Focus on safety not waning

One of the features of the annual scouting combine is the first meeting of the NFL competition committee.

The committee convenes in a relaxed setting as it sets the agenda for the next month. Coaches and general managers were asked to fill out surveys on suggested rule changes and other concerns. Players and members of the NFL Players Association will offer their positions. Those will be reviewed, along with the thoughts of medical experts.

Two weeks after the combine, the committee will meet again and work intensely on the recommendations it will make at the owners meeting in mid-March. Following the recent trend, safety appears to be the primary focus.

"Player safety is always a priority of the committee,'' said St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, one of the leaders on the committee. "That's where we start. It's important to the commissioner and to the committee.''

It will be reviewing plenty of suggestions. The season-ending injury to Houston Texans linebacker Brian Cushing has brought the low block to the table. Discussions will involve eliminating blocks below the waist. Such a move would be devastating to the zone-blocking teams (Redskins, Seahawks and Texans, to name a few) that rely on the offensive linemen to take down defenders on the backside of a running play.

Another topic will be expanding the field from 160 to 195 feet sideline to sideline. This week will be the first time the committee will open such a discussion.

Many of the recent safety changes sparked controversy, but they appear to have had a positive impact on cutting down injuries.

"There was a great deal of controversy moving the kickoffs to the 35-yard line and reducing the running start to the kickoff cover guys,'' Fisher said. "We feel as a committee that helps substantially to reduce the potential for injury. We've not had a single concussion on a touchback. Kickoff remains a vital part of our game. There are still a lot of big plays that have been made.''

Fisher also cites the penalty for hitting defenseless players as another success story. Defensive players complain, but the idea is stressing safety so that the concept carries into college, high school and youth programs.

From the inbox

Q: The Patriots obviously need to make some upgrades in their secondary. Tom Brady is getting old and I feel like the window is closing. Do you agree?

Jack in New York City

A: You can see the Aqib Talib trade did help the secondary, but the Pats had to gamble on his character and work ethic. The problem on defense is a talent issue. Bill Belichick is great with schemes, but the team hasn't drafted well enough on defense. Time is running out on the Brady era. The defense needs to get better. This year, Belichick needs to come up with another pass-rusher and more help in the secondary.

Q: If Joe Flacco wants $20 million, would the Ravens be better off going after Alex Smith, whom they could get for much less? It seems like the Saints hurt themselves by not signing key personnel because of the $20 million they gave Drew Brees. It seems Alex Smith could step right into the system and the Ravens will have more money to sign other players, and the offense would not miss a beat.

Phillip in Effingham, Ill.

A: You get what you pay for in this league, so I don't like that idea. Flacco has the respect of his teammates along with having a big-time arm. Smith did a great job with San Francisco, but he doesn't have Flacco's arm strength and his track record for winning playoff games. Flacco joined a rare club of quarterbacks who have Super Bowl rings, and he's still young (28). Sure, the savings of such a deal would allow the Ravens to do more in re-signing players, but it moves them backward at the league's most important position. Pay Flacco and work out the rest.

Q: I really think it is absurd that Joe Flacco is in line to ink a $20-milion-year-deal. I don't hate the guy, but his stats over the past five years have been very average. I understand his playoff record, but besides this year, how much of that was him? He has a career completion percentage of around 60, which is the definition of average in the NFL. I really think we are all prisoners of the moment here, and if Flacco takes a deal that large it could really hurt the Ravens' long-term future.

Brice in El Dorado Springs, Mo.

A: Stats are one thing. Wins are another. Flacco, who has a career 59.7 percent completion percentage, will only get better in time. The stats could improve. He turned down the last offer from the Ravens (before the 2012 season) to go for the gold. He won that gamble. Now he needs to get paid.

Q: The Bengals seem to have at least figured out how to get to the playoffs. Winning in the playoffs seems to be a different story. With Rey Maualuga more than likely headed elsewhere in free agency, linebacker, safety and running back seem to be the biggest areas of need. While the Bengals have never been big free-agent spenders, do you see any fits among the 2013 free-agent class?

Kevin in Florence, Ky.

A: They might add a veteran linebacker or two in free agency, but their best work needs to be in re-signings and in the draft. First, they must lock up Geno Atkins to a long-term deal. They also need to find a way to keep defensive end Michael Johnson. In the draft, they can address the secondary along with getting a running back in the second or third round. If this draft turns out well, the Bengals will remain a playoff threat.

Q: We always hear about teams that are up against the salary cap restructuring contracts to get some breathing room. Would it make sense for teams like the Bengals, who have a ton of players signed and are significantly under the cap, to restructure deals the other way, so they are up against the cap this year but open up cap room for the next few years?

Dan in Mexico

A: Saving cap room for the future is smart, but that strategy is hard to accomplish. To restructure current deals in that manner would add payroll that can be used to re-sign key free agents along with using other dollars in free agency. It's amazing how quickly cap room can be eaten up. The Bucs, for example, ate up about $30 million of cap room with three free-agent additions last year. I'm sure the Bengals will eat up a lot of room by giving players big base salaries along with big roster bonuses. That gives them the freedom to turn future salaries and bonuses into signing bonuses to free up more room. No need to be tricky on any of this.

Q: I love your take on performance-enhancing drugs. We are in an age of technology and how plants found in the rain forest can help cure this or that. I actually really like the idea of using things to help in curing or help the healing process.

Shane in Grand Rapids, Mich.

A: Thanks for the kind words. For those who missed it, reacting to the Ray Lewis story about being linked to deer antler spray, I came to the possible conclusion that the league needs to look into the recovery part of the game as much as the safety issue. I'm not advocating the use of drugs to physically enhance a performance. I'm talking about speeding up recovery without cheating. For that to happen, trainers would have to administer the medication. Football is a demanding sport. Medication is getting better. The players and the league need to investigate

Q: Let's talk Detroit Lions ... a great season in 2011, a major step back in 2012, but a high draft pick coming up. What do the Lions need to do? With the No. 5 pick, I'm thinking offensive line.

Brian in Chicago

A: They need to draft defense, defense and more defense. They have six starters who are unrestricted free agents. They cut Kyle Vanden Bosch. The additions on defense since the winless season all could be leaving. First and foremost, they need a cornerback. For the past couple of years, they have leaned toward the defensive line in the first round. That's fine, but the secondary has become too neglected. That needs to be fixed. Maybe they can get offensive-line help in free agency. This team has a lot of needs and doesn't have a lot of cap room.

Q: Do teams ever fire coaches after going to the postseason? I think Atlanta has been one of the most talented but underachieving teams the past few years. This past season they led big twice in the playoffs, and both times let the opposing team come back. Without doubt the blame lies on the coaching staff -- keeping the team focused, adjusting game plan, etc. I just think it's a total waste of top-tier talent.

Keith in Seoul, South Korea

A: Coaches do get fired after going to the postseason. Remember when Jerry Jones fired Jimmy Johnson after the owners meeting and hired Barry Switzer to be the coach? I'm sure there is frustration with Mike Smith, but he's a good coach and the team is getting closer to the Super Bowl. He would have been on the hot list of troubled coaches had he not won a playoff game, but he did get the victory and got to the NFC Championship Game. He has to get the defense tougher and find better balance with the running game once the team takes the lead.