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$.05 For Franchise Tag DayAuthored by Jeff - 5th March, 2012 - 5:00 pm
$.01 -- Word came out Friday about some truly disturbing news regarding the New Orleans Saints and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. It seems they had a bounty system in place from 2009 thru 2011, a blatant and flagrant violation of NFL rules. Williams admitted his role and his complicity in keeping the bounty system in place, perhaps even encouraging it. NFL security conducted an exhaustive investigation, and reports are that NFL personnel witnessed Williams setting up the bounty and players collecting on them.
This goes so far beyond Spygate that it is not even apples and oranges. More like key limes and watermelons. This is a team-sponsored hit list that rewarded players for knocking fellow players on opposing teams out of games. The general manager and the head coach both actively knew about it, yet failed to stop it dead in its tracks as they should have.
There are any number of ways Roger Goodell can decipher crimes and assess penalties in this situation. His emphasis on improving player safety -- something for which these very players strongly lobbied -- has been trampled asunder. Knowingly violating rules and ignoring league directives to cease doing so is an egregious slap in the face to his authority, one that I suspect he will not take lightly. Yet the technicality that might wind up having the sharpest teeth is that this bounty system knowingly and deliberately circumvents the salary cap.
Take a look back at Spygate for a reference on punishment. The Patriots lost a first round pick, coach Bill Belichick was fined $500K and the team was fined $250K. That was for illegally videotaping a practice walkthrough, something that was far more commonplace than bounty systems. Heck, the Lions lost a seventh round pick and had to swap fifth round spots with Kansas City just for having Gunther Cunningham mention he might have an interest in some former Chiefs. If those are to be used as precedents for the hammer of justice, the Saints are going to get clobbered.
If everything that has come out -- the NFL security proof, the salary cap circumvention, the video evidence, player confessions -- is true, I expect a few things to happen. Gregg Williams, now the new DC in St. Louis, will never spend another minute employed in the NFL and will be heavily fined. I would expect Saints coach Sean Payton to get at least a $500K fine and a suspension lasting several games, if not a full season. Mickey Loomis figures to get a six-figure fine as well. I would expect the team to lose multiple draft picks, a crippling blow to an aging team with salary cap issues. They have already traded away their first round pick this year, so losing second and third round picks this year and their first round pick next year seems plausible.
I would be on board with the fines and suspensions, but rather than stripping draft picks, I would hit the Saints where it really hurts. Circumvention of the salary cap should equal losing salary cap room. Take away $20M in cap room for 2012 and $10M in 2013. You can bet that will get the attention of other teams and put the kibosh on these bounty systems.
$.02 -- One of the more troubling aspects of this whole bounty situation is the fact that the Saints offensive players had to know about it. They had to know. I have a very hard time reconciling this with the "We Are Family" vibe from the lockout and past few seasons that has epitomized the Saints rise from perennial also-ran to perennial power. Drew Brees is arguably the most dominating, respected locker room presence in the league and Sean Payton is noted for being beloved by his players. It is very hard for me to fathom how Brees and Payton failed to put this to a quick end.
Part of their rationale must be because this sort of bounty system is more commonplace than we might like to think it is. Several credible sources (notably Matt Bowen from the National Football Post) have openly talked about similar systems during their careers. If Gregg Williams has run one for years, and he apparently had similar bounties in place during prior stops in Buffalo and Washington, it is naive to think players and coaches under his sphere of influence have not spread this to other places. What makes this one especially appalling is that it focused on injuring or disabling fellow players rather than rewarding for things like sacks or forced fumbles. Surely Brees and his offensive cohorts do not want their own heads or knees or shoulders the subject of similar bounties from opposing teams.
Brees of all players should be sensitive to this issue, as he nearly had his career ended with a shoulder injury before coming to New Orleans. This is a team that has cycled through running backs like the GOP goes thru contenders to Mitt Romney. For Payton to knowingly allow such a system on his team, one that is so highly dependent on having superior offensive skill position players performing at peak ability, it just makes zero sense. The hypocrisy is staggering.
I am a huge believer in the laws of karma, and the Saints have decidedly tilted the scales to the negative side of the karma ledger. Playing in New Orleans, the city renowned or voodoo and supernatural forces, makes it even more baffling. Tempting fate is one thing; rampantly defying it is another entirely. The Saints did just that, and even if the NFL powers that be hit them hard, I suspect the laws of karma will bite them hard too. Maybe that is why Brees could not come to terms on a long term deal and had to get the franchise tag for next season. Both sides will deny up and down that this had nothing to do with it, but I cannot help but think that it crept into the back of Brees mind regarding the long-term future in New Orleans.
$.03 -- The Pittsburgh Steelers trimmed nearly forty years of veteran experience from their roster this week with the release of three black and gold stalwarts. Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Hines Ward all fell victim to both father time and the salary cap, neither of which is in their favor at the moment.
I find the reaction of Steeler Nation intriguing. Rather than applaud the team for making the tough decisions that paralyze so many other franchises, Steelers fans are furious about these moves, particularly the release of Ward. Never mind that he had visibly lost at least one step last season and was not going to be any more than a seldom-used #4 receiver, at best, in 2012. Ward is the latest in a long line of Steeler legends that will finish elsewhere because the team refuses to hang on to long-past-prime fan favorites that have outlived their affordable function to the team. Franco Harris, Chad Brown, Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd and many others have suffered the same fate.
Through all those painful bloodlettings, the Steelers have largely stayed one of the most competitive franchises in the league. This one could be different, however; despite the deep cuts, the Steelers are still strapped up against the salary cap. Bringing back top receiver Mike Wallace is still dicey, and raises for others will have to wait even after Big Ben renegotiated to provide some relief. Steelers fans still harbor these visions of bringing Ward back later on, but his veteran minimum salary is more than double what a comparable rookie would make. It might seem like a trivial amount, but in this hard cap era every dollar counts. Remember Ward fondly for all he has done for the franchise, but it is time to move on. No organization knows better when to let go, but it seems their fans are having a tougher time with that in this case.
$.04 -- Monday is the deadline for applying the franchise tag, and as of writing time eleven teams had already used the tag on players and that number will grow (the number grew to 21 by this afternoon). The variety of players tagged demonstrates just how differently teams value the tag and how it can either be a benefit or detriment to players in different situations.
Some of the names are obvious "franchise" type players. Drew Brees, Ray Rice, Matt Forte, and Calais Campbell are all All-Pro caliber talents and cornerstones of their respective franchises. Brees stands out from the others in that he has already gotten one big free agent payday. Rice, Forte, Campbell and DeSean Jackson are all prominent young players that simply could not come to a long-term contract extension before the Monday deadline.
Then there are the less-prominent players. The Browns tagged kicker Phil Dawson for the second year in a row, almost as much because he has been with the team since it returned to the field than that he is a great kicker. Do not get me wrong; Dawson is an above-average kicker on a team bereft of even average talent at far too many positions, but tagging an aging kicker is an odd choice for a franchise that needs a large influx of talent and a fair amount of luck to come within three games of a playoff berth in 2012. The Bengals also franchised their kicker, Mike Nugent, which makes me wonder if the state of Ohio has some strange kicker fetish. Never mind that their top three guards are all free agents, or that both teams have ample cap room.
Then there are the make-good deals. Oakland tagged safety Tyvon Branch, the best player in their secondary. They would have liked to get him signed to a long-term deal, but they are still disturbingly over the cap and just do not have the resources. The Eagles tagged Jackson in part because they want him to prove he can get his act together and prove worthy of a long-term commitment. The talent is there, but the attitude is not. Atlanta tagged corner Brent Grimes as much because they want future flexibility as they value his services. This signifies to me that 2012 is a make-or-break year for the Falcons, and they would like to have the ability to reshape the team dramatically should it not work out.
$.05 -- Draft Notes:
-- It came out in the Sunday papers, but it is something I have been insisting for weeks now: the Cleveland Browns will absolutely not trade both their first round picks this year to St. Louis in order to move up to take Robert Griffin III. A little birdie tells me the Browns would be perfectly happy to let Washington leapfrog up to #2 to get RG3, then trade backwards from #4 and secure Ryan Tannehill. It is not the only option they will consider, but let us just say that there will be a lot of Browns representation in College Station this Wednesday for the pro day of Tannehill, and they have not real interested in Coryell Judie or Cyrus Gray. I will be there too.
-- One player that really helped himself during the Combine was Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins. A scout I talked to this week came away very impressed with the newfound consistent zip on his throws. His work with Chris Weinke appears to really be paying off, as he has quickened the setting of his feet and is throwing the ball with more confidence and pace. If he can keep building upon that, Cousins has all the makings of a solid NFL starter, but I would still be a little wary of taking him above the top of the third round. I doubt he lasts that long as he is one of the best interviewees in recent draft history.
-- It seems the draftnik world is coming to the conclusion that Iowa OL Riley Reiff looks like a better guard than tackle at the NFL level. I agree with that sentiment, but I also think that makes him a tenuous top 20 pick. No way is Reiff the top guard (that would be David Decastro) and it is hard for me to believe a NFL team will see him that high as a right tackle or guard prospect. It is similar to Gabe Carimi last year, another player who started high in the mock draft world but progressively slid downward as the same sort of labels got applied. Carimi wound up going #29 overall to Chicago; do not be surprised if Reiff slides into the mid 20s himself. That is still too high for my liking.
-- Another player trending in the wrong direction appears to be LSU DT Michael Brockers. He was a surprise early entrant, a surprise mainly because he had not really done all that much for the Bayou Bengals other than flashing some potential and stuffing the run pretty well. His stock soared right away thanks to a middling DT class and perceived freakish athletic ability. After Indy, the DT class looks a little better and the myth that Brockers is an elite athletic talent has been soundly busted. Remember, the Combine is where many coaches form their first strong opinions on draftees, and what they got from Brockers was an average athlete at best. His game tape is uneven, a few great plays scattered amongst a lot of, well, nothing special. It does not help his cause that former LSU D-linemen Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson were overdrafted based on potential and have largely flopped, and both were better Combine performers than Brockers. I have had Brockers as high as ninth overall in prior mock drafts. In my latest incarnation I have him down to 25th, but a couple of NFL-employed colleagues both told me that was too high.
-- The need for offensive line help dramatically increased for the Chargers with the retirement of guard Kris Dielman this week. Dielman was an extremely durable starter for years and one of the nastier guys to line up against before concussion issues forced his hand. He will be sorely missed both on the field and in the locker room. 18th overall is a little high for a guard, but I have to think David Decastro of Stanford is strongly in play. Should they hold off, there is strong depth at the position. It is a good year to need an interior lineman, not so good if you need a left tackle.
Follow Jeff on Twitter (@JeffRisdon) or e-mail him with comments (Jeff.Risdon@Realgm.com).