Extra Points: Vikes, NFLPA, Browns, Seahawks

Let’s look at the latest from around the league…

  • Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer told reporters earlier today that the club had worked out three quarterbacks, and now we’ve learned their identities. Per Howard Balzer (on Twitter), Minnesota auditioned Pat Devlin, Jeff Mathews, and Brad Sorensen. None of the trio has ever been active for an NFL game. As PFR’s Luke Adams noted this afternoon, the Vikes could be looking for a replacement for practice squad QB Chandler Harnish, who is injured.
  • Former defensive tackle Sean Gilbert is the primary competitor to DeMaurice Smith in the race for the NFLPA’s executive director position, writes Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. Gilbert, who played from 1992-2003, not only wants to expand the regular season to 18 games, but is in favor of ripping up the 2011 CBA and negotiating anew with the league. The election will be held in March.
  • Rookie corner K’Waun Williams has played in six games this season, starting one, and performed well, quite the feat for an undrafted free agent. Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer tells the story of how Browns secondary coach Jeff Hafley, who first recruited Williams to the University of Pittsburgh, pushed for Cleveland to sign the 23-year-old after the draft.
  • Paul Richardson could be one beneficiary of the Seahawks’ decision to trade Percy Harvin, as Jayson Jenks of the Seattle Times writes that the rookie reciever is attempting to become the deep threat for the Hawks’ offense.

Extension Candidate: Mark Ingram

It’s become almost cliché to note that the running back position has been severely devalued in today’s NFL, but glance at most any financial or statistical metric and you’ll quickly reach that conclusion. Consider the 2014 free agent running back class, which, while admittedly lackluster and not comparable to the potentially fruitful 2015 RB crop, featured veterans such as Chris Johnson and Darren McFadden, useful role players like Donald Brown and Knowshon Moreno, and backs who seemingly just needed more opportunity inMark Ingram Ben Tate and Rashad Jennings. Despite the league’s salary cap being raised by more than nine percent, running back contracts bottomed out, with Johnson receiving the highest annual average value at $4MM, and Brown, at $10MM, garnering the largest total deal.

The league’s offensive schemes have changed, as teams are attempting passes at a far greater clip than they are rushing the ball. Since the turn of the century, league-wide pass attempts have risen steadily, while rushing attempts have decreased at nearly the same rate. This season, clubs are running the ball on just 42% of offensive plays. Additionally, the “featured back” is becoming a concept of yesteryear, meaning that no one runner is able to solely elevate his value through repeated opportunities. In each season since 2010, for example, we’ve seen an average of just four running backs per season receive 300 or more carries. In the 20 seasons prior, an average of 7.25 RBs per season attempted 300+ rushes, a 55% increase. Running back has become a position attended to by a committee, so the league as a whole doesn’t positively assess many singular backs.

The draft is another market that has decided running backs are not a worthwhile investment. No RBs were selected in the first round of either the 2013 or the 2014 draft. Four were chosen in the two years prior, but Trent Richardson, chosen third overall in 2012, was the anomaly who was not a end-of-the-round selection. Doug Martin, selected in the same draft as Richardson, went to the Buccaneers at pick No. 31. In 2011, the Giants took David Wilson thirty-second overall, while the player who has been the most successful to this point was chosen four spots earlier. With the No. 28 pick in the ’11 draft, the Saints selected Mark Ingram out of Alabama.

Ingram, of course, had won the Heisman Trophy as the NCAA’s best football player during his sophomore season in 2009. Drafted to be teamed with a New Orleans running back contingent that already consisted of Darren Sproles, Pierre Thomas, and Chris Ivory, Ingram largely disappointed over his first three seasons in the NFL. Despite leading the Saints’ backfield in carries during that span, Ingram never topped 650 yards rushing or five touchdowns, and wasn’t a factor in the passing game. In fact, Ingram’s approximate value during his first three years in the NFL ranks fourth-lowest among running backs selected in the first round since 2000 during the same stretch of their careers.

New Orleans management was obviously unimpressed, as well, as they declined Ingram’s fifth-year option, meaning that he will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. It’s a move that general manger Mickey Loomis & Co. have probably come to regret, as Ingram is enjoying his finest season as an NFL player. After Sproles was traded during the offseason, Thomas and fellow runner Khiry Robinson dealt with injuries, leaving Ingram as the lead back. Despite missing two games with a hand ailment, Ingram has rushed 88 times for 431 yards, and scored six times. He’s also caught eight balls in just five games; he averaged eight receptions per season during the first three years of his career. Advanced metrics are also a fan of Ingram’s work. Despite his low snap totals, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) grades Ingram as the 11th-best running back in the league among 59 qualifiers. Football Outsiders sets the line of demarcation for its statistics at 64 rushing attempts, which Ingram doesn’t meet. But among RBs with 63 or fewer carries, Ingram is first in DYAR and third in DVOA.

Despite his current level of production, Ingram might not be with the Saints for long. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported yesterday that the 24-year-old is expected to hit free agency at the end of the season. If New Orleans doesn’t want to lock Ingram up with a long-term deal just yet, they do have the option of retaining him via the franchise tag. However, given that the club declined to spend the $5.2MM it would have taken to keep Ingram via the fifth-year option, it’s doubtful that it would now guarantee him north of $10MM by using the franchise tender. Additionally, the Saints probably don’t even have the cap space to use a franchise tag. Over the Cap’s data shows New Orleans with negative cap room for 2015, at more than $18MM in the red. The team will obviously have to do some financial maneuvering and/or hope that the salary cap rises dramatically, but it’s still unlikely they’d use any cap relief on a franchise tag for Ingram.

Regardless of whether Ingram stays in New Orleans or leaves via free agency, I don’t think his contract numbers will be that different. Specifically, I think that his final dollar amount received will be rather modest, far less than most might think. For one, he’s part of a relatively loaded free agent class of running backs — DeMarco Murray, Shane Vereen, Frank Gore, Ryan Mathews, Stevan Ridley, and C.J. Spiller are playing on expiring contracts. And though many of those players have their warts (age, injury concerns), it’s still a strong crop, meaning that RB-needy teams will have options to choose from.

If he stays healthy for the rest of his historic season, Murray will earn the most among the backs listed, and Ingram is a strong contender to earn the second-most favorable contract. But it’s doubtful that any FA back receives the type of deals that LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Jamaal Charles, or Marshawn Lynch got. Those four backs are making between $7.3MM and $9MM per season, and were guaranteed between $13.8MM and $20.77MM. Murray could conceivably sneak into the back of that salary range (though I personally doubt it), but Ingram is probably a pay level, or two below.

Like quarterback contracts before Colin Kaepernick, Andy Dalton, and Alex Smith were extended, running back deals don’t have much of a middle-tier. The upper-level group earns $7MM+ on what are mostly extensions, and the lower tier, made up mostly of free agents, make $4MM or less in AAV. The only contracts in between are rookie deals paying the likes of Spiller, Mathews, and Richardson. Gore makes about $6.4MM per year, which should set the ceiling for Ingram. Gore was a much more proven player when he signed his deal than Ingram is now, and was constantly putting up 1,000+ yard seasons. Ingram’s floor will probably be that of the 2014 FA running class, or about $4MM.

Ingram, like Kaepernick et al., could potentially break new ground and establish a fresh mid-tier level of contracts. An average annual value in the neighborhood of $5.5MM would do just that, and would be fair value for Ingram. I could see him receiving something like $9-10MM in guarantees over the course of a four-year deal. It’s a contract that the Saints likely won’t be able to afford, and given their affinity for crowded backfields, probably wouldn’t even try to match. But another team in need of a running back might be able to lock up Ingram at a relatively reasonable rate, and hope that 2014 Ingram is the true version of the player, as opposed to the 2011-13 model.

AFC Notes: Rice, Colts, Broncos, Gipson

There’s been no indication that a settlement is close in Ray Rice‘s appeal of his indefinite suspension, writes Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. The appeal hearing, set to get underway on November 5, will involve the interrogation of commissioner Roger Goodell, so a settlement could give the appearance that Goodell is wary of answering questions under oath, surmises Florio. Additionally, even if Rice is reinstated, the ex-Raven would likely want to compensated for the income he lost during his ban. Ultimately, a settlement appears unlikely, per Florio, though it would be the best outcome for both parties involved. Here’s more from the AFC.

  • The Colts held a workout for linebacker Carlos Fields, according to Aaron Wilson of Baltimore Sun (Twitter link). Fields, 24, was cut from the Giants’ practice squad three days ago, and given that New York and Indianapolis play on Sunday, it’s possible the Colts attempted to glean some strategical information from Fields. Additionally, Indianapolis listed three LBs on its latest injury report, so Fields could add some depth to a banged up position if signed.
  • The Broncos’ next opponent, the Patriots, feature a left-footed punter in Ryan Allen. As such, in what was likely an attempt to practice against a lefty in advance of Sunday’s game, Denver auditioned fellow left-footed punter Michael Palardy, per Wilson (via Twitter).
  • Browns safety Tashaun Gipson, the NFL’s current interception leader, is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and as he tells Tom Reed of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, he’d like to remain with in Cleveland.” I’d love to finish my career playing in this city,” said Gipson. “This is the first organization to give me my opportunity, the first one that took a chance on me, an unheralded guy coming out of Wyoming that nobody wanted to take a chance on.”

Poll: Cam Newton’s Next Contract

Cam Newton still has one more year remaining on his contract with the Panthers, and the franchise tag ensures that Carolina wouldn’t necessarily have to extend him by the end of the 2015 season in order to keep him under club control. Still, with Newton nearing the end of his rookie deal, it seems logical that the two sides will engage in serious negotiations this offseason in the hopes of working out a long-term agreement.

Yesterday, we heard from Ian Rapoport of NFL.com that the Panthers do indeed believe Newton is their quarterback of the future, indicating that the team would like to lock him up with a new deal. However, the former first overall pick has informed the club he isn’t interested in an extension structured like Colin Kaepernick‘s new contract, which is something of a pay-as-you-go arrangement for the 49ers. While Kaepernick’s extension features a sizable chunk of salary guaranteed for injury, only $13MM+ is fully guaranteed.

A contract similar to Matt Ryan‘s current agreement with the Falcons may make more sense for Newton, according to Rapoport. It’s not clear based on his tweet whether that’s merely Rapoport’s opinion, whether that’s what Newton’s camp will be looking for, or whether both Newton and the team are open to such a structure. But it’s worth considering the differences between Ryan’s and Kaepernick’s deals, which aren’t far off in terms of years and overall value.

Kaepernick’s six-year contract has a base value of $114MM, good for $19MM annually, but again, only about $13MM of that total is guaranteed, meaning the Niners could cut ties in a year or two without being on the hook for much dead money. Ryan, conversely, has a five-year, $103.75MM deal ($20.75MM annually) that includes $42MM in fully guaranteed money.

Like Ryan’s deal, recent extensions signed by QBs like Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, and Jay Cutler all included at least $38MM in guarantees, making them significantly more lucrative than the pacts signed by Kaepernick and Andy Dalton ($17MM). While Newton has been effective for Carolina since being drafted No. 1 overall in 2011, his passing numbers don’t necessarily match up with some of the most highest-paid signal-callers in the league, and as he plays out his next contract, the value he adds with his legs may diminish.

So what do you think? Is Newton really worth a deal in Ryan territory? Or does a Kaepernick-esque contract make more sense?

Minor Moves: Friday

As teams prepare to set their rosters for the weekend, the backs of 53-man rosters and practice squads will be tweaked. We’ll cover those minor transactions from around the NFL for Friday right here, with the latest updates added to the top of the list:

  • Wideout Marcus Thigpen will slide into one of several open spots on the Buccaneers‘ 53-man roster, according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun (via Twitter), who hears from a source that Thigpen is being promoted from the club’s practice squad.
  • After cutting him from the active roster earlier in the week, the Panthers have re-signed running back Darrin Reaves to their practice squad, cutting running back Tauren Poole from the unit, according to the team (Twitter link). Carolina also signed former UNC linebacker Kevin Reddick to fill out the squad.

Earlier updates:

  • The Patriots have re-added linebacker Deontae Skinner to their practice squad after he cleared waivers, tweets Mike Reiss of ESPN.com. Skinner, an undrafted free agent out of Mississippi State, had been on the active roster, but was cut to make room for new signee Alan Branch. Wideout Jonathan Krause has been released from the practice squad to make room for Skinner.

NFC Notes: Vikes, McDonald, Sims, Schwartz

As we wait to see whether or not Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo will be available this weekend for a showdown between two of the NFC’s top teams – Dallas and Arizona – let’s check out a few Friday afternoon items from across the conference….

  • Since Vikings practice squad Chandler Harnish was injured in practice this week, the team has been on the lookout for a replacement. According to head coach Mike Zimmer, three signal-callers worked out for the club today, though he didn’t identify the players by name, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press (Twitter links).
  • Tracey Kaplan of the San Jose Mercury News was among those reporting that Santa Clara County prosecutors are leaning against charging 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald with domestic violence. However, while the District Attorney’s office may be leaning that way, the DA announced today that no decision has been made yet, according to Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com.
  • Players who went on the IR list with the designation to return prior to Week 1 are eligible to be activated for this weekend’s contests, and while Adam Caplan of ESPN.com tweets that Buccaneers running back Charles Sims figures to come off IR tomorrow, Giants guard Geoff Schwartz won’t be activated for at least one more week, according to Ralph Vacchiano of the New York Daily News (Twitter link). Caplan adds (via Twitter) that the Bucs appear likely to promote defensive tackle Matthew Masifilo from their practice squad as well.
  • While it doesn’t appear likely to happen, head coach Ron Rivera believes Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy should be reinstated by the NFL if his trial is postponed until after the season, as ESPN.com’s David Newton details.
  • Given the multiple ACL injuries suffered by quarterback Sam Bradford and tackle Jake Long, Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wonders whether the Rams will be able to count on either player for the 2015 season.

Buccaneers To Cut Trindon Holliday

The Buccaneers will waive receiver and kick returner Trindon Holliday with an injured designation, according to Rand Getlin of Yahoo! Sports (via Twitter). Assuming Holliday clears waivers, he’ll revert to the team’s injured reserve list.

Holliday, 28, signed with the Bucs just 10 days ago, and handled kick and punt return duties for the team on Sunday against Minnesota. However, he injured his hamstring during practice this week, and had been ruled out for Tampa Bay’s Week 9 contest against the Browns.

This will be the second time this season that Holliday is waived and placed on injured reserve with a hamstring issue — the Giants made that same move in August. Holliday, who is known for his explosiveness on special teams, returned 81 punts for 752 yards and two touchdowns during the 2012 and 2013 seasons. The ex-Bronco also averaged a healthy 27.1 yards per kick return in those seasons and took two of those to the house as well.

Having traded away two players earlier this week, the Bucs already had multiple openings on their roster, so waiving Holliday will allow the team to make one additional move. I’d expect Tampa Bay to promote a player or two from its practice squad tomorrow, and perhaps activate running back Charles Sims too.

East Notes: Talib, Patriots, Jets, Hall

With the AFC East-leading Patriots set to host the AFC West-leading Broncos this weekend, it’s the latest chapter in the ongoing Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry, but there are a few other subplots at play. One of them involves Broncos cornerback Aqib Talib, who was a Patriot last year, but signed a huge deal with the Broncos in the offseason and will be playing on the other side of the rivalry this time around. Here’s a round-up of East-related links, including a note on Talib:

  • Speaking to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald, Talib says he “relished” his time in New England and came close to re-signing with the Patriots last spring. “It was a negotiation, and it came down to the language of the contracts,” Talib said. “I just went with what I feel was best with me and my family. I can’t remember the logistics and everything. It wasn’t bad at all. The offer wasn’t bad.”
  • In advance of Sunday’s showdown, Kevin Seifert of ESPN.com takes a look at the differences between how the Patriots and Broncos built their current rosters.
  • With the 2015 free agent market for quarterbacks not likely to yield any long-term solutions, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News explores the Jets‘ potential options for signal-callers in next year’s draft.
  • After tearing his Achilles tendon last month and undergoing surgery to repair it, Washington cornerback DeAngelo Hall tore it again and will have to go back under the knife, reports Adam Schefter of ESPN.com. Although Hall is still expected to be ready for training camp in 2015, the re-injury will make his recovery more challenging, and it raises some questions about his future in Washington, according to Rich Tandler of CSNWashington.com.

Returning Impact Players For Contenders

The NFL’s second half is getting underway this week, and it’s not too early to point to specific games as crucial for playoff positioning, as teams jockey for divisions and Wild Card openings. Last night’s contest between the Saints and Panthers, for instance, could ultimately have a real impact on which team wins the NFC South.

As we near the home stretch of the 2014 season, several teams could get a boost from returning players who have been sidelined for most or all of the year. These players won’t necessarily swing playoff races, but their teams will certainly welcome them back with open arms as a way of fortifying rosters that may be plagued by various injuries and ailments.

Listed below are a handful of players worth keeping an eye on during the season’s second half. These players are on track to return from longer-term injuries or suspensions, and could have an impact down the stretch, perhaps helping to buoy their respective teams into postseason berths. While the returns of other players, like Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, will also obviously be massive for their respective teams, shorter-term absences like Green’s aren’t noted here.

Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert (TE)
Green’s return may have a more significant impact on the Bengals’ offense, but Eifert shouldn’t be overlooked. The young tight end was expected to take on a larger role this season, and had already caught three balls in the team’s Week 1 contest before he suffered a dislocated elbow. Since he received the designation to return when he was placed on IR, Eifert is eligible to practice now and is expected to be activated for the club’s Week 11 game against the Saints.

Cleveland Browns: Josh Gordon (WR)
The Browns currently sit in last place in the competitive AFC North, so it’s fair to question whether they’re a legit contender. Still, at 4-3, they’re right on the heels of the division-leading 4-2-1 Bengals, and with a soft schedule and the 2013’s leading receiver due back soon, there’s reason for optimism in Cleveland. Taking into account the Browns’ bye, Gordon’s 10-game ban means he’s eligible to return for Week 12, and it’ll be interesting to see what Brian Hoyer – or, perhaps, Johnny Manziel – can do during the season’s final six weeks with a weapon like Gordon at his disposal.

Dallas Cowboys: Demarcus Lawrence (DE/OLB)
We’ve yet to see what Lawrence is capable of at the NFL level, since the first half of his rookie season has been wiped out by a broken foot. But this is a player for whom the Cowboys traded up to No. 34 in May’s draft, and the team is looking forward to getting him back this weekend. Dallas’ defense has been surprisingly effective so far, but it certainly hasn’t been infallible, and a player like Lawrence will help fortify the team’s pass rush. It’s also worth monitoring defensive tackle Josh Brent, whose 10-game ban will soon expire — Brent may not see a ton of snaps right away, but the fact that the Cowboys have stuck with him indicates he remains very much in the team’s plans.

Detroit Lions: Kyle Van Noy (LB)
Like Lawrence, Van Noy is an early second-round pick who we’ve yet to see play in a regular season game. Of course, the Lions’ defense has been so effective that the team can afford to ease Van Noy in slowly if it so chooses, but this is a player who was initially penciled in as a three-down starter during the preseason. While he may not receive that kind of workload when he returns this weekend, I expect he’ll become a bigger part of Detroit’s D by December.

Philadelphia Eagles: Jason Kelce (C), Evan Mathis (G)
Eagles fans and LeSean McCoy‘s fantasy owners alike will welcome the return of this standout duo of interior offensive linemen. Kelce appears ready to return to action this weekend, while Mathis is expected to be activated for the following week, which is great news for an offensive line that has been shorthanded virtually all season. Assuming Kelce and Mathis are both healthy and remain as effective as ever, McCoy should start finding a few more holes and Nick Foles may be a little more comfortable in the pocket.

San Diego Chargers: Melvin Ingram (LB), Ryan Mathews (RB), Manti Te’o (LB)
Few – if any – teams have been hit harder this season by injuries than the Chargers, but reinforcements are on the way. In addition to players like Brandon Flowers and Jeremiah Attaochu being on the mend, the trio noted here is recovering well from longer-term injuries. Ingram, Mathews, and Te’o have each been sidelined since at least Week 3, but if all goes well, all three players could be back in action again following the club’s Week 10 bye.

San Francisco 49ers: NaVorro Bowman (LB), Aldon Smith (LB)
Heading into the season, many pundits viewed the Niners as a candidate to fall out of the postseason this year in large part due to the extended absences of Bowman and Smith. The team has hung in there so far though, and should finally be getting their standout linebackers back in November. Even if Smith’s nine-game ban isn’t reduced by a game or two, a rumor which appears increasingly unlikely, he’ll be eligible to return for the Niners’ Week 11 contest against the Giants, and I’d expect Bowman to be back a week or two after that. With December showdowns against the Seahawks, Chargers, and Cardinals on tap, San Francisco could be getting two of its best defenders back just in time to affect the playoff picture.

Greg Hardy Likely Done For Season

10:09am: Hardy will remain on the commissioner’s exempt list until his case is adjudicated, which now isn’t expected to happen until January, a league source tells Cole (Twitter link).

FRIDAY, 9:39am: A representative of the Mecklenberg County D.A.’s office tells Tom Pelissero and Jim Corbett of USA Today that Hardy’s case has not been postponed and remains on the docket for November 17. However, the USA Today duo also hears from a source that the state has postponed Hardy’s case, and office rep Meghan Cooke did acknowledge the date could be subject to change. According to Pelissero and Corbett, the difference “could be semantics,” if the D.A. and Hardy’s lawyers have been told the date will be rescheduled.

THURSDAY, 9:30pm: Jason Cole of Bleacher Report tweets that Hardy will ask the NFL to lift his paid suspension. Cole adds (via Twitter) that Hardy wants to play this season, with some members of his party agreeing and disagreeing with his sentiment.

7:14pm: Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has been sitting on the exempt/commissioner’s permission list since mid-September, and there was some hope that he would play again this season once his mid-November trial for domestic violence was resolved. That now seems very unlikely, as sources tell ProFootballTalk.com’s Mike Florio that Hardy’s trial has been postponed until after the season. Unless the NFL changes their policy regarding the exempt list, he won’t be allowed back on the field until the case is settled, which means his season is effectively over. Florio notes that Hardy could be pressured to accept a plea deal, but the 26-year-old would still face a punishment from the league.

Hardy’s trial was initially set to begin on November 17, during the Panthers’ bye week. There seemed to be general optimism that the Pro Bowler would be back with the team after that, as NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport tweets that Hardy was “confident he would be found not guilty” and would play again this season.

However, there were whispers that some in Hardy’s camp were advising the upcoming free agent to sit out the season and avoid injuries or reduced performance. Florio counters that the defensive end will now be hard pressed to find a big contract. Either way, Joe Person of The Charlotte Observer tweets that Hardy’s career with the Panthers is likely finished.

Hardy made the Pro Bowl last season after he compiled a career-high 15 sacks, and ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required) ranked him as the second-best overall defensive end in the league. He signed a $13.1MM deal for the 2014 season.