If the suggestions are really legitimate that Marcus Coleman has made the transition from cornerback to free safety with incredible adroitness this spring -- and even the veteran defensive back acknowledges that the reports skew the reality -- the Houston Texans will have taken a major step toward shoring up their secondary.
But position switches in the NFL can be dicey propositions, even for an eight-year pro like Coleman, so one can only imagine the pressure on the seven or eight rookies who are being asked to change stripes in their maiden season in the league. The daunting task has been likened to learning a foreign tongue in record time, much faster even than they teach language classes at Berlitz schools, but even that analogy might understate the difficulty.
It is, most rookies will concede, not exactly like riding a bike. In fact, moving to a new position is a lot more like being strapped into one of those streamlined jet cars that once rocketed across the Bonneville Salt Flats in pursuit of land speed records. For some of the first-year players, it is probably the equivalent of serving as a crash test dummy.
Which brings us to Michael Boulware, certainly no dummy, but a rookie who is being fed a crash course in playing at strong safety after starring for four seasons at Florida State as a weak-side linebacker. Boulware was selected by the Seattle Seahawks in the second round of the 2004, draft, with the intent of moving him to the secondary, where he hasn't lined up since his senior year at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.
The Seattle staff, head coach Mike Holmgren insisted just after selecting Boulware, is fully committed to playing the former Seminoles star at strong safety. Coordinator Ray Rhodes, whose defense finished an unacceptable No. 27 against the pass in 2003, all but hand-picked Boulware as a youngster who could help provide a speedy fix. To this point, with roughly another month before training camp begins, results have been promising.
But even the confident Boulware, who never flinched when apprised of the switch, has moments when he wonders how quickly he can assimilate the nuances of a new position. And for that, he can be forgiven, since there isn't a single veteran in the league being asked to make such a formidable position change in 2004. Sure, there are veterans who are switching positions in the offensive line, a couple linebackers moving around, and two players going from strong safety to free safety.
It is believed that no one else, though, is changing units entirely.
"There are still times," Boulware conceded, "when I find myself wanting to break down in a linebacker stance. People are right when they compare it to learning a new language. You pick up a word here or there that you understand, but sometimes you don't get the whole sentence, and so it's hard to get things (in context). The only way to get better, from both a physical and mental standpoint, is to keep doing it. At some point, it will all come naturally, but I'm not there yet. It's still a struggle at times."
There is a small group of rookies, also making position transitions, who commiserate with Boulware's experience. Former Nebraska quarterback Jammal Lord, chosen by Houston in the sixth round, is now a safety. The Texans have also moved first-rounder Jason Babin, a defensive end at Western Michigan, to strong-side linebacker. Another first-round pick, Shawn Andrews of Philadelphia, is switching from offensive tackle to guard. His onetime Arkansas teammate, fifth-rounder Tony Bua of Miami, is going from safety to linebacker. There are three rookies who lined up at defensive end in college but will be linebackers in the NFL for teams that employ the 3-4 front.
But outside of Andrews, who is certain to come under heavy scrutiny because some of the draft pundits feel Philadelphia chose him too high and because the Eagles are one of the early Super Bowl favorites, Boulware is probably the rookie switching positions who will be most examined. Certainly his transition, to a position that requires a dramatically different skills set than the one he mastered in college, is the most challenging.
It's one thing to play pass defense at linebacker, where you are mostly covering backs on third down, and working primarily in the flat and short hook zones. It is quite another to lock onto a tight end and have to shadow him 15-20 yards upfield.
The irony is that, had it not been for a back injury before his senior year at Florida State, Boulware might have made the switch to safety last season. The Seminoles' legendary coordinator, Mickey Andrews, also felt Boulware possessed the overall athleticism and movement skills in space to play in the secondary, but the back injury forced him to scrap the plan. At the combine workouts in February, league scouts auditioned Boulware at both linebacker and safety, and the Seahawks were among several teams that projected him to the latter position.
"When you look at his feet, you can see he can backpedal, and he takes good angles to the ball," said Seahawks secondary coach Teryl Austin. "It's not like he's clumsy and just tripping all over himself. He needs (repetition), sure, but we think he can do it."
There have been times this spring when Boulware has been caught up in the "no man's land" that defines the area between the linebackers and the secondary. Other occasions have seen him botch some of the Seattle defensive terminology. But there is enough innate ability, snippets of empirical evidence which suggests he has the nascent skills set to play safety at the NFL level, to ensure the Seahawks won't just hastily throw in the towel on the position change experiment.
If he can successfully make the move, Boulware could be part of a revamped Seattle secondary that might feature three starters all of whom have less than three seasons of league tenure. The Seahawks, who are the chic pick in the NFC West signed former Eagles cornerback Bobby Taylor this spring. But if the secondary is to experience a quantum leap in 2004, the enhancement will largely have to come from younger players like corners Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas and safeties Ken Hamlin and Boulware.
Should the secondary demonstrate improvement, it could help catapult the Seahawks, not just into contention for their first division title since 1999 but also perhaps for the league championship. Having played at FSU, where anything shy of contending for the national title is considered a down season, even Boulware can understand that language.
"Winning is something," he noted, "that is always easy to translate."
Around the league
Boulware's older brother, four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Peter Boulware of Baltimore, acknowledged this week what Ravens officials have been hinting at for much of the spring: The seven-year veteran sackmeister, still rehabilitating from extensive surgery on his right knee in January, could miss the start of the regular season. It already has been determined that Boulware, who had a streak of 111 straight appearances snapped last season when he missed two games, will do very little beyond basic conditioning when the Ravens open training camp. This will mark the fifth time in eight seasons that Boulware, the fourth overall pick in the 1997 draft, will miss an extensive stretch of camp. The 29-year-old Boulware, always noted for his quickness off the edge, allowed he can't play his style if his knee isn't completely recovered. "With everything else that is above the waist, I can play through the pain, and try to overcompensate with something else," he said. "(But) I'm a player who relies on his legs and his speed. This is not the type of injury where I can go out on the football field and be 90 percent and play. As most people know, football is a game of inches. If I'm just a half-second slower than normal, I am not going to be as effective." Boulware has 67½ career sacks, including three seasons in double digits, and the consistent pressure he brings would be tough to replace. But the Ravens are deep at linebacker, with Adalius Thomas and Cornell Brown former part-time starters, and capable of filling in. Terrell Suggs, who had 12 sacks as a rookie in 2003 and who is slated to start on the left side in the Baltimore 3-4 front, could also flip over to the weak side on third down and get more pass rush opportunities there.
Much thanks to Pat Forde, the excellent sports columnist at the Louisville Courier-Journal, for answering our query last week as to why former Baltimore starting quarterback Chris Redman remains a free agent. Seems that Redman, who opened the '02 season as the Ravens' starter before being sidelined the rest of the campaign by a back injury that subsequently required surgery, had May surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder. So the former Louisville star, a third-round pick in the 2000 draft, is only about 5-6 weeks into a rehabilitation that typically takes five months. It could well be that Redman, who worked out for a few teams this spring before opting for the shoulder surgery, will be forced to sit out the season. Our take last week was that, at just 27 years of age, Redman deserved a shot to be in somebody's training camp. Even next year, when he is 28, someone ought to take a look at Redman. He never had the strongest arm, lacks mobility, and is pretty much a "systems" guy. But even after his stretch of inactivity, Redman might be a better alternative than some of the backups drawing NFL paychecks.
At least in terms of senior prospects, neither of the combine scouting services that provide reports to NFL subscriber teams regard the 2005 draft as rich in quarterback possibilities, at least on their spring grades. Blesto has only three quarterbacks -- Dan Orlovsky (Connecticut), Charlie Frye (Akron) and Kyle Orton (Purdue) -- among its top 50 seniors. National Football Scouting, Inc., lists only Frye and Orlovsky among its top senior prospects. Just a hunch but the '05 draft, given the dearth of highly-regarded passers, could attract a cadre of underclass quarterbacks.
For months, player agents have fretted over negotiations for first-round picks, and over how to maximize contracts for the 2004 draft's top players. The biggest obstacle facing agents is that, on this year's contracts, teams can only amortize the signing bonus over six seasons. Last year, for instance, teams had seven years over which to prorate the upfront money. So that element, plus the fact the rookie allocation pool was relatively "flat" yet again, with an overall increase of less than two percent, was the main source of considerable angst in the agent community. It is difficult, after all, to fit 12 gallons of expectation into a 10-gallon cap. That said, the only first-round deal negotiated to date, the contract that Eastern Athletic Services negotiated last weekend for Houston Texans first-rounder Jason Babin, demonstrated it's apparently possible. The second of the Texans' two first-round choices, and the 27th player selected overall, Babin got a pretty healthy bump over Larry Johnson, the player chosen at the commensurate slot in the 2003 lottery. Johnson signed a seven-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs, and the contract voids to five years, and is worth $6.7 million over the shorter term. Babin got a six-year deal that voids down to five seasons. And in virtually every category, it seems, Babin's deal looks superior. Babin got a signing bonus of $2.2 million, a second-tier option bonus of $1.275 million and a report bonus of $150,000. Counting his 2004 base salary of $456,000, Babin will earn $4.081 million in the first full year of his contract. That is 8.5 percent more than Johnson, who received a $3.31 million signing bonus and $452,000 base salary, got his first year. The five-year average of Babin's contract is 4.5 percent better than the Johnson deal ($1.4 million-$1.34 million) and the rookie-year salary cap value ($972,667-$924,860) is 5.1 percent better. Plus it would appear that Babin, already penciled in as a starter, will have a far better chance to trigger his "voidables." Even though Johnson is said to have had a very productive spring, the former Penn State star is still battling with Derrick Blaylock for the No. 2 tailback job behind Priest Holmes. And the reality is: No matter who claims the backup job to the marvelous Holmes, he isn't going to get much playing time.
Beyond the various bonuses listed above, the rest of the breakdown on Babin's deal includes: base salaries of $456,000 (2004), $757,500 (2005), $909,000 (2006), $1.061 million (2007), $1.212 million (2008) and $1.364 million (2009). If the Texans exercise the '09 option by paying the second-tier bonus of $1.275 million, the base salaries then reduce to $432,500 (2005), $584,000 (2006), $735,500 (2007), $887,000 (2008) and $1.0385 million (2009). There are annual workout bonuses of $70,000 for 2005-2009. The '09 season voids with minimum playing time. Don't be surprised if the earlier of Houston's first-round picks, South Carolina cornerback Dunta Robinson, isn't too far behind in reaching a contract agreement. The two sides have conducted substantive negotiations and, as noted here in the past, Sportstars, the agency which represents Robinson, tends to strike fast deals. The 10th overall player chosen, Robinson also is already projected as an immediate starter.
Some of his San Diego teammates are privately suggesting that the holdout by Chargers starting center Jason Ball, an "exclusive rights" free agent who by rule cannot negotiate with other teams and has no leverage, might be more than just for financial reasons. A few Chargers contend that Ball, a former undrafted free agent who beat the odds to even make the roster and then worked hard enough to move into the starting lineup, has acted erratically at times this offseason. Ball, they say, has been difficult even for his closest friends to contact during some stretches. Those friends don't feel that there is anything untoward going on, but are worried that Ball might be a bit stressed out by his contract situation. Basically, the Chargers aren't compelled to pay Ball anything more than the $380,000 minimum base salary for a third-year veteran. But general manager A.J. Smith has hinted he would consider a longer-team deal if Ball, who has boycotted all of the offseason organized workouts, would report.
It could be cold-hearted to suggest that a pair of wounded Oakland Raiders veterans, future Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson and center Barret Robbins, are "dead men walking." But if the two are able to overcome offseason knee surgeries, and return to the field for training camp, it will be because they are walking with the aid of dead men (or women). Both players underwent unique surgeries in which replacement cartilage from cadavers was implanted into their knees. In the past, many orthopedic surgeons have successfully used ligaments from cadavers to repair the knees of injured players. But the cartilage replacement surgery has only been used on "weekend warrior" athletes, never professionals. It is a chancy proposition, probably a last resort for Woodson and Robbins, but one they are willing to take to prolong their NFL careers. Essentially, both veterans were playing with bone-on-bone knees, with essentially no cartilage to soften blows or serve as a shock absorber. Using the cadaver cartilage remains a long shot. Neither player has participated in any of the Raiders' on-field workouts this offseason and coach Norv Turner has acknowledged the team can't count on either to return. The club has made moves to compensate for the likelihood Robbins and Woodson won't be back. Oakland signed veteran cornerback Ray Buchanan, and moved him to free safety, and also chose safety Stuart Schweigert in the third round. In the second round, the Raiders took center Jake Grove, who could compete with Adam Treu for the center spot. But if nothing else, the cartilage implant surgery has provided both veterans some degree of hope for maybe extending their careers. Said Woodson: "If you knew how my knee felt (at the end of last season), well, I didn't know if I'd be walking too much. At that point, I thought I would need crutches the rest of my life. Now I'm not limping. I can walk up steps. I can jog in place, which I couldn't do last year. I can stand on one leg, which I couldn't do, either. We'll wait and see how it turns out."
One league personnel director's "ready list" on the best veterans still left in the NFL unemployment line: linebacker Jason Gildon (most recent team: Pittsburgh), tailback Antowain Smith (New England), offensive tackle Greg Randall (San Francisco), tight end Mikhael Ricks (Detroit), defensive end Rick Lyle (New England), middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter (Washington), tailback James Stewart (Detroit), center Tim Ruddy (Miami), middle linebacker Marvin Jones (New York Jets), defensive end Peppi Zellner (Washington) and safety Zack Bronson (San Francisco).
If seventh-round pick David Kimball of Penn State is as strong with his kickoffs in camp as he was in offseason workouts, the Indianapolis Colts will keep two kickers on the roster. His strong leg aside, placement specialist Mike Vanderjagt is all but abysmal on kickoffs and punter Hunter Smith, forced to handle the chores, is subpar. The already strong Colts special teams could be even better in 2004 if Kimball can consistently boom the ball deep, as he did in minicamps.
Punts: Through Friday morning, just 33 of the 255 prospects from the 2004 draft had reached contract agreements. Of that group, only five "first day" players, those chosen in the first three rounds, have completed deals. The four-year extension signed by Green Bay wide receiver Robert Ferguson this week included a $3.5 million signing bonus. That seems like a lot of money to award a guy who has just 60 catches in three seasons, but the Packers coaches are convinced that Ferguson is poised to emerge as a big-time playmaker in 2004. The Tennessee Titans are intrigued by the offseason work of rookie Jared Clauss of Iowa, who could play his way into the defensive tackle rotation. Clauss was the last of the five defensive linemen chosen by the Titans in the draft but the seventh-round pick has been the most surprising of the bunch. Coach Jeff Fisher is anxious to see Clauss when the Titans get into pads. Now that it appears the Cincinnati Bengals will not sign Daryl Gardener, a few other franchises are beginning to poke around the free agent defensive tackle. Of course, those other teams are concerned about the degenerative back condition that kept Cincinnati from signing him. The Redskins feel that cornerback Walt Harris, signed as an unrestricted free agent this spring, will not be completely rehabilitated from offseason knee surgery at the start of training camp.
The last word: "It's kind of like a football team. Those guys were ready to get back out there. They felt down because they left their fellow soldiers behind. To hear a guy who loses his leg, and yet he wishes he was still out there with his mates, it made me feel kind of like football." -- Pittsburgh wide receiver Hines Ward on his recent trip to Europe to visit with wounded U.S. troops.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.