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Healthy returns reduce need to make trades

In a league where every peek at the calendar seems to reveal some notation of import, there are a couple key days next week for the NFL.

Some observers might be fairly surprised that there are personnel chiefs who have suggested the lesser-known of the two dates might be the more significant.

The NFL trade deadline, yawn, arrives on Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET. More notably, however, Monday is the first day on which players who began the season on the physically unable to perform list (PUP), with injuries that represented a carryover situation from 2005 or which occurred off the field in the offseason, are permitted to begin practicing.

If recent history holds true, there doesn't figure to be much action on Tuesday, given that there have been only 20 "deadline day" swaps since the blockbuster Eric Dickerson trade on Halloween Day 1987. That deal, which also included standout linebacker Cornelius Bennett, featured 10 players and/or draft choices in all, making it the fifth-biggest trade in NFL history, in terms of bodies changing teams.

But since the Dickerson deal, there have been few "deadline day" trades worth citing, including last year, when four players -- quarterbacks A.J. Feeley (from Miami to San Diego), Cleo Lemon (San Diego to Miami), and Tim Rattay (San Francisco to Tampa Bay), and guard Toniu Fonoti (San Diego to Minnesota) -- changed addresses on the final day for trading.

Even at a time when the trade winds in general have picked up leaguewide over the past three offseasons, things likely will be relatively calm come Tuesday, with more bantering than bartering. There are very few players on the market capable of transforming a franchise's fortunes more than one-third of the way into the season and, as Atlanta Falcons president/general manager Rich McKay pointed out: "Trading for a left guard isn't exactly the same as trading for a left fielder."

There are, however, a few teams that could realize a mid-season boost from being able to activate players off the physically unable to perform list. And while they aren't necessarily the franchises that some might expect, or perhaps aren't the biggest names from among the couple dozen players on the physically unable to perform list, next week could be a busy one in terms of getting several key PUP guys back on the field.

Players on the PUP list can begin practicing anytime after the sixth weekend of the season, ostensibly on Monday, up through the ninth week. Once a PUP player returns to the field, the clock begins on a three-week evaluation window. At any time during the three weeks, his team can elevate him to the active, 53-man roster. When the three-week evaluation expires, the club must either activate the player or place him on injured reserve for the balance of the season.

Inarguably, the two highest-profile veterans on the PUP list are tailbacks Curtis Martin of the New York Jets and the Kansas City Chiefs' Priest Holmes.

But it seems it will take more than a priest -- perhaps a special papal blessing might be more appropriate -- for Holmes to get back on the field again this season. Or maybe ever.

Holmes, 33, hasn't played or practiced since suffering severe head and neck trauma in a game at San Diego last Oct. 30, in a violent collision with Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman. As the first anniversary of the incident nears, the 10th-year veteran has yet to be cleared to resume playing. Holmes is expected to soon be re-evaluated by Dr. Robert Watkins, the Los Angeles-based specialist who has overseen his treatment. But the tailback, limited by injuries to just 15 appearances in 2004-2005, has not been around the Chiefs at all since camp opened, opting instead to stay in his hometown of San Antonio.

Privately, team officials don't hold out much hope that he will ever play again.

"He's working out, but not, frankly, with a great deal of vigor right now," Chiefs president Carl Peterson told the Kansas City Star earlier this week. "He's doing fine physically, but it's still going to be the doctor's decision, and [Holmes] knows that."

One of the NFL's premier all-around tailbacks over a three-year stretch in which he rushed for 4,590 yards and averaged an amazing 2,189 total yards from scrimmage and 20.3 touchdowns, Holmes has reiterated that he will heed Watkins' recommendation on his future. The bottom line: Holmes likely is to be on the physically unable to perform list permanently.

As for Martin, the fourth-leading rusher in NFL history and one of the league's classiest performers, there are indications the Jets will allow him to resume practicing, possibly as early as next week, to determine if he will be able to play again. Martin, 33, is recovering from surgery to repair his right knee, where there is essentially no cartilage, and he is operating with a bone-on-bone condition. The 12th-year veteran appeared in a career-low 12 games in 2005, and rushed for a career-worst 735 yards, the first time he was ever under the 1,000-yard mark, and finished the year on injured reserve.

Martin has been working hard, sitting in on team meetings, and telling friends the knee feels good enough for him to play again. Whether team officials believe Martin can once again contribute, or will allow him to return to practice out of respect for what he has meant to the franchise, remains to be seen. And so does Martin's viability to be even a part-time tailback on a really bad knee.

Noted first-year coach Eric Mangini, who, in Martin's absence, has operated with a tailback-by-committee approach: "The key thing for us is to make sure that when [Martin returns to the practice field], it's the best decision, it's the right time, and he's completely healthy."

Suffice it to say that, even as diligently as Martin has attacked his recovery from knee surgery, the odds of his return still probably aren't much better than 50-50.

So, if not Martin or Holmes, who might be the tailback most likely to be activated from the PUP list, and who could quickly contribute to his team? Try third-year Cincinnati Bengals veteran Chris Perry, who is all but recovered from ankle and knee injuries. He could begin practicing next week, and perhaps be ready to suit up for next Sunday's home game against the Carolina Panthers.

The Bengals' first-round choice in the 2004 draft, Perry has appeared in only 16 games in two seasons, and always seems to be battling back from some sort of malady. But in those stretches when Perry has been healthy, the former University of Michigan standout has demonstrated that he is an effective complement to the more bruising style of starting tailback Rudi Johnson.

In the first four games of this season, Perry's replacement as the No. 2 tailback, Kenny Watson, has logged 10 "touches" for a total of 89 yards. In the first month of the 2005 campaign, Perry had 35 "touches" for 185 yards, including 16 receptions. Perry also provides a dimension that none of the other Cincinnati backs can, the ability to make the big, home run-type play, either on the ground or as a receiver. While he can be a frustrating guy to the Bengals' staff, because of his penchant for injuries, Perry is a player the team can definitely use, not only to author plays but also to spell the overworked Johnson, who is on pace for a third straight season of 335-plus carries.

Getting him back on the field would provide an already potent Cincinnati offense another weapon in its pretty impressive arsenal.

"He's a guy who can put it in the end zone from anywhere [on the field]," said right offensive tackle Willie Anderson. "Players like that are rare in this league, and he would give any offense more juice."

Here are a few other players currently on the PUP list, and with a viable chance to be activated and to help their respective teams in 2006:

• DE/DT Jonathan Fanene, Cincinnati (hamstring): Appeared in just three games, with one start, in 2005, but flashed some ability to be an occasionally disruptive defender. He provides size at end and, when he moves inside to tackle, is quicker than most of the guards across from him. Cincinnati has three defensive linemen in their 30s, and the Bengals are starting to get gashed again in the running game, so some fresh legs at mid-season might be a timely addition.

• LB Teddy Lehman, Detroit (foot): It's going to take a lot more than just getting Lehman back on the field to help the dismal Lions, but his return would provide first-year coach Rod Marinelli a smart and versatile defender who runs better than people think. A second-round choice in 2004, Lehman was the only rookie linebacker in the NFL to start all 16 games that year, and he finished with 120 tackles. He was limited to five games in 2005 and has spent nearly a year rehabilitating his mid-foot injury. Lehman can play all three linebacker spots and, if he's physically whole, Marinelli will find a spot for him.

• KR Michael Lewis, New Orleans (knee): One of the most explosive return specialists of the last several years, Lewis is nearing recovery from the knee injury that limited him to two games in 2005. The six-year veteran has a 24.2-yard career average on kickoff returns and three touchdowns. He also averaged 10.9 yards, and scored once, on punt returns. After last week, though, no one is likely to bump Reggie Bush from the punt return chores. Still, Lewis is a player who can have an impact field position.

• QB Luke McCown, Tampa Bay (knee): Three-year veteran suffered a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in the spring and the surgery slowed his progress. McCown has played in just five games, but he is the kind of athletic quarterback coach Jon Gruden likes, a guy who can get himself out of trouble, and improvise on the move. He isn't likely to supplant rookie Bruce Gradkowski as the starter, but McCown would give Gruden a backup he trusts. Tampa Bay held off signing another quarterback after the injury to Chris Simms because Bucs officials seem confident McCown will be able to play soon.

• OT Roman Oben, San Diego (foot): Coming back from a left foot injury that required two surgeries, it isn't likely that Oben can regain his starting left tackle spot from rookie Marcus McNeill, the second-round choice who seems to get better every week. But with Leander Jordan placed on injured reserve this week, the Chargers are thin and inexperienced at tackle, and Oben should be a solid mentor for McNeill. He's got 130 career starts, lined up at both tackle spots, and owns a Super Bowl ring. It never hurts to have those kinds of guys around.

• RB Patrick Pass, New England (toe): The kind of experienced, utilitarian guy you don't miss until he's absent, Pass does a little of everything for the Patriots and is a valued veteran. Pass can play fullback or tailback, is a solid pass protector on third down, returns kickoffs and also plays on all of the special teams coverage units. A seventh-year veteran, Pass, 28, has just 1,161 yards total offense from scrimmage, but New England coaches will feel a lot better about their depth when he returns.

• LB Kailee Wong, Houston (knee): After matching his career high with 5½ sacks in 2004, a performance that earned him a very nice contract extension, Wong played in just five games in 2005 before a patella tendon tear prematurely ended his season. The ninth-year veteran is a better pass rusher than his career total of 21½ sacks suggests, and he's a class act. The Texans have another player, return specialist Jerome Mathis, who might return from PUP, but doesn't seem close yet to coming back from foot surgery. Mathis averaged 28.6 yards on kickoff returns as a rookie in 2005, and scored twice, earning a Pro Bowl berth.

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