatever it's called in different areas. One toll line in western New York stretched for more than a mile Sunday evening. Pretty painless, folks, aside from the $20 transponder fee in most locales. If you drive a lot in the East, it's a must.

g. Welcome to our trip, Neil Hornsby of Ready for a few long drives through the NFC North?

h. Beernerdness: I am sorry to report I have not had any new or fun beers this week. Actually, it's been a crazy week of late travel and early wakeup calls, so I shall try to find some good beers this week and report to you next week. Had a good fellow from Rochester drop off a few of his to me at Bills camp, and I hope to try one this week.

i. Coffeenerdness: I'm not here to bash Tim Horton's coffee, though I am here to tell you I had a cup of it at Bills training camp Sunday afternoon ... and it was as weak as Amtrak coffee.

I was looking forward to Finger Lakes Blend, which is served at St. John Fisher College, summer home of the Bills, because that's the coffee served on campus -- except, apparently, when the football team is here. With Finger Lakes Blend (see cute slogan, right, above the coffee station in the cafeteria) on hiatus, we got Tim Horton, and though I've got nothing against the Canadian coffee/donutmeister, it's not really my cup of ... uh, Colombian.

j. Wish I could send some of this rain south for those of you who need it.

k. I end this morning by sending sincere sympathy to the families of the 30 Americans who died in the attack on a Chinook transport helicopter Saturday in Afghanistan. Twenty-two of those killed were Navy SEAL, including some from the same team that killed Osama bin Laden. I know you join me in sending our best to all the families dealing with this devastating blow.