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A Free-for-all

The football news has come fast and furious over the past two weeks—and it's not all Manning, Tebow and the Saints

The first two weeks of the new league year were dominated by Peyton Manning's decision, Roger Goodell's hammer and the Jets' curious addition of a quarterback. Lost a bit in the shuffle were other moves and decisions that will have a profound impact on the 2012 season.


The Colts have yet to say whom they'll take with the first pick in April's draft. Prevailing opinion indicates it's Stanford QB Andrew Luck, but some coaches and scouts privately think Heisman winner Robert Griffin III of Baylor has more upside and should go first. At his March 21 pro day, Griffin wowed onlookers, including coaches Chuck Pagano of Indy and Mike Shanahan of the Redskins, who gave up a boatload of picks to move up to No. 2. The last time there was this level of debate over QBs expected to go one-two was in 1998, when the Colts took Peyton Manning first and the Chargers traded up from three to two to grab Ryan Leaf.


For the Bills to make their first playoff appearance in 13 seasons, G.M. Buddy Nix knew he had to upgrade a pass rush that has averaged 27.6 sacks since 2007, third lowest in the league. So he spent $100 million ($51 million guaranteed) on a six-year deal for Williams, the No. 1 pick in 2006, who had 53 sacks for the Texans, then signed 28-year-old Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks last season with the Patriots, to a four-year, $27 million deal ($8 million guaranteed). With those two bracketing tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, offenses won't be able to slide their protections without creating opportunities that Buffalo's pass rushers can exploit.


Raheem Morris must be shaking his head. At this time last year Tampa Bay was coming off a 10--6 season and had one of the NFL's youngest rosters. But instead of using their abundant salary-cap space to sign a marquee free agent or two, the Bucs stood pat—then went 4--12, costing Morris his job as coach. This year no team was more aggressive in the first week of free agency. Within three days Tampa signed the top available wide receiver (Vincent Jackson), the No. 1--rated guard (Carl Nicks) and a potential starting cornerback (Eric Wright). Total cost: $140 million, of which nearly $73 million is guaranteed.


The 35-year-old receiver ended his one-year retirement by signing with the Niners on March 12. But does he have anything left? In 2010 he was traded by the Pats and cut by the Vikings, and had only six catches for 80 yards in eight games with the Titans. But San Francisco, which ranked 29th in passing yards, is desperate for a downfield threat: In last season's NFC-title-game loss to the Giants, Niners wideouts combined for just one reception, for three yards. If Moss can take the top off opposing defenses, free-agent signee Mario Manningham will be that much more effective underneath and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis will be that much more dangerous in the seam. Underachieving fourth-year wideout Michael Crabtree might even take a step toward reaching his potential.


At the February combine, Bears coach Lovie Smith scoffed at the notion that running backs are being devalued. "Not in Chicago," he said. "With our philosophy, there will always be a premium placed on the running back." Interesting, then, that the Bears appear no closer to a long-term deal with Forte, the all-purpose back who over the past four seasons ranks seventh in the league in rushing yards, second in receptions among backs and sixth in yards from scrimmage. At least three of his backups made more than Forte during that time, and last week Chicago signed former Raiders back Michael Bush to a deal that guarantees Bush $7 million in 2012. That's only $700,000 less than Forte will make if he signs the one-year franchise tender.


No club has undergone greater changes this off-season. Team architect Bill Polian? Fired. Coach Jim Caldwell? Fired. Leading passer from 2011? Released. Second-leading rusher and receiver? Cut. Top two tight ends? Gone. Oh, and Peyton Manning left, too. New G.M. Ryan Grigson wanted to make a clean break, understandable after last year's 2--14 disaster—and he and Pagano will have something to build around whether they take Luck, as expected, or decide that Griffin is their man.


One big surprise heading into free agency was the Saints' failure to come to terms on a long-term contract with their record-setting, All-Pro QB. The team did apply the franchise tag to Brees and retains his rights, but at week's end he had yet to sign the tender, and it's possible he could sit out until he gets a deal to his liking. As if there's not enough turmoil in New Orleans, drama over Brees's status would further darken the mood around the Saints.


A guard's retirement doesn't normally make waves, but Dielman's departure after nine seasons with the Chargers is significant for its reason: his concern about brain trauma. The four-time Pro Bowler sustained a concussion in an Oct. 23 loss to the Jets and suffered a seizure on the plane home. He did not play the rest of the season but was medically cleared to return in 2012. Instead Dielman, 31, retired over unanswerable questions about the potential long-term effects of another concussion. And with all the data coming out about the dangers of brain injury, it won't be surprising if more players follow his lead.


They may be enemies on the field, but they're allies in a fight with the league. On March 12 the NFL announced it was docking Washington $36 million and Dallas $10 million in salary-cap room, claiming the teams flouted league warnings by front-loading contracts during the cap-less 2010 season—Cowboys receiver Miles Austin, for instance, reportedly got $17 million in '10—to create payroll flexibility in later years. Both teams say they did nothing wrong and are appealing the ruling; the Players Association may wonder whether the league's caution to owners regarding the uncapped year amounted to collusion to suppress wages.


Nearly three weeks after his release, the most productive receiver in Steelers history announced his retirement. Ward's contributions can't be measured solely by stats, though his 1,000 catches, 12,083 yards and 85 TD receptions are franchise bests. The 6-foot, 205-pound Ward was arguably the greatest run-blocking wide receiver in league history. The Hall of Fame question is already being asked. Given that Ward's numbers are better than many receivers in Canton, that he won two Super Bowls and an MVP award in three appearances, and that for most of his 14 seasons he was the face of the Steelers'offense, the answer is an unqualified yes.

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Photograph by GREG NELSON

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