<
>
Insider

Falcons looking for line help

Having bolstered their defense with the additions of end John Abraham and safeties Lawyer Milloy and Chris Crocker, the Atlanta Falcons may soon turn their attention to the offensive side of the ball, and to their most desperate need there, a new starting left tackle.

The Falcons lost Kevin Shaffer, the starter the past two seasons, to the Cleveland Browns as an unrestricted free agent when his price tag became exorbitant. They've spent the three weeks since then examining all of their alternatives and weighing the options available to them, including visits by veterans Brad Hopkins, Todd Steussie and Torrin Tucker.

But now Hopkins, the 13-year veteran who played his entire career with the Tennessee Titans before he was released last month for salary cap considerations, is hinting at retirement. Tucker on Thursday evening signed a restricted free agent offer sheet with Tampa Bay. And there are no indications that the Falcons have any real interest in adding Steussie, who is 35 and clearly in decline.

So where will the Falcons turn for a starting left tackle? Well, team officials continue to insist that second-year veteran Frank Omiyale is ready to assume the No. 1 role in camp. But the fifth-round pick in the 2005 draft didn't play a single snap as a rookie, was pretty much viewed as a long-term project anyway when the Falcons plucked him out of Tennessee State, and likely isn't ready yet for prime-time action. Don't be surprised, then, if the Falcons try to land three-year veteran Kwame Harris, the 2003 first-round pick of the San Francisco 49ers, in a trade.

Falcons coach Jim Mora was the defensive coordinator in San Francisco when the 49ers chose Harris with the 26th overall selection in 2003 and watched the former Stanford standout start five games as a rookie. Harris started all 16 games in 2005 at right tackle, but his previous dozen starts -- five in 2003 and seven in 2004 -- were on the left side. There is still some debate around the league about whether the behemoth Harris (6-foot-7 and 310 pounds) can play the left side. But, remember, Falcons quarterback Michael Vick is left-handed, so the responsibilities for blindside protection actually fall to right tackle Todd Weiner.

ESPN.com has confirmed that there have been some discussions between Atlanta and San Francisco officials about Harris, a player to whom the current 49ers staff has no innate loyalties, since it didn't choose him. Word at the annual league meetings earlier this week was that the 49ers have already turned down an offer of third- and fourth-round draft choices for Harris from another franchise interested in him, so the Falcons might have to go a bit higher than that to land the three-year veteran, and they might be reluctant to do so.

But there could be some upside to Harris, and the Falcons are considering that. For starters, while he is a three-year veteran, he is only 24 years old. His maturity on and off the field have both improved over the last year. And his contract certainly is palatable, with base scheduled base salaries of $702,724 for 2006 and $811,684 in 2007. At worst, Harris might offer a short-term solution, one that provides Atlanta coaches some time to develop Omiyale as the future starter. At best, Harris might keep improving and hold down the starting job himself for several seasons.

One other name to keep in mind as the Falcons consider their left tackle options is current New Orleans starter Wayne Gandy. Although he is 35 years old and has 12 seasons on his résumé, Gandy still played at a high level for the Saints during their dismal 2005 campaign, and he is a strong character guy and a presence in the locker room. The Saints nearly released Gandy a year ago, when he declined to readjust his contract, and he is due a base salary of $4 million for 2006.

Unless the Saints plan to move second-year veteran and '05 first-round right tackle Jammal Brown to the left side, however, they really don't have a viable replacement for Gandy on the roster right now. And since the New Orleans cap situation is in decent shape, there have been no suggestions Gandy will be released because of his high price tag. That said, the Falcons are keeping an eye on the Gandy situation as one of the possible remedies for their left tackle vacancy.

Around the League


• Those anticipating an imminent answer to the question as to where former Detroit Lions starting quarterback Joey Harrington will play in 2006 might have to wait a while. Why so? Because both parties involved, the Lions and Harrington, are looking for the best deal possible.

Lions team president Matt Millen reiterated at the annual league meetings earlier this week that there is no urgency yet to trade Harrington, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft. The only deadline the Lions face doesn't arrive until June 15, when the team is responsible for a $4 million roster bonus if Harrington is still around, so there are about 2½ months before Millen has to make a move. And agent David Dunn is performing his due diligence, too, in seeking out the right landing spot for his client. Harrington visited this week with Miami and Cincinnati officials and left both places without an offer.

Some pundits have installed the Bengals as the early favorite in the Harrington Derby, but there continue to be more suitors entering the picture, and Dunn will want to explore all of the possibilities. Don't buy into the suggestions about the Bengals, because it isn't likely Cincinnati will pay the $3 million Harrington is seeking just to rent a quarterback for a season. League sources insist that price tag is too rich for Bengals officials.

Two teams to watch are Dallas and Kansas City. The Chiefs, agreed new coach Herm Edwards this week, have to start developing the potential successor to Trent Green at some point. Kansas City officials will take another week to mull their options and to scrutinize the quarterbacks in this year's draft before determining whether to make a run at Harrington.

The Cowboys, too, need to begin looking down the road at their long-term situation at quarterback. Owner Jerry Jones has never been shy about taking a financial risk (see: Chad Hutchinson and Drew Henson) on a young quarterback. The upshot of all the Harrington maneuvering: It might not be until right before the draft that he has a new home.

• Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, who definitely will have a veteran quarterback in training camp to either take the starting job from Kyle Boller or push the team's 2003 first-round choice to a higher level of excellence, said he speaks frequently to Dunn about another client, Kerry Collins. Like just about every day.

"It's an ongoing thing," Newsome said. "We talk almost every day. Sometimes more than once a day. It's evolving and we'll see where it goes. Right now, the way I see it, I've got the job in the league. There aren't any other teams left out there where you can say to an agent or [a quarterback], 'Look, you can come in here and win the job.' There's one opening, and I've got it, and there are a lot of guys out there."

That said, Newsome understands he can't take Collins' continuing availability for granted, nor can he wait forever before filling out his depth chart. Collins, who was released by Oakland for salary cap reasons, appears to be the player that Newsome and coach Brian Billick want. In Baltimore, Collins would be reunited with Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, the head coach of the New York Giants when the veteran quarterback resurrected his floundering career there. So look for Collins to end up in Baltimore, although Newsome, who figures he's holding most of the trump cards right now, might take a little while longer before pulling the trigger on a deal.

• Fans in New England continue to wring their hands over the fact the Patriots have about $17 million in salary cap room, have allowed some key veterans to escape and have done very little in the way of adding reinforcements. As legitimate as those concerns may be, one high-ranking Pats officials noted this week that the team does have a plan for investing those cap funds, and that one element of it is an attempt to sign defensive lineman Richard Seymour and wide receiver Deion Branch to long-term contract extensions.

"It's going to cost a lot of money to do those two things," said the official. "And I don't know that we'll get it done. But I know this: We have to plan as if we'll get extensions finished with those two, and we have to have the money set aside, because it's going to be expensive."

Look for New England to make its usual modest foray into free agency, adding some mid-range players at palatable prices, and then fitting them into the Patriots' scheme. And don't be surprised if one of those players is wide receiver Peerless Price, who might be a typical New England reclamation project. Price seems light-years removed from the player who caught 94 passes for 1,252 yards and nine touchdowns in Buffalo in 2002. After two listless seasons in Atlanta, he was released, signed with Dallas last summer and released again. Price has only 115 catches for 1,509 yards and six touchdowns the past three seasons. But he is only 29, and the Patriots -- whose experienced receivers beyond Branch include only Bethel Johnson and the recently signed Reche Caldwell -- might be willing to give Price a chance to salvage his career.

• One personnel director's list of the Top 10 unrestricted players remaining in a very diluted free-agent pool: cornerback Charles Woodson (Oakland), linebacker LaVar Arrington (Washington), cornerback Ty Law (New York Jets), defensive end Demetric Evans (Washington), center Trey Teague (Buffalo), linebacker Keith Adams (Philadelphia), defensive tackle Grady Jackson (Green Bay), defensive end Lance Johnstone (Minnesota), cornerback Eric Warfield (Kansas City) and linebacker Nick Greisen (New York Giants).


• What had already been a rocky offseason for Bears two-year veteran defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who was expected to vie for a starting spot in 2006, has gotten even worse. Johnson underwent surgery last week to repair a torn quadriceps and will be sidelined four to six months. The injury, which is believed to have occurred when Johnson was working out, comes on the heels of a February incident in which Johnson, a second-round choice in 2004, was struck in the head and sprayed with mace after police ticketed his limousine for allegedly being illegally parked. Eights months before that, Johnson was arrested on a weapons charge and subsequently received 18 months probation.

A former University of Washington star, Johnson played in all 16 games in 2005, starting four, and looked ready at times to become a full-time starter. In addition to his 37 tackles, Johnson flashed the ability to pressure the quarterback from the inside, as evidenced by his five sacks in a backup role. But the surgery probably means Johnson will miss the entire offseason conditioning program as he rehabilitates the quadriceps. He might not be ready to return to the field until training camp, if then, and could miss part of the regular season, depending on the pace of his recovery.

Chicago coaches were hoping Johnson would compete with Ian Scott for the starting tackle spot next to 2005 Pro Bowl performer Tommie Harris. The injury might force the Bears to keep Michael Haynes, a 2003 first-round pick who has been disappointing at end and who might now be moved inside to tackle.

• The addition of Keyshawn Johnson by Carolina has essentially knocked 16-year veteran wide receiver Ricky Proehl out of a chance of returning to the Panthers for another season. There had been discussions about Proehl returning to the team, but with Johnson scheduled to start with Steve Smith, the Panthers will go younger at the No. 3 wideout spot and probably allow Keary Colbert and Drew Carter to battle for the position in camp.

But Proehl clearly wants to continue playing and is hopeful some team will consider him for its No. 3 or No. 4 slot. He has 666 career receptions for 8,848 yards and 54 touchdowns and remains one of the league's most clever receivers. Still a solid possession guy, 65.3 percent of his career receptions have been for first downs or touchdowns.

• Punts: Contrary to reports, the Philadelphia Eagles were never proactive in pursuing Buffalo wide receiver Eric Moulds, who likely will be traded to the Houston Texans early next week. The agent for Moulds initiated conversations, but the discussions never reached the substantive stage. ... The Texans are interested in adding veteran wide receiver Jerome Pathon, who worked out for coaches and team officials on Thursday. ... Green Bay is still hoping to add another veteran linebacker or two to bolster a position that it perilously thin. ... The Jets have some interest in free agent center Trey Teague. ... Jacksonville owner Wayne Weaver said this week that his team is not a candidate to move to the Los Angeles market. But with a very attractive 2006 home schedule, the Jaguars have just a 60 percent renewal rate for season tickets, and one has to wonder about the viability of the franchise in a small market if the team doesn't continue to win. ... Miami remains the front-runner to land linebacker LaVar Arrington. ... Free agent safety Keion Carpenter did not have a good season in Atlanta in 2005. But some team seeking a No. 3 or No. 4 safety who is a real student of the game, a terrific tutor for younger players and a good locker-room guy might consider him. Carpenter is like a coach on the field and, indeed, coaching might well be his next profession.

• The last word: "You ask, 'Where is he rehabbing?' And he's rehabbing in a HealthSouth place in Orlando. Now I've spent some time in this state. I close my eyes. I'm seeing a Chinese restaurant, a HealthSouth place, a laundromat. Basically a strip mall that he's rehabbing himself at. And I'm thinking, 'What did they have in there?' They had a StepMaster and some other things. In other words, all the modalities we have in our training room, all the different things [he didn't have]. I just thought it would be better [to train in Minnesota]. So you can understand where I'm coming from. The Chinese restaurant, the laundromat, then he's in an alley, out the back door and into the Wal-Mart parking lot. And I'm like, 'What's wrong with this picture?' This is our franchise quarterback. Is he better served here in the [Vikings'] field house, or in the Wal-Mart parking lot? So I told him, 'I think you're doing yourself a disservice. You can do better for yourself than that.'" -- Coach Brad Childress, on his problems with former starting quarterback Daunte Culpepper rehabilitating his surgically repaired right knee in Orlando instead of at the Vikings' complex

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.