As of Friday afternoon, 28 restricted free agents had not signed one-year tenders with their teams, and several have been warned in writing that they risk the loss of $1 million or more if they don't agree to the qualifying offers by Tuesday.
As detailed in an ESPN.com column recently, teams have the prerogative of reducing the tenders to 110 percent of a player's 2009 base salary at any time if the offers are not signed by June 15. In past years, that has been a hollow threat, but that might not be the case this season.
Various outlets have reported that left tackles Donald Penn (Tampa Bay) and Marcus McNeill (San Diego), wide receiver Vincent Jackson (Chargers), tailback Pierre Thomas (New Orleans), and linebacker and 2009 league sack leader Elvis Dumervil (Denver) are among the players informed by their teams that their tenders will be lowered if not signed by Tuesday. Agents for five more restricted free agents have told ESPN.com that they have been told, either in writing or verbally, that their clients could suffer the same fate.
If the offers are indeed reduced, the NFLPA is likely to charge that teams conspired to lower the offers and that the move was an orchestrated strategy on the part of owners. But one salary cap manager, who asked not to be identified, insisted this week that any collusion suggestions by the union simply aren't true.
"As toxic as the situation is right now [between the league and the NFLPA], we'd have to be crazy to be in cahoots on this," the team official said. "There's no proof anyway this was a [leaguewide] strategy and they're not going to find any."
That said, the team official noted, there seems to be a collective sense of hardball on the part of ownership. Said the management official: "Teams are just playing by the rules, by the letter of the law, and they've got the hammer right now."
Through their agents, NcNeill and Jackson have already indicated they won't sign the tenders. It remains to be seen how many unsigned restricted free agents follow that lead. And, more important, how many franchises are nervy enough to call the players' bluffs, move forward with reducing the tenders, and perhaps raise the ire of the affected restricted veterans.
Harrison might hide
Although he showed Thursday for the start of the team's mandatory minicamp, people with knowledge of his contract expectations have told ESPN.com that Cleveland starting tailback Jerome Harrison might make himself scarce after the three-day session. The four-year veteran, among the 29 restricted free agents who haven't signed a tender (his is for $1.759 million), still prefers a long-term deal. Harrison rushed for 561 yards in the final three games in '09 as the replacement for the injured Jamal Lewis. Rookie Montario Hardesty of Tennessee, the team's second-round pick, has been getting a lot of snaps with the first team.
O.J. market seems to be dwindling
Although many consider free safety O.J. Atogwe the top free agent available, no one has signed the former St. Louis star. Teams are still largely leery about investing big money on a safety and will only lay out monster bucks for those they perceive as legitimate difference-makers. Atogwe, who will turn 29 on June 23, had 13 interceptions 2007-2008 but just two pickoffs last season. Some of the teams that were thought to be interested -- Dallas, Miami and Minnesota (which, it was opined in this space last week, might be a suitor) have said they won't pursue him. That could leave Detroit as his most likely landing spot.
That the Chargers were forced to turn to Tra Thomas, 35, as an insurance policy against Marcus McNeill's boycotting training camp is reflective of the reality there are so few left tackle candidates available at this time of year. Or any time of year, for that matter. Left tackle is viewed as almost a skill position now, and teams simply don't let them escape. Of the projected starting 32 left tackles in the league, 21 have contracts for at least three more seasons. The left tackles remaining as unrestricted free agents (and some of these are a stretch): Flozell Adams, Mike Gandy, Levi Jones, Damion McIntosh and Ephraim Salaam. Playing behind then-rookie Eugene Monroe in Jacksonville last year, Thomas started a career-low three games.
Carson not cajoling AWOL Ochocinco
Cincinnati quarterback Carson Palmer has told team officials that he was not trying to send a message to missing wideout Chad Ochocinco on Thursday when he told the local media it "would be great" if the team had its No. 1 receiver at workouts. Ochocinco remains unchallenged as the Bengals' top wide receiver, and the other starter figures to be Antonio Bryant, acquired early this spring as an unrestricted free agent. Third-year veteran Andre Caldwell is projected as the No. 3 wideout, but he might be challenged by rookie third-rounder Jordan Shipley of Texas. Shipley is also contending for the punt-return duties handled in '09 by another former Longhorns star, Quan Cosby, who averaged 11.9 yards a return after being signed as an undrafted free agent. Despite a terrific rookie year, Cosby must fend off Shipley and possibly Adam Jones to retain the job.
Chung challenging for playing time
Conventional wisdom suggests that a player makes his biggest leap in his second season in the league, when everything (the playbook, the coaches, the general rigors of the NFL, even something as mundane as the way to the training camp cafeteria) becomes more second nature. That certainly seems to be the case for New England Patriots second-year free safety Patrick Chung. Pats coaches believe Chung, the subject of this recent Boston Herald column, has been one of the team's more improved players in minicamp and OTA sessions. Chung was the club's top pick in the 2009 draft, a second-rounder and the 34th player selected overall, but he started only one game his rookie season, as a nickel safety versus Indianapolis on Nov. 15, and registered just one interception and one pass defended. But he appears to be better adjusted both physically and mentally -- safety is certainly one of the more difficult positions to play in the Bill Belichick defense -- and could push veterans Brandon McGowan (11 starts in '09) and James Sanders (nine starts) for the No. 1 job at the unsettled free safety spot. A big hitter at Oregon, Chung could team with three-year veteran Brandon Meriweather, who started all 16 games in 2009 and made the Pro Bowl in his first full season as starter, to provide the Pats a young, solid safety corps. It could be the team's best safety combination since the tandem of Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson started 29 of 32 games together in 2003-2004.
One of the young players most talked about by Carolina coach John Fox during the offseason is Dan Connor. With the ACL injury suffered by Thomas Davis on Tuesday, the Panthers may need the third-year veteran to perform up to the glowing talk. Connor had been practicing as a backup to middle linebacker Jon Beason this spring, but now the former third-round choice (2008) becomes a viable candidate to move to Davis' weakside spot. A former Penn State star, and winner of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's top defender for '07, Connor, who himself suffered a torn ACL as a rookie, has yet to start a game. In the 12 games in which the Panthers opened in a 4-3 base defense in 2009, the club used four different combinations to flank Beason. The Panthers didn't keep Na'il Diggs or Landon Johnson this spring (18 combined starts last year). Four-year veteran James Anderson projects to one starting spot outside. Jamar Williams, acquired from Chicago this spring for starting safety Chris Harris, is a contender at the other spot but has only 11 career starts. Connor could edge out Williams. Or he could start in the middle if the Panthers move two-time Pro Bowl defender Beason into Davis' weakside spot. That's a controversial switch, but one that has been discussed by the coaches, and the way the Panthers lined up for their Thursday practice. Because Beason is the team's best playmaker on defense, and the weakside linebacker spot in coordinator Ron Meeks' design demands a versatile player with two-way skills, the switch could become more than a temporary experiment. The Panthers have nine outside linebackers on the roster, but the group has totaled only 24 starts, and six of the players have never started a regular-season contest.
The injury to Thomas Davis, which occurred during a Tuesday practice, is the second time that he has torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in seven months. He could miss the season. And while noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews has said the five-year pro will be able to return to football, the timing of the injury couldn't be much worse. The former Georgia star, who started an average of 15.3 games and averaged 96.3 tackles and 5.3 passes defended from 2006 to 2008, is entering his sixth season and was playing under the one-year restricted tender of $3.268 million. So barring a contract extension, Davis would have been an unrestricted free agent next spring, whether or not there is a new collective bargaining agreement. Even if Davis is physically whole by next spring, he'll still carry a caveat emptor disclaimer for most teams, and agent Todd France is going to have to do a masterful selling job to land his client a big-money free-agent deal.
Graham the man
Although he will compete with Billy Cundiff, nine-year veteran Shayne Graham is expected by the Baltimore Ravens to win the kicker job in camp. One reason they expect improvement from Graham over his '09 performance is the steadiness of placement snapper Matt Katula, a five-year veteran. A onetime franchise player for the Bengals, Graham, who last week signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract, is coming off a season when he converted 23 of 28 field goal attempts. The 82.1 percent success rate is his worst since 2002 with Carolina, when he hit just 72.2 percent (13-of-18). A career 85.2 percent kicker who made 86.8 percent of his tries in seven years in Cincinnati, Graham struggled early in the year with veteran snapper Brad St. Louis. He made just four of seven field goals in the first five games, and two attempts were blocked. When the Bengals replaced St. Louis with Clark Harris for the final 11 contests, Graham hit all but one of his 21 tries, and one of the misses was from 51 yards. Of course, there was concern when Graham missed 28- and 35-yarders in a playoff loss to the New York Jets, but Ravens coaches are confident that Katula and a change of scenery will remedy that.
There are only 13 tailbacks (there are eight fullbacks) currently on NFL rosters who are 30 or older. New England has three of them -- Sammy Morris (33), Fred Taylor (34) and Kevin Faulk (34) -- and the only other team with more than one is Oakland. Cleveland offensive lineman Tony Pashos has asked the Browns' staff whether he can play some defensive end in camp. Green Bay linebacker Brady Poppinga, who some thought might be released in the offseason, is challenging again for a starting job, replacing the departed Aaron Kampman as edge rusher in the Packers' 3-4 front. The five-year veteran started 39 games from 2006 to 2008, but only three last season when he lost his job to then-rookie Brad Jones. Dallas first-round wide receiver Dez Bryant could be in the middle of a shoe battle. Bryant signed a marketing/endorsement deal with Under Armour before the draft but has been wearing Nike cleats in practices. Add San Diego rookie tailback and first-round pick Ryan Mathews to the list of players who have tinkered with the Wildcat offense this spring. Of the nine owners surveyed by ESPN.com this week, at least five were in favor of granting presumptive new St. Louis owner Stan Kroenke a grace period to come into compliance with the NFL's cross-ownership rules. Because he owns the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, Kroenke is technically in violation of the guidelines.
The last word
"The moment I got here, I claimed ownership of this organization. I will never be too big not to clean up around this place, pick up a piece of trash, or I would never be too small to do anything else needed by the organization." -- wide receiver Isaac Bruce, on the Los Angeles/St. Louis Rams, for whom he played the first 14 of his 16 NFL seasons, in announcing his retirement from the league
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.