The average NFL fan went through withdrawal symptoms last Sunday when there was no football for the first time in more than six months, and there won't be another game until the Hall of Fame game in August. But the NFL keeps churning out stories for the fans to ponder, and this week has been as interesting as any off season week could be.
1. Michael Sam: I was at the Senior Bowl for the entire week, including the game, and got a chance to watch Sam perform on the football field. He's an undersized defensive end who went to Mobile, Ala., to show NFL people he could stand up and play outside linebacker.
He has the ability to play over a tight end control him as a blocker and his release into the passing game. He also demonstrated an ability to run to the ball when he recognized where the play was going. He was adequate on the tight end side of a formation but did experience some issues when lined up on the open side or off the ball. Dropping into pass coverage is, at best, a work in progress.
Sam is probably a fourth round selection who could make a 3-4 team as a special teams player with an early chance to be a situational pass rusher and a year later be a candidate to contribute at OLB. Opposing offenses dedicated to match-ups will want to isolate him and open him up from the core of the front seven and that will be a problem.
Let's say my evaluation of him as a football player is on target. What has transpired since the Senior Bowl could affect where he's drafted because not many teams really want to have media attention surrounding a mid-round pick. After talking to a number of veteran players this week I'm fairly confident Sam will not be much of an issue in the locker room.
Saints tight end Benjamin Watson said it best: "If he can play and help us win, that's all that matters. ... There are plenty of people and things that go on with a team that I don't agree with, but when it's time to play ball, if they can help then, I'm OK with it."
The only problem left in this situation is if Sam goes undrafted, because he is good enough on the field to hear his name called on draft weekend.
2. The Cleveland Browns: I met Jimmy Haslam the day he took ownership of the Browns because I happened to be on my summer camp tour and in Cleveland. He was proud of his new team and was quick to point out how much he learned in his time as a part owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Well, he has owned the team for two years and has fired two head coaches (Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski), released a team president (Mike Holmgren), fired two GMs (Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi) and will relieve CEO Joe Banner of his duties. That model is nothing like what Haslam saw in Pittsburgh, though one Browns fan told me, "Browns fans are dancing in the street today."
I would caution dancing in the street with a new GM. Ray Farmer, who has never been a GM, and new coach Mike Pettine, who has never been a head coach, and Haslam are trying to stop the bleeding in Cleveland. The best thing the Browns did this week was bring in personnel man Bill Kuharich to help steady the ship and settle everyone down.
Browns fans won't like hearing it, but this project is going to take more than a year to fix and once again patience is the operative word in Cleveland. Haslam is finding out the hard way that there is a learning curve for owners, and it is not only costing him millions of dollars in salaries to former employees but it has cost him even more in time lost in building a winner.
3. The franchise tag: The franchise tag is used by teams to retain services of a very good player for one season at the average salary for the top five players at the position. The tag has been watered down because it is the average of the top five salaries over the past five years and not the top five salaries from the previous season, as it was in the old collective bargaining agreement.
Even though it looks like a better deal for the clubs now, it may not be used very much this year. After talking with two front office executives and looking at the potential free agent list I do not expect many teams to use the franchise tag this year. In fact, I would be surprised to see more than four or five teams tag players and that might even include a kicker and a punter since those tags are fairly cheap.
The draft is loaded this year and the free agent list is long, so teams are going to think twice about using the franchise tag.