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Around the NFL: 10 Nuggets Heading into Free Agency

1. How about Roger Goodell pouring a big cup of antifreeze on everyone’s fun this past weekend? Due to a rule change that allowed teams to gauge the interest of prospective free agents, football fans hovered around Adam Schefter’s Twitter page thinking that free agency was essentially going to start at Midnight on Saturday morning. But Goodell’s memo to teams earlier that day killed everyone’s buzz. Here’s part of the memo, tweeted by Schefter that night: “Clubs are advised that prior to the beginning of the new League Year it is impermissible for a club to enter into an agreement of any kind, express or implied, oral or written, or promises, undertakings, representations, commitments, inducements, assurances of intent or understandings of any kind concerning the terms or conditions of employment offered to, or to be offered to, any prospective Unrestricted Free Agent for inclusion in a Player Contract after the start of the new League Year.” Deathly afraid of tampering, can you imagine how those conversations went on Friday night between teams and free agents? “Hi Mike Wallace, this is Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland. I just wanted to call and see if you liked the color teal in combination with white and a splash of orange. Yeah, no, I’m not asking you if you want to be a member of the Dolphins. That would be tampering. I’m specifically asking you about color scheme. You do like that color scheme? How about Joe Philbin? Do you like Joe Philbin’s face? Maybe you’d like to see more of Philbin, say, on a daily basis in the fall? Grrrrrrrrreat. Do you also hate purple and the entire state of Minnesota like most reasonable human beings do? Excellent. I’ll see you and your agent at 4:00PM ET on Tuesday then…”

2. People are getting caught up in whether or not the Chiefs should draft Luke Joeckel with the first overall pick when they just placed their franchise tag on Branden Albert. While it would be unprecedented for a team to draft a right tackle with the first overall pick, it doesn’t mean that Kansas City will shy away from arguably the safest prospect in this year’s class. Albert was one of the best pass-blocking offensive tackles in the league last year, but he also missed three games due to a back injury and who knows if the Chiefs will be able to lock him up long term. They could draft Joeckel, play him at right tackle and then re-asses the situation a year from now. If Albert’s back once again becomes an issue or the two sides can’t agree on a long-term deal, then the Chiefs have their left tackle of the future in Joeckel. If they lock Albert up long-term, then at worst they have two book-end tackles for the next six-plus years. Considering defensive coordinators constantly move pass rushers around in effort to create mismatches, that’s not exactly a worst-case scenario. And with no true No. 1 overall talent in this year’s draft, there’s no reason to bypass Joeckel with the top pick just because he could wind up playing right tackle.

3. The best thing for both the Jets and Darrelle Revis is if the cornerback drops off the map and shows up to OTAs healthy and in shape. Owner Woody Johnson isn’t being cheap – he just can’t pay Revis what he wants long-term because his former GM put the team in cap hell by handing out ridiculous contracts to players like Mark Sanchez. And since the Jets can’t afford him, Revis could help himself by not destroying his own trade value. This includes avoiding telling the media that it would be “awesome” to play for the 49ers and reiterating how you want to be the highest paid defensive player in the league. Potential trade partners are already leery about Revis’ knee, parting with premium draft picks, and clearing the necessary cap space to sign him long term. He doesn’t need to provide teams with more reasons to tell the Jets ‘thanks but no thanks.’

4. Percy Harvin’s situation in Minnesota seems combustible, but GM Rick Spielman has wisely suggested that the disgruntled wide receiver isn’t going anywhere. Some fans have opined that Spielman should trade Harvin and then sign a free agent receiver like Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings. But the Vikings are on the rise and thus, parting ways with a playmaker makes little sense. He’s already under contract and the team could potentially line up next year with Harvin, Jennings, Jarius Wright, Adrian Peterson and Kyle Rudolph, as opposed to some combination of Peterson, Rudolph, Jennings, Wright and an unproven rookie. And maybe a veteran like Jennings could have a profound impact on Harvin, who has seemingly alienating himself from coaches and teammates. While the defense and offensive line proved to be underrated, the Vikings made the playoffs last year almost solely riding Peterson’s coattails. Unless the situation is so bad that the team needs to wash its hands completely of Harvin as soon as possible, addition is key – not subtraction.

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Ten NFL storylines to follow this Offseason

From a slew of head-coaching changes to an unpredictable draft (even more so than usual), there’s no shortage of storylines to keep an eye on this NFL offseason. Here are 10 to follow over the next few months.

1. RGIII’s health.
Robert Griffin III vows to be ready by Week 1 of the regular season but in addition to damaging both his LCL and ACL, the dynamic quarterback also suffered a medial meniscus tear in the Redskins’ playoff loss to the Seahawks. While Adrian Peterson proved that ACL tears aren’t always a two-year injury, “All Day” was also a medical marvel. We’re talking about a guy who suffered a sports hernia injury in Week 10 and questioned whether or not he would be able to continue by Week 16, only to rush for 596 yards over the Vikings’ final four games (including playoffs). Not everyone is Adrian Peterson.

According to reports, RGIII was seen walking without a limp at “Media Week” down in New Orleans. But no matter how quickly he’s progressing with his rehab, the Redskins need to first be concerned with his the long-term health. If they rush him back and he suffers even further damage to his knee(s), his career could be in jeopardy. Mike Shanahan and Co. have a couple of months to evaluate the situation but at some point they’re going to be faced with the decision of whether or not to place RGIII on the regular season PUP list. While that would cost them their starting quarterback for the first six weeks of the season, riding Kirk Cousins over that stretch is a lot better than installing him as the franchise signal caller because RGIII’s knees are shot. For the Redskins, there’s more at stake here than just six weeks.

2. Newsome’s unenviable task of re-constructing the Ravens.
Whether anyone thinks Joe Flacco should be paid like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is rather moot. The going rate these days for franchise quarterbacks is $20 million per season, and Flacco proved in the postseason that he’s Baltimore’s franchise player. He may never put up the same jaw-dropping numbers that Brees has, but Flacco is worth his weight in gold to a team like the Ravens, who consistently draft well and will continue to compete under John Harbaugh and Ozzie Newsome. When you find a quarterback in this league (particularly a quarterback coming off one of the finest postseason performances in NFL history), you hang onto him. And in order to hang onto Flacco, the Ravens will pay the $20-plus million-a-year asking price.

No, the real storyline in Baltimore is whether or not Newsome can build another Super Bowl contender after he gets done paying Flacco. Ed Reed, Paul Kruger, Dannell Ellerbe and Bryant McKinnie all helped Baltimore win the Super Bowl this year and all four of them are unrestricted free agents this offseason. Receiver Anquan Boldin is also set to make $6 million, so he could be forced to either restructure his deal or become a cap casualty. (He said he’ll retire if Baltimore releases him.) Newsome build two entirely different Super Bowl winners over the past 12 years. But this offseason might offer him his biggest challenge to date. As one of the finest general managers in the NFL, Newsome is certainly up for the challenge but the pressure will also be on Harbaugh and his staff to win with younger players as Baltimore re-stocks through the draft.

3. No consensus No. 1 pick.
Ask 10 NFL analysts who they have rated No. 1 in this year’s draft and you might be supplied with 10 different answers. Some believe Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel is the safest pick in the draft but if the Chiefs re-sign Branden Albert than they have no use for Joeckel at No. 1. Besides, some think Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher is the best offensive tackle in the draft, not Joeckel.

Georgia’s Jarvis Jones, Texas A&M’s Damontre Moore and even Florida State’s Bjorn Werner’s names are atop some analyst’s rankings. Why so much uncertainty? Point to the fact that there’s no consensus top quarterback in his year’s draft class. Twelve of the last 15 first-overall selections have been quarterbacks, with only Jake Long (2008), Mario Williams (2006) and Courtney Brown (2000) being the exceptions. With no potential franchise signal caller to be had, the ultimate crapshoot is even more unpredictable than ever this year.

4. Veteran quarterbacks in limbo.
Flacco is the best free agent quarterback this offseason but the Ravens won’t allow him to escape Baltimore without at least slapping him with the franchise tag. That means backups will litter the open market, unless you still consider guys like Jason Campbell, Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Moore capable starters. (And why would you?)

The more intriguing names are Alex Smith, Michael Vick and Matt Flynn, who are all currently under contract but could become available either via trade or release at some point this offseason. While the 49ers will certainly honor Smith’s desire to start elsewhere, at the end of the day they don’t owe him anything (non-monetarily, that is). If they don’t acquire what they feel to be decent compensation for the 28-year-old veteran, they could use him as insurance behind Colin Kaepernick for another season. That may not be fair for Smith, but the Niners will ultimately do what’s best for the franchise.

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How will Driver’s quad injury affect the Steelers’ coverage units?

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings (L) and wide receiver Donald Driver play with a video camera prior to Media Day for Super Bowl XLV in Arlington, Texas on February 1, 2011. The Pittsburgh Steelers will take on the Green Bay Packers on February 6, 2011. UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg

Donald Driver was added to the Packers’ injury report on Thursday due to a problem with his quad, but Mike McCarthy says he would be shocked if his starting receiver doesn’t play in the Super Bowl.

I’d also be shocked if Driver doesn’t play, as the injury doesn’t sound serious enough to hold him out. That said, how effective will he be? If he’s being held out of practice (even for precautionary measures), then it stands to reason that he’s not at full strength. Will his injury have an effect on the Packers’ passing game?

It’ll be interesting to see what coverages Dick LeBeau uses on Sunday. The Steelers run mostly a cover-2 like the Bears, although LeBeau knows that his corners will also have to man-up in certain situations, which may be a problem seeing as how Bryant McFadden is dealing with an abdominal injury.

With Driver hurt, will LeBeau use Ike Taylor on Greg Jennings and take his chances with McFadden on Driver? Or will he want Taylor to take away Driver and have McFadden cover Jennings with safety help over the top?

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pittsburgh go to their nickel or even dime package plenty of times throughout the night. But LeBeau wants to avoid the dime as much as possible because that means Lawrence Timmons, a good cover linebacker, comes off the field in favor of Anthony Madison. That’s an advantage for the Packers, just as it was when the Patriots crushed Pittsburgh 39-26 back in November when the Steelers used a lot of dime.

Assuming Driver’s injury isn’t a major concern, the Packers must get the Steelers out of their base defense as much as possible. Again, it’s a major advantage to them to face Pittsburgh’s nickel and dime units because it limits what LeBeau can do with his front seven.

Four questions surrounding Super Bowl XLV

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In our final sponsored post for T.G.I. Friday’s, here are five questions surrounding the Packers and Steelers as they prepare for Super Bowl XLV.

1. Can the Steelers’ O-line hold up?
While the team hasn’t officially ruled him out, it appears as though center Maurkice Pouncey won’t play on Sunday. That means Doug Legursky will once again take his place, just as he did in the AFC title game when Pouncey first suffered the high ankle sprain. Legursky could probably start for many teams around the league, but he’s not the same player Pouncey is. He’s not as strong at the point of attack and he isn’t the mauler Pouncey is in the running game. There’s no doubt Legursky will have his hands full against Packers’ NT B.J. Raji, who has had quite the postseason so far. Of course, Legursky might not be the Steelers’ biggest problem along their offensive line. People forget that they’re starting two backup offensive tackles in Flozell Adams and Jonathan Scott, and the latter could have a ton of problems with Clay Matthews. Granted, the Steelers have averaged nearly four touchdowns thus far in the postseason, so clearly they’ve been able to mask their weaknesses. That said, whether or not their O-line can hold up against the Packers’ stout pass-rush is arguably the biggest question surrounding their chances of winning.

2. Will the Packers be able to slow Mendenhall?
When Rashard Mendenhall rushed for over 80 yards this season (including in the playoffs), the Steelers were 6-1. The Packers had trouble this year with power rushing attacks. When teams were patient with the running game and kept pounding the edges of Green Bay’s defense, they had a fair amount of success. The Packers yielded 4.5 yards per carry this season, which was among the worst in the NFL in that category. If the Steelers can get Mendenhall going early, they’ll accomplish a couple of things in the process. For starters, they’ll leave Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay’s high-powered passing game on the sidelines. The Steelers will also be able to control the tempo of the game and if Green Bay’s safeties have to come up and play run support, then Pittsburgh could open up the play action pass. The Packers must stop Mendenhall.

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Super Bowl XLV Prediction: Steelers vs. Packers

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers throws a pass against the New York Jets in the second quarter in week 8 of the NFL season at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey on October 31, 2010. The Packers defeated the Jets 9-0. UPI /John Angelillo

When I saw that oddsmakers had made the Packers 2.5-point favorites for Super Bowl XLV, my immediate reaction was: “Pittsburgh’s an underdog? Ha! Give me the Steelers…you’re welcome.”

Why wouldn’t you take the Steelers on Sunday? They’ve played in two Super Bowls the past six years and won them both. They have a more experienced head coach who oversees a more experienced quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger is 2-0 in the “big one” and thanks to Dick LeBeau’s guidance, Pittsburgh’s defense often resembles an immovable force.

But then I got to thinking: Tom Brady lost in the Super Bowl, as did Peyton Manning and Brett Favre. Bill Belichick has lost in the championship, as has Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher and even Tom Landry.

Experience flies out the window once that ball has been kicked off the tee at the start of the game. What football essentially comes down to is execution, avoiding mistakes and beating the guy across from you.

Both of these teams can execute. Both of these teams can limit mistakes and both of these teams have the players on each side of the ball that can win individual battles. Which team will accomplish those three feats on Sunday is anyone’s guess, and that’s the great thing about this particular matchup – it’s so even.

But when you get down to the brass tacks, the Steelers have a big problem along their offensive line. Losing Maurkice Pouncey hurts, but having two offensive tackles that are below average pass-blockers is a bigger problem when you consider the Packers finished second in the league in sacks. Granted, Pittsburgh finished first in that category but I have more faith in Green Bay’s O-line protecting Aaron Rodgers than I do the Steelers’ front five protecting Big Ben.

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