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Friday, August 23
 
Watters sitting and waiting

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Even as Jamal Anderson prepares to sign a one-year contract, likely with the New England Patriots and probably by early next week, fellow tailback Ricky Watters continues to sit at home. And there is a very real chance Watters won't play at all in 2002.

It's not a lack of interest, but rather a lack of money, that might force the early retirement of a guy who has 14,891 yards from scrimmage over the course of a 10-year career. While the phone keeps ringing in the office of agent Ralph Cindrich, who had at least three legitimate inquiries this week alone, his client is not inclined to play for the $750,000 minimum base salary most teams have suggested as appropriate compensation.

Ricky Watters
Ricky Watters played in only five games last season for the Seahawks.
It is to the point now, Cindrich said, where it's counterproductive for him to even phone Watters with minimum offers.

"People might think he's bluffing but, believe me, he isn't," Cindrich said. "He feels he has a value beyond the minimum. If that's all teams are going to offer him, then he's going to sit, and that will be it. Ricky will be retired and he is at peace with that."

Given some of the moves made recently, it's hard to fathom there isn't some team willing to go a cut above the minimum base salary or to propose a deal with makeable incentives. The New Orleans Saints signed Terry Allen as backup for unproven Deuce McAllister. Green Bay still isn't certain it has a viable backup to Ahman Green. Ditto Baltimore and the situation behind starter Jamal Lewis, who is coming off knee surgery. Watters is probably better than anyone in the Arizona Cardinals camp, and that includes starter Thomas Jones, averaging an anemic 1.7 yards per carry through two preseason contests.

Watters, of course, has a reputation as a coach-killer, a guy who does not deal well with authority. But teams have taken chances on guys with much worse rap sheets and far less on their résumés. Playing with three different teams, Watters has rushed for 10,643 yards and has seven 1,000-yard seasons. He has been one of the best receivers out of the backfield in NFL history. Until last year, when he played in just five games because of injury, durability was never a problem.

Yet mention his name to coaches and personnel directors, as we have during our training-camp tour, and the reaction is something akin to sticking sour milk under their noses. No one is suggesting that the 33-year-old Watters is still a feature back or a prime-time performer. But he's far too good to sit at home and watch the season on television.

"The phone doesn't stop ringing about him," Cindrich said. "But until the message changes, he isn't going to change, either. He's retired until he tells me otherwise, and that isn't likely to happen at this point."

Around the league

  • Collusion confusion and unsigned picks: The NFL Players Association's request for an inquiry into possible collusion by the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings, as it pertains to negotiations with their first-round draft choices, has moved ahead, but only incrementally. Kansas City chose defensive tackle Ryan Sims with the sixth overall pick, and Minnesota followed by taking offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie with the seventh choice. They are two of the four first-rounders still without contracts. Both teams have provided to the league written materials pertinent to the case, but the NFLPA remains dubious that the files offer full disclosure. So the next step could be depositions of high-ranking team officials. Because a deposition is essentially a court proceeding, the union must file paperwork to request such a step. It has yet to do so. But Richard Berthelsen, general counsel for the NFLPA, hinted that move could come soon. "We never felt like this would be an overnight thing, and it won't be," Berthelsen said. "You take it one step at a time." Officials from both franchises have characterized the collusion charges as frivolous, and Chiefs president Carl Peterson said his club would "continue to negotiate in good faith." But good faith or bad, the Chiefs haven't negotiated at all this week. Agent Hadley Engelhard sent the team a new proposal, with concessions, on Monday. As of Friday morning, the Chiefs hadn't responded. There has been no discussion between the Vikings and the representatives for McKinnie, other than a phone call acknowledging the collusion charges, in about three weeks. Things remain tough for the other two first-rounders, San Diego cornerback Quentin Jammer and Arizona defensive tackle Wendell Bryant, as well. Word is the Chargers have started to take money off the table in the Jammer negotiations.

  • Kansas City blues: Since it appears the Sims situation won't be soon resolved, and coach Dick Vermeil has essentially ruled him out for the season opener, the Chiefs could be without both projected starting defensive tackles for their Sept. 8 game at Cleveland. Second-year pro Eric Downing underwent hernia surgery early this week and figures to miss the opener, too. The messes with Sims and "franchise" tight end Tony Gonzalez are a shame because many personnel directors leaguewide feel the Chiefs, with a full contingent of players on hand, are a playoff contender.

  • Who will catch Freeman? An educated guess: by this time next week, free agent wide receiver and former Green Bay star Antonio Freeman will be on a roster. While there is no lack of interest in Freeman, who has averaged a touchdown every 7.3 receptions over his career, the veteran has been reluctant to jump for the sake of jumping. There have been reports the Packers, who have some injuries at wide receiver, might be inclined to re-acquire a guy quarterback Brett Favre really likes. But agent Joel Segal told us he has had "zero conversation" with the Packers about a potential return. Don't be surprised if Freeman ends up in Philadelphia, where personnel chief Tom Heckert has stayed in regular contact with Segal. Although the Philadelphia wide receivers have demonstrated improvement, they still aren't of a championship caliber. Second-year veteran Freddie Mitchell, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2001 draft, hasn't stepped up and could not get off the jam in last weekend's preseason game against New England. There are also concerns about James Thrash's knees. The Eagles have a ton of salary-cap room and, typical of the franchise, won't overpay for Freeman. At this point, though, no one is offering a windfall and the Eagles seem the best place for Freeman to have a legitimate impact. ESPN.com has learned that, despite the season-ending neck injury to Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, the Cowboys have displayed no interest in Freeman.

  • Injury issue in D.C. Washington Redskins officials are far more worried about the health of Daryl Gardener than they are letting on, and so are some people close to the mammoth defensive tackle. While the Redskins continue to suggest that they have received encouraging reports about Gardener's balky back, he had to have an epidural injection last week, and no one will predict when he will get back on the field. The 'Skins have already lost Santana Dotson (Achilles tendon) for the entire season and are thin at tackle. There are some folks at Redskins Park who wonder if Gardener will play at all this season. If he doesn't, it will reduce the effectiveness of fellow starting tackle Dan Wilkinson, and possibly the effectiveness of the team's linebackers, too.

  • MLB's cashing in: OK, so the contract extension signed by Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis a few weeks ago didn't include a $19 million signing bonus. The upfront money was actually $10 million and then the Ravens must give Lewis a March 2003 option/buyback payment of $9 million to exercise the option on the final five seasons of the seven-year deal. Agents all over the league, at least those who represent middle linebackers, are salivating. Said one team official: "You think guys like (Brian) Urlacher (in Chicago) and Keith Brooking (of Atlanta) aren't happy right now? They ought to send Lewis and his agents some kind of gift when they get new deals." Counting the option/buyback payment, Lewis will pocket a mind-boggling $20.5 million in the first two seasons of the contract. That's an incredible amount for any position, much less a "Mike" linebacker, a spot that has been de-emphasized by some teams in recent years. Here are the annual base salaries: $525,000 (for 2002); $975,000 (2003); $4 million (2004); $5.5 million (2005 and 2006 each); and $6.5 million (2007 and 2008 each). The cap charges are steep in every season, beginning with a $5.67 million hit for 2002 and escalating to $9.428 million in both 2007 and 2008.

  • Wunsch could be bound for St. Louis Look for offensive right tackle Jerry Wunsch, whose résumé includes 46 starts in the regular season and four in postseason play, to be released by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The five-year vet, who has a string of 46 straight starts, is clearly the odd-man out in the Tampa Bay offensive line shuffle. He has been supplanted at right tackle by 2001 first-round draft choice Kenyatta Walker, who returns to his more natural position after struggling mightily at left tackle last season. Wunsch is a limited athlete, but he has lined up and played regularly and will have some suitors when the ax inevitably falls. Despite trading early this week for Grant Williams of New England, who is supposed to hold down the right tackle spot until third-year pro John St. Clair is ready to assume the starting job, the St. Louis Rams will have an interest in Wunsch. And with right tackle Ryan Young expected to miss the first month or more of the season, Houston is in the market for an experienced strongside blocker.

  • Pats shuffle O-line: While Kenyatta Walker has moved over to right tackle for the Bucs, it's another guy with the same first name, Kenyatta Jones, who seems to have moved in at same starting position for the Patriots. The second-year veteran, a fourth-round pick in 2001 who played in just five games as a rookie, has a real shot now of unseating Greg Robinson-Randall for the top job. Robinson-Randall started all 16 games for the Super Bowl champions in 2001. But he failed the team's infamous conditioning test the opening day of camp, was overweight and hasn't caught up. At 305 pounds, Jones might actually be a tad light for the right tackle spot, but he is incredibly strong and can lock out on a defender once he gets his hands on him. If Jones does win the starting job, it would be quite a coup for personnel director Scott Pioli. In addition to Jones, Pioli chose the Pats' starting left tackle, Matt Light, in the 2001 lottery.

  • Learning on the job: The Baltimore Ravens expected to start a rookie at safety this year, but they didn't think they would field two first-year players in the interior of their secondary. It appears now, however, that will be the case. Despite a late arrival to camp and some uneven performances in the preseason, it looks like first-round pick Ed Reed of the University of Miami will be the starting free safety. No shocker there, since the Ravens selected Reed to step right in for Rod Woodson, who left in free agency. The surprise player has been undrafted free agent Will Demps of San Diego State, who has been elevated to the starting strong safety spot ahead of Anthony Mitchell. The rookie is a former college walk-on who has battled long odds every step of his career. But he's also a big hitter, a player with solid football instincts and a guy who will be able to grow along with Reed.

  • Gripping linemen: Offensive tackles leaguewide are griping about all the illegal-formation penalties that officials are calling in preseason play. The competition committee felt that some tackles were setting up too deep in the backfield, especially in obvious pass-block situations, and decided to make their body positioning a point of emphasis this season. Basically, a tackle's helmet must break the plane of the center's waist line, or he will be flagged for five yards. The number of calls in preseason seems to have slowed down the tempo of the game. The rationale is that if the officials call it enough in the preseason, tackles will adjust for regular-season play. "I understand the way they think," said Eagles offensive right tackle Jon Runyan. "But every time they make some rules change like that, they 'overcall' it. They really pound it home. Right now, they're definitely overdoing it."

  • Slow to catch on: No one is suggesting that New England first-round pick Daniel Graham was a mistake, but the former Colorado tight end has struggled the past few weeks and is currently No. 3 at his position. A knee injury early in camp set Graham back, and he has had a tough time catching up. Early in camp it was obvious that Graham, a terrific receiver in college, might lack the quickness to consistently separate from NFL linebackers. The good news is that he has been a better blocker than the Patriots thought he might be, a key in the New England offense, where the tight end spot does not draw many passes. Graham is running behind Christian Fauria, who seems to have the starting job locked up, and the often-injured Cam Cleeland. It looked like the Pats made a genius gambit moving up in the first round to grab him. But it now appears that Graham will not be an instant starter like the other two tight ends chosen in the opening round, Jeremy Shockey (Giants) and Jerramy Stevens (Seattle).

  • Adams beefs up Raiders defense: Oakland linebackers and safeties couldn't be more thrilled about the Raiders' addition of defensive tackle Sam Adams. A defense that finished 2001 statistically ranked No. 22 against the run, Oakland should be dramatically improved with the acquisitions of Adams and former San Diego standout John Parrella. Those two replace Darrell Russell, who is serving a one-year suspension for repeat violations of the substance-abuse policy and likely won't ever play for the Raiders again, and Grady Jackson, who departed in free agency. Said one Oakland defender: "That's a tradeoff I'd make any day of the week." Middle linebacker Greg Biekert, one of the NFL's best unknown players at his position, should be even better now with two guys up front who will keep blockers off his body. There is plenty of bulk now and, while Oakland is suddenly suspect in several areas under rookie head coach Bill Callahan, the run defense can't help but be improved. "Parrella is as strong as three or four men and Adams is as big as three or four men," said guard Frank Middleton. "So right there, we outnumber the offensive line just with those two." By the way, the six-year, $32 million deal Adams signed is basically a one-year contract worth $2 million. He gets a $1.25 million signing bonus and a base salary of $750,000 this season. To retain him, the Raiders have to pay Adams a $5 million roster bonus in March and then base salaries of $5 million each in 2003-2007. Ain't going to happen, folks, so expect Adams to be back on the open market again next spring.

  • Searching for guards: Teams tend to diminish the guard spot, but there are at least five teams, even after Washington's acquisition of Brenden Stai from the Detroit Lions late Thursday night, still looking for help at the position. Problem is, there really aren't many guards, outside of Ben Coleman and Matt Campbell, left in the free-agent market. And Coleman, despite plenty of interest, has thus far rebuffed every contract proposal. "I've never seen the guard play as bad in the league as it is right now," said one longtime personnel director. "It's really pathetic in some places." One scout cited the new contract Chicago gave guard Rex Tucker this week, a seven-year deal worth about $21 million, as an example of how teams are trying to hold on to guards they feel are viable. Tucker is just a one-year starter but was eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.

  • Texas-sized compassion:You would expect nothing less from a Houston Texans team with such class people at the top of the organization -- owner Bob McNair, general manager Charley Casserly and coach Dom Capers -- but the expansion club should be lauded for the compassion it has shown rookie offensive lineman Fred Weary. The former Tennessee star suffered a recent tragedy when his 31-year-old sister died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving behind three young children. Weary was actually on the team bus when he received a cell-phone call apprising him of her death. The Texans told Weary, a third-round draft choice, to take all the time he needed to deal with the loss and to help make arrangements for the care of the children. That much seems an ordinary gesture by Houston management, but Weary's extended absence further exacerbated a perilous offensive line situation. Yet no one suggested Weary hurry back to work, instead impressing upon him that his family should be his priority. Weary is scheduled to report back next week, no doubt a grieving young man, but one thankful for the compassion displayed by his new employers.

  • One down, one to go for Bengals: The Bengals were fair but, typical of the franchise, not extravagant in the recent contract extension that will keep middle linebacker Brian Simmons in Cincinnati through the 2008 season. The fifth-year veteran, entering the final year of his original deal and eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, received $22.4 million in so-called "new money." His signing bonus was $4.2 million, he gets a roster bonus of $800,000, and his base salary for 2002 is $1 million. So the former first-round pick will make a tidy $6 million this season. The base salaries for the balance of the deal: $2 million (for 2003), $2.2 million (2004), $2.6 million (2005), $2.84 million (2006), $3.3 million (2007) and $3.7 million (2008). There are additional bonuses worth $100,000 each for 2003-2008. The salary-cap numbers are certainly manageable and never rise above $4.4 million. Don't bet on the Bengals having such an easy time, though, in getting an extension completed with Takeo Spikes. The team's other star linebacker, who like Simmons was chosen in the first round of the '98 draft, is said to be looking for a huge deal. If the team can't complete an extension, there is a good chance the Bengals will use the "franchise" designation next spring to keep Spikes around.

  • Longer not always better: There continues to be some misunderstanding, certainly among some media outlets in New York, about why linebacker James Farrior rejected a five-year contract offer from the Jets this spring and instead signed a three-year deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. New York made a back-loaded offer with a signing bonus of $2.5 million. It is the only proposal the team ever made. The cap numbers in the last three years were $3.2 million, $4 million, and $4.9 million, respectively. The signing bonus proration in the offer was $500,000 per year. The proration with the Steelers contract is $566,666. Assume for argument that a $3 million signing bonus was offered. The $33,000 per year ($600,000 five-year pro ration) is not enough to justify two more years on a young player's contract. The Steelers contract has playing time of $450,000 each year and $100,000 in honors each year. The Jets offer had no such provisions. Farrior can reasonably make, with play time, $7,050,000 in the first three years of his Steelers contract, without the honors. The maximum with the Jets offer was $7,100,000, but only if he would have seen the third year. There is a real possibility he would have been released, or forced to restructure, after just two years. When he completes his second contract, he will be 29 years old. The odds favor a new contract at that age as opposed to that of a 31-year-old linebacker, the age he would have been if he had accepted the Jets deal and played all five years in New York.

  • Teague centering in for Bills: Although he has not lined up at center since the University of Tennessee in 1997, Trey Teague is doing an excellent job in preseason, the Buffalo Bills coaching staff feels. Teague started 16 games at left tackle for the Denver Broncos in 2001 and signed with Buffalo as a free agent expecting to play that position. But the Bills kept shuffling their young linemen throughout the spring minicamps and determined the best arrangement was with Teague at the hub spot. "It's not exactly like that old saying about riding a bike, but it is starting to come back to me," Teague said. "The comfort level is getting there again. I'm confident I can make this work."

  • Punts: Teams in need of a No. 3 quarterback might want to take a look at Todd Husak if he is released, as expected, by Denver next week. Husak had a big year in the NFL Europe League, and the former Stanford star is a bright guy with good passing touch. He figures to lose out for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart to Jarious Jackson. ... Mark Levin has left his position as the cap manager for the Redskins the past two years to return to the NFLPA. He will re-assume his position as assistant director of research. Agents around the league had great respect for Levin and are thrilled to see him back at the players association. ... Rumors to the contrary, the Steelers are not yet into substantive contract negotiation talks with quarterback Kordell Stewart, whose current deal runs through 2003. ... Rams coach Mike Martz is less than thrilled with the play of backup tailbacks Trung Canidate and Lamar Gordon. ... There continue to be whispers that Seattle offensive right tackle Chris McIntosh is nowhere close to returning to the field because of a neck injury. Some club officials have privately questioned if McIntosh will play at all this season. ... His sterling preseason performances aside, Akili Smith is not in the hunt for the Bengals' starting quarterback job. The staff is having a tough enough time deciding between Jon Kitna and Gus Frerotte at this point. Coach Dick LeBeau hopes to name his starter next week. ... Latest sign that you can never have enough coverage players: Despite having Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Jamar Fletcher, Dolphins vice president of personnel Rick Spielman is still out shopping for another corner and may trade for one sometime soon. ... Second-round pick Antwaan Randle El has won the No. 3 wide receiver spot for the Steelers. The former Indiana star has demonstrated tremendous play-making skills, not just as a receiver, and will give coordinator Mike Mularkey another diverse performer for his already deep bag of tricks.

  • The last word(s): Washington coach Steve Spurrier, on traveling to Tampa for a Saturday preseason matchup with the Bucs: "One of the writers down there told me that they could have sold 150,000 tickets if they had the room. I'm not sure that's quite accurate. (But) maybe 100,000."

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









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