Freeney capitalizes on quick steps

For years, when the topic has turned to the desire for quickness at the defensive end position, league scouts have spoken about the significance of a prospect's first step. That barometer isn't apt to change any time soon, but -- given the recent success of Indianapolis defensive right end Dwight Freeney -- the assessment process might be revisited.

The league's leading rookie sacker in 2002, and currently on a pass-rush rage with six sacks in his last three outings, Freeney is a blur. Just ask overmatched Miami Dolphins left offensive tackle Wade Smith, transformed into a dreidel in cleats last week, as Freeney beat him for three sacks and also forced an intentional grounding penalty on one of his many forays into the backfield.

No doubt, Smith will attest, Freeney has an incredible first step. But it's actually a more explosive second step, Freeney told ESPN.com this week, that is critical to his status as one of the NFL's premier "edge" rushers.

"The first step, really, all that does is set up the second step," Freeney explained. "Truth is, the faster you get that second foot onto the ground, the quicker you will be. For me, I need that second step, because it's what carries me into the backfield. I think if scouts realized how important the second step is, they'd look at it much more, and use that step as a (yardstick) for measuring quickness."

Freeney didn't always pay such unwavering attention to first and second steps, to the technical minutiae players must naturally master to set themselves apart from their peers, and to the nuances not even some coaches understand. But under the tutelage of strength and conditioning coach William Hicks of Syracuse, who has prepared dozens of players for the draft and whose star pupils also include current St. Louis wide receiver Torry Holt (during a previous stint at North Carolina State), Freeney became a believer in doing the little things well.

And those little things included a lightning-quick second step, developing deceptive strength, learning the techniques that allowed him to overcome his lack of size. Hicks pointed out earlier this week that Freeney isn't necessarily a little man, but that a lack of height worried some NFL teams, then quickly emphasized that the defensive end has tremendous strength.

In working with Freeney, the strength coach concentrated on pure power, translated at base levels into violence. He developed Freeney's core strength -- the power exerted by a player's trunk, from his navel to the top of his knees -- and his ability to "bend" toward the pocket and the quarterback. Widely regarded as a one-dimensional speed-rusher, Freeney has knocked offensive linemen back on their heels with a bull-rush move that belies his rather minute stature, and he continues to be able to squeeze through blockers because of his strength.

"We wanted every move to be a violent move," Hicks explained. "I mean, power, just by definition, has nothing to do with size. The formula is weight, times distance, divided by time. So it's more about creating momentum than it is about size. The hits that hurt are by the safeties, linebackers, people like that. Offensive linemen, for instance, do not create great power, because they aren't traveling very far. Now, Dwight, he has power. And he has that great second step."

Both those qualities are reflected in the production of Freeney, who was clocked at a mind-boggling 4.38 seconds in the 40-yard dash before the draft, and who has changed the minds of a lot of skeptics who wondered how the Colts could select him with the 11th overall choice in the 2002 lottery. Freeney has 20 sacks and 13 forced fumbles in just 1½ seasons, and the connection between those two figures is hardly coincidence, since Hicks taught the defensive end that going for the football naturally carries him to the passer.

High-energy Colts defensive line coach John Teerlinck, one of the best pass-rush teachers in the game, has certainly reinforced the killer instinct Freeney possesses. Of course, it certainly doesn't hurt, either, that Freeney combines natural athleticism with work ethic.

"A lot of people," Hicks said, "are freaks of nature. Dwight Freeney is pretty much a freak of training. He takes the stuff you tell him, assimilates it, then applies it."

Between his eye-blink second step, and a natural skill for "bending" to the passer, Freeney has already established himself as a young and emerging star. Last week's tour-de-force performance won't hurt his image in that regard. A lot of players can "corner" to the quarterback or "flatten out" toward the pocket, but Freeney is constantly in attack mode, and is still working on improving some technical elements. What he doesn't need to be, though, is any bigger or quicker.

"(To) tell the truth, my (lack of height) actually helps, because I've got a lower center of gravity than most of the guys I line up across from," Freeney said. "And I feel like, if I get up under your pads, I'm going to whip you. Yeah, I know I'm not the textbook pass-rush guy everyone has drawn up on the computer. But I think I've broken the mold a little bit and forced (scouts) to rethink some things."

Around the league

  • Given that coach Dennis Erickson has already eliminated any suspense, announcing that a recovered Jeff Garcia will start for San Francisco when it resumes play on Nov. 17 after this weekend's bye, there will be no quarterback controversy with the 49ers this year. But in the offseason, San Francisco management may have a knotty decision to make and, as is typically the case, there will be a financial element involved. Garcia's current contract, which technically runs through the 2007 season, stipulates that the Pro Bowl performer be paid a 2004 salary commensurate to $500,000 less than the "franchise" player value for the position. The qualifying offer for a "franchise" quarterback this year was about $8.3 million and figures to be at least slightly more next season. Keeping Garcia under the terms of his current deal would likely increase his already gaudy cap charge of $9.13 million. Plus there is this element: Garcia has the unilateral right to void the final three years of the contract after 2004. On the flip side, backup Tim Rattay, impressive last week in his debut regular-season start, recently signed a contract extension through the 2006 campaign that includes very palatable numbers. Rattay has a cap charge of just $1.025 million for 2004 and, quite frankly, the growing support of some veterans who feel he can be a starting-caliber quarterback. The solution probably will be some sort of mutual concession by Garcia and the 49ers, one in which the old contract is essentially torn up, the quarterback forfeits some of his rights, and the team ostensibly signs him to a more cap-friendly deal of three or four years. But if the price becomes too high, then the Niners' brass faces a choice, because Garcia isn't the only standout veteran with whom the team must negotiate. Among the pending unrestricted free agents on the roster is Julian Peterson, among the NFL's premier strong-side linebackers, and a player some feel is a candidate for defensive player of the year honors. The 49ers must also attempt to keep cornerback Ahmed Plummer around. And, oh, yeah, there's the matter of Terrell Owens, also a pending free agent, to resolve. Beyond his spate of physical ailments this year, there is nothing to suggest Garcia has slipped, and he probably will be around in 2004. Just not under his current contract.

  • Under the popular and punitive catch-all term "conduct detrimental to the team," several players have been suspended this season for actions much more benign than what Charles Woodson has visited upon the Oakland Raiders and head coach Bill Callahan over the past week. So why hasn't the loquacious cornerback, who isn't exactly lighting it up this season, been similarly sanctioned? Well, there are some quiet suggestions that the Raiders have taken a few bucks out of Woodson's paycheck, but those are unsubstantiated. And if Woodson hasn't been docked, well, why the surprise, since Callahan takes his lead from the top of the organization. Remember, this is a franchise that still insists that the attack by Bill Romanowski on departed tight end Marcus Williams was the equivalent of little more than incidental contact. But why the verbal salvos by Woodson, and why now, some people wonder? A few teammates suspect that Woodson, who knows the Raiders face a daunting rebuilding task, is sending a message to Oakland officials and to the rest of the league as well. The message to the club: Don't use a "franchise" designation to keep the talented cornerback, who is eligible for unrestricted free agency, around in 2004. And to the rest of the league: Break out the checkbook and plan to put a lot of zeroes on it. As noted in recent weeks, the 2004 class of unrestricted free-agent cornerbacks could be a deep one. It might include top coverage players such as Champ Bailey (Washington), Chris McAlister (Baltimore), Antoine Winfield (Buffalo), and Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent (both of Philadelphia), among others. Everybody is always looking for a top-shelf corner, but there is only so much money to go around, and Woodson just might be trying to stake an early claim to part of it.

  • For lack of a better term, we're calling this the "Bobby Ewing Dream" season for the slumping Pittsburgh Steelers. Faithful viewers of the old Dallas night-time soap opera will recall that, at the outset of one season, the youngest Ewing son (portrayed by Patrick Duffy) was written back into the show by explaining his previous demise as nothing more than a long dream sequence. Well, for quarterback Tommy Maddox in particular, that is what 2003 has represented. He woke up one day, blinked a couple of times, and was suddenly back to being the journeyman Tommy Maddox again. It's as if 2002, and that comeback player of the year award, was just a bunch of positive rapid-eye movements. The upshot, since the Steelers don't seem prepared to hand the job to Charlie Batch any time soon, is that Pittsburgh must spend the upcoming offseason plotting for the future at quarterback. Chris Mortensen reported earlier this week that Pittsburgh is high atop the wish list of Drew Henson and that is, as usual, on the nose. But there has been no meaningful dialogue with Houston about possibly acquiring Henson, even though Texans general manager Charley Casserly sat next to a Pittsburgh official earlier this week on a college scouting trip to the University of Michigan. Don't expect that to last much longer, however, since the Texans want to discern in coming weeks just who the pretenders and contenders will be when it comes time to sign Henson and then deal him away. The Steelers, at least recently, haven't been ardent trade partners, nor have they sought to draft quarterbacks with high-round choices. But in the 2000 draft, the Steelers flirted with the idea of striking a deal that would have landed Chad Pennington, and some scouts feel Henson has even more upside than the New York Jets star. Bottom line is that Pittsburgh has to make a move and, recent history aside, it probably will have to be one that's out of character for the franchise.

  • There were two moves in Cleveland this week, the re-sale of club stock by Browns team president Carmen Policy and the benching of starting wide receiver Kevin Johnson, that merited considerable attention. But for those trying to draw the same conclusions about the future of the two men, well, don't. Policy resold his 10-percent stake in the team to rookie owner Randy Lerner, reportedly for $40 million-$50 million, for a lot of reasons, but none of them have anything to do with his suggested departure. At least not for a few more years. Policy recently purchased a tract of land in the pricey Napa area, will build a winery there, and eventually retire to the area. But eventually doesn't mean imminent in his case. The deal allows Policy to pay for the land, repay some previous loans he made to secure the stock in the first place, and still have a pretty nice nest egg. It would be naïve to suggest Policy maintains the same role he had when he moved to Cleveland, not with the way Butch Davis operates things, but he is still a major player in the league. As for "KJ," yeah, color him gone at the end of this season. Johnson has led the franchise in receptions four straight seasons, and tops the Browns in catches again this year, but has fallen out of favor with Davis' staff. He is averaging a career-worst 9.5 yards per catch, has two touchdowns, and the coaches feel he is a reluctant blocker in the running game. And, remember, the Browns have attempted to deal Johnson in the past. It says here they will succeed this time around, in the offseason, although they may not land a draft pick commensurate with the wide receiver's value. Johnson lacks the deep speed the rest of the Cleveland wide receivers possess, but some scouts insist that he has the best hands of any wideout in the NFL, and there will be a market for him. Take a look at the list of potential unrestricted wide receivers and, once you get past Terrell Owens (San Francisco) and Darrell Jackson (Seattle), not many names jump out. Any franchise that trades for Johnson gets him at a set price, just shy of $9 million for the next three years, and with no upfront money involved. Nope, on the Cleveland scorecard, Johnson will definitely be gone, and Policy will be back. And, oh, yeah, don't buy into the rumors the Browns will seek a general manager in the offseason. It simply isn't happening.

  • Even though Jacksonville coaches are generally pleased with the performance of rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich, expect the first-round choice to be asked to spend plenty of time at team headquarters in the offseason. Leftwich has thrown nine interceptions this year and fumbled eight times (losing six of them) and coaches feel that his elongated pass release, a mechanical flaw everyone discerned before the draft, has to be corrected. On at least half his fumbles, Leftwich has coughed the ball up because he has been into what one opposition defensive coordinator termed "that long windup of his," and because the ball just doesn't come out of his hand quickly. Leftwich will work in the offseason on tightening his release, on a more efficient motion, and on protecting the ball from pass rushers. Again, given the scouting report before the draft, none of that is surprising.

  • A few readers, out of the relatively small subset of loyalists that actually exists, phoned over the past couple days to note we didn't include Tyrone Willingham of Notre Dame among our list of college coaches who might be candidates for NFL vacancies after this season. Uh, our bad, folks. The miserable season Notre Dame is experiencing this year has not, and almost certainly won't, dampen the ardor of some owners to consider the estimable Willingham if they have an opening. Much of that has to do with the belief Willingham is a top-flight sideline boss. And, let's not be naïve: Some of it is the push by the NFL to get more minority candidates involved in the interview process. Remember, so desperate was the NFL last year for minority candidates that league officials actually sought to have Notre Dame permit Willingham to interview for vacancies. Like most of the big-name college coaches, Willingham has a pricey buyout to his Fighting Irish deal. And like many college coaches, who have decided life on campus is less pressure-packed than a tenuous NFL existence, Willingham isn't going anywhere. At least not for a few more years, until he gets the Notre Dame program righted and able to sustain itself even after his departure. But make no mistake, when Willingham decides he is ready for the NFL, teams will be more than ready for him. And just how desperate is the NFL to do a better job of inclusiveness with minorities when the "hiring" season starts in January? One league official conceded last week he is privately hoping the St. Louis Rams remain hot, since that will mean defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who has his unit back to where it was two years ago, will have some interview opportunities.

  • As noted here last week, the fact Willis McGahee won't even dress for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Dallas doesn't mean he isn't going to play at all this year. The big priority for the Bills is to have McGahee report to camp next July harboring zero concerns over his surgically repaired left knee. So at some point, likely in December, look for him to get eight or 10 snaps in a few contests. Anything that allows McGahee to move past any of the lingering doubts about his knee, Buffalo management feels, is a plus for 2004.

  • Not many teams beat last Monday afternoon's deadline for signing players to contract extensions and having the signing bonus count as base salary for the 2003 season. The deadline is key, because it permits a franchise to ameliorate future salary cap impact, and to take advantage of current spending room. One team that was very active was Arizona, which began the week roughly $11.3 million under the spending limit, and expended all but $3.71 million of that very healthy-sized bounty. The Cardinals extended the contracts of a half-dozen players and reworked one other deal. For the most part the moves were fairly cosmetic as the Cardinals re-upped several middle-level veterans -- tight end Steve Bush, tailbacks Josh Scobey and Damien Anderson, wide receiver Bryan Gilmore and linebacker LeVar Woods -- but there were two deals of note. Arizona signed left offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, a potential Pro Bowl-caliber player, to a five-year extension worth roughly $22 million in so-called "new money." Shelton got a $5 million signing bonus, had his base salary for 2003 boosted by $2 million, and will get annual base salaries of $3 million for 2004-2008. His salary cap charge to the Cardinals for the extension years, just $3.83 million, certainly is acceptable for a player of his skills. The cap charge for this year increased by $2.83 million, but it was money that the Cardinals had to use or lose anyway. Arizona also restructured the contract of another possible Pro Bowl-type lineman, right guard Leonard Davis, even though he hasn't been nearly as effective this season as he was during the first two years of his NFL tenure. Essentially, the Cardinals shifted $1 million of Davis' original base salary for 2004, and $2 million of his salary from 2005, and pushed it forward into this year. It escalated his cap charge for 2003 to $6.457 million, a jump of $3 million. But it dropped Davis' cap charges for each of the next two seasons, by an aggregate amount of $3 million.

  • Now that San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer has benched quarterback Drew Brees, and will start Doug Flutie on Sunday, you can bet a lot of people will go back and look again at the 2001 trade in which the Chargers surrendered the rights to Michael Vick. Because the Chargers gained superb tailback LaDainian Tomlinson in the swap, and still got Brees in the second round, the trade was viewed as a very solid one. But as good as Tomlinson is, every team wants a "franchise" quarterback, and the regression of Brees brings the deal under further scrutiny.

    Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.