‘Major war’ is on regarding NFL’s return to Los Angeles

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The NFL’s Battle for LA is on. Only “battle” might not be the right word for it.

“It’s a war — a major war,” one plugged-in source said.

But you’d never get that impression from the smiling, polite tones of owners and executives on Monday at the Arizona Biltmore resort.

At a late-morning session on Day 1 of the NFL annual meeting, a presentation by NFL executive vice-president Eric Grubman updated owners on where things stand with regard to Los Angeles.

Returning a franchise to LA finally is a front-burner matter. Three clubs have expressed a desire to relocate there, tied to competing stadium plans.

In January, St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke partnered with Stockbridge Capital Group. The Los Angeles Times on Sunday reported that Kroenke and Stockbridge have schematic plans for a futuristic, privately financed, 80,000-seat, $1.86-billion stadium in Inglewood.

Kroenke is the NFL’s third richest owner according to Forbes, with a net worth of $6.3 billion.

In an attempt not to be outdone, the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders announced last month they’re in cahoots to relocate to a snazzy new stadium planned for the LA suburb of Carson, with that city’s hearty backing.

Commissioner Roger Goodell last month formed a committee on LA that includes power owners Robert Kraft (Patriots), Bob McNair (Texans) and John Mara (Giants).

The last time LA had an NFL team was 1994, after which the Rams and Raiders relocated to their current homes.

Both the Chargers (owned by Alex Spanos) and Raiders (owned by Mark Davis, son of Al) play in stadiums built in the 1960s, the oldest in the AFC.

Both teams for years had got nowhere trying to convince local authorities to commit significant public-sector funding to either replace or significantly upgrade their outdated stadiums. Ditto with the Rams in St. Louis with their 20-year-old stadium.

But now — tada! — politicians in all three markets are mounting rushed, invigorated efforts to keep their NFL clubs, dangling promises of a shiny new stadium.

No one knows the league’s preference. No club has the right to relocate to without approval of at least 23 other owners.

“I really believe that within the next year we’ll have two teams in this market,” Kraft told a scrum of reporters, re LA. “We have some real good options. Now we’ll see what happens with the end game.”

Kroenke and his dazzling stadium would seem to have a substantial leg up.

“The Rams are flying high right now,” a source in the franchise-relocation business told Sun Media recently, “but I guarantee you the Rams will not fly high all the way through.

“I’ve never seen anything go so far, so smoothly, as Kroenke’s plan with Inglewood. But at some point it’s going to get ugly — guaranteed.”

No decision on LA is expected before the fall.

In an interview with several reporters after Monday’s meetings, Grubman told Sun Media the league has informed politicians in St. Louis, Oakland and San Diego they don’t have until next Jan. 1 to Feb. 15 (the usual window for NFL teams to file relocation intentions).

But giving the locals up to another half-year to mount credible counter-offers could make a messy situation (of one or two franchises relocating) even messier. Grubman said he doesn’t look at it that way.

“I would take that all day long,” Grubman told Sun Media, “because our job is to do everything we can to make a team successful, and give everybody all the tools necessary, to make it successful in its home market.

“Our job is to not rip teams out. It’s to keep them there and make sure they can be successful. It’s also to develop new markets that have substantial potential. So that is a really high-class problem that we’ll figure out how to navigate through.

“It means someone’s not going to get exactly what they want, but it also means there are healthy markets — and that’s the name of the game.”

Kraft said the league is determined not to proceed recklessly.

“I think we have to be very careful and responsible to different markets that step up (with new stadium plans),” he said.

And if one is St. Louis?

“I think we have a responsibility to make sure we have a team in that market,” Kraft said.

“From my point of view, if they come up with a plan that looks pretty good and a strong financial package, I think we the NFL — in my opinion — have to have a team in St. Louis … But they have to be able to support the team.”

Grubman said the league will now investigate over the next 6-8 weeks exactly what the St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland markets plan to offer.

But, as I asked Kraft, what if all three markets step up? Is there any chance no team relocates to LA?

“Somehow, I feel that we’ll have at least one team in LA,” Kraft said.

Perhaps what’s most intriguing about the process behind the scenes is that the owners’ decision might come down to a popularity contest: Kroenke vs. Spanos/Davis. Insiders say the notoriously aloof Kroenke has a helluva lot of work to do in that regard.

However the LA dominos fall, the vacated market(s) won’t acquire a new team via expansion. Grubman said as much, as did Kraft.

“I don’t see expansion being an option,” Kraft said. “So any community that’s privileged to have a team? Love ’em up.”

 

Davis ‘cautiously optimistic’
Raiders can stay in Oakland

PHOENIX, Ariz. – Owner Mark Davis told Sun Media on Monday he’s “cautiously optimistic” a deal can be struck to keep his Raiders in Oakland, to scotch a relocation to Los Angeles.

I asked Davis if he’s now optimistic a deal can be done with local municipalities to replace five-decade old O.co Coliseum.

“I’m always optimistic — cautiously optimistic, let me put it that way,” he said.

The Raiders are in league with the San Diego Chargers in a plan to jointly relocate to Los Angeles and play at a new stadium in Carson. The St. Louis Rams aim to relocate to Inglewood and play in a planned new stadium there.

“Well, there are two great sites, there are three teams,” Davis said. “And all three teams are still working in their current markets trying to get something done, and we’ll see what happens.”

 

NFL rubs out TV blackout rule

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The NFL’s despised TV blackout rule has faded to black.

On Monday the league announced the rule is toast — ostensibly just for 2015, but probably for good.

Since the early 1970s, the league has “blacked out” local telecasts of games within 75 miles of a team, if it does not sell out all non-luxury-box seats 72 hours before kickoff.

Last year no league games were blacked out — a first.

You’d think lower-market teams that struggle to sell out games — such as the Buffalo Bills late each season — would be displeased by the development.

But Bills president Russ Brandon gave no such indication in an interview on Monday.

“We continue to always work within the rules of the league,” he said.
“And it doesn’t change our focus at all — selling out every game.

“It doesn’t alter our business strategy. Our job is to make sure we have a compelling product for people to come watch, and a great experience at the stadium, and that doesn’t change whatsoever.”

Bottom line: Canadians from coast to coast who live within 75 miles of an NFL team don’t have to worry about TV blackouts in 2015.

 

FIRST NFL WEBCAST:

The league announced that the Bills-Jaguars game played at Wembley Stadium in London, England, on Oct. 25 will be the league’s first to be seen over a “worldwide digital platform.”

That is, over the Internet.

The game will be televised only to the local Jacksonville and Buffalo (and presumably, by usual extension, Central Ontario) markets.

 

BILLS TICKET SALES UP:

Brandon said Bills’ season-ticket sales are up about 4,000 over last year — from “47 and change” to “now close to 51,000.”

The club record is just over 57,000, Brandon said.

The increase is not attributable to big-name player signings this month, Brandon said.

“We’ve been pacing very well, actually, since the conclusion of last year. Selling ‘seasons’ is a year-round business … and we still have a lot of work yet to do.”

 

CATCH RULE INDEED REWORDED:

As Sun Media reported Sunday night, the NFL’s competition committee on Monday announced that the controversial “complete the catch to the ground” rule remains in place, but with altered wording.

“In order to complete a catch,” NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino told a news conference, “the receiver has to have control, both feet on the ground and he has to have it after that long enough to clearly establish himself as a runner.”

Dez Bryant did not do as much, Blandino said, on his controversial overturned catch in the Dallas Cowboys’ divisional-playoff loss at Green Bay.

I’ll say it again: the NFL should draft a rule that makes Bryant’s catch a catch — because, for all the world, it was.

 

COMPENSATORY PICKS:

The NFL awarded 32 compensatory draft picks to 14 teams Monday night.

Denver, Kansas City and Seattle led the way with four apiece. Baltimore and Houston got three each.

A team that loses more — or better — free agents than it acquires in the previous league year is eligible to receive such compensatory draft picks, by a complicated, undisclosed formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honours.

Again this year, the additional draft picks are positioned between the third and seventh rounds, based on the net value of free agents lost.

This year’s recipients for the April 30 to May 2 draft are (with number of compensatory picks in parentheses):

  • Denver, K.C., Seattle (4)
  • Baltimore, Houston (3)
  • Carolina, Cincinnati, Green Bay, New England, San Francisco (2)
  • Arizona, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, St. Louis (1)

 

KROENKE MUST SELL:

A source told Sun Media that St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke has been given a Dec. 15 deadline to sell the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and NBA’s Denver Nuggets. The NFL disallows owners from owning major pro-team franchises except in their NFL team’s market, so these moves have been inevitable. Now there’s a deadline attached. It’s believed he’ll just sell the Avs and Nuggets to his son, Josh Kroenke, despite the enormous tax hits.

 

A.P. WANTS OUT:

Ben Dogra, agent for RB Adrian Peterson, told USA Today that “we want out of Minnesota.” The Vikings don’t seem to be budging on wanting him back. Yet trade speculation continues to swirl.

 

NEW DISCIPLINE CZAR:

Commissioner Roger Goodell formally punted responsibility for disciplining players and league employees over incidents of misconduct.

Todd Jones, former director of the U.S.’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is joining the league as a special counsel for conduct, owners were told Monday.

Lisa Friel, the former New York DA’s office prosecutor for sex crimes, will oversee misconduct investigations in the NFL.

 

EXTRA POINTS:

Patriots owner Robert Kraft said expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 teams won’t happen this year. The buzz remains, however, that the move is inevitable and will go into effect once owners can agree on what day on wild-card weekend to play the fifth game … The Miami Dolphins extended the contract of head coach Joe Philbin by one year, through 2016 … The league is considering staging a Pro Bowl in Brazil, FOX Sports’ Alex Marvez reported … Saints GM Mickey Loomis told USA Today the club has no intention to trade QB Drew Brees. Similarly, Chargers GM Tom Telesco told ESPN “it’s not even on our radar” to trade their veteran QB, Phil Rivers … The Cardinals signed WR Nathan Slaughter, the first and only player so far scooped up after Sunday’s less-than-impressive combine for unattached former NFLers … The competition committee officially announced it has not endorsed any of the 13 rules proposals to expand the scope of video replay.

 

 

The threshold for ‘completing a catch to the ground’ in NFL is changing, and Packers prez tells Sun Media how

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The threshold for what constitutes a catch when a receiver falls to the ground is changing, a member of the league’s competition committee told Sun Media on Sunday.

In a conference call last week, the committee announced that the controversial “complete-the-catch-to-the-ground” rule will stay, with different wording revealed to owners on Monday, when the league’s annual meeting kicks off here at the Arizona Biltmore resort.

Green Bay Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy explained in an interview with Sun Media how the wording — and threshold — will change.

“It’s really putting an emphasis on if you can establish yourself as a runner,” Murphy said, as owners, executives, GMs and coaches continued to arrive for the annual meeting, which concludes Wednesday.

“If you can establish that you’re a runner, then by definition you’re not going to the ground.”

New York Giants co-owner John Mara confirmed what Murphy said in a scrum with a handful of reporters.

“You’ve got to have at least two feet on the ground and clearly demonstrate that you’re a runner,” Mara said, per Jim Corbett of USA Today.

Murphy raised the example of the NFC divisional playoff game in January by which his team, the Packers, benefitted by the rule — when replay overturned what looked for all the world like a catch by Dez Bryant, that might have set up a late go-ahead touchdown by Dallas.

“Dez Bryant was falling to the ground,” Murphy said. “He couldn’t establish himself as a runner.”

Um, even though Bryant took three steps, switched the ball to a different hand and lunged toward the goal line?

“Well, if you watch it — and we’ve got video on it — there’s a real difference between being able to run, and what the rule used to be: ‘make a football move,’” Murphy said.

That suggests that the current addendum to Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 — often referred to as defining “a football move” — is toast.

That addendum states that when a receiver falls to the ground upon making a catch attempt, it’s a reception only if the receiver “maintains control of the ball long enough … to enable him to perform any act common to the game (i.e., maintaining control long enough to pitch it, pass it, advance with it, or avoid or ward off an opponent, etc.).”

The apparent new wording of the rule would be both a conceptual improvement and a victory for brevity. Even though the rule still is stupid, it says here.

Bryant caught that ball. Figure out a rule that makes it so.

What’s more, isn’t changing a threshold in a rule tantamount to changing that rule? Shouldn’t it have been included among the proposed rules changes?

“I think it’s really just a clarification, not a rule change,” Murphy said.

As for other matters at the annual meeting, the most impactful will be the discussion about Los Angeles. That is, whether one, two or perhaps even no clubs will eventually relocate to Los Angeles.

St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke has joined up with an investment group to privately finance a futuristic $1.86-billion, 80,000-seat stadium on obtained property in Inglewood. The San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders are in cahoots to build a different stadium in Carson.

No resolution will come here, nor likely not before the fall. But you can bet that behind the scenes, huddled discussions will take place as to which initiative owners might ultimately back.

Meantime, owners will vote by midday Wednesday whether to approve, reject or table the official 28 playing-rule, bylaw and resolution proposals.

These include expanding video replay in myriad ways, lengthening the extra-point kick by 13 yards, minimum two-possession overtimes, eliminating the 75-man roster cutdown, and experimenting in the preseason with possible nine-point touchdowns.

Murphy echoed other competition-committee members in saying the 13 video-replay rules proposals have little chance of passing.

“I know there’s a sense that the rules that have been proposed are taking replay beyond what it was originally intended to be,” Murphy told Sun Media.

“The argument for change is, Why don’t we use this great technology to improve the game? But I think our view is, Let’s improve the on-field officiating, rather than changing — quite dramatically — instant-replay rules.”

At least 75% of owners must endorse any change. That means 24 of 32. So if all nine members of the competition committee (who are from different teams) are unanimous in opposing any rule change, and so long as their voting owners agree with them, then there’s mathematically no chance of approval.

We’ll learn on Monday or Tuesday which teams have been awarded compensatory draft picks this year, essentially for having lost more or better free agents in 2014 than they signed.

As for the various league investigations into alleged shady behaviour by team personnel, don’t expect any judgments or punishments to be handed out here. A cynic would predict that it’ll happen soon afterward.

The investigations: Deflate-gate; the admission by Cleveland Browns GM Ray Farmer that he texted a coach during a game (forbidden by NFL bylaws); the charge that the Falcons piped in recorded crowd noise at home games (also forbidden by NFL edict); and the tampering charge against New York Jets owner Woody Johnson for publicly saying in December he’d like to have star cornerback Darrelle Revis back, when he was still under contract with the Patriots.

 

 

Expanding video replay, longer conversion kicks and even 9-point touchdowns among NFL rule-change proposals

NFL owners next week will consider a slew of game-altering rules changes.

These include expanding video replay, a longer extra-point kick, minimum two-possession overtimes — even the possibility for a nine-point touchdown.

The NFL announced 23 playing-rule proposals in all on Wednesday, along with one resolution and four by-law proposals.

Owners will vote next Wednesday whether to implement any of them at the league’s annual meeting in Phoenix. At least 75% of owners (24 of the 32) must endorse any change.

Eighteen of the playing-rule changes come directly from teams, and 13 of those concern the replay-review system. One submitted by the Detroit Lions would allow all penalties, including pass interference and holding, to be challenged by coaches.

Currently, judgment calls are not reviewable.

At the NFL scouting combine last month, I straw-polled some coaches on this idea. Several, including Buffalo’s Rex Ryan and Arizona’s Bruce Arians, said they’d changed their minds and were now on board with it.

“Yeah, we got a sense for that,” St. Louis Rams head coach Jeff Fisher said in Indianapolis. He’s the de facto co-chair of the competition committee, which is composed of one owner, three executives, two GMs and three coaches.

Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis, a committee member, dismissed the idea, saying, “No one is in favour of expanding (replay to include) judgment calls.”

On Wednesday’s conference call to announce the various proposals, Fisher left little doubt that Detroit’s is being passed along to owners without the competition committee’s endorsement.

“We discussed it at length,” Fisher said. “To simply put things, the head coach would become an official on the field. It (would) be our responsibility now to determine whether or not these are fouls (before deciding whether to challenge). We don’t wanna go there.

“This replay system was never designed to involve fouls. We think it’s our responsibility to improve the quality of officiating (with) a standard. We frame-by-framed a lot of things, and it’s just not something we support.”

Without the competition committee’s support, don’t expect the owners to approve such a wholesale expansion of replay.

Other video-replay proposals (submitted irrespective of each other) include:

  • increasing the number of coaches’ challenges from two to three;
  • initiating a coach’s challenge not by throwing a red flag but merely by calling timeout;
  • expanding replay to include personal fouls;
  • expanding replay to include fouls against defenceless players;
  • expanding replay to include plays that would result in a score or change of possession;
  • expanding replay to include penalties that result in an automatic first down;
  • expanding replay to challenge the game clock at the end of a half or overtime;
  • expanding replay to challenge play-clock expiry;
  • and putting fixed video cameras along all boundary and goal lines, and allow such stadium-produced video to be used in reviews.

Among the other playing-rule proposals, the most controversial — and interesting — would be that submitted by the Indianapolis Colts.

They propose that a team that goes for a two-point conversion, and gets it, be allowed to score an additional point by attempting a placekick snapped from 32 yards out. In effect, a 50-yard field goal.

If your kicker makes it, you’ve just score a nine-point touchdown.

The reason for this rule change? Ostensibly to encourage more two-point attempts.

But the side effect would be to make leads slightly more precarious. If one team leads by nine, it’s still a one-score game. And the threshold to be up by three scores would rise to 19 points, from 17. And so on.

The New England Patriots propose merely that the extra-point kick be snapped from the 15-yard line (meaning a 33-yard kick), instead of from the 2 (a 20-yard kick). Teams going for two points would still snap the ball from the 2.

Last season, placekickers missed only eight of 1,230 conversion kicks, compared to 5-of-1,267 misses the season before — both well over 99% success rates.

The Chicago Bears propose that both teams be allowed a possession in overtime, even if the first possessor scores a touchdown.

The competition committee submitted five rule changes of its own. Two are subtle tweaks to make the game safer. One would allow linebackers to wear jersey numbers in the 40s. Another would allow an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty at the end of a half to be applied at the beginning of the next.

The fifth would make it illegal for an offensive player with a pass-receiver-eligible number to report as ineligible, and line up outside the core of the formation — as the Patriots got away with in the playoffs.

The reason for eliminating this loophole? “Competitive fairness,” according to the committee’s proposal.

Expanding the playoffs field from 12 teams to 14 remains in the owners’ hands, but there appears to be little momentum to make this change.

Regarding probably the most ridiculous rule in the book — the so-called “Calvin Johnson” rule requiring a receiver to “complete the catch to the ground” — no change is proposed, per se.

But, competition committee chairman Rich McKay said Wednesday, his group took “a look at the language,” and on Monday will put before owners a wording cleanup.

 

Eliminating 75-man roster cutdown among by-law proposals

Among four NFL by-law amendments going before owners next week, one would eliminate the 75-man cutdown on the Tuesday following the third preseason weekend.

That means squads could keep 90 players right up to the 53-man cutdown on the last preseason Saturday — basically, for another four days.

Another would prevent teams at their facilities from timing and field-testing prospective draftees, if those players attended the league-wide scouting combine.

Teams can only work out players in such ways before the draft either in a player’s hometown or in his college town. So this second workout benefits teams in large cities that produce larger numbers of star college players — the Miami Dolphins, for instance — compared to teams whose cities don’t, such as Green Bay and Buffalo.

The one proposed resolution change would allow teams with a retractable domed stadium to open its lid at halftime.

 

 

 

 

5 questions with new Bills QB Matt Cassel

Who says Matt Cassel can’t run the read-option like Colin Kaepernick? Not Matt Cassel.

“That’s all I’m asking for, is that zone-read,” the new Buffalo Bills quarterback joked in a phone interview with Sun Media on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after being introduced to the press.

“Let me keep it, right? Let me run it … yeah, for like five yards before I get tackled.”

Then Cassel laughed.

Of course he wasn’t serious. Well, mostly not serious.

Bills GM Doug Whaley and new head coach Rex Ryan didn’t acquire the 10-season NFL veteran in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings to run the read-option.

It was new Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman who sprang some breathtakingly successful read-option elements on NFL defences midway through the 2012 season, after the Niners benched successful Alex Smith and elevated Kaepernick, then a little-known second-year from the University of Nevada.

For the rest of that season, and for much of 2013, Kap bewildered the league with a combo of breathtaking speed on scrambles and read-option plays, and in a big-armed vertical passing attack. Kaepernick regressed significantly last season.

If Cassel is to start in Buffalo, Roman likely will employ more traditional play-action schemes, like those he employed when Smith passed the Niners to the NFC championship game in 2011, and early in 2012.

Cassel was the barely-used backup in 2008 who quarterbacked the New England Patriots to 11 wins after Tom Brady blew out a knee early in the opener; who underwhelmed as the K.C. Chiefs’ starter over the next four seasons; who eventually took over for Christian Ponder as the starter  in Minnesota in 2013; and who started the Vikings’ first three games last September before a broken ankle ended his season.

Roman is Cassel’s eighth offensive coordinator in the past seven seasons. Crazy, right?

Cassel turns 33 in May. Whatever Roman might draw up for him and EJ Manuel, against whom he’ll compete for the starting job, Cassel won’t let anyone dismiss him entirely as a runner. That’s one of several topics he addressed in our phone interview:

 

1. In what ways are you a better quarterback now, compared to earlier in your NFL career?

“You grow as the years go on. From defensive recognition, to route concepts, to understanding where there might be problem areas, to when you need to get to your check-downs and those kinds of things. It comes with experience, it comes with playing.

“It’s night and day from when I was a rookie, when my head was spinning, just trying to figure out what I’m doing out there. Now it’s completely different. I think you grow every single year. You come to know more about your strengths, and the things you want to work on as well.”

 

2. You’re one of a bunch of NFL quarterbacks in their mid to late 30s, still having quite an impact. How do you account for that?

“I think quarterback is one of those positions where they don’t always check our 40 times. If we can still deliver the football and do the right things and be good team players, I think that makes a big difference. From a physical standpoint, we might have lost a step or two — I’m not saying I have! — but you might lose a step or two in speed, but that doesn’t impact our game as much as it might a receiver, or running back, or a position like that. So I think that allows us to play with more longevity, as long as you’re doing your job well, and correctly.”

 

3. What’s the most under-appreciated part of your game? Arm strength maybe?

“You know what? I would have to say it’s the times I take off and run. I can run a little bit. Just a little bit. Nobody ever accounts for me. I know it, because defences don’t ever put a spy on me, let’s be honest. I know I’m looked at as a pocket passer, but I can take off and run a little bit myself.”

 

4. Do you think you’re a good fit for Greg Roman’s style of offence?

“I’ve just met him over the last few days, obviously. I’ve got a lot of respect for what he did at San Francisco. His resume is great. I’m excited to play for him, but I haven’t even seen the playbook. So I can’t sit here and tell you that this, that or the other is a perfect fit. I hope I’m a great fit — because they see me as a great fit, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I’m excited to get immersed in the playbook and start running some of these concepts and plays and go.”

 

5. You never started a game at USC, and rode the bench for your first three years in the NFL. Is part of your motivation still to prove to your doubters that you belong in the NFL?

“There’s always motivation — to play better and win championships, otherwise you shouldn’t be doing this. The reason you’re competing at this level is to try to win championships. That’s my motivation. It’s not to prove anybody wrong. I’ve been in the league so long now, for 11 years, so I’m past the point of worrying whether I belong or not. I’ve been around long enough to understand that I’ve made a career out of this.”

- -

Busy Bills aren’t done by a long shot

The Buffalo Bills continue boldly trying to upgrade their roster. Here’s what they did Wednesday:

  • Brought free-agent Percy Harvin into their Orchard Park, N.Y., headquarters in the hopes of signing the dynamic if sometimes divisive WR/KR.
  • Continued wooing transition-tagged Dolphins TE Charles Clay, but the Cleveland Browns jumped into the battle. If either the Bills or Browns officially offers Clay, the Dolphins would have a week to match it.
  • Perhaps toward that end, cut eight-year TE Scott Chandler. He would have made $2 million this season.
  • Officially signed free-agent FB Jerome Felton, the former Minnesota Viking, for $9.2 million over four years, with $4 million guaranteed. GM Doug Whaley admitted last month that the team was starting from scratch at fullback, a position valued by new head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. ProFootballFocus.com ranked Felton the league’s seventh best last season.
  • Gave 10-year DT Kyle Williams a $10.5-million, three-year contract extension. Presumably this will reduce his 2015 cap hit from $6.4 million.
  • Brought in free-agent QB Tyrod Taylor for a visit. Taylor quietly backed up Joe Flacco in Baltimore for four years.

 

Bills’ $40M foursome aims to get even better, re-signed Jerry Hughes says

After re-signing defensive end Jerry Hughes on Monday, the Buffalo Bills now have $40 million tied up in their defensive line.

In starters alone. For just this year.

The Bills are operating with a $145.78-million carryover-adjusted salary cap in 2015, and 27.5% of it is devoted to the starting defensive front four, in this manner:

  • **    ends Hughes ($6.17 million cap hit) and Mario Williams ($19.4 million);
  • **    tackles Marcell Dareus ($8.06 million) and Kyle Williams ($6.4 million).

That’s a sack of money. But then this $40-million foursome might be the league’s best sackers.

In a phone interview shortly after his news conference at team headquarters in Orchard Park, N.Y., Hughes said the unit can get even better, and intends to.

A whole lot better.

“Absolutely,” said the 26-year-old veteran of five NFL seasons. “We can grow tremendously. It’s just Year 3 for me in Buffalo. We have a lot to grow on, especially just chemistry-wise. That will come just over time.

“And then there are little things that we can work on to get better as a unit.”

Kyle Williams has been a Bill for nine seasons; Dareus, for four; Mario Williams, for three. Since Hughes joined that trio two years ago, no NFL team has more sacks than the Bills’ 111; Buffalo finished second in the league in 2013 with 57, and first last year — even under a markedly different scheme — with 54.

Hughes had 10 sacks in each season. His speed around the edge is his great pass-rushing attribute.

One team in 2015 that might rival Buffalo in the sack department this year is AFC East division rival Miami. The Dolphins on Tuesday will add Ndamukong Suh to an already dangerous D-line that features elite edge rusher Cameron Wake.

I asked Hughes if he and his D-line teammates compare themselves to other units in the league such as Miami’s, or aim to be regarded as No. 1.

“No. For us, it’s team goals first, before we ever think about individual unit goals,” he said. “I think we always strive for going out there and being the best defence.”

Williams, Williams, Dareus and Hughes clamped down much better against the run last season, improving from 28th in the league in 2013 under then co-ordinator Mike Pettine (129 yards allowed per game) to 11th (106 per game) under the departed Jim Schwartz.

“That was something we really wanted to focus, because we didn’t do too well with it the previous year. When you have another great defensive mind coming in, to add to it, you know it’s just going to make you even better that way.”

Hughes means new head coach Rex Ryan, who will mastermind the 2015 Bills defence. His figures to look a lot like that of his former long-time protégé’s, Pettine.

Did that knowledge factor into Hughes’ decision to remain in Buffalo, rather than sign elsewhere as a free agent?

“Any time you get the opportunity to lock up with a defensive guru like Rex Ryan, you definitely want to be a part of that mix,” Hughes said. “He’s a fantastic defensive coach, so you know he’s going to draw up things that are going to work out well for our team.”

At his news conference, Hughes said unfinished business was another strong reason for him to stay in Buffalo.

“We finished 9-7,” he said. “I wanted to come back with these guys so we could take care of that and get that (playoff goal) accomplished. We had a pretty good year last year, but as the year finished up we all sat in our room and we came to the conclusion that we can do better.”

And he can get better too, Hughes said. He said it’s almost time to burrow deep into self-analysis.

“That’s what I do in the off-season — look at myself on film, game by game, play by play, and just try to figure out what I can improve with my game,” Hughes told me.

“That’s something I always do in April, me just critiquing myself.”

Hughes sounded ready to jump straight into that, without allowing himself any time to, well, celebrate. After all the Bills just gave him a new five-year, $45-million contract, with $20 million guaranteed, reports say.

What’s that like, to finally hit jackpot — when two years ago at this time he was basically seen as a first-round bust in Indianapolis, his previous team?

“Oh, man, it’s an amazing feeling — almost surreal, in a sense. But now you kind of want to do it again, so it’s back to work.

“The day is here now, and you want to just get back to work so you can continue it. So now I’m already thinking about ways I can improve myself, and improve my game, so I can just continue to grow and get better.”

 

 

Toronto’s Orlando Franklin about
to sign $36.5M deal with Chargers

Toronto’s Orlando Franklin is about to cash in big-time in NFL free agency.

Numerous reports on Monday said the versatile offensive lineman, previously of the Denver Broncos, has agreed to terms on a five-year, $36.5-million deal with the San Diego Chargers.

Some $20 million of it is guaranteed.

Pending free agents cannot sign new deals until the beginning of the new league year, Tuesday at 4 p.m. EDT.

Franklin played right tackle for his first three years in Denver. Last season he was moved to left guard, where his effectiveness increased. ProFootballFocus.com rated Franklin as one of the NFL’s better guards, who allowed only eight QB pressures by season’s end.

PFF said he was the top free-agent guard available this off-season.

You can’t help but feel good for Franklin, given his rags-to-riches story.

Born in Jamaica, from age 3 to 16 he grew up in a Toronto Housing unit in a rough neighbourhood of north Scarborough — Victoria Park and Sheppard.

As he told colleague Mike Zeisberger at Super Bowl XLVIII, Franklin got mixed up with the wrong crowd as a behemoth of a youth and kept making bad decisions. He twice spent time in a juvenile detention facility.

Football helped to give Franklin the focus and motivation to turn his young life around. He did, and today he doesn’t take any of his good fortune for granted.

Franklin, 27, likes to spend much of his off-seasons back home, in Scarborough, where quietly and continuously he gives back to local disadvantaged youth.

Two years ago at a charity bowling event he’d organized for such kids, the 6-foot-7, 330-pounder told me he wished he’d got his life turned around even earlier.

“If I would have had someone talk to me when I was younger, I would have been a Top 5 (NFL draft) pick,” said Franklin, who was selected in the second round by Denver in 2011.

“That’s why I’m motivated. I KNOW I can influence these kids, I know I can change some — make a little kid’s life that much better.”

That day two years ago, Franklin just shook his head at reports that summer of NFLers engaging in various law-breaking behaviours.

“This is my thing,” Franklin said. “What would I be, if I’m talking to these kids, pushing the whole anti-bullying aspect of my foundation also, but I’m out there doing stupid things?

“Growing up in Toronto, I would see all these kids around me doing the wrong thing, but I would never have anybody come tell me how to do the RIGHT thing.

“So I feel it’s really important to come talk to these kids and let them know like, no matter what people said I was going to be, I became exactly what I WANTED to be in life. And they can do the exact same thing.”

Those close to Franklin said he really is as humble and as big-hearted as all that. His first NFL contract didn’t change him it all; it only promoted those traits.

Don’t expect $20 million (minimum) to change him, either.