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Raiders' franchise tag on Branch no surprise around league

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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When the Raiders put the franchise tag on Tyvon Branch it did not surprise many around the NFL. (US Presswire)  
When the Raiders put the franchise tag on Tyvon Branch it did not surprise many around the NFL. (US Presswire)  

There were probably some fans, but not many NFL pro personnel officials, surprised at the news that the cap-strapped Oakland Raiders, who have plenty of bookkeeping yet to accomplish before the league year officially commences, will use the franchise tag to retain strong safety Tyvon Branch.

Arguably at least, Branch is probably the least known of the players who, through Friday at noon, had received the franchise marker.

But the former Connecticut standout is better known in league circles than among the fans and most personnel executives admire his toughness, even at a position that historically has been lower profile.

Various Raiders team officials have been pumping Branch for a while now, and the four-year veteran has been touted in this space for the past two months, and regarded as a Raiders' priority. "He was a guy they couldn't let go," longtime league personnel man Ken Herock, who served as one of the consultants to new Oakland owner Mark Davis, told The Sports Xchange. "The best player in their secondary, even if [some fans] didn't know about him."

Another one of the former team officials who counseled the younger Davis, termed Branch "a building block no one knows about." But, obviously, pro scouts around the league knew about the former fourth-round draft pick, and he rated nicely at a position that hasn't always been a priority for many clubs.

In three years as a starter, Branch has averaged 112.3 tackles and, while he has just three career interceptions and isn't regarded as a premier playmaker, brings the kind of intensity that Raiders need on a defense that figures to be revamped in '12, after finishing a disappointing No. 29 statistically in 2011.

The new football tandem of general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach Dennis Allen quickly came to realize, after evaluating the defense, that Branch was a player they had to keep. And there is some optimism that the team can reach a long-term agreement with Branch before the July 15 deadline for doing such deals with franchise players.

The Raiders released the overrated cornerback Stanford Routt two weeks ago, but there apparently was no way they were going to let Branch hit the market. The franchise tag will cost the Raiders $6.2 million, down nearly 30 percent from a year ago, but they already are at working on the potential long-term deal for Branch.

More notes

 The other defensive veteran some feel the Raiders can't afford to lose is linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, but it is probably only 50-50, perhaps a bit less, that the six-year pro returns.

Team executive Tom Delaney and agent Joe Linta spoke Thursday evening, and while the latter contended the two sides "continue to work hard to make it work," the situation is dicey.

Wimbley still has roughly $18 million in guarantees remaining on the five-year, $48 million extension he signed in the summer of 2011, but new general manager Reggie McKenzie has indicated there are some deals negotiated by the late Al Davis with which he can't live, and the suspicion is that the Wimbley contract is one of them.

Wimbley is only 28 and, while he likes it in Oakland, and has been productive defender in the 4-3, with 16 sacks in his two Bay Area seasons, the former Cleveland first-rounder (2006) might be intrigued by the potential to get back to a 3-4 team where he can rush the passer with even greater frequency. It will be interesting to see, if Wimbley is released, just how healthy a market he generates.

He hasn't notched double-digit sacks since his rookie season, but has 42.5 quarterback kills in his career, and he could flourish even more if used differently.

There could be more discussions over the weekend but, as for right now, an accommodation isn't close.

 Amid reports that negotiations between the Indianapolis Colts and pending unrestricted free agent Robert Mathis have "warmed up considerably," this dose of cold reality: the talks couldn't even be characterized as tepid as of Thursday night, because there hadn't been any negotiations, substantive or otherwise, to that point, The Sports Xchange has learned.

That might have changed later on Thursday night -- neither side could be reached as of this writing -- but even that might have been a big stretch, and would have required a major escalation of the dialogue.

Beyond a couple casual, get-acquainted conversations between new Indianapolis general manager Ryan Grigson and Mathis' camp, there had been no serious talks about a potential contract extension.

No proposals had been exchanged. Mathis earned $30 million on the five-year extension he signed in 2007, the bulk of the money in the first three seasons of the deal.

At age 31, any extension would have to be similarly structured, with big-time, front-loaded payouts.

There is still some chance the Colts might apply the franchise designation, but Mathis is dead-set against being tagged, and the marker could result in some acrimony.

The nine-year veteran has averaged 10.0 sacks over the past eight seasons, has notched more than seven sacks in each of the eight years, and had 9.5 sacks or more in all but one of the campaigns. In addition to his 83.5 career sacks, Mathis, like teammate Dwight Freeney, is adept at the sack-and-strip move, as evidenced by his 39 career forced fumbles.

Even at his age, Mathis figures to have a good many suitors if he gets to the open market.

On the subject of Mathis, even though he has played in a 4-3 his entire career, the veteran rushman, whom some teams feel had his best season in 2011, certainly will consider a switch to a 3-4. That could come, of course, in Indianapolis, where new coach Chuck Pagano has historically been a 3-4 devotee. Or it could be elsewhere as well. Even with his 4-3 background, and a lack of empirical evidence that Mathis can drop and cover and play in space, several defenses with a 3-4 "base" front have him rated as a possible free agent target a rush linebacker.

One of the head-scratchers of the week, at least to many executives, was the five-year, $38.5 million extension (advertised as $42.5 million but containing bonuses and escalators that could bring it in at less) to which the Cleveland Browns signed middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.

The six-year veteran is a solid enough player and was very productive last season, most agree, but not a difference-maker.

And for a guy who will bank close to $17 million in the first two years of the extension, he's somewhat suspect physically, having suffered two pectoral injuries that limited him to just six appearances total in 2009-2010.

The contract spiral in general at the inside linebacker position has been justifiably puzzling to some people.

In general, inside linebackers, no matter the scheme, are two-down defenders. Sure, there are guys like Patrick Willis and Jerod Mayo who break the mold, but teams clearly are overspending on some guys who are merely run-stuffers.

Jackson had a nice season in 2011, with 3.5 sacks and four passes defensed to go along with 158 tackles, but he's still not regarded as special. The next couple middle linebackers to cash in probably will be Curtis Lofton of Atlanta andDetroit's Stephen Tulloch, whether they go elsewhere or re-sign with their incumbent clubs, but it's not that difficult, some personnel guys insist, to find two-down defenders.

The Falcons value Lofton because of his smarts and because he is a guy with good football instincts who gets everyone lined up in the right place. One has to wonder -- and, trust us, some in the Atlanta organization agree -- just how high the price tag should be for a player of Lofton's ilk.

Although he often played on third down last season, Lofton is deficient in coverage. Still, his numbers are pretty commensurate to those of Jackson, so someone may overpay for him.

 Hines Ward had yet to appear on the official league transaction report as of Thursday at the end of business.

While Pittsburgh officials have announced he will be released, the Steelers' 14-year veteran is not technically yet a free man.

When he is officially cut loose, Ward, who has said he wants to continue his career in 2012, may find it somewhat difficult to find a home.

One league personnel director whose franchise has been rumored to be interested in Ward, pointed out to The Sports Xchange on Thursday evening that the Steelers star's 8.3-yard average per catch in 2011 was the lowest in the league for a wide receiver with at least 40 receptions.

The next lowest was Jacksonville's Mike Thomas, who with a 9.4-yard average (on 44 catches) was more than a full yard better. The official made an interesting point: Ward had five receptions in the season finale victory at Cleveland, a total that got him to 1,000 for his career.

But the official noted that the achievement might have cost him a roster spot. He suggested that, were Ward shy of the 1,000-reception mark, the Steelers might have been more inclined to bring him back for 2012.

We don't agree, and neither do the Pittsburgh officials to whom we spoke, but it's an interesting take on Ward's bittersweet milestone.

By the way, to the people who have opined that Ward is a lock for the Hall of Fame, a couple statistical factoids: Of the seven wide receivers who have 1,000 or more catches in their careers, Ward has the lowest yards per reception (12.1) of any of them. And his average is well below that of any of the seven Hall of Fame wide receivers whose careers began after 1970.

 It was a below-the-radar-screen move, for sure, but veteran wide receiver Domenik Hixon has essentially agreed to return to the New York Giants.

So what's the big deal, especially given that Hixon has suffered ACL injuries to his right knee each of the past two seasons, and has appeared in just 16 games (two starts) since the end of the 2009 campaign?

Just this: The Giants, who demonstrated this season that they can develop receivers -- in the wake of the Super Bowl victory, does anyone remember the angst over the departures of Steve Smith and Kevin Boss last year now? -- feel that Hixon can still be a productive No. 3 (No. 4 at worst) wide receiver for them.

Hixon is most noted in some circles as a return man, but despite the knee injuries, he still retains some sneaky deep speed. And in 2009, starting in just seven of 16 appearances, he had 43 catches.

That's four more receptions than Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham, all but assured to depart in free agency, registered for the 2011 campaign.

Yeah, Hixon has some of the same inconsistencies of Manningham, but will cost a lot less and, if he can stay healthy, should provide a viable backup to Victor Cruz and Hakeem Nicks. And the Giants' staff still has hopes for second-year veteran Jerrel Jernigan, a third-rounder in 2011.

 In each of the past five drafts, Clemson has had at least one defensive lineman selected, including four players in the first two rounds, and the streak won't end this year, despite pretty uneven results so far by the former Tigers' stars.

 The man who might have sent scouts scrambling to the videotape following the end of the combine earlier this week is Georgia Tech wide receiver Stephen Hill, regarded as among the so-called big winners from the Indy sessions.

Hill caught only 49 balls in three seasons in coach Paul Johnson's run-heavy triple-option offense, yet averaged 25.5 yards per reception, and clocked a blistering 4.36 40 at the combine, with a vertical jump of 39½ inches.

Scouts are already dialing up former Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Terance Mathis, the offensive coordinator at Savannah State and a guy who has worked diligently with Hill on route-running, for his take on the wideout.

And people are calling sprint coach Loren Seagraves, who also drew a Falcons paycheck and worked on explosive speed with Hill, and who has a ton of league contacts, for Hill insights.

"Raw in a lot of ways, but some of the stuff he does just makes your jaw drop," Mathis told The Sports Xchange. "There's so much to work with."

Hill said his role model is Detroit stud wideout Calvin Johnson, but the former Yellow Jackets player to whom he is most often compared is Demaryius Thomas, the 22nd overall choice of Denver in 2010.

Thomas was arguably more productive at the college level, with 85 catches in two seasons in Johnson's offense (120 total in three seasons), but was injury-prone and was unable to run at the '10 combine because of a broken foot. Even after he was drafted, Thomas broke the foot a second time, then sustained an Achilles tendon injury.

It's felt at this point that Hill is a tad better route-runner than was Thomas coming out of college, but that the latter might have been a little more physical.

But scouts feel that Hill has similar characteristics to Thomas, who torched the Pittsburgh secondary in Denver's playoff victory two months ago, and want to do a lot more research. "The size and speed, obviously, are there," agreed one NFC scout. "But, outside of ordering up the tape, you don't want to fall all over yourself yet."

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