With the news this week that New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi phoned San Diego Chargers counterpart A.J. Smith to discuss a deal involving the top spot in the 2004 draft and likely acquisition of Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, the NFL world was at least temporarily nudged back onto its axis.
Accorsi earned his stripes in the NFL watching guys like Johnny Unitas play the game's most demanding role and, in a league where it has become suddenly chic to diminish the quarterback position, he remains an old-guard true believer in the axiom that you need a great signal-caller to win championships.
Evidence to the contrary -- a former sixth-round pick, Tom Brady of New England, won two of the last three Super Bowl games and Brad Johnson, who came into the NFL as a ninth-round selection, claimed the other -- we agree. And so now the latest member of the most prolific quarterback family tree in NFL history figures to be the main focus of draft chatter for the ensuing two weeks.
Still, there is evidence supporting the notion that, if Manning is the highest profile player in the draft pool, Iowa offensive tackle Robert Gallery remains the safest choice. Just as the Giants organization is scrambling to divine the formula for securing Manning, whose surname alone would be magic in The Big Apple, it appears even more franchises covet a shot at Gallery, who could be the second overall prospect off the board.
For openers, Gallery is the lone sure-thing left tackle prospect in the talent pool, and the dropoff to the next-best pass protector is a precipitous one. While not in the same subset yet as NFL veterans such as Jonathan Ogden of Baltimore, Seattle's Walter Jones or Orlando Pace of St. Louis, he possesses a remarkable upside. And Gallery has been well-schooled by Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa head coach and former Cleveland Browns offensive line tutor, a guy who is now regularly sending great blockers to the NFL.
But beyond Gallery's estimable talents, and his Eagle Scout character, there is this factor: The left tackle position, in retrospect, has risen dramatically in importance over the past few years. And those teams that have solidified the tackle position in general over the last decade have realized handsome dividends.
Since 1995, there have been 15 offensive tackles chosen in the top half of the first round, and all 15 are currently starters in the league. In the last 10 lotteries, a dozen tackles were selected in the top 10, and one could argue that all have carved out notable NFL tenures to this juncture of their respective careers.
Of the eight tackles chosen in the top 10 of the draft 1995-2000, all but Kyle Turley have been to at least one Pro Bowl game. Tony Boselli, whose career was cut short by a series of shoulder injuries, will be a Hall of Fame candidate. Ditto Ogden, Pace and Jones once their careers conclude. Houston Texans tailback Domanick Davis won rookie of the year honors for last season, but most league observers acknowledge the most accomplished first-year player in 2003 was Carolina tackle Jordan Gross, who will switch from the right side to the left side in 2004.
Once an afterthought, the tackle position is now a priority, and left tackle has risen to near-skill position status. All one needs to do is review the upward spiral of contract averages for offensive tackles over the last seven seasons.
"Nothing is ever going to replace (the quarterback position) as the most critical one on the field," allowed St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz at last month's league meetings. "But if you don't have a left tackle, well, you'd better get one, because you're in trouble. It really is one of the biggest building blocks. You can't function without a big-time left tackle."
The importance of the left tackle spot certainly has been reflected in what has transpired, or, more accurately, hasn't transpired, during the current free agency period. Just three left tackles of note -- Todd Steussie (of Carolina), Derrick Deese (San Francisco) and Ephraim Salaam (Denver) -- switched teams this spring. And all three did so only after they were released.
The top young left tackle who was to have been available, Green Bay's Chad Clifton, was re-signed by the Packers before he ever hit the open market. That is in lockstep with the current mindset in the NFL, which strongly suggests that teams do whatever it takes to hold onto quality left tackles. The current 32 starting left tackles in the NFL are under contract, at this point, for an average of more than three more years.
And that, in typically convoluted fashion, brings us full-circle back to Robert Gallery.
The franchise that lands the Iowa star figures to secure his services, and thus ensure some degree of bodily safety for its starting quarterback, for the next six or seven seasons. Little wonder, then, that so many teams covet him and are plotting potential scenarios for trying to get into position to snatch him. Little wonder, too, that the Oakland Raiders are getting a lot of phone calls about the second overall spot in the draft, and what it might take to pry that slot away from them.
Cleveland, which flirted briefly with the idea of trading for Pace, has made no pretense of its interest in Gallery, who would be the centerpiece of a revamped blocking unit. But the team that is perhaps most ardent in its pursuit of Gallery is Washington, which would like to slide up three rungs in the draft, to the Oakland spot, to choose him. The Redskins, to this point, have demonstrated stealth in their efforts, but now they have been outed.
Yeah, we know, the Redskins already have a top-flight left tackle in Chris Samuels. And we just noted, only a few paragraphs ago, that teams with proven left tackles (Samuels has made a pair of Pro Bowl appearances), don't discard them.
Both points are well-taken, but this is the Redskins we're discussing, and owner Daniel Snyder doesn't always adhere to league convention. More important, Snyder does not deal well with players who don't play according to his rules. Samuels, in rejecting all overtures toward the kind of contract extension linebacker LaVar Arrington bit on, is seen by the Redskins now in a different light.
The Snyder rationale: If you're not with me, and not going to provide me the kind of salary cap relief I need, well, you can go the way of Champ Bailey. Samuels has a salary cap charge of $8.749 million for 2004 and, after twice previously reworking his contract to help Snyder out of jams, is balking at another re-do. Plus having played two seasons in the flawed pass protection scheme drawn up by the deposed Steve Spurrier, the left tackle wants a shot to rehabilitate himself.
What the Redskins would prefer to do is cut a deal, perhaps using wide receiver Rod Gardner as trade bait, that allows them to choose Gallery. And then they could either deal Samuels to a tackle-needy team, like Cleveland, or release him at some point.
While it doesn't have the marquee status of the Giants' pursuit of Manning, the chase for Gallery is almost as intriguing, and certainly magnifies the importance of left tackles.
Around the league
As a reporter, you never want to stare a gift horse in the mouth, and so the public updates by Chargers general manager A.J. Smith on the team's process in determining what to do with the first choice in the draft are greatly appreciated. But in announcing this week that he had spoken to the Giants about swapping that first pick, so that New York could select quarterback Eli Manning, the Chargers invited some suspicion. There is a perception now, justifiable or not, that San Diego has tacitly hung a "For Sale" sign on the first pick. And that, in acknowledging the Giants' interest, the Chargers essentially were delivering a message to any other franchise that wants to get into the bidding that it's time to make their intentions known. Then again, Smith, who has said he will not lie when queried about the process, might just be remarkably forthcoming. That would be a refreshing tack at draft time, when everyone is engaged in a high stakes game of Liar's Poker, even with best friends. If so, thanks, Mr. Smith. That said, rumors persist that the Chargers like North Carolina State quarterback Philip Rivers, a prospect they could get a bit later in the first round, more than they do Manning.
It didn't get a lot of attention, except from the Pittsburgh media attending last week's league meetings, but the fact the Steelers haven't gotten around to proposing a contract extension for coach Bill Cowher is probably more significant than team management is currently acknowledging. Cowher is under contract through the 2005 campaign, so the perception is that there is no urgency to do anything yet, with two years remaining on the current deal. But in the past, when Cowher has reached the two-year mark, the Steelers usually have re-upped him for three additional years, and those negotiations typically have taken place in February. But we're now into April and there haven't really been any substantive talks between the Steelers and Octagon, the firm that represents Cowher. The party line from both sides is that people shouldn't read anything into the current inertia. But league sources maintain the Steelers may wait until after the 2004 season, to evaluate where the team is at that point, before making any long-term commitments to Cowher. After guiding Pittsburgh to playoff berths in each of his first six seasons (tying a league record), Cowher has had the franchise in the postseason only twice in the past six years. Under his stewardship, the club has been to just one Super Bowl and is 1-3 in conference championship appearances. There is a suspicion that Cowher's star has fallen a bit with the team, as it has with the Steel City fans, and that he needs to quickly get things righted to extend his stay. Thirteen seasons with the same franchise is an eternity in a league where owners seek instant gratification and, while owner Dan Rooney prides himself on having just two head coaches since 1969, nothing last forever. Cowher, of course, would have no problem finding a job if/when his Steelers tenure concludes.
Even if Bill Cowher survives beyond 2004, don't count on wide receiver Plaxico Burress returning to the Steelers after this season, which helps explain why Pittsburgh has been meeting with so many wide receiver prospects in the draft. Burress is entering the final year of his contract and there have been no extension discussions. The feeling among Steelers brass is that Burress' performance and effort lagged in 2003 after two standout campaigns. The team probably won't be able to meet Burress' contract demands after this season and isn't about to use the "franchise" designation to retain him. With Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El, the Steelers figure to be covered at wideout, but will need to bring in a youngster at some point in this receiver-deep draft to begin prepping for the No. 3 wideout spot for 2005.
About 300 miles across the Pennsylvania Turnpike from Pittsburgh, there was a rumor this week that the Philadelphia Eagles were attempting to continue their stretch of high-profile acquisitions by trading for Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. But all of those throaty Eagles fans, waiting for Urlacher to join defensive end Jevon Kearse and wide receiver Terrell Owens in the team's galaxy of stars, might do well to exhale. Bears team sources, while acknowledging that rookie coach Lovie Smith has delivered a very public message that he expects more game-altering plays from Urlacher, vehemently debunked the rumor of a deal. Not only is Urlacher is perennial Pro Bowl player but, as Chicago sources point out, he is the team's highest profile performer and the most popular veteran with the blue-collar fan base of Da Bears. And there is this more practical reason, too, why a trade would be prohibitive: Trading Urlacher would mean the Bears would have to carry $11.7 million in "dead money" on their 2004 salary cap. That is $5.5 million more than the current salary cap charge, $6.207 million, for Urlacher.
At first blush, one might seem totally unrelated to the other, but the Friday trade in which Cincinnati swapped first round spots with Denver might actually hasten a trade of disgruntled Bengals tailback Corey Dillon. How so? In addition to landing cornerback Deltha O'Neal in the trade, the Bengals also received Denver's fourth-round pick, the 117th overall selection. Last week, Cincinnati was awarded the highest compensatory pick in the draft, the final selection in the third round. With those two additional selections, Cincinnati now has four choices in the top 117 picks. The upshot of that newfound bounty: Owner Mike Brown might now be inclined to back off of his asking price for Dillon, a second-rounder, and accept less from the Oakland Raiders.
Everyone is familiar with Mike Martz's love affair with quarterbacks but, in trying to divine his plans for 2004, it's still hard to read the Rams head coach sometimes. The club is now attempting to negotiate a long-term contract with Marc Bulger, rather than just have him sign the one-year restricted free agent qualifying offer of $1.824 million. But at the same time, Rams sources indicated to ESPN.com that Martz really likes J.P. Losman, the Tulane quarterback who visited with St. Louis officials this week. In that regard, the Rams are in a growing list of teams suddenly enamored of Losman. For openers, he has a lot more mobility than the top three quarterback prospects in the '04 draft, throws well on the run, and has very nice arm strength. No one should be surprised if Losman is chosen in the first round and, just maybe, by the Rams.
For a wide receiver who has averaged just 39.3 catches and 491 yards in four seasons, and totaled seven touchdown catches in that period, Dennis Northcutt of Cleveland sure is getting plenty of attention. Much of it precipitated, of course, by Northcutt himself and agent Jerome Stanley. Their latest move, since they have been unable to force the Browns to deal Northcutt to Baltimore for fourth- and seventh-round draft choices, is to file a grievance against the franchise for not bargaining in good faith. Notable, though, is that the grievance was filed by Northcutt himself, not the NFL Players Association, which handled the higher-profile Terrell Owens action. One reason the NFLPA hasn't jumped onboard is because it doesn't figure to weasel Northcutt out of his jam the way it did Owens. That's because the contract Northcutt signed as a rookie in 2000 included a very precise date by which he had to exercise his right to void the final three years. Frankly, the language was far more exact than that in Owens' deal and, when the date passed and Northcutt failed to file the pertinent paperwork, he was bound to the Browns for three more years. Months ago, when both sides figured the contract would be voided, the club offered Northcutt a pretty solid extension for a guy who hadn't achieved very much. He might have been wise to take the money then. The Browns are dug in now, adamant that they won't swap Northcutt to a division rival, and Stanley's contentions that Cleveland is not dealing in good faith might not prove very effective.
Another wide receiver with numbers even more meager than those of Northcutt, former Denver fourth-round draft choice Chris Cole, quietly signed with Oakland this week as an unrestricted free agent. A big deal? Probably not, given that Cole, 26, had just a dozen catches in four seasons with the Broncos. But the former Texas A&M star runs well, has decent size, and is one of those players who always seems on the cusp of a breakout year. It's the kind of innocuous, low-budget deal that Oakland personnel chief Mike Lombardi (we think we're actually allowed to have his name in print now, with Bruce Allen having departed and Big Al leaning on Lombardi more for advice) has made in the past and gotten good results. The financial gamble is zero and maybe this is the season Cole becomes more than just a tease.
He didn't exactly light things up last weekend in his NFL Europe debut, but the New England Patriots are going to give third-year quarterback Rohan Davey every chance to demonstrate he is ready to take over as Tom Brady's primary backup. Davey was one of the standouts at the NFLE training camp in Tampa, has dropped considerable weight, and is throwing the ball with notable velocity. Last year's No. 2 quarterback, Damon Huard, remains an unrestricted free agent. Pats officials have told him they probably won't make a decision on whether to offer him a contract until they fully evaluate Davey.
One notable absence from the first minicamp convened by Atlanta Falcons rookie head coach Jim Mora this week was that of defensive tackle Ellis Johnson, who once again is said to be contemplating his future. Johnson went back and forth last year on retirement -- his family continues to live on his farm outside Indianapolis and there are no plans to relocate his wife and two kids -- and finally decided to play another year. He quietly led all NFL defensive tackles in sacks, with eight, and remains a solid player at age 30. His agent has said he will not report until his contract is upgraded. Atlanta officials want the situation resolved far earlier than it was last season when, even days before camp started, no one was sure if Johnson was going to attend. Mora has demonstrated that he intends to be a no-nonsense coach and you can bet the Johnson uncertainty won't linger.
Follow-up on Khiawatha Downey, the Indiana University of Pennsylvania offensive lineman about whom we wrote last week, after he was dropped of some draft boards because he has multiple sclerosis: Several teams have done more research on Downey and, in general, clubs seem to have taken an more open-minded stance. Downey also met this week with the manufacturers of Avonex, the medication he has been taking to inhibit the progress of the MS, about the side-effects he suffered last season. The feeling is that the side-effects can be far better controlled.
Stat of the week: The Dallas Cowboys have not chosen a prospect from Miami since the 1993 draft, when they plucked a pair of Hurricanes, wide receiver Kevin Williams and linebacker Darrin Smith, each in the second round. Coincidentally, 1993 was the last season that Jimmy Johnson, who was at Miami before moving to Dallas, served as head coach of the Cowboys.
Punts: While he doesn't have a lot of other suitors, Kordell Stewart remains reluctant to sign with the Buffalo Bills, in part because the coaches want him to assume some of the "Slash" duties he once played with the Steelers. At this point, rookie head coach Mike Mularkey has no one on the roster capable of filling the diverse position. Of the top 30 unrestricted free agents ranked by ESPN.com, just one, Denver linebacker Ian Gold, remains unsigned. Gold continues to seek a contract too pricey for a player coming off a serious knee injury. But several teams, most notably Atlanta, still covet him. Green Bay safety Antuan Edwards, a former first-round pick whose career has been slowed by a series of injuries, figures to sign with either Miami or Atlanta in the next few days. Tommy Maddox, still among the lowest paid starting quarterbacks in the league, is scheduled to arrive in Pittsburgh on Monday for the offseason conditioning program. Expect either Maddox or agent Vann McElroy to soon raise the issue of compensation. The Tennessee Titans, who lost two starting defensive linemen in free agency, concede they may have to "reach" a bit in the draft to fill those holes. The team continues to consider a deal with unrestricted free agent Glenn Steele of the Bengals, a solid backup but hardly the answer for the starting lineup.
The last word: "Yeah, we're about the same age. And, obviously, we have the same prostate condition." -- Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, asked if there was anything that should be read into the fact he and San Diego counterpart A.J. Smith ducked into the men's room at the same time during last week's league meetings.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.