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Sunday Morning NFL Quick-Hits: Ryan, Tebow, Jackson, Vick and more

Every Sunday morning our NFL columnist Anthony Stalter will provide his “quick-hits” from around the league. You can follow him on Twitter @AnthonyStalter.

+ Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff had it right in 2008 when they built the Falcons’ offense around Michael Turner. The “Ground and Pound” approach took pressure off rookie Matt Ryan and the Falcons surprised by winning 11 games and making the postseason. Four years later they were still leaning on the same approach and the result was an 0-3 record in the playoffs and plenty of question surrounding Ryan’s ability to be more than just a game manager. But finally it appears that Smith and the Falcons are ready to embrace a new offense. “When we first came in, coach (Mike) Smith said we were going to run the ball,” offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Now, we are going to throw it, too. We’ve got all sorts of weapons. We’ve got running backs. We’ve got tight ends. We’ve got receivers. We are going to be able to do a little bit of everything out there.” Until Smith allows his offensive coordinator (now Dirk Koetter, who replaces Mike Mularkey) to build the offense around Ryan then the Falcons will continue to underachieve. The Falcons are long overdue to attack opponents, run more of the no-huddle (an offense that Ryan thrives in), and puts less emphasis on Turner and the ground game. They’re long overdue to take the chains of Ryan, who was clearly at his ceiling in Mularkey’s system.

+ “As a Buffalo Bills fan, I hope there’s so much turmoil during training camp. I hope (Tim) Tebow plays great, he pushes (Mark) Sanchez, and all of a sudden the locker room is coming apart,” former Bills great Jim Kelly told Andrew Siciliano on NFL Network’s Total Access on Friday. I’m with Kelly, although for different reasons. I hope Tebow plays great and pushes Sanchez because Sanchez hasn’t had to worry about losing his job since he got into the league. Yes, at one point last season Rex Ryan gave Mark Brunell first-team snaps in practice. But Brunell has never been a legitimate threat to Sanchez, who has yet to be pushed since arriving to New York in 2009 and conversely, is seemingly behind in his development. Tebow is a brutal passer but he’s a competitor and he won’t be content with his role as a backup. Jet fans should want Tebow to play well in preseason because he’ll either force Sanchez to elevate his game or he’ll get him out of the starting lineup. Either way it’s a positive for the Jets.

+ There was nothing premature about the Lions signing head coach Jim Schwartz to a multi-year contract extension on Friday. Along with GM Martin Mayhew, Schwartz has overseen one of the more impressive makeovers in NFL history. It wasn’t that long ago that Detroit posted a 0-16 season and was regarded as one of the worst franchises of the last decade. Since the Wayne Fontes era ended in 1996, the Lions have had seven different head coaches, none of which lasted more than three seasons. And while Schwartz’s win-loss record currently sits at 18-30, he clearly has this Detroit team on the rise. Now, if he can only tone down the sideline and post-game antics and get his players to stop making weekly trips to the clink, then the Lions would really be on to something.

+ ESPN’s Ron Jaworski believes that Michael Vick is capable of turning in “the best year of” his ten-year career in 2012. “This offseason is the most important of his career,” Jaws said. “It’s the first time since 2006 with the Falcons that he will go through the OTAs and training camp as the starting quarterback.” That’s all well and good but Vick doesn’t prove his worth in June or even September for that matter. It’s December and January when we find out how much Vick can carry a team. There have been too many times throughout his career where he’s looked like an unstoppable force only to sputter out down the stretch because he’s too banged up and/or gets careless in pivotal games. Go back to 2004 when he posted a 46.5 quarterback rating against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game. Or the 2010 postseason when he posted a 79.9 QB rating and forced a pass to the end zone that was picked off by Tramon Williams to seal the loss for Philadelphia versus Green Bay. I have no doubts that Vick will play like a Pro Bowler during the regular season. It’s the postseason where he has everything to prove.

+ The Boston Globe had an interesting report on outgoing Eagles president Joe Banner “having a good laugh” about DeSean Jackson’s five-year, $47 million contract. Per Globe reporter Greg Bedard, Banner “never would have done that deal.” But regardless of Banner’s opinion about Jackson’s contract, look for the receiver to have a major bounce back season. Jackson was so consumed by his future and contract situation last season that he completely took himself out of games. And for that, he deserved the criticism he received for not handling the situation more like a professional. It’s human nature to be concerned about your financial future but it’s never okay to stop doing your job, especially when you’re currently under contract. That said, with his contract situation behind him look for Jackson to keep his focus on football and become the weapon he was before the 2011 season.

+ If you enjoy mediocre quarterback competition, then keep tabs on the situation in Miami. ESPN’s Adam Schefter stated on Friday’s SportsCenter that David Garrard looked like the leader in the Dolphins’ quarterback competition during spring practices. “The more you hear, the more it sounds like David Garrard has really taken this opportunity to emerge as the favorite to be the starting quarterback down in Miami. Very impressive, adept, good footwork. Matt Moore’s been good, Ryan Tannehill’s been good, but David Garrard has looked the most comfortable of any of the quarterbacks.” Dolphin fans may disagree but they should want Garrard to start this season. Blaine Gabbert would have benefited from watching Garrard last year in Jacksonville. Instead, the Jags displayed impatience by cutting Garrard and thrusting Gabbert into the starting lineup when he wasn’t ready. You may believe that Tannehill is a better prospect than Gabbert but there’s little doubt the former Texas A&M QB would benefit from holding a clipboard. The Dolphins are without weapons at the wideout position and their pass blocking wasn’t very good last season either (outside of Jake Long). Thus, while Miami fans may groan about having to watch Garrard for a season, at least it would save Tannehill from possibly having a Gabbert-type rookie year (and the sea of doubt that followed it).

+ It’ll be interesting to see how Demaryius Thomas performs this season now that Tim Tebow is out and Peyton Manning is in at quarterback for Denver. The biggest difference between the two quarterbacks is now Thomas actually has to run routes. “You’re gonna have to run the whole route tree now,” said Thomas on Thursday. “The comebacks, the slants, the posts, the ins. And I didn’t have to do that much in my first couple of years in the league.” I’m not sure why Thomas didn’t have to run a full route tree under Josh McDaniels but last year he played backyard football because of Tebow, so we’ll see whether or not his development speeds up or slows down now that Manning is his quarterback.

+ Cedric Benson averaged just 3.67 yards per carry last season with the Bengals and 3.76 YPC during his four seasons with Cincinnati. So it’s not surprising that multiple teams didn’t bust down his door when free agency began back in March. That said, he’s 29 and is coming off a 1,000-yard season. One would think that somebody would sign him as a backup, especially when you consider how many teams implement a two-back system. According to Adam Schefter, Benson remains on the Raiders’ radar but they don’t seem to be in a hurry to sign him despite losing Michael Bush (Bears) in free agency and employing an injury-plagued Darren McFadden as a feature back.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @TheScoresReport. You can also follow TSR editor Gerardo Orlando @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom, and you can follow TSR editor Anthony Stalter @AnthonyStalter.

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NFL teams starting to use their franchise tag

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates after completing a 13-yard gain which set up the Eagles first touchdown during first quarter Philadelphia Eagles-New York Giants game action in Philadelphia at Lincoln Financial Field November 21, 2010. UPI/John Anderson

On Thursday night it was DeSean Jackson and Tyvon Branch. On Friday morning it was Brent Grimes. By Monday, it could be Ray Rice, Matt Forte and Cliff Avril.

NFL teams are starting to use their franchise tag, including the Eagles (Jackson), Raiders (Branch) and Falcons (Grimes). Teams can apply the tag to a player scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, which binds that player to that team for one year. If it’s not the exclusive version of the tag, a player can sign offer sheets with other teams and if the team that tagged the player doesn’t match that offer, they will be compensated with two first round picks.

Jackson released a statement on Thursday indicating that he’s “honored” that the Eagles perceive him as a franchise player. But if a report by CBSSports.com’s Mike Freeman is accurate, Jackson won’t appreciate how the Eagles view him.

Per Freeman, there’s a debate within the Eagles’ front office about whether the team can trust Jackson with a long-term deal. The 25-year-old receiver often disappeared on the field last season as he complained about his contract situation off it. Jackson has been viewed as an immature player dating back to his days at Cal, so it’s hardly surprising that the Eagles aren’t exactly jumping at the chance to sign him long-term. Freeman also notes that the team remains open to trading Jackson if the right deal were to come along.

As for Grimes, tagging him was a must for a Falcons team that is trying to win a playoff game under the regime of Mike Smith and Thomas Dimitroff. They’re 0-3 in the playoffs over the past four years and losing Grimes would have made it even more difficult for them to beat pass-happy opponents like the Saints, Packers and Giants. Grimes is easily Atlanta’s best defensive back and is also one of the more underrated cornerbacks in the league.

Jackson, Grimes, and the aforementioned Branch won’t be the last players to receive the franchise tag before March 5. An estimated 25 tags will be applied before Monday’s deadline, so don’t be surprised if/when Rice (Ravens), Forte (Bears) and Avril (Lions) are franchised as well. There’s always a possibility that the Texans could apply the tag on free agent defensive end Mario Williams, which would deplete this year’s free agent pool even more than it already is.

2012 NFL Free Agency: Breaking down the Wide Receivers

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson celebrates a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in the fourth quarter of their NFL football game in Orchard Park, New York October 9, 2011. REUTERS/Doug Benz (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT FOOTBALL)

Free agency in the NFL begins on March 13 and leading up to that date I’ll go position by position while highlighting the best players, best bargains, as well as the riskiest investments.

Best in Class: Take your pick.
This is the deepest pool of free agent receivers that I’ve seen in a long time. Wes Welker, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Marques Colston, Brandon Lloyd, Stevie Johnson, DeSean Jackson, Reggie Wayne and Robert Meachem comprise the top 10 free agents, but Mario Manningham, Laurent Robinson and Harry Douglas could also be available next month. Welker seems like a perfect fit for the Patriots’ offense and will likely stay in New England, but Wallace could be available if the Steelers can’t figure out a way to fit him under their cap. When healthy and not in the midst of a contract holdout, V-Jax is one of the more versatile receivers in the league in that he’s a vertical threat with soft hands who can also block in the running game. Bowe, Colston, Lloyd, Johnson, Jackson and Wayne have been, or still are No. 1 options in the passing game and Meachem certainly has the talent to be a No. 1 given his skill set. Teams needing a receiver have no excuse not to address that hole this offseason.

The Biggest Risk: DeSean Jackson
Jackson is only 25 and is drenched in big play ability. But he has 35 drops over the last four seasons, was a ghost at times last year because he was seemingly worried about his contract situation, and sometimes costs his team on the field with his immaturity. Because of his big play ability and success as a punt returner, plenty of teams will be interested in Jackson’s services next month. But with so many other free agent receivers available, teams weary of his inconsistency and maturity issues can cross his name off the list if they want to. His agent must pull his hair out thinking about how much money Jackson has cost himself over the past year.

The Best Value: Brandon Lloyd
Lloyd is still going to be paid like a low-end No. 1 but at 31 he’ll be cheaper than guys like Welker, Jackson, Bowe, Wallace and Colston. He didn’t post the same numbers in 2011 as he did in 2010 but don’t forget that the quarterback situation in Denver was brutal and Sam Bradford couldn’t stay healthy in St. Louis (the team Lloyd was traded to midseason). Even at 31, Lloyd is an explosive downfield threat who also has a large catch radius. The Rams would be wise to keep him in St. Louis but if he were to hit the open market, he could turn out to be a real value for his eventual production.

Best Cost-Effective Bargain: Robert Meachem
Meachem doesn’t have the numbers or name power as other receivers that could become available next month but at 27 his ceiling is still somewhat high. He’s consistent, as he’s averaged a touchdown every 10 receptions in the regular season and has just 11 drops over the last four years. He may never develop into a No. 1 but he’s worth a shot for a team like Jacksonville that is thin at receiver and has other holes to address this offseason (and thus, might not want to spend big at one position). Meachem could wind up being a cost-effective alternative to Jackson, Bowe, Colston and the other big-name receivers in this free agent pool.

Quick-Hit Reactions from Week 12 in the NFL

Every Sunday throughout the 2011 NFL season I’ll compile quick-hit reactions from the day that was in football. I vow to always overreact, side with sensationalism over rationalism, and draw conclusions based on small sample sizes instead of cold, hard facts. It’s the only way I know how to write…

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Vince Young scrabbles 8 yards as he is being persued by New England Patriots linebacker Tracey White during first quarter New England Patroits-Philadelphia Eagles game action at Lincoln Financial Field November 27, 2011. UPI/Eileen Angelino

- Vince Young threw some ugly passes in the Eagles’ 38-20 loss to the Patriots, none bigger than his “touch” pass to Brent Celek in the back of the end zone on fourth down midway through the third quarter when the score was still relatively close. But he also deserved a better fate in the end. He threw for 400 yards and one touchdown, and should have had two more scores had DeSean Jackson not dropped two passes in the end zone. For a guy who is so concerned about his contract, Jackson isn’t playing with much concentration, focus, or drive right now. He was also benched by Andy Reid late in the fourth quarter, which signals that he’s just as likely to get the boot in Philly than a new deal.

- Matt Leinart admitted following the Texans’ 20-13 win over the Jaguars that his season is likely over. Dude waits two years to get another shot to start in the NFL and when he does, he breaks his collarbone in his second quarter back. That’s a tough break, both literally and figuratively. Now Houston’s playoff hopes ride on fifth-round rookie T.J. Yates, although it’s not like the Texans were pinning their hopes on great quarterback play from here on out anyway. If they win, it’ll be because of their running game and defense – not Leinart, Yates, or whomever they find while dumpster diving next week.

- I loved how CBS kept showing Tim Tebow sitting on the bench as the Chargers marched down the field in overtime trying to get into field goal range for a game-winning score. As if Tebow was going to summon some magical higher power to help Denver’s defense stuff Mike Tolbert on a 4-yard loss on 3rd-and-6 and force the Chargers to attempt a 53-yard-field goal instead of a 49-yarder. And then magically lead the Broncos down the field, get into field goal range and then win in come-from-behind fashion once again. I mean, let’s get real…….say again? That’s exactly what happened? For Tebow’s sake, are you serious? That CBS is genius…

- …in all seriousness, Denver’s defense deserves most, if not all of the credit for the team’s sudden turnaround. Tebow is 5-1 and has been incredibly clutch in the fourth quarter and in overtime, but without the Broncos’ defense holding opponents to 13 points or less he may not win a game. Von Miller is something special and John Fox has done wonders for Denver’s entire defense.

- Their mismanagement of Blaine Gabbert has made the front office and coaching staff in Jacksonville look like a bunch of clowns. Gabbert clearly wasn’t ready for NFL action when the Jaguars drafted him with the 10th overall pick last April, which was fine because David Garrard was still the starter. Gabbert could have held a clipboard in his first year before taking over next season or in 2013 when he was ready. But instead, the front office released Garrard and the Jaguars shoehorned Gabbert into the starting role right away. Then, because he’s been so ineffective over the past two months, the team had to bench him today against Houston in favor of Luke McCown. Had the Jags remained patient from the start this situation could have been avoided. But now Gabbert’s confidence has likely taken a huge hit and GM Gene Smith may lose his job for his poor decision-making this offseason.

- The Chargers are done and you wonder whether or not Norv Turner’s time in San Diego is up. If it is, maybe he should give serious consideration to staying an offensive coordinator. Stripped from all of his head-coaching responsibilities, I think the guy could win multiple Super Bowls again just calling plays. Granted, the Chargers only scored 13 points today but Turner’s version of the Air Coryell offense can often be very explosive. He just lacks whatever guys like Mike Tomlin have in order to inspire a football team. I don’t want to say what’s best for Turner because only he knows that. But as an outsider, I don’t think it would be such a bad thing if he finishes his coaching career up in the booth calling plays. (If the Chargers end his tenure in San Diego, that is.)

New York Jets Mark Sanchez points to the defense in the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills in week 12 of the NFL season at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on November 27, 2011. UPI /John Angelillo

- Only Mark Sanchez could throw for four touchdowns and still leave people doubting his abilities. I watched a good portion of the Jets’ 28-24 win over the Bills on Sunday and while Sanchez certainly executed in the red zone, he was shaky against a miserable Buffalo defense (which should have finished with more than just one interception). But at least New York picked up the win, which was big given New England’s victory against Philadelphia late on Sunday.

- I know it was only Minnesota but the Falcons’ offense is finally starting to resemble the unit that everyone thought it would at the beginning of the year. Matt Ryan went his second-straight game without turning the ball over and threw three touchdown passes, while Roddy White had his second straight 100-yard performance and made a sweet catch in the back of the end zone for his lone score during Atlanta’s 24-14 win. After two months of wasting his talent, OC Mike Mularkey has also finally figured out what a weapon Harry Douglas is in the slot. The next thing Mularkey has to do is stop using Julio Jones as just a complementary piece in the offense. Once that happens, the Falcons will really be firing on all cylinders.

- Speaking of firing on all cylinders, I give you the New England Patriots. Wes Welker: Eight catches, 115 yards, two touchdowns. Deion Branch (from my fantasy bench): Six catches and 125 yards. Aaron Hernandez: Six catches and 62 yards. Rob Gronkowski: A very quiet four catches for 59 yards and one 24-yard touchdown catch. Tom Brady topped everything off with 361 yards threw the air and three touchdowns. The Patriots are at their best when they get everybody involved a la the Saints and Packers. That was a very sound performance out of New England, which never panicked even though it was down 10-0 early to the Eagles.

Arizona Cardinals Patrick Peterson catches a punt by the St. Louis Rams before running it back for a 80 yard touchdown in the third quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on November 27, 2011. Arizona won the game 23-20. UPI/Bill Greenblatt

- If Beanie Wells could only stay healthy he could be one of the league’s premier backs. The Rams don’t have the greatest of defenses but Wells looked explosive while rushing for a record 228 yards on 27 carries in the Cardinals’ 23-20 win. He and Patrick Peterson (who returned his fourth punt return for touchdown this season) snatched victory from the jaws of defeat (other wise known as John Skelton).

- Outside of Chris Johnson’s 190 rushing yards, it wasn’t a great effort by the Titans in their 23-17 win over the Bucs. But all wins are huge for Tennessee from here on out. The Titans only trail the Texans by two games in the AFC South and now that Houston is down to T.J. Yates at quarterback, Tennessee has a very realistic shot of catching Houston down the stretch. For Tennessee, it’s “Just win baby” from here on out.

- The Browns are something else. They find new ways to lose every week. They managed to catch the Bengals sleepwalking today in Cincinnati but they squandered a 17-7 halftime lead and a 20-10 third-quarter lead to lose 23-20 on a last-second field goal. Joe Haden (who is a star in the making) was stuck to A.J. Green like Velcro for 58 minutes and the one big play Green makes goes for 51 yards to set up the Bengals’ game-winning field goal. Unreal. And Colt McCoy does just enough not to win every week. The kid threw two touchdown passes but he his average pass went for 4.4 yards. Four-point-four yards! The Browns need a little more out of McCoy than that.

- Want to know how bad things are right now for the Vikings? Percy Harvin had a 107-yard kickoff return today and still didn’t score a touchdown. That’s tough to do.

- You have to love Mike Shanahan. Five days ago he basically said that Roy Helu wasn’t ready to be the Redskins’ full-time back and then handed the rookie 30 touches in the team’s 23-17 win over the Seahawks on Sunday. Helu finished with 108 rushing yards and 54 receiving yards, with one touchdown and seven receptions to boot. I’m sure Evan Royster will start and receive the same opportunities next week as Shanahan continues to ruin fantasy football owners’ lives.

- While the Seahawks remain a highly perplexing team, Marshawn Lynch continues to be one of the steadiest backs in the league. For the third time in his last four games, Lynch rushed for over 100 yards and for the seventh straight week, he found the end zone. It came in a losing effort but he’s a free agent at the end of the year and if he continues to run like he has, he’ll be earning a long-term contract next offseason.

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