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"Don't be too surprised if Young is in '06 draftBy Len Pasquarelli
For those who missed the appearance by Vince Young on Pardon the Interruption this week, well, let's just say the University of Texas quarterback wasn't exactly steadfast in reiterating his previously stated stance that he will return for his senior season in 2006.
And that's because, not surprisingly, the Heisman Trophy candidate is considering his options.
In fact, ESPN.com has learned that Young and his family, with one wary eye on the NCAA rules concerning maintaining his eligibility and the other on the first round of the '06 NFL draft, have begun to consider potential agents. Not consider in the sense that they are winnowing down a laundry list of suitors, or even auditioning any potential representatives, although that latter element could change as soon as Saturday, following the Big 12 title game. Rather, the family, in a much broader sense and well within NCAA guidelines, is listening to recommendations and designing an interview process in the event that Young ultimately decides the NFL siren song is simply too tempting.
Vince Young has publicly said that he will return to Texas for his senior season.For now, the process is more than a little unclear, according to people in the know. There is a local Houston attorney, and longtime family friend, who recently became accredited by the NFL Players Association to represent players, and who is telling some people that he will have a role in Young's decision. The person with the most influence, however, is Young's mother, who he lists as his "favorite superhero" in his media guide bio. And Ray Seals, his former coach at Madison High School in Houston, is almost certain to be among those counseling the quarterback about his future.
League scouts, of course, are eyeing the Young situation with considerable interest. The senior crop of quarterbacks for the '06 draft -- led by Southern California's Matt Leinart, fast-rising Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt and perhaps the underachieving but talented Brodie Croyle of Alabama -- is not viewed as a strong one. While scouts are a bit divided over Young, with some feeling that Notre Dame's Brady Quinn is the superior junior, there is little doubt he would be a first-round pick if he entered the draft as an underclassman.
Young has great physical stature, has played in and won some big games, and is viewed by teammates as a terrific leader. The early read from scouts is that he might not be quite as athletic as all those long runs make him appear to be, but there are plenty of tools and a lot of intangibles to work with.
This season, Young, who tends to be his own toughest critic, has completed 168 of 268 passes for 2,576 yards, with 23 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. He has rushed 128 times for 793 yards and eight touchdowns.
It's hardly a slam dunk, as is the case with juniors like the Southern Cal tailback tandem of Reggie Bush and LenDale White, that Young will be in the '06 draft. He is said to be a good listener, open to advice, and will probably lean a bit on Texas coach Mack Brown, who has a legion of NFL contacts, for counsel as well. But the jump to the NFL is a lot more viable now for Young than it was only a few months ago, and no one should be too surprised when recruiters start cozying up to him within minutes of the end of Saturday's conference championship game.
Around the league
• On the subject of guys going from the college campus to the pros, rest assured that a number of owners plotting head coaching changes in the offseason have already made various degrees of third-party contact with Pete Carroll of Southern California. Lots of intermediary, back-door type stuff, but Carroll likely has a pretty educated read already on who the potential suitors might be.
Poised to win a third straight national title with the Trojans, who take on UCLA in a huge Saturday rivalry game, Carroll has enacted one of the great comebacks in recent history. His résumé includes two strikes in the NFL -- although one could make a convincing argument he got a bit of a raw deal from both the New York Jets and New England Patriots -- and not many coaches would get a third chance. But winning national championships, restoring prestige to a once-proud program that had fallen into disrepair, regaining personal profile and turning out Heisman Trophy winners and big-time NFL prospects will dull the memories of people in the league and force owners to regard Carroll in a new light.
Here's the thing: Carroll really doesn't need the ego boost the NFL once provided him. So he isn't about to jump at just any league vacancy simply for the sake of returning to the big dance. There are some openings that might interest Carroll, and others where the prospects are so dim that he'd be ill-advised to leave his current gig. The perfect NFL job for Carroll, with a team filling the Los Angeles market, doesn't exist. So with Los Angeles not a factor, at least not yet, Carroll will be very diligent in entertaining suitors. And while he doesn't need to have total control of a football operation to make the jump back to the NFL, he will seek more clout than he ever had in either of his two previous positions before even lending serious thought to coming back to the pro game.
• Unless veteran players on the Detroit roster who are very cozy with club president Matt Millen are being fed a lot of hogwash, or are telling us fibs, offensive-oriented coaches who want to pursue the Lions vacancy need not apply. So forget the flood of stories out of Cincinnati this week that Bengals offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski, who has done a terrific job in putting together a high-octane unit, is under consideration for the position.
Millen has tried twice with offensive guys, first Marty Mornhinweg and then Steve Mariucci, and twice flopped. Even the Ford family, which owns the Lions and characteristically takes a hands-off approach to football matters, would view another supposed offensive guru with skepticism. As apparently blinded by Millen as ownership is, one would think that, even in the football business, three strikes means you're out of a job. So despite the security of that new five-year contract extension Millen somehow got this summer, one would surmise the Lions' president, whose tenure has included an abysmal 20-55 record in four-plus seasons, has to get it right this time around. And to Millen, "getting it right" almost certainly will mean hiring a coach with a tough-guy reputation, one deemed capable of providing discipline to a locker room full of underachievers.
Word from veteran players is that Millen wants a coach in his own image. We're not exactly certain what that means, although it sure lends itself to a lot of easy zingers, but it probably means the new coach won't be from the offensive side of the ball. It had better be a coach, too, capable of getting the Lions' high-priced collection of malcontents to play for him. Having tired of Mariucci, the Lions, whether in an organized conspiracy or just a moment of sinister serendipity, tanked the Thanksgiving Day game to complete his fall from grace. There are outsiders who see the Detroit roster as a dangerously talented bunch. Insiders contend it's dangerous, all right, with so many bad actors and personal agendas in the locker room.
• It hardly qualifies as a cataclysmic shift of power, but it is notable that, through the first 12 weeks of this season, the AFC-NFC interconference series is tied 24-24. Not since 2001, when the conferences tied 30-30 for the year, has the series been very competitive. And last season, AFC teams walloped their NFC counterparts, winning 44 of 64 games. This season, despite the perception the AFC remains the stronger of the two conferences, all but three NFC franchises own at least one victory in the series.
Their problems aside, the Eagles are 3-1 versus AFC teams, and even the moribund Lions are 2-0. But by far the biggest AFC killers have been the four teams from the NFC South, which sport an aggregate 10-5 record. All four teams are .500 or better against the AFC, even the New Orleans Saints.
One other notable trend: In the last four weeks, road teams compiled a 31-29 record. Through the first eight weeks of the season, home teams were 77-39, and had they maintained that .664 pace, it would have been a league record.
• The 310-yard performance authored by St. Louis rookie quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the Rams' comeback victory over Houston last week was certainly a remarkable feat. But nearly as remarkable as Fitzpatrick's scintillating debut, which established the seventh-round draft choice as an instant legend in Ivy League lore, is the fact that he is in the NFL at all.
Fitzpatrick is only the 10th Harvard player selected in the NFL draft since 1970. He is the first Harvard quarterback in the modern era to even play in a regular-season game. The New England Patriots chose Brian Buckley in the 11th round of the '81 draft, and the St. Louis Cardinals took Eric Crone in the 17th round of the 1973 lottery, but neither of those Harvard quarterbacks made a regular-season roster. Before Fitzpatrick, the only former Harvard quarterbacks to appear in an NFL game were Joe McGlone (with the Providence Steamrollers and Boston Bulldogs in 1926) and Al Miller (with the Boston Braves in 1929).
As for his passing numbers, Fitzpatrick's statistics placed him among an elite group for players making their first NFL appearance. Only four other players -- Otto Graham (Cleveland, 346 yards in 1950), Ed Rubbert (Washington, 334 yards in 1987), Mark Rypien (Washington, 303 yards in 1988) and Peyton Manning (Indianapolis, 302 yards in 1998) -- threw for 300 yards in their first regular-season appearances. In fact, Fitzpatrick's 310 yards were 1 yard more than he combined for in the final two games of his college career.
• Look for Kansas City tailback Larry Johnson, who recently changed agents, to seek a contract upgrade during the offseason. The team's first-round choice in the 2003 draft, Johnson signed what is essentially a five-year contract (the last two years of the seven-year deal void) for $6.7 million. He is scheduled for base salaries of $741,000 (for '06) and $854,000 ('07) under his existing contract. Notable is that Johnson has already earned an increase of $250,000 on his 2007 base salary by rushing for more than 850 yards this season. With 191 carries for 968 yards, he can raise the '07 escalator to $500,000 when he cracks the 1,000-yard mark, likely on Sunday in the key showdown against the Denver Broncos.
With the future of Priest Holmes still uncertain because of injuries, Johnson is a key for the Chiefs, a very stable franchise that has been fair to players, and which might be willing to make some contract adjustments. Johnson has now started seven games in his career. In those seven starts, the former Penn State standout has 188 carries for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns. He's added 24 receptions for 311 yards and one score.
While it's not exactly fair to extrapolate Johnson's seven starts over a full 16-game season, the projections are interesting. Projecting his seven starts through 16 games factors out to 430 carries (which would be an NFL record), 1,931 yards and 23 touchdowns, with 55 catches for 711 yards and two scores. A lot of people (including coach Dick Vermeil) questioned the wisdom of team president Carl Peterson when he chose Johnson in 2003. No one is second-guessing him now.
• A lot has gone sour for the New York Jets this season, and put the performance of the team's two high-priced defensive ends, John Abraham and Shaun Ellis, near the top of the list of disappointments.
Abraham, who is making $6.7 million this season under the one-year franchise qualifying offer he signed after missing virtually all of training camp as he unsuccessfully pursued a long-term deal, has just 5½ sacks. The six-year veteran notched sacks in his first three games, but has only 2½ quarterback takedowns in the eight outings since, and just one in the past month. Ellis has just 2½ sacks this season. It will be interesting to see what the Jets do with Abraham, who has at least managed to stay healthy after missing a total of 13 games the past two seasons, but who has not been a consistent pass-rushing force. Given his production, it will be difficult for the Jets to offer Abraham a long-term deal. But to use the franchise marker on him again would cost just over $8 million for a one-year tender.
This week, Abraham conceded a long-term deal probably isn't going to happen. "Probably not," he said. "We're 2-9. If we were winning, it would be easier for them to say, 'Let's write this check for this guy.' But we're not winning, so they could be like, 'Hey, he's not really helping us that much because we're not winning.' It's always going to be something. Hopefully, I'll get it handled. If not, it's just part of the game."
One strategy for the Jets would be to retain the rights to Abraham with the franchise tag and then trade him. Even with a subpar year, Abraham would still have some value, since pass-rushers are always at a premium. But the New York salary cap situation for 2006 is not a pretty sight, and even temporarily eating an $8 million charge to designate Abraham a franchise player might not be feasible. And unless Abraham finishes strong, and can demonstrate to other teams that he can still pressure the pocket, no one is going to meet his long-term demands.
• Any hopes New England coaches harbored for getting left offensive tackle Matt Light back for the final month of the season may have been quashed last week when he quietly had a second surgery on his broken right leg. The procedure, designed to address the persistent and uncomfortable swelling Light was experiencing, is certainly a setback and could mean that the five-year veteran, who suffered a broken fibula in a Sept. 25 victory at Pittsburgh, won't make it back on the field until the 2006 season.
At least statistically, the absence of Light, regarded by most scouts as the Patriots' best lineman, hasn't hampered the ability of the Pats' unit to keep rushers off quarterback Tom Brady with superior pass protection. Despite starting two rookies (first-round pick Logan Mankins at guard and third-round choice Nick Kaczur in Light's tackle spot) on the left side of the line for most of the season, Brady has been sacked only 19 times. That's an average of 1.7 sacks per game and projects to 27.6 sacks for the season. In his four previous seasons as the starter, Brady was sacked 2.1 times per game and 32.5 times per season.
So the New England rookies must be doing something right in pass protection. And, as usual, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia has done a masterful job with the unit. Of course, like Indianapolis counterpart Peyton Manning, who has been sacked a league-low nine times, Brady aids his offensive line by getting the ball out quickly.
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Att Comp Yds TD Int Rat
287 177 1429 11 8 79.9
• Speaking of pass protection, or more aptly the perceived lack thereof, the notion that quarterbacks who play in the Mike Martz offense take more hits than counterparts in virtually every other system could keep the St. Louis Rams coach from being a potential candidate for the Houston Texans job. Assuming, of course, Dom Capers is dismissed by Houston owner Bob McNair at the end of the season, and that Martz will not be returning to the Rams in 2006.
The feeling is that whoever is the head coach in Houston next season will have to better insulate the battered David Carr -- especially after McNair antes up between $5 million and $8 million to exercise one of the buy back clauses, for either two or three more seasons, in the quarterback's contract -- and Martz's design might not be capable of creating a cocoon for him.
In 54 career starts, Carr has been sacked 190 times, an average of 3.5 times per game. In Martz's 101 games as the Rams' offensive coordinator or head coach, excluding the six recent games he has missed as he recovers from a bacterial infection in his heart, St. Louis allowed 264 sacks, or 2.6 per outing. That's nearly one fewer sack per game than Carr has suffered in his four-year career.
But the Martz-coached quarterbacks, who usually don't benefit from the kind of max protection blocking schemes so many offenses are using these days, get hit on a lot of plays on which they aren't necessarily sacked. If the Texans are going to lay out more money to keep Carr around for at least two more seasons, a decision that essentially has been made already, they don't want him laid out as much. Keeping their quarterback perpendicular in 2006 will be a priority for the Houston coaching staff, and that probably means that, while Carr might have a chance to really blossom under the tutelage of a guy like Martz, he probably won't get a chance to work with him.
• The quarterback carousel keeps churning. There are at least three changes this week, with David Garrard replacing the injured Byron Leftwich in Jacksonville, and Jeff Garcia (Detroit) and Alex Smith (San Francisco) returning to starting jobs they previously held. That brings the number of switches since the second week of the season to at least 36. That doesn't count the almost certain change in St. Louis, with Fitzpatrick as the likely starter, or the possibility that Charlie Frye will supplant the wounded Trent Dilfer in Cleveland. There have been 51 different starters, and that number will rise as well if Fitzpatrick and/or Frye gets a start this weekend.
• Last week in this spot, we reported on the two-year contract extension (through the 2007 season) that Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin signed this summer. Seems the report ruffled a few feathers in the Bucs' organization -- with Kiffin going so far as to deny the extension -- and that certainly wasn't our intent. But the Bucs, who prefer to operate under general manager Bruce Allen with KGB-like stealth, apparently didn't want news of Kiffin's deal, which averages about $1.7 million annually, leaking out. How come? The contracts of several current Bucs assistants, notably assistant head coach/defensive line Rod Marinelli and secondary coach Mike Tomlin, both extremely well-regarded aides, expire after this season. Tampa Bay officials are concerned, it seems, that the scope of Kiffin's deal could raise the ante in negotiations with some of their other assistants.
• Stat of the week: The 80-yard touchdown pass that Pittsburgh allowed on Indianapolis' first snap Monday night, when Marvin Harrison torched cornerback Ike Taylor, was longer than the aggregate yards of all the touchdown passes that the Steelers had surrendered in their previous 16 games. Over that stretch, the Steelers had allowed 12 touchdown passes for a total of 77 yards, the longest a 22-yarder from Jaguars quarterback Byron Leftwich to wide receiver Troy Edwards on Dec. 5, 2004.
• Punts: There are whispers that Baltimore quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel and former Seattle and San Francisco coach Dennis Erickson could be candidates for the anticipated vacancy at San Diego State. … Carolina kicker John Kasay has converted just 7 of 13 field goal attempts of 40 yards or beyond this season, for a success rate of only 53.8 percent. Entering this season, Kasay had nailed 64.8 percent (94 of 145) field goal tries of 40 yards or longer. … Word is that deposed Detroit coach Steve Mariucci, still owed $11.5 million for the final two years of his contract with the Lions, will consider taking at least a one-season hiatus from the sideline and seek a job in television. … Jets owner Woody Johnson was pretty convincing last week in his insistence that coach Herman Edwards will be back with the team in 2006. But if The Wood Man ever changes his mind, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis would have considerable interest in Edwards. And that interest, from what we hear, would be mutual. … Dallas coach Bill Parcells is growing a tad frustrated with the slow recovery of cornerback Anthony Henry from a nagging groin injury. … The Jets very quietly reworked the contract of Ty Law recently, giving him a $3 million signing bonus (which raised his cap charge from $2.9 million to $3.6 million) in return for concessions that will help them with their cap problems for 2006. But no one expects Law, who has five interceptions but also 73 yards in penalties, to be back with the team next season. … The mention of Canadian wide receiver Andy Fantuz in this space last week drew positive reviews from league scouts, many of whom are curious about the 6-foot-4, 205-pound pass catcher. Fantuz holds the Canadian college record for receptions (189), receiving yards (4,123) and touchdown catches (41), and is expected to be invited to participate in the East-West Shrine Game. … It looks like the Chiefs will get defensive tackle Ryan Sims back on the field for Sunday's game against Denver. The team's first-round pick in 2002, Sims hasn't played since he suffered a foot injury in the opening game of the year and many felt the Chiefs should have put him on injured reserve at the time, which would have ended his season. But the Chiefs carried Sims on the roster, even though there was a chance he might not play at all for the rest of 2005, gambling he might be able to contribute in the final month of the season. The Chiefs, who face an uphill battle in the AFC playoff chase, are about to win the gamble. … Philadelphia left offensive tackle Tra Thomas, the Pro Bowl blocker who was placed on injured reserve last week, on Wednesday underwent surgery to remove a fragmented disk from his back. From a medical standpoint, Thomas should be fully recovered in plenty of time to participate in the Eagles' offseason program. But there is some question as to whether Thomas, who is due a $3.65 million base salary for 2006, will be back with the team, given the number of solid young linemen that Philadelphia has stockpiled. … Giants coach Tom Coughlin, a stickler for discipline and a guy who detests penalties, isn't happy with his team right now. New York had 11 false start penalties in last week's overtime loss at Seattle and the left side of the line (tackle Luke Petitgout and guard David Diehl, will be operating on a short leash against Dallas this weekend. The Giants have been flagged this season for the third-most penalties (102) in the league and are on pace to establish a new franchise record. In Coughlin's 27 games with the team, New York has accumulated 220 penalties, the fourth most in the NFL over that stretch. … Arizona has all but settled on Kurt Warner as its quarterback for 2006, and will offer him a longer-term deal than the one-year contract he had this year, and will permit the younger Josh McCown to depart as a free agent.
• The last word: "I'm not going to drive off any cliffs. There aren't any around here anyway. I know, because I've been looking." -- Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, whose team is an NFL-worst 1-10.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here ."